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The Subalterns and Unknowns of Democracy
By Jean-Paul Gagnon Posted in Book Chapter, Democracy, Democratic, Democratization on March 14, 2020 0 Comments 37 min read
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The Subalterns and Unknowns of Democracy

Originally published as Chapter 1 of Evolutionary Basic Democracy: A
Critical Overture
, 2013
, Pp. 15-33.

[This chapter was inspired by the literature on “democracy before democracy” as Yves Schemeil once put it or by the considered view that democracy, like its antonym autocracy, can spring and has sprung up in the world on its own, bubbling out of the ground, autochthonous and all. It very much reminds me of a point I learned from speaking with Noam Chomsky (the interview appears in my 2014 book Democratic Theorists in Conversation) which is that practices of democracy abound in many places across time, and space, independent of the West and its erroneous self-love as the inventor of democracy (<- that’s simply not a true statement irrespective of who makes it) and that these are often examples of democracy’s success: it’s ability, for a time anyway, to loosen the grip of power from the hands of one or a few and put it in the hands of the many.]

This chapter aims to highlight two specific bodies of literature. The first body of literature we look at gains focus in Chapter 2 and the second in Chapter 3. Chapter 4 will discuss both bodies. This results in the introduction to evolutionary basic democracy (EBD) as a theory. Of central importance is my argument that a little-known but important body of literature exists. This body covers democracies in different places during, for example, democratic Hellas, the English Revolution or the birth of the United Nations. I consider this to be a subaltern of the discourse. Further below I discuss a key point regarding hybridity and how this affects foundational claims. But to get to these two literatures we must first explain where they originate. Paine and Muhlberger (1993: 25, 26) help to set the tone:

Two factors have allowed historians, political theorists, and others to
represent democratic theory or practice as uniquely western phenomena: ignorance, and the concentration of historical research on the largest and best recorded institutions. That many historians know little about history outside of Europe and North America needs no demonstration … [Historians looking to places and times outside of the West] have seen only a mass of churlish and intractable peasants, too dumb to understand voting or the principle of human equality, now or ever.

(Paine and Muhlberger 1993: 25-26)

There is a dominant body of literature that places the origins of democracy
undoubtedly within ancient Hellas. It is to this body that Paine and Muhlberger (1993: 25, 26) address their critique. This literature argues that democracy after Greece was carried into the present by the items on the following list:

  • the Roman Republic (Ikeskamp and Heitmann-Gordon, 2010: 4, 20; Millar, 1998: 4);
  • the ecclesiastical practices of certain religions like Christianity and
  • Islam (Papanikolaou, 2003: 95; Khatab and Bouma, 2007);
  • the decision-making practices of Italian City-States (Jones, 1997);
  • Arabic scholars (al-Jabri, 2008; Abdalla and Rane, 2011);
  • Germanic and Swiss customs like the Märzfeld or Landsgemeinde (Head, 1995; Mellor, 2010: 15);
  • Nordic things – pronounced ‘tings’ (Boulhosa, 2011);
  • European wieches, sejms and folkmoots along with their cognates (Barnwell and Mostert, 2003);
  • guilds of all sorts (Arjomand, 2004: 324);
  • the Isle of Man’s Tynwald which is thought to be the world’s oldest
  • parliament (Edge and Pearce, 2006);
  • Ireland’s Tuáth (Canny, 2010);
  • the elisate of the Basque nation (Ugarte, 2009);
  • the rise of aristocracies from the Balkans and Eastern Europe to Ireland and Iceland that devolved power from autocrats and monarchs (Congleton, 2011);
  • the seemingly sacred Magna Charta (Wood, 1969: 537);
  • the innovations during the English, French and American revolutions (Gill, 2008);
  • New England town hall meetings (Robinson, 2011);
  • the 20th century’s successive triumphs of democracy over fascism, totalitarianism, communism and other non-democratic rule (Huntington, 1991);
  • and the 21st century’s e-democracy which some argue brought the demoi more transparency and accountability among other things (Insua and French, 2010).

Even though the list above is over-simplistic we should consider that this story is true insofar as the aforementioned items are actually about specific types of western Eurocentric democracy. And these democracies differ from one another in a number of ways. For example, there was not a gradual rise of aristocrats across the world. Not even in Europe. Nothing led to the dissolution of some terrible autocratic age because that homogeneous time did not exist. As far as we can tell, depending on the society observed, there were large numbers of aristocratic strenghtenings and weakenings depending on who was alive when, what transpired and how. In short, polities differ from each other in history but suffer the homogenizing effects that certain historical narratives have.

