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Getting democracy into focus

About the author
John Dunn is professor of political theory at the University of Cambridge. His books include Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy ( Atlantic Books, 2005 )

The very potency of democracy as word and idea creates an impulse to extend it beyond plausible limits, and this is at the root of the flaws in Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton’s article. John Dunn, professor of political theory at the University of Cambridge, continues openDemocracy’s debate.

Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton’s article “Democracy and openDemocracy” raises many urgent issues and virtually all the political tastes they express and recommendations they offer are effortless to share. What is less compelling is their decision to lump all their approvals and disapprovals together and equate the result with democracy correctly understood. If there is a way to understand democracy correctly (quite an elusive idea in itself), that certainly can’t be it.

John Dunn is responding to the openDemocracy article by Anthony Barnett & Isabel Hilton, “Democracy and openDemocracy


Also in our debate on “Opening democracy”: Roger Scruton’s “Democracy or theocracy? A response to Barnett & Hilton


If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

Most writers who approach the subject today tend to think of democracy as a definite set of political institutions, which rest on a clear and compelling set of principles, and yield reliably encouraging practical consequences. None of these presumptions is well founded, and their combination is dangerously misleading.

“Democracy and openDemocracy” lists ten institutional and legal principles of democracy and four core values which lie behind them. Many of the principles have proved over time to conflict with each other quite painfully (entrenched property and economic rights, social justice and basic security, to name only two sets); others are hard to recognise as institutional or legal principles (such as “an ethos of dialogue, questioning, trust, and moral awareness”); and even the core values very readily clash in application.

Behind these flaws is a deeper problem of method. Democracy, in the speech of today, is too projective a category to clarify the relations between so many types of human good. At this late stage in its intensely political history as a word, it cannot provide a reliable basis on which to allocate political allegiance.

Unanswered questions

In my book Setting the People Free (a title intended to carry a degree of irony) I tried to show how recently democracy has won its lonely eminence as the sole credible secular basis across the world on which to claim the right to rule and be obeyed, and what an arbitrary and confusing route it has taken to do so. The role itself is genuinely global; and no other word in the history of human speech has ever occupied it. (Even regionally, the closest competitor has come from China rather than Rome.) The need it addresses is real enough, as Barnett & Hilton say very eloquently. But that does not mean that democracy carries within itself the resources to meet that need. Why not?

The deepest reason why it cannot goes back to democracy’s birth as a word, a set of ideas, and a political order. In Athens the citizens did not understand democracy as a basis on which any set of persons ruled, and therefore did not hear it as a basis on which anyone in particular could claim to be obeyed. Democracy was a regime in which, if anything ruled, it was the laws, and in which the citizens together chose how to interpret, extend or emend them.

Today, as Joseph Schumpeter crassly pointed out, the form of government we now associate with democracy means the rule of the politician. (On just how judges come into the picture, a key question as Barnett & Hilton stress, democracy as an idea has nothing to say.) But not even politicians see their role as a ground for obedience in itself, and they specialise in identifying and broadcasting one another’s unsuitability for obedience.

Even in Athens where the role of politician was far less sharply defined, the accusation that in practice democracy meant the rule of politicians was politically damaging. In modern states, where much obedience, both to politicians and to rules, is incessantly required, this accusation has proved over time very damaging indeed. The more values or political principles are conflated with democracy, the less compelling a basis it can hope to provide for answering the question why incumbent claimants to obedience are entitled to receive it. If it cannot answer that question, it cannot answer any questions at all.

John Dunn is professor of political theory at the University of Cambridge

Among his books are:


(as editor) Democracy: The Unfinished Journey, 508 BC to AD 1993 (Oxford University Press, 1994)

Locke: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003)

Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy (Atlantic Books, 2005)

There are many fundamental questions about politics which democracy as an idea has no capacity to answer. Who should be subject to, or reside in, which states? Who should own what, and on what terms? Which powers and responsibilities should fall to politicians, judges, public officials, and the residue of the population? When the perceived quest for security clashes with the liberties of individuals, which should give way to which?

There are equally important and fundamental questions about human life at any time to which democracy as an idea can suggest answers, but which prove to be pretty dismaying. What values (if any) should hold binding authority for human beings independently of how many of the community to which they belong consciously share them or feel them with any force? If democracy has an answer to that question, the answer, as Plato long ago pointed out, is none. If you don’t find that answer disturbing, you must either be very confident in the historical company you’re keeping or very feebly attached to your own values.

