For more on the world history of democracy, see the World History of Democracy site.
Until very recent times, there have been no successful attempts, and few unsuccessful ones, to extend democratic forms of government to extensive human communities. If democracy means competitive elections on a "national" level, there has been little democracy in world history.
But is this all there is to democracy?
If we take the experience of individuals seriously, we quickly realize that the vast majority of all political events are local. It is on the local level that most collective action is taken, most of the constructive work of the world has been and still is done, and most of the conflicts of interest take place. How politics works on that level is extremely important. And when we look at local politics, worldwide, we find that democratic procedures and substantive democratic results are quite common.
This is a subject more often studied anthropologists than historians, and so we must turn mainly to anthropological literature to survey local government. When we do so, we find that most human government has been a matter of councils and assemblies.1 These councils and assemblies have often incorporated a large proportion of the community and used a degree of democratic procedure suprising to most students of government. Anthropological and historical data taken together shows that humanity possesses a long history of government by discussion, in which groups of people sharing common interests make decisions that affect their lives through debate, consultation, and (often enough) voting. And if we broaden our view of politics to include not simply geographic communities but also religious and voluntary self-help organizations -- as De Tocqueville did when evaluating democracy in the early American republic -- we find a world full of quasi-democratic institutions.
Using the term "quasi-democratic" may appear to beg several important questions. We've used it here because we are making no extravagant claims. Sweeping claims have been made in the past for the essential democracy or goodness of various human groups -- noble savages, noble peasants, noble townsfolk. It has been said more than once that the original folkways of this or that people amounted to a perfect or true democracy, or at the least a type of democracy as good as or better than that found anywhere in modern times. If we compare the actual workings of local communities to these extravagant claims, we find that they always fall short, simply because those making the claims are using the language of utopia. We do not deny that wealth, age, inherited status and male privilege exist in many local societies, even those offered here as examples of democratic practice. We are not here to make another hopeless utopian argument, we are simply asserting the existence of a phenomenon which has widely been denied -- the use of democratic procedures in cultures around the world, and at various points in time. These institutions have their limitations, of course, and we will discuss those limitations in due course. But first some of our readers will want to be convinced that such institutions exist.
Many examples of this kind of organization can be found among the natives of North America. But, since these peoples are relatively well-known and books about them are easily available, allow us to cite another people among which the combination of clan allegiance and the elective principle common in wandering communities can be seen: the Blue Miao (Hmong Njua) of south China and Southeast Asia. These people are shifting cultivators. All Miao share a sense of ethnic and cultural identity, but their working political institutions are small, no larger than the village or a small group of villages. The villages themselves are impermanent, breaking up and reforming constantly as families migrate.2
More permanent than the villages are the clans. Each Miao is a member of one from birth. As households move through the dispersed Miao environment, clan membership gives the migrants, wherever they may settle, the right to expect help and fellowship from other members of their clan. There is no obvious coercive mechanism to force cooperation -- community within the clan is a religious obligation and a common-sense, practical necessity. Decision making within those groups is "by consensus," since there is no way of tying down a household in an unfriendly clan environment.
Most Miao villages contain members from several clans, and when the village as a whole must cooperate they do it through shamans and elected headmen. Shamans are religious specialists and they gain leadership by convincing others of their spiritual powers. Secular leadership, though sometimes held by shamans, is a more practical matter. The big issues that can tear apart a Miao village are those that bring clans into conflict with each other, especially matters relating to clan membership. Someone must arbitrate disputes over paternity and marriage. That responsibility is held by an active man in the locally predominant clan who is highly regarded by the village as a whole. He is chosen by consensus and holds his position as long as he gives general satisfaction. He has no coercive power, and so his decisions must be cobbled together with the concurrence of ad hoc village assemblies or juries, which are attended by anyone who concerned in the matter at hand. When he loses the respect of his neighbors, he either loses office, or the village disperses.
To modern eyes, the "democracy" of the Blue Miao or Hmong Njua looks like a very crude thing. For one thing, there are many seemingly arbitrary constraints on the individual. Tribe and clan membership and its attendant religious and social obligations are foreign notions to most of us -- until we reflect that we, too, are usually stuck with the families we are born with, cannot easily change citizenship (unless perhaps we marry into a new "national identity") and have a variety of social obligations, including religious affiliations, that are shucked off only at some cost.
