“Democracy: a recognition of souls, all down the open road, and a great soul seen in its greatness, as it travels on foot among the rest, down the common way of living.”
Political theorist Robert Dahl once noted that twenty-five centuries of debate about democracy had not “produced agreement on some of the most fundamental questions about” it. It turns out that Dahl, like many theorists and historians, wildly underestimated the duration of the discussion. It’s more like 5,000 years, or even 10,000 years. But he was right about the confusion. And if we don’t understand what democracy is, or what the human values are that inform it, how can we achieve its promise?
When we examine the health of our political practices, differing concepts of democracy lead to different conclusions. Advocates of classical democracy, better termed popular democracy, focus on political equality and believe democracy to be a system in which the wisdom of individual citizens, expressed directly by initiative or through the election of representatives from among their neighbors, should determine outcomes. Elite democrats believe that human nature is essentially competitive and hierarchical, that issues are too complex for most people’s level of knowledge, and that democracy requires only that some of the people participate in election contests, choosing leaders from among more knowledgeable and naturally gifted and powerful elites.
For the advocates of popular democracy, low voter turnout and systematic corruption of election processes are disasters. Concern for the common interest and individual autonomy and responsibility are balanced. Most importantly, popular democrats believe support for representative government depends upon bonds of sympathy and understanding among citizens and between the chosen representatives and those represented.
For elite democrats, as long as some reasonably well-informed citizens participate, tyranny is somewhat inhibited by a latent threat of voter rebellion. Turnout levels matter little (as long as it’s the right people who vote); corruption of election practices is often shrugged off as the unhappy but inevitable result of competitive human nature. Self-interest prevails, and a little democracy goes a long way. Important decisions are left to a knowledgeable elite, but the people are given at least a token opportunity to have their say.
There is also a critical asymmetry in the public descriptions of these two kinds of democracy. Elite democrats can and often do disguise elite rule in the language of the popular democrats. Even Mussolini called his fascist state a democracy. True popular democrats, however, can hardly deploy the language of hierarchically oriented elites in the promotion of political egalitarianism. Plato famously recommended that rulers employ a “noble lie,” to convince the ruled that their unequal status was due to pre-determined divine ordinance. Similarly, modern elites justify their overblown paeans to popular democracy as noble lies or necessary fictions.
The Noble Truth of Human Empathy
If popular democracy depends upon authentic bonds of sympathy and trust among citizens, these bonds cannot be faked. It could be said that popular democracy depends essentially upon the noble truth of human empathy.
In his essay on Walt Whitman quoted in the epigraph above, D.H. Lawrence says democracy is a “recognition of souls” embarked upon a common journey along a never-ending “open road.” By defining democracy within the metaphor of Life as a Journey, Lawrence gives us democracy as a process of becoming. Democracy is not a thing whose essence can be captured or contained. Democracy must be enacted, the way, say, two lovers daily enact a marriage. It’s up to democratic citizens, every moment of their lives, to enact democratic bonds with one another. Lawrence also speaks of the emergence of “a great soul seen in all its greatness,” implying that empathy or the recognition of souls allows for the temporary ascendancy of skilled leaders among an egalitarian people. This is an important point. Critics of popular democracy often accuse egalitarians of simply being anti-authority. To the contrary, the practices of popular democracy arose in recognition of the need for leadership, with appropriate checks and balances in place to make sure these leaders continue to travel “on foot among the rest,” and not ride ahead upon noble lies or political steeds of their own invention.Both popular and elite conceptions call upon a dominant Myth of Democratic Origins, which locates the embryonic democratic impulse among the pre-Classical Greeks and credits its blossoming to the rise of a decidedly unemotional, Western concept of Reason. We can’t underestimate the power of origin myths, because the widely shared folk theory of essences tells us that essences are contained in origins. But this myth of origins has skewed our understanding of democracy’s past as well as its potential. Among other faults, it confuses human emotion with unreason, and so it discounts the importance of empathy to democracy.
