How has our understanding of Democracy changed?

Special Comment

Democracy: A Life by Paul Cartledge

by Paul Cartledge, author of Democracy: A Life

Suppose we were to enter a time-machine and have ourselves transported back 2400 years, to the world of ancient Athens. There we would find ourselves in the ancient Greek city that invented ‘democracy’, both the word and the thing, government by mass meeting. There, a direct plebiscitary referendum style of government was the norm, not a desperate, abnormal expedient. It happened regularly, once a month, even as frequently as every ten days. For there and then the demos (People) of the Athenians really did hold and exercise the kratos (power, strength, force, might) – power over the public organs of governance, and the power to decide, by majority vote, what the laws and policy of the Athenian state should be.

Flash forward to 1863, Gettysberg, Pennsylvania. In his famed funeral address President Lincoln hailed his own state’s political system as a form of democracy, ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’. But what a difference a millennium or two had made! From the originary, Athenian meaning of democracy to the Americans’ etiolated, watered-down, version of indirect, representative, parliamentary democracy was a very long stretch indeed. Since then democracy in its various Western forms has taken a few mighty steps forward, not least the move to full adult suffrage regardless (in theory) of gender, race or creed. It has also taken several steps back – in the ugly shape of totalitarian dictatorships of various stripes. It currently suffers from more or less fake appropriations flying under the banner of populism. It’s these vicissitudes of democracy, its twists and turns from antiquity to modernity, its more or less radical transformations, that my 2016 book Democracy: A Life and its new (2018) Afterword seek to chart.

Abraham Lincoln at the dedication of the Soldier' National Cemetary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

There were many different and separate states in ancient Greece, and several different forms of democracy. The ancient Athenians alone had – over a period of getting on for two centuries – at least three significantly different versions of Project Democracy. After the revolution of 508/7 BCE that brought an early form of democracy into fledgling being a further flurry of reforms in 462/1 gave political access to ever widening layers of the qualified Athenian people: that is, free and legitimate adult males over the age of 18. 50-60,000 at most, out of a total population – including citizen females and subadult children, resident foreigners and slaves – of 250,000 or so, all confined to a space the size of Derbyshire or Luxembourg today.

A very long inter-Greek war saw Athens heavily defeated and its democracy replaced briefly by a brutal dictatorship, but within a year a democratic restoration ushered in a less extreme and therefore more stable governmental form that lasted for almost 80 years. Towards the end of that period Aristotle, the giant thinker, classified and analysed all the main Greek forms of governance – monarchic and oligarchic as well as democratic. Most of the thousand or so existing Greek communities then enjoyed or at least experienced some version of either democracy or oligarchy (the rule of the few rich citizens). But most oligarchs in most cities more or less virulently hated democracy – the rule of the many poor over their few rich social superiors, as they saw it, the dictatorship of the proletariat. From the end of the fourth century BCE and for the rest of Graeco-Roman antiquity direct mass democracy of the Athenian type was suppressed, often violently, in favour of variously moderate or extreme forms of oligarchy.

In direct consequence, the meanings of the Greek word demokratia modulated accordingly. Instead of people-power it came to have the force of our (Latin-derived) word republic: that is, not-monarchy, and in practice rule by the rich or richer minority. The Romans who conquered the Greek world between the third and first centuries BCE had their own peculiar version of republicanism at home. Abroad, they abhorred Greek-style primary demokratia and stamped out any remaining vestiges. When the Roman Republic transitioned into a disguised monarchy, fawning Greek intellectuals committed the linguistic crime of describing the Roman imperial system as itself a form of demokratia - under one man! But worse was yet to come. From the 330s and the Christian revolution of Constantine onwards, absolute monarchy was buttressed by theocracy, leaving no place whatsoever for the people as a recognised political force of any description. Within the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565) demokratia the word plunged to its nadir: making literal the implicit negativity of demos as the unwashed masses of the ‘people’, a pietistic chronicler used it to mean ‘riot’ - a particularly unacceptable form of mob-rule.

Thereafter the word existed in its Latin transliteration as democratia but had no real content or application outside scholarly or pious treatises. It took the Antiquity-worshipping Renaissance to rediscover some virtue in the notion of popular political presence, the seventeenth century in England to put republican flesh on that skeleton in the shape of the regicide of 1649. But modern democracy – or rather democracies – owes its origin more specially to the American and French Revolutions and their respective aftermaths. The remarkable Englishman Thomas Paine straddled both Revolutions like a populist colossus and gave in outline both secular reason and uncommon sense to the ideas of representative and even social democracy.

In fits and starts the idea of universal suffrage took hold and gained currency in the UK, alongside and sometimes in formal contradiction of the ideas of parliamentary sovereignty and ‘constitutional’ monarchy. But in 2015, following the Tories’ victory in the May general election, Parliament of its free will set aside its sovereignty in favour of a direct plebiscite – not a first-past-the-post election, and with no campaign manifestos to exert even a minimum constraint on demagogic fantasy. Crucially too there was no education of the voters in the many key differences in both process and outcome between a general election and a referendum. The result? Predictably, an almighty mess. The Athenians, who knew a thing or two about direct democracy and had in place many sorts of measures and resources to counteract such possibly divided and divisive outcomes, could have told us a thing or two and warned us in advance. Brexit wrecks it? Politically speaking, unambiguously – alas - yes.