[I am now in the process of writing my fourth book, Democracy’s Linguistic Artefacts: The Future Science, and can’t help, after reading this first book of mine again, to feel that it is very much a young man’s argument—I started writing it at 25, published at 27. It’s big on argument, short in pages, takes the world of democracy as its subject, and blasts at it. It is what it is and earned for its troubles a nomination for the Stein Rokkan Prize in 2013. Nowadays, I like to think my tone more modest and subject matter narrower in scope. I suppose I needed to get this big argument out of the gate as it has been the touchstone for nearly everything I’ve since published. If you’d like to read an earlier, protean, form of the argument see “Democratic Theory and Theoretical Physics“.]
This introduction offers a post-foundational analytic tool for the study of democracy across time and space. The tool helps to manage the complexity of the discourse on democracy. This chapter argues that we do not know what democracy is. The chapter is determined to offer a way forward. It establishes that this book will explain a theory of basic democracy. It describes that the democracy theories, concepts, practices and their nuances are many and that the resulting ambiguity interferes with politics globally. The lack of a scientific definition of democracy is a serious and present danger for contemporary politics and society. This logic is used to argue for the importance of the model and to justify why we need a way forward.
Apparently there are many democracies today. Some places are not democratic. Certain democracies are more democratic and others less. We are told that everyone wants democracy and that everyone is a democrat. Individuals tell themselves that this is what they want. Democracy is the end of one history and the beginning of another. It is a crowning human achievement or a failing utopia. Some say it existed for a long time. Others say that it has still yet to arrive. Local, localregional, national, federal, international, multinational, and global politics as well as societies are driven by the desire to have democracy or to be democratic.
There is, however, a troubling difficulty with the statements I make above. We do not know what democracy is. We do not know what it means, or where it came from, or where it is going. It is universally pervasive in politics and society but, at the same time, an empty and confusing thing. Classicists debate the origins of the word. They debate the meaning ancient Greeks intended for it. They argue that the Greek were defining something already in existence. Democracy was not invented by the Greek. Its institutions across time and space are contradictory.
Its theory is unimaginably complicated. Madness has gripped us. If democracy is everywhere and everyone wants it, then how do we not know what it means? If we do not know what democracy means, then why is it forcefully driving our politics and societies? Humanity is governed by whispers and ghosts, by smoke and shadows that change from ear to ear, eye to eye, and thought to thought. It is imprisoned by parochialism, subjectivity, and myopia. Democracy means nothing. It means everything. We are in trouble.
This book’s sole purpose is to introduce a descriptive and analytical tool that will eventually permit us to understand democracy for the first time. It is a passage to a new ontology. The book presents a model. It then reverse engineers this model to describe a theory. This theory thinks about democracy across time and space. It breaks out of anthropocentric bonds. It explores nonhumans and inanimate matter. It demands a scientific foundation for democracy. A foundation that is reproducible by others and that is based on data from every corner of the earth and all of human time. We have to take everything that we think is democracy or democratic from every language and then ask this gargantuan body the same questions, over and over: What are you? How do you work? Where do you come from? And where can you take us? This book is designed to alter politics and society because it allows us to ask and answer these questions. Democracy can be defined. But it must be done in a way unlike any other before it.
We need to think about democracy differently. In its current form across a number of languages the only certainty (Dunn, 2013) is that the word itself – mínzhŭ, δημοκρατία, democrat/c/zie/a, dемократuя – has existed for some time. We are capable of tracking the word across specific times and spaces even though the historical record is far patchier than some are ready to admit. The word has been used to describe many forms of government, governance and institutions.
