A DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACY
The need to reestablish the original
foundation of the democratic system
It may well be that democracy has been the most used word in political speech in the past two centuries, and without question no other word has assumed such a variety of meanings.
Mario Justo López
Yet it is not the basic conception of democracy, but additional connotations, which have in the course of time been added to the original meaning of a particular kind of decision-making procedure, which now endanger the belief in a democracy so enlarged in content.
Friedrich A. Hayek
Democracy does not only consist in electing, but also in controlling a ruler. Such a simple consideration however entails a veritable revolution in the way we predominantly understand politics today.
In view of this reality the following essay will attempt a historical and philosophical analysis of the democratic system, so as to retrieve its original conception linked to freedom. In this way we can conceive it in its entirety and endow it with significance without succumbing to ideologization.
As we shall see, understanding democracy protects freedom, while the notion of preserving basic human liberties makes it feasible to fully understand the democratic phenomenon.
The Confiscation of Democracy
During the 20th century various authoritarian ideologists came to realize the symbolic power of the word democracy, and began to contend over ownership of the term.
In such a context, Le Bon made the following observation:
The power of words is bound up with the images they evoke, and is quite independent of their real significance. Words whose sense is the most ill- defined are sometimes those that possess the most influence. Such, for example, are the terms democracy, socialism, equality, liberty, etc., whose meaning is so vague that bulky volumes do not suffice to precisely fix it. Yet it is certain that a truly magical power is attached to those short syllables, as if they contained the solution of all problems. They synthesize the most diverse unconscious aspirations and the hope of their realization.
It can be said that an individual may exert a certain influence over the meaning of the words he uses, but not to the point of defining them completely. Every concept, as a social construct carries a burden that will influence the message of the person utilizing it. Thus, authoritarian ideologies slightly modify the sense of democracy so as to incorporate the word into the fabric of their theory or discourse. Once assimilated, the term casts a positive light upon the image society perceives of the ideology in question.
The mere use of amenable concepts will not convince citizens of anything under the sun; nevertheless it is feasible and likely that people will more readily greet ideas connected to a word carrying a positive value.
This was explained in a conference by Pablo Iglesias, a popular Spanish neo-Marxist leader, who as we write these lines is representing himself as a democratic leader and accusing the Spanish republican leadership of being “chaste”:
There are words charged with positive values and words loaded with negative values. Therefore, in politics we must dispute our enemies over (using) the appealing word democracy. The word dictatorship is not appealing, not even in reference to proletariat dictatorship. No appeal whatsoever. There is no way to sell that. Although we could propose in theory that proletariat dictatorship is the highest expression of democracy inasmuch as it aspires to nullify unfair class relations which, ontologically speaking, in and of themselves nullify the possibilities to attain equality, the foundation of democracy. You cannot sell the notion that dictatorship is appealing to anybody, so the word to dispute over is democracy.
In order to win over the middle class vote Iglesias needs to conquer the government of a developed country like Spain, he disguises the fact that he gets his inspiration from Hugo Chávez. Indeed, the same Caribbean leader who inaugurated the series of populist neo-Marxist regimes that currently plague Latin America and are beginning to gain a foothold in Europe.
The former president of Venezuela aptly benefitted from the prevailing confusion regarding the concept of democracy. His used the term in a way totally opposite from its true meaning: to refer to the concentration instead of the separation of power, and to allude to an absolutist government instead of one subject to Law. He was very clear about this in one of his speeches: “Revolutionary democracy must necessarily be strong, formidable. It must be full of strength and fill itself with growing power and strength every day. It cannot be a weak, languid, flimsy, naive democracy.” Chávez was clearly thinking about a dictatorship that would end social production relations, which in his mind were “antidemocratic.”
When he passed away, Maduro his underling succeeded him. To this day, the latter continues to oppress his people harshly as he accumulates a list of assassinations, political prisoners, illegitimate repression, in addition to closing or suffocating the voice of independent media. All in the name of democracy, and moreover, with the endorsement of the other Latin American states that refuse to recognize the dictatorial nature of the Maduro regime, using the excuse that the country holds elections.
The Marxist Trap
Marxism hegemonizes the authoritarian conquest of the symbolic power of democracy in Latin America and a large part of Europe. Marx clearly despised open society and defended a “proletarian dictatorship”, yet many of his followers began to use the concept of democracy with a new meaning.
They no longer used the word to refer to a certain distribution of political power, but rather applied it to non-political variables or situations; namely, abolishing capitalism. In this way, Marxism felt ready to repeat the word “democracy” to no end.
