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Democracy We Are Told: The Ancient, The Liberal, and the Equal

April 13, 2012


It is being said, and has been said for quite some time now, that we are living in a time where democracy is on the decline.  Where the rising inequality of wealth between the rich and the poor has limited the opportunities of the marginalized to live with a semblance of dignity; where the political influence of the wealthiest minority of our societies far exceed that of the majority; where the majority of citizens are forced to submit to austerity in order to pay for a crisis caused by the unfettered greed of the wealthy.  It would be no small feat to ignore the implications that all of these issues have on the state of democracy, yet there is more.  This is also a time where democracy has become increasingly ‘consensual’, that is to say, where we have been told that in order to be democratic, we must be homogeneous[1]; that we must all conform to the whims of the majority or, as is more often the case, the vocal and powerful minority; where monoculture and discrimination become necessary for ‘progress’.  I believe it would not be a stretch to say that our faith in democracy is wavering.

However it could also be claimed, and certainly should not be overlooked, that we are also living in a time of great and massive democratic struggle or resistance.  Since the most recent economic crisis (2008-9), hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across Europe to fight against a repeated attack on their social services and with them the rights of many to live dignified human lives.  This fight continues in the United States with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, now more aptly the Global Occupy movement, which has reintroduced the voice of the majority of Americans whose interests have not been properly represented by either party in Washington.  Nor can we overlook the democratic uprisings of North Africa and the Middle East, or the Arab Spring, where the popular will of the people has and continues to bring an end to authoritarian governments in the region.  Therefore to avoid making sweeping, inaccurate, statements I think we may need to re-evaluate our claims on the alleged decline of democracy, or better yet take a deeper look at what it is we mean by ‘democracy’.

While it is a worthwhile endeavour to look for democracy, or lack thereof, in traditional studies of voter turnout rates, income inequality within countries, representation in institutions, and so on, this is not the intent of this essay.  The functioning of democratic institutions is integral to maintaining and preserving our existing system of representative constitutional democracy, however democracy itself, as a concept, is not found in the institutions that represent it.  The same can also be said with regard to arguments regarding rising income inequality, for while the strength of a democracy may be greatly hampered by vast inequalities amongst its citizens, we cannot define democracy merely in relation to wealth.

To understand the development of democracy as a political concept, we must recognize first that it is a part of language and as such is shaped by its historical and cultural development[2].  Therefore to provide the historical development of democracy, we must first recognize that democracy is a process that is in continual renewal, rather than something static that can be institutionalized.  This implies that democracy as we understand it now is only a moment in the long development of the concept itself.  In reference to the evolution of language, Gramsci notes that, “usually when a new conception replaces the previous one, the previous language continues to be used but is, precisely, used metaphorically.  The whole of language is a continuous process of metaphor…language is at the same time a living thing and a museum of fossils of life and civilisation.[3]”  Thus we are left with a democracy that is an amalgam which is “produced by partial rejection and partial absorption” of previous historical models[4].  To evaluate claims on the state of democracy today, I intend to examine how different phases of Western civilization have shaped the way we view democracy.

I will begin this examination by looking first at the development of ancient Athenian democracy, looking first at the composition of the citizenry and the inclusive and exclusive nature of its ‘participatory’ democracy.  The second part of this analysis of ancient Athens will look at the political theory of Plato and Aristotle, in an attempt to understand the reasoning behind the contempt held for democracy, or ‘extreme democracy’.  The remnants of Plato and Aristotle’s political theory have, as I will argue, provided a theoretical foundation for modern conceptions of democracy and the themes of Platonic and Aristotelian contempt for democracy recur frequently throughout this essay.

The next section of this essay will focus on the rise of liberal democracy, constitutionalism, and will look briefly at the founding of the American state.  While focusing primarily on the history of Britain and the United States, I intend to examine the struggles against feudal monarchy (in Britain), and the power dynamics at work within the early stages of Anglo-American democratic development.  However the critical point of this section is to draw the connection between the binding of constitutions and legalism with the introduction of the franchise to liberal democracies.  It is at this point, I argue, that we begin to see the separation between the political and the economic in modern democracies, as has been argued elsewhere.[5]

I will then proceed to look at how representation and the party-system have come to influence and shape modern liberal democracies.  This section intends to make the connection between ancient direct democracy and constitutional representative democracy while recognizing the tensions and overlapping features and characteristics between the two.  The modern party system has, I would claim, marked the grand compromise between the two models of democracy and as such has blurred the conceptual lines that undermined any ‘objective’ meaning, if such a thing is possible, of democracy.

In the final section of this essay I propose that the conceptual tensions between ancient democracy and modern democracy are not merely conceptual, but such that they manifest themselves in physical practice on a daily basis.  While democracy as a concept may have evolved and may incorporate history in its present reproduction, I argue that ‘democracy’ as we commonly understand it has two meanings, or models, that are continually antagonistic and have been at odds with each other since the times of Plato (at least).  Thus to analyze ‘democracy’ is, if one is to be comprehensive, to acknowledge the dialectic at work between its varying manifestations.

I.                   Ancient Democracy and Its Critics

To start this analysis with the democracy of ancient Athens is not to suggest that the democracy of antiquity and its participatory nature was an ideal that we ought to strive for today.  Nor is it to suggest that ancient Greece was the birthplace of democracy, as is often claimed, for I am inclined to believe that democracy has existed, and still exists, in many forms outside of mainstream Western civilization.  Rather, we look at democracy in Athens because it has influenced much scholarship throughout the Western tradition, and the residues of the political theory of Plato and Aristotle, amongst others, continues to permeate our conception of the world and our views on democracy.  We look at the democracy of ancient Athens because it is often misunderstood, and such misunderstandings are passed on from one student of political science to another, where we are left with a view of democracy that is more representative of the political thought of Plato than the city of Athens itself.  It is here where we begin our analysis of democracy, precisely because it is here where we find the birth of Western political thought.