Black (2009: 1–2) is a good example of this homogenizing narrative.
He argues that:

Sociology has long been inter-cultural. World history is at last coming into its own. But in the history of ideas, globalization still has some way to go. While histories of Western political thought, usually starting with the ancient Greeks, abound, there are few histories of political thought in other civilizations. And there is none of the ancient world taken as a whole. This is astounding, when one considers that the period covered in this book was the most eventful in the whole history of political thought: it was then that political philosophy was invented (independently) in China and Greece; political science was invented in Greece; statecraft in China and India. Democracy and liberty (as every schoolboy or -girl perhaps knows) began in ancient Greece. Israel led directly to Judaism, indirectly to Christianity and Islam.

(Black 2009: 1-2)

Black (2009) recognized that the globalization of ancient political history is only just beginning. But as the reader will see many of the claims Black makes above are patently false. This is especially evident regarding his argument that Greece invented political science, liberty and democracy. His book paints a picture of specific ancient places in ways that appear dramatically myopic. Black argues that Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China were devoid of democracy. In light of recent evidence, his arguments are too broad and fall to pieces.

The same can be argued about the rise and fall of non-elites. Head (1995), Boulhosa (2011) and Barnwell and Mostert (2003) tell that the strength of non-elites grew or fell depending on how politics evolved. A non-elite assembly on the Hungarian steppes might be forced to give power to a regional autocrat. But a different assembly may not face these troubles because a mountain range protects it from more powerful militaries.

The list above is not exhaustive as the definition of specific bodies in the literature is subjective. The list itself might actually be too broad. The dominant literature is seen as a myopic, parochial and sometimes racist. Some say that it is an orientalist narrative. This is why a different scholar like Paine (with Muhlberger, 1993) would probably remove Nordic things and northern European non-elite assemblies like folkmoots or wieches from the list. He would note that they are not on average included in the bulk of democracy’s history. Keane (2012a) would probably remove Arabic scholars as they were and still are ignored in the dominant historical record of democracy. Leaving things and Arabic scholars on that list might give unfair virtue to a narrative that has otherwise colonized the discourse of democracy.

A good explanation about why some view this narrative so unhappily comes from Paine. The French, German and English literatures during the 19th and 20th centuries were conservative. They were blatantly opposed to the idea of democracies that differed from ancient Athens or its north Atlantic revolutionary origins. Anything else in that western European time-space could not be democratic because Greece invented it and Europe carried the torch forward. The blinders came onto the discourse early and we have only just begun removing them. Indeed, Thomas (1990: 310) supports this point in his discussion of the poet William Wordsworth:

[For Wordsworth] to speak thus in praise of democracy and democratic
principles, even so late as 1820, was a bold move. The word democracy, even then, still had very negative connotations, for most people, of violence and radicalism and mob rule. But Wordsworth was not afraid to use the word, for he was one of the most profound and entire believers in democracy who ever lived and wrote. In 1794, when he was barely 24, he announced boldly, even defiantly, ‘I am of that odious class of men called democrats, and of that class I shall for ever continue’.

(Thomas 1990: 310)

Democracy in this example is held in contempt due to the contemporaneous
belief that it was dangerous or distasteful. Thomas’ example helps to illustrate how humans can hold democracy sacred or profane depending on how they understand the concept.

Others like Elstub (2010), Levy (2010), Curato (2012) and Marktanner and Nasr (2009) might add to the list. They would cite the recent growth in popularity of deliberative and de-militarized democracies. Elstub, Levy and Curato argue that deliberative democracy is a core practice for any democracy to work. Levy, for example, details how deliberation fosters better public law. For Marktanner and Nasr, militaries are possibly anathema to democracy. This is a position that I agree with as I would prefer to see the enlisted and reservists placed in border security, police, search and rescue, and to continue building the international corps of peacekeepers.

In short, the dominant literature on democracy’s evolution is not strictly defined. Nor do the literatures I associate with each item on the list necessarily get along. Curato (2011) for example would not argue that democracy originates solely from the ‘West’. But we can make a general statement that the bulk of the literature argues that one or more of the items I list above are essential for democracy to exist.

An easy-to-spot problem is that the narrative in this major body of literature is a western Eurocentric one. Even eastern European or Russian scholars are not typically given any credit toward innovations in democracy. In the case of Arabic scholars, certain historic individuals who spoke or who were Arabic are considered to be those handy scholars who retained Greek writings. Greek works via Arabic were translated into Latin and subsequently a plurality of European languages. This is the main explanation for how democracy disappeared from the world only to be rediscovered. It is difficult to think that democracy exchanged hands in that exact manner (from Arabic to Latin to French for example), although the historical record maintains that it happened that way (Isakhan, 2012: 15). In this narrative, historical Arabic democratic theory has no place. Arabs were only translators – nothing more. That point helps us to understand why the existing narrative of democracy is considered orientalist. Arabs in history thought about democracy. The English discourse is only beginning to access this important ontology.

