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The Changing History of Democracy
By Jean-Paul Gagnon Posted in Book Chapter on April 24, 2021 0 Comments 28 min read
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The Changing History of Democracy

[This conversation with Albert Weale first appears in the book Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought.]

Citation guide: Weale, Albert and Jean-Paul Gagnon. 2014. “The Changing History of Democracy”. In Gagnon, JP, Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought. Palgrave Macmillan. Pp. 30-41.

Defining democracy

Gagnon: How do you define democracy?

Weale: Well, let me begin by saying that I have always found very useful the distinction that you find in the works of John Rawls and of Herbert Hart. That is a distinction between concept and conception. And for me ‘concept’ is a very general thing as it really rests on the idea that what distinguishes democratic modes of government from non-democratic modes of government is that in democratic modes of government there is some formalized practice of being responsive to the opinions of citizens or members of the society.

So that is a very general idea indeed. Then of course, and this not only preoccupies me but it preoccupied many scholars of democracy, there is to say ‘well given that general concept, how does it work out under specific social, economic and cultural conditions?’ In there I think one can have very different conceptions (some people say models) of democracy and we can think for example of small scale communities in which there is participation by all those who have eligibility.

Usually in many small scale societies it is male heads of the household that are the main participants (and that is an important aspect to which we need to perhaps come back and engage later). But then you can think of democracy on a much larger scale as a representative system and some representative systems as we know institutionalize the use of formal procedures like referendums and so on. Some have a more Burkean view of the role of the representatives, but all of these I think are legitimately characterized as democracies of some sort. This is in the sense that the collective decision of public policy tracks in a systematic way what it is that is a balance of opinion within the community.

Gagnon: Does this differ from your explanation of democracy from the second edition of your book Democracy (2007)?

Weale: No. I think that that is an idea that I have really tried to develop I mean the force of that idea is to say, and I think here I would distinguish myself from other people who have thought about democracy, that some people identify democracy with very specific values like autonomy or participation. One of the reasons in my mind for having this very general definition is that democracy ought not to be tied to these very specific values because some of these values I think are very country specific.

So a strong notion of autonomy, for example, is that individuals should be in command of their lives and should be able to set themselves off against their social network. I think that is true in some parts of the world but does not seem to be true in other parts of the world. So, many people for example argue in connection with so-called Asian values that Asian political culture is much more communitarian and does not allow for an emphasis on individual autonomy. Now, that is a huge generalization and covers a great many societies.

They are also changing very much. But to the extent to which that is true, I do not think we would want the specific core values to deny the opportunity to a group of people to be able to practice their collective life democratically. Thus the real reason for going for this very minimal definition is not to build up too many cultural barriers to the practice of democracy.

That is not to say that all cultures are compatible with democracy. I think many more cultures are compatible with the idea of collective decision making on some ground of reasonableness. In other words, agents make ways that incorporate some form of political equality. There is generally an acknowledgement from those agents that human beings are fallible. I think lots of communities can practice that approach to politics from very different cultural backgrounds.

Gagnon: Your approach is intriguing and something that is reflected in Fukuyama’s latest book, The Origins of Political Order (2011). It’s also, I think, a view to democracy shared by John Dryzek. In this book he argues that democracy comes from a broad framework and that it is not the prisoner of specific conceptions. We can, under that light, observe democracies in widely disparate polities and societies – both now and historically. Dryzek is, for example, researching cultures of deliberative democracy with his PhD student Jensen Sass (out of Yale University): they are surveying societies and practices in places that Gambetta (1998: 19–43) thought of as being not exactly conducive to broad, high quality, discursive approaches to politics (i.e. Egypt, indigenous Polynesian societies, and Italy).

I have been arguing for some time that we have gained several important arguments in democratic theory in just the past few years. Thinkers like Benjamin Isakhan, Yves Schemeil and John Keane are adding great value to the turns initiated by Martin Bernal for example. We are contesting what Isakhan and Stephen Stockwell coined as the ‘standard narrative of democracy’. It’s the idea that democracy was invented by the Greek, that it was carried forward in republican form by the Roman polity, that is was then carried forward by Italian city-states and Swiss Cantons after the ‘fall’ of Rome; and that democracy matured throughout the history of Europe until it peaked in the USA. I view this understanding of democracy as something that colonized the discourse: it is to be recontextualized and resisted.