Another feature of these societies that will be repugnant to some of our readers is the role of the feud in settling disputes. It is a long-standing ideal of large-scale, modern polities that no one should be the judge in his own case, and that an impartial representative of the highest social authority (the Sovereign or State) should enforce peace and protect property. That such a sovereign authority is actually impartial is, however, a social myth. We invest judicial power in state officials because it seems the most practical way of guaranteeing both peace and fairness. In many countries that pass as democracies on other criteria, the justice system has no democratic elements in it, and derives its legal powers from a purely monarchical tradition. Enforcement of the peace through feud is likewise imperfect, but given the environment, not necessarily more imperfect or arbitrary than the peacekeeping methods that exist in industrialized countries.
Finally, the lack of organized elections and formal voting may seem to be a fatal weakness in any claim that these polities are democratic. Certainly the idea of secret balloting was devised to avoid common problems that exist even in these small polities -- the tendency of social pressure to restrict the individual dissenter from expressing disagreement. In principle, formal voting and the secret ballot would be as useful in this context as in any other. But their usual absence is easily accounted for when we realize that there is no mechanism to enforce assembly decisions save the will and actions of the members, and of those who agree to abide by those decisions. Decisions must be made unanimously, or as nearly unanimously as possible. Thus formal, counted votes are very seldom needed. Anyone with committee experience knows that a perfectly acceptable and fair decision can be hashed out in such a small group without a formal vote -- and also knows that this informality can be abused.
The loose, impermanent polities of pastoralists and shifting cultivators are governed by rules that include both choice and lack of choice. When all is said, they provide, in the environment in which they are situated, a great deal of choice -- more often than not, government by consent.
However, any close investigation of agricultural villages will reveal that important democratic elements often exist within them. Let us take pre-communist China as our example. Although China has experienced long periods of rule by a vast bureaucratic empire, under most emperors the ordinary people of China have had a firm network of local institutions which administered local affairs and protected them from the worst predations of the central authorities. Some of these local institutions embodied a considerable degree of democratic practice.
The key functions of local government were performed by village temples and ancestor halls. The latter were the organizational expression of the extensive and often powerful clans, which acted as a social support system for their member families. The property accumulated by the halls paid not only for the ritual veneration of the clan founders, but for such benefits as regular food distribution to the member families and, if a clan was prosperous enough, the education of its children. The halls varied in political structure but commonly had an executive council of twelve officers, elected annually from among and by all adult males. Liang Yu-Kao's account, written in 1915, does not suggest a passive electorate: "clan politics causes great commotion in the village."3
Because the benefits provided by the ancestral hall were restricted to a certain group, the village temple exercised many important functions on behalf of the entire community: policing; the maintenance of roads, canals, and landing-places; schooling if the clans were not providing this service; public relief work; and the provision of an annual festival, including theatrical or operatic performances. These functions, and the property that provided temple income, were administered by selectmen chosen annually by rotation from male householders, who acted on the advice of an informally chosen body of respected elders and educated men.4
In parts of China where clan and temple organization was weak, other cooperative organizations filled the gap. The villages of Shandong in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are better documented than most. Here important local business, such as watching the crops, enforcing internal law and order, defending the village from bandits, and running the local school, was done through village councils and other collective, and often purely voluntary, bodies. 5
Decision-making was very informal. The real local leaders were men who were respected for their talents, character, and importance in local society. The sole elected official, a zhuangzhang elected at the insistence of outside authorities to implement their orders, had to negotiate with the recognized village leaders if he hoped to get government orders implemented. These "lay leaders," to use Yang's term, had no coercive power -- their private leadership derived from their ability to influence others through public or private discussions, or their acknowledged role as heads of families.
The clans, the temples and the other councils and committees found in Chinese villages would fail any test of ideal democracy. Some observers have described them as suffocatingly conservative, the tools of a "village aristocracy" of age and wealth; 6but they have equally been seen as the manifestation of "the genius of the Chinese for combination." 7 In either case, they were the key to accomplishing any task relating to the common good, and they worked through discussion and consultation rather than through coercion or dependence on the power of the outside authorities. The concrete, local experience of self-government by the Chinese people has been considerable.