In France, Michel Foucault greatly contributed to this process. If republican or constitutional democracy was a farce and screened the illegitimate imposition of bourgeoisie, there had to be a theory to explain how domination could function within a legalist order where there didn’t seem to exist any manner of oppression. Hence the thesis of the “micro-physics of power” came about. Domination, albeit unseen, nevertheless existed through an accumulation of microscopic and invisible relations of control.
All power was viewed as oppressive, regardless of how small or harmless. Bad students, delinquents and every misfit or individual derailed by some form of authority became victims entitled to compensation. Instead of penalizing, motivating and/or stimulating them to improve, they were abandoned to the corrupting effects of impunity.
If political domination was inevitable, then it would be necessary to end capitalist economic exploitation with a properly supported political domination; i.e., of the Marxist persuasion.
Naturally Foucault’s thesis does not hold up to rigorous analysis. Not because it stems from immaterial variables, since factors like these are a part of reality, but because it does not have any connection to concrete facts. It operates as a dogma segregated from reality and can therefore do without it. In the words of Sebreli: “The micro-physics of power blinded him to macro-politics and he therefore could not see that when he used his theory of ‘suspicion’ he interpreted facts, institutions, legislation or the behavior of men in a way always contrary to what seemed evident.” In other words, true democracies were not such, and a few forms of authoritarianism could represent the closest thing possible to a democracy.
In this state of affairs, it could be stated that a great intellectual challenge still pending for every authentic democrat in the world consists in contending with Marxism over the “ideological ownership” of the concept of democracy.
The False Dilemma between “Proceduralism” and “Substantialism”
During the 20th century the growing disfigurement of the idea of democracy started to produce reactions attempting to return an accurate meaning to the word. The prevailing thesis however turned out to be excessively formalist.
The contention was that democracy and freedom should not be confused and that a scientific notion required a foundation of ideologically neutral and empirically verifiable elements that would not resort to the idea of “common good” for justification. This voided the concept to the point of making it unrecognizable.
The hallmark of this kind of thinking was produced by the contributions of Joseph Schumpeter. For him democracy constituted nothing more than a method of political struggle that employed competitive elections to form governments. This spread the concept that democracy was merely confined to electoral matters, and did not consider the political situation around it; a notion that quickly became hegemonic.
Schumpeter’s theory did not appropriately exclude elected dictatorships, populist processes with a vocation for totalitarianism, or purely formal democracies lacking any separation of power or legality. Such an all-encompassing definition left too great a gap in meaning.
This brought about a certain disbelief in the system. Along those lines prestigious historian Eric Hobsbawm expressed that: “The essence of democracy is that the government must consider what the people want and do not want. No mechanism is effective in doing so: representative government is not very effective. Sometimes the press or direct movements are better at this.”
The vagueness of the proceduralist definition of the concept allowed apolitical Marxist thesis to return powerfully to academic debate by means of what was known as “substantialism”. Substantialists stipulated that democracy could not be reduced to mere formal procedure, since its “ends” had to be taken into account. From this perspective, “the system will become all the more democratic, in the same measure that the economic and social inequalities existing among the members of a community are reduced.” Yet, just as in the Marxist conception analyzed before, the problem is that if we focus on non-political variables authoritarianism leaks into the concept.
Democracy as a political phenomenon should be defined as a function of political variables. If we only define it according to non-political features it becomes perverted, however if we only consider its political aspects bereft of any substance or stable content, it looses meaning.
If suffrage represents the form of democracy, then its substance must be afforded by a constant political element linked to the basic freedom a democratic system entails. It inevitably must ensure legality and the protection of rights, and this means separation of powers.
To a good extent the recent academic debate about the definition of democracy has revolved (as shown here) around a false dilemma we must overcome, and to do so we need to travel back to the philosophical roots and origin of the system in question.
Etymology of Democracy
This distorted notion of democracy in a major part of the collective imaginary of humanity calls for etymological clarification.
Demos means “people”. Kratos implies “power”, in turn associated with Kratein, which is “government”. Thus, according to the Greek origin of the word, democracy is the “power of the people” or “government of the people”.
In other words, democracy exists when the people decide over political affairs. This deciding can take place either directly or indirectly through elected representatives. Therefore, under the predominating indirect or representative variation of today, the people not only have to choose their representatives, but must also be able to decide or govern through them, which involves a certain capacity to control these representatives.
Again, this compels us to conclude that democracy cannot exist unless there is a separation of power to ensure legal order, mainly an independent justice system. Nevertheless, should this argument prove insufficient, we will travel back in history to the birth and evolution of democracy.
Democracy in Ancient History
One of democracy’s first artifices and thinkers was Pericles (c. 495-429 BC), the most significant Athenian ruler of his day. His most famous Funeral Oration was pronounced as a tribute to the Athenians who fell in the Peloponnesian war against tyrannical Sparta.