To round this portrayal off we should recognize that this literature, despite its massive size, is still a patchy portrayal of just a western European typology of democracy. It seems unreasonable, if not irrational, to think that the rest of the world and the humans living therein were not participants in democracy’s evolution. To borrow the words of Yves Schemeil there is a history of democracy before democracy. Humans were already present on every continent save for Antarctica during the time of democratic Hellas. Barring the forthcoming evidence that shows Hellas not to have invented democracy, probability would see types of democracy emerging in various forms wherever humans are found. Black (2009) argues that these early human societies are egalitarian and not democratic. But should we look at Black’s conception of democracy, it is inescapably subjective and falls prey to the logic of his own critique. Since we do not know what democracy is how can we pass judgment on what others are not?

The discourse presented above is unfortunately still the dominant one in the literature. It will also not gain any further focus in this book. Rather, we will look at a specific tranche in that body. This is the second body of literature described in this chapter. It is associated with times and places that argue between one another over what ‘true’, ‘real’, ‘actual’, ‘existing’ or ‘substantive’ democracy is and where first democracy originated.

The third and final body of literature we look at champions the criticisms and conditions that I made in the paragraphs above. The language of this body of literature is unusual. It is closer to the one used in the Introduction. It asks whether democracy existed well before ‘democracy’ was coined by an undetermined Greek, African or Mesopotamian. It asks about the evolution of that form of politics and looks for its origins in Kropotkin’s cooperation over competition argument. Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin had, after his work in Siberia during the later 1800s, published Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution in 1902. In this work Kropotkin argues that it was cooperation, rather than competition, which drove the survival of species. From microbes in pond scum, to animal societies in brutal winters, to human societies in challenging conditions, cooperation is observable in ways that contradict the obvious advantages gained through competition. I consider this third body to be an unknown dimension in the discourse of democracy.

This unknown literature involves the works of biologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, neuroscientists, historians and democratic theorists. It looks to indigenous peoples, to Africa, to Asia, to the Pacific, to the Americas and to nonhumans during, before and after ancient Hellas, the English Revolution and the birth of the United Nations. The story of democracy in this body of literature breaks down previous barriers. It argues that the phenomena described in the democratic states of ancient Hellas were also known in similar forms to city-states in India. They were known to villages in Papua New Guinea or the Ituri Forest and in Iroquoian or Wendat cultures. Some argue that the Greek ideal of collective decision-making through independent thinking appears to be known to Apis mellifera, or the European honeybee (Seeley, 2011, 2013). It is a wide open and in many ways a wonderful new world of democracy.

But before progressing, we must note that the preferential emphasis
given to the small emergent literature does not disparage the existing dominant Eurocentric ontology. It is simply a recontextualization. Hellenistic democratic typology becomes not the first origin of democracy but rather a mutation of something that predated it: a mutation that brought, and still brings, a bounty to contemporary democratic theory and practice. The same can be said about the morphologies of representative democracy that came impressively out of the English, French and American revolutions.

We first look to what Isakhan and Stockwell (2011) coin as the ‘standard history of democracy’. This is not a mundane repetition of evidence paraded in sequence and designed to match the list in the first paragraph of this chapter. Rather, it is a body of evidence critically discussing the nuanced evolution of democracy in that narrative. That offers a different spin on what is at times a stale discussion. Nevertheless, for those readers who are not intimately familiar with democracy’s more common historical narrative, the following works should bring us sufficiently up to speed in order to appreciate the discussion launched in the next paragraph: Arblaster (2002), Estlund (2002), Crick (2002), Dunn (2005), Weale (2007), Tilly (2007) and Saward (2003, 2006).

Origins in antiquity, revolutions, suffrage and beyond

There is something of an unwritten custom in the literature which sees scholars state, rather dogmatically, that the Greek were the creators of democracy and the first political culture. Ehrenberg (1950) and Fleck and Hanssen (2006) are good examples of this. But there are others who examine Grecian origins. They describe the delicate evidence and build certain foundational claims rather than stating in one way or the other that Athens is the cradle of democracy (Mitchell-Boyask, 2009: 374; Roe, 2002: 123). These, and works that argue for other Eurocentric democratic origins, are the ones we look at.