The definition of democracy is, and has been, contested (Gallie, 1956) since its North African, Mesoasiatic, Grecian, or other etymological births. Although the Greek word δημοκρατία is presently the norm to designate what we think is democracy and democratic, this does not need to be the case. There are earlier languages pre-dating Herodotus or Cleisthenes which had a lexicon referring to practices that are today considered democratic (Isakhan, 2012: 8). The political theorist John Keane (2009) argued this to be undeniably apparent in Mycenaean Linear B script. The French philosopher Yves Schemeil (2000) also argued this point during the construction of his archaeopolitics  concept. It is likely that more evidence will emerge from the study of non-elite society and language by Egyptologists (McDowell, 1999; Meskell, 1998; and Ambridge, 2007), the increasing focus in archaeology and historical anthropology on ancient pastoral or nomadic societies (Tebes, 2007; Lewis, 1999 ) and research into other parts of the world during the contemporaneous times of democratic Hellas. An example for the latter comes from a French work by Memel-Fotê (1991: 270):
Contemporary democratic theorists identify one essential characteristic for any democracy to exist: that is the institutionalised participation of a people regarding public life. There are five actions within this participation. (1) Taking one’s part in the assembly, (2) engaging in dialogue, (3) participating in decision-making, (4) playing a role in the execution of the decision or participating in the specification of how a decision is to be executed, and (5) sharing or having control over the entire process. In the first case, there are villages [in Africa] where the people decide who is to be their first among equals [leader]. This decision is made consensually taking into account the person’s societal pre-eminence including their material resources and intellectual capacities. The latter is observable in certain pre-colonial rural societies within Cote d’Ivoire and certain pygmy hunter-gatherer societies. In the second case, ‘all decide all’ in an assembly of children, adults, and the aged with one unique characteristic: the wielding of power is bound by a rotation resembling one described in Aristotle’s typologies. This is a practice found within the age-class systems of the Ebrie hunter-agriculturalists (Cote d’Ivoire) and Gykuyu agriculturalists (Kenya) [translated from the original in French].
(Memel-Fotê 1991: 270)
The point above can be extended to places in the Russian Far East and mainland south-east Asia (present day Vietnam, Laos, southern China, Cambodia) where certain indigenous minorities have inclusive, egalitarian societies that are explainable in the ways that Memel-Fotê used for pre-colonial Nubian Africa. The description of any democracy, even those contemporaneous to ancient Hellas and including ancient Hellas, will be subjective and open to a diversity of ‘democracy interpretations’. This is in part due to a lack of a positivist  definition of democracy that is able to explain its raw, human essence.
The contestation of democracy as a concept is a topic in the political philosophies of thinkers like Aristotle and Plato. The theory of democracy’s worth and its practicality has been long debated. But the ethos of the practice itself does not have this attention even though it differs from place to place. Ancient Athens, Sparta, Chaonia, and villages bordering the coast of the Levant, North Africa, Europe and the Black Sea had differing democratic ethoi and institutions. Classicists like Asmonti (2006), Pritchard (2010) and Sissa (2012) elucidate the nuances of ancient democracy from conception to practice. There is a heterogeneity of historical democracies that the literature is focusing on. In previous centuries, books or papers describing the delicate ethos or telos of a particular archaic democracy were rare. It appears today, as works of that sort continue to be published, that this trend is thankfully changing.
The bulk of the evidence I provide in the paragraphs above is not widely known. What is less known is that we do not know what democracy is. Types, theories, concepts, and practices of democracy as well as their many nuances are certainly known. Some of them are well-represented by the literature. A number of them are well-described. But due to the sheer scale of the literature on democracy it is improbable to know them all. This complex body of democracies leads and has led to experimental research, growth in philosophy, and innovative practical morphologies across the globe. But democracy itself, that raw essence shared between the hundreds of different democracies known to us, is still an unknown variable.
This state of affairs erodes the meaning of democracy. Its disturbance confounds the discourse and contemporary political practice of democracy as everything we think to be democracy in this sense cannot be. We do not know what democracy is so how can we determine what its many variations are? At the same time however this fact also provides an avenue to answering, through a positivist definition, what this raw essence is. Even without knowing democracy’s first order definition, we can still use the term to different effects and certainly use the data available to us to uncover its raw essence. This is something we will turn to shortly.
For now, the word ‘democracy’ is currently associated with hundreds of ‘democracy’ manifestations across numerous literatures (see Held, 2006; Gagnon, 2010, for more). We attach it to systems of government or governance that are at times fundamentally at odds with each other. A look at some of the arguments between assembly and representative (Kornblith and Jawahar, 2005; Urbinati, 2010) or liberal and radical (Hamington, 2004; Selg, 2012; Wingenbach, 2011) democratic theories is indicative of this condition in the discourse.
