The word ‘democracy’ has a confusing etymology, and nobody knows how to really define it: which makes it an easy term to use duplicitously. My advice is, don’t get in an argument about democracy; it’ll be one of those ones in which everyone is right or everyone is wrong. In what follows you can laugh as I flounder about with my ideas, confuse ancient and modern uses, theory and practice, and so on.

1 1963 march on Washington200 years after the Declaration of Independence: 1963 march to Washngton

Democracy comes from two Greek words and means literally “rule by the people”, where ‘people’ stands for the majority of the population of the state, including the poor. However the dictionary gives other meanings. One is “control of an organisation by a majority of members”. Not much room for minority groups there. Could be mob rule. Another is “the practice of social equality”. That seems to mean, taken with the previous meaning, that you get the equality the majority want, not what you might need. The third meaning is “government by elected representatives”. Clearly just how representative these rulers are is crucial to preserving the other meanings of the word.

As far as government systems go, democracy has the most prestige. It is thought to be somehow fairer than aristocracy, rule of the best, or plutocracy, rule by the wealthy; or meritocracy or technocracy, rule by so called experts; let alone dictatorship, rule by the one who huffs and puffs the most. Perhaps democracy is looked up to so much because our recent history shows it advocated by a great world power, the United States of America. The USA fights for democracy, right?

But look at any country in the world, ancient or modern, and it is obvious that no people belonging to a state really ever rule it. They pass the job on to the talented, the rich, the ones who claim to know what to do. Then they complain about the results. It’s been like this for thousands of years. As long as legislation remains in the hands of ‘representatives’, not the people, this is not likely to change.

2 Death of SokratesDirect democracy in action: death of Sokrates


In ancient Athens though, the constitution was under the control of the people. The people ruled directly, and carried out at least some of the tasks and policies of government. How did that work? Was it fairer than government by elected representatives?

The first thing to note is that the population of ancient Athens was tiny. About a quarter of a million. At least half of these were slaves, who had no rights at all. Athens, the fountain of democracy, was a slave state (like all ancient states). Women and children had no rights either, nor did ‘aliens’, usually merchants residing in Athens for business reasons. All these groups did not exist legally, as far as the state was concerned. That left about 25,000 voters, 10% of the population (probably much less. A household might consist of a citizen, his wife, both parents and wife’s parents, six or seven children, and even a man of moderate means running a farm and maintaining a city residence would need at least 20 slaves. That’s a total of 1 voter out of 34 people). Before reforms to implement democracy, perhaps 5% of the population had votes. So Athenian democracy gave the right to vote to about 12,000 people who previously had no voice in government. They used that vote to give power to an aristocratic leader named Perikles, whose eloquence in Assembly swayed them for a number of years. So far it’s not sounding too democratic.

In the sixth century BC Athenian politicians competing among themselves thought to call on the ‘people’, those owning property at the lower end of the financial scale. This had earlier been done in Ionia, in the island of Lesbos and elsewhere. In Athens, Peisistratos called in the vote of the farm owners outside the city and obtained power as tyrannos, a kind of popular reformer, a fixer, like the Roman Dictator. He was followed later by Kleisthenes, who further limited the rights of the aristos. Their revisions to the constitution were made to stop wealthy citizens obtaining too much power, and one of them then reviving the position of king, which the city had much earlier abolished. A tyrant was thought preferable.

Citizens, eventually defined as those with citizens as parents, were members of both an Assembly, and a smaller Council. They were expected to be well informed on public affairs, and indeed, most appeared to have an opinion on the events of the day. Causes were also pleaded at the courts. At the end of debate voting was by show of hands. It is important to realise that in ancient Athens there was little private life. Involvement in public affairs was expected of all citizens, and that involvement, government, was their highest ideal, something they were proud of. They were the State.

In practical terms the people could not attend all political meetings. Some had farms to run, outside the city, and at harvest and sowing seasons they were not present. When they were present, they were often ill informed. As a result, persuasive speakers could and did sway them. The prestige of the general Perikles was such that he led a movement to steal the treasury of the Delian League, a defensive union of Greek states against a recurrence of a Persian invasion, and use the money to build up Athenian power so it could wage war with the other major Greek state, Sparta. Something like the manoeuvre Philip of Macedon carried out in the fourth century. In other words he attempted to build an empire.

