Jump off a Bridge sticker

Jump off a Bridge sticker

If a majority voted for you to jump off a bridge, would you?

A sticker design from Crimethinc's discussion of democracy.

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What is democracy, exactly? Most of the textbook definitions have to do with majority rule or government by elected representatives. On the other hand, a few radicals have argued that “real” democracy only takes place outside and against the state’s monopoly on power. Should we understand democracy as a set of decision-making procedures with a specific history, or as a general aspiration to egalitarian, inclusive, and participatory politics?

“What is democracy?”

“Well, I was never very clear on it, myself. Like every other kind of government, it’s got something to do with young men killing each other, I believe.”

– Johnny Got His Gun (1971)

To pin down the object of our critique, let’s start with the term itself. The word democracy derives from the ancient Greek dēmokratía, from dêmos “people” and krátos “power.” This formulation of rule by the people,which has resurfaced in Latin America as poder popular, begs the question: which people? And what kind of power?

These root words, demos and kratos, suggest two common denominators of all democracy: a way of determining who participates in the decision-making, and a way of enforcing decisions. Citizenship, in other words, and policing. These are the essentials of democracy; they are what make it a form of government. Anything short of that is more properly described as anarchy—the absence of government, from the Greek an-“without” and arkhos “ruler.”

Common denominators of democracy:

a way of determining who participates in making decisions

a way of enforcing decisions

a space of legitimate decision-making

and the resources that sustain it

Who qualifies as demos? Some have argued that etymologically, demosnever meant all people, but only particular social classes. Even as its partisans have trumpeted its supposed inclusivity, in practice democracy has always demanded a way of distinguishing between included and excluded. That could be status in the legislature, voting rights, citizenship, membership, race, gender, age, or participation in street assemblies; but in every form of democracy, for there to be legitimate decisions, there have to be formal conditions of legitimacy, and a defined group of people who meet them.

In this regard, democracy institutionalizes the provincial, chauvinist character of its Greek origins, at the same time as it seemingly offers a model that could involve all the world. This is why democracy has proven so compatible with nationalism and the state; it presupposes the Other, who is not accorded the same rights or political agency.

The focus on inclusion and exclusion is clear enough at the dawn of modern democracy in Rousseau’s influential Of the Social Contract, in which he emphasizes that there is no contradiction between democracy and slavery. The more “evildoers” are in chains, he suggests, the more perfect the freedom of the citizens. Freedom for the wolf is death for the lamb, as Isaiah Berlin later put it. The zero-sum conception of freedom expressed in this metaphor is the foundation of the discourse of rights granted and protected by the state. In other words: for citizens to be free, the state must possess ultimate authority and the capacity to exercise total control. The state seeks to produce sheep, reserving the position of wolf for itself.

By contrast, if we understand freedom as cumulative, the freedom of one person becomes the freedom of all: it is not simply a question of being protected by the authorities, but of intersecting with each other in a way that maximizes the possibilities for everyone. In this framework, the more that coercive force is centralized, the less freedom there can be. This way of conceiving freedom is social rather than individualistic: it approaches liberty as a collectively produced relationship to our potential, not a static bubble of private rights.11. “I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free. The freedom of others, far from negating or limiting my freedom, is, on the contrary, its necessary premise and confirmation.” –Mikhail Bakunin

Let’s turn to the other root, kratos. Democracy shares this suffix with aristocracy, autocracy, bureaucracy, plutocracy, and technocracy. Each of these terms describes government by some subset of society, but they all share a common logic. That common thread is kratos, power. 

What kind of power? Let’s consult the ancient Greeks once more.

In classical Greece, every abstract concept was personified by a divine being. Kratos was an implacable Titan embodying the kind of coercive force associated with state power. One of the oldest sources in which Kratos appears is the play Prometheus Bound, composed by Aeschylus in the early days of Athenian democracy. The play opens with Kratos forcibly escorting the shackled Prometheus, who is being punished for stealing fire from the gods to give to humanity. Kratos appears as a jailer unthinkingly carrying out Zeus’s orders—a brute “made for any tyrant’s acts.”

The sort of force personified by Kratos is what democracy has in common with autocracy and every other form of rule. They share the institutions of coercion: the legal apparatus, the police, and the military, all of which preceded democracy and have repeatedly outlived it. These are the tools “made for any tyrant’s acts,” whether the tyrant at the helm is a king, a class of bureaucrats, or “the people” themselves. “Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people,” as Oscar Wilde put it. Mu’ammer al Gaddafi echoed this approvingly a century later, without irony: “Democracy is the supervision of the people by the people.”