There is nothing exceptional in the village self-government of traditional China. An exhausting if not exhaustive list of examples could be placed before the reader, but a brief survey of two more settled agricultural societies should suffice to make the point.
One example is the Aguinyi "clan" of the Ibo in southeastern Nigeria. The Aguinyi "clan" is actually a federation of seven autonomous towns. Each town (perhaps township is a better word) is made up of several villages, while the villages are broken down into wards and extended families. Although the Aguinyi have been subject and paid taxes to various superior governments in the past century, a great deal of practical activity has been done by their own autonomous institutions. The Aguinyi have administered basic law and order, built and repaired roads, and run scholarship schemes for their children through a nesting series of assemblies and councils. The right and obligation of the individual person to take part in the business of the community is a very strong strong part of their tradition, and has religious sanction. The Aguinyi Ibo believe that everyone has chi, a personal fate or destiny that gives the person the strength to stand up for his or her own views, even when they are not popular.8
It is common to think of Africa as a continent without democratic experience; but the Aguinyi Ibo are far from being unique in using democratic techniques routinely to manage their common affairs on the local level.9
Our last example of village democratic institutions is New England. The villages of New England have such an important place in the scholarship and folklore of democratic history that it is easy to forget that their situation was not so different from that of other villages throughout history. Colonial New Englanders were not in law or theory "independent." They were subject to an imperial government, if a distant one, and needed some degree of indulgence or recognition from that government if their institutions and practical autonomy were to survive. However self-contained economically they may seem to us, access to foreign trade was necessary to acquire all the things that the villagers valued.
The settlers brought with them to New England certain advantages, most notably a tradition that government was authorized and limited by written documents accessible to all: both civil charters and religious scriptures. But the local religious and village institutions that provided the roots of the system are very similar to those found in many other times and places: the early Massachusetts settlements had, on the ecclesiastical side, elected pastors and elders responsible, at least in theory, to the congregation, and on the civil side, elected officers responsible to a town meeting of all landowners. Scholarly investigation of colonial New England has shown that the push for democratization in that society owed more to the demands of a large number of free landowners to be taken seriously in common affairs, especially practical village affairs, than it owed to the Congregationalist theories of the colonial elite.10
Such groups -- including religious congregations, resource management cooperatives, labor unions and financial institutions -- meet important common needs for those involved in them, and the way they are run has much to do with the way power is exercised in the greater society of which they are a part. If bodies of this sort are inclusive and have important democratic elements in their governance, or if new groups can be formed easily by interested parties, there results a freer, more open society than if key resources are dominated by a small group or the officials of a distant central authority.
We have mentioned religious bodies more than once as the site of democratic practice in local communities. Religious institutions are always a political factor, even a political battleground. Religion is the rallying point for all sorts of practical enterprises. Under its umbrella, people have always gathered to share the wealth and protect vital resources. Precisely how religious authority is used and where it is allocated in a given community, are among that community's most important characteristics.
The historical record suggests that theological beliefs do not determine in any unambiguous way the power structure of religious institutions. If we take the example of Christianity, we see a number of churches and institutions whose beliefs about the nature of God and his commandments to humanity have been identical, or nearly so, but whose internal workings have varied from democratic decision making through direct participation or elected representatives, to a theoretically absolute papal monarchy. Whatever Christian denomination we may examine, control of local parishes, congregations, monasteries, and lay fraternities has been of great interest to ordinary Christians, who have often insisted on democratic control of the institutions closest to them. This is most obvious in the Protestant tradition, but is hardly restricted to it. Comparable elements can be found in other religious traditions.11
Similarly neglected in many discussions of local government are resource management cooperatives. In many parts of the world, irrigation water, pasturage, or fishing grounds are the vital resource, and their proper management determines whether farmers and fishers will be able to use them in a reasonably sustainable fashion. In some cases, control of a vital resource is within the grasp of a single village, and the institutions of resource management are more or less identical to the institutions of village government.12
Elsewhere the need to manage larger resource pools has created representative quasi-democratic bodies to coordinate efforts over a larger area. Elinor Ostrom's studies of the problem of resource management have shown that it is precisely where people have been able to construct autonomous institutions responsible to a community of users that resource pools are used well. 13
In the Valencia region of Spain, for instance, officials elected by owners of irrigated land have been able to maintain a stable economic and agricultural situation in difficult conditions for at least 550 years, and perhaps as long as a millenium.14 It has been suggested that the basic roots of Dutch republicanism can be found in local instutions for dike management.15
Finally, human history is full of voluntary economic arrangements between individuals or families. These include both labor unions and partnerships between owners of businesses, which in principle are not so different, in our view, as they are usually presented to be. They both involve the pooling of the resources of individuals and some kind of collective management of those resources.