If we begin with the standards we hold today when we look at democracy, or perhaps lack thereof as we shall see, it is hard to see how ancient Athens was democratic.  Indeed as is commonly taught we see a ‘democratic Athens’ that has a highly exclusive citizenry that is restricted only to Athenian freemen.  As such, citizenship was denied to the women of Athens, denied to the slaves, and denied to the non-Greeks that resided within the city.  The restrictions for citizenship at the time were founded on the prevailing attitudes towards equality, and thus it could be claimed that the democratic constitution of Athens was such that no equal would be denied his equal rights, where no man had the authority to govern over another.  This is, of course, problematic for our ideals of equality that we hold today, however I remind the reader that even in the recent history of America, well into the twentieth century, women, Native Americans, African-Americans, and other visible minorities were commonly viewed as less than equal by much of society and denied their rights as such.  Thus in ancient Athens we can presume that it was genuinely believed by, at least, the majority of Athenians that their democracy was founded upon equality (assuming of course that we are speaking amongst the male citizenry).  However while engagement in the polis was reserved for Athenian freemen, I believe much more attention needs to be paid towards the composition of this class of freemen.

The citizens of Athens, the freemen, were not all propertied wealthy aristocrats as is generally perceived.  A much neglected aspect of Athenian society, as Wood notes, is that “historians generally agree that the majority of Athenian citizens laboured for a living”[6]. While the slave population perhaps made up 20-30% of the population[7], they did not provide the sole subsistence for all of Athens and as such it was required that the majority of the citizen body engage in some form of productive activity.  The reason I’ve chosen to draw attention to this much overlooked piece of Greek history, is because it helps us better understand the political theory of the time, coming from Plato and Aristotle specifically.  If we acknowledge that the majority of Athenian citizens were required to work for a living, we sever the distinction between rulers and producers that is common within the Western political tradition.  As a result we see an Athenian democracy that is more representative of the people in the sense that not only are the people directly representing themselves, but in addition the majority can aptly be described as ‘peasant citizens’ that are directly related to production.  Democracy in Athens then, presents itself as freedom for citizens, freedom from the oligarchic rule that was common of the time as well as freedom to directly shape the polis in such a way that is favourable to the masses.  It is from this historical context, then, that we see Plato begin his critique of democracy and his call for aristocracy in the Republic; the same can also be said for Aristotle in Politics.

In the works of Plato and Aristotle the main concern for the governance of any city-state is that it serves to maximize the public good.  It is not the objective of either philosopher to address the liberties of classes, nor do they have any desire to extend equality beyond “freemen”; in fact Aristotle in Book 1 of the Politics writes at length to legitimate the relationship between that of master and slave in a way sure to satisfy Plato as well.  Even in some of Plato’s more radical proposals in the Republic such as allowing women into his guardian class and their ‘equal’ education, it has been argued that he has done so “only in so far as they are a component part of the state”[8].  Plato’s concern in the Republic is the creation of a just society, or the ‘best constitution’ for the ideal society.

While I do not have the space to go into Plato’s theory of justice, nor is this the place, it is roughly that every individual within a society ought to do what his or her nature is most suited to.  As a result we see a strict division of labour amongst the classes, wherein there is a clear divide between the producing class, the auxiliaries, and the ruling guardian class –such a stark contrast from that of contemporary democratic Athens.  Along the same lines we see that the shoemaker must stick to making shoes, the warrior with training in combat, and that those most fit to rule, i.e. those most trained in philosophy, ought to be rulers[9].  Here we see that Plato’s concern, then, is one of maintaining order, such that individuals in society know their place as rulers and ruled.  It is also here that Plato severs the link between the productive class, the demos, and the political; or rather where he replaces the single class of peasant-citizens with the two classes of rulers and producers.

For Plato the democratic state of Athens is committing an injustice, insofar as there is a lack of distinction between classes and a lack of specialization within them.  In democratic Athens we see that the peasant-producer is at the same time a soldier in times of war, and at the same time his own ruler thus free to exercise his political liberties as an equal to the wealthiest, or most enlightened, of aristocrats.  With respect to political liberties the democrat is an equal, and as such has no more title to govern than to be governed.  Given the implicit assumption, or perhaps explicit statement, that in a democracy all citizens are equal, traditional claims of authority are undermined such as those legitimated through power, wealth (which is merely power in another form), or divine right.  Thus in order to undermine the rights of citizens in a democracy to their political liberties, Plato attempts to de-legitimate their claims to equality through the propagation of myths and the censoring of potentially ‘corruptive’ influences[10].

What carries forward from the supposition of equality, then, is the liberty and freedom of the citizenry to govern as they see fit.  This, of course, poses a problem for Plato, as Ranciere argues that “for Plato, democracy is in its essence a system of variety, and this applies equally well to what is on offer politically: democracy, he says, is not a constitution, but a bazaar filled with all possible constitutions, where anyone can choose to perceive whichever variety they please”[11].  As Plato begins with the presupposition that democratic man is ruled by his unnecessary appetites[12], the democratic state presents itself as a threat to order, and as such it is freedom that Plato claims will eventually lead to the rise of tyranny from the ashes of democracy[13].  Plato’s main fear of democracy, I will argue, is that it is inherently anarchic.

When speaking of anarchy it is always necessary to clarify what one means, for it is often spun in modern times to mean something that is chaotic, generally bringing to mind protesters dressed in black smashing windows, destroying property, and wreaking havoc on an otherwise civilized place –although it admittedly applies to angry hockey fans in Vancouver as well.[14]  The state of anarchy that arises in democracy, or extreme democracy as Aristotle describes it[15], is founded on “the power peculiar to those who have no more entitlements to govern than to submit”[16].  As such we can come to understand why Plato argues that a democracy (extreme democracy) is not led by a constitution, but rather is a “supermarket of constitutions”, for the very existence of a constitution, particularly one which is legally immune or immune from change in practice[17], implies that the equals who live in such a society are in fact less than equal to those who first founded the constitution.  This why in Canada we are told that “every individual is equal before and under the law”[18], despite, however, having had no input into the creation and reproduction of the laws that bind them.  Thus it is implicit in any “constitutional democracy” that the founders of a constitution are above the law, for it was they who created it, and therefore were neither equal under or before the law.  Therefore in a truly democratic society, or an extreme democracy, a constitution can only exist insofar as that constitution is voluntarily adopted by those who respect it, or is subject to change by those who desire it.  This is why it has been argued that democracy “essentially implies an element of anarchy”, or is “principled anarchy, if that adjective and noun could stand to be coupled”[19].

