Dissecting Democracy: History of an Idea

by Alex Fusco

23 November 2016

Pavel Ševela / Wikimedia Commons.

The word ‘democracy’ is a linguistic chameleon. In certain circumstances, it can be used in conjunction with terms like Western, developed, liberal, capitalist to describe the Global North. Sometimes, it is used to refer to the ‘good’ Third World, the impoverished countries that behave themselves and hold elections. Occasionally, it is used to describe a destination that some of the world’s troubled nations are apparently travelling toward, but will never reach. Historically, it is closely tied to Ancient Greece. More recently, it has appeared in Eastern Europe, hand-in-hand with economic liberalism, to stamp totalitarianism into the dirt. Over the years, it has been exported, imposed, and re-interpreted across the globe, with varying levels of success.

But what does democracy really mean? What criteria must a country fulfil to be considered democratic? Who determines these criteria? Are they used consistently, or do they change depending on which country is being judged, and who is judging? What’s more, is the term merely an ideological device, used to deflect critique and legitimise the political status quo?

What’s in a word?

Like most words, democracy has no fixed definition. The word has its roots in Ancient Greece, but the beginnings of democracy as an idea are not so easy to identify. Scholars have suggested primitive forms of democracy existed in Egypt, Mesopotamia and India, among others. Given the lack of consensus over exactly what constitutes a democracy, it is of no surprise that identifying the place and era of its birth has proved difficult.

The etymology of the term provides a workable but incomplete definition; demos, often translated as “common people”, “citizens of the polis” or “populace”, and kratos meaning “rule” – thus the “rule of the people”. But complexities regarding how this rule could be put into practice, and precisely who constituted the people (i.e not women or slaves) mean that scrabbling around Ancient Athens for further explanation is futile.

Suffice to say, democracy could, and can, be distinguished from the rule of tyrants who impose their will by force. It involves some degree of discussion and compromise. If we take the fundamental purpose of politics as deciding the best way for a community, people or nation to live together, then democracy, by its loosest definition, is the discussion of an informed and engaged populace about its future.

Today, democracy is commonly understood as representative democracy, which requires free and fair elections in order to select individuals who will represent the various and varied views of the electorate. The notion of political representation and the idea of a mandate to govern merit essay-length discussions, which for the sake of brevity, I cannot enter into here. The imperfections of representative democracy in practice are just as widely debated – in a British context, the unelected House of Lords and the first-past-the-post electoral system spring to mind as particularly undemocratic institutions – but again, these topics merit a detailed analysis in their own right. To keep already complicated matters from spiralling out of control, I will situate the discussion within the relatively narrow confines of representative democracy.

Within this framework then, there are several key criteria that must be fulfilled in order for a country to legitimately qualify as democratic. Universal suffrage (again, for the sake of brevity, I will overlook the debate concerning voting age), free and fair elections and a free press would appear to be the base requirements for a democratic state. In a representative democracy, each and every citizen must be granted the right to vote. The vote has an inherently equalising effect; the vote of a poor man is of equal value to that of an aristocrat. The second criterion, that of free and fair elections, requires little further explanation; if the mechanism for casting and counting votes is fundamentally flawed, then results will be skewed and the entire process reduced to little more than a sham. Lastly, a free and independent media fulfil a vital role in a democratic state by shaping public discourse, challenging dominant narratives, holding the powerful to account and channelling dissent. In an era where public assembly is extremely limited, the media functions as a kind of shadow public space. If this outlet is compromised and public access to information restricted, then democracy is once more reduced to nothing more than an elaborate ruse. It is no coincidence that state control of media is one of the most ubiquitous symptoms of totalitarianism.

Biased Britain.

To describe Britain as a democracy in the early years of the 19th century would be fallacious to the point of absurdity. A survey in 1780 revealed that only 3% of the population – exclusively wealthy male landowners – had the right to vote. In 1832, Lord Grey, who was prime minister of Great Britain from 1830-1834, passed the Great Reform Act to enfranchise more of the population – or, in his own words, “to prevent the necessity of revolution.” This quote is telling. The views, ideas and opinions of the people were utterly irrelevant. The driving principle behind the reform was to placate, to offer a minimal degree of participation to a tiny minority in order to stave off the threat of substantial and meaningful social change. The act granted the vote to men who owned property with an annual value of £10 – excluding six out of seven adult males from the voting process. Even after two further Reform Acts (1867, 1884), the electorate consisted of less than one-fifth of the total population, and was made up entirely of men who owned their own home.

