Road to Democracy #
There has never been a golden age of politics, enlightened by bright and shining ideals. The statesmen of yesterday were the brawlers and thugs and grubs of their age. Our forefathers were bastards, our foremothers… well, the word clangs in the ear, because the ladies hardly got a look in. Politics then, as politics is now, was nasty, brutish and sure to disappoint.
In The Shortest History of Democracy, John Keane explored its beginnings in Syria-Mesopotamia - and not Athens - to its role in fomenting revolutionary fervour in France and America. Democracy has subverted fixed ways of deciding who should enjoy power and privilege, and why. For democracy encourages people to do something radical: to come together as equals, to determine their own lives and futures.
Keane traces its byzantine history, from the age of assembly democracy in Athens, to European-inspired electoral democracy and the birth of representative government, to our age of monitory democracy. He gives new reasons why democracy is a precious global ideal, and shows that as the world has come to be shaped by democracy, it has grown more worldly - American-style liberal democracy is giving way to regional varieties with a local character in places such as Taiwan, India, Senegal and South Africa.
In an age of cascading crises, we need the radical potential of democracy more than ever. Does it have a future, or will the demagogues and despots win? We are about to find out.
Sumerian contributions #
Hammurabi was likely the first one to recognise that a successful country needed fair laws that protected the weak from the powerful.
Cyrus the Great created the largest empire the world had seen called the Achaemenid Empire. He proclaimed what is believed to be the oldest known declaration of human rights, which was transcribed onto the Cyrus Cylinder. He established a government system working to the advantage and profit of all its people.
The Greeks #
It was ever thus, a pig circus from the moment the Athenians first gathered to sort out their differences by way of rhetoric rather than by sword and shield. But the Greek city-state’s radical experiment of devolving kratos (or power) to the demos (the people) was better than the alternative; arbitrary rule by strongmen, or warlords, or eventually by kings who were no more than the strongest warlord left standing when the last throat had been cut.
Solon, is generally credited with the introduction of Justice and Democracy to Athens. His esteemed authority has stood the test of time. Both Plato and Aristotle bow to his acknowledged authority in law. Juvenal simply refers to him as “eloquent Solon, the Just”.
The people of Athens, suffering under the capricious and arbitrary jurisdiction of aristocratic judges, wanted Solon to use his popularity and his power to make himself a tyrant. Solon, replied that “tyranny is indeed a very pleasant peak, but there is no way down from it”.
Solon ruled Athens for one year, expecting his reforms of wresting power from the aristocrats and vesting it in the lives of the people to last at least ten years. Five years later most of the power had aggregated back to the upper classes.
Three hundred years before Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Solonic authority decreed a fair and just society for all by establishing a system of government and justice that freed all members of the community from the oppression and injustice of the privileged, by freeing them from slavery due to their debts. In this he may have been influenced by Hammurabi.
Solon believed the family to be the foundation of society and ensured that family disputes were resolved fairly and equitable.
Pericles was born into the first generation able to use the new weapon of the popular vote against the old power of family politics. From his father, Pericles may have inherited a leaning toward the people, along with landed property.
Pericles spent heavily rebuilding the Greek temples destroyed by the Persians, the payment of sacrifices due to the gods for salvation, and the freedom of the seas. Sparta would not cooperate. In 447 work started on the Parthenon and on the gold and ivory statue of Athena (by Phidias), which it was to house; the Acropolis project was to include, among other things, a temple to Victory and the Propylaea (started 437), the entrance gateway, far grander and more expensive than any previous Greek secular building.
A plague, during the war against Sparta took a quarter of the population.
Pericles delivered a funeral speech over the fallen, preserving a way of life that he described in detail. Athenian life often fell short of this Periclean ideal, but he conceived it with clarity and made it generally recognized.
Pericles described democratic Athens as “the school of Hellas.” Among the city’s many exemplary qualities, he declared, was its constitution, which,
“favors the many instead of the few; this is why it is called a democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if to social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way; if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life.”
Aristotle discussed democracy in terms of comparative studies of political systems. The main notion of a “constitution, “which he defines as “an organization of offices, which all the citizens distribute among themselves, according to the power which different classes possess”.
