DEMOCRACY: The Institutionalization of Liberty

Trust is contingent on the evidence which one party provides the others of his true, concrete intentions; it cannot exist if that party’s words do not coincide with their actions. To say one thing and do another – to take one’s own words lightly – cannot inspire trust. To glorify democracy and to silence the people is a farce: to discourse on humanism and to negate people is a lie.  –  Paulo Freire 

            The question of the nature of democracy is intrinsically entwined with the question of freedom, the state and the question of rights. From the ancient Greek society to the present, discourse, debate and exploration of the nature of democracy continues. For the Greeks in Athens, demos ‘people’ and kratos ‘power’ literally meant people power. However, what does it mean today? And even more importantly, what is the real nature of democracy in our (post)modern world, dominated by global capitalism, shattered borders of political states, ill-defined national characters, and cultures under siege from the hegemony of technological and commodity driven economic forces?

In the Western world, two key historical events are looked to as the foundation of democratic forms of government: The revolutionary establishment of the United States of America through the drawing up of the Constitution in 1787, and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, a product of the French Revolution which was adopted in 1789 by the National Constituent Assembly. While both documents were inspired by the Enlightenment and the philosophical discussions concerning rights, individualism, the nature of the state, and Rousseau’s writings on social contract, they both were also directly crafted by Thomas Jefferson and influenced by the Bill of Rights, which had been introduced to amend the U.S. Constitution just weeks prior to the introduction of the French document. (Fremont-Barnes, 2007).

However, each of these revolutions, the American and the French, had a different basis and, thusly, created different institutions and interpretations of ‘life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ As Douzinas (2000) pointed out, “The aim of the American documents was to legitimize political independence from Britain, while that of the French, the overthrow of the ancien regime” (p. 87). The American revolutionaries were inspired by a pre-existing debate on rights as against the constraints imposed by feudalism and various remnants in the relation of the colonies to Britain, “the Magna Carta, the Habeas Corpus Act of 1679, the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the legal rights to freedom of conscience and religion recognised in the colonies since the end of the seventeenth century” (p. 87). The French, on the other hand, knew that their historical task was different and thus “a sharp distinction was drawn between the two Declarations. As Rabaud Saint-Etienne stated in the National Assembly, the first priority for a nation in the process of being born is to destroy the old order and start afresh by establishing a new legislative power” (p. 88). Simply put, France as a nation already existed and creating new social institutions to replace the previous ones required a rethinking of social relations, while in America the task was immediately political in the creation of a new nation and a new way for a state to exist, with balances of power between institutions and the establishment of systems of governance and control. In America the Bill of Rights was an amendment that expanded rights to those who were excluded in the original Constitution, whereas in France a Bill of Rights were the preface to, or basis of their Constitution. The Americans were justifying their independence, the French were making a new social order. At another level of abstraction, you could say that in America it was the establishment of a new objective political edifice for freedom, whereas in France it was the creation of a new subjective social meaning of truth as to rights in the public sphere (Habermas, 1974).

In both cases, however certain political determinations were created in the structure of the state. Democracy was viewed both as an immediate manifestation and structure of mediation to uphold the principles of liberty and equality, and as an answer to “the crisis of civilization afflicting society and through it the State” (Ranciere, 2014, p. 3). The fact that this liberty, freedom, equality and involvement in political life was excluded from the vast majority of the population in both countries, even in their elation of revolutionary fervor, is a manifestation of how much further both revolutions needed to go in order to truly complete an extension of democracy to all spheres and participants in society. This paradox is the kernel of what would ultimately create an inversion of political reality in the tension between freedom, democracy, rights and the state, such that today most nations which declare themselves to be democracies created on the basis of the French and American models have become oligarchies, including the United States and France. How does this unfold or come to pass?

