Whose Democracy?

When a democracy which is thirsting for freedom has evil cupbearers presiding over the feast, and has drunk too deeply of the strong wine of freedom, then, unless her rulers are very amenable and give a plentiful draught, she calls them to account and punishes them, and says that they are cursed oligarchs.

Plato: The Republic

I first realised the word “democracy” hasn’t always meant what it does today when doing “A” level Political History; I was intrigued to see “democrat” being used as an insult because for a lot of people around 1800 “democracy” meant “mob rule.” They’d seen what democrats got up to in France, and didn’t want any of it in Britain, even though they were proud of the constitutional freedoms we would now call democratic. Students in my “Social and Political Philosophy” course face a similar shock finding out that while the ancient Greeks invented democracy, few of their philosophers were keen on it. In the light of Trump and Brexit, it might be worth taking another look at what Plato and Aristotle thought about democracy, and asking ourselves whether our own, modern democracies are moving toward the kind of democracy they hated so much.

Democracy in ancient Athens was a lot more democratic than anything around today, at least for the small group of free, native-born males who made up the citizenship. Public officials were chosen by lot, rather than elected (in fact, Aristotle counts electoral systems as symptomatic of oligarchy). Important political, military and legal decisions were often taken by majority vote of whoever bothered to turn up, which was how Socrates was condemned to death for the crime of being annoying.

First case of giving the finger and a face-palm in the same graphic

Both Plato and Aristotle criticised this form of government, which is hardly surprising given what it did to their mentor. In The Republic, Plato is mainly using political systems as a way to describe personality types; democracy corresponds to an undisciplined person who is constantly pulled in different directions by pleasure and pain. To give a modern analogy, he’s describing reality TV as a way of criticising the kind of people who like reality TV. Aristotle, as usual, is more practical. He describes two kinds of majority rule: “polity”, where the majority rule in the interests of the whole community, and democracy, where they rule in their own interest. Note that Aristotle doesn’t see polity in this sense as a viable form of government; later he uses the same term to describe a mixture of oligarchy and democracy in which, he hopes, the worst features of each act as restraints on each other.

Modern democracies are rather like polities in this second sense. They are dominated by corporations and the so-called elites, but are restrained by the caprices of the electorate. It’s a corrupt, inefficient and unjust system that nevertheless provides ordinary people with a measure of freedom and security. Most importantly, both the rulers and the mob are restrained by a system of rights, usually in the form of a written constitution. The recent rise in populist politics means we may be lurching in the direction of Aristotle’s democracy — rule by (an often slim) majority in their own interests, or at least what they perceive as their own interests. The winners of the Brexit vote keep telling the “Remoaners” that they should shut up and accept a democratic decision, but this is the kind of democracy that people should be very worried about.

In a democracy where populist politics hold sway, there is a risk that the state will fall not into complete tyranny, as Plato predicted, but into “democratatorship” of the Putin variety. A more likely alternative in Western countries is the kind of anti-polity represented by leaders such as Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. There is still the mixture of oligarchy and democracy, but instead of cancelling out their worst features, they reinforce them. The rich rule in their own interest, and convince the poor that this is also in their own interest. That’s why when I’m told I should respect a democratic decision, my answer is “Whose democracy?”