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On Modern Democracy


Section Index

  1. The Democratic Equation
  2. Egalitarianism and Elítism
  3. Freedom and Justice
  4. The Market
  5. Culture
  6. Tolerance and Power
  7. Religion
  8. Ethnicity
  9. Civility and Citizenship
  10. The Global and the Regional

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  Subseq. Pages - Essays & Papers  

De Civitate Populari. On Modern Democracy

Introduction: Perfection

There is no perfection in the material world. Perfection is a function of the divine, not of the mortal, it is a dimension of existence for Gods, not for man. And though Emerson is right to call man a "God in Ruins", man[2] on Earth is rather a god in the making, a god bound by the material world, a god yet to realize their potential and to grasp their importance. Man is a god unknown to themselves. To strive for the divine, for the perfect, for the innocent and all-encompassing truth, is no mistake, it is our destiny. Yet we will never be able to complete this our quest: as perfection is not a function of the material world.

Light and darkness, good and evil, those are concepts unfit for our reality. They imply a sense of perfection: a perfect dichotomy, a perfectly visible distinction between one and something else, between innocence and guilt, between the "own" and the "other", between "us" and "them". To say there would only be shades of grey, however, is another flawed attempt at perfection: As well as there is no perfect dichotomy, there is also no perfect leveling. "Grey" assumes that there would be something in common to any of those "shades". Yet in a world of relativisms, there are still such things as "relative right" and "relative wrong".

In a world of relativism, it still is a crime to murder another person. It still is a crime to rape another person. It still is a crime to lie. It still is a crime to stand passive while grave injustices are committed. It still is a crime to deny man their freedom. It still is a crime to discriminate on whatever basis against people, be it sex, race, class, caste, religion or something yet to be concocted. In a world of relativism, man still carries responsibility for their own actions. Let us not be fooled by social and genetic factors. Those are important, but they cannot neglect the innate intelligence and conscience given to man by birth. And still, the most criminal minds, be it Hitler, Goebbels, Lenin or Stalin, are known to have been quite intelligent, and coming from a sound social background. Man is responsible.

Still we need to strive for perfection. For the perfection of what is divine in us: For the perfection of our lives, of the lives of all of us. That includes all women and men in the world; no one is exempt from this formula. Nations are but poor and inadequate divisions of a greater whole; mankind cannot function when separated from itself. Africa, America, Asia, Australia, Europe: Those belong together. The United Nations project, therefore, is not just a short-lasting joke, it is to be taken seriously. The declaration of human rights is to be taken seriously. The globalization of the planet means a uniting of all minds and all ideas in fruitful and peaceful cooperation. The aim is a civitas popularis, a society of the people, a true democracy, a City of Man.

This aim is not ou-topian, referring to a non-place, but eu-topian, referring to a good place. It may seem ou-topian now, and will probably stay that way for the next decades and even centuries. But there is no choice in it. Neither is there any sense in searching for a new world power. The new world power will be the world itself, the empire will finally be translated into a global society, the translatio imperii, the succession of the power of Cesarian Rome, will find its fulfillment in negating itself: Empire will finally be not a rule over the people, but a rule by the people - everywhere. Again, there is no choice in that. Nor do I want to use a word like "destiny", though it very well may fit in this context.

In the following, this essay shall attempt to focus on some aspects of the modern idea of democracy. There has been quite some development of the concept since Athenian times, but still, Athens and Rome play a major factor in the American concept of democracy, which, in turn, has inspired Europe and other parts of the world. Athens and Rome have been teachers of America, she is their daughter, and through her, and in union with her European successors, democracy was able to unite a Europe which had been at war with herself for too long. The twentieth century, finally, saw the seed laid by English, American and French Enlightenment and Renaissance thought come to bear fruit: A result unthinkable for ages, but now there is no going back any more. The European Union is becoming a reality, and a growing one: And most and for all, a model for the rest of the world.

Still, there remain problems. There cannot be perfection. Also, being a role model does not justify ignoring the cultural peculiarities of other regions. The model role of Europe and America can only be seen in conjunction with democracy. They are not supposed to communicate anything else but democracy, freedom, justice and tolerance: Aims most nations have accepted by signing the UN Charter. That makes Euramerica not the tyrant of the world, but an example for what every other partaker in the UN has agreed upon.