The first decades of the 20th century saw more voting reforms, notably the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which enfranchised women over the age of thirty and abolished virtually all property qualifications for men. The electorate was substantially widened, but franchise equality was still some way off – men could vote at 21 years of age, while women had to wait until they reached 30. Some men even qualified for a second vote through their university constituency.

It is worth noting at this point the partiality of the British press. Coverage of the First World War was marked by a willingness to publish propaganda as fact, exaggeration and outright invention of enemy misdeeds and acceptance of government censorship (legislated by the Defence of the Realm Act of 1918 which prevented publication of anything likely to affect morale). Newspaper ownership was highly concentrated, with a small clique of powerful men in control of the most widely-circulated titles- Lord Northcliffe, for example, owned The Times and the Daily Mail, and Lord Beaverbrook owned the Daily Express and London Evening Standard. Though it could be argued that the exceptional circumstances of war necessitated a temporary curtailment of press freedom, it is nonetheless patently obvious that at the turn of the twentieth century, the British press did not fulfil the basic democratic functions outlined in the first section.

After the 1918 Representation of the People Act, despite the absence of universal suffrage and lack of a free press, Britain proclaimed itself a democracy – a bold claim based on a favourable and relativist interpretation of the term, rather than the fulfilment of even the most basic criteria. Over the course of the next two decades, Britain came to define itself in opposition to the fascist dictatorships of Italy, Germany and Spain. The dominant narrative presented a scale that placed belligerent Fascist dictatorships at one end and democratic defenders of peace at the other. But, as the above analysis demonstrates, the democracy supposedly being defended was hollow. Britain was undoubtedly more democratic than the aforementioned trio of fascist states during this period. But the real question, one that all too often remained both unasked and unanswered, is whether being more democratic than Franco’s Spain, or Hitler’s Germany is a valid criterion to consider oneself a truly democratic state.

After the Second World War, democracy became central to the ensuing ideological battle. Alongside respect for human rights and the rule of law, it became a common factor that supposedly united the West against the absolute evil of Communist totalitarianism. The relativist interpretation of the term ‘democratic’ became fundamental in the self-definition of Western societies, and, in keeping with the spirit of the time, soon became dichotomous – ‘We are more democratic than them’ became ‘We are democratic. They are not.’ Rather than interrogate this polarised and ideologically driven categorisation, it was more convenient, on both a personal and political level, to merely accept it as true. The word shed its connotations of informed and engaged discussion and debate within a populace, and became used unthinkingly to describe the Western political status quo, and the inherently undemocratic institutions and power structures that underpin it.

Reform not revolt, please.

The role of the citizen within the democratic framework merits further attention. As I have previously mentioned, for large swathes of history, the primary focus of the elite has been on placating the masses, providing just enough reform to prevent revolution. The opinions of this great mass of humanity were of no interest whatsoever to the ruling class. The very idea of a citizen, of an individual who had an equal say in the running of the region in which they lived, was almost inconceivable. The masses were a source of labour, income (via taxes) and a pool from which to draw a fighting force. Aside from these concerns, and providing they did not threaten the interests and privileges of the established elite, they were utterly irrelevant.

Over the course of the twentieth century, however, the mechanics of the machine changed somewhat. The concept of a citizen as an informed and engaged individual was still a pipe-dream but the divine right of kings, lecture from on high, rule-by-dictate model had become untenable. Over the course of the previous century, it had become increasingly apparent that democratic participation in the form of elections would be the price that the elite would have to pay to prevent the necessity of revolution. Accordingly, as I have already discussed, the franchise was extended in 1918, and again a decade later, as the Equal Franchise Act lowered the voting age for women to 21, the same as for men. In 1970, this was lowered to 18 for both sexes. Educational reforms significantly improved literacy rates, and superficially at least, could be seen as a step toward developing an informed and educated populace. Despite these progressive developments, however, the rigid hierarchies and restrictive social mores that characterised post-war Britain could still be relied upon to ensure a compliant populace that would not substantially threaten the status quo.