Rather than explore these phenomena in detail at this moment, we refer the reader to Jane Jacobs' recent discussion of "penny banks." The significance of such things as penny banks is clear to anyone seriously concerned with effective development strategies. Jane Jacobs has praised them as a great invention with a tremendous potential for the extension of democracy in the economic sphere. 16
But it is clear that penny banks, like labor unions and commercial partnerships of all sorts are by no means new. Their "invention" or adoption are commonplace events in human history. The elaboration of institutions such as the limited stock company or the labor-union congress in recent times is indicative of the continuing usefulness of such cooperative institutions in modern times, but not of their essentially "modern" character.
We have done our best not to cook the books; a skeptical reader can easily find many more examples of quasi-democratic decision-making in the anthropological literature, and enough comparative material in historical literature to show that similar institutions have existed in the farther past.18
Our announced aim was to show that, on the basic level of human politics "democratic procedures and substantive democratic results are quite common," that government by discussion and consent is not restricted to a single era or a single culture. A certain practical democratic impulse has emerged time and again to meet the practical necessities of social life. History shows, we believe, that democracy is not just a late-blooming theory with no roots in general human experience, but has roots in human nature and the realities of social life.
However, it is clear enough from our own brief survey, to say nothing of the rest of human history, that the democratic impulse is not the only human reaction to the problems of social order. Even in our best examples of democracy on the basic level, it is difficult if not impossible to find institutions that meet the demanding standards of modern democrats: the inclusion of all adult members of the community on the basis of equality (one person, one vote); and a commitment to the right of dissent and freedom of conscience.19
It cannot be argued that the assemblies, councils, elected officials and other democratic procedures found in our examples are the result of a general concern for human equality. Too many people are excluded from the decision-making processes to make this idea tenable. Leaving aside the exclusion of children, the position of women leaps to the eye. In the vast majority of local societies, women are restricted to an unequal role. There are a number of societies where women have their own councils with their own sphere of responsibilities; there are others in which women are included in assembly or council discussions of "women's matters;"20 there are even a few cases where women have a decisive role in choosing the (male) leaders of the community, who remain ultimately responsible to the women (the Iroquois).21 There are, however, few if any local societies where men and women 's voices and votes are treated exactly alike, and many where women have no formal voice at all.
Similarly, access to common institutions are often restricted to people of a certain rank or property, things that so often amount to the same thing.
The "democracy" on the local sphere emerges from a recognition that a substantial number of people (whether in a single compact community, in a fairly well-defined ecological district, or in the same economic plight) share certain interests, and that the only way to protect or promote those interests is through voluntary, or mostly voluntary cooperation. There is a pre-existing equality or near-equality of situation. Submission to a superior authority is neither desired nor practical. Neither is complete personal autonomy, because cooperation is necessary. In such situations, very similar institutions evolve.
A minimum of cooperation, and a maximum of personal (or household) autonomy characterizes all these institutions. Most of the "local quasi-democracies" are not governments in our all-embracing modern usage of the term. They are not authorities with sovereign powers, but special-interest groups brought into existence (at least initially) to meet specific needs. In some cases, the needs are so central to the life of a community that the association becomes identified with the whole community, and something we can reasonably designate as "local government" results. In other cases -- such as penny saving banks, or "old maids' homes" in traditional China -- the very limited competence of the "special interest group" is clearer. The similarity of institutional arrangements is a direct result of efforts by individuals (or the households or larger institutions they represent) to ensure a fair share in the essential decisions of the collective body.