As seen in the list I provided at the beginning of this chapter, this literature on democracy has numerous starting points. It is not a linear continuation. And in many ways it is a group of moral works which typically reject previous forms of democracy. The definition of the citizenry and the regulated behaviour of agents in the Pnyx for Athens were possibly sufficient for certain individuals to scorn the looser, more inclusive, decision-making style of Chaonia. The ability for women to vote and run for office, and the extension of citizenship to un-propertied men as well as to teenagers, is as some would argue the mark of actual democracy. That last point disqualifies most historical democracies, including some Swiss cantons up until the late 20th century, from being democratic. And for others still, the vote, the right to run for office and the foundational institutions of representative systems are totally insufficient for democracy.

There are scholars who argue that on top of a widening franchise there must be one or more from the list below for democracy to exist or function:

  • more options for inclusive participation (Young, 2002; Pateman, 2012);
  • more assemblies with higher deliberative and discursive quality (Dryzek and Niemeyer, 2008);
  • less corruption (Della Porta and Mény, 1997), more transparency (Haug, 2001) and greater accountability (Bukhari and Haq, 2010) which can now together be expressed as ‘more monitorism’ (Keane, 2009);
  • more knowledgeable, critical, political interest from citizen (Rapeli, 2012, 2013);
  • greater numbers of referenda and electronic voting (Lake and Sosin, 1998; Yao and Murphy, 2007);
  • better regulation of corporations by the demos or that benefit the demos (Barley, 2007);
  • more impressive representation (Alonso et al., 2011);
  • reformed electoral campaigns (Birch, 2011);
  • less ‘trash’ media and better policed media (Bertrand, 2003; Cohen, 2005);
  • basic training on voting for citizens and standardized testing for politicians (Gagnon, 2012b);
  • nd greater ease of access to politics for one or more citizens enabling them to advance with whatever issue they might have (Hay, 2007).

For many today one or more items from the list above qualifies as a must for a democracy to be democratic. Or, theoretically, for democracy to exist. If we take the aforementioned requirements and look at any commonly regarded democratic polity, I contend that all would be failures. The City of Toronto, the state of Queensland, the USA, the EU, and the General Assembly of the United Nations would each struggle to meet everything on the list above. The best of the group would amount to trying in certain places to create the sparks needed to start the democratic fire. In that light, democracy does not exist today. It has never existed – but it is on the horizon. As will come to be seen, this body of literature is an importantly disjointed story of many democracy claimants across numerous times and spaces.

Dandamayev (1995) and Isakhan (2012) establish a pre-Hellenistic starting point for democracy. They focus on Ancient Iraq or Mesopotamia because the earliest evidence on democracy can be tied to those places.

When the Mesopotamian state first emerged in the early periods, royal
power did not play an important role and only many centuries later did it become despotic. Originally kings were merely the first among equals and were obliged by laws or by long social traditions to respect the rights of the population. In addition, royal power was restricted by popular assemblies which sometimes had a real and even decisive influence and which made citizens proud of their civil rights .

(Dandamayev in Isakhan, 2012: 40)

Isakhan offers evidence of god myths, the epics of Enmarkar, Lugalbanda, and Gilgamesh. These are important as they revolve around human or semi-human protagonists, and arguments about the independent citystates of Sumerian civilization among much else. It is a weighty argument that states a broad culture of democracy existed some 2,400 years before democratic Hellas. One god myth is particularly worth retelling. Isakhan (2012: viv) sheds light on the ‘democratic practices of the Ordained Assembly of the Great Gods that the myth of Enuma Elish reveals’.

The council was made up of 50 gods and goddesses in total and together they constituted the Ordained Assembly of the Great Gods. This assembly was called together when the gods needed to make the decisions regarding any number of issues and constituted the highest authority in the universe.

(Isakhan 2012: viv)

A second example of pre-Hellenistic democratic possibilities lies with Schemeil’s (2000) work. It pulls apart ways of understanding democracy in ancient times. Schemeil argues that Pharaonic Egypt and Mesopotamian cultures like Sumer and Assyria were places of ‘public debate and detailed voting procedures; countless assemblies convened at the thresholds of public buildings or city gates’. They were places where disputed trials were submitted to higher courts among other arguably democratic practices. This extends to the Cycladic, Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations which are predecessors to the pan-Greek culture. That evidence suggests two main arguments. The first is that Hellas may have grown culturally due to complex societal evolutions coming out of previous civilizations. The second is that the Greek typology of democracy may have been the result of innovations on pre-existing democracy systems from north-east Africa, the Fertile Crescent and south-east Europe.

