By Laksiri Fernando –
Ambiguity between socialist economy and democracy has been a continuous problem in socialist thinking and socialist movements, unfortunately since Thomas More’s time. There are no signs of resolving the contradiction. This was the case in the former Soviet Union and still the case in Cuba. Even many present day socialist or leftwing parties also reveal many authoritarian tendencies.
In terms of socialist regimes (e.g. Russia, China, Cuba etc.), the problem was identified as ‘socialism’ emerging in backward countries. This cannot fully be the reason. Because it is there within the ‘socialist’ thinking itself. A different answer refers to the ‘abolition of all property’ which goes against the fundamental nature of human instincts and rights. This extreme tendency also was there in Thomas More. The advocacy of a (violent) ‘revolution’ is another facet of the tendency in more modern movements.
The purpose of this part of the publication is not to probe into the reasons for this contradiction. It merely shows how this was manifested unfortunately even in Thomas More’s socialist ‘Utopia.’ The question is raised only for readers’ contemplation. However, it should be noted that Thomas More also had several admirable liberal propositions for governance: fewer laws, elected representatives, secret ballot and contemplative decision making.
Here we are celebrating the five hundred years of Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ (December 1516) by publishing the chapters of ‘Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka)’ every Sunday courtesy of Colombo Telegraph and Sri Lanka Guardian. This will allow anyone who wishes to read it, free access to the book. The publication link to the original for those who wish to obtain a printed copy is https://www.createspace.com/4688110
What is published today is Chapter 4 of the book titled ‘Utopia, But Despotism in Politics.’
UTOPIA, BUT DESPOTISM IN POLITICS
“Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.” – Plato
Thomas More’s vision and the outline of Utopia show many weaknesses in respect of political matters. The political system in Utopia is explained in different chapters in the book, sometimes inadequately or even contradictorily. In what is explained, there are admirable features as well as distasteful ones. In early sixteenth century England, More definitely had a difficulty in visualizing a system of proper democracy with socialism or something similar in that direction. If his main information was from Ceylon or any other country in Asia, neither it was helpful for this venture.
Referring to its history, reminiscent of Vijaya story, it says that the people of Utopia were ‘rude and uncivilized’ first, but Utopus who conquered them, brought the “inhabitants into such a good government, and to that measure of politeness, that they now far excel all the rest of mankind.” That far it was good. However, what was explained as ‘good government’ in latter part of the book was not always admirable.
“They have but few laws, and such is their constitution that they need not many,” More says. The sufficiency of few laws is explained clearly. According to More, many laws in a country are necessary if the country is poor or some people are poor and if there are conflicts. But in Utopia, “There is no reason for giving a denial to any person, since there is such plenty of everything among them and there is no danger of a man’s asking for more than he needs. They have no inducements to do this, since they are sure that they shall always be supplied.”
More argues that “it is the fear of want that makes any of the whole race of animals either greedy or ravenous.” It is interesting to note that he talks about ‘the whole race of animals’ and this means both humans and other species of animals. Then he argues “But besides fear, there is in man a pride that makes him fancy in a particular glory to excel others in pomp and excess.” This is what we call selfishness and excessive self-indulgence. “But by the laws of the Utopians, there is no room for this,” he assures. It is also interesting to note that he talked about “fear of want.” It is to eliminate fear of want that Utopia or socialism is created. This is the other side of the ‘freedom from want’ that Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), the US President, talked about.
More went further on the subject. “Therefore, they think that not only all agreements between private persons ought to be observed, but likewise that all those laws ought to be kept.” These are the laws “which either a good Prince has published in due form” or the people have consented without any compulsion of tyranny or oppression on the one hand or circumvented by fraud on the other. These are also the laws that “distribute those conveniences of life which afford us all our pleasures.” More argued strongly for a distributive justice.
Minimum of laws is a system that More advocated. The prevalence of few laws later considered a main aspect of a liberal government by democratic thinkers. More also said that,
“They have no lawyers among them, for they consider them as a sort of people whose profession it is to disguise matters and to wrest the laws.”