There are proponents in the literature that maintain this uncertainty over the origins of democracy to be a boon. It is true that a given amount of uncertainty about the positivist definition of anything is useful. This allows us to issue challenges which might invariably improve the definition. Keane says this about the physicist Werner Heisenberg’s work in the late 1920s on uncertainty and how social science can benefit from Heisenberg’s principle. So too does Wingenbach (2011) at the beginning of his work on institutionalizing agonistic democracy. But too much uncertainty can obfuscate a definition to the point of eroding meaning. Democracy, for example, was contested since the Greeks developed the term to describe an already existing social and political set of phenomena. Democracy was contested in the early days of the Cold War between the USA and the USSR. It is contested today by numerous countries that are labelled undemocratic and by the demoi of countries that are themselves labelled democratic.
In sum, the global epistemology of democracy is out of control. No one person can understand the vast complexity of this literature – of its hundreds of nuances across multiple languages. It is seemingly going everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The Australian democratic theorist John Dryzek (2013) argues that he cannot keep track of the deliberative democracy literature as it has ballooned in publications over the past two decades. All of these publications are certainly not a bad thing. What I am trying to express is that the size of this epistemology’s complexity continues to grow without sufficient definition, clarity and understanding.
The ultimate aim of this book is to introduce a theory of democracy that can describe the complexity of the epistemology. It will first address the literature that was responsible for this turn. These are mainly works by democratic theorists that tap into post-foundational ontologies. Consider Eckersley (2011), Muhlberger (2011), Connolly (1983), Mouffe (1999) and Laclau (2001) as good examples: they argue against the spatial and temporal limits of current understandings in democracy. They argue for more data from different times, places and languages as conditions for the establishment of necessarily tenuous foundations (e.g. post-foundations). This book will then turn to time itself arguing that democracy seems to have certain biological or evolutionary qualities. This will be contrasted with a discussion arguing against these evolutionary possibilities. In other words, that democracy is only just beginning. Chapter 4 discusses both positions. It argues that democracy is difficult to understand as the sole domain of humanity and that it was not a manifestation of Western places. Instead, democracy comes across as having a deeper and more complicated history not specifically associated with certain times and places as a majority of the literature would argue.
But before diving into a discussion of major contrasts in the literature it is crucial to establish an existing model of democracy; one that is a practical manifestation of evolutionary basic democracy (heretofore EBD). Following the example of Keane (2009), who first established monitory democracy and then devoted the remainder of the Life and Death of Democracy to describing it, I am placing the model up front in this introduction. This will serve to define the concept that this book seeks to explain. The model will help specify certain conditions on which EBD relies. By doing this the remainder of the book reverse engineers the model showing to the reader how the theory had come about.
Modelling to describe complexity
I, and others like Isakhan (2011 [with Stockwell]; 2012; 2012 [with Stockwell]; 2013), Keane, and Sissa, contend that the system certain Greeks came to name demos-kratos existed in various forms before them. These systems before the Greek had different words or no words at all describing them. But given that the word ‘democracy’ is of Greek origin can we actually use it in this book? If we are to speak of something that substantively predates the Greek do we need a new word? Rather than go about inventing something new, I would prefer to state that since the word has no discernable meaning, it is technically empty and can be reappropriated to encompass phenomena before the Greek. This is possible because the Greek were defining something related to pre-existing democracy with the invention of that word. In that sense ‘democracy before the Greek’ is not anachronistic.
To understand the model, we need to think of democracy differently to how it is approached in the global epistemology that this book presents.  First, space must not be less than the entire planet. This is unusual due to the difficulty of collecting the required data to argue democracy across hundreds of languages. Works on democracy are normally associated with certain spaces within the planet and not from the entire planet itself. To understand ‘the’ democracy we cannot look at one or a collection of territories and then extrapolate from there. That is myopic, parochial and unfair. Drawing from specific spaces in the world is, as will come to be seen in the next chapter, insufficient to meet post-foundationalist expectations. Even the most capacious theories of democracy are parochial if we attempt to extrapolate or generalize findings from certain places onto others. For us to understand democracy we need to construct the concept with evidence from the whole planet.
