The word “democracy” comes to us from the Greeks, and was originally a term of abuse. It means, literally, “mob rule”, as distinct from “aristocracy”, or “rule by the best people.” (Of course exactly who the “best people” might be was, then as now, a subject for discussion.)
The poster child for ancient democracy has always been Athens. The Athenian system was not, in some ways, all that democratic, excluding from the franchise as it did women, slaves and foreigners. Another difference from modern democracy is that is was not representative but participatory – that is to say, the citizens voted directly on the issues, rather than electing representatives to vote on their behalf. Ordinary citizens were also expected to carry out government work; there was no civil service, and no such thing as a professional politician. Officers were chosen by lot, much as jurors are nowadays, and for the same reasons.
Athens was not always a democracy. Indeed, for most of its history it was either a tyranny or an oligarchy. Much as democracy was a term of political abuse then, but is not now, so tyranny has become a term of abuse now, but was not then. A tyrant (tyrannos in Greek) was simply a strong-man who ruled on his own – not exactly a king, because there was no sense of dynastic legitimacy, although that might be acquired over time, but an acting king. Tyrants were of course a mixed bag, but at least some of them had a reputation for good government and were very popular (for example Cypselus of Corinth or Polycrates of Samos).
An oligarchy is literally “rule by the few.” I think we can all point to plenty of those on the modern political scene, most of them fervently claiming to be democracies. It was already clear to ancient political observers, notably the Greek historian Polybius, that there is a cyclic pattern in which democracies tend to devolve into oligarchies, due to the fact that rich people can buy votes; oligarchies devolve into monarchies or tyrannies, when one person effectively manages to become top oligarch; and then these are overthrown by popular revolt and replaced by democracies. Rinse and repeat.
The country whose political history I know best is my own, the (allegedly) United Kingdom. Back in the seventeenth century, which technically predates the UK but was a time when the same kings ruled both England and Scotland, there was an attempt at running the place as an absolute monarchy. When the ensuing civil wars swept that monarchy away, there was an interesting moment when actual democracy might have broken out. (Read up on the Putney Debates for more information.) Instead, an oligarchy was installed, and even though the monarchy was ostensibly restored in 1660 that is how the place has been run ever since.
This has not prevented the British establishment from pretending with increasing fervour to be democratic. From 1832, the franchise was gradually extended over time to reduce and finally remove the property qualifications required to be able to vote, even including – gasp – women by 1928. However, the system was always from the beginning representative, not participatory, and the House of Lords has never been elected.
Parliament was never originally more than an advisory body. In England, it was originally instituted in 1215 by the nobility, who wanted to prevent the monarch from accruing too much power at their expense. There was also some token representation from non-aristocrats (the House of Commons), but in the original version the House of Lords was where the action was. Nowadays the balance of power has shifted, and the House of Commons is the driving force. The last British Prime Minister to govern as a member of the upper house was Lord Salisbury, who left office back in 1892, and even at the time it was considered something of an anachronism.
But the House of Commons is something of a misnomer. The wealthy and well-connected predominate, and always have done. The Prime Minister as I write this is Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the product of Eton and Oxford; his predecessor, Theresa May, is also an Oxford graduate whose non-political career was in banking; her predecessor, David Cameron, was a contemporary of Johnson’s at Eton and Oxford; and so on.
As far as I can see – and as a foreigner I realise my view is only partial – much the same state of affairs prevails in the USA, which seems to be run largely by and for the super-rich. Inevitably, this results in considerable cognitive dissonance when such a regime claims not only to be democratic but to be bringing the gift of democracy to other countries – especially when, as so often, this is accompanied by the further gift of high explosives. Dropping an awful lot of bombs on Cambodia resulted in the not terribly democratic government of Pol Pot, and later efforts in that direction elsewhere have not been much more successful. The recent debacle in Afghanistan is by no means the first of its kind.
This saddens me, because in many ways democracy is, or would be, an excellent form of government. I am not sure, however, that it scales well. The democracy of Athens started to go off the rails when it acquired an empire. Something similar could be said of the USA when it began to expand dramatically westwards from the original Thirteen Colonies. At a small local level, however, democracy can function much more effectively.
That’s good news for the future, because it is precisely at the small local level that we will mostly be living. Any system of government requires the consent of the governed, or at least a significant part of them, and democracy’s strength is being able to achieve that and sustain it. If enough people are unhappy with those in charge, they can be removed and replaced with another more acceptable set without anyone’s heads getting stuck on pikes.
Democracy ultimately depends on accountability. The smaller the scale, the more effectively this can be enforced. In his book The Breakdown of Nations (Chelsea Green, 2001), Leopold Kohr argued that the Principality of Liechtenstein is about the ideal size for a nation-state, because everyone knows where the prince lives and can take their grievances directly to him. A world made up of micro-states would of course be unwieldy under present economic arrangements, but when those arrangements go away it may make a lot more sense.
Without such direct mechanisms of accountability, all we can do is trust in the government to be, on the whole, benign. This trust is however eroding rapidly, certainly in the UK and by all accounts in the US also, to say nothing of countries like France or Italy. The honour system can only function when honourable people are running things. There was a time when this was largely the case, but it no longer seems to be. Voter turnout is low, cynicism is rife. The system is rotten to the core, and widely seen to be so. It is not hard to foresee the day when public confidence in it collapses to a point where the government can no longer govern.
We should beware of throwing out the baby with the bath-water, though. Democracy is still, as Churchill famously remarked, the worst form of government apart from all the others. It provides the best safeguards against oppressive, corrupt or simply incompetent regimes. You are more likely to accept a decision you disagree with if your voice has at least been heard. It’s no guarantee of correct decision-making – the Athenians certainly made plenty of mistakes, most spectacularly the decision to invade Sicily – but it’s at least as reliable as leaving it in the hands of a self-defining elite, the “best people” in their own opinion. And mistaken policies can at least be reversed reasonably quickly.
Many of our modern “democracies” may be past saving, but the democratic ideal is something worth preserving. I may not live to see a future world in which it prevails, but I very much hope it will come. To quote Noam Chomsky: “In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than just ideals to be valued – they may be essential to survival.”
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