The most democratic aspects of these local quasi-democracies arise from the insistence of equality by the individual members, which results not only out from pride or raw self-interest, but also and most importantly from certain cogent facts that other members must acknowledge if they are to attain their own goals. The undemocratic aspects of such associations arise from another very common situation: assuring that the interests of the members are protected often means that non-members with conflicting interests are ignored or even subjugated. New members of agricultural communities have no claim on certain scarce resources. Predominant quasi-democratic bodies exclude new people from membership for other reasons: church membership in 17th century New England, an important privilege, was not freely available to anyone who asked. Women and children in male-dominated households have seldom had a formal voice in local politics, whatever their informal role. Boundaries, which are necessary for any cooperative association, often harden into class or hereditary privilege, which gives certain members of an obviously interdependent whole a completely irresponsible mastery over others. How far this can go is well illustrated by the debates in the American Constitutional Convention of 1787, where Charles Coatsworth Pinckney of South Carolina argued "that property in slaves should not be exposed to danger under a Government instituted for the protection of property."22 Morally repugnant as this may seem from the point of view of students of democracy or "government by consent," the situation is a common one, and entirely understandable once we realize that democratic impulses grow originally out of practical, limited enterprises.
We shall argue later that perhaps the most important limitation on the democratic development of local communities and special interest groups is the attitude of outside overlords, actual and potential, and their ability to intervene in the life of such groups. Democracy has been assassinated more often than it has committed suicide. But honesty demands that any analysis of democratic roots acknowledge the problems of instituting it within any limited circle. We believe that human beings everywhere have an inborn capablity to cooperate in a democratic way. But such cooperation is hardly inevitable. Some social and material environments are more conducive to the evolution of democracy than others. If crucial resources can easily be controlled by a very small group of people, outsiders will be subjected by force, and the need for cooperative institutions even within the dominant group may not be pressing, and they may not develop at all. If crucial resources are very abundant, and cooperation is not needed to secure a reasonable share of them, then the degree of practical liberty enjoyed by individuals and families may not necessitate any but the most rudimentary common institutions -- though those which exist will often have a democratic feel to them, simply because the individual is strong.
It is in the middle range -- where crucial resources are hard to monopolize, but must be managed by a large number of stakeholders -- that formal and sophisticated democratic institutions may evolve, though again, there are no guarantees. And it is in such circumstances that political theorizing becomes more formal, too, and democratic practice -- even very imperfect democratic practice -- may give rise to democratic theory. When democratic theory develops, it becomes a political factor in itself.
In human history, democratic theory has arisen only on rare occasions. The most common environment that has produced such thought has been the independent city-state. It is here, in a geographically restricted but populous and economically diverse community, that democratic methods of resolving disputes and creating regulations have sometimes reached a systematic complexity seldom needed by smaller groups and communities. In such a city-state, democracy can become articulate.
2. W.R. Geddes, Migrants of the mountains: the cultural ecology of the Blue Miao (Hmong Njua) of Thailand (Oxford, 1976). Back to text.
3. Y.K. Liang and L.K. Tao, Village and Town Life in China (London, 1915), pp. 3-6. Back to text.
4.. Liang and Tao, pp. 32-41, especially 22-31. Compare Gary Seaman, Temple Organization in a Chinese Village (Taipei, 1978), pp. 63-70, 146, a case where the elections are rigged but the informal log-rolling behind all practical projects is real and effective. Back to text.
5. Arthur H. Smith, Village Life in China (1899; rpt. Boston, 1970); Martin C. Yang, A Chinese Village: Taitou, Shantung Province (New York, 1945). Yang provides an example of a voluntary organization in the main school of his home village. It had been founded by the Pan clan but was attended by children of all clans and run by a school council of all parents. "The council was a village-wide organization" (p. 144). Back to text.