In the post-war period, belief in institutions, both political and religious, was far stronger than it is today. Party membership was high, and electoral turnout unparalleled -in the 1951 elections, an 83% of the electorate voted. The tight discipline and rigid hierarchy of the armed forces spilled over into civilian life; the relationship between the individual and the state was one of obedience and respect. Additionally, the recent memory of the war was invoked in order to portray those who voiced criticisms of British institutions (such as the monarchy) and political practices as traitors to their country – a common tactic for deflecting criticism of the state.

Thus, individuals were granted the vote, but denied the role of citizen. Subsequent political debate took place within strictly demarcated boundaries – Labour vs Conservative, Left vs Right – while the wider critique of the truly democratic nature of the state were largely ignored.

Rather than ushering in a new era of democracy, the extension of the franchise merely changed the nature of the game. Having symbolically handed power to the people, it would be of the utmost importance for the established elite to ensure the people would wield this power responsibly. By responsibly, I mean (of course) in a manner that would not threaten their own interests. Seeing as the traditional enforce-will-via-force model had, in the main, become anachronistic, it became necessary to develop and put into practice a new method of societal control, based on persuasion and coercion rather than outright intimidation.

Subsequently, the mass media became increasingly important in the propagation of messages and values and the careful sculpting of public discourse. Two basic premises were established, the rocks on which the entire necessary illusion rested; one, the country was indeed democratic and power resided firmly with the people, and two, the only way to enact change would be to interact with this democratic system – in other words, to vote or stand for election. If these premises held, then the power of the people could be adequately curtailed.

State of a nation.

One would conclude that the premises outlined in the previous section have indeed held. We typically consider Britain a democratic state. The dominant narrative constantly affirms that political engagement means voting, which of course is the only way to enact change. The intricacies of the machine are rarely, if ever, discussed. Certain aspects have scarcely developed since the turn of the last century – ownership of the mass-media, for example, is still highly concentrated. Peculiarities (read: democratic obstacles) such as the House of Lords are still in place. Political debate is still confined to Left vs Right, Labour vs Conservative. The red pill or the blue pill. Those who don’t swallow this charade are left with very few options; representation in the political domain is heavily skewed against anything that poses a threat to the status quo, and protest is either demonised (see the student demonstrations of 2010) or futile (the march against the Iraq War in 2003).

The recent omnishambles that was the EU referendum aptly illustrates the democratic farce. Firstly, a referendum is presented as an exercise in democracy. The people are asked their opinion on a given subject matter. The reality – that the decision to hold a referendum on this particular matter was taken by a tiny elite, and the opinion of the people was limited to simple yes or no, remain or leave – scarcely merits discussion. Here we see the mechanics of power; an issue will only be put to the people if there is sufficient opposition among the elite. If calls to leave the EU had emanated from a fringe group, or even an opposition party, we can be sure a referendum would never have taken place. Were we asked, for example, whether we should go to war in Iraq? Were the opinions of the people sought when student fees were increased? When we decided to bombard Syria?

Secondly, the referendum campaign itself was a parody of political debate, conducted amidst a media feeding frenzy, punctuated by moments of such ludicrous mendacity that shocked even those who build their careers upon professional dishonesty. Here we must return to the idea of an engaged and informed citizenry. Can we legitimately claim that the people of Britain were informed about the intricacies of the debate, about what EU membership entailed given that they have spent the past decade being subjected to a barrage of disinformation and distorted coverage? What is the point of holding a plebiscite if the wider structures that inform public opinion and shape public discourse are so emphatically partisan?

Thirdly, by some strange irony, the topic of democracy became a key site of discussion. The question was whether the United Kingdom is more democratic than the European Union. As I pointed out earlier, such comparisons are wholly redundant when one considers the fact that neither could conceivably be described as democratic in any meaningful sense. Rather than bemoaning the democratic nature of a bloc of countries to whom we formerly belonged, should we not have been debating the democratic nature of our own country? Does the presence of the infamous democratic deficit in Brussels mitigate the presence of a democratic deficit in the United Kingdom?

It would appear, then, that in public discourse democracy has become an empty signifier, a word devoid of meaning, used uncritically to refer to the Western political status quo. Instead of internalising and reflecting this empty label, it is essential that we challenge the hegemonic discourse and the established elite responsible for its promulgation. Instead of merely smiling and affirming that we live in a democratic state we must challenge that state to drop the charade and deliver real democracy, in which an engaged, informed citizenry will debate its own future.


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