“Common sense likes to believe not only that politics or the political have fallen from the sky, on one beautiful day in ‘classical’ Athens, in the miraculous and certified form of the democracy, but also that it is evident that a divinely linear history guides us by its hand from the American Revolution and then the ‘French Revolution’ towards our Western societies, which are happily convinced that their mission is to convert all peoples to the true religion of democracy.”
(Marcel Detienne, Les Grecs et nous. Paris, 2009, 146.)
DEMOCRACY is presented as the true way, the only fair system of government, the system which allows all to have their say and to be represented in the ‘way of all things’ which affect their lives. The standard is that it was invented (apparently out of the blue) in Athens under the auspices of the lawgiver Solon in the sixth century BC and developed quite cheerily and by logical processes (including a tyrant who followed the laws and the democratic institutions) into the system which made Athens the Queen of the Aegean, hegemon of the Delian League and dominant power in the Athenian Empire. Equally, later, the democratic electoral rights belonged to every Roman citizen, all of whom were entitled to express their voice by voting for the magistrati from the lowest (the Quaestors) to the highest (the Consuls) each and every year. The poorest were guaranteed protection under the auspices of the ten Tribunes (one for each tribe) and the laws, based on these democratic principles, meant that all had their say and their rights to be participants. The reforms of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries AD meant that the western societies, led by the examples of the French Revolution and the American Constitution, the Year of Revolution, 1848, the era of “democratic revolution” (Palmer, The Age of the Democratic Revolution: A Political History of Europe and America, 1760-1800, I, The Challenge, Princeton, 1959), meant that there was a gradual, but certain expansion of rights and freedoms granted to all in these newly industrialised societies, where the subjects of any given Crown were to become the citizens of a now constitutional monarchy or a republic that was instigated often by war or extreme violence. According to John Stuart Mill, “the Athenian experience of democracy allowed one to argue that a democratic polity could entail the flourishing of personal liberties and provide for social dynamics in the arts and commerce as well…Though not a model to emulate, ancient Athenian democracy here became a forerunner to “modern” liberal democracy.” (Wagner, P, in Greek Polis and Invention of Democracy, Wiley, 2013, 53-54) Countries which clung to the theory of absolutism were those which lived on borrowed time and were seen as backward, primitive and ripe for revolution, such as Russia or China. Those which moved to modernisation, industrialisation and freedom were those which were to be the great, the successful, the leaders. Granted, there were exceptions such as Japan which remained a society which was strictly hierarchical and with very limited freedoms, but she had at least abandoned the Mediaeval feudalism of the Tokugawa Bakufu, the caged Emperor, absolute isolationism (though at the point of a cannon) and the warrior élite, the Samurai, ruled directly by their local Daimyō. By modernising under the Meiji Emperor, adopting Western ideas and processes, Japan was able to metamorphose from a militaristic society which honoured the sword and the bow above all else in 1867 to having a modern army and extreme organisation which soundly thrashed the (believed) superpower of Imperial Russia by 1905. After the two World Wars, (the first of which more or less ended the age of the great Imperial powers and the second which was waged to destroy the lunacy of ultra extremism unfettered by an effective legal system), saw the development and instigation of an international organisation which was in theory to be able effectively to control said extremism (the United Nations), and the idea that the democracies were the way to advance and progress in an open, free and egalitarian social structure, one which was the only way to confront the ‘Axes of Evil’ of Communist dictatorships under the aegis of the USSR or Maoist China in the post WWII era termed the Cold War, (powers which were brought in to the United Nations) or, later, the theocratic and terrorist pseudo-states which are dictated by a tiny group of ultra violent and uncontrollable extremists, ruling by fear, cruelty and an unquestioning acceptance of their group’s leader’s teachings, became dominant in Western political thought and ideology.