6. Yang, A Chinese Village, pp. 240-241. Back to text.
7. Smith, Village Life in China, p. 102. Back to text.
8. Lambert U. Ejiofor, Dynamics of Igbo Democracy: A behavioural analysis of Igbo politics in Aguinyi Clan (Ibadan, 1981), esp. 34-85. Back to text.
9. E.g., Walter Goldshmidt, Sebei Law (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1967), pp. 163-7; Goldschmidt, Culture and Behavior of the Sebei: A study in continuity and adaptation (Berkeley, 1976), pp. 55-85. Back to text.
10. Perry Miller's Orthodoxy in Massachusetts 1630-1650 (1933; rpt. ed., Gloucester, Mass, 1965) thoroughly investigates the origins of English and New England Congregational theories of church government, and the efforts of leaders to control the democratic implications of those theories. See Sumner Chilton Powell, Puritan Village: The formation of a New England town (Middletown, Conn., 1963) for a detailed look at the democratic attitudes and style of government that emerged in one such village early on in the colonization of Massachusetts Bay. Powell's book has the added advantage of comparing early New England local institutions to the English ones known to the colonists. Back to text.
11. I must apologize to the reader for the lack of a proper reference to back up these assertions. They are derived from a lifetime of reading in the history of religious organizations by me, Steve Muhlberger. A proper note will follow. I am aware of important democratic elements in Christianity, Islam and Buddhism; each of these traditions also includes strongly autocratic elements. I hope also to post an essay on this subject on this web site in the near future. Back to text.
12. In the contemporary villages investigated by Robert Wade in Village Republics: Economic conditions for collective action in South India (Cambridge, 1988), it is precisely those villages with the most need for collective management of irrigation water that have built common institutions capable of being used for other purposes. Back to text.
13. Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The evolution of institutions for collective action (Cambridge, 1990), especially ch. 3. Ostrom provides the reader with examples of both village-level and regional-level institutions. Back to text.
14. Ostrom, pp. 69-76. Back to text.
15. Simon Schama, The Embarrasment of Riches: An interpretation of Dutch culture in the Golden Age (New York, 1987), pp. 40-1. For more detail see C. Dekker, "The Representation of the Freeholders in the Drainage Districts of Zeeland West of the Scheldt during the Middle Ages," Acta Historiae Neerrlandicae 8 (1975): 1-30. Back to text.
16. Jane Jacobs, Systems of Survival: A dialogue on the moral foundations of commerce and politics (New York, 1992), pp. ??. Back to text.
17. It is very difficult to find in most anthropological or historical material detailed descriptions of how small groups elect their officers or make other collective decisions. The vagueness and brevity of Ostrom's remarks on "collective-choice arrangements" (pp. 93-4) is absolutely typical. Back to text.
18. For local institutions in medieval western Europe, Susan Reynolds' Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900-1300 (Oxford, 1984), pp. 67-154. Note that Reynolds, in reaction perhaps to earlier medievalists enthusiastic about tracing democratic roots, denies that democratic impulses were behind such institutions. Back to text.
19. Though among the Aguinyi Igbo, according to Ejiofor, the concept of chi provides a basis for such a community commitment to these values: Dynamics of Igbo Democracy, pp. 106-7. Back to text.
20. E.g., for the role of women among the Sebei, see Goldschmidt, Sebei Law, p. 164 and n. 2. Back to text.
21. A clear description of how women had the initiative in clan government and an important part in running the tribe can be found in John A. Noon, Law and Government of the Grand River Iroquois (New York, 1949), pp. 36-40. Other books, including the classic work of Lewis Henry Morgan, League of the Ho-dé-no-sau-nee or Iroquois, 2 volumes (1901; reprint New York, 1966), 2: 219-20, tend to obscure the role of women by talking vaguely of their "influence." Back to text.
22. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, reported by James Madison (Athens, Ohio, 1966), pp. 278-219. In the very same year, another South Carolinan, James Lincoln, in opposing the adoption of the Constitution, did so in the name of upholding "democracy" against "aristocracy." (See Cecelia M. Kenyon, The Anti-federalists (Indianapolis, 1966), pp. 183-186.) This is one of the earliest positive uses of the word democracy in American political debate. Lincoln, however, did not feel obliged to disavow slavery. Back to text.
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