The Assembly, led by irresponsible speakers (much as we are swayed by the ‘yellow’ press), made many errors. They unjustly enslaved whole states of their now subject allies, carried out mass executions of unsuccessful generals without trial, and sentenced a man to death for criticising their excesses, Sokrates. Uninformed power is no power at all, and this is the lesson to be learned from ancient Athens. That, and the fact Athens restricted power to between 3% and 10% of the population. Could we be deluded about democracy?

3 Pompeii portraitRoman citizens voted for their patron


Greek democracy was unstable (and not really democratic as we use the term). But what about ancient Rome, whose government lasted 2,000 years? Dominating government in Rome was the Senate, nominally an advisory body to the executive, but containing most of the political expertise of the day. As far as legislation was concerned, laws were passed by an Assembly which included voting members of the lower classes, the Plebeians, as well as propertied classes, Equites and Patricians (but excluding women, children and slaves: the slave population expanded with each successful war). Voting was registered by enrolment in so called ‘tribes’, and vote was by casting of lots. Each tribe’s vote was counted separately, so the result of the vote was by tribe. This was, like the Athenian model, direct democracy.

But Roman government wasn’t democratic. It was a Republic, in which public matters (res publica) were decided by a combination of a democratic vote, an oligarchic ruling, and a decision of an autocratic leader. What happened depended on the real balance of power, or the dominance of one of these factors over the others. The result could be liberal democracy, as briefly with the tribunes Gracchi (a bit like trade union leaders) in the late second century BC; conservative isolationism which typified the Senate; or dictatorship by a powerful politician or soldier, associated with an aggressive foreign policy, which ultimately formed the Empire in 30 BC.

Like the Greek form of democracy, this worked, though with at times lots of shouting and waving of arms. But it had the same defects as Greek democracy. There seems always a big difference between theory and practice as far as direct democracy is concerned. Many voters were unable to vote because they were located in the countryside far from the centre of things. Those voters at the centre of things often had votes that could be bought. Legislation could always be vetoed. The vote on legislation could always be determined in advance by the way it was phrased by skilled lawyers (as it is today with referenda). There was a lot of voting on influence, to support a powerful individual, often arranged in the background by Roman women. Important persons were ‘patrons’ who helped a group of ‘clients’, whose vote they directed. And in the end the opinion of a leader such as a consul, quaestor or aedile carried the day.

The Roman system had an ostensibly democratic element which could easily be manipulated or negated when necessary. This was the system which impressed and influenced the leaders of the American war of independence, and was a model for the US Constitution. Perhaps you could call it nominal democracy.

4 Declaration independence 1776The usual suspects: votes for the wealthy white males


The American constitution of 1787 is the most influential in the modern world. It introduced a number of ideas concerning rights, which were first associated with democracy about that time. These all stemmed from one man, the great publicist Tom Paine, whose Common Sense of 1776 advocated republicanism and abolishment of monarchy; liberty and human rights of citizens; independence from Britain; and the right to vote to be extended to the propertyless classes. In 1781 Paine helped raise a loan from the French government that effectively funded the Revolution; but his article of 1775  on African Slavery, in which he proposed emancipation of slaves and abolishment of slavery, bought him disfavour with American leaders who wanted to retain slavery; and he was also an unpopular advocate for the rights of native Americans. Paine’s Rights of Man of 1791 gave a structure to the French Revolution which it lacked. French philosophers like Rousseau had advocated some of these ideas, and they were current at that time in America, but none presented them more forcibly than Paine. Paine’s books sold in the millions; but he was prosecuted for sedition in England, imprisoned and sentenced to death in Paris, and died in poverty and obscurity in America. Those who used his ideas were interested in power, not reform. Lincoln admired Paine’s ideas, but he was murdered (like Kennedy) before he could carry Paine’s programs into effect.

The American revolution wasn’t really a democratic one. It was waged by a group of wealthy men who had prospered in America, and it’s motive was self interest. The revolutionaries used the ideas of Tom Paine, or those ones they thought suitable, to gain credibility. As in the formula “We, the people…”. The Declaration of Independence put it this way: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. As George Orwell would add in Animal Farm: but some men are more equal than others. It turned out that “the people” and “all men” were to be only these self interested few.