A good example for this critique comes from democracy indices. The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index, Polity IV, Freedom House (or Gastil) Index, and the Vanhanen Polyarchy Dataset are, like certain other indices, measuring the countries of the world for a presence or degree of democracy. What these indices are actually doing is measuring specific understandings of democracy or parameters that are thought to be necessary for democratization to occur. They are not measuring democracy itself. That is not at this time possible. It is an extrapolation of theory rooted in certain times, places and languages onto other times, places and languages that may have or have had their own manifestations of democracy. This is a long-standing issue, at times divisive, between the political scientists that put together variables for the quantification of democracy and democratic theorists who criticize the theory underlying the variables used. I argue (Gagnon, 2012) that so long as empiricists use a ‘disclaimer’ telling the reader what the subjectivity of their definition of democracy is, this bypasses the issue. The author and reader both gain specificity and understand that this work is measuring ‘such and such’ a conception of democracy rather than democracy itself.
Another good example of this is Held’s (2006) models of democracy. Although a brilliant work it is by no means all-encompassing and does not succeed in defining democracy. This is not what Held sought out to do. He was concerned with describing the most widely used democratic systems. The work, however, is sometimes interpreted by readers and especially by students as being the foundational keystone for democracy itself. What Held’s book does magnificently is present a certain number of describable models of democracy from certain places and times in the planet. It unfortunately leaves out massive amounts of data. That being said, I am uncertain whether a book could contain the planetary data associated with democracy. That volume would be monstrous.
The second condition of the model is that time cannot be less than the entire existence of humanity. Archaic Homo sapiens 500,000 years ago and physiologically modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) 200,000 years ago can be viewed as one root of democracy. And as will come to be seen in Chapter 2, time does extend prior to humanity. This second condition is again unusual for the study of democracy. The majority of works on democracy do not take this encompassing view of time. They rather stick to specific temporal periods like ancient Greece, Rome, Asia Minor (i.e. Middle East, Turkey), China, India, historical Europe, the Americas and south Pacific of the past 500 years, and parts of the globe for the past century or two. Certain temporal periods have been touted and repeated to death in the literature. This helps to explain why scholars of, for example, the French Revolution are innovating by breaking apart ostensible ‘old truths’. Like the US-American political theorist John Markoff, they are forming new, more impressively complex, historical works which recognize the uncertainties of current foundational claims.
The third condition of the model is that space across time must also not be viewed as a fixed property. Human demography naturally changes according to major events like ice ages, irreversible floods, pandemics, droughts and desertifications (McGowan et al., 2012). Demography also modifies due to local anthropogenic climate changes like the deforestation that occurred on Rotorua. Empire building, which leads to mass refugee migrations, and tectonic shift also affect demography. This third condition adds a dimension of complexity to any given space and time. That point is not by itself novel in the literature as thinkers do look at the effects of the aforementioned on political development. Attaching this dimension to total human time and space keeps the model to certain expectations of complexity and detail.
In order to effectively understand the model it is useful to build a visualization. If we turn our attention to point one in Figure 0.1, we see a sphere composed of squares. This is the planet earth divided into squares. I argue that we need to look into each square for data related to democracy. This helps us to evenly distribute our analytic attention to all spaces of the earth and to think of data as having to come from these places for us to build a definition of democracy. In cases like Point Nemo (the furthest point on earth away from any land), where there are no humans in residence, the square in question is not useless. It can be used to conduct research on nonhuman democratic practices in the area. As can be seen in Table 1.1, there are numerous arguments about democratic phenomena happening under the sea. The sphere is not the only way of dividing the earth into analytic squares. And there is no rule against dividing a square into a thousand squares which helps for spaces where there are numerous polities. The sphere at point one in the Figure is a conceptual example. It is how we should think of the space of democracy.
Matters become more interesting at point two in the Figure. We can raise a square and pull that square out of the sphere. When a square is fully removed it resembles a railroad spike. This is because it tapers to an end (see point number three in the Figure). Time associated with a specific space is now the fixation. The narrowest end of the taper is an approximate starting point for the Homo sapiens species. We are thought to have emerged somewhere around 500,000 years ago. The face of the spike is a specific space. The length of the spike represents the time associated with that space going back to the point of human origin. As time goes back and the taper diminishes in length, the nature of the space on the face of the spike changes. It does this to match known geological, climatic or empire shifts that affect the demography in the space. In other words, it is a method to help us understand how democracy existed for all of human time for any given space. It allows us to populate the taper with data on democracy and, to a certain extent, control for demography-related complexity.