According to Thucydides, in that speech Pericles expressed that the political regime of Athens did not imitate any other but rather served as an example. “As regards to the name, because administration is in favor of the many and not the few, this regime has been named democracy.” We see than in ancient Athens the idea of democracy referred to a certain harmony among all citizens and to defending the general interest.
As a rule we respect freedom, both in public affairs as well as in everyday private rivalries (…). We may be indulgent in private matters. On the other hand, in public affairs we never conduct ourselves illegally out of a respectful fear, but obey those whose turn it is to rule. And we abide the laws, particularly the ones enacted in favor of the victims of injustice and those laws that may not be written but are considered by all shameful to breach. (…). We deliberate and decide public matters ourselves, according to law, for we believe that what is harmful to action is not debate, but rather not allowing discussion to inform what has to be done.
Pericles linked this harmony and defense of the general interest to an environment of legality and freedom; of the freedom to express opinions and discuss; and even of respect for unwritten laws, which by the way only make sense when they are based upon human freedom, the only objective and impartial parameter they could rest upon.
Aristotle was another unquestionable political genius from ancient Greece (although he was born in what was then Macedonia.) Regarding Aristotle’s classification of forms of government Norberto Bobbio has expressed “that theory has been repeated for centuries without major variations.”
Aristotle divided modes of government into two classes: the “pure” and “impure” (in a qualitative sense); and into the “rule of one”, “rule of a minority” and “majority rule” (quantitative sense), which accounts for six potential variations. Translations differ as to the name assigned to the pure and impure forms of majority rule, because Aristotle himself apparently changed his terminology in various writings. In some of these he considered “democracy” impure and “politeia” or “republic” pure, whereas in others he termed the impure form “demagogy” and the pure form, “democracy”.
I consider the last one of these translations accurate, because it best adapts to the meaning of his words from today’s perspective. Besides, when a few centuries later Polybius returned to the Aristotelian classification he stated: “We must not declare that democracy lives there where the mob willfully acts and decrees as it chooses. It only exists where the custom and ancient tradition is to venerate the gods, honor one’s parents, revere the old, and obey the laws.”
When they referred to an impure form of majority rule, Aristotle and Polybius alluded to a kind of popular tyranny contrary to law in which the people were exalted, manipulated and deceived by a ruler. This would amount to what we call today “populism”; i.e., an authoritarian government that having emerged from the ballots tends to concentrate power and manipulate the population from the position of the State. By contrast, under a “democracy”, a majority rules according to the general interest because it respects the law and the rights of others.
Aristotle’s own reasoning almost naturally led him to defend the similarity between democracy and republic and how they both complement each other:
Demagogues issue decrees for the people trampling over laws (…). Thus, authority is undermined. Such a democracy can rightfully be accused of not being a true republic, because a republic cannot exist when the Law lacks authority. Law should rule supreme over all, and magistrates and judges must rule in private matters (…). Should democracy constitute a proper form of government then a system that regulates everything through decrees cannot be a democracy in the true sense of the word.
From the beginning, Aristotle knew that legality could not exist without a separation of power, and that without legality there could be no democracy. Unless the rule of law is there to protect the liberty of the people, true popular sovereignty cannot really exist because it requires liberty to be upheld.
The wise Macedonian went on to say: “(It is) there, where some possess too much and others nothing at all, that extreme democracies, or pure oligarchies or tyrannies, are encouraged to arise. Indeed, tyranny springs from these most radical democracies and oligarchies.”
By “extreme democracies” one may understand demagogy. In other words, Aristotle not only made a clear distinction between democracy and demagogy but asserted that the latter led to tyranny. This description would seem to fully depict our current populist models that in the name of a hypothetical democracy practice a brand of extremism that produces tyranny.
Although the scope of this paper only allows us to study but a sampling of ancient reflections on the matter, it is definitely clear that in its origin the concept of democracy was strongly linked to freedom. Indeed, it was understood as a system of institutions that protected the basic rights of citizens, even from the interference of their representatives, and of the majority itself when it ruled directly.
The Athenian Political System as a Limited Democracy
To a good extent Athenian democracy sprung from two major legislative reforms, one by Solon in the early 6th century BC, and a century later the reform made by Cleisthenes.
One of the most outstanding transformations achieved by Solon consisted in abolishing debt slavery and establishing census suffrage rights that would progressively reach everyone. All citizens of course were free and equal before the law and participated in the legislative assembly, but only members of the upper classes could be elected as executive officials. The greater the amount of taxes they contributed to the community, the greater the number of positions they could hold.
