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Guest Viewpoints

Democracy and the Modifiers of Modernity

February 23, 2023
By Dr. Polyvia Parara

In ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, the citizens did not use modifiers to define democracy. Democracy was a solid and clear concept. More specifically, democracy was “the rule of demos (citizenry),” that is to say, a constitution of self-governance. The “demos” at that time were the adult male Athenians who had a vote and constituted a political institution of governance. The vote in Athenian Democracy had a content different from that of modern states: it was a vote that ruled, legislated, and administered justice without representation.

Three foundational pillars describe Athenian democracy: isopoliteia, isegoria, and isonomia. “Isopoliteia” means equality to partake in governance, namely that every citizen could be elected and was elected to the political institutions of the city-state without even asking for it. Any citizen was eligible to serve as a judge/juror in the People’s courts, as a member of the Council of Five Hundred, and as other magistrates. Any citizen could be voted one of the Ten Generals (leaders and servants of the people). And most importantly, being a citizen makes an adult Athenian a member of the sovereign political institution of democracy: the Assembly of the People. This fundamental pillar of democracy, “isopoliteia,” which is the quintessence of the concept of democracy, has never existed in the Western world except in the ancient Greek world. The other two pillars, “isonomia,” equality before the law, and “isegoria,” equality and freedom of speech, appear in the liberal Western parliamentary republics of modernity in the form of individual rights. Yet, those stationed with social power and wealth have privileged access to these two pillars.

September 15th is the International Day of Democracy. Does the term “democracy” have solid and explicit content? Or rather, the multiple modifiers that precede the noun democracy morphed its content? I will begin my thought with a prominent and straight example of constitutional geography to demonstrate the plasticized use of the term “democracy” in the modern world. This usage results in conceptually trapping the citizens in political environments called democracies without having the political institutions corresponding to the content of the term democracy. In its original meaning, the word democracy substantiates the “governance by the citizenry,” a constitution that took place in historical time in the Greek world and according to which the “ demos,” the citizenry, exercised legislative, executive, and judicial power, and partake in almost all political institutions by random lot selection. That said, democracy, in its original meaning, is a concept that describes a self-governing state.

Having defined the concept, let’s examine which countries are named democracies with modifiers that deviate more or less from the original content of democracy. We will notice that the term democracy ranges from liberalism to the authoritarian phenomenon. Also, we will realize that some countries are not constitutionally named as democracies/republics, yet people perceive them as democracies. Also, we will observe the paradox that the latter, those whose constitutional name does not include the term “democracy/republic,” are almost identical to countries called democracies/republics and much more liberal than others called themselves “democracies/republics,” although they constitute totalitarian states.

To demonstrate to which extent the term has been stretched internationally, I am sampling countries named democracies. Yet, their constitutional name appears as a republic: Greece (Presidential Parliamentary Republic), Russia (Federal Semi-Presidential Republic), China ( One party Socialist Republic), United States of America (Federal Presidential Constitutional Republic), France (Semi-Presidential Republic), Korea (One-Party Socialist Republic), Turkey (Presidential Constitutional Republic), Egypt (Semi-Presidential Republic), Canada (Federal Parliamentary Constitutional Monarchy), Denmark (Parliamentary Constitutional Monarchy), Switzerland (Federal Parliamentary Semi-Direct Democracy), India (Federal Parliamentary Constitutional Republic), and so on. Also, I mention indicatively countries such as the United Kingdom (Constitutional Parliamentary Monarchy) and Luxembourg (Constitutional Duchy), which do not call themselves democracies/republics. Yet, they are considered democracies like the other European countries and the US. It has been shown that authoritarian governments also called themselves democracies/republics, implying they are democratic countries. The latter constitutes hubris since these totalitarian regimes refer to democracy while depriving their citizens of their liberties, oppressing them, imposing censorship, imprisoning, torturing, and executing their citizens.

It has been shown that the overuse or misuse of the term democracy on the international constitutional map creates confusion and obscures what this term substantiates since its use ranges from republics to totalitarian regimes. Moreover, the modifiers “illiberal,” “liberal,” “participatory,” “deliberative,” “direct,” and “indirect” democracy are often contradictory or redundant. First, the term democracy in the Greek world, the place of its birth, substantiates a complete concept that does not accept additional modifiers to describe it: it is the kratos of demos, that is, the governance by the citizenry constituted in a political institution, the demos. That said, let’s examine the various modifiers. Suppose it is an “illiberal” democracy. In that case, it is not a democracy because the concept of democracy includes the idea of holistic freedom for its citizenry (political, social, individual) and liberalism partakes in it. Therefore, “liberal democracy” is also redundant since, in a democracy, the citizenry enjoys individual freedom within the constitutional framework. If it is a democracy, the modifier “direct” is unnecessary because this term originally substantiates a self-instituted and self-governed state by its citizenry. The same applies to “participatory democracy” or “deliberative democracy”: the term democracy presupposes the participation of the citizenry by action and debate. Otherwise, it does not exist. As for the modifiers “indirect,” meaning that the citizenry does not govern itself, but instead the exercise of politics is deferred to other governmental bodies, then, in that case, democracy in its original meaning does not apply: the term republic substantiates the mixed constitution that combines monarchical, oligarchical and democratic features.

Compared to the original meaning of democracy, it is deduced that modern western societies constitute liberal parliamentary republics protecting individual freedoms and granting rights. They are governed by elected representatives, professional politicians that draw legitimacy by the popular vote. Yet, the citizenry remains limited in the private sphere, not constituting a governing body. The modern republics are headed by a president, a prime minister, a monarch, or a combination of both. Professor Georgios Contogeorgis, the former rector of the Panteion University of Political and Social Sciences in Athens, proposes a new constitution typology for modernity and redefines democracy for modernity. Pr. Contogeorgis classifies the liberal parliamentary republics of modernity as variations of “liberal elected monarchy.” According to his taxonomy, “representation” constitutes an upcoming evolutionary phase in which the citizenry constitutes a political governmental body that mandates policies to governmental bodies. The following phase of social biology is “democracy.” That said, according to his “cosmosystemic gnoseology,” democracy is a future goal in the historical becoming of modernity that offers humanity a horizon of optimism for more democratic institutions aiming at autonomy.

How could such a thing be done? I will draw an example from the Danish Hellenist Mogens Herman Hansen’s book, ‘The Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and Its Importance for Modern Democracy,’ Copenhagen, 2005. It proposes that liberal parliamentary states, such as his native Denmark, could grant an institutional role to the citizenry to practice politics. More specifically, he suggests creating a deliberative political institution by random selection among the citizenry, which will debate on all political matters by committees and consult the parliament. Such a direction would lead to more representative parliaments. It would reverse the citizens’ growing apathy for politics, their weakened if not nonexistent trust in the political order, and ultimately prevent an acute crisis of politics and the rise of the authoritarian phenomenon.

To sum up, the various modifiers that describe democracy in modernity plasticize and confuse the original meaning of democracy. This confusion disorientates citizens from their role to partake in politics and leaves them with weakness and disappointment. It is crucial to realize that democracy is not to be blamed, and it is the only constitution that substantiates the citizenry’s active political role since it relies on every citizen’s potential to contribute to the advancement of society. Clarifying the original concept of democracy is essential so that the modern citizen understands the idea of political individuality in a democratic society because he might aspire to it.

Dr. Polyvia Parara. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Polyvia Parara

Dr. Polyvia Parara teaches Classics and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Maryland College Park, [email protected].
This article first appeared in Kathimerini.

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