“The best [government] is often unattainable, so we choose between that which is best in the abstract, but also with that which is best relatively to circumstances.”
Three kinds of ideal constitution—each of which describes a situation in which those who rule pursue the common good—and three corresponding kinds of perverted constitution—each of which describes a situation in which those who rule pursue narrow and selfish goals.
Thus “rule by one” is monarchy in its ideal form and tyranny in its perverted form; “rule by the few” is aristocracy in its ideal form and oligarchy in its perverted form; and “rule by the many” is “polity” in its ideal form and democracy in its perverted form.
“The basis of a democratic state is liberty,” Aristotle proposed a connection between the ideas of democracy and liberty that would be strongly emphasized by all later advocates of democracy.
Thus “rule by one” is monarchy in its ideal form and tyranny in its perverted form became the dominant form of government for most of history.
Plato was highly dissatisfied with the prevailing degenerating conditions in Athens. The Athenian democracy was on the verge of ruin and was ultimately responsible for Socrates’ death. Plato saw in justice the only remedy of saving Athens from decay and ruin, for nothing agitated him in contemporary affairs more than amateurishness, meddlesomeness and political selfishness which was rampant in Athens of his day in particular and in the entire Greek world in general. In additional, Sophistic teaching of the ethics of self-satisfaction resulted in the excessive individualism also induced the citizens to capture the office of the State for their own selfish purpose and eventually divided “Athens in to two hostile camps of rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed.
The Roman Empire made the most significant contributions to our Western Civilisation. Rome is called the Eternal city, because it is one of the longest established ruling centres of the world.
They give us a continuity of cultural constants in the experiences of life.
Their imperialism demonstrates our most enduring urges of dominance – power, greed ambition, desire and love. Yet its contributions to their subjected states were enormous and timeless. Remnants of Roman infrastructure endue in their roads, theatres, aqueducts and buildings in Spain, France, Britain Constantinople and in many other territories. While conquering Greece, they adopted and integrated many aspects of Greek culture including their Gods, succeeding because it was ethnically heterogeneous – not homogeneous.
They gave us the institutions of government – the senate, republicanism, the rule of law, Art and Architecture, a diverse multicultural and multi-state empires – virtues such as dignity, humanity, honesty. Their enduring legacy includes Latin, one of the contributors to the English language, the absolute primacy of law to maintain order and harmony.
The Roman Empire lasted some 2000 years giving us some salutary lessons on enduring cohesion and good governance. It gave us the model of integrating diverse people through tolerance and co-opting talent from across the empire. While the Romans certainly attempted to crush their conquered subjects when they failed to submit to their authority, they also attempted to integrate and assimilate the “barbarians”.
Even people at the periphery of the empire felt they were at the heart of the empire. Most young men from conquered territories were conscripted into the army to serve 25 years after which they became full Roman citizens with lifelong pensions.
Spain took 200 years to subdue, but eventually produced Seneca, born in Cordoba, a Stoic writer and advisor to the Emperor Nero. It also produced two emperors, Trajan and Hadrian. Constantine was born in Serbia.
The Emperor Caracella in 212 made all free men citizens, simply so he could broaden the tax base.
There were been two great political parties in Rome; —the senatorial party, which was made up of the nobles, (patricians) and. the democratic people (plebeians). The senatorial party was hated by the people. Julius Caesar became head of the democratic party. He was resolved to take the government of Rome out of the hands of the nobles and rule as King, representing the people.
With Augustus Caesar, Rome was run by hereditary Emperors, some more tyrannical than others.
When Rome fell in 479, Roman traditions continued in Byzantium for another 1000 years. Justinian reformed and codified the legal system used by most western civilisations.
Medieval Europe #
The Catholic Church continued its domination over the invaders as most professed a nominal Christianity. Popes became the virtual rulers of Europe until the rise of stronger principalities and city states like Florence, Milan and the Germanic states began to assert their interest in power.
There were many enlightened writers, priests and philosophers who continued the principles of civilisations, such as John of Salisbury who advocated for the justification of tyrannicide, for an unjust king who failed to reign for the common good.