So, what is this strange concept so despised by autocrats and close-minded fundamentalists of any religious faction, be it Christian or Muslim or a different path - what is the enemy that is so desperately fought these days, an enemy feared by the mighty and barely understood by those who have been depraved of their ability to gain knowledge and information - what is the enemy that is so feared by those fearing one thing most: the freedom of the people? Is it not the people themselves, and their rule?

November 16th, 2001

1. The Democratic Equation

Democracy cannot exist without certain preconditions. For democracy to happen, you need one thing most: The belief in the worth of every single human being. Democracy is not just a political system, and wherever that is the sole basis for democracy, it will fail. Democracy is a system of trust and distrust, it is a system, as it has been called, of checks and balances. While democracy trusts every single citizen, it also distrusts any attempt of a singular individual who believes they would be better off without the opinion of others. The autocrat, the tyrant, believes that they alone possess the power to rule a state, and it is their birthright to rule over others, because they would know better.

There are autocrats in democracies also. Maybe rulers indeed have to be tyrants in their hearts, trusting themselves first, and relying on their decisions first. But democracy binds those rulers by the democratic apparatus: It controls them, profiting from their arrogance and their keen sense of power, while also protecting the rights of the citizens. The rule of the people does not necessarily mean a direct rule, like suggested by the Athenian model. Athens as a polis, a city with a small portion of rural area attached, Attica in this case, is a small unit rather. Such a state may very well function as a direct democracy, with every single citizen obliged to take active part in society at some point in their life. The Roman Republic, and the subsequent Principate Empire, could not have taken up this philosophy on the grand scale. On the municipal, local, scale, however, there existed some kind of democratic apparatus. The citizens were able to get involved. Yet Rome, since Augustus, had lost the system of checks and balances: The senate and the popular representatives were shut out of the process. Without democratic control, the rulers were able to exert their autocracy - democracy was lost, the Republic became a monarchy.

Let us take a look at the terms for now. "Democracy" originally has been a derogative term, the demos was believed unfit to govern themselves, it was often only seen as ochlos, a pack of uneducated and uncivilized, vulgar people. The Roman Republic was understood as a res publica, a public matter - as the state was considered a matter concerning every single citizen. The state was formed by the community, surely dominated by the elders, the Senate, the former Patrician institution which after some time also included Plebeian members. Collegiality was the rule in Rome: Trust through controled distrust: Two officials for the highest political office, the Consulate, and each consul was only allowed to rule for a year, and only once: Restriction of rule, restriction of the duration of rule.

I've been talking about citizens all time long, and it now needs to clarify that in antiquity this did not mean the whole of the population. Females were of course excluded, so were slaves and foreigners. I will address this question later in a bit more detail.

Democracy is a civil society: As power is derived from the people, through elections and nominations, it needs to organize that power differently than autocratic societies. The military is a civic entity, each citizen has the right, and may have the obligation, to serve in the armed forces. Democratic rule comes also from presence: From the presence of the people, or their representatives, in each and every part of society, thus creating trust in the system by distrusting isolation.

Isolation is the enemy for a democracy. Isolation means that the people do not connect to each other, that society is deprived of productive members. In a way, this may sound communist, and indeed, if you chase down the various concepts for a sufficient time, those concepts are just names, the grave differences only manifesting themselves in the long run. Democracy is first and for all a common-ist system: Its creed is that people have more commonalities than differences. The basic things are the same: Human rights stay the same, they could only be extended. The dignity of each individual person, no matter their background, no matter their beliefs, no matter their actions even, stays the same. For all of them.

This, in turn, creates some kind of peer pressure, some kind of assimilatory drive. To a certain extend, this is a good thing: If it leads to accepting and protecting the rights of others; but if it leads to over-estimating the needs of the community and putting community first, and individuality second, democracy is destroyed also: It isolates the community at the costs of the individual. Yet both the individual and the community are of equal importance in a democracy, there you have the difference to communism as a system.