The argument seems to be about removing parochialism from our understandings of democracy. Or at least acknowledging parochialism and realizing that such limits the scope and applicability of most, if not all, works on democracy. Democracy is no longer something invented by the Greek. It is not owned or done best by Europeans or North Americans. It’s something that I think all humans evolved with. What do you make of this assertion?

Weale: First of all I agree that there is in the textbooks something like the ‘standard narrative of democracy’. Incidentally that has always been a slightly curious narrative for a couple of reasons. One of the reasons why it’s a slightly curious narrative comes across if you think of the principal Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. Plato was rather hostile, in fact was very hostile, to democracy. Aristotle’s is a much more nuanced position.

So the legacy of political thought which comes down to us from the Greeks tends to be one where Greek thinkers themselves are very sceptical about Greek democratic practice. Consider this: the Peloponnesian War, I think, is in the end a morality tale about what happens when you give too much power to the demos. It is what happens when the collective people get to decide important matters of policy. Aristotle sees things like the expedition to Syracuse as being a great mistake on the part of the Athenian demos.

So although I agree that the standard narrative is one which moves from Athens to Rome and then maybe the north Italian republics and then skips over to the French Revolution and so on, there’s something odd about taking that ambiguously as a narrative of democracy. That is so just in terms of the historical record. I think it is very odd to take Rome, even republican Rome, as model of democracy as against a model of political order in which there is some separation of powers and as a contest between the orders in society with no one order so to speak dominating all the others.

Of course one of the reasons I think why that narrative became embedded is that a number of democratic movements saw themselves as standing in the tradition of the ancient Greek republics. Rousseau of course didn’t admire Athens, he admired Sparta. But you really have to look for example at the Capitol building in Washington DC to see how the legacy of classical Greece and Rome has come down through the actions of politicians and political representatives.

I agree that people like John Keane have done excellent work in challenging that standard narrative, but I think there were challenges before his. I’m going back to my epilogue in Democracy (2007). I cited Ernest Barker from a very old generation. This is a generation before 1945, arguing that democracy was inherent in any communal situation in which people had to debate about collective course of action.

I think certainly that is a locus of democracy. The one point where I might disagree I think with some of the claims that are coming along is that it seems to me that democracy does not of itself adhere in the human condition. I’m a great admirer of Sammy Finer’s History of Government (1999) where he points out that most governments in the world have not been democratic. He distinguishes between what he calls a palace type polity and what he calls a forum type of polity.

So we ought to remember that organized government for the most part has not been democratic. My opinion is that democracy emerges under rather specific conditions, typically, conditions in which there is a balance of power in society and there’s a requirement for the members of that society to engage in collective action in order to be able to achieve their goals and purposes. So I think my answer is, up to a point, that I agree with the critical work on the standard narrative. But I think there was always something slightly odd about the standard narrative.

The Parochialisms of Democracy

Gagnon: I would like to focus on the critical thinkers from previous decades – those that might, in a sense, be arguing that Finer’s ‘forum type’ of government was none other than a type of democracy. Sixty years ago, and earlier, there were European or Eurocentric thinkers already coming to terms with the parochialisms of democracy (see, for example, Bronislaw Malinowski). Steve Muhlberger and his colleague Phil Paine were, for example, twenty years ago already engaging the oddity of the standard narrative. Muhlberger had, for instance, argued that Ancient India was just as democratically vibrant as the arena of ancient democratic Hellas.

I suppose the trouble is that these thinkers, the Ernest Barkers, from bygone eras were presenting arguments about democracy that were not in wide favour. Thinkers have argued, and continue to argue, that different types and practices of democracy should have equal place in the historical record. I’m not sure if these many and unique instances of democratic phenomena should be subsumed by a ‘forum type’ classification.

Weale: Yes and of course Amartya Sen has this book on The Argumentative Indian (2006) in which he argues that India has a culture of dialectics and debates which in a way fits it for democracy. I think there’s also, if you see democracy as being as I would see it (a political system which simultaneously recognizes the need to come to some collective agreement where there is an acceptance of political equality in a broad sense and where there is also a recognition that decisions need to be made through discussion and debate because of the fallibility of human beings), different elements of that in very different cultures.

So there are some cultures in which – and maybe this fits in with Sen’s thesis – debate and argument and dialectic are very central. I think this is one of the exciting things about what’s been happening in Tunisia and Egypt and so on. It has always been a puzzle to me as to why Islam (which I thought has a very strong universalistic and egalitarian component to it) has been thought to be intrinsically hostile to democracy. I think what one may be seeing in those revolutions is a rediscovery so to speak of the egalitarian elements of those conflicts.

