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.

9 replies on “Democracy Is Not a Western Idea”

  1. James Fillmore says:

    A thing I’ve seen more times than I care to count is the person who used to be concerned with injustice and wasn’t once they got rich. Invariably this is described by them as some form of hard-nosed realism; “I realized how the world works” or “I grew up.” Often seasoned with a pinch of cynicism; you can’t change human nature.

    (Amusingly, or not, this “human nature” putdown never applies to themselves or their colleagues / social circle. Those people are all good, if realistic, souls, and the manner in which they obtained wealth beyond reproach. No, “human nature” refers to reformers, who are either corrupt or naive about “human nature.” The poor will always be with us; it’s in the Bible. And/or Ayn Rand + TED talks.)

    That’s amazing about infant behavior, but it doesn’t surprise me. Apes have been observed doing similar things. There is a will to dominance among most sociable mammals (better choice of mates to pass on genetic material) but it’s generally mixed with an instinct not to destroy the social group.

    There’s a great line at the end of “The Mission,” an otherwise disappointing movie (terrific score, though!) “Such is the world,” one character intones. “No,” comes the reply, “such have we made it.”

    • Frank Moraes says:

      That reminds me of a line from a film I can’t recall (and this is a paraphrase), “Why is it people say ‘We’re only human’ at the exact times they are acting like animals.”

      The need for self-justification is profound. I don’t mind it exactly — as long as it comes from the person themselves. I have a major problem with society pushing such myths. Of course, I suppose it is all of one. If powerful people can justify themselves, then this is going to be broadcast out to all those without much power as The Truth™.

      The other thing you talk about (exempting themselves) is critical to the whole project. This is how they justify inequality itself. The people with money are just better — genetically now, but due to their godliness before. It’s repugnant. And what it means — following David Mitchell — is that there is a very large tax on being self-aware.

  2. Dave L says:

    This seems related to the Mythcreants article Overcoming the Myth of Barter https://mythcreants.com/blog/overcoming-the-myth-of-barter/

    That article discusses pre-currency economics, egalitarianism in small communities, and mutual obligations

    The article is aimed at writers who want to create societies for their own stories, but should be of interest beyond

    • Frank Moraes says:

      I’m going to try to read this. (I can’t at the moment.) But I recall reading something along these lines. My understanding that this common libertarian line of “chickens for check-ups” is never how pre-cash societies worked. Instead, there were things like all the heads of the households meeting every month or quarter and negotiating. “I let you farm this field, but you loaned me three chickens, so maybe I owe you [whatever].” The idea of bartering for every damned thing is ridiculous. “Oh, you need a pound of manure. Well what do you have that’s worth that amount?” Give me a break. Also, people are more sharing than that. They aren’t like corporations. As long as things stay more or less equal, it’s fine. At least it is among the people I know. I’m hyper-aware of the need to pay back a friend. I don’t really care about them paying me back unless it gets to the point where I feel I’m being taken advantage of. I think this is pretty typical. And people understand that if they abuse this casual approach to debt they will be ostracized. You’d think libertarians would love this kind of thing.

      • paintedjaguar says:

        “But I recall reading something along these lines.”

        Most likely you’ve either read or heard about David Graeber’s 2011 tome, “Debt: The First 5000 Years”. “Classical/Free Market/Homo Economicus” mythology seems at last to be losing some of it’s iron grip on public discourse.

        • Jurgan says:

          Came to post this. “Debt: The First 5000 Years” is great.

          • James Fillmore says:

            @Jurgan & paintedjaguar: “Debt” IS great. And for anyone intimidated by the book’s size, Graeber sums it up brilliantly in his introduction. You’ll recall he’s talking to people in some social setting and one brings up the “problem” of Third World debt. Why is that a problem? Because we say it is, and bond investors must get their money back. It’s completely arbitrary.

            That blew my mind. Countries paying off debts (which most of the citizenry never bargained for) just struck me as an absolute immutable truth, like gravity or the yumminess of cheese. Graeber points out that over the eons, many different societies have approached debt in many different ways. The way we do it may be ideal or flawed (depending on your opinion) but it it certainly not the “free market.” It’s how we currently have things set up.

            • Frank Moraes says:

              This reminds me of Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism — probably because it was the first time I was introduced to the idea that the big western democracies got their power from restricting trade and building their own industries, but now we force struggling nations into debt with the proviso that they have open markets — effectively relegating them to banana republic status. It would be one thing if, say, the US just admitted, “We’re the big bully on the block.” But instead, we claim to be helping people when we are picking their pockets. The IMF and World Bank should be ended. Of course, they could do good work. But they never will. They completely fulfill the mission they always had. The west needs raw materials and cheap labor!

        • Frank Moraes says:

          Yeah, I remember reading that. When I had time to read. I guess something sunk in even if I don’t remember much about the book.

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