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Democracy – Crick

April 30, 2013

“Many meanings attach to the word democracy,” writes Bernard Crick in his Very Short Introduction; “If there is one true meaning then it is, indeed, as Plato might have said, stored up in heaven; but unhappily has not yet been communicated to us. The word is what some philosophers have called ‘an essentially contested concept’, one of those terms we can never all agree to define in the same way because the very definition carries a different social, moral, or political agenda. But somehow, nowadays, at least, we cannot life without it.” (p.1) …

“Plato, of course,” Crick continues, “detested democracy. To him it was the rule of doxa over philosophia, of opinion over knowledge.” (p.1)

“However, in broad terms the number of different usages of ‘democracy’ that have had any practical effect have not been all that many. By practical effect I mean when there is some congruence [-p.3] between democracy perceived as a set of values and democracy perceived as a set of institutional arrangements. We can see this best if we consider the history both of the values and of the institutions that have been called democratic.” (pp.2-3)

“…it is always necessary to remember that we are considering a term that has had no meaning at all in most societies for most of human history, and that while most governments in the modern world feel the need to call themselves democratic, many are at or beyond the outer limits of any of the main usages of the term historically.” (p.3)

Crick warns that “Three somewhat different stories (or accountings) [of ‘democracy’] must run side by side…. There is democracy as a principle or doctrine of government; there is democracy as a set of institutional arrangements or constitutional devices; and there is democracy as a type of behavior (say the antithesis of both deference and unsociability). They do not always go together. Voting for leaders, for instance, is a democratic device; but many medieval monks in a highly autocratic Church elected their own abbots; Viking war bands would elect a new leader if a chief died on campaing, and Horatio tell us that Hamlet’s dying breath was to give his vote to Fortinbras to be king of Denmark (‘not how we do it in England’, but an Elizabethan audience had evidently heard of such oddities as elective monarchy – they did not need programme notes or a chorus to tell them). The second word of warning is that the history of what is meant by democratic has been hard, until very recently, to disentangle from that of ‘republic’ and ‘republican’.” (p.5)

“The tradition of Roman republicanism,” he continues, “was revived in the 16th and 17th centuries (finding its finest advocacy and analysis in Machiavelli’s Discourses) and was an animating idea in the American and French Revolutions; and while it was not democratic as most of us would think of democracy, in that it firmly denied that everyone was fit to vote, and gave some good reasons, yet in some senses it was more democratic than many of us today would feel comfortable with because it stressed the duty of all who were citizens to participate actively in public life and affairs of state (what scholars call ‘civic republicanism’). Today we tend to think that we all have the right to do so, if we feel like it, or not, every so often, if we care to, but that the state will provide laws to protect our individual liberties nonetheless (what scholars call ‘liberalism’). But it is wrong, as we will see, to attribute this ‘falling off’ (or widespread confidence that we can safely leave it all to others) only to the late 20th-century consumer society, Thatcherism, or the deification of [-p.6] the market economy. The roots go deeper and are at the heart oof the very ambiguity of the terms ‘democracy’ and ‘liberty’ and their associated practices.” (pp.5-6)

Some say that democracy really means liberty, even liberalism or individualism: laws must defend the (democratic) individual against the (democratic) state. Alexis de Tocqueville partly misread the early 19th-century USA to see democracy as almost a synonym for equality, whereas Andrew Carnegie in his bestseller Triumphant Democracy used it to celebrate a highly mobile free-enterprise, market society with great differences in wealth but justifiable as the product of talent driven by the iron laws of evolution. A trade union conference in the 1930s was told by Ernest Bevin that it was not democratic for a minority to continue to question the decisions of the majority after a vote had been taken, and he received the equally sincere and confusing reply from an offending brother that democracy meant that he could say what he liked, how he liked, and when he liked, even against a majority of the Transport and General Workers Union – which was saying a lot in those days. Or democracy may be seen as a political system that puts constitutional restraints even upon a freely elected (hence democratic) government (the most sought-after use, but historically implausible and usually purely rhetorical). Opposed to ‘constitutional democracy’ are the ideas of ‘sovereignty of the people’ or ‘the general will’, which should prevail over formal constitutional limitations interpreted by lawyers. To some democracy meant little more than ‘one man one vote’ (and now women, of course), to which others would add hopefully ‘plus real choices’. And in broad terms, embracing most of these usages, democracy can be seen as a recipe for an acceptable set of institutions, or else a ‘way of life’ in which ‘the spirit of democracy’ becomes at least as important as the peculiarity of the [-p.10] institutions. For some think that the hallmark of such a way of life lies, indeed, in the deed and not the word: people acting and behaving democratically in patterns of friendship, speech, dress, and amusements, treating everyone else as if they were an equal.” (pp.9-10)