Gagnon: Your point on Islam relates to a work by Mohamad Abdalla and Halim Rane (2011). They argued similarly about Islam and democracy in their book chapter ‘Behind a Veil: Islam’s Democratic History’. Specific approaches to Islam, or rather specific readings of the Qur’an, are compatible with a number of different models of democracy. Indeed, Abdalla and Rane go further to argue that Islam has a rich history of contributions to democratic politics and thinking. I think that contemporary scholars of democracy, both English speaking and not, are increasingly re-discovering the contributions throughout history that Arabs and Muslims have made to democratic phenomena.

Would you agree with the statement that there is a new narrative or theoretical paradigm of democracy? I argue that this paradigm exists. That it is based on the reflexive modernization effectuated by globalization and cosmopolitan theory, the varieties of Second Modernity, new findings in the histories of democracy, new findings in biology that argue non-human societies have had their own types of democracy (see for instance Thomas Seeley’s recent Honeybee Democracy, 2011) and new findings that argue indigenous people had and still have their own forms of democracy. That is a big bag of goodies and, consequently, a big question to answer. It would nevertheless be good to get your general feeling for this particular position.

Weale: Let me start with the various forms that democracy can take. I have been influenced by some work by Elinor Ostrom on how common- pool resource regimes are managed. These are issues about how grazing rights or how fishing rights are managed in communities. One of the impressive things about Ostrom’s work is that she conducts a meta-analysis of common-pool resource regimes across the world ranging from forestry regimes in Japan through to water regimes in Spain, grazing right regimes in the Swiss Cantons and so on.

She’s examining very different places. Some of these regimes have been in operation over centuries and what’s distinctive about those is that the members of the community have to manage those resources very carefully. Think about agriculture on a steep Swiss mountainside: you have terraces which are growing crops of one sort or another. It becomes very important that every farmer has the assurance of other farmers tending their terraces well, because if there is a land slip from the top that can cause problems below.

In that example there is a strong incentive for people to get involved in collective management of one sort or another. The same is true of fishing rights also. I think that one can argue that the occasions of democracy are very widespread indeed. Now, this immediately poses a problem (and I think I was hinting at this qualification earlier). If democracy is so widespread, why historically has there been so much hierarchy? Why have so many societies been inegalitarian in one way or another?

These questions are very relevant particularly in terms of the concentration of power which clearly was exercised by holders of power in a hierarchical regime. The control that elites had on the economic surplus and also to some extent their cultural monopolization are issues we must come to terms with. Of course, the aforementioned are very difficult questions to answer and I think from a social scientific point of view, one has to decide: is hierarchy the norm and we have to explain democracy as the interesting variant case which anyone hopes is the variant case of the future, or is democracy the norm and hierarchy if you like the variant case?

I think that is a very large question. I think one has got to distinguish between two claims which I reason to be very different. One is the claim that there are lots of places in which democratic practices are found – which is true. And the claim that democracy is universal – which is false. This is so because there have been plenty of non-democratic hierarchical forms of government. And we must never forget that a lot of what people are pointing to when they are pointing to some societies which have practiced democratic means of collective discussion have been typically ones where it’s been the male head of the household who’s been the participant.

Now let us go to this extremely interesting issue of cosmopolitanism (if you like the other extreme). My take on that is probably a very simple and naïve one. Once people have experienced that there are other cultures and other societies that do things differently, but nonetheless their members are recognizably members of the same species with the same range of emotions and types of feeling and embeddedness in and across their relationships and so on: that is a very significant moment indeed. It’s the simultaneous recognition of difference in equality.

What to me is most exciting about cosmopolitan possibilities is actually not the prospect of global democratic institutions (I’m rather sceptical that such institutions could be constructed in reliable way), but the possibility that we could for the first time (because of global methods of communication and because of the enormous speed at which many societies are changing) actually be seeing circumstances in which the key element of the democratic culture (which is this willingness to entertain others as equals with something to say which may be different from you but which nonetheless may help you understand yourself and what you need to do collectively) is institutionalized. I think that we may be just on the verge on that. So I’m optimistic in that regard.

