The word democracy has become ubiquitous. It is used to justify everything from regime change to the use of parking meters. The internet is drenched with talk of e-democracy, open democracy, local democracy, consensus democracy, liberal democracy, illiberal democracy.

If this is going to become one of the most exploited words on the planet, we need to be clear, and honest, about what we mean when we use it. Democracy is too potent and exciting an idea to be trifled with.

We take the term from ancient Athens, but Athenian democracy, the product of an age remembered as egalitarian, free and high-minded, bore almost no resemblance to ours.

From the harbour at Piraeus, Athenian oarsmen rowed out to claim new territories in the name of DEMOKRATIA, democracy. They were not always welcome. Famously at Melos all men were slaughtered, all women and children enslaved when the island preferred to “put our trust in our gods, to try to save ourselves” and preserve their 700-year-old liberty rather than accept Athenian-style democracy.

When the Assembly voted to exterminate anti-democratic rivals in Mytilene, a triereme was dispatched, bristling with arms. But overnight the democrats dreamt the brutality of their decision. They sent a second ship, its oarsmen fed figs and fortified wine, high-energy food so that they could cover the distance in time to reverse the decision. Little surprise, then, that when recording the ‘free cities’ in league with Athens, there is sometimes a slip of the stonemason’s chisel: instead of ‘our allies’ on inscriptions, the Athenians can refer to ‘the cities that we rule.’

None of these details diminishes the Athenian achievement. But they do nuance it. We love Golden Ages. It comforts us to think that in a distant time and place mankind achieved some kind of perfection – a utopia we can replicate. As a society we want to remember that long ago, democracy, liberty and freedom of speech were created as touchstones for civilisation. We uphold them as pure and robust entities. But we owe it to ourselves to recognise the realpolitik.

First off, Athenian democracy was an evolutionary dead-end. Athenian direct democracy was transparent, face to face. Every adult Athenian citizen was a politician; he could propose motions, vote in the assembly – rule and be ruled in turn. Kratos meant hold or grip, and the Ancient Athenian would have been under no illusion that he had a real, direct grasp on power. 6000 citizens at a time could fit onto the bare rock of the Pnyx, where they voted on how they should run their own lives. There was no notion of individual liberty – all was enacted for to koinon, the commonality. I remember listening to an American on Radio 4, shouting that in a democracy of course kids had the right to buy cans of spray paint and do what they liked with them. Athenians would have hooted: the babbling of a maniac.

The democratic club in Athens was also very small. It was only Athenian men over eighteen who could vote, no foreigners, and eventually – following reforms by Pericles – only those whose parents had both been born in the city. Athenian women were less than second class citizens – Aristotle considers them dog-like, deformed, sub-standard. They were thought to pollute. Female bodies were porous: evil could come oozing from open orifices, their mouths and eyes. And for this reason they were kept not only covered, but veiled. The first hard evidence we have of the use of the full face veil, comes from Athens.

What London and Washington do share with Ancient Athens across a gap of 2,500 years is a firm belief in the power of words (Ancient Athens was littered with inscribed stone stele, all showing the workings of the democracy. The art of rhetoric was eagerly snapped up – at a price – from traveling sophists) plus a passionate relationship with one word in particular. As time went on, DEMOKRATIA was worshipped as a goddess. In Athens’ Agora Museum you can still see her, carved on a stone stele, crowning the people with a wreath. Prominent Athenian families name their sons Demokrates.

There are other similarities between then and now; a delight in litigation. Athens could expect to hear over 40 cases a week by anything up to 6000 jurors all told; the Agora – the market – was central to the health of the fledgling democracy (and it is because Athens was so wealthy that we’ve remembered her, there have been other democratic experiments through time, but the Athenians had the good grace to leave us shed-loads of sculptures, monuments, inscriptions and drama – this is democracy at its most beautiful, its most charismatic, its noisiest) ; we have whips in the House of Commons POSSIBLY because through the streets of Athens slaves, with ropes dipped in red-paint, would tickle the reluctant up to the Pnyx to vote on foreign and domestic affairs. Our adversarial political process is also pre-echoed by the Greek belief in argument and counter-argument. Athenian society was deeply competitive. The word for competition agon, gives us ‘agony’.

The Athenians, like us, were fascinated by this thing democracy, and wanted to find deeper tap-roots for their new political system, fantasising, as we do, that the origins of the way they were stretched back over the millennia to the ‘Age of Heroes’. They invented myths about their local superhero Theseus. He was, they said, the world’s first democrat.

Yet as an ideology, Athenian democracy’s horizons were narrow. The rule of the people emerged through chance, not design, it was a tentative, fluctuating system that existed before a word was dreamt up to nominate the unusual situation. I have no doubt that the Athenians of the 5th century would be slack-jawed to learn that DEMOS KRATIA was being marketed around the globe. Liberty, democracy and freedom of speech were established as means in Athens, not as ends in themselves.

In 5th century Greece those who preferred a private to a publicly-aware life were categorised ‘idiotes’. Idiots indeed. Equally idiotic to peddle chimerical, chameleon promises of ‘democracy’. The rule, or grip of the whole people is not a panacea, it cannot be identikitted out across the globe, it is to important, too strong to be commodified. Liberty, equality, freedom of speech, human rights, the greater good, universal suffrage: all the finest goals. True democracy, the absolute rule of the people, is not universally or necessarily the finest way to achieve them. Remember, when the Ancient Greeks imagined Demokratia a goddess they did not abstract her. She was made her incarnate. The Athenians knew that the gods and goddesses walked the earth. They ate they drank, they made love, they argued. When they made democracy divine, they also admitted that she was particular and flawed.

Remember too the men of Athens, fired up by their solidarity, voting to go to war, to slaughter ‘barbarians’ and fellow-Greeks alike. When we talk of bringing ‘democracy’ to the world, we must be careful what we wish for.


  1. The late Joe Sobran put it eloquently when he wrote,

    We are taught that the change from monarchy to democracy is progress; that is, a change from servitude to liberty. Yet no monarchy in Western history ever taxed its subjects as heavily as every modern democracy taxes its citizens.

    But we are taught that this condition is liberty, because “we” are — freely — taxing “ourselves.” The individual, as a member of a democracy, is presumed to consent to being taxed and otherwise forced to do countless things he hasn’t chosen to do (or forbidden to do things he would prefer not to do).

    Whence arises the right of a ruler to compel? This is a tough one, but modern rulers have discovered that a plausible answer can be found in the idea of majority rule. If the people rule themselves by collective decision, they can’t complain that the government is oppressing them. This notion is summed up in the magic word democracy.

    It’s nonsense. “We” are not doing it to “ourselves.” Some people are still ruling other people. Democracy is merely the pretext for authorizing this process and legitimizing it in the minds of the ruled. Since outright slavery has been discredited, democracy is the only remaining rationale for state compulsion that most people will accept.

    Government: a gang of thugs that demands obedience and money at gunpoint from everyone with the misfortune to live inside a line it drew on a map.
    — Quotations from Chairman Zhu

  2. Champions of democracy made the world safe for democracy. Victims of democracy must now make it safe for freedom.
    — Quotations from Chairman Zhu


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