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Democracy. Tony Benn on democracy: Watch the entire film on YouTube!. Democracy as a Natural Order “Democracy is any form of government in which the rules of society are decided by the people who will be bound by them .”*

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Tony Benn on democracy:

  • Watch the entire film on YouTube!
Democracy as a Natural Order

“Democracy is any form of government in which the rules of society are decidedby the people who will be bound by them.”*


That was the original system of making decisions for society – primitive democracy which exists for tens of thousands of years before the rise of the state

When the state appears 5,000 years ago, it seeks to take the decision-making power awayfrom society

Then, democracy becomes a way of trying to restrain state power and put the state under the people’s control

*Catherine Kellogg, Democratic Theory, in: Janine Brodie and Sandra Rein, Critical Concepts: An Introduction to Politics.

John Keane highlights 3 overlapping epochs in the historical development of democracy

Phase One, Assembly Democracy – starting around 2,500 BCE, in lands now within the territories of Iran, Iraq and Syria

“During the first phase of democracy the seeds of its basic institution – self-government through an assembly of equals – were scattered across many different soils and climes, ranging from the Indian subcontinent and the prosperous Phoenician empire to the western shores of provincial Europe. These popular assemblies took root, accompanied by various ancillary institutional rules and customs, like written constitutions, the payment of jurors and elected officials, the freedom to speak in public, voting machines, voting by lot and trial before elected or selected juries. There were efforts as well to stop bossy leaders in their tracks, using such methods as the mandatory election of kings…” (The Life and Death of Democracy, p.xvi)

Best-known example – Athens, 5th century BCE

Athenian democracy

Direct democracy: citizens participated directly in initiating, deliberating, and passing of, the legislation. The Assembly, no less than 6,000 strong (out of 22,000 citizens of Athens), convened about every 10 days. Supreme power to decide on every issue of state policy

Citizen juries: justice is responsibility of citizens (juries composed of 501-1001 citizens)

Appointment of citizens to political office by lot

Citizen-soldiers: every citizen had a duty to serve in the army

Ostracism: a bad politician could be kicked out of office by the people

*See Patrick Watson and Benjamin Barber, The Struggle for Democracy. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1988, p.12

Phase Two: Representative Democracy

Starts around 10th-12th centuries in Western Europe with the invention of parliamentary assemblies

  • Reaches its classic forms in the 18th century. Officially regarded as normative today.
  • Marquis d’Argenson, Foreign Minister of French King Louis XV, 1765:
  • “False democracy soon collapses into anarchy. It is government of the multitude; such is a people in revolt, insolently scorning law and reason. Its tyrannical despotism is obvious from the violence of its movements and the uncertainty of its deliberations. In true democracy, one acts through deputies, who are authorized by election; the mission of those elected by the people and the authority that such officials carry constitute the public power.”
  • (Keane, p. xviii)
Phase Three: Monitory Democracy (term coined by John Keane)

Started after World War II

Invention of about 100 power-monitoring devices which had never existed before

Increase citizen ability to control the state which is organized on the basis of representative democracy

Public integrity commissionsJudicial activismLocal courtsWorkplace tribunalsCitizens assembliesThink tanksThe InternetEtc.

The Classical Theory of Democracy

The triple meaning:

Democracy as source of state authority – power of the people

Democracy as the purpose of government – the common good

Democracy as a method of choosing political leaders – by the people

Abraham Lincoln: “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” (1863)

Also from Lincoln (1861): “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it”.

Joseph Schumpeter, 1942:

The classical theory is too broad and vague. It is much more practical to narrow the meaning of democracy to the method:

“The democraticmethod is

that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions

in which individuals acquire the power to decide

by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote”.*

*Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. New York: Harper, 1947, p.269

2 major dimensions of the democratic method:*

contestation – free and fair competition between candidates

participation – all adult citizens have the right to vote

The use of this method requires the freedoms of:

expression, to speak publicly and publish one’s views

assembly, to gather for political purposes

association, to form political organizations

*Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971; Samuel Huntington, The Third Wave. Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century. University of Oklahoma Press, 1991

In contemporary politics, the term “democracy” is used mostly in the Schumpeterian, rather than classical, sense:

Representative democracy

Electoral democracy

Formal democracy

“The people” elect a government and keep it accountable

Robert Dahl: It is more precise to call it “polyarchy” (“rule by many”, meaning more than 3 persons)rather than “democracy”


Democracy’s Century: A Survey of Global Political Change in the 20th Century. NY: Freedom House, 2001


Democracy’s Century: A Survey of Global Political Change in the 20th Century. NY: Freedom House, 2001

Since 1900, the number of internationally recognized independent states has grown

from55tonearly 200

Today, governments in 120 countries are formed by democratic method

62.5% of the world’s population live in those countries

Key events which led to this expansion:

The defeat of fascism in World War 2 (1939-45)

The fall of Western colonialempires (1950s-70s)

The fall of Western authoritarian regimes in Southern Europe and Latin America (1970s-1980s)

The fall of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union (1989-91)

A 21st Century Democratic Paradox

Democracy is accepted as the normal – and even normative - form of government more widely in the world than ever before

And yet, the real scope of democratic practices is very limited.

The sea of democracy has never been wider.

But it is very shallow

Global public opinion on democracy:


The global democratic deficit, 2008: