Thursday 15 September 2016

Diatribe on Democracy

It’s ‘International Day of Democracy’ (15 September). So I have just written my forthcoming review for History Today of Paul Cartledge’s outstanding new Democracy: A Life. A major argument underpinning his superb volume is that we don’t pay enough attention to the meaning of  the –cracy part of the word.

Image Honouring Athenian anti-tyranny law of 336 BCE
The ancient Athenian citizens, free men rich and poor—the demos—held the sovereign executive power—kratos. They wielded it directly. Their will was not distorted by power-hungry career politicians consistently failing to represent them conscientiously. 

That is one reason why the Athenian democracy did not deteriorate into an oligarchy but functioned effectively for close on two hundred years. The understandable frustration with inadequate representation lies beneath the loyalty of grass-roots UK Labour Party members towards Jeremy Corbyn (whatever you think of his un-coruscating performance as leader).

The Athenian democrats got annoyed when elitists tried to subvert their power: a memorable image (above) of a personified Demokratia crowning the Demos was created at one such time. I also like this elegantly coiffed Damokratia (in the local dialect) on a coin of the ancient Greek city of Metapontum in south Italy. 

But most personifications in history have been hideous harridans conceived by opponents of democratisation, as in post-French-revolution British cartoons. Other visualisations are just ludicrous; witness the colossal ‘Democracy Monument’ in
A 1798 anti-reform cartoon
Bangkok, Thailand, which is ruled by a military junta. 

Bangkok 'Democracy Monument'(1939)
Come to think of it, the ‘International Day of Democracy’ was invented in 2007 by a United Nations committee chaired by—wait for it—Qatar, which not only uses forced labour but is to all intents and purposes an absolute hereditary monarchy (not to mention the floggings, outlawing of atheism, trade unions, homosexuality etc.). This is despite a cosmetically enhanced consultative council and assembly. 

Like Paul Cartledge, I am both convinced that ''real' democracy--government of the people, by the people, for the people--is the way forward for human civilisation and that the word and ideal are all too frequently traduced. I don’t think we should take today's celebrations too seriously.

1 comment:

  1. The benefits of participatory rather than representational democracy are probably unarguable, given the Athenian experience. I've made the case a number of times, and the objections are generally vague, and usually along the lines of: 'Too difficult to organise', or: 'Too expensive to run it properly.' I think it is neither of those. Democracy in the UK is in a state of collapse, and is in need of radical reform if it is to mean anything in the future. Though I won't hold my breath.