The democratic equation is a constantly readjusted equilibrium between the needs of the individual and those of the community. The system works, unlike an autocracy, due to a high degree of self-organization and fragmentation. Democracy utilizes the potential of each and every citizen, and it is able to do so. All ethical considerations set aside for now, a democracy is also a pragmatic arrangement. You cannot force people to be productive members of society. Extortion, like it happens in autocratic regimes, and also communism, is counter-productive: It destroys the self-conscience and the motivation of the people. People are only productive when they are allowed to serve their own good: There is nothing bad about that. There is no true altruism for its own sake; you need incentives.

Furthermore, what is the purpose of society? Is it not to provide the people with an environment they can live in happily? Isn't the purpose of society to serve the needs of the people? To be true to their needs, to accept their needs, to accept who and what they are? Sure, you need education. You also have to ensure justice and equal rights, human rights. But all human laws should be based upon the needs of the people, not upon what some autocratic thinker considers best for the people. You shall not govern the people, the people shall be represented. All people.

Democracy is a discursive society: Opinions and structures are formed in dialog, they thrive on the vivid discussion between opposite sites. This dialog may slow down some processes of decision-making, and in times of war, or any crisis, democracies may seem to be rather unproductive, quarreling largely with themselves - but then, most countries have made arrangements for that: There are ways to circumvent such a blockade, limited ways. But all in all, the dialog democraties are used to cannot just be found within, even more so it is directed at the outside: Open diplomacy, especially through UN channels and the likes, can be seen as a direct consequence of a democratic system.

November 16th, 2001

2. Egalitarianism and Elítism

Democracy is the rule of the people. Who are the people? Is it the ruling class? The financial class? The working classes? The farmers and fishermen? The warriors? The males, the females, the children? The old, the young? The natives to the country, the immigrants, the guest workers? Those contributing to the economy, or those benefiting from the social system? The religious people, the non-religious ones, those belonging to the leading religion, those belonging to others? Those within the larger cultural framework, those outside of it? Those who earlier have been enemies of the state, those who have always been loyal? Those believing in the current system, those who don't? Those obeyant to the rules and regulations, or the offenders, the criminals, the unwanted ones? Those belonging to the leading political parties, those from the margins?

Where is democracy? Where is it supposed to be? Is democracy an option a country could - literally - vote for, or is it something that should be the rule, something that should be enforced, everywhere, everytime? By whom? How? Who is the authority - the people? What people, those already under democratic rule, or those yet to be "liberated"? Is democracy really a national answer, or is it supposed to be a global one? How egalitarian is democracy, how elitarian?

Democracy is the rule of the people. All of them. It works directly, if possible, or via representation; the latter being the only real workable solution on the grander scale. By representation, however, democracy is lost again, can be polluted by bureaucracy, by the machinery of the political establishment, by those who are not any more connected to "the people". But if you cannot anymore, with today's population numbers and geographical dimensions, let democracy be a direct experience, how do you represent, what is the creed by which representation is supposed to work?

Here it may become apparent that democracy is not really a system, not just an ideology, it is more or less an organizing principle (behind which, of course, a certain ideology is present). But the way of representation can follow different, or rather, sub-different principles: Should it be communist, enforcing an idea of what "the people" shall be, educating them, forcing them in a certain direction, enforcing the assumed needs of the community over those of the individual citizen? Shall it be purely capitalist, caring only about profit, allowing for an uncontrolled individual and egotistical drive for wealth, with no corrective measures at all undertaken by the state? Shall it be fascist, exaggerating the power of the state and one faction to the extreme? Shall it be liberal, accepting and tolerating each and every single trend and desire of the individuals in the state? Shall it be limited to a certain worldview, to a certain religion? Shall it value the properties of the elítes over those of the "dumb masses"? To what extend shall "the people" be made "one people"? To what degree shall a society be an assimilating, regulating, defining authority, a leitkultur, a ruling culture?

Is a democratic society one in which each and everything is supposed to follow a certain definition of "us" versus a non-democratic and foreign "them"? Shall a citizen have the right to paint their houses pink or blue, whilst the rest of the community prefers a monotonous white or grey[3]? Is the multicultural society a wish-dream, an unnatural extension to democracy, or isn't it rather its fulfilment? What is the "melting pot" supposed to melt? Can society, can culture, ever be a constant entity, successfully "defending" itself against "foreign" or "other" "elements"?

