Models of Democracy
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Models of Democracy

David Held

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eBook - ePub

Models of Democracy

David Held

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The first two editions of Models of Democracy have proven immensely popular among students and specialists worldwide. In a succinct and far-reaching analysis, David Held provides an introduction to central accounts of democracy from classical Greece to the present and a critical discussion of what democracy should mean today.

This new edition has been extensively revised and updated to take account of significant transformations in world politics, and a new chapter has been added on deliberative democracy which focuses not only on how citizen participation can be increased in politics, but also on how that participation can become more informed.

Like its predecessor, the third edition of Models of Democracy combines lucid exposition and clarity of expression with careful scholarship and originality, making it highly attractive to students and experts in the field. The third edition will prove essential reading for all those interested in politics, political theory and political philosophy.

A companion website to Models of Democracy provides lecturer and student resources; including a study guide, an interview with the author and links to develop the reader's understanding of the topics covered.

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Classical Democracy: Athens

In the fifth century BC, Athens emerged as the most innovative and sophisticated ‘city-state’ or polis among many rival Greek communities.1 The reasons for its development and for the establishment of its extraordinary ‘democratic’ way of life are not of prime concern here, although a few comments are in order.
From 800 to 500 BC, urban patterns of civilization slowly crystallized in the Greek world; many small, often tightly knit communities hugged the coastline, while few could be found very far inland (see Finley, 1963, 1973a; P. Anderson, 1974a, pp. 29–44). Initially, these cities were typically controlled by local kingships but later, often after violent conflicts, they came to be dominated by ‘clan’ and ‘tribal’ hierarchies. One commentator describes these cities as essentially ‘residential nodes of concentration for farmers and landowners: in the typical small town of this epoch, the cultivators lived within the walls of the city and went out to work in the fields every day, returning at night – although the territory of the cities always included an agrarian circumference with a wholly rural population settled in it’ (P. Anderson, 1974a, pp. 29–30). The growth of land and overseas trade stimulated the development of particularly well-placed coastal cities, some of which came to enjoy periods of sustained growth.
The political continuity of the early city-states was broken by the rise of the ‘tyrants’ or autocrats (c.650–510 BC), who represented the interests of those who had recently become wealthy through either landownership or commerce and trade. The clan and tribal order gave way to more tyrannous regimes. But the stability of these regimes was vulnerable to shifting alliances and coalitions. The growth of wealth for some was not matched by improvements in the conditions of the poorer classes, particularly those who were landless or owned small farms and peasant holdings. An expansion in the population increased pressure on the privileged, and a period of intensive social struggle ensued. In the complex and intensive politics of the cities, concessions often had to be made to preserve a balance of power; and the concessions that were made, notably in Athens but also elsewhere, strengthened the economic autonomy of small and medium-sized farmers as well as of some categories of peasants, creating a community of smallholders (see Hornblower, 1992, pp. 3–4). The status of these groups was elevated further by important changes in military organization which made moderately prosperous farmers and peasants, among others, central to the community’s defence (see Mann, 1986, pp. 197–204). It was this change, perhaps more than any other, that affected the future political structure of city-states.
A growing number of independent citizens enjoyed a substantial increase in the scope of their activities with the expansion of slavery (a point returned to at greater length below). It was the formation of a slave economy – in mining, agriculture and certain craft industries – which, as has been remarked, ‘permitted the sudden florescence of Greek urban civilization 
 the free citizen now stood out in full relief, against the background of slave labourers’ (P. Anderson, 1974a, pp. 36–7; cf. Dickenson, 1997, ch. 2). Greek city communities acquired a growing sense of identity and solidarity. Clear lines of demarcation were drawn between ‘insiders’ (citizens) and ‘outsiders’ (slaves and other categories of people including all those, however respectable, who had come from other communities and resettled). This identity was reinforced by a growth in literacy which also aided the administration and control of people and resources (although the ancient world remained predominantly an oral culture).
Innovations in the ‘constitutions’ of city-states followed, transforming the written and unwritten legal codes which had been passed down through the generations (see Finley, 1975). It appears that during the mid-sixth century the first ‘democratic’ polity emerged in Chios, though others, all with their own particularities and idiosyncrasies, soon formed. While Athens stands out as the pinnacle of this development, the new political culture became fairly widespread throughout Greek civilization, enfranchising the whole of the free citizenry (cf. Hornblower, 1992, pp. 1–2). It is worth stressing that the emergence of these early democracies did not result from a single set of events; rather, their development was marked by a process of continuous change over many generations. But the question remains: why was it that the developments referred to above led to the creation of a type of democracy?
This is a difficult question, the answer to which is by no means fully clear. Of all the factors that could be stressed, it was the conjunction perhaps of the emergence of an economically and militarily independent citizenry in the context of relatively small and compact communities that nurtured a democratic way of life (cf. Finley, 1983; Mann, 1986, ch. 7; Dunn, 1992, chs 1–3). Political changes took place within geographically and socially demarcated communities of a few thousand people living closely together either within one urban centre or within the surrounding countryside.2 In these communities, communication was relatively easy, news travelled quickly and the impact of particular social and economic arrangements was fairly immediate. Questions of political culpability and responsibility were almost unavoidable, and the kinds of obstacle to political participation posed by large, complex societies were not yet significant. These factors – size, complexity and degree of political heterogeneity – are of great importance in democratic theory, although, I shall argue, the eventual demise of classical Greek democracy does not mean the end of all historical opportunities for extensive participation in public affairs. But having said this, it is as well to bear in mind that even in Athens the composition of the demos consisted entirely of free adult males of strictly Athenian descent.3

