World history and democracy

There’s a rum thing going on in the Middle East, summed up in the question, what exactly are those brave people – much braver than I would be – rising up against?

There’s been a lot of comment along, all people want democracy. But do they?

For most of world history, most people have got along without democracy. Most governments of historical nations have been monarchies of one kind or another. Of the republics before modern times (Ancient Greece and Rome, Ancient India, Medieval Italy), only a small handful have been true democracies – notably that infamous political experiment, Athens.

So, where has this sudden longing for democracy come from?

Well, I suppose, for most people, for most of history, democracy has not even been a distant dream, so fighting for it wasn’t even a possibility. Perhaps it is a truth that when democracy is a reality in one part of the world, then all the peoples of the world want it.

But I wonder whether in fact the peoples of he Middle East really are fighting for democracy as such. What I think may be happening is that they are fighting against their governments’ corruption, intimidation and so on.

For most of history, government has had very little impact on the lives of most people. Even in monarchies, throughout history villages have tended to run their own affairs, with the agents of the central government seen as a distant (and not very friendly) presence. The most centrally organized society of pre-modern times has been imperial China – but even here, there was only one magistrate to tens of thousands of ordinary people. What modern technology has done is to enable governments to be come much more involved in people’s lives, to make a much greater impact. And people don’t like it – especially when those government agents are arrogant and bullying.

Modern governments have taken a huge amount of power away from their people. Even in a society like Britain, townsmen and villagers in feudal and early modern times essentially governed themselves through their parish and town councils. During the nineteenth and twentieth century, however, the state expanded into every corner of people’s lives – just as it has in every other advanced nation. In fact, just as it MUST in every advanced nation (a topic for another blog).

But here (in my view) is the clue to what’s going on in the Middle East. Psychologically, we in the West can deal with this situation because we can have our say in what the state does and how it relates to us through democratic institutions. However much we complain that these don’t make much difference, they are profoundly important to us. They do actually give us a choice in who governs us (Colonel Gaddafi couldn’t have lasted for forty years in power in a Western democracy), but they do something else just as valuable. Democratic institutions hold public officials to account. A free press brings corruption out into the open and forces officials to resign. A transparent system of justice requires judges to enforce the law impartially. The right to complain means that policemen have to use a modicum of decorum when dealing with ordinary citizens.

None of this is perfect, complete, beyond reproach. Far from it. But it’s an order of magnitude better than in societies ruled by authoritarian regimes. And in fact, without open democratic systems, governments WILL, despite the best intentions of this in high places, become corrupt and bullying. And in the modern world, where government officials have a so much greater impact on the lives of the people than in previous times, resentment will grow. Hatred will come. It may well be that, in modern times, authoritarian regimes really are all doomed.


by Peter Britton