Democracy & Biology

Gagnon: And how do you feel about these developments in biology? Humans are increasingly realizing that we are not the only ones that practice democracy. We are not the only ones that organize our societies through democratic institutions. Indeed, some scientists (Conrad and Roper, 2007; Villareal, 2009; King and Sueur, 2011) are arguing that certain social animals have democratic cultures of their own.

Weale: I’m more sceptical of that because we would be talking about presumably evolutionary mechanisms in which some species have adapted to the point where they need to be able to work collectively. I see a distinction between genetic programming on the one hand and reflective human consciousness on the other.

Now of course there are some very interesting cases: higher primate groups being the most interesting. And I think at that point we just ought to be agnostic until we understand more about exactly how those communities organize themselves because they clearly do organize themselves in a way which has learned behaviour as well as preprogrammed behaviour in it. But I think that would be as far as I would want to go.

I do not want to deny, if you like, our continuity with other species. I mean you only have to look at the higher primates and their behaviour to understand how similar in many ways they are to human groups. But I think we oughtn’t to rely too much on the idea that democracy is nature rather than nurture.

Gagnon: I would like to press you further on how the whole of what we have thus far been talking about contrasts with previous approaches to democracy. We have been involving a good bit of literature and a number of thinkers. We have made mention of specific turns in democratic theory. But I do not think I have yet managed to get your encompassing response to these changes in thought.

Weale: I think the first thing that all this does is call into question the thought that democracy is a single way of organizing human societies. It challenges the thinking that sees democracy discovered at one stage, then lost, then rediscovered, then lost again and then rediscovered again (ad infinitum). I think that you need to see democracy as arising from the dilemma that societies face under certain conditions. And those can be very general conditions like managing grazing rights or managing fishing rights or managing anything in common where it needs to be managed in common.

The second thing (and I hope this came out in Democracy, 2007, although I am not sure that it did in retrospect, but I certainly meant it to) is that one of the old narratives is a narrative of scale. In that narrative we have the city-states that founded democracy and then we have the nation states that discovered representative democracy and now we have a global political order: we need to find something for the global order that corresponds to the institutions of democracy at the nation state level.

I am very sceptical about that narrative because I’m sceptical that the institutions that we work well or badly at the nation state level can be simply scaled up to the global levels. And of course the other interesting feature that maybe is a contrast with the older narrative is that the older narrative presupposed that the nation state was the key unit of democracy. This simplifies the picture greatly. The thought was that the French Revolution created the idea of the nation and it created the idea of citizens governing themselves in the nation. The nation identified with their collective interest. That was seen as the general will.

Now, clearly one of the most interesting movements has been (simultaneously with the growth of cosmopolitan ways of behaviour) the reemergence of, if you like, sub-national cultural identification (a sort of micro-nationalism). And you see that very clearly in Europe: in Spain, in Belgium, in the United Kingdom, in Italy and so on. So those narratives I think are challenging a straightforward narrative of linear development from city-state to nation state and to cosmopolitanism. Like many political movements, you can see them as positive for democracy and you can see them as hostile to democracy to the extent to which they tend to be exclusivist and sometimes even racist.

I think it’s a very complex picture that we are seeing with these trends. We should not assume that democratic institutions are just going to come along in the wake of these changes. Democratic institutions have to be consciously crafted by political actors in ways that make them work and I think it’s that crafting of democracy that is really
the substantial practical task.

Subnationality and the European Union

Gagnon: That later emphasis in your response, discussing emergent sub-national polities, relates to a recent book by David Marquand (2011) called The End of the West: The Once and Future Europe. At the end of that book Marquand argues that for the EU to progress democratically there needs to be an engagement by political actors on the ‘high politics’ of things. Political actors need to stay out of the ‘corridors of Brussels’ as it were so as to construct these democratic institutions. His argument can, I think, support the thought that the post-modern state emerges from the nation state and that it has greater similarities with pre-modern states (those sub-national entities).

Weale: Just think, for example, about what has been happening to Greece at present. What appears to be on the cards is that those who are financing the Greek debt (the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the EU) are saying that they must now be in a position to be able to control economic policy making in Greece despite the opposition of the Greek population. Now, if you think about it, that is a most remarkable statement because it’s saying ‘we do not think that this political system can actually manage its own affairs’.