The evident question we must ask is how true any of this is. Was the ancient democracy the pinnacle of equality and freedom? Did all have an equal level of opportunity? Was democracy the result of a positive societal evolution which began in the Renaissance, ran through the Industrial Revolution and the political and social revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to reach its (apparent?) apogee in the Western democratic societies we see today, with the USA as the true and deserving hegemon of the Free World? Were the systems of the Roman Republic as great as the founding fathers of the United States deemed them to be, they being the example upon which the American democracy is claimed to be based? And equally important in the troubled world we have today, is Democracy the only true way? What if a society refutes the democratic structure in favour of its traditional, autocratic system? Do the democratic powers have the moral right to overthrow the systems in place and to impose a system more pleasing to them? This is a question which was as important in Classical Athens as it is today, as in Thucydides “since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” (5.89) The imposition of democratic systems on those who do not want them or who wish to leave the power base controlled by the democracies must be ready to face the consequences unless they are equal in power. What happens where the “decision of the people” is used by politicians to enforce decisions which were never properly explained or understood in the first place among the voters? When does the “vox populi”, the voice of the people, become the “phonos okhlou”, the voice of the baying mob? What happens when demagoguery is used in order for a dictator to impose his (or her in the modern world) will and be used to remove those who refuse to kowtow to that which they know to be popular but wrong, and consequently are turned into the “enemies of the people”? Indeed, can we truly ever allow the uninstructed, poorly informed mass of people, to which the majority belong, to have a full and unfettered right to make the decisions? After all, one of the most basic questions for those in power in any democracy, ever since the earliest of democratic times, has been “How much can ‘THEY” (the people) be told? How far can they be trusted to make a sensible, rational and informed decision if they are themselves uninformed? Who decides what the people are allowed to know, and from which viewpoint can they be instructed? What do we tell hoi polloi? Is it in fact safer to tell them only what ‘we’ (ie the ruling class), feel they need to know in order to guarantee our policies?” These seem questions hardly befitting of a free and democratic state, but they are nevertheless questions which have always been there and always will be for as long as democracy exists. Indeed, especially with the immense populations in real terms most countries have, is a true democracy even a viable system of government today? Is a representative democracy truly a democracy? Most governments take power with less than 40% of the votes cast, but with the right to claim the mandate as no other party achieved a matching level – are then the 60% who are without an effective voice ergo expected simply to toe the government line and ‘get on with it’? Levels of voter turnout, while higher in general elections than any other election, are pitifully low in most democratic countries – such that some countries (eg Australia) have made it an offence under law not to vote without an exceptionally good excuse. In systems where there is proportional representation, are the struggles regularly encountered in forming coalition governments, often with tiny, extreme parties holding the balance of power (such as in Israel where minority ultra Orthodox parties frequently play this role) or where a minority third party can be in an influential position in government, such as the UK Liberal Party in the coalition government under David Cameron or the FDP in Germany which was in power almost without break for half a century as the coalition partner to the SPD or CDU/CSU minority governments, are these huge complications truly worth the problems to form an effective government? Referenda are an even more complex question, returning to the ‘vox populi’ versus the ‘phonos okhlou’ point.
Where, then did the idea of a system run by all, the rule of the people, truly begin? There is a likelihood that when the earliest settlements were growing, there may well have been some where the individuals were granted a say in the running of their community in some form of general assembly (although it is just as likely that a dominant individual (matriarch or patriarch) or a small elite group with physical prowess or intellectual acuity would dominate the settlement and its inhabitants) and indeed, there is little or no evidence for either in the archaeological record, especially when the dominant requirement was survival and the society was pre-literate. When settlements became more organised, however, the evidence suggests changes:
“Social power was created in the process by which a society became horizontally segmentated and thus entails a consideration of numbers of people and population growth. Such segmentation can be ascertained from material and historic records, for example of Mesopotamian ethnic groups, barrios at Teotihuacan, neighborhoods at Wari and Harappa, and so forth. Leaders of these groups formed elites, sometimes becoming officers of state but also maintaining sets of local powers that lay outside states. These local leaders were community elders and could constitute assemblies with powers of decision-making that kings and the court found it in their interest not to penetrate.” (Yoffee, Myths of the Archaic State, CUP, 2004, 36)