Cannot egalitarianism be as dictatorially suppressive as elítism? If pushed to the extreme, will an assimilative and equalizing society not deny the rights of the individual, as much as an elítist culture will deny those their rights as individuals who do not fit in the elítist framework?

What is the rule, what is the definition of "normality", what is the opposing other, what dichotomies are erected, what borders drawn, what taboos are created, what kind of stigmatization is enforced in the discourse? What kinds of discussions can a society bear - what threads are not to be followed, if any? Who decides what is right and what is wrong? Is history a proper indicator? Is it the press? Is it the opinion of the people? What if the majority of the people decides to be fascist? How do we deal with those denying factual truths like the Holocaust? Do we want to allow everything - or are the rights of the individual, no matter how destructive and utterly wrong their opinions and deeds may be, the only creed we want to follow? Is not everything relative, is not truth a matter of perspective, is not truth in a democratic surrounding reached by compromise in the discourse, by a truly dialectic approach? Who decides, who do we trust to protect the framework of a democratic society?

November 25th, 2001

3. Freedom and Justice

What is the place of freedom in a democratic society? What is freedom in a democratic context? Is freedom just the lack of any kind of outside control? Is freedom just the absence of suppression? Is freedom the freedom of movement, the freedom of speech, the freedom to meet other people? The freedom to follow one's own culture and principles? Is freedom the freedom of one's own - of others - or is it not rather the freedom of all?

Is freedom thus a compromise like anything else, a pragmatic function? You cannot possibly herd in the people for ever, so you better let them free? What is the reason for freedom, is it pragmatics, is it ethics, is it politics? Can there be a reason? To be honest, I cannot answer this answer on any kind of ethical level. Ethics is a very complicated thing: It is highly subjective, it is highly constructivist, it is rather a religious term. I could recur to the term I used above, the Emersonian thread that man would be a kind of god; I could speak of the divine, of the will of god, or the metaphysical conditions that seem to indicate that human beings do have free will, and to contradict that, by encasing them, would be against their spiritual nature; but I'm not going to follow any of these leads. This is not an essay on freedom but on democracy. The term "democracy" denotes a society governed by the people, by whatever definition. As we are in modern times, I take the definition of "people" fitting for modern times, i.e., all citizens, and citizens being the largest portion of the populace. Thus the very outline of democracy is based upon the idea of the freedom of each citizen in the state: The people govern themselves, if you are supposed to govern, you have to be free in order to do so. If you are bound by whatever kinds of limiting forces, being unfree, you cannot govern. Thus a working democracy has to incorporate a working definition of freedom.

Yet freedom isn't such an easy term either, like I tried to state above. If we are talking about freedom here, it has to be freedom in the times of democracy. There is no absolute freedom in democracy, there is only absolute freedom in anarchy, in a rule that denies any kind of rule, in an environment that does not erect any kinds of authorities. Yet democracy is not such a society. Freedom in a democracy is first and for all the freedom the democratic state can bear. A democracy is the form of government with the highest degree of freedom compared with every other kind of government, except anarchy. There is more freedom under a democracy than under a monarchy, a totalitarian dictatorship, religious fanatism, military dictatorship, whatever. Democracy, however, still has to have rules and regulations: It is the society of the people for the people: That means, it has to fill the needs of the people, it has to nurture, animate and protect them. "The people" here can only mean the vast majority of people, for democracy is also the responsible rule of shifting majorities.

Freedom is responsibility. Here we have ethics again, but we don't really need them. What we need can, again, be derived from the concept of democracy itself. It lies in the nature of a democracy to respect and even revere the people, who are the governing force. No government discriminates against itself if it intends to work properly. In a true democracy, we have no further distinguishing between classes, castes, races, genders, authorities, ages, health status or whatever discriminating term. It is the government of all the people, not just of some. It therefore has to constantly balance its decisions between the needs of the few and the needs of the many. It is neither of those who can dictate the other its will. Both work together, democracy is a constant compromise, a constant dialog. That makes democracy the most complex, and the most complicated form of government.

