A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanging, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in colour and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.
Oliver Wendell Holmes
The assumption that “we live in a democracy” is the ground upon which western socialists, liberals and reactionaries stand. It’s taken to be axiomatic, that is it’s a premise automatically accepted without recourse to proof. But what would happen if we tried to prove it?
To some the question will seem absurd; to others, offensive. For some, the democratic nature of the liberal state must not be questioned. Its rituals have acquired the status of holy offices, its constitutions, that of holy writ, its idea of “democracy” revealed truth.
I am questioning this received idea in all of my work, including my film work.
What if one could prove, through the examination of the historical development of our idea of democracy that in point of fact, we do not live in a democracy as that term has been understood for 95% of its existence, and that we never have, and that contentions to the contrary – that we do – are most often supported by the most basic logical fallacies, and little supporting evidence?
What if one could show that the accepted notion of democracy has been completely altered over the course of the last 120 years, and that what we now take for “democracy” was in fact taken for its opposite until very recently? What if ancient notions of democracy could be shown to have new relevance today, when our supposedly “democratic” societies are monopolized by a tiny caste of wealthy men who are attacking our rights? Does this attack not make such a reexamination urgent?
If this point could be proven, and our argument here is that it can be, then a radical reexamination of the idea of democracy would be as much in order as it would be timely. The implications would be revolutionary; that we are called upon to establish a true democracy where we have had heretofore only an imaginary one.
In this essay, Part 1, we will take up the history of our notion of democracy in its development, and examine three societies which today claim to be democracies; Canada, the United States and Great Britain to determine if any of these societies can be proven to be a democracy. In Part II we will examine in detail how the notion of democracy evolved from 1789 to the present day, and why. In Part III we will consider possible alternatives.
DEMOCRACY – WHAT IS IT?
Let us examine the accepted definition of the Cambridge English Dictionary, which defines democracy as
“the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves, a country in which power is held by elected representatives”
The first part of the definition is surprising. Democracy is here defined not as a material relation between people, but merely a “belief” in such a relation, or a government founded upon such a belief. It’s weak.
Webster’s Dictionary definition is stronger, describing democracy rather as an existing material relation between people:
government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.
b) a political unit that has a democratic government
c) the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority
d) the absence of hereditary or arbitrary distinctions or privileges
The term democracy has evolved in meaning over time. It did not always mean “a government with periodic free elections” or that the common people were merely “the source” of political authority, with power wielded by representatives. In fact, if we examine how this word has been used in the last 2500 years, we shall find that its meaning has been radically altered only in the last hundred years or so. In the 2400 years previous, it meant something altogether different than what it has come to mean today.
Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, attacked the technical ability of ordinary people to manage a democracy directly. For Lippmann there were insiders, the technical managers, and outsiders, everybody else. “Only the insider can make decisions, not because he is inherently better, but because he is so placed that he can understand and can act. The outsider is necessarily ignorant, usually irrelevant and often meddlesome.” (1) Lippmann’s thought is the culmination of a reactionary attack on classical notions of democracy which oddly enough mirrors the classical anti-democratic arguments of Socrates and Plato: that government is work for trained specialists.
But as F.I. Finley points out, Lippmann’s, and Plato’s attack assumes an equivalency between technical and political problems. Behind the assumption of technical competence by specialists there is a great deal of room to disguise anti-democratic ends, cloaked by means we accept because we believe that the technical specialists are acting in our best interests. This is a process by which decisions taken by the few are legitimized, but is it democracy?
This so-called “elite theory” of democracy as elaborated by Schumpeter and his school, by Seymour Martin Lipset and others is the “democracy” that we know today. The role of the citizen is now merely to choose between a small group of leader – specialists placed before the public by political parties. In this respect, the people are removed from their previous role as the political authority to a secondary role as its source. It’s a curious notion, that the source of authority could be more powerful than the authority itself. But it’s one we’ve come to accept without question. Political authority, and hence coercive power, is thus delegated to specialists. We take the means by which this power is delegated, preference elections, to be the acid test of democracy.
Thus the idea and practice of democracy has been transformed into something completely unrecognizable to previous generations. In his Funeral Oration, the Athenian statesman Pericles famously remarked that anyone who did not participate in politics, the ideotes (from this word we derive our own term ‘idiot’) was “useless.” Our system encourages such political passivity. Ours is an idiocy generating machine.
Dr. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary, the first in the English language, defined democracy as “sovereign power lodged in the collective body of the people.” In Johnson’s definition, the common people were the authority.
In the middle of the 18th century, when Johnson wrote there were no states claiming to be democracies. Democracy was not even considered a desirable form of government. Johnson had as his basis only his understanding of classical Athenian democracy, based on ancient Greek sources.
Democracy is derived from two ancient Greek words, demos, meaning the people, and kratos, meaning power, or might. So democracy might translate as “people power.” Its etymological meaning is seldom referred to, in fact has been erased.