In keeping with the democratic conception of his time Solon feared that abrupt democratization could degenerate into a tyranny led by any demagogue able to concentrate excessive and illegal power. For that reason, Solon preferred to reserve the highest positions to the most affluent who in theory would not harm freedom under the pretext of generating greater social equality.
Such a restriction was mistaken if we consider that a demagogue with relentless ambition can also spring from the upper echelons of society. Nevertheless for the reformer it was necessary to moderately limit democracy to keep it from self-destruction.
It fell upon Cleisthenes to perfect Solon’s reforms one century later, after his triumphant return to Athens at the helm of an army of exiles that had rallied in Delphi to challenge the brutal tyranny of Hippias. Because of Cleisthenes’s forward-looking ideas, the aristocrats (a group he and Solon belonged to) vetoed his candidacy. Four years later, however, a popular revolt took him to power.
One of his major reforms consisted in doubling the number of citizens with the right to vote. Another innovation was ostracism, a self-defense mechanism for democratic institutions that allowed every member of the assembly to write on a slate the name of anyone he deemed to be a threat to democracy. When these anonymous complaints were endorsed by three thousand peers, the person whose name had appeared on the slate was exiled for ten years without trial or appearing in court.
Thus, even though Cleisthenes gave all social classes access to higher office, he also sought a way to limit excessive power, even nipping it in the bud, before it could attain government. In the event any agitator or authoritarian leader should appear and jeopardize legality and freedom, those affected could rid themselves of him before it was too late. This utmost defense of the rights of the minorities, albeit exaggerated in today’s view for lack of “due process” and for its extreme severity, represented a huge step forward in its time.
Finally, another change implemented by Cleisthenes was to expand the boule to 500 members (originally 400), and have these members of the council chosen by lot. The boule was a bureaucratic administrative council of sorts that prepared and counseled the Assembly, which by virtue of its large size required certain tasks to be completed before and after it was held. Direct democracy in its pure form was not possible.
Athenians solved this problem and ensured that no one could take over this little administrative bureaucracy by having all citizens take turns in becoming a part of the council. Holding public office constituted a burden, not a privilege nor a source of personal power. It has been pointed out here that this measure also intended to avoid clientelism, perceived as a serious threat to democracy.
We can observe that the Athenians wisely saw thousands of years ahead of their time when they suspected the danger posed to freedom by permanent public bureaucracy. The zeal of the ancient Greeks to disarticulate every opportunity for the concentration of power deserves admiration. Such was their democratic spirit that justice was dealt in first instance by rotating juries also randomly chosen.
Once reformed by Cleisthenes, the Assembly held at least 40 sessions every year, and usually required a quorum of 6,000 to deliberate routine matters. According to some estimations it numbered between 30,000 to 45,000 citizens from a total population of 200,000 to 250,000 people. This means that between 15% and 18% of the population had full political rights and directly participated in government, which was unheard of and amazing for the era.
Citizens were treated as equals. Their rights were protected, including the right to property and to freely engage in business under equal conditions. People came from abroad to invest in Athens. Around 530 BC, the city saw the birth of the first book market in history, which flourished with writers and publishers who came from everywhere. This novel business encouraged the Greek cultural and philosophical awakening that in turn facilitated democracy. A dynamic capitalism of sorts came to life and resulted in even greater social equality. Three quarters of the citizen population possessed some kind of rural property, while latifundia practically did not exist.
Non-citizens basically included women, resident foreigners and slaves.  Today of course, this does not seem democratic at all, but one must consider the historic context and its barely productive slavery economy, the non-existence of mass communication, and that humanity still did not have any significant democratic precedent or tradition at the time.
Even as regards to the abominable institution of slavery, ancient Athens stood out for its striking humanitarianism when compared to other more authoritarian societies of the era. Suffice it to say that most slaves labored in workshops or other urban activities, and that in practice many of them operated like independent paid employees or became another member of the family. As a matter of fact, in Athens, there was even a legal action any citizen could use against masters who mistreated their slaves excessively.
Linking their conception of democracy to the foundation of freedom enabled ancient Athenians to build the most culturally fruitful, politically egalitarian, economically burgeoning, and free community that the world had ever seen.
The splendor of Athens in the 5th century BC was not conquered by leaders or agitators, but through a series of progressive and radical reforms that sought to distribute, contain and limit political power to ensure the greatest liberty possible for all its citizens. Democracy was not viewed as a device to coerce in favor of a messianic end proposed by a given sector of the population, but rather understood and employed as a tool to protect rights and legitimate interests, serving everybody equally. That was its secret.
Democracy during the Enlightenment and 19th Century
With time the word “democracy” became associated with the notion of a direct government by the citizens gathered in an assembly. That is the meaning Rousseau gave it. By contrast, the idea of “republic” was preferred to allude to a representative government, elected by the people and subject to Law.
