Democracy Is Not a Western Idea

Democracy Is Not a Western Idea - PericlesOne thing that drives me crazy is this idea that the Greeks invented Democracy. Even if you go over to the Wikipedia page History of Democracy, Athens as held up as the first real democracy. Gratefully, it does discuss what it calls proto-democracies. But there is a problem with this: ancient Athens didn’t have much of a democracy. And truthfully, neither does the United States.

The Important Kind of Democracy

I found an excellent article from the May 1919 issue of American Journal of Sociology, The Origins of Democracy. It is by J L Gillin of the University of Wisconsin. He notes that there are different kinds of democracies. But his interest is in “democracies that provide equality of opportunity[1] as between individuals and different classes, not only political, but educational, social, and economic, opportunity.” In other words, social democracy.

Gillin then bluntly notes, “Nowhere as yet has this form of democracy been fully realized.” I now see that this kind of social democracy as what we really need to be working toward. Conservatives, by definition, will always see the current power structure as right. Thus, when slavery was common, they saw it as the way things should be. And the extreme lack of democracy in all ways (even political) is seen as correct. The end of history!

Democracy in Tribal Groups

Gillin quoted Lewis H Morgan on the Iroquois confederacy:

The principle of democracy… manifested itself in the retention by the gentiles of the right to elect their sachem [leaders] and chiefs, in the safeguards thrown around the office to prevent usurpation, and in a check upon the election held by the remaining gentes[2].

What’s more, Morgan wrote:

When the Athenians established the new political system, founded upon territory and upon property, the government was a pure democracy. It was no new theory, or special invention of the Athenian mind, but an old and familiar system, with an antiquity as great as that of the gentes themselves.

Gillin discussed many other ancient democratic systems, including the Hebrews. But the most interesting is his contention that democracy arose out of the natural connections of small tribes of as few as 50 people.

More recent work suggests that pre-neolithic groups were generally egalitarian. It was the rise of cities and agriculture that brought social hierarchy (eg, kings, priests) and set roles for the sexes.

Hardwired for Democracy

Humans appear to be hardwired for democracy. In Nature Human Behaviour Kanakogi et al published Preverbal Infants Affirm Third-Party Interventions That Protect Victims From Aggressors (30 January 2017). What this seems to indicate is that babies as young as six-months-old have an innate sense of justice. And democracy is all about justice.

The problem is that socialization leads us to accept that certain injustices aren’t. That’s where we get ideas like the divine right of kings and meritocracy. It’s funny — Isn’t it? — that the overwhelming number of meritocratic people are third basers. When believers in meritocracy are pushed on this issue, they always retreat into genetics. And not only is this contrary to what science teaches us, it is just the modern equivalent of the divine right of kings.

Short-Circuiting Democracy in the West

Most people believe we are better off now than in the past. But pre-neolithic tribes seem to have a stronger sense of democracy. And even in the last 40 years, we’ve seen the United States regress substantially with regards to egalitarianism and democracy. This has reached a point where Republicans, by and large, don’t even believe in democracy.

If we are to survive, we start by seeing that democracy is not some western concept that we just “get.” Rather, we have developed a society that does all it can to stratify us for no reason other than to make the powerful more so. And this makes sense. In a tribe of 50 people, you simply can’t be that much more powerful than anyone else. In a global society of 7 billion, you can be much more powerful.

The fact that Mark Zuckerberg has approximately a half-million times as much wealth as the median American makes no sense. Yet most people are so used to this kind of un-democratic fact that it doesn’t even occur to them that there is a problem.

We Need to Change

Social democracy is our birthright. But we have allowed a system to thrive, based on the myth of meritocracy, that deprives us of it. Democracy is not a western idea. But the west has done an amazing job of retaining the pretense of democracy while depriving it of most of its meaning.


[1] Gillin is not using this phrase as it is normally used in political discourse today as simply a way to justify actual inequality. Clearly, real equality of opportunity is not just that the poor have the same legal opportunity as the rich. There is no equality of opportunity when a poor person has no capital to start a business while the rich have millions of dollars. The use of “equality of opportunity” in this case is nothing but propaganda meant to obscure the truth and stop social change.

[2] This is a slightly difficult concept. It is basically the group of people who are allowed to vote. It’s like “property owners” at the start of the United States. But instead, the group is defined by blood-relations.