While it is often said that the works of Plato cannot be used to describe modern democracy, which I don’t object to, I think it is important that we look at the influences that Plato has had on the history of Western politics and the history of Western political thought.  The democracies of the liberal era are not the democracies, or extreme democracies, that Plato and Aristotle had warned us about, societies where the citizens present themselves directly in matters of politics, where one can choose which constitution one wants to follow and so on.  We are told that while this type of democracy may have been fitting for the society of ancients, they did not have to deal with stock markets, or the gigantic population of the modern-state, the sheer enormity in size of the modern-state makes the city-state a pittance by comparison.  In such a society as we have today, as grand and modern as it is, we need to ensure that only the most skilled and well-trained professionals make the decisions for our massive populations, for there is simply no other way.  If everyone got to vote on everything nothing would get done, we are told.  Especially now, in the context of globalization, it is inefficient to suggest that seven billion people would sit down and have a discussion, and this is why we have representatives.  However I remind the reader that it was Plato who argued that the ideal state was one that was led by the best, Plato who was a staunch critic of the state of democracy, yet it appears that in modern society we are all Platonists.  Nowhere is this more evident than in modern Greece, where the Prime Minister, Dr. Lucas Papademos, was appointed to the position in late 2011 on the basis of his highly distinct, prestigious credentials as an MIT economist, as the former Vice-President of the European Central Bank, former Governor of the Bank of Greece.  I daresay that Plato would be satisfied with such an appointment, but I digress, it is here that we turn to the origins of liberal democracy.

II.                The Emergence of Liberal or Constitutional Democracy

When talking of the origins of liberal democracy, I intend to look back to the decline of the monarchy and the rise of parliamentarianism in Britain, or likewise at the rise of the American state in the wake of its independence.  I feel that when looking at liberal democracy we must combine the theoretical with the practical, and thus in what follows I will look both at the theories that have influenced the foundation of liberal democracy, as well as certain significant historical events such as the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of Britain in 1688, the Magna Carta of 1215, and the American Revolution – these are, of course, only a few of the Anglo-American examples.  However in addition to looking at the political development of the United States and Britain, there is at the same time a significant transformation in the economic mode of production from feudalism to capitalism, and to neglect the impact that such a change has had on the political structures of our society would be irresponsible.  It is, after all, this shift away from feudal monarchy that spawned the rise of parliamentarianism.  As such I find it absolutely necessary to recognize the connection between the rise of capitalism, and the industrial revolution(s), with the rise of liberalism and the transformation/modification of existing governing structures.

In ancient Athens it was the peasant-citizen that was the political actor where by virtue of the equality of persons, we could say that no one was more entitled to rule than to be ruled.  In Athens it was the citizen masses that had brought and maintained the democracy of their society and it was the citizen masses that had continued to reproduce democracy every day; for democracy is, after all, a process and not an institution.  When we look at the rise of liberal democracy however, we must shift our focus away from the masses as it is generally understood, that is to say away from the ‘common folk’, for it was not the masses that brokered its inception.  Rather it is clear, with the benefit of hindsight, that liberal parliamentary democracy in Britain emerges as a clash between the monarchy and the feudal lords of the time and thus uses feudal social order as its starting point[20].  Furthermore in the United States we see that democracy comes about not for all but first for the wealthy and propertied and only once a constitution, created by the wealthy, has set respectable limits for the reach of government or, subsequently, democratic action.  This is not to suggest that modern liberal democracy is merely an advanced model of feudalism, however fascinating such an argument might be, but that liberal democracy has been shaped and influenced by its predecessor.  As I quoted in the introduction, democracy is always created by the “partial rejection and partial absorption” of previous historical models.

While the creation of democratic governments in the ancient sense of the word has come from, as Plato states, the power of the poor overwhelming the rich, in liberal democracy our protagonist is instead the feudal lord and the wealthy aristocrat.  Under the context of feudal relations it is the fight against the absolute power of the monarch that ushers in the institutions of liberal democracy, where much of the progress that has been made has come from a tradition of legalism that has come to play an integral role in liberal, constitutional, democracy.  In 1215, for instance, we see the passing of the Magna Carta as a triumph of the feudal barons over the absolute power of the monarchy.  While the Magna Carta is often viewed as the beginning of the Anglo-American legal tradition, it should be noted that the purpose of the charter is precisely to alter the balance of power amongst elites.  The Magna Carta does not, however, question the relationship between the peasant and the feudal baron and as we see in what follows, this relationship of class subordination has persisted for much of modern history.

Even after the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of Britain in 1688 and the enactment of the Bill of Rights in the year following, the dispute is entirely between the monarchy and Parliament, wherein the latter was comprised entirely of wealthy aristocrats and lords.  While the ‘Glorious Revolution’ sets a great precedent for constitutional monarchies, it does nothing for the liberation of the common man, the peasant.  While condemning the French Revolution, Burke has argued that “the [Glorious Revolution]”, in contrast, “was made to preserve our ancient indisputable laws and liberties, and that ancient constitution which is our only security for law and liberty”[21].  However when Burke is referring to ‘our’ he is not referring to the common man, but rather that of the lord and aristocrat.  It is the French Revolution, after all, that would see the laws and liberties of the aristocracy and the ancien regime overthrown.