A critical dialectical analysis begins by noting that this is not the historically necessary outcome of the potentials which existed in the beginning of these relationships and institutions, but in looking back and tracing the actuality of these facts to their roots we can see that the potential always existed for this outcome, even if not in a way that creates a simple tautology. The creation of a new social order through the expansion and then domination of capital and capitalism, along with the destruction and elimination of feudal social relations established new meanings, spaces, relationships, and structures in society. This was

the consequence of Enlightenment thinking and of its first principle – the ‘Protestant’ doctrine that elevates the judgment of isolated individuals to the level of structures and collective beliefs. Shattering the old solidarities that the monarchy, the nobility and the Church had slowly woven, the Protestant revolution dissolved the social link and atomized individuals. The Terror was the rigorous consequence of this dissolution and of the will to recreate, by the artifice of institutions and laws, a link that only natural and historical solidarities can weave. (Ranciere, 2014, p. 14)

Democracy is, in this instance, an expression of the individualism and egalitarianism of these new social orders, in their nascent state. Nonetheless they were truncated in that the revolution for bourgeois democracy always falls short, as the class interests that the bourgeoisie represents are not universal interests for all of humanity, but partial and restricted to a narrowly defined socio-economic construct.

As an example, we can look at the struggle to complete the revolution in the United States. The Revolutionary War had a limited outcome in establishing democratic rights to the general population.

The drawing up of the United States constitution is classic example of this work of composing forces and balancing institutional mechanisms intended to get the most possible out of the fact of democracy, all the while strictly containing it in order to protect two goods taken as synonymous: the government of the best, and the preservation of the order of property. (ibid. p. 2)

As a quick aside, we can see this extended even further today in the court rulings and state legislative actions from the right which have redefined corporations as persons, primarily as a testimony of the dominance of property rights subsuming or engulfing other rights. Democracy is thus shown to be defined in terms of specific class interests, and is therefore eviscerated of any universality. But back to the historical progress in the extension of democracy and other rights to the general population.

In spite of the fact that in the Declaration of Independence they loftily proclaimed that ‘all men are created equal,’ that ‘all have been endowed with certain inalienable rights of which they cannot be stripped by any power,’ and that ‘among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ the master class saw to it that this declaration was not taken literally and applied in practice by the workers and slaves. Women were not permitted to participate in elections. Neither were slaves. Masses of poor people were excluded from voting and holding office by difficult property qualifications. As soon as the masters came to the point where political power must be organized, they were very careful to take it for themselves, to create democracy – for the ruling class only. (Bimba, 1927/1973, pp. 54-55)

Viewed from this perspective we can see that the Civil War was really the second round of the bourgeois democratic revolution, a further extension of rights by eliminating the social relations created by slavery which were in contradiction to the needs of capital. That this was also the largest government taking of property in history (the freeing of the slaves) also reaffirmed the power and hegemony of industrial capital over the wealth of the nation. But the freeing of the slaves did not mean that African-Americans were brought into the fold of democracy. The continuance of exclusionary policies and laws would continue as an apartheid in the United States until the civil rights movement in the mid-twentieth century removed the most onerous aspects of formalized discrimination. Likewise the struggle for woman suffrage took over 100 years before ratification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution on August 18, 1920. Even so, there continues to be assaults on the right to vote to this day in an effort to exclude people from democratic processes.

But back to the task of showing the current nature of democracy in modern capitalist nations which are engaged in the global economy. One of the characterizations or definitions of democracy is that “of Tocqueville’s conception of democracy as the equality of conditions” (Ranciere, 2014, p 20), which omits the political and makes it into a socio-economic category of access to opportunity and, in America, to the seemingly unlimited land. The impact of this on the ‘unique’ of American democracy is important and seldom addressed.

The conquest and control of space, for example, first requires that it be conceived of as something usable, malleable, and therefore capable of domination through human action. . . It took something more to consolidate the actual practical use of space as universal, homogeneous, objective, and abstract in social practice . . . the ‘something more’ that came to dominate was private property in land, and the buying and selling of space as a commodity. (Harvey, 1990, p. 254).

While this was happening throughout societies who were becoming dominated by capitalist social relations, it was especially important as a component of the expansion westward by the Jeffersonian explorations of Lewis and Clark and preceding the Louisiana Purchase.