Here is where the utility of the model becomes most apparent. Viewing the spike lengthwise, we can see that certain lines and dates are pegged along the taper. The perpendicular lines indicate that there are pieces of data. These data are mined from every possible language, and from photographs of archaeological or anthropological artefacts (prehistorical, historical and contemporary) that are thought to be associated with democracy or a democratic way of life. In sum, the model is a data repository for anything thought to be a phenomenon of democracy for the entire planet across all human time. It is an analytic tool designed for post-foundational and positivist foundations to be reached about democracy. It also allows us to understand the complexity of humanity’s democracy discourse.
The pieces of data that we place in the model can link together using lines. This is conditional on there being convincing enough reason to establish a correlation or causation between two or more distinct pieces of data. Nevertheless, two pieces of data from the same space separated by large amounts of time can still be linked as this fosters the genesis of hypotheses. A phylogenetic tree for democracy can be built in the same way scientists link fossils and other archaeological data. There is no particular reason that we cannot treat democracy in this way.
Although the next chapter of this book is devoted wholly to anthropogenic democracy, its second chapter describes a literature on democracy which falls outside of the human species. If we direct our attention to the end of the taper in point four in the Figure, it is easy to imagine the phylogenetic tree moving off to the right at a diagonal mirrored by ‘roots’ going off to the left. We can put unusual labels on those imaginary roots: microbial life, Canadian geese and cockroaches, Neanderthals, Denisovan man and chimpanzees. To these one could add certain wasp, ant and termite species, two types of mole rats, as well as slime-mould. What these imaginary roots at point four demonstrate is that there might be a deeper, nonhuman, history of basic democratic practices. These practices are arguably the best modes of social interaction for survival. In this sense, honeybees evolved the use of certain democratic practices as these worked best over millions of years of trial and error for the perpetuation of their species. Contemporary Darwinian theory (Pross, 2011) would argue that the evolution of what we interpret as a democratic practice within an insect society must be due to its effectiveness. Decision-making including quorum formation, group communication, independent thinking and changeable leadership, among other observable phenomena, are theorized to have existed well before Homo sapiens rose as a species.
If we manage to populate each square with historical and contemporary democracy it will at this stage become possible to link data across time for any given space, or at least those spaces that will have data associated with them. Antarctica, for example, would have data dating back a few hundred years and would, in addition to possible nonhuman democracies, have a comparatively small phylogenetic tree. As seen at point four in Figure 0.1, these efforts at linking bodies of data can create linear taxonomies of democracy. This literally builds the phylogenetic tree of planetary democracy, one temporal-spatiality at a time. That may help to explain the complex diversity of democracy today and its supposed simplicity during the dawn of Homo sapiens.
Point five in the Figure is an example of this. It shows what a global phylogenetic tree of democracy might look like. Lines are simpler in the smaller sphere associated with 500,000 years before the present (ybp) as there were not many human beings. Those that existed were in certain parts of Africa. As time advances, the taxonomy becomes more complex in the middle sphere associated with 50,000 ybp. Humans are not yet in the Americas but are in Africa, Eurasia and certain Pacific Islands. Populations are higher and modes of governance have emerged to organize large numbers of individuals living together in certain places like the Fertile Crescent. The taxonomy becomes extremely complex for the part of the sphere associated with the present time. Democracy is simple to start but becomes more complex as humanity progresses in time and space. Some would argue that actual democracy was suppressed as this complexity grew. Democracy became the victim of imperialism, violence and elite control. Depending on the polity and the scale (i.e. federal versus municipal) citizens became subjects.
The model above succeeds in doing four things. The first is that it provides an innovative structure to place democracy data within. It permits us to start managing the complexity of the discourse. The second is that it forces the raw essence of democracy as having to be something derived from the entire existence of Homo sapiens. A definition of democracy should not come from anything less than planetary space and human time. The third, especially once the model is robustly populated, is that this database would permit reproducible scientific methods to analyse as much of what we think is democracy as possible. And the fourth is that the model will help to pin-point where in time and space the study of democracy for humans is missing. That last point may help to supercharge the discourse as temporal and spatial gap identification will be made easier for scholars of democracy.