One of the primary concerns of C.B. Macpherson in his influential text, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy, is the role that class has played in determining the trajectory of liberal democracy.  He begins by arguing that “liberal democracy has typically been designed to fit a scheme of democratic government onto a class-divided society”[22], wherein “class is taken to consist of those who stand in the same relations of ownership or non-ownership of productive land and/or capital”[23].  Macpherson recognizes that the ownership of productive property is not unique to capitalism, and as we could observe in ancient Athens, there were many peasant-citizens who did not own property, or owned very little often working as smallholders.  However I believe Macpherson would argue that even despite inequalities that existed between Athenian oligarchs and the peasantry, all citizens were ”in a position to own”[24] productive property, even if they did not actually own it; as such Macpherson sees this as democracy posited on a one-class, or classless, society.  Liberal democracy for Macpherson, on the other hand, is based on a class-divided­ society “where not everyone, but only one set of people[25]” owns productive property.

With the rise of liberal democracy, we see that the feudal barons who brought our early legal institutions did not challenge class, but “on the contrary, accepted class division and built upon it.”[26]  I argue, and will extend this argument in subsequent sections of this essay, that it precisely our legal institutions within liberal democracy, both our laws and constitutions, that have reinforced the class-division that stems from capitalist social relations, i.e., the relation between wage-labourer and capital.[27]  To compare ancient democracy with that of its liberal counterpart, I quote John Adams in saying that liberal democracy is a “government of laws, and not a government of men”[28].  While in ancient Athens the power of the wealthy was kept in check by the political power of the productive class, for they maintained control over taxation and the functions of the state, we see that in liberal democracy the power of the wealthy is preserved by the constitution and a set of laws that protect private property.  As Locke so boldly states in his Second Treatise of Government, “government has no other end but the preservation of property”[29], and it is from here that Plato and Aristotle’s fear of the democratic masses is sated.

In the founding of the United States we see that the American constitution is written not by the productive peasantry, the indigenous peoples of America, the black slave class, or the women of America, but rather it is a constitution written by and for the wealthy aristocrats.  As Parenti writes, “the delegates to Philadelphia wanted a stronger power that would (a) resolve problems among the thirteen states regarding trade and duties, (b) protect overseas commercial and diplomatic interests, (c) effectively propagate the financial and commercial interests of the affluent class, and (d) defend the very wealthy from the competing claims of other classes within the society.”[30] Furthermore, the framing of the constitution in America was far from the beginning of ‘the world’s oldest democracy’ as is claimed by its patriots, but rather as its first president and one of America’s richest men, George Washington, once wrote, much needed was a constitution “to contain the threat of the people rather than to embrace their participation and their competence.”[31]  The American constitution was “intended to get the most possible out of the fact of democracy, all the while containing it in order to protect two goods taken as synonymous: the government of the best, and the preservation of the order of property.”[32]

Even with the extension of the franchise over time to men without property, Native Americans, African Americans, and eventually women in America, the democracy found in America’s constitutional democracy is not without its limitations.  In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn tells history as seen through the eyes of the average, but often historically neglected people of America.  Throughout his book we are exposed to the tumultuous history of conflict on class lines around the time of the adoption of the American constitution, where he writes:

The problem of democracy in the post-Revolutionary society was not, however, the Constitutional limitations on voting.  It lay deeper, beyond the Constitution, in the division of society into rich and poor.  For if some people had great wealth and great influence; if they had the land, the money, the newspapers, the church, the educational system – how could voting, however broad, cut into such power?  There was still another problem: wasn’t it the nature of representative government, even when most broadly based, to be conservative to prevent tumultuous change?[33]

While the extension of the franchise was particularly worrisome for Plato, the nature of the Athenian democracy that he used as his reference was such that the franchise meant the right of individuals to present themselves, it meant the power to control government, however in the case of early America the franchise presents itself merely as a right to representation in which the scope of political action has been predetermined by the elites who control the parties.  In what follows, then, I intend to extend in more detail, Zinn’s argument that it is “the nature of representative government…to be conservative to prevent tumultuous change”[34].

III.             Class, Representation, and Political Parties

I have chosen to discuss representation and the party system in length because I feel it has come to be known as the defining feature of a liberal democracy.  Representation in constitutional democracies, I argue, strikes a balance between the volatility of ‘extreme’ democracy on the one hand and the aristocratic or technocratic government on the other.  While direct democracy may have been feasible in ancient times with small towns and little economic development, modern society with all its complexities, it is argued, requires the opinions and expertise of experts.[35]  Constitutional liberal democracies have, through the use of regular elections and political parties, used representation as a means for creating and maintaining ‘responsible’ government, and as such can be seen as a way of ensuring the legitimacy of government.  Coming both from the foundation of feudal social relations as well as the history of Western political thought going back to Plato, there is a general contempt for the masses whose unnecessary desires would undermine the conditions necessary for the growing market economy of the eighteenth century onwards and as such representation presents itself as an effective means of economic management; for it is precisely the ‘liberal’ in liberal democracies that directs the role of democratic governments to economic growth. This is why Macpherson acknowledges to this end that “responsible government” is a necessary precondition for mitigating class conflict, which “was needed for the protection of individuals and the promotion of the Gross National Product, and for nothing more.”[36]  As such we see that while the purpose of ancient democracy was to protect the equality of persons and to serve as a safeguard against tyranny and class oppression, in liberal democracy the inequality between classes is already predetermined, by capitalism, and the role of democratic government is the management of the economy in such a way that is conducive to growth while minimizing class conflict.

When we look at the role that representation plays in modern liberal democracies, it is necessary that we understand the context under which the state itself has arisen.  While the state has acted to serve the interests of the ruling class, and as such appears to present itself as a tool of the ruling class, it does this precisely through the separation of the economic from the political.[37]  Therefore as the liberal democratic state has evolved and transformed over the centuries and the franchise has been extended to seemingly give the demos more control in its own governance, it has only been after the economic has been sealed beyond the reach of the masses.  Where in ancient Athens, the political power of the demos was intertwined with their role as producers, in modern times it is required that political representatives be well educated, well known, and well backed – that is to say, the representative must be rich or represent the interests of wealthy elites[38].  Thus it appears that “the democratic franchise would not only protect the citizens”, or at least conceal their position of subalternity, “but would even improve the performance of the rich”[39] as it would ensure the stability of the market from democratic ‘disruptions’ to capital.  While certain social policies such as that of abortion may find space for popular debate amongst political parties at present, the sanctity of private property, international trade, finance, and economics have been all but stolen from the grasp of democratic action.

