According to the Chinese philosopher Mencius, in the fourth century BC, “those who are ruled produce food; those who rule are fed. That this is right is universally recognised everywhere under Heaven.” As rain fell from the sky and rivers flowed seawards, so even the most advanced of civilizations adhered to this ancient distinction between rulers and producers.
Athens, however, bucked the trend. In the early fifth century BC, after centuries of rule by clans or tyrants, a forward-thinking aristocrat called Cleisthenes decided to mix things up and hand power over to the demos, the people. “Athens,” said Pericles, “would no longer seek to imitate others but set itself as a model to be imitated.”
This was made possible not just because of the radical vision of its leaders but because of its booming slave economy—in mining, agriculture and craft industries—which meant, as Perry Anderson puts it, that “the free citizen now stood out in full relief.” To say that ancient Athens was democratic, then, is something other than saying it was egalitarian.
David Graeber suggests that societies usually develop along egalitarian or oligarchic lines, either developing a form of consensus in which no one feels their voice is neglected or a coercive apparatus that can suppress the popular will. But ancient Athens is a different case: a majoritarian democracy that gave the appearance of consensus while also maintaining a coercive apparatus that could undermine it.
In Book 6 of his Politics, Aristotle addresses this issue. Remarking that the constitution of any city-state will always depend on which arm of its military is the strongest, he points out that if a city has a particularly big cavalry then an oligarchy will likely develop because only the richest citizens can afford to keep horses. Only where the light infantry or navy predominates can the hoi polloi hope to get their hands on power.
A democracy thus requires that its citizenry be locked and loaded, a so-called “populace in arms”. Influence is directly proportional to brawn. This explains the etymology of democracy, kratos meaning the “force”—rather than more benign “rule” (archos)—of the people. In the US, this spirit prevails in the widespread resistance to the control or restriction of firearms, which are regarded as both a constitutional right—Thomas Jefferson said “no freeman shall ever be debarred the use of arms”—and a key check on government power.
Aristotle thought this set-up was pretty volatile. I mean, who wants to live in a society where just “everyone has licence to do as he pleases”? Look, to a lesser degree, what happens in the US. He regarded democracy as no more than the “least bad deviation” from timocracy. Though timocracy might be unfamiliar-sounding nowadays the concept shouldn’t be: it refers to the rule of the property-owning class.
For most of its life, democracy has struggled with a bad rep. For most of its life, it hasn’t even had a rep. After the fall of the Western half of the Roman Empire, an earlier tradition resurfaced made up of a loose conglomeration of free cities, village communes, guilds and confraternities, sometimes bound together in the form of federations. Folkmoots and things are famous Anglo-Saxon and Germanic examples of these free communities, which, though they may have certain affinities with democratic states—elected chieftains, powerful assemblies—would never have been thought of as such.
Not until a 1500 translation of Alain Chartier’s Livre d’esperance (1429) did democracy appear in English for the first time, where it was lumped with oligarchy and timocracy (again) as just another system “without order”. As late as 1792, with France in disarray, the diarist Hester Thrale referred to it in not dissimilar terms as “Anarchical Democracy”, something only the French could deem plausible. Winston Churchill was just as sceptical when, in a 1947 debate in the House of Commons, he misquoted Aristotle: “I’ve heard it said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Churchill’s line is rolled out endlessly to put a witty stop to any serious conversation about systemic change, about the faults of democracy or capitalism. It’s a rhetorical gambit that should be seen as part of a wider tendency: that of socio-political elites to dismiss uncomfortable ideas as, in Noam Chomsky’s words, “incompatible with the realities of a complex society”. At least Aristotle was able to discuss alternatives. What Churchill is implying is that democracy is not just the best of a bad bunch but that solutions or alternatives aren’t even worth looking into because, well, it’s complicated.
But as Chomsky points out time and again, any cursory glance back through history shows the need, at every stage, “to dismantle those forms of authority and oppression that survive from an era when they might have been justified by the need for security or economic development, but that now contribute to—rather than alleviate—material and cultural deficit.” Just look at the history of democracy itself! It might now be seen as providing security and room for economic development, but not so long ago these things were seen as directly threatened by its rise. Many of the same people arguing for it today would have been shouting it down—or privately ridiculing it—not so long ago.
The Myth of Complexity is all-pervasive. In economics, Adam Smith thought we weren’t so different from the first tribes who bartered arrowheads and tanned hides. For him, we differed only in complexity. As our towns and cities grew, the need arose for a universal currency like gold or jade that could form the basis of a commodities exchange with distant, potentially hostile communities. Smith suggested that, even as modern societies developed, they retained a belief in commercial money as a unit of exchange.
The problem is, as numerous anthropological studies have shown, no evidence exists of these so-called “barter societies”. They were a convenient figment of the economistic imagination designed to make the emergence of a credit (or fiat) economy appear inevitable. A more pertinent similarity exists between pre-modern societies and our own, however: numerous early records show the constant exchange of goods and services without expectation that these accounts would ever quite tally. A skewed version of this set-up exists nowadays in the finance sector. Banks and governments are in debt—massively so—but it’s assumed that consumers are the ones who should carry the burden in the shape of mortgage repayments and high interest rates on credit cards. Why? It’s complicated.
What justifies the current status quo is always the complexity of our system. In return, the “security” of our deposits are supposedly assured and we’re given access to—if not the opportunity to own—an array of sparkling goods and services. But the ideology of exchange also serves to heighten and reinforce hierarchical relationships, the seeming complexity of market capitalism allowing for a new (or not-so-new) breed of elites to extract wealth and cheap labour from the poor. Complexity becomes a means of justifying income inequality, institutional racism and other friendly forms of subjugation.
Democracy isn’t some kind of scared cow that should be protected and idealised out of all existence. Not only is it historically contingent but one of its key features (and failings) has always been its susceptibility to those with the most money or a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force (in recent times this has been the State, but there’s no reason why private companies couldn’t step in).
Only in the West, in the wake of the American and French revolutions, did democracy’s image start to change. But it still wasn’t until the 1970s that the number of “democratic states” worldwide doubled to around sixty. Pitted against a clear Soviet enemy, it became more effective than ever at importing itself (the CIA playing their part). In doing so, what used to be one radical idea among others became the only game in town. If you criticised it you were a communist—what we might now call a terrorist-sympathiser—or just too stupid to appreciate the complexities of the global political and economic system.
Don’t get me wrong, I love all the different kinds of ice cream they now stock at Tesco Express, and voting in elections every couple of years or so is kind of fun—like being given a free ticket for a joyless, winnerless lottery. But when democracy gets invoked by politicians as that which “makes us great” a shudder goes down my spine. Who exactly is it meant to be so great for? Is that meant to be an argument against doing anything to make it better?
Marx once made a distinction—I know it’s late in this post to be bringing him in—between the citoyen (the abstract/political person) and der wahre Mensch (the real person). The modern political state had created lots of socially conscious citoyen who, at dinner parties, would passionately debate topical issues and proclaim their love of justice, liberty and equality. But Marx asked, “for whom?” For whom were these ideals really working? Was it the factory workers doing 16-hour shifts, the poor men and women locked in debtors’ prisons, or just the chortling citoyens themselves? When push came to shove, did they value the freedom of the worker as much as they did the owner?
As inequality grew, people did nothing about it because the abstract ideals of democracy had created a new breed of abstract citizen; a citizen who could keep guilt at bay via the magic charm of democracy. As much is true today: as inequality grows, we stop ourselves from becoming the people we should be—the real people—by treating democracy as a sacred cow.