According to the myth, some centuries after democracy first emerged in Greece, the 17th and 18th Century Enlightenment rejected emotionally laced superstition and its exploitation by religious authority. This led eventually to the American Revolution. The French Revolution’s descent into the Reign of Terror is the myth’s denouement, and it is often used to further justify the divorce of an austere, self-sufficient Universal Reason from emotion.
The motto of the French revolutionaries was, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.” Fraternity, implying as it does egalitarian bonds of empathy, threatened Reason’s unique authority to rule the passions, as well as “dispassionate” political authority’s legitimate rule over passionate masses. Left unchecked by Reason, human passions would devolve into murderous paranoia and chaos. Empathetic bonds evoked by the word fraternity are seldom heard these days. When presidential candidate Barack Obama talks about an “empathy deficit,” there’s a bit of puzzlement in the press, as if he was talking about something completely out of place in the contemporary political game.
The primacy of austere Reason was contested, of course. James Madison well understood the role of “sympathy” in a democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville, no fan of French revolutionaries, credited the success of the young nation to Americans’ “habits of the heart.” Still, the Myth of Democratic Origins and Enlightenment faith in the power of unemotional Reason gave the edge to elite democrats.
As George Lakoff makes clear in his upcoming book, The Political Mind, there is no little irony in the post-18th Century political use of the Enlightenment idea of Universal Reason. This was the idea that we all have access to Reason, that Reason makes us equal, and that the reasoned pursuit of self-interest in a democracy will serve the larger interests of the community. Kant, like Plato, rejected human empathy from any formal role in morality or politics. Reason, stripped bare of emotion, became a privileged form of knowledge available to the philosophical and political elite. The elite would rule much like Plato had envisioned philosopher kings would oversee his ideal Republic. Rational knowledge was more available to some than others, and so Universal Reason came to justify decidedly non-universal ideals.
The scheme privileges the Harvard Business School graduate over the mother, the media consultant over the voter, and the celebrity pundit over the people. Popular democracy, however, recognizes the wisdom of the mother, of the voter who did not go to Harvard, of all the people whose interactions with others in their daily lives bless them with important knowledge about human relationships, knowledge that should take its place alongside so-called expert knowledge in a society with egalitarian aspirations.
The Myth of Democratic Origins, we now know, is wrong. Egalitarian, democratic practices were present among nomadic hunter-gatherers long before the ancient city-states of Greece. These practices – for instance, voting and term limits on leadership – can be found in ancient Mesopotamia, India, China and Greece.
Here I will briefly mention and point to some sources that describe the authentic origins of democratic practices. It’s a first step in revitalizing the arguments for popular democracy. In subsequent essays I’ll look more carefully at the role of empathy and at the misconceptions of Reason. Contemporary cognitive science has demonstrated the intimate ties between Reason and emotion. Modern archaeology and anthropology have uncovered the true origins of democratic practices in the deep past. Together, these discoveries lead us to new conclusions about the promise of democracy, and they bear directly on contemporary arguments over our political practices, arguments about: the integrity of our voting systems; the dominance of money and manipulative advertising in politics; the methodologies of opinion researchers; the dangerous corporate consolidation of media; the deterioration of public education; the artificial separation of economic and political spheres, which facilitates the pretense of political equality in a land of terrifying economic inequality.
James Madison, Hunter-Gatherer
In Federalist No. 52, Madison wrote of the need for “intimate sympathy” among chosen leaders and those who elected them. Speaking of the House of Representatives, he linked frequent elections for the House as the necessary enactment of declared common interest, mutual trust and understanding. “As it is essential to liberty that the government in general should have a common interest with the people, so it is particularly essential that the branch of it under consideration should have an immediate dependence on, and an intimate sympathy with, the people. Frequent elections are unquestionably the only policy by which this dependence and sympathy can be effectually secured,” Madison said.
This “intimate sympathy” among equals is what anthropologists like Christopher Boehm have found among our earliest human ancestors. Madison’s sympathy is enacted in frequent elections that serve two purposes: a check upon leadership and a ritual acknowledgment of the intimate ties among the people and between the people and their leaders.