“So we must not leap to the conclusion that there is a ‘true democracy’ which is a natural amalgam of good government as representative government, political justice, equality, liberty, and human rights. For such volatile ingredients can at times be unstable unless in carefully measured and monitored combinations. Is ‘good government’ or ‘social justice’ unequivocally democratic, even in the nicest liberal senses? Probably not. Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s of the inevitability of democracy, but warned against ‘the dangers of a tyranny of the majority’. Well, perhaps he cared less for democracy than he did for liberty. But even Thomas Jefferson remarked in his old age that ‘an elective despotism was not what we fought for’; and Oliver Wendell Holmes, long the great defender of civil liberties on the United States Supreme Court, once said sarcastically ‘democracy is what the crowd wants’. John Stuart Mill, whose Essay on Liberty and Considerations on Representative Government are two of the great books of the modern world, came to believe that every adult (yes, women too) should have the vote, but only after compulsory secondary education had been instituted and had time [-p.11] to take effect.” (pp.10-11)

“‘Democracy’ may be a promiscuous and often purely rhetorical word and certainly not a single value embracing or overriding all other values in all circumstances, but I am not saying that we live in a world of the Mad Tea-Party in which words ‘mean what I say’. There are limits, but these limits are to be found historically in four broad usages or clusters of meaning attached to ‘democracy’. These we must briefly examine because they are at the root of our civilization, and of the hope that it will remain civilized and even perhaps (as the 19th century hoped) progress. As we consider them we must be aware of whether we are talking of an ideal or doctrine; or of a type of behaviour towards others; or of certain institutional and legal arrangements. Democracy can refer to all of these together or to each separately.” (p.11)

The first usage is found in the Greeks, in Plato’s attack on it and in Aristotle’s highly qualified defence: democracy is simply, in the Greek, demos (the mob, the many) and kratos, meaning rule. Plato attacked this as being the rule of the poor and the ignorant over the educated and the knowledgeable. His fundamental distinction was between knowledge and opinion: democracy is the rule, or rather the anarchy, of mere opinion. Aristotle modified this view rather than rejecting it utterly: good government was a mixture of elements, the few ruling with the consent of the many. The few should have aristoi, excellence, the idealized concept of aristocracy. But many more can qualify for citizenship by virtue of some [-p.12] education and some property (both of which he thought necessary conditions for citizenship). Democracy as a doctrine or ideal unchecked by the aristocratic principle of experience and knowledge was, however, a fallacy – the belief ‘that because men are equal in some things, they are equal in all’.” (p.11)

The second usage is found in the Roman republic, in Machiavelli’s great Discourses, in the 17th-century English and Dutch republicans, and in the early American republic: that good government is mixed government, just as in Aristotle’s theory, but that the democratic popular element could actually give greater power to a state. Good laws to protect all are not good enough unless subjects became active citizens making their own laws collectively. The argument was both moral and prudential. The moral argument is the more famous: both Roman paganism and later Protestantism had in common a view of man as an active individual, a maker and shaper of things, not just a law-abiding well-behaved accepter of and a subject to traditional order. But the prudential argument was always there: a state trusted by its people was a stronger state; and a citizen or militia was more motivated to defend their homeland than hired mercenaries or cautious professionals.” (p.12)