Perhaps the clearest example of this politics in action is the design of the homesteading system and the spatial grid for land in the United States . . . The pulverization and fragmentation of the space of the United States along such rationalistic lines was thought to (and in some respects indeed did) imply maximum individual liberty to move and settle in a reasonably egalitarian way in the spirit of a property-owning and agrarian society. . . The reorganization of space to democratic ends challenged dynastic power embedded in place. (Harvey, 1990, pp. 255-257)

Thus, the whole history of capitalist expansion has a multi-fold character in relation to place, space, individuals, the state, and democracy. The ‘pulverization’ of space and place into private holdings created an ideological belief in equality that had been denied in the homeland for immigrants to North America. The state reinforced this belief in the creation of institutions which upheld democratic involvement in the political sphere portrayed as control of the state through individual and community involvement in democratic participation in decisions which would control the activities of the state.

Representative governmental processes and institutions thus supplanted direct democracy and began the sublimation of democracy into an objective reality whereby the populace who were eligible for involvement in these processes (White, property-holding males) transferred their power to an elite. This elite, even more circumscribed by laws concerning owner-ship in property and religious belief in order to hold office, moved to create a “symbiosis between the elite, elected representatives of the people, and the elites educated in our schools about the mechanisms by which societies function” (Ranciere, c2014, p. 42). In later times the merger between these elites in politics, education, mass media, and business would come to completely remove any function of electoral democracy as nothing more than the ratification of representatives selected by other means as mere figureheads of democracy, while being beholden to the specific special interests that allow their participation as one of the slate who can be selected by ‘lot.’

Plato had recognized this fact even as far back as his writings in the Republic and Laws. The democratic selection of representatives, at the end of the day, is not much more sophisticated than the system which was used in Athens in Plato’s time. In Athens, according to Plato, seven levels of leaders were in place, and democracy per se was not looked upon as the highest form of government. “Democracy, Plato tells us in Chapter VIII of the Republic, is a political regime that is not one . . . (because) It is properly the regime that overturns all the relations that structure human society” (Ranciere, 2014, p. 36). To understand this statement, we must look at these seven levels of leadership. The first four are based on birth: that is, “parents over their children, the old over the young, masters over their slaves, and highborn people over men of no account” (p. 39). The next two basis of leadership are those that “express nature if not birth. First, we have the law of nature. .  the power of the strongest over the weakest . . . (and) the authority of those who know over those who are ignorant” (pp. 39-40). These six are deemed truthful as they represent the fulfilling of “two prerequisites. First, each defines a hierarchy of positions. Secondly, each defines this hierarchy in continuity with nature” (p. 40). These conform to the general ethos and mores of Greek city-states at the time, but recognizing that “is effectively when politics commences: when the principle of government is separated from the law of kinship, all the while claiming to be representative of nature” (p. 40).

However, the final seventh level of governance creates the real basis of the split between the public and the private. This is the practice or principle of choosing leadership by ‘lots’ or by democracy (people-power),

a seventh title to occupy the superior and inferior positions, a title that is not a title, and that, the Athenian tells us, is nevertheless considered to be the most just: the title of that authority that has the ‘favour of heaven and fortune’: the choice of the god of chance, the drawing of lots, i.e., the democratic procedure by which a people of equals decides the distribution of places. (Ranciere, 2014, p.40)

As Ranciere points out, this is where the beginnings of paradoxes and contradictions begin in the establishment of government by the people. Anyone who belongs to one of the other six spheres of power is now to subject to something that is against nature, that is, the mere whim of chance in the drawing of lots to create the actuality and title to govern. “It is the scandal of superiority based on no other title than the very absence of superiority” (p. 41).

In modern times, the core aspect of democracy as the drawing of lots has become hidden behind the edifice of electoral laws, regulations, standards, primaries, and political parties, but it is nonetheless the underlying reality. Even with the labyrinth imposed by modern ‘electoral processes’ the modern version is still the “title that calls forward those who merit occupying power is the fact of desiring to exercise it” (p. 42). Plato’s view was that the best government was government ruled by those who did not desire to govern. Today we have bad government, under the guise of democracy, precisely because the system has within in it the contradiction “of government with the exercise of a power both desired and conquered. Such is the paradoxical principle involved  . . . whenever there is politics” (p. 43). The fact is wealth, social status, high birth, educational advantage, and age continue to play a role in an ideological distortion of who is eligible for governing. The continuance of the tension in the contradictions between the essential core of democracy and this ideological distortion plays out in the actual inability of government to effectively govern. The interests of the people are not carried on into the actuality of ruling or governing precisely because the institutions are no longer beholden to the people as the foundation of the power of those who rule, but rather that of the interests of the special entities and groups are served.

