Was ancient Athens truly democratic?
Do you agree with Rousseau’s criticism of representative democracy: (‘The people) is only free when is elects its members of parliament; as soon as (the representatives) are elected, the people is enslaved’?
Overall, which type of democracy is best?
The origins of democracy and its attempts to involve citizens in the process and decision making of government originated in Athens in 508 bc by Cleistenes of Athens. It is important to remark that throughout history the definition of democracy has taken on a pluralistic dimension, and has been used as a blanket description for a number of different political systems.
Democracy has changed considerably since its conception in Ancient Greece. The revolutionary Greek philosopher Aristotle perhaps best describes the spirit of democratic thought,
“The sharing of power among the many”. The government of the poor or powerless’.
Most supporters of true democratic government would content that the aim of democracy would be to enforce the will of the masses, while endeavoring to govern the nation in a fair and equal way.
Taking in to account that democracy values equality for all, modernists would argue that ancient Athens would not have resembled a true democracy. The argument against Athens being a true democracy lies in the fact that of the 250,000 people of Athens only 40,000 were eligible for the vote. In Ancient Athens women, slaves, resident aliens and young adults were denied the right of Citizenship. To vote in the Athenaeum parliament (the demos) one had to be a citizen. In modern times the core principle of democracy relates to equality for all, the idea that all permanent residents are entitled to the right of vote, and to participate in the process of government. Democracy seeks to govern for people, therefore Athenaeum Democracy is not consistent with modern democracy as it seeks to govern a nation according to the values of the overwhelming minority. The actual structure of Athenaeum democracy is direct democracy. Despite the exclusiveness of Athenaeum citizenry, the actually law making process of the Athenaeum parliament exemplifies the ideal of ‘government for people by the people’. The citizens had direct involving in the law making process, as the voters assembly The Ecclesia (made up of the citizens), voted on all proposals or issues. Laws and decisions regarding war, foreign relations, defence, public revenue, finances, were all voted on by the assembly of the citizens. These laws or decisions were instituted or dismissed by way of majority vote. The Athenaeum citizenry had the potential for far more direct control over its destiny than we as citizens enjoy under a representative democracy. Athenaeum democracy was some what challenged by numerous obstacles, relationship with inequality remained a reoccurring theme. Vanhanue’s “The process of democracies’ comments that less affluent citizens would not have been able to take time away from their occupations to attend the 40 meeting of the parliament each year. This would result in the absences of poorer citizens, meaning that laws would reflect the needs and concerns of the rich Community in Athens. Despite the democratic process of the Athenaeum parliament, true democracy can only be achieved when all peoples are involve in the process of government. If Athenaeum democracy had extended the vote to all its people, then in theory it could be described as a true democracy, however this was not the case.
Throughout the historical evolution of democracy and democratic philosophy, many have questioned if in fact democracy truly embodies the concepts it professes. The 17th Century philosophy Jean Jacques Rousseau challenge the Westminster from of representative democracy. In his assay ‘ The Social Contract’ Rousseau states that’(‘The people) is only free when is elects its members of parliament; as soon as (the representatives) are elected, the people is enslaved’?. Rousseau goes on to claim that the English people in the 17th Century are gravely mistaken, believing that they are free. Rousseau’s critique of the Westminster system, is directed to the actual appointment of the people’s representatives. Under the Westminster system of government the members of the House of Commons are elected directly by the people. The peoples representatives are entrusted with the responsibility of acting in the interests of the people. It becomes evident that Rousseau is distrustful of those elected to the parliament, as in theory they are not legally bound to act in the interests of their constituents. It is for this reason that he claims the people are enslaved by the will of their representatives. Rousseau believes that the only taste of democracy the people are experiencing is the right to elect those representatives, who ironically have the power not to act on their behalf. In principle Rousseau’s analogy is right as democracy in its purist form embodies ‘the will of the people’, and representative democracy is the will of the people in theory but not always in practice. Rousseau firmly believes in some form of direct democracy, but obviously not one that resembles Ancient Athens. Rousseau believes that representative democracy is not an effective political system as it fails to equip its citizens with the power to articulate the general will of the people. “ The considered exercise of power by the citizens is the only legitimate way in which liberty can be sustained.” With this statement Rousseau suggests that the people will remain enslaved unless that are empowered with the means to direct the process of law making. However Rousseau remains vague as to what is the appropriate, or most importantly a working alternative to representative democracy. Rousseau’s critique of Representative Democracy does expose the theoretical threat of representative democracy, but it is impractical for all citizen to be directly involved in the issues of parliament. The alternative perhaps lies in legislative procedures to ensure that representatives of the people are bound by law to express the will and concerns of its electorate. It would perhaps be to the advantage of the citizens if procedures were implement to remove, or punish their elected representative, who acting against the consensus of its electorate.