The third usage is found in the rhetoric and events of the French Revolution and in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Everyone, regardless of education or property, has a right to make his or her will felt in matters of public concern; and indeed the general will or common good is better understood by any well-meaning, simple, unselfish, and natural ordinary person from their own experience and conscience than by the over-educated living amid the artificiality of high society. Now this view can have a lot to do with the liberation of a class or a nation, whether from oppression or ignorance and superstition, but it is not necessarily connected with or compatible with individual liberties. (In the European 18th and 19th centuries, remember, most people who cared for liberty did not call themselves democrats at all; they called [-p.13] themselves constitutionalists or civic republicans or, in the Anglo-American discourse, Whigs.)” (pp.12-13)

The fourth usage of democracy is found in the American constitution and in many of the new constitutions in Europe in the 19th century and in the new West German and Japanese constitutions following the Second World War, also in the writings of John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville: that all can participate if they care (and care they should), but they must then mutually respect the equal rights of fellow citizens within a regulatory legal order that defines, protects, and limits those rights. This is what most people today in the United States, Europe, the Commonwealth, and Japan etc. ordinarily mean by democracy – let us call it ‘modern democracy’, ideally a fusion (but quite often a confusion) of the idea of power of the people and the idea of legally guaranteed individual rights. The two should, indeed, be combined, but they are distinct ideas, and can prove mutually contradictory in practice. There can be and have been intolerant democracies and reasonably tolerant autocracies. In the modern era of industry, the mass franchise, and mass communications we can find it difficult to combine freedom and popular power.” (p.13)

“The invention of democracy and political rule, and then the tradition of governing by means of political debate among citizens, has its roots in the practices and thought of the Greek polis and the ancient Roman republic. It is not myopically Eurocentric, or rather Graeco-Romano-centric, to see the history and actual alternative usages of ‘democracy’ thus. It is historical fact. Great empires, large-scale state formations first arose outside whatever land-mass area or mentality is meant by Europe, and universal monotheistic religions arose from the Middle East and Asia; but modern science and democratic ideas and practices first arose in Europe. Science, religion, and democracy all, of course, take on different modalities as they travel, and both influence and are influenced by different historical cultures.” (p.13)

“Back to the word. The Oxford Classical Dictionary tells us that the word first emerged around the turn of the 5th to 4th centuries BC after revolts in Athens had removed a dynasty of tyrants from power. Demokratia was what the word meant: the rule (kratos) of the people (demos). ‘Tyranny’ originally simply meant rule by one man, not necessarily in our sense an oppressor, usually a usurper of kings; an individual tyrant could be good, bad, or not so bad. Nonetheless the tyrants were removed by a large number of the inhabitants of a polis or city state who were already beginning to think of themselves as polites, citizens of that state, that with legal rights including the right to speak out and be heard and consulted on matters of common interest, the politeia or polity.” (p.14)

“So I am sorry to tell the authors of an American college textbook that Aristotle cannot be invoked as ‘the father of democratic political thought’. He was aware of the difficulties of an unrestrained democracy. He saw three basic forms of government, each of which had an ideal and a corrupt form. Monarchy was the rule of one, but the monarch had to be perfectly just otherwise the rule degenerated into tyranny…. Aristocracy meant literally the rule of the wise, but all too often that degenerated into oligarchy (rule of the strong) or plutocracy (rule of the rich). Democracy meant the rule of many but all too often degenerated into anarchy. A state was infinitely stronger if rulers were trusted by the people, if they could carry the people with them by free public debate, and at best they had emerged from the people. But a state needed an educated elite who possessed, not Plato’s imagined absolute knowledge, but a kind of practical wisdom that was a mixture of education and experience. So democracy was an essential element in good government; not impossible but very difficult. The principle of democracy by itself was to Aristotle fallacious: ‘the belief that because men are equal in some things they are equal in all’. If the only choice in practice was between aristocratic oligarchy and democracy, then he favoured democracy. But the advantage of an aristocratic element of influence in a city [-p.22] was that possession of modest property allowed leisure and leisure allowed education and the pursuit of knowledge, which was needed for government as much as for science and commerce. Thomas Hobbes was echoing Aristotle, for once, when he said that ‘leisure is the mother of philosophy’.” (pp.21-22)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold mine) Bernard Crick (c2002) Democracy: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press: Oxford


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