For this reason the term “republic”, instead of “democracy” appears in most of the documents and declarations of freedom of the liberal revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. As Justo López indicates: “Perhaps it was Thomas Paine who, thinking about the recently created institutions, was the first to express in 1791 (Rights of Man) that they signified the graft of representation in democracy.”
The republicans themselves came to realize that their new political invention was nothing more than an indirect variation of the Athenian system. On the other hand, when several constitutional aristocracies resisted universal suffrage, they could not help but resort to the Greek term.
Regardless of whether the term “republic” or “democracy” was used, the fact remains that the liberals who overthrew the theoretical justification for monarchical absolutism forever bonded together the principles of popular sovereignty, legality and liberty. In the 17th century, John Locke was highly accurate in that regard when he justified the Glorious Revolution with the following words:
…no other person or organisation, whatever its form and whatever power it has behind it, can make edicts that have the force of law and create obligations as a law does unless they have been permitted to do this by the legislature that the public has chosen and appointed. (…). [The legislature] doesn’t and can’t possibly have absolutely arbitrary power over the lives and fortunes of the people. (…). Nobody can transfer to someone else more power than he has himself: and nobody has an absolute arbitrary power to destroy his own life, or take away someone else’s life or property.
Locke made it very clear that separation of power was necessary if there was to be an acceptable minimum of freedom. The legislature had to monopolize legislative functions, but at the same time had to be restricted and controlled by an independent branch of justice that would protect citizen rights and liberties even against abuse from the Law. The illustrious liberal also shed light on the inherent contradiction in any authoritarianism founded upon popular will. It is inconceivable for a majority to a transfer power it does not have, therefore the rights of minorities must always be secured by the rule of law.
Locke defined freedom as “to be under no legislative power except the one established by consent in the commonwealth; and not under the power of any will or under restraint from any law except what is enacted by the legislature in accordance with its mandate.” The final part, “in accordance with its mandate” is vital to understand democracy.
In the following century, Montesquieu envisioned three forms of government, each one of them associated with the principle that makes it work: despotism (based upon fear), monarchy (supported by honor, in a sense that today would combine reputation and pride), and republic (resting upon virtue, because ruling or controlling an elected ruler required from citizens a certain commitment and sacrifice). In turn, a republic could be either “aristocratic” or “democratic.” We can see, therefore, that for Montesquieu democracy presupposed a republic, because without one, there could be no democracy.
Along the same lines, both Stuart Mill as well as Tocqueville recognized in their own way, how the democratic and republican principles complemented each other. An open and stable political system can only be achieved by combining both. It was Tocqueville, who stood out for having descriptively anticipated the nefarious consequences of the concentration of power to fundamental liberties in a formally democratic context:
I want to imagine under what new guises despotism would make itself known to the world; (…). …an immense and tutelary power rises … (…). …covers the landscape with a multitude of complicated, detailed and uniform laws, (…): does not destroy wills, but softens them, subjects and directs them. It rarely compels to act, but relentlessly opposes action; it does not destroy but thwarts creation; it does not tyrannize, but oppresses; it mortifies, numbs, extinguishes, weakens, and reduces every nation into a herd of timid and industrious animals shepherded by their ruler.
In the previously quoted lines, the French author was anticipating the “populist” phenomenon as a political means intended to implement a dictatorship through formal democracy. He recognized that democracy requires a certain degree of basic autonomy for civil society, and that arbitrary or excessive political powers breach such autonomy causing despotism to emerge. On another scale and using more modern language, he was expanding the Aristotelian thesis on demagogy.
Both in ancient as well as in modern times democracy and republic meant the same thing, except that they focused on different sides of the same coin: the separation of power or universal suffrage, legality or people’s sovereignty all of which made it possible to safeguard and guarantee basic human freedoms.
Abraham Lincoln knew how to masterfully summarize the republican spirit that brought forth democracy, when during his famous Gettysburg Address he paid homage to the fallen in battle and forever etched in the collective memory of humanity the following words:
It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth..
A Few Recent Developments
During the 20th century there were thinkers who noticed that the conceptualization of democracy had gone astray. Their theses however did not take the precedence they should have. At least, that was the case in Latin America.
Hayek revisited the notion of the separation of power, but for the purpose of observing a new phenomenon that endangered it. According to him, legislatures were dangerously taking over government functions as they legislated over particular matters. This produced laws that were not true laws and decisions that constituted privileges:
…so-called “legislatures”, which the early theorists of representative government (and particularly John Locke) conceived to be limited to making laws (…) have become omnipotent governmental bodies. (…). It is a mere play on words to maintain that, so long as a majority approves of acts of government, the rule of law is preserved. The rule of law was regarded as a safeguard of individual freedom, because it meant that coercion was permissible only to enforce obedience to general rules of individual conduct equally applicable to all, in an unknown number of future instances.