The Magna Carta 1215 #
Upset by what they saw as King John’s unchecked powers, about 40 rebel barons confronted him with a list of demands, known as the Articles of the Barons, revised and turned into the Magna Carta — literally, the Great Charter.
Seeking to avoid a major conflict, the King affixed his seal to the agreement at Runnymede on June 15, 1215.
The right to justice and a fair trial was established as a basic, yet unprecedented, idea: that every free man is subject to the law, including the King.
“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions . . . except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land,” Article 39 of the text states.
The most important provisions have been interpreted as the basis for the right to justice and due process for all.
Article 40 then continues: “To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”
Tom Ginsburg, the University of Chicago, describes the document as the result of an “intra-elite struggle, in which the nobles were chiefly concerned about their own privileges”.
Only a few weeks after it was signed, King John appealed to Pope Innocent III to cancel the Magna Carta, which he promptly did. The Pope called the document “illegal, unjust, harmful to royal rights and shameful to the English people” and declared it “null, and void of all validity forever.”
Simon De Montfort #
Simon De Montfort’s Parliament (1265) was the first instance of a parliament in which representatives from towns and the shires were summoned together to discuss matters of national concern.
Wholly French by birth and education, Montfort revived the claim to the English earldom of Leicester. from his father’s mother, Amicia, He became close to King Henry III, one of the committee of 12 appointed to handle the acute crisis of 1244 between Henry and his angry barons.
In 1248 Henry asked Simon to pacify the English-held duchy of Gascony, in southwestern France.
Simon then governed England for one year, by calling representatives of both shires and boroughs to Parliament (1265) to counterbalance his lack of baronial support. Edward isolated Simon behind the Severn, destroyed the large army coming to his rescue, and trapped Simon’s little force at Evesham (Aug. 4, 1265), slaying Simon and most of his followers.
The most outstanding English personality of his day, Simon is remembered as an early advocate of a limited monarchy, ruling through elected councillors and responsible officials, and of parliaments including county knights and burgesses as well as the great nobles.
Simon de Montfort is likely the first martyr for democracy in England.
Richard III #
Richard III is seen by many historians as a man of the people who provided parks and social capital for his subjects, and was pious and fair. His major contribution was his enactment of fairer legal procedures. 1) Bail for anyone merely accused of a crime. 2. Protection from Arbitrary taxation, 3. Independent Juries, 4. Clear Land Titles.
For his legal reforms see: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/374984/richard_iiis_effect_on_us_laws_pg2_pg2.html?cat=37
The English Civil War 1640 - 49 #
Geoffrey Robertson’s paper, Ending Impunity: How International Criminal Law Can Put Tyrants on Trial tells the story of how Cromwell’s lawyers produced the first trial of a Head of State – that of Charles I. It traces the memorable career of John Cooke, the radical barrister and visionary social reformer who had the courage and intellect to devise a way to end the impunity of sovereigns, published in the 2005 Cornell Law Journal (issue 3, Volume 38).
The charge of high treason against the King Charles I read:
That he did engage in war against the commons of England in a wicked design to overthrow the rights and liberties of the people and that he did traitorously and maliciously levy a war against Parliament. He was a tyrant and a traitor to the people”.
Charles, refused to concede, claiming divine right; arguing that all authority came from God through 1000 years of heredity. “It is not for the King to be subject to the freedom of his peoples”.
We have no idea of his position after his head was detached from his body - an act of tyrannicide.
John Cooke #
Geoffrey Robertson claims, John Cooke was the first to assert the accused’s right to silence, the first to advocate legal aid, even a national health service, and other legal and social reforms that would become this country’s democratic hallmarks.
Following the death of Oliver Cromwell, with the Restoration of Charles II in 1661, in a new court, John Cooke was tried and found guilty of high treason for his part in the 1649 trial of King Charles I, even though as solicitor-general he was simply doing his job. John Cooke, with 8 more regicides, was hanged, drawn and quartered, his privates cut off on 16 October 1661 at Charing Cross.