Hybrid theory in Latour (1994), Urry (2006) and Haraway (2006) play are role in Schemeil’s arguments. Hybridity and complexity relate to comments made in the Introduction about how classicists are re-engaging Athenian and Greek democratic foundations. Although north-east Africa, south-east Europe, the Fertile Crescent and the Mediterranean basin are places, they cannot be static entities. They were not something at one point in time independent of past times. They were not places independent of previous human movement, of the diffusion of ideas and practices shared through even the most rudimentary forms of communication. I argue that the Hellenistic typology of democracy, which had multifarious democratic praxes, must have been dependent on broader and more complicated histories. It is unlikely that the practice of assembling individual human beings for the purpose of reaching collective decisions was invented by Athens or other Greek states. It does not make sense.

Hybridity forces a discussion on first democracy whether that be Greek, French, global, pre-historical or otherwise. Democracy even 500,000 years ago would not have been a eureka moment to one woman in an animal skin shelter. Homo sapiens’ democracy came from somewhere else. It came from primates. Continuing in that vein, the democratic traits in insect societies had origins. And those origins had origins. Democracy might be a condition of life itself which is a notion not removed from empirical reality. Humans have developed the capacity to create artificial life and are describing in increasingly impressive ways which inanimate conditions are needed for animate matter to spontaneously ‘live’. Do amino acids work cooperatively to create basic microbial life? Is the physical inanimate universe a place of cooperation rather than competition? Or both as it appears to be with sperm? The duality between cooperation and competition is too simplistic. Democracy could need both or possibly be a result of both – or a third, fourth of fifth set of unknown variables.

These are astronomical questions turned to later in the book. At this stage we need to refocus hybridity for the second body of literature. The central point to take away from this part of the discussion is that any foundational claim for first democracy cannot be viewed in a vacuum. Even the most radical arguments of democracy are muddled, complex and linked to other things. They all take from somewhere, move from somewhere, are innovated from somewhere, contrast against something and through that reinforce the likelihood of there being a raw essence of democracy. Follett (1965 [c1920]) and Wright (1949) argue the point of democracy’s ever changing meaning. But they do not specify that change in meaning can happen independently from the historical record as Latour (1994) does. Democracy comes from somewhere but it is not as the historical record currently presents it.

Raflaub, Ober and Wallace (2007) provide a Grecian starting point. The contributors to their volume question possible points of origin for democracy. They offer the view that the Greek may have been innovating within an already established culture of resistance to power. There may have been previous forms of collective decision-making and conceptions of citizenship among much else. The book does not however advance in that direction but stays within Hellas. To offer an example of what Raflaub, Ober and Wallace probably meant, Stockwell (2011a) spoke of Phoenician democracy. This was a type of mobile, trading and ship-based system of collective governance. It may have started one thousand years or more before Athens began its experiments in government. Raflaub, Ober and Wallace do not go to those lengths. This might be the case because the archaic historical record of early Greek democracies offers even less evidence than what is available to scholars of less dated periods in ancient Hellas.

Greek democracy is in itself contested. The first Greek democracy is not definitively known. We only know the earliest record which comes from Herodotus’ Histories (1996 [460 BCE]). Grecian democracy did not have full suffrage. Athens and Sparta were based on types of slavery and were militaristic places. Scholars today argue that this disqualifies Athens and Sparta from having been democratic. Theirs were different forms of government: oligarchies, patriarchies or military regimes.

The descriptive issues in ancient Hellas are a starting point for a tradition of arguing that democracy has its origins in later times. Gillin (1919) is central to understanding this contestation of origins. He argues, well before the late 1940s where the practice of viewing democracy globally re-emerged in the English discourse, that democracy’s beginnings came from early human societies. During that time villages, or collections of villages, would have numbered not more than a few hundreds or thousands of individuals. For Gillin this is the birth of ways that societies carried themselves culturally. It is where later civilizations from 10,000 or 20,000 years ago had the ideas to hold assemblies at city gates, or for leaders to consult some sort of council. This is true even in ostensibly oppressive regimes. It is the perspective that there was not a lightning bolt which struck a prehistorical genius that then led to a fundamental shift in ways of doing government or governance.

The act of individuals assembling and discussing matters that are pressing to their collective welfare was not an invention. Gillin may have thought that this was a natural inclination for humans. I think that is clear in his discussion of how democracy was oppressed with nationstate or empire building. This point is also clear in his discussion of how democracy mutated in places that resisted empire and how it later came into vogue once more: when societies continued questioning class divisions, inequalities and sovereign oppression.

