‘Democracy’ may be one of the most used terms in political discourse. Some see it as the light at the end of a long dark period of human history, others see it as degenerative, and still others see it as not progressive enough. But do we really know the concept we use, praise, and criticize so easily? Can we even say with any certainty that we live in a democracy? Like most political concepts, democracy has no clear-cut, universal definition. It is helpful, then, to look at its ancient origins.
Definition and its main problems
The term ‘democracy’ originates from the Greek words Demos (meaning people/populace) and Kratos (meaning power/authority/rule), taken together as ‘people rule’. This means that a legitimate democracy must fulfill the criteria of the people holding power. When we say today that ‘we live in a democracy,’ what we mean to say is that ‘we live in a representative democracy’. We use these two terms interchangeably, without even a second thought. Are we really right in doing so?
Almost all democracies (e.g. UK, US, France, India, Sweden etc.) today function as some type of representative democracy. Representatives in this form of democracy refer to the elected officials that represent the people of a territory, land, or country.
Representative democracy deviates from the Greek definition in three important ways:
1. The rulers (demos/people) are not able to take direct political action. After a government is elected, the people have little to no influence on politics until the next elections. We say that these politicians ‘serve’ the people, but is that really the case when their ‘masters’ cannot fire them or prevent any of their actions?
2. Within the electoral system, voters become mere spectators in a process where they are presented with policies to choose from – A or B (or A or B or C…). People have no institutions or avenues to put forward other, unique and radical ideas. There may exist an option X that suits the desires of the vast majority, but since there are no formal institutions or avenues to present these ideas, most people would not even know that such an option exists. And even if people found a magical option X, they would still have to choose from the policies – A, B, or C….
3. The opinions and policies presented by our representatives do not exist in a vacuum. Behind them exists the great institution of mass media, which shapes, molds, and creates perspectives, beliefs, and opinions. For instance, news channels can change our perspective simply by cherry-picking the stories and statistical data that is televised. This is not something unknown, news channels from all across the political spectrum cherry-pick their facts to reinforce their specific ideology. This is a problem in and of itself, but at least we can sift through multiple options to gain all the various perspectives. The problem becomes severe when one recognizes that this lack of objectivity is woven in the very fabric of the media-industrial complex. Advertisement represents one of these structural filters that prevents objective journalism. The Daily Herald was an English working class paper with more than 4.5 million readers (double the readership of The Times, the Financial Times and the Guardian combined at the time) that was ‘strangled’ by the lack of advertiser support. Although it was The Daily Herald that the majority preferred, it was the other newspapers that became major successes. Why was this the case? Simply because the core, anti-consumerist, anti-capitalist, audience of The Daily Herald was of no financial interest to the advertisers. The ideas and perspectives provided by the newspaper vanished in thin air. One does not need to support these ideas to understand the undemocratic nature of the mass media we consume.
Can we really, then, call our current system a democracy, a ‘demos (people )-kratos (rule),’ when the people have little to no direct influence on politics, are constrained by a limited amount of policy options, have no avenues to put forward new ideas, and are surrounded by an unobjective mass-media industry?
A Different form of Democracy: The Athenian democratic system
Representative democracy is not some immutable force, unwavering in the face of history. The first democracy (originating in Athens) was practiced in quite a different form than is seen today. Before anything, I should put a disclaimer – Athenian democracy was not perfect. It was not a perfect democracy for the simple reason that it excluded a big part of its population to participate in its political system – women and slaves. However, this was not a fundamental feature of its political system, it simply represented the cultural values of Athens at the time. Its main institutions, on the other hand, resolved many of the problems discussed above. The Assembly (Ekklesia, ἐκκλησία), for instance, was the regular gathering of ‘male’ Athenian citizens, to listen to, discuss, and vote on decrees that affected every aspect of Athenian life. In the Assembly each citizen of Athens could speak, regardless of his station. They were even paid for attending the Assembly to ensure that the poor could afford to take part as well. The Assembly gave the people more control and power than most of our institutions do today. Athenian citizens had a direct influence on politics. They had the power to vote for laws directly and had a formal political platform to discuss new and unique ideas. Even the full time government of Athens, represented by the Council of 500, was chosen by a lottery in which anyone who was a male citizen could enter. It would be easier for them to also shrug off the influence of mass media if it existed since they had an institution to discuss ideas and current events with people from different backgrounds and perspectives. Therefore, we can say that the core processes and institutions of Athenian democracy adhered to the concept of ‘people rule’/’Demos-Kratos’) more than the representative democracies we see today.
I acknowledge the various implementation issues of such a system. For instance, a typical meeting of the Assembly contained around 6,000 people; it is unclear then how such a system can function in highly populated metropolitan cities found today. My aim is not to endorse the Athenian democratic system but simply to highlight the important role of history in the discussion of contentious concepts such as democracy. The example of Athenian democracy provides constructive criticism and a way forward for democracy’s supporters. It also sheds light on the various facets of democracy for democracy’s critics.
By Aryan Jain
Photo: Ola Kucha