‘Kingdom’ is the word More uses for the system and the ‘Prince’ is not hereditary but elected for life subject to impeachment by the people if necessary. Therefore, a certain amount of democracy is built into the system. On the positive side of the political structure, it is both vertical as well as horizontal. It is vertical in the sense that there are layers and a hierarchy like in many modern day political systems. On the other hand, it is horizontal in the meaning that the system is duplicated in every district of the island in the same manner like in the economy. In that sense there is devolution of power, equitable distribution of wealth among the devolved units and responsibility of taking part of all units in good government.
As he says, “Thirty families choose every year a Magistrate, who was anciently called the Syphogrant, but is now called the Philarch.” Then “over every ten Syphogrant, with the families subject to them, there is another Magistrate, who was anciently called the Tranibor, but of late the Archphilarch.” This is very much similar to the Headman (Philarch) and the Chief-Headman (Archpilarch) system in ancient Ceylon but in Utopia they were elected. There were 200 Philarchs and 20 Archpilarchs for a district.
All the [Philarchs], who are in number 200, choose the Prince out of a list of four, who are named by the people of the four divisions of the city: but they take an oath before they proceed to an election, that they will choose him whom they think most fit for the office… They give their voices secretly, so that it is not known for whom everyone gives his suffrage.
It appears that the district administration was conducted by Archphilarchs who numbered 20. Although they are appointed annually they often continue. But all other magistrates are only for one year. “The Archphilarchs meet every third day, and oftener if necessary, and consult with the Prince, either concerning the affairs of the State in general or such private differences as may arise sometimes among the people; though that falls out but seldom.” They had a Council and “there are always two Philarchs called into the Council-chamber, and these are changed every day.” As it was said, “The chief, and almost the only business of the Philarchs is to take care that no man may live idle, but that every one may follow his trade diligently: yet they do not wear themselves out with perpetual toil.”
Although called the Prince, the proper name of the Head of the District was Barzanes meaning ‘the leader of cattle.’ His appointment “is for life, unless he is removed upon suspicion of some design to enslave the people.” The jurisdiction of every District extends at least twenty miles: and where the towns lie wider, they have much more ground: no town desires to enlarge its bounds, for the people consider themselves rather as tenants than landlords. “The Prince himself has no distinction, either of garments or of a crown; but is only distinguished by a sheaf of corn carried before him; as the high- priest is also known by his being preceded by a person carrying a wax light.”
No person appointed to the public office could not or should not abuse such position. “If any man aspires to any office, he is sure never to compass it.” They all were simple folks.
“For none of the magistrates are either insolent or cruel to the people: they affect rather to be called fathers, and by being really so, they well deserve the name; and the people pay them all the marks of honour the more freely, because none are exacted from them.”
In the capital City of Amaurot, there is a Supreme Council. It is not clear how the Supreme Council is composed. However, there are three Senators sent from each city/district to the Council and that means there are at least 162 members. More said, “Every city sends three of its wisest Senators once a year to Amaurot, to consult about their common concerns.” It is possible that all people’s representatives are called Senators. In their proceedings they take sufficient time for their deliberations.
“It is a fundamental rule of their government that no conclusion can be made in anything that relates to the public till it has been first debated several days in their Council. It is death for any to meet and consult concerning the State, unless it is either in their ordinary Council, or in the assembly of the whole body of the people.”
The political system is again a combination of democracy and totalitarianism which has since More’s time been a predicament in socialist thinking. To the extent that all magistrates and senators are elected, it is a democracy. Even there is the device of the ‘peoples’ assembly’ of the Swiss canton type. But on the other hand, people are not free to discourse on public matters freely outside the Assembly or outside the Council except through their representatives. “It is death for any to meet and consult concerning State, outside these official channels.”
There are nevertheless healthy democratic procedures in decision making quite akin to what was devised later in parliamentary democratic systems. “One rule observed in their Council, is, never to debate a thing on the same day in which it is first proposed; for that is always referred to the next meeting, that so men may not rashly, and in the heat of discourse, engage themselves too soon, which might bias them so much.” More undoubtedly was designing a system which he considered ideal and exemplary, he also took the opportunity to express his contempt towards what he considered disagreeable in England during his time.
One of the major tasks of the Supreme Council is to equalize the resources and provisions between the districts. This is something admirable for any country which implements a system of devolution of power like present day Sri Lanka or in federalism.