The state has played an instrumental role in ensuring the hegemony of ruling class dominance, through its monopoly on force, the laws, and the education system, while the creation and transformation of the modern state has been led by a structural impetus for the stability and security of a market economy.  While governments and states have existed prior to liberal democracies, pre-capitalist societies were such that private property existed in a premature form.  What was distinct, however, about the rise of the modern capitalist state was that through the dispossession of productive communal land, the demos, once “all other economic options [had] been taken from them”[40], were forced into wage-labour and as such their subsistence became dependent on the property-owning ruling class.  Such a dynamic was not at work in ancient Athens, for instance, where peasant-citizens were able to assert themselves as generally independent in the economic sphere, whose subsistence could be secured independently of the wealthy oligarchs.

In early America the necessary property requirements for running for political office should have, theoretically, ensured that those elected would serve in the interest of the common aristocratic man.  By setting property requirements for political office, in addition to a limited and selective franchise, it was possible to ensure structurally that the status quo was preserved in government.  However in modern American society with the extension of the universal franchise, consent to elite opinion must now be secured not only structurally, however this is still ensured to some extent through the party system as I will soon discuss, but socially as well.  In present-day America, information increasingly comes from monopolistic news corporations/conglomerates, which suggest that the government no longer need be directly controlled by elites.

In their book Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman show how the rise of corporate advertising has effectively subsidized media that is pro-business and created a market that is increasingly difficult to penetrate for independent, and often more radical, media.  In such a profit driven business environment, the opinions of ‘dissidents’ is hidden from mainstream discourse and as such the demos is censored from thoughts that may be ‘anti-establishment’ in nature.  In Canada, for instance, the concentration of news media has been called “outright market domination” by a Senate report in 2006,[41] with only 0.9% of newspapers in Canada being independently owned as of 2003.[42]  The “outright market domination” that is a common feature within the Anglo-American media has the unintended or, as I would argue here, intended consequence of limiting the range of ‘acceptable’ issues covered in the media and as such have successfully manufactured the consent, to borrow from the title of the book, of the demos.

It is misleading to suggest that representation is unique to liberal democracy, as representation is a process that is constantly occurring in every sphere of our lives.  Language itself is, as I’ve mentioned in the introduction, a process of representation as it is the extension or representation of our internal selves through a common medium.  Thus in every instance where one speaks, one is representing oneself, or one’s inner self.  This being said however, I intend to make the claim that not all representation is equal.  When looking at the relationship between representation, the party system, and liberal democracy, it is necessary to make the connection between the power embodied in the collective, the state, and the will of the individual.  To analyze the link between the represented and the representatives, I will look to Michael Saward’s, The Representative Claim, using the method he prescribes while being cognizant of its shortcomings.

Saward argues that “[r]epresentation is a process of claim-making rather than a fact established by institutional election nor selection; or at least, it can only be the latter by virtue of the former.”[43]  Therefore we find that the root of representation lies not in the having of elections, but rather in having one’s claim accepted by its intended audience.  As such we see that the relationship between the makers of representative claims and the represented are in a constant dialectic, and that the latter reacts to and chooses whether or not to accept a given claim.  By viewing representation in this light, however, we can see how Saward may advance his argument that representative claims are made by more than merely political parties.  For instance we see that despite not being directly affiliated with political parties, a protest movement can speak on behalf of, or in support of, certain groups of society and as such we can say that a certain segment of society is represented by the movement.  There is however a caveat to this, in that not all claims of representation are endowed with power.

While Saward notes that “clearly, political power differentials are deeply implicated in the distribution of capacities and resources for claim-making and claim-reception”[44] he does not delve into the implications that such a power differential has for democratic politics.  Furthermore he recognizes, but does not expand upon, the fact that “representative claims can have silencing effects”[45] whereby the claim of another to speak on your behalf may deprive you of your ability to make your own claims.  For example it is common to hear from political commentators and the media pundits that despite public outcry over a government’s policies, the majority of citizens voted, and therefore, gave consent to that political party to do so.  Furthermore when we make the linkage to the concentration of the media, as mentioned earlier, we see that as independent media makes up less of the news market the (limited) discourse of the large news corporations comes to be the only popular discourse, effectively suppressing the ‘undesirable’ voices.  When the social power of certain political actors is such that they override the claims made by smaller actors or individuals, it becomes clear to see how modern society tends to associate ‘democracy’ with the institutions, such as majoritarian electoral systems, that uphold it – for the claims made by well-financed political parties and their supporters come to dominate the media.

Throughout The Representative Claim, Saward argues consistently that with the rise of non-state actors such as non-governmental organizations, supranational organizations, and other associations, we must expand our view of representation.  As such Saward can make the claim that as individuals we may still find our interests represented politically, even if not necessarily by the political party.  For instance, organizations like Oxfam can claim to represent the interests of the women of the global South who do not have the financial resources to represent themselves.[46]  The problem with such a view, however, is that in the governing structure of a constitutional democracy it is precisely the political party that holds power.  While it may be argued that lobbyists and “big money” are pulling the reigns of political parties, it is nevertheless the political party that is granted the exclusive power to legislate within national borders.  Therefore even though, for example, Martin Luther King Jr. was able to represent the interests of African Americans during the 1960s, his own representative claim was made to those who are entrusted with the power of governing, the elected representatives and their respective political parties.