We might turn to Aristotle for help in broadening our idea of people power, or democracy. Since Aristotle lived in a culture which had known democracy for 180 years, whereas western states have barely known democracy for 90 years, and arguably far fewer if recent gains for women and racial minorities are taken into full account, perhaps his ideas are worthy of review. They are especially so in light of the fact that the founders of western liberalism, the framers of the US Constitution and the 19th and early 20th century formulators of elite democracy, addressed themselves directly to Aristotle’s thought on this subject.
Aristotle in the Politics makes several attempts to define what democracy is. His was the first systematic examination of political science. He based his analysis on an empirical study of the constitutions and ways of life in Greek city states, and collected their constitutional documents.
He notes that “democracy exists wherever the free-born are sovereign, and that oligarchy exists wherever the rich are sovereign,” (1290a30) and “There is democracy wherever the free-born and poor control the government, being at the same time a majority, and similarly there is oligarchy when the rich and better-born control the government, being at the same time a minority.” (1290b7)
The Greeks knew few elections, which are merely one means (of several) to the end, (democracy) not the end in itself. The aspect common to both ancient and modern notions of democracy seems to be a certain type of “class rule” that is rule by “the common people.” How that rule is exercised may vary.
The critical question is this: do the means we use today – preference elections –produce the end –“people power” or rule by the majority, by “the common people” or by the poor?
Moderns have chosen preference voting in contested elections. Or rather we’ve agreed to be included in this means to the democratic end, which was originally a means to a far different end. The Athenians had a different means to the end, ruling themselves in person in the Eklessia, the famous Assembly, and also in the choice of representatives by lottery, as we still choose our jurors today.
Aristotle considered preference voting a feature of oligarchical forms of government, not of a democracy. He wrote, “in the appointment of magistrates, the use of the lot is regarded as democratic, and the use of the vote as oligarchical. Again, it is considered democratic that a property qualification should not be required, and oligarchical that it should be.” (1294a30)
The words which follow more accurately describe the kind of “democracy” we know today. “The method appropriate to an aristocracy or a ‘constitutional government’ is to take one element from one form of constitution and another from the other – that is to say, to take from oligarchy the practice of choosing office-holders by voting, and from democracy the practice of requiring no property qualification.” (1294a30)
Modern liberal democratic states also feature “free elections” and no formal property qualifications, although in many countries the act of running for office requires monetary resources only available to the very wealthy. Is this not an informal, but very significant property qualification in our system?
Aristotle was not a great advocate of democracy, where the poor control the government. He writes, “it seems impossible that there should be good government in a city which is ruled by the poorer sort,” (1294a1) and on the other hand that “of all the perversions from a true constitution… democracy is the most moderate, and so the least bad.” (1289a38)
The ancient elites, and most of their philosophers both feared and hated democracy. Plato and Socrates were sworn anti-democrats who thought the common people did not possess the wisdom to govern themselves or others. In contrast, the “Sophists” (the aristocrat’s term of abuse which has come down to us uncritically) such as Protagoras asserted that every man possesses politike techne, the ability to form political judgments about his best interests. If we believe in democracy today, we would have to agree with Protagoras, and not with Plato that every human being has the innate capacity for political judgment. This is a curious thing, because our “democratic” system is based on Lippmann’s Neo-Platonic absolute denial of the proposition that the ordinary person is fit to govern herself. Whereas our system encourages mass political passivity, on the philosophical ground that the ordinary person is inexpert, the Athenian system trained citizens for political participation from an early age, and so they developed political skills to a greater or lesser degree. To borrow a common Athenian metaphor, just as an athlete develops not only his body but also his inner physical capacity, his endurance and strength, through the active and consciously directed exercise of those capacities in training, so too may humans develop and strengthen their capacity for political judgment by means of a conscious practice. Use it, or loose it. We have sadly lost it. We have been led into this debilitated condition by an elite misreading of Aristotle.
In Aristotle’s system of thought, democracy was a perverted form of constitution, not something desirable, if it could be avoided.
Aristotle classifies three “right forms” of political system, or constitution.
Monarchy is the rule of one man or a king. Aristocracy is the rule of the best people in society, or the aristoi. By “best” Aristotle means the most virtuous and also the most skilled, but he also recognizes that this term will be perverted so that “the best” become equal with the wealthy, as in an oligarchy. (We shall return to this point.) The third type he calls polity, or “constitutional government”, which is a mix or balance between Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy.
In fact, this is the very type of mixed constitution – polity – which all modern liberal “democracies” now possess. We do not live in a democracy in any sense in which that word may be correctly understood.
The United States famously claims for itself a “constitutional” government, featuring a separation of powers between an indirectly elected President (monarchy), a bicameral legislative branch featuring the House of Representatives (democracy) and the Senate (aristocracy). This is how the Founders of the American republic thought of their second Constitution (we often forget there was a first one), and argued explicitly for and against it in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers based on classical political thought. According to Lippmann, it was Jefferson who first conflated the mixed, republican system of the United States with democracy, though as we shall see the two were conflated earlier and by others such as Edmund Burke. The conflation serves elite interests.