Democracies can also decide to use elements which do not necessarily have their origin in democracy itself. The idea of criminal punishment is older than the idea of democracy, yet it does have its place in a democratic society. Crime is the secular term for what religions understand as sin. Crime, like sin, is a revolt against the governing status quo, it is something which harms the offender, other people, and the very framework of society itself, be it the state, i.e. the common consensus, or a religious entity, like god. Crime is of course a relative thing. What would be a severe crime under a dictatorship, criticizing the government, would be a prerequisite element in a democratic society. Political murder in the favor of the leading party would be a matter of honor under fanatic rule, in a democracy, it would just be murder. Ethics, in such cases, means mostly the ethics of the governing idea. Of course I would favor the idea of a more abstract and general ethical framework, yet this is, again, a rather religious matter.

Is it? What is democracy? Is it just an institution, a framework, a building, a pragmatic institution? Yes of course, it is all these very things. But is that all? Isn't there something else, isn't there more? What is democracy? Is it not also, or rather, first and for all, the belief in the necessity of popular rule? Is not this belief rooted in the belief that there would be something about the people, something that would empower them to rule themselves, something that makes them worthy of being called human beings? Is not the basic belief behind a democracy that you rather trust the people than distrust them, that you believe in their dignity and worth, irrevocably? Is not the very belief in democracy an indication that you trust the people, more than any other authority, to make the right decisions for themselves? Isn't there a preference at work, something choosing the people rather than a dictator, an entirely partisan party, a clergy, or just some guys with guns?

Where does that come from, this belief, to stick with that term for now? Doesn't it come from the notion that human beings are by default, or on a grander scale, good? Why else would they deserve to have certain rights, and freedoms, and their own rule? How does that combine with the idea of criminal justice? Doesn't criminal justice, somehow, assume there would not only be good guys, but also some bad ones?

Innocent unless proven guilty. It's not a coincidence that this is the foundation of democratic justice: Democracy is an optimistic approach, a benevolent one. That may lead to great freedoms for those wanting the best only for themselves, not for society, there's no denying that. But that's what the judicial system is for, that's what the police and intelligence agencies are for. Yet still, innocent unless proven guilty: Democracy is about trust, bilateral trust, the citizen trusting the state (because the government is elected by the people), and the state trusting the citizen (because the citizen is the sovereign of the state). There are limits to this trust, but those limits are only necessary because of those who decide to not accept the system and rather work for their own solitary benefit. But what if proven guilty?

The rule of the people means also to accept some realities of life. People err. Not all decisions can be final, especially not those carrying a certain finality. Democracy means the rule for the people - all of them, not just the innocent ones, but also for those proven guilty. Even if the presumption of innocence is gone, and the case has been decided against the defendant, does the perpetrator still carry very concrete rights: To life, first of all, and to what is construed as human dignity. Democratic rule may be an authority once established, but as it consists only of human beings, it has to acknowledge the possibility of doubt, it also has to acknowledge the rights of each and every human being under its authority. That means, channeling the will of the people (who often don't desire justice but revenge) in their own best interest. Again, this leads to favoring both sides instead of just one. The guilty party will have to undergo punishment, in a humanly acceptable frame. The sole forms of punishment thus can only be restrictions of a financial nature (restricting his access to personal commodities) and restricting the personal freedom for a limited time. Nothing else. Even a criminal is still a human being, if he is dangerous, he has to be locked away to protect society - that's all. Death penalty is something contrary to the spirit of democracy, it may be appropriate according to the feelings of and for the victims, but it is neither a solution to a problem nor is it necessary nor humanly possible: If there was an error of judgement (and those do happen), this mistake could not be thwarted. That's something democracy just cannot and must not bear.

We shall leave it at this for now, and will return later in the course of the essay to some aspects of freedom under democracy. The next steps will be to take a look at some crucial elements of a democratic society.

November 25th / December 8th, 2001

4. The Market

It can be no coincidence that modern democracies are also free market societies, also called and party mislabeled as capitalist by some. Democracy is not just a form of political governmental, it's much more than that. Maybe you could call democracy a totalizing concept, yet I'd refrain from the use of that word, it sounds like totalitarianism; yet totalitarianism is a term describing dictatorial regimes. To what extent this would fit for some democratic societies would be a valid point for discussion still, yet not right now.

