Is There a History of Democracy?

by Steve Muhlberger and Phil Paine

This is a draft for the intitial chapter of a world history of democracy. It is put out for comment, and all comments are welcome.

Since the mid-1980s, events have transformed the study of democracy from an academic specialty to a subject of great general interest. Scholars and non-scholars alike have taken another look at a subject they thought they had understood. It is no longer so easy as it was, just a few years ago, to dismiss the idea of democracy as irrelevant to most people's needs and experiences. The struggle for democracy is now an important factor in practical politics around the world, and will continue to be so.

History is one way we come to grips with important ideas and phenomena. The democratic movements of the last decade have left us dissatisfied with previous explanations of the development of democracy in the context of world history. Indeed, there is hardly anything available that could be presented as a "world history of democracy."

Of course, the gap exists for a reason. To write a world history of any topic takes tremendous nerve, because one is forced to generalize about all of human experience on the basis of very uneven evidence. In the case of democracy, there is a further difficulty: "democracy" is a word that inspires strong feelings in almost everyone.

Anyone who takes democracy seriously enough to write a history of it, especially a history of democracy in all times and places, will have to meet high expectations on the part of both skeptics and would-be true believers. Readers will want a historian of democracy not only to show the use of democratic techniques in the past, or demonstrate the existence of democratic values in past societies, or trace the development of democratic institutions in recent times. The historian will have to do more: find perfect democratic societies in the past, or admit that the history of democracy is a mirage, because democracy has never existed.

Consider a single concrete incident in the light of such expectations.

London's Guildhall, for centuries the administrative center of the city, is located over the Roman amphitheater built in the time of Hadrian, between A.D. 117 and 138. Archaeologists exploring the site in 1993 found in the drainage system the bones of bulls, horses, bears, and the heads and legs of perhaps twenty human beings. These remains were the first material confirmation of a Roman practice well known from their written history and art: the slaughter of wild animals and human prisoners for the entertainment of the citizenry. The same investigations, however, showed that the arena was used for other things -- among them, voting. A bit of broken pottery with the word non (Latin for "no") scratched on it was also found. This potsherd was probably a ballot (similar pottery ballots are known from ancient Greek times) and is the one piece of evidence that the Romans used secret ballots in local elections. The same dig thus provided us with unique evidence of both the barbaric gladiatorial games and a key democratic practice.

It is easy enough to imagine readers saying, when told about the secret ballot in the arena of Roman London, What good is democracy if those who vote are the same as those who think the slaughter of human beings makes a good public spectacle?

We could complain about the unfairness of such impossible expectations, but we acknowledge that there is a reason for them. "Democracy" is not just any word. It is a symbol of hope, and a cause for fear. It arouses strong feelings because some see democracy as a way forward to a better future for humanity, while others see it as a dangerous delusion, or a threat to their own privileges. The meaning and utility of the word "democracy" is a constant battleground, because its very use in serious discussion demands that both speaker and listener take positions on the moral basis of society and government. We thus owe our readers not only a definition of our subject -- that dangerous word "democracy" -- and a discussion of our analytical approach, but a candid presentation of our moral starting-point.

Our starting point is with the individual human being and his or her worth as an individual.

But what good is a single individual? Can an individual exist alone? No. Individuals need society -- the help of other individuals -- to survive. This undeniable fact has often been used to negate individual worth, and, further, to justify the most incredible abuse of individuals. It is often taken as self-evident that in any conflict whatever between the needs of one person and those of society as a whole, those of the individual must give way. Individuals are only members -- limbs or organs -- of Society, which is more real and of higher moral worth than they are.

This dismissal of the individual makes sense if one believes that Society is a thing, an entity, a moral actor, capable of making decisions both moral and practical. Anyone who strolls through a library and samples history, philosophy and political theory will soon find how common this belief is, even if it is seldom spelled out.

If Society is taken as the true moral actor, then unanimity is the highest social value, and almost any means of enforcing unanimity can be justified. Only utilitarian questions need be asked: Will such a tactic or technique work, or not? To produce unanimity, whatever degree of unanimity Society believes it requires, Society can do what it likes with individuals. Their freedom or even their existence is ultimately irrelevant, since they are only part of It.

The fundamental assumption, however, is false. People understand quite clearly (unless they are very well educated indeed) that "social" decisions are not made by Society, but by individuals, and that "social" decisions often benefit some individuals and penalize others. Individuals usually accept "social" decisions, for a variety of reasons, some better than others; but if they feel their interests are intolerably affected by them, they will renounce society. Believers in Society can only respond to this phenomenon by denouncing the wickedness of those who dare defy It, and by sharpening the tools of coercion.

We, on the other hand, see the problem differently. We see society not as a being (much less a god), but as the product of the cooperative efforts of individual human beings. Social interaction has practical goals and a moral dimension, but action, initiative, and decisions are all taken by individuals. Nothing is done except by individuals, acting alone or in groups. Individuals are moral actors, and responsibility for their own actions cannot be lifted from them by Society. They are equal in this regard, equal in moral worth and moral responsibility.