Gillin writes that democracy became increasingly suppressed in places that succumbed to autocracy. That it grew and found new origins as it mutated in places like Sumerian city-states or hunter-gatherer cultures in African forests. Democracy flourished and stuttered and stopped depending on which case across a specific time and space, or series of times and spaces, we look to. This helps to explain why debates in the dominant literature about origins are increasingly common. Scholars decipher the Greek typology, or the Italian, French, American and global typologies to argue that these places in time achieved the beginnings of true democracy. But these, as argued above, are again the true beginnings of different types of democracy linked to complexity across animate and inanimate matter. At the same time they still share common characteristics which it appears Gillin had been pointing to nearly a century ago.

To round this description of literature off, Sader (2010) writes that for many Latin Americans in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the USA had been seen as the cuna de la democracia or the cradle of democracy. Magalhães (2000: 141) supports this point. Frank (1999: 53) writes the ‘cradle of democracy in the United Kingdom …’ which was also argued by Labutina (1994). Reichardt (1994) states that Germany’s uptake of democracy was directly caused by the French Revolution and the interpretations of democracy it fostered or forced to have reconsidered. Dirmoser (2005) argues that democracies in Latin America are effectively substanceless: they are democracies without democracy. Examples like these are numerous across a number of languages, although most works do take a historical approach to democracy and not one that wholly rejects previous forms. As will come to be seen in Chapter 3, that type of a priori rejection is found in a specific tranche of the literature.

Origins on the edge of time, space and species

Above I describe at least two bodies of literature on the history of democracy. The first is the dominant narrative. It typically presents a story starting from ancient Hellas. The narrative tracks western Eurocentric democracy falsely as democracy itself and uses this history as a foundation for contemporary research on democracy – especially in empirical works. The second and smaller body of literature argues for completely separate origins of democracy. It started here and stopped there; it began with such and ended so.

For the foundational claims that originate democracy in antiquity, the linear narrative is present as thinkers argue democracy to have continued
after its birth. But the narrative we look at, especially in Chapter 3, is different from those taking Athens as a starting point. Parpola (2000: 29–30) helps to explain:

[I]n comparison with Greek and Hellenistic cultures, Mesopotamian culture at first sight, undeniably, seems alien and strange. The better one has learned to understand it, however, the more it has come to resemble our own culture. Its strange and exotic features conceal within themselves an invisible world of ideas more familiar to us, which resurfaces in new garments but largely identical in content in classical antiquity. In Mesopotamia, the visible and invisible worlds were connected with each other through a complex system of symbols, images, metaphors, allegories and mental associations. Unravelling this symbolic code opens the way to the very core of Mesopotamian culture, the world of ideas hidden [in] its conventional and alien surface.

(Parpola 2000: 29-30)

From this example we can see that ancient Mesopotamia, at least as we understand it today, is not so different in social makeup to many contemporary societies. This automatically broadens the linear narrative beyond the standard one. Mesopotamia as origin for democracy and not initially Athens? Perhaps democracy in the 20th century BCE tracked further east. Maybe it came even earlier than that from forests in Africa or across trading routes from the Indian subcontinent. Different historical foundations for democracy change the spatial boundaries of its progressive narrative into the present.

But for those who work with contemporary moral philosophy, all previous democracies were attempts at being democratic. The real deal has not yet arrived, or, if it has arrived, this has happened only recently. Others say that only parts of democracy have arrived. There are many continuing struggles to achieve full or true democracy. See Huntington (1991), Lijphart (2001) and Fukuyama (2010, 2012) for examples that discuss democracy in this ontology. The second body offers a much broader account of origination. It focuses on a specific period rather than arguing one period to have been merely the result of a predecessor and then linking that to a successor.

The third body of literature is an entirely different, dislocated and unusual body of literature on democracy. It argues about things that are thought to be democratic. It shines a light in unusual places. These are works that appear outside of democratic theory and political or social philosophy. They have little to no presence in empirical political science. This literature comes from biology, microbiology, medicine and the ‘hard’ sciences like physics and mathematics. As Tribe (1989: 2) argues, the ‘metaphors and intuitions that guide physicists can enrich our comprehension of social and legal issues’. We investigate the sciences then to see what we can learn from them and to see whether this has value for the study of democracy.