These localised systems, where the influence and power of the assemblies under the hegemony of a local elder or group of elders were granted a large part in the running of their area, was something acceptable to the nobility and the royal court while conducted on a localised level, be that an area or a smaller settlement external to the main urban centres, though when it came to the major decisions on a wider level, the influence of the assemblies would be of little or no significance whatsoever. Nevertheless, that such corporate forms of government existed is a key development when looking at the gradual evolution towards democracy and is an area deserving of deeper study: Blanton:
“It should be, but unfortunately has not been, of considerable theoretical interest to anthropological archaeology that Mesopotamian social formations appear to have emphasized corporate forms of government from an early period, including forms of assembly government that evidently had developed by the Uruk period.” (Beyond Centralization: Steps Toward a Theory of Egalitarian Behavior in Archaic States, 1998,155)
The mythology of the divine from the earliest periods is based around the council of the gods, and the work of Jacobsen (Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia, JNES 2: 159–72) examines this:
“Like so much of Jacobsen’s work, this synthesis was brilliantly drawn, and the organization of the gods into a council, without a simple king, remains difficult to explain from the political systems of the states that bequeathed us their texts. The best-known “creation” text, called Enuma eliš, presents the kingship of the Babylonian god Marduk as a new achievement rather than as an ancient inheritance.” (Fleming, Democracy’s Ancient Ancestors, CUP, 2004, 16)
The evidence is, however, questionable – does the existence of a council of divinities necessarily demand the acceptance of such a system being reflected in the socio-political structure of the society from which it stems? Evidently not – if we look at today’s societies, a number of western democracies still class themselves as Christian, a theology under a highly benevolent and loving absolute monarch who is unquestioned and who cast down the only enemy who challenged that authority, if examined in a purely political context. This divine autocracy scarcely reflects the idea of a democratic social structure. Can it be argued then, that it is rather a reflection of a much earlier system, stemming from the earliest days of the settlements, where all participated in a council and an assembly as transmitted in the form of a mythology in the social memory? This is a possiblity, though again, pure hypothesis and one which can in no way be simply accepted where there is no definite archaeological, epigraphic or physical evidence to support such a thesis. Furthermore, would this idea of a ruling council necessarily fall under the classically accepted definition of a democratic structure (ie that of Athens)? Again, evidently not. Democracy in the classical sense would imply that the council members were in some way elected by the gathered citizenry, and that the assembly of said citizens would have a say in the decisions of the council either in ratifying them or cancelling them. Is this democracy? Classicists tend to argue not (cf Raaflaub, in Dēmokratia: A Conversation on Democracies, Ancient and Modern, 1996, 140, 149 – where he argues that democracy did not truly exist before the Athenian Democracy). For a wider discussion of the actuality of a primitive, proto – democratic system centred around the city of Mari in Mesopotamia, see Fleming, 2004.
The earliest hints of a form of rights to speak out in the Hellenic context come in the Homeric epics. Raaflaub (Political Thought, Civic Responsibility and the Greek Polis in Agon, Logos, Polis: The Greek Achievement and its Aftermath, Stuttgart, 2001, 72-117) posits that there exists a level below the major protagonists in the form of the kings and heroes, one where the frequent reference to the massed troops fighting together as a unit, whichever social stratum they came from (‘…there is a joint valour of men, even very poor ones…’ Iliad XIII. 237). There is no expectation that the warriors are all great fighters, nor in any way equal militarily or socially, but:
‘…each man counts and is taken seriously; each feels responsible for the success of the whole group and acts accordingly.’ (Raaflaub, Ober and Wallace, Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece, UCP, 2007, 26)
Whilst the poems themselves are questionable as historical sources, and there is no true democratic process in them, there can be seen the elements which would eventually develop into the basis of a series of democratic ideas and rights, if not the institutions themselves. What is key, however, is, as Kõiv has posited:
‘…as long as the main force in the battlefield was cavalry, the full citizenship was limited to the few rich (that was the time of the kings and early aristocracies); but when the cities grew and the hoplites became stronger, more people were admitted to the politeia and the states developed in the direction of democracy…’ (Democratisation of Greek Society During the Archaic Era?, Studia Humaniora Tartuensia, 3.A.2, 2002, 2 cf Pol, 1285b, 1289b, 1297b)
The intricacies of the development of Athenian democracy are fully described in other books and articles. The idea of a democracy, however, DOES require that one other point be examined – who composed the Demos? The basic answer – the citizen body, as in modern democracies. However, remember that the concept of citizenship today is VERY different to that of the Classical period at Athens. First, only males, over eighteen who qualified by being accepted by their demesmen were citizens allowed to participate in the political life of the polis – excluded were women, slaves and the resident foreigners (metikoi). Despite this, the metics were expected to pay taxes and in time of war fight in the phalanx for their adopted city. The Romans in the Early Republic had a very similar situation with the citizens (male, over 18 etc) being allowed to vote and the civitās sine suffragio granted to the allies with the expectation of all the duties of citizenship, though with none of the political rights. Exclusion was something which was to be a main point through the whole of the Hellenic history on the level of citizenship and until the period post the Social Wars in Roman history.
Who, then, were the wielders of power? Were they the same as those today? Humans being humans, we seem to follow the repeating patterns. Perikles dominated politics at Athens for decades, being elected again and again, demagogues were often main players on the political scenes of both Athens and Rome, dynastic politics was a common occurrence in the domination of the consulships at Rome by a small number of families from the nobiles. The rarity of the novus homo in the Senate shows the power of the ruling élite families. The idea of political corruption and buying up huge numbers of votes was commonplace at Rome, the Peisistratid tyrants at Athens may have continued with the democratic processes, but on the proviso that the archontes were from their political allies and not any who would challenge. So, were the democratic ideas of Athens and Rome very far removed from what we understand? We may like to think that they were and that we are today far in advance of our forerunners, but are we? In India, the Nehru Gandhi dynasty dominated Indian politics and the Congress Party for decades. How many American Senators or Presidents grew up in the poor quarters (or even middle class quarters) of a major metropolis or were low income agricultural families? The power mongers at Athens and Rome were obliged to address the people either in the Ekklesia or from the Rostra in the Forum Romanum. At Athens, every citizen had the right to address the Ekklesia and to question those in power – eunomia and isegoria were absolutely key in the functioning of the democratic processes. The Comitiae at Rome in voting may have been massively skewed in favour of the wealthy and powerful, and the Senate may generally have been able to carry through its wishes, but the reality is that the Populus ultimately carried the authority and their say was absolute. The Tribunes, representatives of the plebeians, were sacrosanct while in office, and, as was shown by Tiberius Gracchus, were able to paralyse all commercial and political life at Rome (remember it required assassination to remove him and later his brother). Demagogues such as Julius Caesar were able to bypass the Senate and use their persuasive skills on the people to carry through their plans. (Again, it required assassination to remove the threat of Caesar – the question of whether he was preparing to seize full power permanently as Emperor or was trying to save the Res Publica from the oligarchs or the violent insurgents such as Lucius Sergius Catalina is beyond the scope here). Are there such examples in modern democracies? Perhaps not quite as obviously due to the layers upon layers of bureaucracy which wreathe the modern governments, but political scandals and evidence of political corruption are easy to find simply by examining the media. The question of exactly what the gathered populace should be told finds examples galore in both the Classical examples; today, though the question is slightly different through the concepts of purportedly biased media which support a certain political viewpoint and whether certain things said by politicians and the media are mistakes, misinterpretations, manipulation, downright lies or the new all encompassing phrase of “Alternative Facts” remains a major point of contention in the modern democracies, particularly in the UK, France and the USA at the moment.
Can any of the democracies be trusted and truly held up as examples of fair government? This is a question each individual must examine by weighing up the evidence from history and the examples seen today. Everything must be questioned to see whether it stands up to close scrutiny. What must be accepted is that NOTHING be simply taken at face value. In Classical Athens, the refusal to participate in the political life was regarded as among the most shameful of failings. Not playing one’s role was to reject the democracy and wherever the Demos did fall back and ignore their political rights arguably opened the way to the oligarchs and the tyrannies. There were faults in the democracy (cf Old Oligarch and his critique), and on occasions, the demagogues such as Kleon seemed more intent on unleashing the power of the okhlos (the mob) than in limiting the power of the people, especially where they had not been informed of all the truth. The fickleness of the Ekklesia is highlighted by Thucydides in the Melian massacre (V, 84–116) which demonstrates the extent to which power is abused by the emotionally charged assembled populace. Such an emotional campaign was arguably conducted by both sides in the UK Brexit referendum, the effects of which, be they negative or positive, are yet to be seen. Perhaps the best way to end this is in citing Churchill’s speech to the Commons on 11th November 1947:
“No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”