This, of course, makes of voting something much more than a simple articulation of personal preference or rational self-interest. Seen in this light, voting is an instance of “ritual communication,” in the sense James W. Carey distinguished ritual from the transmission of information across space from person A to person B. Ritual communication is performative. It is not just information but confirmation and re-creation of a shared reality that is communicated. Voting enacts the confirmation of community bonds that preserve individual autonomy. And it depends, in part, upon empathy, because my act of voting has meaning only if I can imagine such a meaning in your act of voting, as well as imagine that you participate in the ritual with a similar understanding.
If voting were given its proper due, if true universal suffrage were achieved, the egalitarian confirmation of common interests couldn’t be faked because the act of voting itself is both means and ends. It would be similar to a minister’s declaration, “I now pronounce you man and wife.” The act of pronouncing, like the act of voting, performs the very truth it describes. We will save for later discussion the issues raised by democratic skeptics who have little faith that most people really know what’s best for their community or, if they do, will act honestly upon that knowledge.
What Madison is saying, and what Tocqueville and others have echoed, is that the existence of a moral community is essential to democracy. And this kind of community – and democratic practices that grow from it – are just what Boehm and others have identified among nomadic hunter-gatherers of our distant past. In this respect, Madison was as much the egalitarian hunter-gatherer as he was a philosopher-statesman.
The True Origin of Democratic Practices
Boehm writes that social dominance hierarchies appear natural in the human species, but that the formation of moral communities led to “reverse dominance hierarchies” in which a community confirmed its egalitarian ethos and removed from power “upstart” bullies who threatened group solidarity.
Boehm argued that late Paleolithic people (40,000 to 10,000 years ago) successfully formed egalitarian alliances to circumscribe authoritarian abuses. Boehm writes that “it was not Americans, two centuries ago, who invented this interesting political way of life; nor was it the Athenians of ancient Greece. The ‘democratic’ origins I describe are not recent and historical, but evolutionary and ancient.”
Others, such as Bruce Knauft, disagree with Boehm on some details but generally support the larger hypotheses. It is not Boehm’s contention that humans are essentially egalitarian, as if he was resolving the Rousseau/Hobbes dispute in favor of Rousseau. Rather, he recognizes the dual motivations and locates the rise of democratic practices and the moral community in the resistance to authority many thousands of years ago.
“When upstartism does become active, so does the moral community: it unites against those who would usurp the egalitarian order, and usually does so preemptively and assertively,” Boehm writes. “This scenario is true not only of hunting bands and egalitarian tribes, but also of ancient and modern democracies in which anti-authoritarian checks and balances become formally structured, and far more readily discernable.”
Tactics employed by egalitarian moral communities included simple disobedience, direct challenge, ostracism, and, of course, assassination.
These moral communities could not have been achieved without the kind of social bonding empathy makes possible. That these early humans could empower their neighbors and protect each other from the threat posed by abusive leaders to their well being and the well-being of others is remarkable evidence of an ancient commitment to individual autonomy and shared social responsibility.
Democracies Before the Greeks
Much earlier than commonly believed, practices we would call democratic – term limits on leadership, empowered citizen assemblies – became formal means of avoiding violence while protecting and empowering individual autonomy and shared responsibility. Democratic institutions replaced ostracism and assassination. Assemblies, term limits, formal mechanisms for voting, law courts and codes of conduct for leadership existed among ancient peoples long before they emerged in Greece.
It was Thorkild Jacobsen, in an obscure but important study first published in 1943, who first noted the presence of democratic practices in ancient Mesopotamia. Prior scholarship, of course, had looked upon Mesopotamian civilization as representing the kind of tyranny Reason had helped Greek democrats overcome. Jacobsen cited the story of Gilgamesh (in the second millennium BC epic poem, “Gilgamesh and Akka”), which shows the hero seeking permission from not one but two assemblies, including an assembly of common citizens, before taking his city, Uruk, to war. He believed that democratic values of early Mesopotamia were translated into poetic and religious epic. Jacobsen wrote of “a state in which the ruler must lay his proposals before the people, first the elders, then the assembly of the townsmen, and obtain their consent before he can act. In other words, the assembly appears to be the ultimate political authority.”
