‘LONDONERS LINE STREETS TO HONOUR OFFICER KILLED DEFENDING DEMOCRACY’ (banner front page headline, London Evening Standard, Monday 10 April 2017: funeral of murdered PC Keith Palmer)


1. 2016

2016 was an extraordinary year for democracy – and Democracy: I, Paul Cartledge, published Democracy: A Life (OUP: NY & Oxford, March/April 2016) [see e.g. the review by R. Fuller https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/the-united-states-is-not-a-democracy/]; and the pseudonymous Bob A.N. Grypants  published F*** You, 2016 – an impassioned not to say intemperate response to the results of the June 23 UK-wide Brexit/Breferendum and to the November 8 US Presidential election. Hillary Clinton won the ‘popular vote’ by a mile, but now President Donald Trump won the Electoral College vote by an equally convincing margin, and in the US’s oligarchically inflected representative democracy Trump won a near-monarchical office. The UK Breferendum, by contrast, was decided on a one citizen-one vote basis, as if we lived under a direct not a representative democracy—as we in fact do not.

What follows is a commented summary of my book, of which a paperback reissue has just come out with a new Afterword.

2. What’s in a name?

i. ‘Democracy’ in English (and its many equivalents in all the world’s major languages) is derived ultimately from the ancient Greek (and more particularly ancient Athenian) word demokratia, itself a portmanteau combination of demos + kratos. But demokratia in ancient Greece was in both theory and practice nothing much like (any version of) modern western democracy.

ii. Theirs was Direct—Ours is/are Indirect/Representative/Parliamentary

iii. Theirs was (crudely) government by Mass Meeting—Ours is in principle and technically speaking government by Parliament (conditioned by party politics and cabinet government, not to mention a ‘constitutional’ monarchy).

iv. Election was considered oligarchic (i.e., un- or anti-democratic, favouring the elite few rich citizens) by ancient democrats, in whose eyes the lottery was the democratic way to fill most offices AND popular juries (since there was no notion of the separation of the powers of government—legislative, judicial and executive—an 18th-century invention). Note the protest of David van Reybrouck (below) against ‘electoral fundamentalism’.

3. Who were/are ‘the people’?

i. Ancient: Demos in ancient Greek = i. broadly/loosely/emotively ‘the People’ (as in Lincoln at Gettysburg, 1863: ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’) AND (very different in kind, a class model) ii. The masses/the poor majority (of the empowered (adult, male, free, legitimate) citizens, politai) of a polis (Athens though unusually large was just one out of c. 1000 in all Hellas), members of which were typically recruited by birth. The modal (most frequently occurring) size of an ancient Greek politeuma (citizen body) was on the order of 500-2000. Most were peasant farmers. Women were actively dis-empowered politically. Slaves and other unfree categories were taken for granted as being non-political.

ii. Modern: ‘The People’ in any modern ‘western’ democracy: more or less heterogeneous by ethnic origin/ethnicity, diverse by occupation, religious affiliation, (now) gender-identification etc etc

NB a. Ancient Greeks (pace Mrs Thatcher) did NOT invent (individual) ‘human rights’ (see Perry, below) but political/civic privileges/duties

b. Precisely because NOT homogeneous etc, we have political Parties to ‘represent’ diversity.

4. Evolution of Democracies

i. In ancient Greece, Aristotle (Politics) identified four sub-species of demokratia, in accordance with the degree to which the people meeting in assembly had total or less than total control. Perhaps one quarter (c. 250) of the poleis had, at one or other time between c. 500 and 300, a variety of demokratia, mostly of a less radical kind. Athens was an anomaly throughout: this was the city that invented demokratia in c. 500, had various forms of it, including the most radical (Aristotle called it ‘the last’, the ‘ultimate’ form) from 500-322 BCE, apart from two unnatural, oligarchic breaks (411-410, 404-403).