Political ideals and aims

The development of democracy in Athens has been a central source of inspiration for modern political thought (cf. Finley, 1983; Bernal, 1987). Its political ideals – equality among citizens, liberty, respect for the law and justice – have influenced political thinking in the West, although there are some central ideas, for instance, the modern liberal notion that human beings are ‘individuals’ with ‘rights’, that cannot be directly traced to Athens. The legacy of Athens was, however, by no means accepted uncritically by the great Greek thinkers who examined its ideas and culture, including Thucydides (c.460–399 BC), Plato (c.427–347 BC) and Aristotle (384–322 BC) (see Jones, 1957; Farrar, 1992). Their works contain some of the most challenging and durable assessments of the limitations of democratic theory and practice that have been written. It is a remarkable fact that there is no major ancient Greek democratic theorist whose writings and ideas we can turn to for the details and justification of the classical democratic polis. Our record of this flourishing culture must be pieced together from sources as diverse as fragments of writing, the work of the critical ‘opposition’ and the findings of historians and archaeologists.
The ideals and aims of Athenian democracy are strikingly recounted in the famous funeral speech attributed to Pericles, a prominent Athenian citizen, general and politician. The speech, written down and probably recomposed by Thucydides some thirty years after its delivery, extols the political strengths and importance of Athens (see Finley, 1972). There are two passages in particular that deserve to be highlighted:
Let me say that our system of government does not copy the institutions of our neighbours. It is more the case of our being a model to others, than of our imitating anyone else. Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other. We do not get into a state with our next door neighbour if he enjoys himself in his own way, nor do we give him the kind of black looks which, though they do no real harm, still do hurt people’s feelings. We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect.
We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.

 Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well: even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all. We Athenians, in our own persons, take our decisions on policy or submit them to proper discussions: for we do not think that there is an incompatibility between words and deeds; the worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated. (Pericles’ Funeral Oration, in Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, pp. 145, 147)
There are several important points that can be drawn from these lines. Pericles describes a community in which all citizens could and indeed should participate in the creation and nurturing of a common life. Formally, citizens faced no obstacles to involvement in public affairs based on rank or wealth. The demos held sovereign power, that is, supreme authority, to engage in legislative and judicial functions. The Athenian concept of ‘citizenship’ entailed taking a share in these functions, participating directly in the affairs of the state. As Pericles says: ‘We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.’
Athenian democracy was marked by a general commitment to the principle of civic virtue: dedication to the republican city-state and the subordination of private life to public affairs and the common good. ‘The public’ and ‘the private’ were intertwined, although, as Pericles points out, tolerance is essential in order that people can enjoy themselves ‘in their own way’. None the less, Athenian democrats tended to the view that ‘the virtue of the individual is the same as the virtue of the citizen’ (see Lee, 1974, p. 32). Individuals could only properly fulfil themselves and live honourably as citizens in and through the polis; for ethics and politics were merged in the life of the political community. In this community the citizen had rights and obligations; but these rights were not attributes of private individuals and these obligations were not enforced by a state dedicated to the maintenance of a framework to protect the private ends of individuals (see Sabine, 1963, pp. 16–17). Rather, a citizen’s rights and obligations were connected to his station; they followed from his existence qua citizen: they were ‘public’ rights and duties. In contrast to later liberal positions, politics in this conception demanded a great deal of people, yet this was not seen as a violation but as an affirmation of their capacity for autonomy. Political order was presented as a vehicle for expressing and realizing their nature (Farrar, 1992, p. 37). A fulfilled and good life was only possible in the polis.
The peculiarly modern distinctions which began to emerge with NiccolĂČ Machiavelli (1469–1527) and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) between state and society, specialized officials and citizens, ‘the people’ and government, are not part of the political philosophy of the Athenian city-state. For this city-state celebrated the notion of an active, involved citizenry in a process of self-government; the governors were to be the governed. All citizens met to debate, decide and enact the law. The principle of government was the principle of a form of life: direct participation. And the process of government itself was based on what Pericles refers to as ‘proper discussions’, i.e. free and unrestricted discourse, guaranteed by isegoria, an equal right to speak in the sovereign assembly (Finley, 1973b, pp. 18–19). Accordingly, the ancient democratic polis can be thought of as an attempt to enable men of different backgrounds and attributes ‘to express ...

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