This principle does not eliminate the need for cooperation -- far from it. But social cooperation is cooperation between morally equal individuals, not the subordination of members to the body of which they are mere limbs. Natural moral equality gives each individual natural rights, which should not be violated by other individuals, whether working singly or in concert with others. Only when an individual violates the natural rights of others are the others justified in curtailing the rights of the violator. The tools of coercion, in other words "government" in the widest sense, cannot be entirely abandoned, but government exists to preserve individuals -- and not just physically, but in dignity and freedom.

The subordination of governmental power to natural rights is often criticized as utopian, even in places where the quality of life has been immeasurably enhanced by a historical respect for individual rights. It is commonly said that a "culture of rights" is a selfish culture, an impractical culture, one which dooms society to disorder. Such criticisms come out of immediate fear, or eagerness to use coercion. If we care about the quality of life for ourselves and for each of those other real individuals in society, that subordination of "government" to "rights" is eminently practical. Individuals are always judging society in its dealings with them. They will often bow to coercion, but only unwillingly. It is free cooperation that brings out their best efforts. People flee a coercive environment for a free one, if it is at all possible, and if they cannot, they do their best to subvert the coercive apparatus. Is this a prescription for order and security?

Democracy is the best, the only method, by which government can be made to respect the rightful interests of the individual; it is the method by which we attempt to make free cooperation the basis of society. In this discussion, our primary definition of democracy is this practical one. All the techniques that allow decision-making to be inclusive and egalitarian, rather than exclusive and hierarchical, we call democratic. There are a variety of democratic techniques, most of them quite simple, which have been used in different times and different places far more often than is commonly realized. One of our goals is to set out the history of the use of democratic technique.

Our book is however, not just a history of techniques, because democracy is not merely a bundle of techniques. It is also a goal, based on the moral position of individual worth and equality. The goal of democratic practice is a free society, in which power is shared by morally equal individuals, and where each person is in fact treated as a worthwhile being, free to be a diverse individual rather than a mere unit in a unanimous whole. Such a society cannot come into being unless democratic techniques are used systematically and thoroughly. Only then will individuals be able to protect their rightful interests, only then will free cooperation rather than coercion be the norm. A society informed by such values and structured through such techniques is a democratic society -- its virtues depend upon, but go beyond the purely political ones.

Democracy as goal and democracy as technique are distinct. The techniques can be used, with some success, in a very limited sphere, with no thought of extending their benefits to all humanity, or even to the people next door or downstairs in the servants' quarters. Free discussion, voting, and the rest can and often have been used to regulate the internal affairs of oligarchies. Oligarchs who use democratic techniques in their dealings with each other can be antidemocratic and oppressive in their treatment of outsiders -- can be, perhaps, slaveowners or enthusiastic patrons of the gladiatorial games. Indeed, democratic techniques, such as voting in referenda, can be used to impose social unanimity, to validate decisions made by a few in the name of all, without real choice entering into the process at any time.

Democracy as goal and democracy as technique are nevertheless related. There is a logic inherent in democratic practice that calls for its extension to larger and larger circles. Every extension of democratic practice has come in response to the demands of excluded people that they be recognized as full members of their community. The logic of democracy, that individuals and their interests must be taken into account, may be resisted; but if it is, the only alternative is retreat from whatever degree of democratic practice has been achieved. The result will be rigid oligarchy, hereditary aristocracy, dictatorship, monarchy.

The collapse of democratic arrangements in societies where those arrangements applied only to a small number of "citizens" is a common story in history, because there have been a large number of such societies. One can take the existence and failure of such quasi-democracies in either an optimistic or pessimistic sense. We simply hope that this phenomenon can be recognized as an important part of human history.

Likewise there is a history of democratic societies, at least of societies where many people, in part through the use of democratic techniques, have striven to realize the larger democratic virtues. None has ever reached the goal of the perfectly democratic and free society, and none is ever likely to. Perfection is not a human possibility. Yet the striving has not been worthless, and it has left its trace on the historical record. This, too, is part of our story.

Finally, our intention is to write a world history of democracy. There is a long-standing and tenacious idea that democracy is a European (or European-American) notion, which has evolved out of purely European (or "Western") values. This idea is one component of "European exceptionalism," an uncritical doctrine which traces the accomplishments (or sometimes the vices) of the modern era back to supposedly unique features of western European culture. The application of the doctrine to the development of democracy has led to a distortion of history long overdue for correction.

There is no doubt that large-scale democracies in the modern era first emerged in western Europe and areas settled by western Europeans. Certainly, unique circumstances helped produce this situation. To go beyond that, however, and identify democratic ideas and techniques as unique products of one regional tradition, applicable only within the culture of that region, is to go too far.

We believe that the techniques of democracy are the common heritage of humankind, and that democratic values are applicable anywhere. We do not think this is merely a matter of personal faith. Rather, there are good historical arguments to justify that view. We have in the past offered such arguments, and hope to do it more systematically in the future.

Go to the next chapter.

World History of Democracy site.

Originally posted February 8, 1998.
Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger and Phil Paine. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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