Democracy: past, present & future

John Keane

Democracy commonly refers to a type of political system in which the people or their representatives lawfully govern themselves, rather than being governed, say, by a military dictatorship, totalitarian party or monarch.

In recent decades, democracy in this sense has enjoyed unprecedented popularity. Democracy has become one of those English words - along with computer and OK - familiar to many millions of people around the world. Some observers speak of a global victory for democracy or claim that democracy is now a universal good.

Yet what the word means and whether and why democracy is to be preferred over its rivals continues to be disputed. Opinions remain divided about whether actually existing democracies like the United States or Britain or India or Argentina live up to their democratic ideals. These ideals are also controversial.

The most common disagreement is between the advocates of 'participatory' or 'direct' democracy, understood as the participation of all citizens in decisions that affect their lives, for instance by voting and accepting a majority verdict; and those who favour 'indirect' or 'representative' democracy, a method of governing in which people choose (through voting and the public expression of their opinions) representatives who decide things on their behalf.

"The custom of popular self-government was born of the 'East', of peoples and lands that geographically correspond to contemporary Iraq and Iran."

The beginning of wisdom in such disputes is to see that democracy, like all other human inventions, has a history. Democratic values and institutions are never set in stone; even the meaning of democracy changes through time.

During its first historical phase, which began in ancient Mesopotamia (c. 2,500 BCE) and stretched through classical Greece and Rome to the rise and maturation of Islamic civilization around 950 CE, democracy was associated with the creation and diffusion of public assemblies. During these centuries, nobody knows who invented the term or exactly where and when the word 'democracy' was first used.

It is commonly thought that it is of classical Greek origin, but new research shows that the feminine noun dçmokratia (meaning the rule of the people: from dçmos, 'the people', and kratein, 'to rule') has much older roots. It is traceable to the Linear B script of the Mycenaean period, seven to ten centuries earlier, to the late Bronze Age civilization (c. 1500-1200 BCE) that was centred on Mycenae and other urban settlements of the Peloponnese.

Exactly how and when the Mycenaeans invented terms like damos (a group of people who hold land in common) and damokoi (an official linked to the damos) is unclear, but it is probable that the family of terms we use today when speaking of democracy have Eastern origins, for instance in the ancient Sumerian references to the dumu, the 'inhabitants' or 'sons' or 'children' of a geographic place.

The uncertainty surrounding the origins of the language of democracy is tempered by the discovery by contemporary archaeologists that the practice of self-governing assemblies is not a Greek invention. The custom of popular self-government was born of the 'East', of peoples and lands that geographically correspond to contemporary Iraq and Iran.

Assemblies were later transplanted eastwards, towards the Indian sub-continent; they travelled westwards as well, first to city states like Byblos and Sidon, then to Athens, where during the fifth century BCE they were claimed as something unique to the West, as a sign of its superiority over the 'barbarism' of the East.

By the 5th century BCE, in Athens and scores of other Greek city states, democracy meant self-government through an assembly of equal male citizens who gathered in a marketplace or town district for the purpose of discussing some matter, putting different opinions to the vote and deciding, often by a majority of raised hands, what course of action was to be taken.

According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE), democracy was self-government among equals, who rule and are ruled in turn. Democracy was the lawful rule of an assembly of male citizens - women, slaves and foreigners were normally excluded - whose sovereign power to decide things was no longer to be given over to imaginary gods, or an aristocracy, or to bloodthirsty tyrants.

So understood, democracy implied that within the political order questions concerning who gets what, when and how should remain permanently open. That in turn required certain political customs and institutions. These included written laws, the payment of elected officials, the freedom to speak in public, voting machines, voting by lot, and trial before elected or selected juries.

It also required efforts to stop bossy leaders in their tracks by using such peaceful methods as limited terms of office and - in an age yet without political parties, or recall and impeachment procedures - the ostracism of demagogues from the assembly by majority vote.

The first phase of democracy also saw the earliest experiments in creating second chambers (called damiorgoi in some Greek city states) and confederations of democratic governments co-ordinated through a joint assembly called a myrioi, as proposed by the Arcadians during the 360s BCE.

Towards the close of its first phase, the democratic tradition was enriched by contributions from the Islamic world. It was responsible for the spread of a culture of printing and efforts to cultivate self-governing associations, such as endowment societies (the waqf) and the mosque and, in the field of economic life, partnerships that were legally independent of rulers.

Islam also cultivated the defence of shared virtues like toleration, mutual respect among sceptics and believers in the sacred, and the duty of rulers to respect others' interpretations of life.

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