Recently, the distinguished anthropologist and historian of the Ancient Near East, Norman Yoffee, acknowledged that evidence of ancient Mesopotamian “councils great and small” and “councils of old and young” give credibility to Jacobsen’s assertions.
Raul S. Manglapus, former Philippine President Corazon Aquino’s foreign minister, while in exile during the Marcos years, wrote extensively about the evidence for earlier, pre-Western democratic practices. Manglapus makes the compelling point that anti-Eastern bias is often carried by a Myth of Democratic Origins that holds democracy to be an exclusive invention of the West and a great advance over the natural despotisms of the East. Just one of Manglapus’ examples is the dramatic archaeological discovery in 1976 that revealed the lost kingdom of Ebla, circa 2500 B.C., in what is now Syria. Clay tablets showed kings elected to 7-year-terms, after which they were forced into retirement – with a pension.
In his book, The Theft of History, anthropologist Jack Goody echoes Manglapus and decries the Myth of Democratic Origins as an invention of Eurocentric political powers anxious to represent the rest of the world as despotic and barbarian. “‘Primitive democracy’, often a feature of small-scale societies, is given no room for consideration” by the Western democratic mythologists, Goody said.
“Democracy is assumed to be a characteristic of the Greeks and opposed to the ‘despotism’ or ‘tyranny’ of their Asiatic neighbors. That supposition is invoked by our contemporary politicians as representing a long-standing characteristic of the west in contrast to ‘barbarian regimes’ in other parts of the world,” Goody wrote. He cites evidence for ancient democratic practices in Mesopotamia, India, China, and the Phoenecian colony of Carthage.
While focusing their study on a Greece much more ancient than the Myth of Democratic Origins contemplates as the birthplace of democracy, classicists and historians Kurt A. Raaflaub and Robert W. Wallace admit that “democratic institutions had a long prehistory, and their underlying mentalities and practices can be traced centuries earlier [than 5th or 4th Century Greece]. Popular assemblies, a measure of free speech, a strong sense of community, and mentalities including egalitarianism, personal independence, self-worth, and a refusal to be cowed by the rich, powerful, or wellborn are reflected already in the earliest literary documents from archaic Greece.”
Today, despite the popular myth, there is really little academic dispute about the early existence of these democratic practices. Democracy did not wait for the accepted Western idea of Reason to bring it forth. It was born much earlier, emerging from ancient moral communities, empathy-based, egalitarian social and political networks formed in resistance to authority.
By deconstructing the Myth of Democratic Origins we can begin to dislodge the privileged status of unemotional Reason in our political theory and practice. Empathy and emotion were central to the origin of democratic practices. This is no trivial matter. Contemporary American political practices are built around mistaken notions of rational self-interest, a notion carried forward by the narrative of the mistaken myth of origins. The mistake is reflected in the methodology of opinion research, in political messages designed to appeal to self-interest, and in a collective inattentiveness to the corruption that plagues voting practices. Statistical samples do not feel empathy. People feel empathy, and every person matters in a truly democratic community.
The myth is relevant at the macro-political level as well. It’s only a colossal arrogance, abetted by the myth, that would have us deceitfully crowing about bringing our wonderful invention, democracy, to Iraq, when it was in that very place that democratic practices arose thousands of years before there was something we would call the West.
As do most myths, The Myth of Democratic Origins contains some important truths. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution deserve their status as champions of democracy, and they were well aware of the tension between Reason and emotion. They, like their ancient forebears, saw that democracy was not a thing, but a process, a process it is up to us to enact. Though fearful of faction, the Framers knew that we could love our democratic country only through our affection for one another, affection often tested as we pray for the recognition of souls and try with love and Reason to find our way down an open road.
First published 04/06/08 at OpenLeft.