If this process of laws that were no longer general and legislatures that served to negotiate and to distribute private benefits continued, democracy could eventually disappear.
Now, regarding the issue of autonomy for civil society, in the mid 20th century Raymond Aron warned:
We must remember that we know another form of political liberty other than [the one](…) expressed through elections, representation, competition among parties and constitutional forms. (…). Elections mean nothing unless they entail the possibility to choose.
Aron’s words indicate that the act of voting can easily become a parody unless it is surrounded by certain guarantees that translate into an authentic possibility to choose. Representation is a separate phenomenon from the act of voting, which it facilitates, and it demands other conditions as well.
Karl Popper also expressed something to that effect. For him, it was essential for people to have the ability to put pressure on their rulers. So much so, that he practically defined democracy as the “possibility of getting rid of the government without bloodshed”.
From this perspective, the feasibility of punishing poor rulers rests upon a precedent that compels future leaders to be more guided by the general interest. This produces the phenomenon of representation at the heart of indirect democracy.
There can be different intensities of representation, which result in varying degrees of democratic quality; but representation that makes democracy possible requires an autonomous civil society. This, in turn, requires legality and, therefore, separation of power.
Citizen autonomy –and thus, democracy– cannot exist under any manner of domination over the voters. Recent developments in ethnology have proven, for example, that massive clientelism practices are not an aggregate of isolated events, but a system that generates relationships of psychological, political, and economical submission.
Beyond any potential measure of responsibility they may have in particular cases, political clients are above all, victims. This constitutes one of the great questions populism cannot answer. Proponents of this authoritarian method present it as a means for political inclusion of groups pushed to the background, but the growing concentration of power it leads to takes autonomy away from society as an whole, and in particular from the populist leader’s captive constituency.
This entanglement of separation of power, legality, freedom, citizen autonomy, representation, and democracy can be easily understood. The absence of a separation of power means that it is being used discretionally, without any rules or constraints. Such discretion gives a ruler the ability to extort citizens by arbitrarily dispensing them punishments and privileges. Such extortion destroys freedom, which can only truly exist when institutions independent from a ruler guarantee it. When freedom depends upon the permission or good will of another person, it is no longer freedom. When freedom is absent in a community immersed a network of extortion, threats, privileges and perks, citizens loose their autonomy. They become dependent on political power bereft of the ability to punish poor leaders. In such circumstances representation disappears and it becomes pointless to speak about democracy.
Elected Dictatorships and Clientelistic Oligarchies
There are two political regimes commonly understood as variations of democracy or “low quality democracies”, when they are actually completely antidemocratic authoritarianisms; namely, elected dictatorships and clientelistic oligarchies.
In both cases elections are held without significant or major fraud, although there might be isolated manipulations to tilt the balance in favor of the government. Analysts and international observers tend to qualify this type of voting procedure as “free,” automatically releasing the idea that the resulting government is “democratic”.
The problem, in both cases is that power becomes concentrated, separation of powers disappears, legality evaporates, and the citizenry is weakened to the point it looses autonomy. Thus, the term democracy is inappropriate even when there is no proof of electoral fraud.
As regards to the difference between one regime and the other, in a clientelistic oligarchy decision-making centers have a wider geographical distribution. There are competing political parties that can even alternate in power. Nevertheless these constitute alliances among local leaders that monopolize the state and control voters in their respective jurisdictions. Thus elections actually serve as a means to identify which group of authoritarian leaders was more effective in mobilizing its own domination apparatus.
Elected dictatorships involve a more distinct ideological component. Clienteles are centralized and subordinated to a single leader. Power becomes concentrated in a populist process that may derive in totalitarian practices, and eventually in a regime that can no longer even be labeled “democratic”, but could be termed “populist dictatorship” as a synonym, or referred to as a species of the elected dictatorship genus.
Clientelistic oligarchies are usually a prelude to elected dictatorships, provided the system does not become democratic in time, or that another kind of dictatorship, such as a military dictatorship, does not take over. This happens because clientelistic oligarchies generate disbelief in the democratic manners they appear to abide while they use captive voters to legitimize authoritarian demagogic reactions.
In recent decades this occurred repeatedly in Latin America, particularly in the “Bolivarian” countries that followed the Chavista model. Truthfully speaking, populism is the most effective political method to shift from clientelistic oligarchy to an elected dictatorship. If we understand clientelistic oligarchy as a merely formal democracy, we can say that populism is a political method directed from the state to destroy democracy, or its appearance.