As we need to populate the model with data from a large number of languages, times and places it will have to be a collective effort. This kind of collaboration would take time to fill the model as the discourse of democracy is enormous. The aim is to have this process occur digitally once a four-dimensional interactive model is finished and brought to life on the internet. Seeing as how a first order definition of democracy is not currently known, there should be no barrier to what can and what cannot be inserted into the model. If a convincing argument is made that this book, article, artefact or recorded phenomenon is thought to be indicative of some thinking or action associated with democracy or as having been democratic, it must be included. Although some might balk at this method, arguing that it would result in the contamination of the data by non-democratic things, I hypothesize that the weight of the evidence will converge on an objective truth. This will occur after metaanalyses are conducted on the results from numerous different reproducible studies that seek to understand the most basic shared characteristics of the data in the model. I presume that the collective outcome of these meta-analyses will be a description of a stochastic convergence (derived from the predictive side of Brownian motion) that will manifest itself within the data. This should be the positivist definition of democracy: the raw essence that we are after.
With this model in play, thinkers will be able to ask the largest and most capacious database of democracy, through multifarious research methods, what its shared characteristics are, and to do this in ways that are reproducible. That is a core requirement to establish a positivist basic definition of democracy capable of describing how we reached this point of complexity in the epistemology. The positivist aspect of the model will make contesting arguments possible, but much more difficult given that the tenuous foundation to be reached will be one that meets scientific methods known to humans today. That kind of definition will give experts, practitioners and citizens concerned with democracy a toothy place to fight from. What is democracy or democratic will become clear in a basic sense. It will not be possible for powers to deny unless the validity of the foundation reached in the model is broadly agreed by the scientific community to have been flawed. In the end, this model is a pathway to change the politics of the world. To know, with scientific rigour, what is democracy and what is not democracy (or democratic) has wide-ranging implications.
Why does any of this matter?
The way democracy is discussed in this book is unusual. It meets the call in this book that democracy must be thought of in a substantively different way. That is probably why an anonymous expert commented that this work is a possible ‘game-changer’ for the field of democracy studies. The benefits of the model above and its unusual approach to thinking about democracy indicate the importance of EBD as a theory. But this book is not intrinsically about the model. It is, rather, an introduction to how the model above came into existence. This book describes specific bodies of literature and builds up the theory of EBD. It is a critical overture. This results in a novel way of understanding the complexity of democracy. It is the description of a newer narrative foundation whose importance is exemplified by the model.
There is a small but growing literature on the subject which first began in the 1910s. Thinkers during that approximate time began to question the dogma of democracy’s standard narrative. That narrative sees democracy’s origins in the ancient Greek. There is, of course, zoon politikos from Aristotle that greatly predates the questions of democracy’s origins in the 1910s. Or bios politikos from Hannah Arendt (2007), biopolitics from Michel Foucault (1978: 135–145) and later the politicization of life given by Giorgio Agamben (1998: 119–125) that deals with temporal periods before the 20th century. But these are not engagements about democracy’s origins. Nor are they about the human–animal from prehistor. Those works are rather an exploration of the living human–animal and her contemporaneous political existence. Life enabled or ended by politics, life defined by politics, or life transmogrified by politics. EBD is concerned with the primordial ooze of democracy. It wants to understand what democracy is in its most fundamental state. The main question is about where democracy originates. Did this happen through the existence of proto-humans before Homo sapiens started to leave fossil records? And how does this differ from literature claiming that democracy has not yet arrived?
Matters will begin with the period in time of democracy’s inception.This body of literature is concerned with how democracy evolved and what its most basic, animal and human characteristics are: essentially, that which underlines all of the competing concepts and theories of democracy describable today.
This term is used by Schemeil to discuss non-Grecian democracy before democratic Hellas.
A positivist definition is one that can be established using reproducible scientific methods.
Please note that global epistemology means the collection of literatures concerning democracy from mainly the English literature. I have, however, conducted research in French, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese. Although these are the languages that I can work with they are insufficient in number to meet the needs of EBD. As will come to be argued, data on democracy must come from all languages for the model to work.
See Brather (2011) and Jennissen (2011) for evidence pertaining to the migration point in the demography argument.