Ever since Occupy Wall Street hit Zuccotti Park (or Liberty Plaza as it was known before its re-naming on behalf of the owners) in the autumn of 2011, ‘democracy’ has re-discovered its practice as a form of deliberation, consideration, even governance, that attempts to act via the process of consensus, and if that is not possible then by at least majority agreement, all of which is conducted (or meant to be conducted) via discussion and argument that allows everyone to participate. This might make for strange viewing and clearly gets in the way of certain definitions of ‘efficiency’. Yet, democracies are not designed to be ‘efficient’ in the sense of spending money or time, except insofar as people who want a say in how they are governed are generally more willing to ‘spend’ the time and tend not to see it as ‘inefficient’.
While I do not want to belittle the problems that still exist even within the general assemblies of the popular mass movements of the last year or two, as the result of hundreds of years racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination and hatred based upon forms of conformity that no doubt have an effect on so many of us, it is equally important to recognize that ‘democracy’ as a word and a concept may be regaining part of its lost historical, linguistic roots of one important – and largely neglected – meaning.
It also means that ‘democracy’ is regaining its linguistic currency or definition amongst elites (if it was ever forgotten) as a ‘threat’.
What do I mean? Claims by governing parties (elites) about what ‘democracy’ is are frequently invoked as a means to deflect claims by social movements, when they are able to demonstrate their popular power with support on the streets and in communities across a nation, which also invoke another and ‘popular’ definition of ‘democracy’. For most elites, ‘democracy’ has been feared and referred to as ‘mob rule’, whether explicitly or implicitly.
That is, until the middle of the 20th Century, ‘democracy’ was one of those words, the meaning of which, was primarily pernicious or pejorative. This might appear to be ‘odd’ on the face of it, since so many of the societies within which we live call themselves ‘democracies’ and they appear to be benevolent and subject to the will of the majority, if that is one of the primary meanings of democracy.
And, increasingly, the political parties that function as proxies for the business/wealthy elites (aka 1%), usually Conservatives or Tories, Liberals, Democrats and Republicans (and including ‘New Labour’ and some social democratic parties or politicians), also try to limit the meaning of ‘democracy’ to just one of its meanings: ‘representative democracy’.
What I would like to provide here is a summary of the brilliant excavation of history that Raymond Williams provided through his book, Keywords (first published in 1976), where he uncovers the history of the ‘democracy’ and its meanings.
Please forgive my summary, but I would encourage you to purchase the book and read not just his essay on ‘democracy’, but on many more keywords to understanding our society and condition, and to recognize that no term has its meaning fixed in one way forever.
While the word, ‘democracy’, originates with the Greek, meaning ‘the rule of the people’, I have read a more recent translation that indicated that Aristotle understood and used the term to mean ‘rule by the poor’ (a form of governance that he did not think was ideal). Of course, it would be the rule by the 99%, if the current type of democracy was not dependent upon ‘public relations’ or what PR’s godfather, Edward Bernays, wanted to call it: ‘propaganda’.
The term, ‘democracy’, Williams writes, was a ‘strongly unfavourable term’ until the 19th Century and had two basic definitions:
(1) a form of ‘popular class rule’;
(2) ‘rule by representatives, including elected representatives’.
Interestingly, Williams points out that definition (2) changes. He writes that in Rhode Island, at least as of 1641, ‘freemen’ made the laws and ministers had to carry out what the ‘people’ (at least those permitted to participate) wanted or passed in assemblies.
The American leader, Alexander Hamilton, in 1777 identified a form of ‘representative democracy’ as the way to establish governance of the Republic as it was fighting for its life. Hamilton’s definition is the one that is dominant today: ‘where the right of election is well secured and regulated, and the exercise of the legislative executive and judicial authorities is vested in select persons’.
Jeremy Bentham identified democracy as ‘rule by the majority of the people’ but
distinguished two forms:
(a) ‘direct democracy’
(b) ‘representative democracy’
Williams goes on to identify how throughout history elites attempted to re-define or limit ‘democracy’ by limiting the definition of ‘the people’ to certain groups, such as the rich, the propertied, and, usually, white men.
Williams points out how the right to vote for representatives is not the same as ‘popular power’ and in the French Revolution, for example, for the elites ‘democracy’ meant ‘uncontrolled’ popular power, and it was something to be feared, especially for those adherents of conservatism as formulated by Edmund Burke.
The dislike for direct democracy or democracy as the rule of the poor (Aristotle) is something that scares Republicans, Democrats, Tories, Liberals and even many social democrats. Yet, if our constitutional democracies are going to advance in any way, they have to engage the majority of people and it means ceding power from the 1% to the 99% (to the use the more popular framing of ‘democracy’ at present).
Williams points out that the specialized sense of ‘representative democracy’ was created in reaction to the revolutionary or radical understanding of ‘democracy’ which was prevalent until the middle of the 19th century. From this point, the meaning diverges (interestingly, this is also when Chartism was already on the wane).
For the liberal tradition, that comes out of the French Revolution (as does the conservative movement), democracy means the ‘open election of representatives’ and that certain rights (e.g. free speech) and the ‘openness of election and political argument’ should be guaranteed.
However, for the socialist tradition, the third movement that comes out of the French Revolution, democracy continues to mean ‘popular power’, although some forms of socialism, such as social democracy, took representative democracy where the state could be directed in the interests of the majority of people as the means to bridge inequality in society.
I will end here simply by adding that the attacks on ‘democracy’ and the occupy and other mass movements, such as the student strike in Quebec, are attempts to make out that those popular and mass movements as ‘undemocratic’, particularly those that appear to threaten the very foundation of the wealth and power of the elites (liberal, conservative, business, government), and thereby cast those movements as ‘illegitimate’. This is a much easier task when the media is public (state) and private (corporate-controlled) rather than controlled by the mass movements themselves.
Unfortunately, for the elites, there are many more people who are thinking for themselves, especially as the business elites continue to use the state to bail themselves out and to impose cuts and austerity on those who are most dis-enfranchised by the present system.
It is important to recognize that, historically, once elites realised that they could not resist the establishment of ‘democracy’ in some form, they then acted to try and restrict who could take part in such a ‘democracy’. This has now changed to attempting to suppress voters and/or direct them away from having their votes counted. We have seen this taking place in the most ‘advanced’ democracies of the ‘Western’ world.
What occupy and the ordinary people are drawing attention to is how ‘democracy’ has been operated as a game to exclude the 99%, and at present OWS and other popular mass movements are saying that the people should no longer be excluded.