The English government viewed, and still continues to view its constitution as a mixed one. Judge Blackstone, in his massive work On the Laws of England which is still cited by jurists today, describes the English constitution of King, Lords and Commons as embodying the ideal mix between the three “right forms” of government, citing Aristotle, Cicero and Tacitus to back him up. (2)
The 18th century elite view of democracy can be clearly seen in the following cartoon. Here the mixed constitution of Great Britain sails the stormy seas betwixt the rock of democracy, represented by the Phrygian Cap (another ancient symbol from the classical world) of the French Revolution, and the whirlpool of tyranny.
Blackstone would have been horrified, as would have been James Madison, Benjamin Disraeli and others to imagine that we have confused this system with “democracy.”
They would have been quite a bit less horrified once they had appreciated that this very confusion has perpetuated the mixed constitutions and the hidden rule of the rich that they defended. Lord Jack Russell, who in 1832 first granted voting rights to English 10 pound householders declared that his reform “would not one jot advance democracy.” (3) Did he know something we have forgotten? We will fully explore this history in future posts.
It seems that the contradiction between modern and ancient notions of democracy revolves around the means by which it might be organized, around the method by which “magistrates” or in our case “representatives” are chosen. We recognize that the Greek role of “magistrate” and the modern “representative” are not co-equal, as the Athenians had no representatives per se, but represented themselves, and moderns elect representatives from whom magistrates (executive offices in the state which in our system are divided between professional bureaucrats and elected officials) are chosen. The ancient meaning and the modern one both include rule by the common people. Thus we must take as the acid test of democracy whether or not the common people hold real, substantive political power in a given society. The means by which that power is obtained is secondary. The means exist to further the end. If the end is absent, the means are no use.
The modern citizen assumes that because a society holds “free and fair elections” that it’s a democracy. The idea has become axiomatic since the early 20th century. An axiom is a proposition that is taken for granted, and which is not required to be proven. This may be a mistake in this case, for it involves a conflation of the means by which the “power is vested in the people” with the end itself, the just exercise of that power to create the good society. The axiomatic reasoning also can lead into attributing the qualities of a part to the whole. Just because a society holds elections doesn’t mean it’s a democracy. Such is obviously the case in Haiti, where “free and fair elections” have been held, but without the Lavallas Party which represents 90% of the population. The fallacy that attributes the quality of the part to that of the whole serves to confuse the issue.
It’s a mistake that Enlightenment thinkers clearly identified. Thomas Paine, in his Rights of Man, which inspired the beginning of the struggle for a reformed English Parliament and the right to vote, was very clear. His book is a defense of the French Revolution and its radical democracy, against Edmund Burke’s attack on that revolution. In it Paine accuses Burke that he “confounds representation and democracy together.” Paine’s other critics at the time also acknowledged that a system of political representation is not concomitant with democracy. In an attack on Paine’s writings presented to the members of his book club, a Royalist gentleman (who wished to remain anonymous to history) wondered at Paine’s admiration for “the new representative system which has become engrafted upon democracy.” (4) Here our Royalist gets it wrong. When we examine the case further, we shall see that in point of fact, it is rather that a representative system has since been engrafted upon a mixed constitution to give it more of a democratic appearance.
If we could distill Lippmann’s and Schumpeter’s idea of democracy, we might describe it as “the rule of the expert, for the common people, for their own good.” This may also be called polyarchy, a term of modern social theorists.
If we could distill Aristotle’s thoughts on democracy and oligarchy then we could derive an alternative axiom which might help us see our own situation more clearly; that democracy is the rule of the poor, and oligarchy of the rich. He said exactly this, so no distillation is really needed. This type of oligarchy has also been referred to as plutocracy.
Using these terms of reference above, we can ask the following questions about three countries which claim to be democracies:
- In whose interests do “political experts” rule in practice, as opposed to in theory?
- How have experts protected democratic rights?
- Are the rich or the poor in control of the state and of the economy?
- Do the common people experience rule by experts as beneficial, or would they prefer participatory democratic reforms?
Further, if we take the common terms between the Cambridge and Webster definitions, that of “majority rule” and either a “belief in” or a really existing “freedom and equality between people” and the notion of “free elections” we could ask these additional questions:
- Does the ruling group represent a majority of voters and of citizens in each country?
- Does the ruling group uphold freedom and equality between people?
- Are elections free or rigged?
- Can voters radically change the direction of their country by means of the election of a different political party or leader, or do political parties represent merely the appearance of choice?
Unfortunately when we examine the evidence, we can find a great deal to support the notion that in fact so-called “democracies” are really disguised oligarchies where the few rule the many, for the benefit of a few, under the disguise of the mixed constitution.
In the next installments, we shall examine Canada, the USA, and the UK in detail against the questions above. In future posts we shall explore how these three countries developed their mixed constitutional systems under the false label “democracy” and how the people came to accept this state of affairs. Stay tuned.
(1) Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public, pg 140
(2) Blackstone, On the Laws of England, Book 1, Chapter 2.
(3) Lord “Finality” Jack Russell. Hansard. British House of Commons, March 22nd, 1831.
(4) A Protest Against Paine’s “Rights of Man” Addressed to the Members of a Book Society” T. Longman, Paternoster Row, London, 1792/