A Short, Depressing History of Democracy.

Still in existence in this, the 21st Century, are small groups of people, tribal bands, which have a form of proto-democracy. In these small groups of normally less than 100 people, decisions are made by consensus. These remnant hunter gatherers give hints as to how our distant pre-sedentary ancestors governed themselves.

Face-to-face discussions work well when everyone in the group knows each other. When responsibility is clearly known by all members of the group. That this form of governance still exists in remote tribes in the Amazon and in the Kalahari Desert among the San and even in Outback Australia where Indigenous Australians have returned to Communities within their homelands makes it plausible to assume that democracy in one form or another arises naturally in any small well-bonded group or tribe.

Then hunting and gathering bands gave way to larger pastoral, agrarian and trading groups who began to live in villages, then towns and eventually cities. It was no longer possible to know everyone in the community and so primitive methods of governance gave way to new forms of leadership.

Probably the first was rule by the strongest later mixed with rule by the richest. Monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, priesthoods and oligarchy – have all flourished in more urban centres, often those with concentrated populations.

The key to the majority of these systems of government was that it was one man rule. There was little or no thought given to succession. The death of a leader precipitated a time of trouble and uncertainty. This was sometimes overcome by quarantining leadership within a single family but this was often a two or three generational solution as the leadership ability of the originator of the family line would often disappear with the grandson.

The Greeks, and possibly their Middle Eastern neighbours, grew tired of the destruction caused by succession battles and invented, or reverted, to the original form of Government. A primitive democracy. Not one involving universal suffrage but a democracy based on the opinions and votes of free, males of some societal standing.

In 507 B.C., the Athenian leader Cleisthenes introduced a system of political reforms that he called demokratia, or “rule by the people.” This system had three separate institutions:

1; the Ekklesia, a sovereign governing body that wrote laws and dictated foreign policy;
2; the Boule, a council of representatives from the ten Athenian tribes;
3; the Dikasteria, the popular courts in which citizens argued cases before a group of lottery-selected jurors.

An early example of the separation of powers we see in many Western Democracies today.

That enlightened age lasted just 50 years before the General, Pericles, began to change the system into an Aristocracy. A group of leading (i.e. wealthy) families took control of the city. Firstly by buying the votes of the franchised and secondly by openly exercising the power their inherited wealth gave them.

Other Greek and Middle-Eastern City States followed similar routes into and out of proto-Democracy. Then the Tyrants rose again. The Zhou had taken control of the initial Chinese Empire 500 years earlier. The king of Zhou at this time invoked the concept of the Mandate of Heaven to legitimize his rule, a concept that was influential for almost every succeeding dynasty.  Philip of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great took control of vast swathes of Western humanity and Alexander was raised to the status of a God-King.

For the next 2,000 years Tyrants in one form or another ruled in the West. The major player in this was the Rome-based Catholic Church which sainted its favourites and excommunicated its enemies. Those just trying to live a life went along with this because it was the safest thing to do.

Until the leaders became too greedy and too rapacious.

From the revolt led by Wat Tyler in 14th century England to the French Revolution, extreme poverty was the catalyst for attempts at reform. The French version seemed to succeed for a while, although Napoleon arrived on the scene and took control for several decades. However the ideals of the French revolution were exported to the newly formed United States of America and Democracy found an apparently permanent home.

Democracy developed independently in Britain and France. As a result of the Anglo-Saxon, of varying accents, invasions in Europe it took hold in the rest of Western Europe. Democracy was also imposed in the Eastern World through the American invasion of Japan and South Korea.

A close look at all these democracies shows a familiar and extremely worrying trend. This form of Government has always, from the days of the hunter-gatherers, relied on the electorate having an accurate knowledge of the world.

In the House of Commons, on 31 October 1944, Winston Churchill said, ‘At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper – no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of that point.’

An aristocracy of wealth is stealthily claiming back the power it lost in the great revolutions. Aided by a consolidation of the means of communication and a knowledge of the behaviour of homo sapiens en masse, they are taking control of that little pencil. From several centuries of advertising experience, the selling of a selected politician is child’s play to the expert manipulators of an uninformed public.

It seems the natural form of Government of an Urban conglomerate is a Tyrant in one form or another.

Want to help me grease the Guillotine.

One response to “A Short, Depressing History of Democracy.

  1. Short and depressing but ultimately factual description of Democracy. Have you read the book Sapiens. It is a longer more depressing factual description and not as accessible as your account but nevertheless an interesting read. I really love your ability to get all your ducks (or words in a line)/

    Like

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