Democracy have manifested its self in many difference forms, leaders of both communist and capitalists nations have claimed to be democracies of some kinds. Democracy as we know it evolved from the demos of Ancient Athens. No democracy since have succeeded in truly establishing a political system that practices equality for all citizens through government that reflects the majority will of its citizens. If we were to use Athens as the embodiment of democracy, then there is no current system that is its equal. In modern times there are two models of democracies which have emerged as the leading systems of government, both of which are modeled on representative democracy. These leading democratic systems are The Westminster model of democracy and the Consensus Model of democracy. Westminster democracy is the mode of democracy practiced in its purist form in Great Britain and in various similar forms in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many of Britain’s former colonies in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. The West minister system relies on a two major party system, in which the ethos is on majority rule. The British parliament consists of three organisms; the house of commons, the House of Lords and the upper house the Cabinet. The house of commons consists of the peoples elected representatives from both parties. The house of commons usually consists of a narrow majority of members from the party that is in power. The house of lords in the most part is a symbolic house of hereditary nobles. The house of lord’s only power lies in delaying legislation. The final organism is the Cabinet, consists only of members of the winning political party. The Cabinet holds the majority of executive power under the Westminster system, it is empowered to act on the peoples behalf. Under the British Constitution executive powers and legislation powers are one of the same. In simple terms the government has greater power to govern according to its will.
Consensus Democracy is established on different principles as to that of the Westminster system. Consensus Democracy is not bound by the strict form of majority rule, rather it is far more concerned with the sharing of executive powers. The Consensus systems of government, particularly in central and western Europe are multi party systems. A prime example of pure Consensus government is in Switzerland, where there are three major parties. The Swiss executive cabinet consists of seven members. Two member from the three major parties and one from the leader minority party. Consensus model of democracy claims that most members of society are represented and that these representative have equal power to block or pass legislation.
As modern democracy is limited to representative democracy and the choice of either Westminster or Consensus Democracy, it is perhaps not possible to state which system is best. The best system of democracy depends on the people or the demos. Both Consensus and Westminster Democracies possess their flaws. It is evident that the Westminster system is a more efficient democracy, if one concedes that a majority vote gives a government the mandate to govern as it wishes. However Westminster systems of government are preeminently two party systems, in which the winning party rarely hold more than a 5% majority, therefore a large minority are excluded. Democracy professes to install the ‘common good of the people’, one would assume that the common good, reflects a majority closer to 80% or 90%, rather than a slim majority of 3 or 5%. On the other hand a Consensus Mode of Democracy is a multi party system where the installed government consists of a two or more party coalitions. It is not common under a Consensus Model of Democracy to see the amalgamation of parties with far differing policies and values (i.e. Austria 1999 ) This in its self can be considered undemocratic as perhaps the citizens would not have vote for these parties knowing this would occur. The sharing of executive power under a Consensus model of government can also lead to government that is unassertive and more reflective of minority opinions. Both systems can be undemocratic in there own ways, and the best or ideal democracy must take both the best and worth of the two systems in to consideration. Where the two system have a common lapse is in its failure to implement more direct forms of democracy.
Throughout the centuries humanity had diverged from the original path of Democracy as envisaged by Cleistenes of Athens. In many instances we have created democracies that reflects a greater liberty and equality than that of Ancient Greece. However in may ways we hand distorted and manipulated the term democracy by instituting power into the hands of individuals, rather than in the hands of the masses, as intended by Cleistenes. Rousseau was one among many that had the courage to remind us that democratic society for instance in 18th century Britain, failed to have the connection with direct democracy, which is essential for the will of the masses to triumph. Through analyzing both the Consensus and Westminster forms of government, it is evident that much remains the same since Rousseau’s critique. The best form or for that matter a better form of democracy eludes society. Under both systems the use of referendum to change the constitution, or to settle issues (where the will of the people is not clear) remains absent. Democracy needs to be lest an issue of party policy and party rivalry and more about ‘the will of the people’.
Held, D, (1996), “Models of Democracy”, Standford University Press,California
Lijphart, Arend, (1984) “Democracies”, Yale University, US pg.5
Maddox,G (1996), “Australian Democracy in Theory and Practice”, Sydney, Longman Australia,Pg73
Vanhanen,T (1990), “The Process of Democracy”, Taylor & Francis, New Year, pg.38
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