Now, the Greeks have built for themselves a straitjacket which they are now finding it’s very difficult to get out of. But I must say that if I were a Greek citizen and I thought of a choice between shall we say one tax rate and another or one speed of privatization and another or the option of default and exits as against staying in only as the debt is being decided by people who have no democratic accountability; I think I would find that a troubling situation. So democracy seems to me to be about responsibility as much as anything else. It means that when it works well that you live with the consequences of what you decide.

Gagnon: Yes. Or you live by the consequences of what you do not decide which I think is what Marquand was after. He of course argued that the EU is facing the consequences of a lack of decisions regarding across-the-board fiscal policies. These could have guarded the EU against much of the brunt of this latest global fiscal crisis. These broad fiscal policies would have better protected the EU’s citizens.

We have thus far been dealing with matters mostly tied to democratic theory and the history of democracy. We have not really gone into questions of practice. How do you think these turns in contemporary thought about democracy could change or affect current politics?

Weale: The honest answer is that I do not know. And I do not think that is just my ignorance or my natural agnosticism. I think it’s because Hegel is right: philosophy always comes on the scene too late. The owl of Minerva does only spread its wings at the falling of the dusk and quite often we only understand a set of political institutions once they have been constructed. So a part of my argument has always been that human fallibility means that we are often not in a situation just to be able to construct a political order and plan and assume that it will work without understanding such. What will help us understand is the historical dynamic that is going to develop as a result of that political order. And again it’s worth remembering historical experience here.

So we know for example that the Third and Fourth French Republics were highly unstable while the Fifth Republic under De Gaulle had been relatively stable. Now that stability during the Fifth was a very clever piece of constitutional engineering in 1958. Think about Germany: we know that the constitutional engineering after the war was successful. We can also think of societies. I’m thinking in particular of the constitutional engineering that was done when the British Empire came to an end and the attempt was to put in place various variants of the Westminster system in societies to which it was totally inappropriate. And in those societies that type of constitutional engineering did not work.

So I think that given the magnitude of the challenges (let us just take the European Union as an example) we know that to the extent that it works, democracy at the nation state level within the European Union works through a system of party competition. And we also know that it’s virtually impossible to replicate that system of party competition at the European level because there is not a public, there is not a common public space.

So how then could you imagine questions of the balance between tax and public expenditure being decided democratically in a situation in which you cannot have the principal mechanism in which those arguments are fashioned and mainly political competition operating? So I think what we have to, at this point, do is to have a little bit of humility and say that actors are trying to craft new solutions and it’s difficult to know how it will work.

I remember talking to the person who founded Amnesty International many years ago and he told me that when they had this movement to light a candle for prisoners of conscience, he never expected it to take off. And now Amnesty is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Where to from here?

Gagnon: Yes, of course. Hegel I think will be relevant for a long time to come. That might be cause for him to smile in his afterlife. Your answer highlights the circularity of political institutions which is something that I think many individuals gloss over. Institutions often come into being without much thought to their impact on the long term – they sometimes appear as delightful or terrifying unintentional consequences to some related political phenomena. In some circumstances political institutions appear to be like a snake eating its own tail. We are of course in the business of wondering if these types of spirals are moving upwards towards better things, downwards into destruction, or hovering in space – neither going here nor there as if it were becoming a fossil.

Political theorists fly with their own owls into the dusk. What direction (building on your other [1998 with Nentwich, 2001, 2010] works) are you taking with Minerva’s blessing?

Weale: Part of me would love to do a third edition of Democracy (2007). I have got so much writing. You get to a certain stage in life where you realize that you are never going to complete all the projects that you really want to complete. I’m now at that stage. Whether I am ever going to go back to a third edition of Democracy (2007) I do not know. I think looking at it now as a book; I think it very much reflects the political science of the late twentieth century.

Look at the political side; I am not critical of it. I think people like Arend Lijphart and Robert Dahl and so on, were and are outstanding political scientists. I was writing very much with their work in mind and then trying to reflect upon it normatively. Whether I shall ever be able to manage the political science that is really going to help us understand this new world that we are moving into, I do not know. I am trying currently to write on the idea that social contract theory can be understood as a form of democratic governance and maybe that will suffice – I do not know.

-> End

Citation guide: 2014. Weale, A. and JP Gagnon. “The Changing History of Democracy”. In Gagnon, JP, Democratic Theorists in Conversation: Turns in Contemporary Thought (Palgrave Macmillan). 30-41.

Further reading: Noam Chomsky discusses how power is weak and that the history of democracy is filled with good news stories.

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

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