These regimes pose the problem that they are generally viewed as defective democracies, but democracies nonetheless, or go undetected as they develop and by the time there is a reaction it is already too late. This happens precisely because the notion of a formalist, lax, and confusing democracy has spread.
As mentioned before, Aristotle had identified a form of “extreme democracy” or demagogy, which was not democracy as such and led to tyranny. He also recognized the potential existence of oligarchic regimes sheltered behind democratic façades.
It is necessary to add that in many cities whose constitution may not be democratic, the prevailing form of government is democratic, either due to customs or as a consequence of education. And the contrary is also true: that although democracy may be the legal form of government, the rule of custom has made it oligarchic.
In more recent times, Steven Levitsky set out to study Latin American populist dictatorships. He concluded they were authoritarian systems he called “competitive authoritarianisms” expressing that they were often mistakenly approached as partial or defective democracies, or as regimes in democratic transition.
But Levitsky admits clientelistic oligarchies as democracies, following Argentine Guillermo O’Donnell’s notion of “delegative democracy”:
…delegative democracies are characterized by low levels of horizontal accountability (…) and therefore exhibit powerful, plesbiscitarian, and occasionally abusive executives. Yet such regimes meet minimum standards of democracy. Delegative democracy thus applies to such cases as Argentina and Brazil in the early 1990s, but not to Peru after Fujimori’s 1992 presidential self-coup.
Argentina in the 1990s was clearly a clientelistic oligarchy. The traditional political parties, PJ and UCR, alternated on the national scene but remained entrenched in the provincial states they had practically appropriated, where any degree of separation of powers and legality was often non-existent.
On the national scene there was no true separation of powers either. The Executive branch of government assiduously legislated by decree, while the Supreme Court of Justice ruled as per the demands of political power. Likewise the prevailing political parties obtained votes through massive and regular clientelistic practices.
In the same manner as in Venezuela, the Argentine clientelistic oligarchy and its lack of competitive democratic parties with autonomous electorates would lead to an authoritarian reaction that could not play the military card it had the past, and thus acquired the form of a populist dictatorship that even today is in the process of consolidation under the leadership of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Had Argentine society and the international community upheld a concept of democracy in the 1990s such as the one proposed here, they would have been more rigorous towards Menem’s movement. Initial economic growth that later derived into the acute crises of 2001, would have been considered more cautiously. Pressure would have been directed less to economic reform and more to other more basic institutional reforms. Perhaps even liberalism might not have been unfairly discredited as an ideology on account of the economical and social failure of a regime that could scarcely be called liberal. There is no question that we would also be much more demanding of the current populist process on the road to consolidation.
Recovering the Original Sense of Democracy
As proven above, democracy cannot be appropriately defended if we understand it as a mere formal procedure lacking content. But its substance cannot be provided by anything other than the basic freedom that stems from political legality, is protected by the separation of power, and guarantees citizen autonomy.
Irresponsible and excessive use of the word “democracy” has caused some to propose the term “republic” to refer to a government of the people in the proper sense, yet this would signify an unnecessary fight against historical tradition and the weight of a very consolidated symbolism. At the same time it would mean surrendering to authoritarians an initial advantage in discourse they do not deserve. They have been so intent on appropriating the concept precisely because it is particularly strategic and allusive.
Classical liberals could refuse the term democracy because their absolutist opponents had no intention of disputing it, but once the latter realized its symbolism they soon pounced on it. As mentioned before, words can be influenced, but not completely determined since they irradiate a certain inherent meaning to the other ideas they come into contact with.
The time has come for us to return to the original conception of democracy, the one afforded it by the ancient Greeks who knew how to bring to life a free and egalitarian system such as humankind had never seen nor would be able to replicate for centuries.
Classical liberals realized this and developed a republican concept of a representation model as the only way to ensure indirect self-government. In the process however, they did not irreversibly bond liberalism and democracy, but recognized that the latter requires a minimum base of freedom to allow people to exercise their sovereignty.
Abandoning this republican notion of democracy and accepting the idea of “republic” as just another variation of democracy is what has led to the current state of confusion.
Even if we reject the liberal assumption of an intrinsic social value in freedom, democracy requires a base to control and exert pressure on leaders if it is to have real significance. From a non-liberal standpoint it could be argued that democracy does not ensure any measure of “common good” or development, but this cannot let us surmise that democracy does not involve a minimal amount of freedom.