The political party presents itself as a means of reconciling democracy in the ancient sense, with the aristocratic and oligarchic control of feudal and pre-capitalist society.  It is a compromise between democracy, in the ‘extreme’ sense, and oligarchy or plutocracy.  The political party serves to homogenize the thoughts of the many, the demos, into a single ideology[47] that is within socially acceptable limits.  Macpherson even goes so far as to claim that “the chief function the party system has actually performed in Western democracies since the inception of a democratic franchise has been to blunt the edge of apprehended or probable class conflict, or, if you like, to moderate and smooth over a conflict of class interests so as to save the existing property institutions and the market system from effective attack.[48]  As liberal democracies are based on majoritarian principles, the political party is able to filter out the ‘radical’ and ‘undesirable’ demands of certain segments of society while catering instead to the mainstream, uncritical, and unconsciously adopted positions of the masses, thus allowing the voices of minorities to be structurally oppressed.  As the degree of representation increases we see that so too does the degree to which radicalism is filtered out of ‘legitimate’ politics at the local, party, national, and international levels.

In the first instance, the local level, the voter, whose views we can assume are informed by the social relations that have produced him or herself, must, if he or she is to exercise his or her ‘democratic right’, vote for a political party or representative that will, inevitably, fail to represent the unique demands of the voter – unless, of course, the voter is a party partisan who accepts everything he or she is told uncritically, at which point his or her demands cease to be ‘unique’ as separate from the supply (the party) that produces them.  This, it is commonly stated, is a necessary sacrifice for our modern democracies to function efficiently, and as such we will observe that some of the demands of the voter go unrepresented by the political party.  As Macpherson argues, this is symptomatic of what he refers to as “equilibrium democracy”, or our present model of liberal democracy, under which “[t]he voter’s role is not to decide political issues and then choose representatives who will carry out those decisions: it is rather to choose the men who will do the deciding”[49].

At the party level, or the level of the representatives, we see yet another filter against radicalism in the party structure itself.  When the costs of entering into national politics are high, due to the importance of money in funding campaigns and advertising, the party system has required that “endorsement by the party machine [becomes] virtually the only way of getting elected”.[50]  Yet again, however, what results is a power dynamic between the party member and the party leadership, wherein the latter has effective control over the resources to maintain the former.  As such the party member is, much like the voter, forced to do away with any radical ideas and “tow the party line” or face the threat of expulsion or intra-party discipline by the party leadership and ‘party whip’.

At the national level, we begin to see what Ross refers to as the “silent majority”[51] where the governing party claims to have the legitimacy to speak on behalf of ‘the people’.  Focusing her argument on the majoritarian principles of modern democracy, Ross questions the common understanding of ‘rule by voting’ stating that “the demos [implies] neither the power of the population nor its majority but the power of anybody.  Anybody is as entitled to govern as he or she is to be governed.”[52]  When in Canada following the 2011 election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated: “Conservative values are Canadian values”[53], his ability to make that claim was predicated on the idea that the demos is represented by the majority – however as many would be quick to point out, in Canada a majority government can be formed with far less than 50% of the vote.  Nevertheless we see how the representative claim of a Prime Minister can be such as to drown out the individual claims of, in this case, all Canadians that did not vote for him.

Lastly at the international level we see much like at the national level that representatives are able to represent the nation-state in international affairs as the government, and once again this claim is predicated on majoritarian principles.  The government, in virtue of the power bestowed unto it by the majority or largest minority, is able to make representative claims on behalf of the entire nation.  It is the national representatives, those appointed by the head of government or elected representatives in government, that represent countries in the international arena.  This point, however, becomes integral under the context of ‘good governance’ which has brought with it the idea of ‘consensual democracy’ in institutions including the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the European Union (EU).  Under these institutions, consensus amongst all member-states is generally required for policies to be implemented on the international stage.  It is along this line of argument that the WTO can claim that consensual democracy is “even more democratic than majority rule because no decision is taken until everyone agrees.”[54]  Having a national representative, however, does by no means ensure that the interests of those in a nation are represented, as the interests of citizens are not homogenous but as varied as the historical experiences of those who hold them.  Thus even when representatives are in consensus, we see that this often comes at the expense of underrepresentation of the dissenting parties, most frequently the poor who lack the assets to generate an audible counter-claim.

However I need not remind the reader that not all claims of representation are accepted.  When the government of Canada reneges on its commitments to the Kyoto Protocol, there is an outcry from environmentalists across the country.  When the American Administration decides to give the largest bailout in history to the same financial firms that caused the biggest economic crisis in the United States since the Great Depression, we see the emergence of Occupy Wall Street and, on the other end of the political spectrum, the libertarian Tea Party Movement.  When the Greek government agrees to submit the Greek people to deeper austerity measures, hundreds of thousands of protesters take to the streets.  It is from these examples that we begin to see the clash between the democracy that traces its historical roots back to ancient Athens, and the democracy that traces its history back to the end of feudalism and the traditional aristocracy.

IV.             The Present Crises of the Two Democracies

If it is true that modern constitutional democratic governments have been constructed in a way that relegates the demos to a position of subalternity, can we maintain that it is in fact a democracy?  I believe this is a question that needs to be answered in order to proceed.  I start from the supposition that what is uniquely democratic, what separates democracy from all other constitutions, is the fundamental assertion that humans are inherently equal, at least insofar as their political expression is concerned – for it is, after all, the right of a group to govern, and thereby represent themselves, that is in question when we speak of constitutions in the Platonic sense.  If modern liberal democracy has reneged on its accountability to the demos, and if it is now the government that leads the people rather than the other way around, then I would certainly have to agree with the statement that we are living in a ‘democratic deficit’, or further that democracy has never existed under its liberal variant.  However as I’ve mentioned in this essay’s introduction, we see that over time concepts evolve throughout history retaining certain elements and discarding the others.