Once the idea of ‘rights’ for the people was advanced, such as freedom from oppression, right to vote and to express an opinion, it became necessary to control the voting process to prevent the people merely voting for themselves, without policy. The weakness of ancient democracies had been on some occasions mob rule. So the idea of competent ‘representatives’ was introduced, representatives who would have the expertise the people lacked, the judgment not to be swayed irrationally in a crisis. The view of Alexander Hamilton was “when the deliberative or judicial powers [of government] are vested wholly or partly in the collective body of the people, you must expect error, confusion and instability”.  Once you had representational democracy though, it became necessary to define carefully who the people were that elected them, to make sure the right people were elected. A look at Tom Paine’s list shows which groups weren’t considered to elect representatives: those without property; slaves and ex-slaves; native Americans; women and children, these didn’t get a look in. They had no rights. Just as in ancient times, the ‘people’ shrunk to those who could be trusted to vote for the right candidate, perhaps between 5% and 10% of the population. It was just like the models from Greece and Rome the Founding Fathers so admired.

It was only in 1870 that former slaves were enfranchised; only in 1920 that women were. But in 1960 southern states still didn’t accept the rights of citizens with African origins. In 2015 we’re still waiting for a female President. Everybody’s equal, but, not yet. American democracy is a limited one, but with the potential to be more. Some factors are non democratic, such as the security forces with no responsibility to the people (nor in some cases to the government); or the possibility of electing a minority President. The rhetoric of the Cold War has influenced two generations of Americans so as to polarise their views on the choice between ‘direct’ democracy (socialism) or representational democracy (the Congress system) sometimes to the extent of using violence. The murder of Cvil Rights activists and a President in the 1960s might have something to do with the low 70% voter rate. For now America offers a partial democracy with power for those with connections who are interested in participation in government.

5 Power to the peoplePower to the people

Modern times

If virtue can be defined as the accumulation of property, as it is by the capitalist system, then the state exists solely to protect that property. The rights of voters tend to be restricted to those who can show some property qualification. Opposed to this idea is a more universal one, that all people have rights merely by being alive. This introduces the idea of universal suffrage. How this is exercised has been the cause of conflict since the start of the 20th century, between those who seek to modify the vote system so that those without property can exercise it; and those who advocate these rights, administered by a ‘Party’ with the knowledge to do so equitably.

This meant that democracy was a controversial movement throughout most of the 20th century. It was not till the 1960s, less than 50 years ago, that a fully democratic system as envisaged by Tom Paine was finally voted into law in the USA. Even though the principle had been stated in 1776 in the Declaration of Independence: “whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends (the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness), it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness”.

In modern states the voter count is about 5 million for example in NSW Australia and close to it for New York USA (though with compulsory voting Australians have a registration rate of 92%; without compulsory voting apparently less than 70% vote in the USA). In modern times we can’t participate directly in government. We have a duty to lobby our representatives, to each have a policy of government.

But laws can be manipulated and evaded. ‘Democracy’ still means ‘communism’ to many Americans. Rights for some groups of citizens still seems dangerous to some conservatives. This is an attitude or opinion, something apart from law. Opinions are slow to change, and are rarely affected by any legal decisions enforced by the state, something that activists are slow to realise.

In fact, democracy itself is an attitude or opinion. Without it, rights are merely given by a controlling, often hidden, elite. Without it, legal reforms of the electoral structure are merely cosmetic.

This would be more obvious if there were more involvement between voters and the voting process. I’d like to be consulted about pending legislation and asked to grade them in order of importance. I’d like to know too each candidate’s views on issues pending legislation. I’d like the opportunity to participate if I could in a monitoring visit with my representative and hear his views on progress. These are elements of the direct democracy process which could be integrated into the representative model. Might get rid of that “what’s the point?” cynical attitude we often adopt towards politicians. In other words we need more duties in the electoral process to be more fully democratic.

In the meantime we are saddled with a psychology that, confronted with a group task, sorts every group into leaders and followers, and designates special roles for followers such as information gatherers, critics, support staff, liaison and so on. That’s how we work in groups. Given an election, we elect leaders (representatives). We’d do that if there were no Congress or Parliament. But we have no clear idea of their duties or responsibilities. Then we get disappointed in them. We have no clear ideas of their problems. This attitude might have got us out of an emergency when we were hunter-gatherers, but it’s not conducive to government of a state. What we have now was called an oligarchy (rule of a few) in ancient Athens.

What we need is democracy.

©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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