State government is only legitimate insofar as it is political. It is political only insofar as it reposes merely on an absence of foundation. This is what democracy means when accurately understood as a ‘law of chance’. The customary complaints about democracy’s ungovernability in the last instance comes down to this: democracy is neither a society to be governed, nor a government of society, it is specifically this ungovernable on which every government must ultimately find out it is based. . . . ‘Democratic society’ is never anything but an imaginary portrayal designed to support this or that principle of good government. Societies, today as yesterday, are organized by the play of oligarchies. (pp. 49-52)

This is further exposed in the lack of democracy created in republics whereby representative governments have been established, precisely because they appeared to be democracies but in fact allowed for special interests to truly be in control.

Originally representation was the exact contrary of democracy. None ignored this at the time of the French and American revolutions. The Founding Fathers and a number of their French emulators saw in it precisely the means for an elite to exercise power de facto, and to do so in the name of the people. . . ‘Representative democracy’ might appear today as a pleonasm. But it was initially an oxymoron. (p. 53)

Domination of the political sphere by the economic takes place also as the ideology which merges a unity of capitalism with that of democracy takes place. The historical rise of the one with the other gives rise to the illusion that each is the product of the other and that democracy cannot exist under any other mode of production. This is reinforced when mass consumerism redefines access to commodities with freedom. At the same time, private property rights evolve to trump all other rights

Capitalism’s whole basis of its version of democracy is that people have been freed from the binds of previous economic formations, feudalism, slavery, and so on, in order to freely sell their labor in the market place. However, there is no obligation of anyone to buy, and no basis in rights theory to demand that someone buy. Why? Because the fundamental tenet is that, at the end of the day, private property has the ultimate right which overwhelms all others. Private property, not to be confused with personal property, has a very specific definition in political economy. It is the ownership of land and the means of production, but also may include other property needed for the functioning of the economy, for instance, means of distribution, ownership of required services, and so on. The owner of property is called a proprietor and this comes with the right to dispense with or avail the use of the property as this person or entity sees fit. This may include transferring the use of the property to another person or entity by some form of contract that is, leasing or renting the property to another, giving over management of the property to a manager or management staff, and so on. Without getting into all of the ways in which limitations are placed on the use of property, for instance by zoning regulations, use permits, public interest issues, etc. the basic principle is that owning a piece of property comes with what is termed a bundle of rights.

What is interesting is that the rights, objectively, are not those of the owner, but really are recognized as belonging to the property. What the owner has gained by owning the property is the use of these rights, for instance, the right to the use of water or minerals that come with the land. If I sell the land, I no longer have those rights, as they really belong to the property, in this case land. The same holds for factories, refining plants, steel mills, and other major industrial complex enterprises. As long as I own it, I can use it and exploit it to my own ends, but once I transfer control of some or all of the rights of use to another party, they are gone. This is true even if these properties are essential for the well-being of the community in which they are located. There is no right of the community to retain these properties, their uses or existence, even if removing them causes the community great harm up to and including the complete extinction of the community. Hence we have the rust belt cities and communities of the American mid-west – Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Toledo, and all the other towns, large and small, who are struggling in the face of free-trade agreements and the shipping of their jobs overseas. Rights do not hold on the side of the non-owner of the social means of production.

