The beginnings of democracy

Democracy means “people’s power” in Greek and it is what some ancient Greeks called their system of government in Athens. Many people in Europe still talk about Greece as being the seed-bed of democracy.

But Athenian democracy was based on a very narrow definition of who “the people” were. Every adult male free citizen could take part in deliberations and decisions on all important political issues. Adult males could not have been more than a quarter of the population. Free citizens were a minority of those, so less than 10% of the population made all the decisions for everybody. That sounds about as near to “people’s power” as rule by white adult citizens was in South Africa.

In fact, people’s power has found ways of expressing itself from the very beginning of the human race.

We can only speculate about details, but humans first organised themselves in family groups, with the father usually in charge. He might want to be a dictator, but if so he could be restrained. Before he grew too old, he would have had grownup sons who could resist him if he went too far. Their mothers and sisters had influence too, even if they were not expected to show it openly.

As a family grew into a clan, the Old Man could not know every detail of what was going on among his followers. With more adult members, there was more room for people to disagree with the Old Man and to develop their own ideas.

Wise men recognise that if you can’t beat them, it’s better to join them. The Old Man learned to call on the most influential men (and, experts say, women too in some societies) for advice. Where a clan contained a lot of vocal and strong-minded people, that could have developed quite quickly into a system for consulting everyone. The easiest way was to hold meetings of the whole clan, where everyone, or at least every adult, could make their views heard and influence the chief’s decisions.

That means that the chief’s and the sabhuku’s dare are democratic institutions with a very long history. Now some readers may protest that having one leader for life doesn’t fit well with modern ideas of democracy. Maybe, but it worked for millennia. It probably worked because the chief-for-life could not become a dictator. He could not overrule or oppress people – because he was not much stronger or richer than them.

In African tradition a chief was expected to be strong and wise. So a good chief was probably stronger than most individuals. But how many men would it take to resist him if he tried to do something really unjust or oppressive? People could break away from a chief they disagreed with if the disagreements were serious enough. This was accepted because it couldn’t be stopped as long as no one person, be he chief or a rival to his power, was much richer than anybody else.

Nobody could buy enough support to disrupt the system. Another important factor was that nobody had weapons powerful enough to force everyone to obey him. As long as wealth was fairly equally distributed and technology was fairly simple, no dictator could last for long. Few people would have succeeded in becoming dictators at all, because their thirst for power could be nipped in the bud.

Many traditional societies around the world operated as fully participatory democracies – as long as economic and military power were reasonably evenly distributed. That doesn’t mean political life was free from disputes. As long as we are human, we have our disagreements and some people will try to push the limits, but they couldn’t push them very far.

Things became different whenever a new farming method made some people much richer than others, or new weapons gave them more military power. That is where the modern debate on democracy began.

It started in an unequal society and it was about how we could return to the respect and care for every citizen which existed in economically and technically simpler societies.

Post published in: Analysis

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *