A Potential Demarcation Between “Old” and “New” Democratic Theory?: An Attempt at Positioning a Segment of the Extant
Originally published by Social Alternatives, 30(3), 2011, Pp. 5-9.
[I wrote this for a special issue that cultural sociologist, and old friend, Nicholas Osbaldiston proposed. The piece was inspired by John Keane’s Life and Death of Democracy, some whiffs of the incoming book by Benjamin Isakhan and Steven Stockwell of The Secret History of Democracy and, of course, reading Martin Bernall’s Black Athena (mostly volume 1). There were many shorter essays, such as from Steve Muhlberger and Phil Paine or Yves Schemeil that I read and reread (they’re so good!), which were also influential. The skinny of it is that I felt at the time of writing, and still do, that democratic theory was starting to escape its Western grip and come into its own as a planetary affair.]
This article will try to argue, in a purposefully broad way, that certain works in the literature (arguably concerning certain aspects of the history of democracy, social theory and contemporary democracy theory) can be organised to form a logical point of demarcation between ‘old’ and ‘new’ understandings of ‘democracy’. This work will tie in the recent theory of ‘basic’ democracy as well as Beck and Grande’s (2010) work on the varieties of 2nd Modernity. It will also bring in the works of John Keane (2009), Benjamin Isakhan and Stephen Stockwell (2011). It is hoped that this article might contribute in some small way to the “democratization of democracy” and promote ‘democracy’s’ potential “new” narrative. This work is limited by its chosen literature, and by its broad scope, but the commentary may be of some use to further thought.
It may be argued that in the last two years (2009–2011) we have been privy to an important level of change in contemporary democratic theory . This is something I reason to be related to definitional clarity of the term or concept known today as ‘democracy’. It is, perhaps, a collective argument challenging previous ways of thinking about ‘democracy’ that some (like John Dunn or Ulrich Beck) have come to consider parochial, imperialist and perhaps even inappropriate for this globalised world. Ultimately, it is based on the view that ‘democracy’ is perhaps now a global right (Sen 1999) and not something couched in a Eurocentric narrative. I argue that this change might permit us to stake a line in the literature demarcating ‘old’ understandings of ‘democracy’ from ‘new’. To make this argument, we will be investigating works that deal with the history of ‘democracy’; one specific argument made by Beck and Grande (2010) in social theory that has implications for the way in which we think about ‘democracy’; and we will look at how certain political thinkers are responding to these earlier changes. It is important to state, for the sake of giving this argument greater context, that it idoes not include a wide variety of empirical work concerning the multiplicities of ‘democracy’ because these are felt to not be compatible with the recent changes.
It is considered important to do this as it might assist us in understanding the discourse on ‘democracy’ better. The extant literature  has been sufficiently clear for some time that ‘democracy’ is a term or concept that may mean any number of things to any number of peoples (similar to other words like “nation”). Thus, I argue, that it is our responsibility to try to give shape and form to this nebulous word as it may assist us in ordering this increasingly uncertain age . It is argued that “old” ‘democracy’ has fallen short of being able to do this as the conceptualisations of ‘democracy’ stemming from thinkers prior to this two-year bloc cannot be married to recent developments in the history of ‘democracy’, or perhaps any variety of Second Modernity. They do not implement cosmopolitan methodologies but rather approach their work in what may be considered a parochial manner.
This is where ‘new democracy’ is perhaps given a function. John Dunn (Dunn and Gagnon, 2011) argued in a convincing manner that we do not know enough about the history of ‘democracy’. Because of this, we are not sufficiently equipped to understand what ‘democracy’ may be today. This, in effect, is a gauntlet thrown to all previous thinkers who worked on ‘democracy’ and to those who may have been informing the “false narrative of democracy” (see Isakhan and Gagnon 2011). It is also a sound argument to carry us forward to how we are rethinking the history of ‘democracy’ and what this may mean for the aforementioned narrative.
Some may view this argument as being deconstructionist, but it is not attempting to disparage previous thinking. Rather, it is a small attempt at perhaps helping us categorise the previous areas of work on ‘democracy’ in a way that identifies their limitations, places them in more robust contexts, and fully involves them in a ‘new’ narrative of ‘democracy’, not one that is couched in Greek or North Atlantic thinking.
A Notable Historical Argument?
John Keane’s (2009) work, coupled with that of Isakhan and Stockwell’s (2011) (including all the contributors there within), is an important contribution to contemporary democratic theory. Keane, Isakhan and Stockwell specifically argued that ‘democracy’ was not invented by the Greeks, but that it was something which predated Greek polities and that it is historically found throughout the world. What we know as ‘democracy’ is a form of government and governance that has a name carried over from Greece. It is likely that this form of government and governance had other equally valid names in other societies, perhaps even predating Ancient Athens and far removed from Europe .
This argument may, in a very limited way, be considered a discourse changer. For us to fully appreciate what these two works have achieved, we should first discuss the typical or normative narrative of ‘democracy’, as I argue it helps us to form a new narrative of ‘democracy’ . We are in general taught that ‘democracy’ was invented by the Athenians (see Dahl 1989; Qvortrup 2004; Brown 2004; Fleck and Hanssen 2006; and Woltermann 2011) and that it was taken up by the Roman Republic once the Athenian polity fell. Subsequently, after the fall of the Roman Republic, ‘democracy’ was carried forward in the republican tradition (a representative style with strong executive bodies) in Italian city-state republics or in the more direct tradition in Swiss cantons. Other narratives suggest that ‘democracy’ was lost until the “Dark Ages”  came to an end and the Magna Carta, along with the rediscovery of key Classical Greek arguments concerning ‘democracy’, helped to bring about the rebirth of ‘democracy’ in the English, French and American revolutions . We are then told that it was the political battles in these countries that led to the maturation of ‘democracy’ which was then ready for export to free and enlighten the East, South and third and fourth worlds for example.
The odd aspect of this narrative is that it appears to have stuck and perhaps continues to stick in the minds of many individuals (we can see that popular culture makes reference to “democracy having been invented by the Greeks”  and that many thinkers still couch their discussions of ‘democracy’ in reference to Greek thinkers like Plato or Aristotle). This is problematic because it supposes that ‘democracy’ is a Eurocentric affair and one that was built by Western thinkers over a period of 2500 to 3500 years (counting backwards from the current date). What we are beginning to understand, however, is that ‘democracy’ is probably something that we evolved with (like autocratic despotism) and as Isakhan (2011: 20) shared, it is part of the ‘human story’. For example, we have been seeing evidence from Indigenous scholars, from Arabic historians, and from anthropologists and archaeologists that ‘democracy’ is probably older and far more pervasive across humanity than previously supposed .
This is significant because it might rob ‘democracy’ of any imperial or historical ownership. It might be said that this evidence ‘democratises democracy’ and that it allows all humans to engage with ‘democracy’ and to not have one typology dominate any other. This may have the effect of removing parochialisms from ‘democracy’s’ narrative and to decentralise its power to the level of the individual and to broaden its history to the level of collective humanity. It can be argued that this effect may be priming ‘democracy’ to be studied using a cosmopolitan methodology. Should we, for example, understand ‘democracy’ in this new narrative, we may be free of parochialisms and might be able to engage research in a manner that fits with Second Modernity and cosmopolitan theory.
A Development in Social Theory?
The conditions of this perspective are as follows: should ‘democracy’ (whatever that is) be something we evolved with and should it then have a multiplicity of typologies or forms: it should be owned by humans as a whole and not any particular society or history. Should a specific type of ‘democracy’ be preferred to other types of ‘democracy’ or government/governance (like autocratic despotism), then it may be inferable that most people in the world are in favour of ‘democracy’ as their chosen type of political organisation.
Ulrich Beck and Edgar Grande (2010) made a call for the implementation of a cosmopolitan methodology (their cosmopolitan turn) in the social sciences. We are increasingly seeing, for potential multiple reasons, that ‘democracy’ may be considered by ‘global humanity’ (should such exist) to now be a right whereas previously this was disputed. We also see, perhaps, that the argument of ‘democracy’ being a ‘global desirable’ has support in these new historical arguments mentioned above.
With this perspective, we are perhaps well equipped to understand how Beck and Grande’s cosmopolitan turn may have affected contemporary democratic theory.
When a world order collapses, that’s the moment when reflection should begin. Surprisingly, this has not been the case with the type of social theory dominant today. The mainstream of social theory still floats loftily above the lowlands of epochal transformations (climate change, financial crisis, nation-states) in a condition of universalistic superiority and instinctive uncertainty. This universalistic social theory, whether structuralist, interactionist, Marxist or systems theoretical, is now(Beck and Grande 2010: 409-410)
both out of date and provincial. Out of date because it excludes a priori what can be observed empirically: a fundamental transformation of society and politics within Modernity (from First to Second Modernity); provincial because it mistakenly absolutises the trajectory, the historical experience and future expectation of Western, i.e. predominantly European or North American, modernisation and thereby also fails to
see its particularity. Consequently…the necessity of a cosmopolitan turn in social and political theory.
Considering that certain historians have been careful to pull ‘democracy’ out of Eurocentric or ‘Western’ ownership we might be able to argue that this ‘new’ narrative is not out of date or provincial. This is because it does not rule out what can or should be measured empirically (for instance taking into account Dunn’s (Dunn and Gagnon, 2011) argument that we still do not know enough about ‘democracy’) and that it has not fallen into the false trajectory of placing one region’s modern theory over another. Rather, we are beginning to consider ‘democracy’ as a global affair, that human story Isakhan (Isakhan and Gagnon, 2011) referred to, and consequently these developments in the history of ‘democracy’ probably meet the expectations referenced above. This is critical to understanding the difference between ‘old’ and ‘new democracy’: it is the realisation that the term or concept must be defined in a manner that is not parochial or that any parochialism be robustly defined and used in a comparative manner. Most importantly, that ‘democracy’ is not Greek, European or North American. A greater mind than mine indicated that this argument has its own history in works challenging the way in which ‘democracy’ has been used as a term or concept. Although this argument is reasonable, these works did not come to make the arguments that Isakhan and Stockwell, Keane, or Beck and Grande made which is why I emphasise them to such an extent.
Help in Conceptualising ‘Democracy’?
But how do the works discussed above translate to better conceptualisation of ‘democracy’? In the first instance we need to consistently start our work from the understanding that ‘democracy’ has a variety of types and to do away with the “old” narrative. Because of that, we need to be conceptually and or terminologically clear to the reader when using the word ‘democracy’ in our arguments as this may assist us to create a more robust and “new” narrative of ‘democracy’.
This new narrative might be something along the following lines: ‘democracy’, like autocratic despotism, is a form of political organisation (government and governance) that animals have been using for millions of years (some may suggest tens or hundreds of millions). Because of this, we understand that ‘democracy’ can have a complex diversity depending on how those (at whatever level of government or species) have conceptualised it and which institutions (or biological processes should we consider bees) are affiliated with that conception. We understand that ‘democracy’ has a long and complex history and that it is not defined (or that the paradox is still present) and that it does not yet have a taxonomy or linear progression that is marriageable to cosmopolitan theory, Second Modernity and recent findings in the history of ‘democracy’. We are now at a stage where we must conduct further research into trying to make sense of these complexities: what is the prevalence of the “old” narrative compared to the “new” narrative? Why do individuals think about ‘democracy’ the way they do? Is there a wide-scale confusion concerning ‘democracy’ among individuals internationally and why? Should we solve the ‘democracy’ paradox, what would this mean and how would this change politics?
The counter-argument to trying to define ‘democracy’ in this manner is that the act of doing so may be undemocratic (an argument put forward by Isakhan and Stockwell, 2011). However, the cosmopolitan conditions placed on our thinking may in effect, make such an attempt perhaps the most democratic investigation into ‘democracy’ yet. For such a thing to be achieved it would probably necessitate a variety of non-formal, formal and empirical analyses and would have to include a diverse sample of individuals globally.
It is felt that, in a very limited way, the theory of “basic democracy” (see Gagnon, 2010) might have made a small contribution to this process (it lacks formal theorisation and does not include empirical work with humans). What this study did, perhaps successfully, is analyse forty different typologies of ‘democracy’. Using Charmaz’s (2006) grounded theory methodology it tried to understand what each of these typologies had in common. One area, among many, in which this work could be improved is the inclusion of a better geographic and gender balance in its accumulation of typologies (that is, it is parochial). Most, if not all, typologies used stemmed from Eurocentric or North American thinkers: it did not include literature from Latin America, Africa, East or Central Asia, the Pacific, or other smaller but no less important regions. We could also stress that conducting this analysis with a special focus on any types of ‘democracy’ stemming from bioregions or the fourth world would be especially welcome.
However, my work is one among perhaps a growing number in contemporary democratic theory looking into understanding “basic” or ‘true democracy’ in a manner that tries to meet this ‘new’ narrative of ‘democracy’.
‘Old’ political theory has not approached research (theoretical or empirical) in such a manner, probably because the changes outlined by this article in the extant literature have been so recent. However, further thinking, by greater minds, is required to better define this demarcation. It is hoped that this argument has been able to explain that there might be a new way of understanding ‘democracy’ and that hopefully this will be something taken up to a greater degree in future research. This future thinking is needed because this work has its limitations; it is necessarily broad. Mining this argument for this very reason is required.
This work about ‘new’ democracy was realised in the first instance by discussing new arguments concerning the history of ‘democracy’: that ‘democracy’ was not invented by the Greeks and that it is probably something we, as humans, evolved with. This was followed by a discussion of Beck and Grande which argued how their argument affects democratic theory. To end, a brief explanation was given showing how the changes in specific areas of the history of ‘democracy’ and social theory may be influencing contemporary democratic theory.