And with the collapse of these local economies is likewise the collapse of the political power of these communities and the rights of their citizens to impact the future of these communities through governmental action or any other means. If this causes hardship to some members of society, if it causes the concentration of wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller percentage of the population that is too bad. That is just the way it is. It is a given of the social order and proves what Marx said over 150 years ago,

Originally the rights of property seemed to us to be grounded in a man’s own labour. Some such assumption was at least necessary, since only commodity-owners with equal rights confronted each other, and the sole means of appropriating the commodities of others was the alienation of a man’s own commodities, commodities which, however, could only be produced by labour. Now, however, property turns out to be the right, on the part of the capitalist, to appropriate the unpaid labour of other or its product, and the impossibility, on the part of the worker, of appropriating his own product. The separation of property from labour thus becomes the necessary consequence of a law that apparently originated in their identity. (Marx, 1990, p. 730)

The rights of property prevail. The rights of the ‘people’ are limited to what can be negotiated essentially by contract.

The concentration of wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller segment of the population, while real wages stagnate for the average person is another aspect reinforcing the consolidation of oligarchy disguised as democracy, exemplified by “the risk of a drift toward oligarchy (that) is real and gives little reason for optimism about where the United States is headed. . .  US politicians of both parties are much wealthier than their European counterparts and in a totally different category from the average American, which might explain why they tend to confuse their own private interest with the general interest” (Piketty, 2014, p. 514). This continues the degradation of both the illusion and the fact of democracy, hence the disaffiliation of much of the population from the political sphere and its concurrent mistrust of any form of government. Perhaps the total collapse of involvement, in some form of a ‘great refusal’ will one day undermine the ideology which keeps the myth of democracy alive. The inversion of a government which cannot govern due to its insulation from the ‘people’ and its sclerosis of power will have to reach a point of resolution. However, there is no necessity or determination that this will result in anything progressive. Neo-fascism in the guise of a ‘populism’ or some other political totalization is equally possible.

Democracy -References

Baidiou, A. (2012b). Philosophy for militants. London, UK. Verso.

Bimba, A. (1927/1973). The history of the American working class. Westport, CT. Greenwood Press.

Douzinas, C. (2000). The end of human rights: Critical legal thought at the turn of the century.  Portland, OR. Hart Publishing.

Fremont-Barnes, G. (2007). Encyclopedia of the age of political revolutions and new ideologies, 1760-1815. Westport, CT. Greenwod Press.

Habermas, J. (1974). Theory and practice. Boston, MA. Beacon.

Harvey, D. (1990). The condition of postmodernity: An inquiry into the origin of cultural change. Cambridge, MA. Blackwell.

Marx, K. (1990). Capital: A critique of political economy, Vol. I, trans. Fowkes, B. London, UK. Penguin Classics.

Plato, (1975). Laws. London, UK. Penguin

Plato, (1987). The Republic. London, UK. Penguin.

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge, MA. Belknap Press.

Ranciere, J. (2014). Hatred of democracy. London, UK. Verso.

Recent Posts


By Jim Smith | August 11, 2019 |

THE MURKINESS OF CIVIL SOCIETY AND SOCIAL CHANGE PART 2   Feminism and New Public Discourse   Modern feminist writers…


By Jim Smith | August 8, 2019 |

THE MURKINESS OF CIVIL SOCIETY AND SOCIAL CHANGE Part 1 This is the first installment of a discussion of the…

The Ghost of “Postmodernism” and Future Social Change

By Jim Smith | July 23, 2019 |

  The Ghost of “Postmodernism” and Future Social Change   ‘Postmodernism’ is a concept that has now been around in…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom – Tenth Installment

By Jim Smith | July 4, 2019 |

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Tenth Installment If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Ninth Installment

By Jim Smith | June 27, 2019 |

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Ninth Installment “The very design of neoliberal principles is a direct…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom – Eighth Installment

By Jim Smith | June 20, 2019 |

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Eighth Installment “A state of shock is produced when a story…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Seventh Installment

By Jim Smith | June 7, 2019 |

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Seventh Installment   “This is the permanent tension that lies at…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom, Sixth Installment

By Jim Smith | May 30, 2019 |

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom, Sixth Installment   This week we will continue to evaluate the…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom, Fifth Installment

By Jim Smith | May 21, 2019 |

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Fifth Installment “To deny people their human rights is to challenge…

Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom, Installment 4

By Jim Smith | May 15, 2019 |

  Democracy and the Future of the Quest for Freedom Fourth Installment “The few own the many because they possess…

Leave a Comment