Democracy is a concept filling each and every aspect of political life in a democratic country. What is political life? Every kind of life that is either heavily impacted by the things of the state, the polis, or that is influencing the things of the state. How political it is would also depend on how you deem it important for the polis. Bringing out your garbage may not look like a political act. But bringing it out because you know both the economic and the ecological system need it, that can make it political. Going to work may not seem a political act. Going to work because you know others depend on you, and that you can do a service to them, and they, too, are part of the polis, makes it a political act.

The market is a force many people denote as being like capitalist, ruthless, selfish, a-social. Of course, there are lots of egotistic megalomaniacs out there. That's true for other areas also. Of course, making money as a sole reason for living, the Ferengi way of life, may seem quite shallow an existence. But in politics, it's not about who leads a shallow existence or not. You still have private and personal matters. In politics, in democracy, all that matters is, how does it equally serve both the community and the individual.

A strong and healthy market leads to a strong and healthy society, it leads to people having jobs with acceptable pay, it leads to people being able to buy and sell things freely, it leads to the state being able to finance a social network containing paying pensions, basic healthcare, unemployment help, financing roads, public buildings and institutions, assisting those doing social work. The best social work is providing for a healthy economy; without the economy, there's no money, without money, there can be no expenses made for social and cultural projects.

The market has to be free and regulated at the same time, it has to be a compromise solution. The democratic market must not lead to the disappearance of freedom, it must foster some free exchange of money, ideas, material, labor. Yet it must also ensure that everything takes place under the auspices of the law, and within the framework of the libertarian system: You can only be free if you grant others the same freedom. Money is important, yet democracy must make sure that the most important thing is still the society, the state, the communion of all people living in it.

The fate of individual companies shall be of no interest to the state. Be it Pan Am or Holzmann or Swiss Air; those firms have the responsibility to survive on their own, if they can't, they shall be given the right to disappear. Someone else will always be there to take their place and take care of the workforce: Subsidizing bad management shall be of no interest for a state. That's stupid economic planning. The only thing the state has to do in such a case would be to somehow ease the situation for the fired workers. The state's responsibility are the state and its individual inhabitants; not organizations or firms within the state.

December 31st, 2001

5. Culture

Democratic culture is a culture for the people and by the people, it knows no categories like high- or low-brow, it knows not the prerogative of tradition over innovation; at least, it shouldn't. Democracy as a society of the people has to respect their wishes, the will of the majority being the only guideline possible, but only within the legal framework.

Why is the majority so important? In art, the majority is the least thing to care about. Yet regarding politics, you have to find some kind of guideline. Democracy is not anarchy; there is a government, and governments have to be legitimated by an authority; in the case of democracy, the authority is the people. Dictatorships are run by the minority of the people, discriminating against the majority and other minorities. Democracies look for the largest legitimizing faction possible, they need the majority of the people backing the system. The majority then has the power, yet it also has the responsibility to care about the minorities. Minorities are given a solid voice in a democracy: They too belong to the people, they too have to be heard. The majority is just the guideline, the carrier of a temporary political leadership.

What about culture? Democracy is about society, if the majority shares a certain cultural background (and this background is following the law, and does not harm others and does not intent to discriminate against others), such a background can very well be the defining cultural atmosphere for the entire country. Thus in a country like the US, the predominant culture of the entire country can be English. When the background changes, or when regional parameters have to be taken into account, the majority must be re-defined. A city with more than 50 per cent Latino population cannot any more be considered having an English background, and within a democratic framework, the true majority, not the wished-for one, should be paid due respect. Majority is always a relative term, depending on where the term is to be important. On the country level, the majority may be different than on the state or city level. Democracy needs flexible majorities that mirror the situation at hand.

Culture in a democracy is a matter of constant negotiation, of constant redefinition. There are no easily available and durable labels possible anymore, making it both more difficult and rewarding to partake in culture, be it as an observer or a producer of cultural items.

December 31st, 2001

(to be continued?)


[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Nature". Nina Baym et al, ed. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 4th ed., shorter. N.Y.: Norton 1995, 465 (Chapter VII).
[2] Man, as it is used here, is just another word for "human being", it is used in this sense here, and has nothing to do with masculinity. Somehow it feels embarassing to have to point this out over and over again.
[3] cf. Mike Davis. Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. Big City. London: Verso, 2000.

For a bibliography, please check the Selected Bibliography page.

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