- There has been change prior to these years, especially in democratic practice, which might be argued to have prompted the changes we are discussing as practitioners perhaps became disillusioned with “old” understandings of democracy. An analysis into the morphology of democracy as a concept in the United Nations (particularly how different Secretary-Generals used the word in speeches), for example, would prove a useful study to understand this earlier change.
- See for example, Sartori (1970) and Cardoso (1999).
- This phrase was borrowed from Professor David Held who coined, I believe, the term “Age of Uncertainty”.
- From Keane we see mention of democratic polities in India perhaps around the same time in history as when Athens was engaging their democracy. From Muhlberger (2011), Keating (2011) and Kizza (2011) we see that democracy may have been practised in pre-colonial (if not pre-Classical) India, China and Uganda (specifically by the indigenous Baganda people).
- This narrative can be observed empirically (and perhaps has if we consider Diamond and Plattner, 2008) by asking individuals throughout the world what they think democracy is. The answers, should we organise them into thematic categories, typically revert to Athenian demos-kratos, the act of voting, the mentioning of various institutions commonly associated with democracy (like parliament) developed in Europe, North America or Australia, and certain governance expectations like accountability, transparency, and anticorruption often linked to the idea of the sovereign citizenry and equality.
- Keane (2009) was convincing in his argument that Spanish polities (at various levels of government) practised their own style of democratic governance during these “dark ages.” We should also note that the term “Dark Ages” is increasingly considered an inappropriate term as historians and other thinkers have been showing that this period contributed a great deal to human development. This casts further doubt on the narrative of democracy and its dependence on this myth of the ‘Dark Ages’.
- The Protestant Reformation usually has a role in this narrative as well.
- For example, in the television show “30 Rock,” the character Jack Donaghy (played by Alec Baldwin) stated “Since inventing democracy, those guys have been coasting” in reference to the Greek financial crisis.
- There are also interesting arguments coming from biologists like Seeley (2011) that investigate “social” animal societies such as those of honeybees (Apis mellifera) or ants (Temnothorax albipennis). Others have investiaged and continue to investigate gorillas, chimpanzees—and termites for example. The evidence suggests that as these different societies have evolved democratic processes of independent evolutionary origin, this might also have been the case for us.
- Beck, U. and E. Grande. (2010). ‘Varieties of Second Modernity: the Cosmopolitan Turn in Social and Political Theory and Research’, The British Journal of Sociology 61: 409.
- Brown, B. (2004). ‘Ancient Greece: The Birth of Democracy,’ Junior Scholastic 107: 4.
- Cardoso, F. H. (2009). ‘Conclusion: The Way Forward’, pp. 137-151 in A.Stepan (ed) Democracies in Danger. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide Through Qualitative Analysis. London: SAGE.
- Dahl, R.A. (1989). Democracy and Its Critics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Dunn, J. and J. Gagnon. (2011). ‘An Interview with John Dunn: Discussing Democracy’, Journal of Democratic Theory 1.
- Fleck, R.K. and F.A. Hansen. (2006). ‘The Origins of Democracy: A Model with Application to Ancient Greece’, Journal of Law and Economics 49: 115-146.
- Gagnon, J. (2010). ‘Democratic Theory and Theoretical Physics’, Taiwan Journal of Democracy 6: 1-22.
- Isakhan, B. and S. Stockwell (2011)(eds). The Secret History of Democracy. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
- Isakhan, B. and J. Gagnon. (2011). ‘An Interview with Dr. Benjamin Isakhan: On the Alternative Histories of Democracy’, Journal of Democratic Theory 1: 19-26.
- Keating, P. (2011). ‘Digging for Democracy in China’, pp. 60-75 in B.Isakhan and S.Stockwell (eds) The Secret History of Democracy. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
- Kizza, I. (2011). ‘Africa’s Indigenous Democracies: The Baganda of Uganda’, pp: 123-135 in B. Isakhan and S. Stockwell (eds) The Secret History of Democracy. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
- Muhlberger, S. (2011). ‘Republics and Quasi-Democratic Institutions in Ancient India’, pp: 49-60 in B.Isakhan and S. Stockwell (eds) The Secret History of Democracy. London: Palgrave MacMillan.
- Sartori, G. (1970). ‘Concept Misinformation in Comparative Politics’, The American Political Science Review 64: 1033-1053.
- Seeley, T.D. (2011). Honeybee Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Sen, A. (1999). ‘Democracy as a Universal Value’, Journal of Democracy 10: 3-17.
- Qvortrup, M.H. (2004). ‘In Search of Lost Time: S. E. Finer, History and the Science of Government’, European Journal of Political Research 43: 127-142.
- Woltermann, C. (2011). ‘Attenuated Sovereignty: An Immodest Proposal for Addressing Ethnic Diversity’, Global Society 48: 148-158.
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