What I will argue then, is that there are in fact two democracies at present that each come from a different historical lineage.  In the same way that language is dynamic and constantly evolving, so have both the concepts of ancient Athenian democracy and the form of early liberal constitutional democracy.    Looking first at the democracy we generally speak of in the modern context, the liberal constitutional variant, we see that is has been founded on the back of feudalism.  Parliamentary and constitutional democracies were first built by the aristocracies of Britain and the United States in order to limit the power of the monarchy and the poor to ensure that property was protected by a system of laws.  While the sanctity of private property has been preserved however, we have seen that through the struggles of the demos over the last several centuries, liberal constitutional democracy has been forced to evolve in order to maintain its legitimacy.  The struggles for the franchise throughout history, first for the non-propertied white males, and subsequently the women, African Americans, the indigenous, and other visible minorities, have required that the demos be at the forefront of politics within modern liberal democracies, recognizing that is only by the legitimacy of the demos that the government may govern.

Thus what we see is a constant dialectic between the democracy of old, and the democracy of the moderns.  The transformation of modern liberal democracy from its aristocratic foundation to its current representative stage has emerged as a product of the struggle of the old against the new.  Far from having disappeared, the democracy founded on the history of the ancient Athenians, direct participatory democracy, appears sporadically in moments throughout the history of the liberal variant.  It is this democracy, the ancient variant, that defines the assertion of one’s political equality when that equality has been denied, the democratic action of the movement, it is a politics of refusal.  We find it in the refusal by women to accept a position of inferiority within a patriarchal society, the refusal of African Americans to accept subordination through slavery and discrimination, the refusal of indigenous peoples of the Americas to be enslaved and dominated by the European colonizers.  Each refusal marks an assertion of equality, the recognition that the equality of their persons is defined not by the laws that recognize and ‘ensure’ it, not by the rights granted by a colonizing government, but by the very virtue of their natural human equality.  These are “moments when equals declare themselves as such, though aware that they have no fundamental right to do so”[55], because there is a recognition that rights have merely been invented by man, generally wealthy white men, and have no legitimacy beyond their acceptance by the demos.  It is the assertion that if we start from the presupposition that all humans are equal, then we must conclude that no one has more entitlement to govern than to be governed.[56]

However the democracy that is inspired by the ancient Athenians is not limited to the struggles for the franchise or to the abolition of slavery, but rather it persists even now in the streets of Athens and New York.  It is alive in the protests in modern Athens against the austerity imposed by their government, by the Americans who protest on Wall Street against the vast concentration of wealth and the inequality that it breeds.  It is the outcries of those who have been stripped of their voice, whose claim to represent themselves have been dwarfed by the institutional claims of their representatives.  In John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power, he calls this ‘the scream’.  In short, it is a “refusal to accept the inevitably of increasing inequality, misery, exploitation and violence…Our scream is a refusal to wallow in being victims of oppression.”[57]  However we see quite clearly that our screams are oppressed.

While the two forms of equality have evolved in dialectic, they have not done so without conflict and tension, in fact this conflict and tension has come to define their relationship with one another.  The proponents of formal democracy have fought hard to ensure that its informal variant maintains its subordinate position in popular culture – for its very legitimacy depends on it.  For while the democratic action of the movement has led to many reforms that have made liberal democracy more inclusive, the democracy of the movement is inherently radical as it represents a complete rejection of the established order and threatens to reveal the aristocratic (or oligarchic, as in practice the government of the ‘best’ consists of those who are the wealthiest) foundation that liberal democracy is built upon.

It is the informal democracy of the movement that presents itself as an ‘aberration’ to our formal democratic institutions.  It is portrayed in the elite-dominated media as the anarchy of the mob, the rioter, the movement of those who have no ambition or will to conform, those who ought to merely get a job and be sated by the material comforts that it provides.  Through our formal education in schools or the informal education of the media we wonder why they do not vote, why they do not appeal to the political party, or why they do not work within ‘the system’ to enact ‘real’ change.  Why do they not hold back their frustrations and express themselves in the “legitimate way”?[58]  However these questions only indicate how little we understand the presupposition of equality that our ‘democratic’ society is allegedly based on, for why would one who is equal, one who in virtue of one’s equality is not required to accept the rule of others, defer to the representatives that rob one of their right to represent themself?


While modern liberal democracies have developed throughout history to be more accountable to their citizenry, through the extension of the franchise and the ‘protection’ of varying rights[59], I am inclined to state that liberal democracies have still sacrificed the latter, democracy, for the former, liberalism (or in other words, capitalism).  Although the modern liberal democracy may make claims of representation which, through the social conditioning of education, media, and laws, allow these governments to maintain legitimacy, the vote itself fails to be the maxim of democracy.  Rather the vote is “the expression of consent”[60] that a governing body requires for maintaining authority, as opposed to a society that is governed by ‘the people’.  Macpherson notes that “the democratic party [system] itself is essentially a competition between elites”[61], that does not require the consideration of the demos, in so far as that consideration is not being offered elsewhere.  So if this is the shape of modern liberal democracy, can it be claimed that it is in fact a democracy?

Is there validity in the claim that: ‘a lie, if told often enough, becomes a truth’?  I believe that is what is at issue here.  Colloquially, democracy is generally understood as the having of ‘free and fair elections’, with certain guarantees of freedoms such as an independent media.[62]  If this is the understanding that has entered our ‘common sense’, then perhaps I am wrong in suggesting that liberal democracy is fundamentally undemocratic.  However if we view democracy as the rule of the people, and not merely the consent of the people, then I do not think we can come to any other conclusion.  While there may exist autocratic regimes that operate without the legitimacy of their people, there exists, to my knowledge, no democratic countries either.  Rather what we observe is that in supposedly ‘democratic’ countries, there is a competition between elites and that the representative claims of the governing elite are generally accepted.

The modern state, then, has effectively curbed the unruliness of the demos that concerned Plato by dispossessing the masses of their political power.  The myth of modern society, the propagation of the idea that democracy is found in our institutions, has replaced the need for Plato’s ‘myth of the metals’ that was needed to legitimate the rule of the guardian class.  By convincing the demos that the government of the best is the only government possible, the government that is absolutely necessary, we have convinced the demos of the validity of Plato.  Thus while democracy may be cast as ‘the rule of the people’, the structural constraints of our constitutions and laws, as well as the social conditioning of the demos have ensured that ‘the people’ are ‘those most fit to rule’, the aristocrats.