Starting with physics and maths which are fields in the business of describing the entire universe, we run into a number of surprising

  • Dimensionally democratic calculus’ (Pezzaglia, 1999);
  • ‘Wrapping democracy’ (Rador, 2005);
  • ‘Democratic algorithm’ (Koide and Fusaoka, 2002);
  • ‘Democratic superstring field theory’ (Kroyter, 2011);
  • ‘Democratic-type model’ (Miura et al., 2000);
  • ‘Democratic mass matrix’ (Haba et al., 2000);
  • ‘Democratic module PV system’ (Itoh et al., 2001);
  • ‘Flavor democracy’; (Sultansoy, 2006);
  • ‘Quantum democracy’ (Segre, 2010);
  • and ‘Democratic neutrinos’ (Karl and Simpson, 2002).

Depending on how a person defines democracy, the use of ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic’ in these fields has nothing to do with the way these terms are understood in the study of politics. As physicist Gerard Milburn stated, physicists have a habit of borrowing words from other fields to use them in completely different ways. As we will come to see in the next chapter, this is corroborated by a number of interviews I have with physicists that use this language in their works. Until, that is, we reach the point of asking whether atoms, micro-particles and celestial bodies might actually be observed as operating in ‘democratic’ ways. That reaches into the philosophy of physics where Meierhenrich (2008) plays a role.

Going from inanimate matter to specific types of living things, or animate matter, the literature has a small bounty to offer. To start, there is the growing experimental literature that relates to synaptic or dendritic democracy (Rumsey and Abbott, 2006; Gidon and Segev, 2009; Sterratt and Ooyen, 2004). Neuroscientists argue that independent synapses work collectively. In other words, there is an argument to make about democracy in the brain. There is also evidence suggesting that individual genes in plants form a consensus on how to collectively behave in response to a stressor like cold (Benedict et al., 2006). The article explains that genes have a voting mechanism which dictates how a plant will respond to the stressor in question.

This kind of research has already begun impacting arguments in political philosophy. We can see this with Coles’ (2011: 273) argument that ‘mirror neurons [disclose] ways in which iterated practices and dispositional structures are crucial for democratic freedom’. We are trying to make political arguments for humans from what synapses do in animal (human and nonhuman) neural networks. That, importantly, is done similarly with the democracies observed in social insect societies. The American biologist Thomas Seeley (2011, 2013), for example, argues that human democracy can benefit from studying nonhuman democracy. This will be turned to with greater detail in the next chapter.

The use of ‘democracy’ in biology appeared as early as 1979. Kacser and Burns (1979: 1149) used it in the following way which helps to set the tone for our coming discussion:

A Democratic Society is difficult to define. Neither are all [persons] equal nor are all governed by a single [person]. The Society works by the interaction of many different kinds of [people], groups, interests and powers. Molecular Society is not that different. There are a large number of molecular species which interact with one another, some catalysing, some being catalysed, some combining, some splitting, some inhibiting, some activating, and some doing several of these at the same time. The system works as it does because of the interactions of the molecules …

(Kacser & Burns 1979: 1149)

Welch and Keleti (1987) were also writing similarly almost a decade later.
In their criticism of Kacser and Burns, they used words like ‘enzymodemocracy’, ‘molecular society’ and ‘supramolecular socialism’. But it was Conradt and Roper (2007) who strengthened the drive in the natural sciences to look for democracies in animate matter. ‘Consider a group of primates’, they argued:

deciding where to travel after a rest period, a flock of birds deciding when to leave a foraging patch or a swarm of bees choosing a new nest site; unless all members decide on the same action, some will be left behind and will forfeit, at least temporarily, the advantages of group living. Thus, in order to maintain group cohesion, social animals – like humans – have to make consensus decisions, chiefly about the timing and nature of activities and about future travel destinations. Moreover, as in humans, consensus decisions in animals often lead to conflict of interest between group members, owing to the fact that individual members often differ with respect to their optimal activity budgets.

(Conradt and Roper, 2007: 2317)

These kinds of work are central to the growing discussions in political ecology about ‘representing nature’. This ‘greening’ of democracy (Keane 2013, 2013a; Gagnon 2012a) is one of the fastest growing areas in contemporary democratic theory. As Latour (1994), Eckersley (2011), and Dobson (2010) among others have argued, when scientists ‘listen’ to baboons, or when ecologists ‘speak’ for the trees, they are not only making human representations of nonhumans but are also engaging in a dialogue that takes place between humans and nonhumans. It links back to hybridity and arguments stating the unlikelihood of separating democracy from nature.

Given that the literature on animate nonhuman democracy is larger than that associated with inanimate matter, I put Table 1.1 together to showcase a broad sample of this literature. Directing our attention to Table 1.1, directly below, a survey of animate nonhuman democratic life is presented.