“In their great Council at Amaurot, to which there are three sent from every town once a year, they examine what towns abound in provisions and what are under any scarcity, that so the one may be furnished from the other; and this is done freely, without any sort of exchange; for according to their plenty or scarcity they supply or are supplied from one another; so that indeed the whole Island is, as it were, one family.”
Restricted Freedom of Movement
One of the other regretful features of Utopia is its restricted freedom of movement which is considered an important fundamental human right today. We have already touched on the lack of freedom of expression and the death penalty accorded to what could come closer to sedition. The restricted movement perhaps was necessary or argued to be necessary on the premise of labor requirements of the community.
“If any man has a mind to visit his friends that live in some other town, or desires to travel and see the rest of the country, he obtains leave (very easily) from the Philarch and Archpilarch,” More says. However, that is when there is no particular occasion for him at home or in the community. And “such travel, carry with them a passport from the Prince, which both certifies the license that is granted for travelling, and limits the time of their return.” The terms are undoubtedly restrictive.
As if to ameliorate the offense it says “They are furnished with a wagon and a slave who drives the oxen and looks after them; but unless there are women in the company, the wagon is sent back at the end of the journey as a needless encumbrance.” It further says “While they are on the road, they carry no provisions with them; yet they want nothing, but are everywhere treated as if they were at home.” The economic or work imperatives also clear from the description. For example, “If they stay in any place longer than a night, everyone follows his proper occupation, and is very well used by those of his own trade.” But there are penalties and severe ones at that if the rules are broken.
“If any man goes out of the city to which he belongs, without leave, and is found rambling without a passport, he is severely treated, he is punished as a fugitive, and sent home disgracefully.”
One cannot ‘ramble without a passport’ out of his District. If he ‘falls again into the like fault’ he is condemned to slavery. “If any man has a mind to travel only over the precinct of his own city, he may freely do it, with his father’s permission and his wife’s consent; but when he comes into any of the country houses, if he expects to be entertained by them, he must labor with them and conform to their rules.” Strict confirmation to the rules undoubtedly is social regimentation.
If the economic system of Utopia is admirable in any measure, this is not the case in respect of the political system. It is more than a regimented system, bordering on authoritarianism. Democracy existed only marginally and the elected Princes could continue even for life. Only admirable aspects were the elected officialdom responsible to the people and to the rules of the State, and the duplication of the same system in every district closer to devolution of power. Many aspects of constitutionalism were lacking in the system, including separation of powers, and those might not be considered major weaknesses given the historical period that the discourse was written.
What are however regrettable and conspicuous are the lack of freedom of expression and freedom of movement. It is difficult to imagine that these concepts derived from Thomas More’s own thinking or from the period that he was living in Europe. It is intriguing to observe, however, the congruence between what he explained as restrictions on the freedom of movement in Utopia and Ceylon, the latter explained by Robert Knox more than a century after. Knox explained that people could move from one province to the other only with the permission of the Dissava or the Governor concerned and if the rules were broken the punishments were severe including slavery.
 Plato’s Republic.
 This is very much similar to the story of the arrival of Vijaya and his retinue and the establishment of a kingdom in Ceylon in 543 BC according to the Pali chronicle Mahavamsa. “It is primarily an immigration myth of origin (or better, a colonization myth) that introduces a cycle of related ancient legends about how Vijaya and his three successors… established a lineage of kingship at Anuradhapura.” See John C Holt, The Buddhist Vishnu, Colombia University Press, 2004, p. 64.
 Franklin D. Roosevelt, State of the Union Address, 6 January 1941.
 In the text of Utopia, Syphogrant and Philarch are used interchangeably but for clarity Philarch is used whenever necessary within [box brackets].
 The number of Districts are 54.
 It should be noted that More had considerable parliamentary experience. He was first elected to Parliament in 1504 to represent Great Yarmouth and in 1510, London. He became a Privy Councillor in 1514. This experience is imbedded to his discourse on parliamentary procedure.
 Robert Knox was an English captive in Ceylon who wrote the first book on Ceylon in English called An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon in the East-Indies, 1681.