Tag Archives: democracy

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.

Democracy and the Zamia Palm

(I wrote this in November of 2006.)
(A decade on, with events in Turkey, Thailand, Burma, on the) (African Continent and elsewhere it still seems relevant.)

bar - stones

Macrozamia riedlei, the Zamia Palm is a pretty, palm-like plant of South Western Australia. It is also quite poisonous and has lead to the death of many imported herd animals. Yet the original inhabitants of the area, both human and animal, all lived comfortably with this plant and were even able to add it to their diet.

Macrozamia riedlei (Zamia Palm)

I am led to wonder about other transplants and importations. Democracy is a wonderful political invention. There is no doubt of this fact. It is also a recent evolution in history. It may even be a short-lived failure. Yet if it were so, it will be remembered as a beautiful failure.

Perhaps we should look as closely at Democracy as we do at our plants. Should it be grown in all soils? Does it need a special fertiliser? Could it be poisonous in some climates?

A quick overview of the origins of Democracy would note that an aborted form occurred in Ancient Greece. That Democracy, in part, grew out of the very bloody French Revolution and was immediately transplanted to North America. That it also grew out of the 13th century Magna Carta in England. This was a slow gestation and it was not until the early years of the 20th century that it finally bore the fruit of electoral equality in Britain and its Empire. Europe also saw a successful flowering of Democracy.

There have been many attempts to transplant and impose Democracy into other parts of the world. Most have failed and the transplant has turned poisonous. Much of Africa is ruled by poisonous mutations of democracy. Other variations can be seen in much of Asia and Arabia. Democracy seems to work for a while, then it degenerates into a dictatorship of the small majority. Genocide and electoral manipulation leads to that small majority entrenching itself. Without the correct soil and nutrients, Democracy rapidly mutates into a poisonous caricature.

My American friends often tell me that they do not live in a democracy. That the USA is a Republic. Looking at the political garden in North America, I tend to agree. Democracy has failed that particular transplant. It now exudes a noxious patronage which is afflicting the whole system.

Our headlines at the moment, without mentioning the word, are about America’s urge to transplant democracy yet again. This time into Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea. As political horticulturist I fear for the twisted forms these experiments will take.

Like the Zamia Palm, Democracy can be fatal to those who have not been acclimatised to it from birth.

The Middle Eastern Future

Along with many others I have been watching with hope as the people of the Middle east have risen to throw off the chains of the dictators. The peaceful uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, in their success, raised the hopes of the world that the 21st century would be a time of freedom.

During the past couple of days there has been a niggling worry in the back of my mind. All societies need a Government. There are two choices; Dictatorship or Democracy.

The Middle East is in the process of throwing off the yokes of Dictators. Holders of hereditary or seized power and their generally cruel and oppressive governance.

In several countries there is already a power vacuum and that must be filled in a hurry. The alternative is chaos.

The desire is for the people to have a say in their own governance. Yet how is this to come about?

Democracies do not spring full grown from a revolution. A democracy requires a number of conditions to exist.

Firstly there must be an honest bureaucracy. Secondly, a willingness for the vast majority of the people to accept that they may be the opposition for three or four years, Thirdly, there must be a willingness of an elected ruling group to accept that they may be sent into opposition for several years by a vote of the people. Lastly, the military must accept that it is the servant of the Government, not the other way around.

A democracy cannot exist without these conditions. They are “mindset” conditions, they do not spring full-grown into a society. They can be easily subverted.

A democracy is merely a temporary dictatorship of bare majority over an almost majority. To keep that democracy, it is necessary for almost all of a society, winners and losers, to agree that the rules must be adhered to.

This is where I can see problems arising for the new Governments of the Middle East. While there is a vast majority of the people who believe change is necessary, there is no true agreement on what should take the place of the current Government.

The greatest danger is that a populist demagogue could well come to power and then change into a new Dictator. As has happened on many occasions before.

And once again the people lose.

Castro Steps Down.

After 49 years, the long-serving leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, is finally stepping down.

Famous for his six hour speeches and for the little acknowledged fact that the Castro regime brought peace and an end to corruption to a war-torn Cuba, Castro has long been the target for jealous American Administrations. Most of those administrations have hated being shown how to run a country with honesty and integrity!

Now President Bush has urged Cubans to “begin a period of democratic transition.”

The US president said the “first step” was for the Cuban Government to release political prisoners, and urged the international community to help build democratic institutions in Cuba.

We’re going to help. The United States will help the people of Cuba realise the blessings of liberty,” he said. “There will be an interesting debate that will arise, eventually. There will be some who say ‘let’s promote stability’, of course, in the meantime, political prisoners will rot in prison and the human condition will remain pathetic in many cases.”

I think George W Bush has finally learned the meaning of “Irony”!

Look Out Iran,

Venezuela and anyone else who has our oil!