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Historicizing democracy

September 7, 2011

I’m just quoting Raymond Williams, but the history of this word is worth discovering:

Democracy is a very old word but its meanings have always been complex.  It came into English in C16, from fw démocratie, F, democratia, mL – a translation of demokratia, Gk, from rw demos – people, kratos – rule.” (p93)

The meaning in the original Greek sense, Williams reminds us, is dependent on the senses given to people and to rule – and consequent interpretations of the term suffer the same difficulty.  “The range of uses, near the root of the term,” he writes, “makes any simple derivation impossible.  It can, however, be said at once that several of these uses – and especially those which indicate a form of popular class rule – are at some distance from any orthodox modern ‘Western’ definition of democracy.  Indeed, the emergence of that orthodox definition, which has its own uncertainties, is what needs to be traced.  ‘Democracy’ is now often traced back to medieval precedents and given a Greek authority.  But the fact is that, with only occasional exceptions, democracy, in the records that we have, was until C19 a strongly unfavourable term, and it is only since lC19 and eC20 that a majority of political parties and tendencies have united in declaring their belief in it.  This is the most striking historical fact.

Aquinas defined democracy as popular power, where the ordinary people, by force of numbers, governed – oppressed – the rich; the whole people acting like a tyrant.  This strong class sense remained the predominant meaning until lC18 and eC19, and was still active in mC19 argument.” (p94)

“… a democracy was a state in which all had the right to rule and did actually rule; it was even contrasted (e.g. by Spinoza) with a state in which there was rule by representatives, including elected representatives.  It was in this sense that the first political constitution to use the term democracy – that of Rhode Island in 1641 – understood it: ‘popular government; that is to say it is in the power of the body of freemen orderly assembled, or a major part of them, to make or constitute Lawes, by which they will be regulated, and to depute from among themselves such ministers as shall see them faithfully executed between man and man.'” (my emphasis, p94)

“It is from this altered American use,” Williams writes, “that a dominant modern sense developed.  Bentham formulated a general sense of democracy as rule by the majority of the people, and then distinguished between ‘direct democracy’ and ‘representative democracy’, recommending the latter because it provided continuity and could be extended to large societies.  These important practical reasons have since been both assumed and dropped, so that in mC20 an assertion of democracy in the Rhode Island sense, or in Bentham’s direct sense, could be described as ‘anti-democratic’, since the first principle of democracy is taken to be rule by elected representatives.  The practical arguments are of course serious, and in some circumstances decisive, but one of the two most significant changes in the meaning of democracy is this exclusive association with one of its derived forms, and the attempted exclusion of one of its original forms; at one period, its only form.

The second major change has to do with interpretation of the people.  There is some significant history in the various attempts to limit ‘the people’ to certain qualified groups: freemen, owners of property, the wise, white men, men, and so on.  Where democracy is defined by a process of election, such limited constitutions can be claimed to be fully democratic: the mode of choosing representatives is taken as more important than the proportion of ‘the people’ who have any part in this.” (p95)

He continues: “The development of democracy is traced through institutions using this mode rather than through the relations between all the people and a form of government.  This interpretation is orthodox in most accounts of the development of English democracy.  Indeed democracy is said to have been ‘extended’ stage by stage, where what is meant is clearly the right to vote for representatives rather than the old (and until eC19 normal English) sense of popular power.” (pp95-96)

“It is from this point in the argument that two modern meanings of democracy can be seen to diverge.  In the socialist tradition, democracy continued to mean popular power: a state in which the interests of the majority of the people were paramount and in which these interests were practically exercised and controlled by the majority.  In the liberal tradition, democracy meant open election of representatives and certain conditions (democratic rights, such as free speech) which maintained the openness of election and political argument.  These two conceptions, in their extreme forms, now confront each other as enemies. …These positions, with their many minor variants, divide the modern meanings of democracy between them, but this is not usually seen as historical variation of the term; each position, normally, is described as ‘the only true meaning,’ and the alternative use is seen as propaganda or hypocrisy.” (p96)

Ref: Raymond Williams (c1983) Keywords; a vocabulary of culture and society. Fontana Press: London (emphasis in colour, mine)

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