ii. Classical 5th/4th-century BCE demokratia did not die in ancient Greece – it was assassinated by a combination of Greek oligarchs (rich anti-democrats opposed on principle and in selfish material interest), with the aid of Macedonian and Roman conquerors: Macedonians were ruled by hereditary autocratic kings; Rome had a kind of modified popular rule (hence res publica, republic, literally ‘the People’s thing’) but did not recognise the fundamental Greek democratic principle of one citizen – one equal vote and so de facto the Roman Republic was an oligarchy ruling through the Senate with the formal approval of the People in various voting assemblies (NB: S comes before P in the nappy formula SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus). See G.E.M. de Ste. Croix The Class Struggle in the ancient Greek world: from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (London Duckworth 1981, corr. 1983)

iii. in the early modern/modern/contemporary West (c. 1500-present day), ‘democracy’ the word has been on the political agenda since the 1640s and 1650s, but in practice parliamentary democracy has evolved by fits and starts from the ‘Glorious’ Revolution (1688/9) via the American (1776) and French (1789) Revolutions to full adult suffrage democracy (not until 1928 in the UK) to …… our present condition of … ‘democratic deficit’/ ‘democratic fatigue syndrome’ (David van Reybrouck, Against Elections (2017); cf. Roslyn Fuller Beasts and Gods. How Democracy changed Its Meaning and lost Its Purpose (Zed Books, Chicago, 2015) (‘creeping crypto-oligarchy’); Michael J. Perry A Global Political Morality: Human Rights, Democracy, and Constitutionalism (CUP 2017) 47-8, citing Joshua Kurantzick Democracy in Retreat: The Revolt of the Middle Class and the Worldwide Decline of Representative Government (2013); Vincent Giret ‘Comment réenchanter la démocratie?’ Le monde 7 avril 2017 Cahier).


5. Is our (representative) democracy on the wane? It seems so… Here are 3 Main Points for further debate and discussion:

Point 1. How valid is the appeal to what is called ‘the will of the people’ in a modern representative as opposed to an ancient direct democracy? Who/What are ‘the People’? Can they possibly be usefully said to have a single will? What is the (f)actual basis of so-called ‘populism’? Consider

i. Popular Vote – the Referendum of June 23 2016: 72 per cent of the electorate voted; c. 52 per cent of those voting voted Leave, c. 48 per cent Remain, i.e. (only) c. 37 per cent of the total potential electorate voted Leave. A simple – very narrow – majority of those who did actually vote (on a simplistic Yes/No, no super-majority required) voted Leave. BUT the UK is not (only) not a unitary state (thanks to devolution) but nor is it a federal state. Northern Ireland and Scotland voted Remain – by larger majorities than the overall ‘Leave’ majority. London, Liverpool, Manchester—huge populations, crucial for national economics and culture—voted Remain within England.

ii. Legitimacy:
a. Legitimacy of (the notion of) ‘the people’ as a single unitary construct? None.

b. Legality? if the legal validity of the Brexit referendum were to be tested in a court of law, would it be deemed to be valid, given that the victorious Leave campaign was based on bogus factual claims and misleading or falsified evidence? Cf. the Turkish referendum of April 16 2017 which (also) merely asked from voters a crudely simplistic YES/NO.

Point 2. (related) referendums/plebiscites – as opposed to parliamentary elections

Referendums are direct democracy, first past the post. They cannot/should not be used/regarded as a substitute for normal, party-based parliamentary direct democracy nor even as a useful add-on EXCEPT under very strict conditions (age of voters, framing of question(s), simple vs super-majority, legal-political status of result—all such key matters should be debated and decided in Parliament well in advance of the holding of any referendum). Were ‘We the People’ asked whether we wanted the Brexit referendum—yes,  indirectly (Tory manifesto 2015), or were we consulted on its terms—obviously not? See my blogpost (NB published April 26, during the Referendum campaign): http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/referendums-ancient-and-modern

Point 3. the lottery: as an ancient democratic notion that is possibly compatible with (some features of) contemporary representative/indirect/parliamentary democracy

i. Ancient: see esp. Herodotus 3.80 (the ‘Persian Debate’). NB however that in practice—even in the most radical, Athenian practice—the lottery was not used to fill ALL offices. But it was used crucially to deliver the People’s justice/law/equity in the People’s Courts.

ii. Modern: Van Reybrouck, Against Elections: the Case for Democracy (Bodley Head 2106) [rev. Ben Margulies http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2016/10/20/book-review-against-elections-the-case-for-democracy-by-david-van-reybrouck/ ] was followed up by post-Referendum op-ed: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/29/why-elections-are-bad-for-democracy anti- ‘electoral fundamentalism’

6 Some suggestions for further listening/reading:

Paul Cartledge is G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture emeritus and Senior Research Fellow in Clare College, Cambridge. The paperback edition of his recent book Democracy: a Life (OUP: ISBN-13: 978-0198815136) is due out on 1st April.

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