Among the most taken-for-granted and ubiquitously accepted propositions when defining democracy is the pretension that it is a special form of government by the people as a whole, rather than by any section, class or interest within it. Virtually all scholarly efforts to define democracy condescend to this way. ?Democracy is universally understood as a form of government involving ?rule by the people?, which has essentially derived its meaning from the term and practice introduced in ancient Greece around 500 BC'. If anybody is asked about what democracy is, how it should be and how it is understood, the answer will undoubtedly conform to the established clich? that democracy is the power of the people, a type of political system or a way of governing in which decisions are based on the will of the people, or their representatives.
This idea of democracy as the rule of the people by the people and for the people is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln, but neither the deeper roots of the definition, which actually derives from the speeches of the American lawyer and politician Daniel Webster nor the time-bound context in which he spoke those words are usually mentioned or understood. The consequence is that for most people the word democracy today functions as something of a clich?. That is not necessarily a bad thing, for clich?s serve as shorthand communication devices among actors who otherwise may have little or nothing in common. Clich?s facilitate trust and mutual understanding. Yet there are times when clich?s typically have an obfuscating function: they serve to de-sensitise actors to their own lived history, to dull the brains or blind the eyes of those who use them, sometimes to the point where the users become incapable of grasping what they are saying or doing. The clich? of simple democracy ? democracy as the rule of the sovereign people ? is a case in point. This clich? serves to blind contemporary democracies to their own novelty. It obscures the logic of some of their key institutional dynamics. It causes unnecessary disappointments among citizens and - paradoxically - encourages and legitimates forms of political behaviour that threaten democratic institutions and ways of life.
Democracy defined as the rule of the people by the people is a platitude that needs to be rejected ? for the sake of democracy, which can and must be defined differently as complex democracy. No where in the world is seen the practice of this ideal of simple democracy. To speak of complex democracy is to refer, both descriptively and normatively, to non-violent modes of power-sharing government and ways of life in which decision making and the distribution of power among citizens are based on the precept that no body rules. A bold redefinition of this kind is not a plea for ?anarchy', as might be thought when first encountering the words ?no body rules'. It rather involves something of a rescue operation: rescuing both the language and radical spirit of democracy from the clutches of a clich? by giving the word a twist and redefining it in an altogether different and unfamiliar way. Such redefinition is an exercise in ridding democracy of an ideological clich?. To speak of democracy as based on the precept that no body rules is to bring democracy to the word democracy by confronting it with several powerful objections that can be raised against clich?d definitions of democracy as the rule of the sovereign people. Especially potent are three such objections ? to do with the pre-Greek and Greek connotations of the word ?democracy'; the long history of manipulative misuse and strategic abuse of the ideal of simple democracy; and its inappropriateness as a descriptor of contemporary realities. When considered together, these objections point to the need to democratise our understanding of democracy by abandoning the normative clich? of simple democracy and replacing it with a descriptive and normative understanding of democracy as complex democracy.
Etymological Interpretation: Any contemporary effort to rethink the meaning of democracy must start by tracing the word democracy back to the Greeks, who are customarily credited with having invented the word and given it meaning. The platitude that democracy means the rule of the sovereign people usually points to its ultimate origin in or around classical Athens during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Most contemporary textbooks read by students and teachers concerned with the history of democratic theory and institutions repeat the point that this is where the history of democracy began. This old and venerable tradition of doing so has been debunked by new research which calls this myth of the Greek Origins of Democracy into question. It turns out not only that the arts of self-government sprang up much earlier, for instance in ancient Mesopotamia, where popular assemblies (pu-uh-ru) wielded power, including the election of kings(Evans,1958: 1-11) Even the root of the word democracy pre-dated the ancient Greek city states. References to the damos are evident during the Mycenean period (c. 1500-1200 BCE), when it is used as a noun to refer to a group of former landowners who lose everything and are dispossessed of political power (Effenterre). This means that the damos is a sectional or self-interested group that has its eyes on power, but is for the time being dispossessed of from power. That particular connotation of exclusion is carried over into the word demokratia that was spoken in the various classical Greek dialects. That the past was to echo into the present should not be surprising when it is considered that those who principally referred to the demos were its fearful opponents. The term became common currency in a phase of transition when (most famously in Athens) politics was dominated by aristocrats locked in competition with themselves and with their opponents. What this self-styled class of aristoi had in common was their mostly hostile regard for a sectional group that was seen to be dangerous because it was property-less and hungry for political power. Such references help to explain why democracy (demokratia : from demos and kratos, rule) had so few intellectual defenders, and why its critics pointed to the demos as a potentially destructive force within the life of the political community.
Few observers have spotted that the negative connotations of the word demokratia ? a form of polity defined by the exercise by some of self-interested or sectional power over others ? are buried within the very word democracy itself. The verb kratein is usually translated as ?to rule' or ?to govern', but in fact its original connotations are harsher, tougher, more brutal. To use the verb kratein is to speak the language of military manoeuvring and military conquest : kratein means to be master of, to conquer, to lord over, to possess (in modern Greek the same verb means to keep, or to hold), to be the stronger, to prevail or get the upper hand over somebody or something. Homer's Odyssey and Sappho's Supplements both use kratein in this way. The noun kratos, from which the compound demokratia was formed, similarly refers to might, strength, imperial majesty, toughness, triumphant power, and victory over others, especially through the application of force. The now obsolete verb demokrateo brims with all of these connotations: it means to grasp power, or to exercise control over others.
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