EVEN IN AN ELECTION YEAR, there’s little that induces an instinctive yawn like a book about democracy. As a theme, democracy is up there with World War II — one of those strings that’s so relentlessly pulled that your eardrum implodes in advance at the mere thought of another MBA-speak–filled gush on “empowerment,” “synergy,” and why, as the Lego movie had it, everything is awesome.
But a new strain of democracy research is emerging, a variety that, instead of preaching democracy’s virtues, questions whether societies like the United States deserve to be called democracies at all. And the unlikely originators of this thought-stream are not firebrand activists but elite academics.
It all has to do with the root of the word “democracy,” which comes from two Greek words: “demos,” meaning “people,” and “kratos,” which translates as “power.” The original use of the word demokratia in ancient Greece therefore meant something like “people power” or, as some have translated it, “the capacity of the people to do things.” The ancient Greeks took this “capacity of the people to do things” very seriously in the way they organized political life, and it is this form of democracy — not the modern one we are familiar with — that Paul Cartledge takes as his basis for Democracy: A Life.
Cartledge is a Cambridge professor with a background in classics, so it is unsurprising that Democracy: A Life takes a scholarly, if readable, tone and that it uses a generous sprinkling of photos and maps to help bring its ancient subject matter to life. However, the interest here is not generated by the style of writing but rather by the subject matter, for the democracy that Cartledge describes is much different from the style of government we know by that name today. While the author touches on the many democracies that existed in ancient Greece — Chios, Rhodes, even Byzantium (modern Istanbul), to name a few — he focuses primarily on Athens, using the city of Plato and Aristotle as the touchstone from which digressions into other variations of democracy are made. And in Athens, as in other democracies of the time, it turns out there were neither presidential elections nor nomination conventions, neither Super PACs nor caucus meetings. The original democracies didn’t even have political parties. This wasn’t so much a reflection of the times as part of the general philosophy: in a city that practiced people power, there could be no intermediary between those people and the exercise of that power. What the Reformation did for religion, the Athenians did for political involvement, emphatically removing the professional politician as interpreter and conduit of “the will of the people.”
Impressively, when one considers that democracy in Athens flourished in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, this was not merely a matter of sentiment, but required a scrupulous rewiring of state laws and institutions to allow citizens direct access to decision-making in a kind of “quiet revolution.” This mass decision-making occurred most notably in the Athenian Assembly, where any citizen (well, any male citizen — the ancients had their blind spots) could speak for or against a prospective law, but also in areas of life that seem almost alien to the idea of mass participation today. In the courts, for example, randomly selected citizens sat on humongous juries to decide not only on criminal and civil matters, but also over any constitutional issue that might arise, and they did so without the directing guidance of a professional judge. Translated into modern terms, it would be as if the entire population of the United States were to make a decision on, say, gun control through popular referendum, and anyone who took issue with that decision could bring it before a panel of a hundred thousand or so randomly selected citizens for constitutional review. It can be a slightly mind-bending prospect to imagine at first, which is precisely what makes Cartledge’s book such an interesting read. Whatever else one might say, Athenian-style democracy was definitely different.
Cartledge explains his subjects’ peculiar method of state organization in some detail to bring home his point — that when the Greeks said “people power” they meant exactly that. As the author later makes clear, this ancient society that existed over 2,000 years ago still represents the high-water mark on political equality and participation: it is the only known example of the ideal of “one man, one vote.” It may seem like a bold stance, but it is one that Cartledge — whose mastery of the ancient world is certainly impeccable — has no difficulty making.
While Democracy: A Life does spend a substantial amount of time exploring the particulars of ancient Greek politics and culture — the tension of political intrigue, the seemingly interminable wars, the odd quirks of superstition — the book is more than that. It’s an almost nostalgic overview of humanity’s quest for emancipation seen through its political institutions. One can almost see the montage playing as Cartledge sweeps through the rise of Athenian democracy against the odds, its golden-age flowering of culture and philosophy, and its ultimate demise at the hands of a rising Macedonian superpower under Alexander the Great.
But the journey doesn’t stop there. According to the author, Alexander’s insatiable lust for conquest may have proven but a short-lived bump on the path of democracy had it not been for what followed next — the vicious and near-total obliteration of the idea of “people power” from human consciousness.
Cartledge goes to some effort to show how later historians and statesmen were anxious to portray Greek democracy as a horrible mistake, the unworkable aspiration of starry-eyed dreamers that was preprogrammed to end in chaos. Under the onslaught of these propagandists, the vast majority of whom never experienced Athenian democracy — and indeed were often born several hundred years after it ceased to exist — the idea of political equality came to be regarded as a myth, the notion of the collective people holding power a danger to be shunned, suppressed, and preferably forgotten.
The truth was that democracy was a dangerous idea — to the kings, emperors, and high clergy who controlled information in the centuries after it ceased to be a living form of government. As the author puts it, while these autocrats held sway throughout the Middle Ages, the very idea of democracy was “on life-support.” And while things may have improved since, modern democracy is, in Cartledge’s view, not in much better shape — off the machine perhaps, but still staggering around the hospital ward, clutching at bits of furniture, and trying to remember what had happened to bring it there in the first place.
In this vein, some of the book’s most fascinating chapters chart the development of democracy from the time of the English Civil Wars in the 1640s to the present day. Even during this tumultuous period and the equally turbulent American and French Revolutions, few people advocated anything like Greek-style democracy, and those who did touch on such ideas tended to languish in obscurity. Instead, political conversation since the Renaissance has vacillated between the pros and cons of outright dictatorship versus an electoral process that is factually only open to the rich and well-connected. That we unreflectively refer to this limited electoral system and the debate that surrounds it as “democracy” strikes Cartledge as nothing short of a “calamitous verbal collapse” that has “devalued” the true content of the word “demokratia.”
Considering these strong views, it is surprising, even a touch disappointing, that the author doesn’t present a stronger roadmap for reviving democracy in its original sense. The final chapter of the book, in which Cartledge reviews his reasons for optimism and pessimism about democracy’s future, spans mere pages and includes such seemingly unconnected phenomena as China (lots of people in China living with lots of corruption, the author points out) and ISIS (a lot fewer people living with lots of religion). It’s all that much harder to see the connection between these modern woes and the idea of democracy, given that the book is more than generous in letting us know that the Greek democrats were also afflicted with their share of odd neighbors, most of whom had rather totalitarian views on religion, and that they inhabited a conflict-ridden part of the earth, happily and frequently partaking in that conflict themselves. Considering their life and times, it is hard to say just what about ISIS or the Chinese Communist Party would have taken a people as battle-hardened as the Athenians aback.
That being said, the closing “What is to be Done?” chapters of political books often come up a bit short, and it is not so much the purpose of this one to solve modern democracy’s shortcomings as it is to shed some light on the fact that democracy’s life hasn’t been quite as polished and linear as we would like to believe. Contrary to the official line, it appears that we don’t live at the height of democratic development, but — with some luck — at the beginning of a new dawn for one of the world’s oldest and bravest ideas.
Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a research associate at Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland. Her latest book, Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose, was published by Zed Books in November.