Notice that I purposely use broad labels for the animate creatures featured in Table 1.1. I do this to designate that the field of better understanding the culture of animals has only recently begun. It is likely that a majority of animate creatures have cultures. And that culture exists between species. But pushing arguments beyond this foundation is unsustainable. There is not enough evidence to go into that direction. We will have to see how the literature plays out over the coming decades.

They make mention of bacteria being able to sense quorums and to commit
altruistic suicide. An individual bacterium seems able to decide to press its own self-destruct button for the greater good. Ben-Jacob (2008) adds to this by demonstrating that bacteria form complex colonies through chemotactic signalling and the exchange of genetic information. This can happen between species of bacteria (Federle and Bassler, 2003). Quorum detection, communication, social learning and altruistic suicide occur in microbes numbering millions of ‘individuals’. If we consider this to be a type of democratic society it points to the effectiveness of democracy. This may be one theory backing why bacteria learn quickly about antibiotics and change in response to their killer. Certain democratic behaviours allow bacteria to quickly change. For example, Streptococcus mutans is a bacterium commonly found in human oral cavities. It is associated with tooth decay. It can in this light be argued that a bacterial democratic society is present in the human mouth, and that it is responsible for keeping the profession of dentistry in good business.

These animals each have the ability to make decisions, or accept decisions,
collectively. Some are able to communicate better than others. Honeybees and certain bacteria can form quorums leading to quicker decision-making. Others, like a type of yellowtail fish, form social stratifications that change as the fish age. We must take note that the discussion of nonhuman democracy is contentious. The major counter-argument is that we cannot make sophisticated objective statements about nonhuman culture. Any judgment on nonhuman culture must be subjective. It reflects observer bias if the observer is looking for, or is naturally inclined to, democracy. As we do not know what democracy is we cannot state its presence in nonhumans. Because we think of contemporary democracies as more sophisticated than nonhuman democracies we view the latter with prefixed adjectives. Primitive democracy, proto- quasi- nonhumandemocracy, and basic- simple- raw-democracy are examples.

Although the last point may be viewed by certain biologists as the
result of anthropocentric egotism, it at least gives recognition that nonhumans can work in ways that humans can consider democratic. That is of central importance to the theory of evolutionary basic democracy to
which we will return later.

In total, this body of literature challenges the temporality of democracy
– driving it back millions, if not billions of years. Democratic behaviours happen in microscopic societies found in human blood or in the total dark, underground, as mole rats would have it. This changes the spatial dimensions of democracy. Finally, this literature pushes the boundaries of democracy well beyond Homo sapiens and into many other species or types of life.

The main question is whether these animal societies can be considered democratic at all. Can democracy be all of these things? It is difficult, if entirely improbable, to answer this question without having a positivist definition of democracy. That being said, I think it is uncontroversial enough to state that animals may certainly have types of democratic behaviour and that these are understandably evolutionary traits. One critical point that needs attention is whether these democratic things are ‘democratic’ at all: are they not simply altruistic behaviours? In response to this I argue that altruism is an ethos of democracy. Things that are democratic are considered altruistic. To get out of that circularity then, we can argue that democratic behaviours are evolutionary manifestations in support of communal altruistic behaviour. It is to this idea of biological evolution that we now turn to in the next chapter – starting with inanimate matter.

Articulations of democracy Boundaries of democracy Breeds of democracy Characterizations of democracy Classifications of democracy Collections of democracy Conceptions of democracy Concepts of democracy Conceptualisations of democracy Conceptualizations of democracy Constructions of democracy Contours of democracy definitions of democracy Delineations of democracy Demarcations of democracy democracy democrat democratic Democratic design Democratic innovation Democratic innovations Democratic Theories democratic theory Democratical democratization descriptions of democracy Designs of democracy Details of democracy Determinations of democracy Divisions of democracy Elucidations of democracy Exemplifications of democracy Explanations of democracy Explications of democracy Expositions of democracy Families of democracy Figures of democracy Formalisations of democracy Formalizations of democracy forms of democracy Frames of democracy Groups of democracy Ideals of democracy Ideas of democracy Ideations of democracy Interpretations of democracy kinds of democracy meanings of democracy Models of democracy Modes of democracy Molds of democracy Moulds of democracy Number of democracy Numbers of democracy Orders of democracy Outlines of democracy Patterns of democracy Profiles of democracy Representations of democracy Schemes of democracy Sets of democracy Sorts of democracy Species of democracy Structures of democracy Styles of democracy Themes of democracy theories of democracy types of democracy varieties of democracy Words of democracy

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