Consent of the Governed #
John Locke’s (1690) fundamental principle, that the only legitimate form of government is that based on the consent of the governed. Men live “equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection,” perfectly free to act and to dispose of their possessions as they see fit.
A legitimate government, represents a social contract among those who have “consented to make one Community or Government…wherein the Majority have a right to act and conclude the rest.” No government is legitimate unless it enjoys the consent of the governed, and that consent cannot be rendered except through majority rule.
John Locke’s Two Treatises on Government (published in 1689), may be regarded as the foundation statement of the liberal principle that government must rest on the consent of the governed.
Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), may be credited with the most systematic exposition of the general economic benefit of leaving individuals alone to pursue their self-interest.
Liberalism based on the text On Liberty, the values of human dignity, freedom, and self-development provide the foundation for John Stuart Mill’s attack on existing social arrangements, and it is these values which underlie his sympathetic but ultimately skeptical analysis of what has become the great rival political theory to liberalism in the modern world, namely socialism.
Mill’s Chapters on Socialism constitute the first part of a projected book on the subject, which was left unfinished at his death. Partly for that reason, it has remained one of the less celebrated of Mill’s works, but it addresses from a different angle several of the issues raised by the other two books reprinted in this volume. Thus, the three take a particularly accessible and compact introduction to Mill’s remains distinctive and attractive as a political thinker.
Full representational democracy emerged during the 1800’s.
The lofty ideal was articulated best in the Gettysburg Address, a funeral oration by Abraham Lincoln for soldiers fighting the American Civil War:
..that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”.
The irony is that no such deserved tribute for martyrs of democracy through the ages exist, especially the Civil War of England of 1640 - 1688, or the French Revolution from 1789.
Doubts on Democracy #
Alexis de Tocqueville noted while in America in the early 19th century.
“If an administration is measured purely by what we now call “outcomes”, the dictator trumps the democrat every time”,
“The men who are entrusted with the direction of public affairs in the United States are frequently inferior, in both capacity and morality, to those whom an aristocracy would raise to power, American politicians may frequently be faithless and mistaken, “but they will never systematically adopt a line of conduct hostile to the majority”.
It is quite true, the most efficient form of government is an enlightened benevolent autocracy, but how do you ensure those adjectives.
Oscar Spengler, author of Decline of the West, 1918 presented a worldview that resonated with post-WWI German culture.
Spengler’s worldview also took a dim view of democracy as the type of government of the declining civilization. He argued that democracy is driven by money and therefore easily corruptible. Spengler initially supported the rise of a strong-willed leader type of government as the next phase after democracy fails.
Post WWI, totalitarian regimes gained stature with Mussolini’s rise of popular Fascism, Stalin’s rise and Hitler’s usurping of power after 1933. Many leading thinkers and leaders were seduced by the “efficiency” of autocratic rule, including, Heidegger, W.B. Yeats, King Edward VII.
Dystopias (opposite of utopias) enjoyed a spell with the birth of Science Fiction and include Brave New World (1931) by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell (1948) and the writings of Phillip K. Dick (1960) especially Blade Runner.
The second World War reinforced the supremacy of democratic nations over any for of autocracy, however, since the 1990’s, authoritarian populists around the globe had won one upset victory after another. They rose to power in South America, Asia, in the Philippines and the United States. And though Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte were at first mocked as incompetent leaders who would soon lose power, they have proved surprisingly shrewd at maintaining their popularity or concentrating power in their own hands.
Even the most democratic countries are not immune from usurping institutions which seize unentitled power through the abuse of language and power. Huxley, Orwell and many others have warned us that tyranny is seductive and lies just beneath the surface.
Joe Biden issued this warning: “This generation is going to be marked by the competition between democracies and autocracies,” “The autocrats are betting on democracy not being able to generate the kind of unity needed to make decisions to get in that race. We can’t afford to prove them right. We have to show the world—and, much more importantly, we have to show ourselves—that democracy works, that we can come together on the big things.” He ended with a typical Biden flourish: “It’s the United States of America, for God’s sake.”
Unresponsive and irresponsible liberal leaders foment apathy, which give oxygen to populous leaders like La Pen, Trump and others.