[1] For more on ‘democracy for democrats’, see Alain Badiou, “The Democratic Emblem,” in G. Agamben et al. (ed.), Democracy in What State? (New York: Columbia, 2011).

[2] This concept is elaborated both in Chapter 1 of Michael Freeden, Ideologies and Political Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008); and/or Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International, 1971)

[3] Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks. (New York: International, 1971), 450.

[4] C.B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 8.

[5] See Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Slavoj Zizek, First as Tragedy and then as Farce, (New York: Verso, 2009); and Noam Chomsky, Profits Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, (New York: Seven Stories Press, 1999).

[6] Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism, 191.

[7] Ibid., 185.

[8] Morag Buchan, Women in Plato’s Political Theory, (London: Routledge, 1999), 135; for a more in-depth analysis see also Susan Moller Okin, Women in Western Political Thought, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979).

[9] However in the Republic, Plato recognizes that some producers may perform varying functions, his main concern is that the three classes of producer, warrior (auxiliaries), and guardians remain divided.

[10] See Plato’s Republic, Chapters 3-4 on the education of the guardian class with respects to music, poetry, and the creation of myths.

[11] Jacques Ranciere, Hatred of Democracy, (London: Verso, 2009), 42.

[12] Plato, Republic, 559d.

[13] Ibid., 526b10.

[14] This is a reference to the Stanley Cup Riots in Vancouver 2011, as well as the one that occurred in 1994.

[15] Aristotle’s description of ‘extreme democracy’ can be found first in Book 3 of the Politics, but is a subsequently recurring theme throughout the works.

[16] Jacques Ranciere, Hatred of Democracy,  47.

[17] I suggest that some constitutions are immune from change in practice because those marginalized by constitutions are often minorities that, in majoritarian governing structures, have no choice but to submit to their own subordination.

[18] Taken from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 15, Subsection 1.

[19] Jean-Luc Nancy, “Finite and Infinite Democracy” in G. Agamben (eds.), Democracy in What State?, (New York: Columbia, 2011), 66.

[20] See Ellen Meiksins Wood, Democracy Against Capitalism.  In particular, see Chapter 7 for Wood on feudal barons against the monarchy.

[21] See Edmund Burke, Reflection on the Revolution in France and  on the Proceedings in Certain Societies in London Relative to that Event, (London: Penguin, 1986).

[22] C.B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy, 9.

[23] Ibid., 11.

[24] Ibid., 12.

[25] Ibid., 12.

[26] Ibid., 24.

[27] The nature of the inequality between capitalists and wage-labourers (producers) is argued in much of Marx’s Capital (particularly Chapters 7-18), however this is also the topic of Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality as well.

[28] As seen in Article XXX of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts 1780, 1779.

[29] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, (New York: Dover, 2002), 43.

[30] Michael Parenti, Democracy for the Few, (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008), 41.

[31] Jennifer Nedelsky, Private Property and the Limits of American Constitutionalism, (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1994), 27-8.

[32] Jacques Ranciere, Hatred of Democracy, 2-3.

[33] Howard Zinn, People’s History of the United States, (New York: HarperCollins, 2003), 96.

[34] Ibid., 96

[35] The implications of this are expanded in detail in Jacques Ranciere, Hatred of Democracy.

[36] C.B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy,55.

[37] The German state derivation debate begins on the grounds that the form of the modern state, and the functions that it performs, arises from the logic of capitalist social relations, see John Holloway and Sol Picciotto. State and Capital: A Marxist Debate.(Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978).

[38] Some may suggest that candidates in “labour” parties that are funded by unions are exceptions to this, yet I maintain that even here the natural hierarchic structure of the party and, to some extent, the union have filtered out any ‘radicalism’ and replaced it with an acceptable mainstream ideology.

[39] Ibid., 42.

[40] David McNally, Another World Is Possible, (Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2006), 91.

[41] Seen in the Final Report on the Canadian News Media by the Senate’s Standing Committee on Transport and Communications. June 2006. Accessed on March 24th, 2011.

[42] Figure from Table 1 of the Interim Report on the Canadian News Media by the Senate’s Standing Committee on Transport and Communications. April 2004. Accessed on March 24th, 2011.

[43] Michael Saward, The Representative Claim, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 44.

[44] Ibid., 147.

[45] Ibid., 152.

[46] However as mentioned above, one must be wary of how accurate claims of representation are and whether or not such claims are effectively suppressing claims to the contrary.

[47] I use ideology here in the way that Gramsci would use the term, as a conception of the world or the lens through which we view it.

[48] C.B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Liberal Democracy, 65-66.

[49] Ibid., p. 78.

[50] Ibid., p. 68.

[51] This is in reference to Kristin Ross, “Democracy for Sale” in G. Agamben et al. (eds.), Democracy in What State?, (New York: Columbia, 2011).

[52] Ibid.

[53] Stephen Harper’s 2011 Convention Speech, June 13, 2011.

[54] As seen on the WTO website under: “the WTO / 10 Misunderstandings / 10. Undemocratic?” Accessed on March 28th, 2012.

[55] Jacques Ranciere, On The Shores of Politics, (London: Verso, 2006), 91.

[56] Jacques Ranciere, Hatred of Democracy, 46-7.

[57] John Holloway, Change the World Without Taking Power, (London: Pluto, 2010), 6.

[58] Kristen Ross, “Democracy for Sale”, in G. Agamben (ed.), Democracy in What State?, (New York: Columbia, 2011), 87.

[59] I am hesitant to suggest that governments are protectors of rights, as peaceful protesters have been, and continue to be, the victim of police violence in spite of these alleged protections.

[60] Jacques Ranciere, Hatred of Democracy, 53.

[61] C.B. Macpherson, The Life and Times of Democracy, 90.

[62] ‘Independent’ meaning not centrally controlled by the government, the concentration of corporate media vs. independent media is another issue.



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