The first liberals had no access to the so-called “Systems Theory” and its current application to political analysis. They therefore met with certain difficulties to justify political freedom in a non-dogmatic manner. They lacked the analytical resources we have today, which basically allow us to understand complex or information technology processes (such as the ones that integrate human societies), as well as the importance of decentralizing decisions in these processes. The more decentralized a system is the more it will develop its creative potential, because it will have a larger number of points where information is obtained and processed.
Nevertheless with careful observation and a little bit of intuition (…we hold these truths to be self-evident…), classical liberals were able to grasp the social value of freedom and understand democracy as the indispensible minimum of freedom. Of course, in order to justify it they had to resort to categories that today are often rejected as “unscientific”. These include social contract, natural state, general interest, natural law, natural rights, or the common good. Yet at their core, these notions only highlighted the beneficial social effects of a decentralized system.
Ultimately, historical experience proved them right. Democracy is not perfect, nor in itself does it maximize economic and social performance in a community. Yet if we understand it as a basic foundation of freedom, then it can be said that it constitutes the most determining factor for a community to become “developed.”
This can be seen very clearly in sustained development processes throughout history, and was also apparent in ancient Athens although not as “development” in the modern sense of the word. The city-state experienced its first great commercial and crafts revolution in the first half of the 6th century BC, precisely after Solon’s democratic reform. The consolidation of this growth culminated after the transformations made by Cleisthenes, as evidenced by Athenian splendor in the 5th century BC.
The history of Britain also highlights the connection between democracy and development. As of 1714, once the parliamentary system installed in 1688 had consolidated itself, the nation embarked upon a sustained industrialization process that soon made it the first uncontested world power. Britain’s manufactured products were spread all over the world, and between the mid 18th until the mid 19th century it maintained the fastest growth rate on the planet.
In 1832, the number of male British voters increased from 440,000 (about 15% of the total) to about 650,000 (approximately 20%). Industrial productivity grew from 44.5 in 1835-1844 to 90.4 in 1905-1913. The country’s progressive and peaceful transit to democracy continued, and in 1867 suffrage was expanded significantly to include the qualified labor class (thus around 33% of the male population would begin to vote.) In 1884, 66% of the men had the right to vote, and by 1918, 100% of the male population over 21, and the female population over 30 could vote. In 1928 women were equated to men.
Like the Athenians before them, the British opted for a prudent transition to democracy. They restrained popular sovereignty, albeit transitorily, to keep suffrage from sectors of the citizenry still not endowed with autonomy by economic and cultural development. This does not necessarily make the British strategy always the most appropriate and viable, it does mean however that the rule of law must be safeguarded in some manner in order to successfully build democracy.
Analyzing more cases would exceed the purposes and scope of this paper, but it should be noted that the positive economic effect of well understood democracy has been proven out in every historical process of sustained growth.
As heir to the legalist culture of the British, from the beginning the United States decidedly pursued republican democracy, except in the case of slavery that existed in the southern states until after the Civil War (1861-1865). The country would become the new world power.
Germany made the great leap in 1871, when it united and consolidated a democratic rule of law (albeit with a government reliant on an emperor and not a parliament, which made the return to authoritarianism under William II possible.) Meanwhile, Japan followed the path of industrialization when it implemented the European representative parliamentarian model during the Meiji era (1868-1912).
Both World Wars reflected that it was impossible for countries that had become industrialized through previous democratic processes, but were under the burden of authoritarian regimes like Germany and Japan, to maintain the same productivity and spending of democracies. During the Cold War Korea and Germany (both divided countries, where one half became democratic and the other was punished with communist totalitarianism), proved more strongly than ever the positive effect of representative systems over development and the destructive force of authoritarianism systems further validated by the dismantlement of the USSR.
Thus democracy consists in a platform for freedom that could be deepened by expanding citizen economic power and direct political participation, but without it sustained progress or authentic social harmony cannot exist.
It therefore appears that the original conception of democracy, linked to a basic foundation of freedom and to the general interest or “common good”, can absolutely be verified in an accurate, scientific and empirical manner. Moreover it can be understood clearly from the modern viewpoint of the systems theory.
A Brief Expansion of the Previous Idea
If we return to our systematic analysis of democracy, we can say that political power consists in the ability to determine the behavior of others. Human behavior is limited and, therefore, so is political power. This means that when the power of the state is heightened, citizen power as a whole declines and vice-versa.
In other words, any constraint to government arbitrariness involves a shift of power into the hands of the citizens. This increases every individual’s ability to determine his own behavior and thereby allows him to better develop his productive or creative potential.
We can see then that democracy and capitalism are intertwined because both refer to a minimum of political and economical freedom that require the existence of the rule of law. Where there is democracy there will be capitalism. When one perishes so does the other. Political and economical development march hand in hand.
Naturally such a vision derives in adopting a liberal position and in seeking to maximize the power of de