Troubled victory

Both the limits to democracy’s scope as a political idea, and the limits to its moral and practical plausibility, matter. The impulse to extend it beyond those limits comes from its political potency. The impulse to rescue its plausibility by diluting it with other ideas in sharp tension with it also testifies to that potency. Neither response clarifies political issues or steadies political judgment.

What has made democracy such a potent idea is not fully understood, not least because most people are so unfamiliar with the historical trajectory by which it won its power. The key prerequisite for seeing this is to distinguish sharply between the fortunes of a word and a loosely associated set of ideas, and the history of a form of state to which either the word or the set of ideas apply quite precariously.

For most of its history as a word or set of ideas, democracy clearly meant a political structure in which many, or even most, free, male adults, an indeterminate proportion of them quite poor, played an active part in taking political decisions. For most of this history, too, most reasonably informed commentators on politics assumed that this was a dangerously unstable way in which to organise the life of a community and determine its destiny.

When it re-entered politics in the modern era, largely by the back door in the shaping of the American republic, and more conspicuously and alarmingly in the turmoil of the French revolution, all the misgivings painstakingly laid out in the masterworks of ancient Greek political thinking were revived and intensified; but the political appeal of the associated ideas won a dramatically wider audience. Since 1794, to take an arbitrary date, both word and ideas have reached a very long way; but in doing so they have largely lost touch with the political, economic and social realities to which citizens and analysts now try to apply them.

The form of state that since 1989 – when the fall of the Berlin wall heralded the collapse of communism – has confidently assumed an exclusive title to embody democracy as both word and idea has also shown remarkable political potency over the last three quarters of a century. But its victory is very recent; and its meaning is still taken far too passively from the scale of the (richly deserved) defeat it inflicted on its adversaries.

In particular, there is no shared grasp of how much of that defeat came from a strictly economic superiority, how much from a political superiority which genuinely lay in the aspects of western Europe and the United States’s own political structures which are regarded as democratic, and how much from sheer luck.

This somewhat befuddled condition has not made people in western states any more pleased with their own political experience in the interim; and there is no reason to assume that it would have done so, even without the array of fresh political ills that have arrived since then (supposedly fundamentalist terror, ever more obviously well-advised ecological panic).

The ills themselves have nothing intrinsically to do with democracy (though, in defiance of the British prime minister, you can blame democracy for them if you think it an accurate name for the ways in which he and his government have ruled, since it beggars belief that those ways have played no causal role in generating the ills in question). What does have something intrinsically to do with the recent history of democracy as a word, a set of ideas and a form of government is the degree of befuddlement public discussion of them now so conspicuously evinces.

The claim of equality

Democracy as a word and set of ideas has contributed directly to that befuddlement in a number of respects. The clearest and most important has been the way in which it encourages us to think (and fail to think) about equality. Crudely speaking, the political appeal of democracy lies in its claim to realise political equality. (So, soberly speaking, does its potential political menace.)

At a textual level it is unlikely that political equality is any better secured in the constitution of the United States of America than it was in that of the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (or still is in that of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). All are probably textually clearer and more determinately located than they are in what passes for the constitution of the United Kingdom.

In practice, as everyone knows, matters were very different. But just how much of that difference is clearly attributable to democracy in any sense at all? In law, as I understand it, I am the political equal of the very great majority of British citizens, and the deviant cases don’t much matter (at least to me). But in fact, within the politics of the United Kingdom, I am far from being the political equal of the corporate media magnate Rupert Murdoch; and Rupert Murdoch is not (and as far as I know never has been) even a British citizen. Even Britain and America’s political parties are as open to the whimsical (or interested) generosity of the very rich as their football clubs or baseball teams.

The only serviceable remedy recently envisaged for this ignominious relation is a cartel of the more prominent political parties to tax the rest of the citizens for their joint convenience. There are good reasons for the evolution of the sort of state that citizens in Britain now belong to, and it has many evident benefits. But it neither clearly nor convincingly described by the category of democracy.

For over two thousand years, as a word and a set of ideas, democracy was thought to threaten economic inequality. The last three-quarters of a century have superannuated that judgment decisively. But they have done so not by clarifying democracy as an idea or realising it more concretely in institutional forms, but by superimposing upon it the requirements of an especially effective way of generating and reproducing economic inequality.

This can quite reasonably be seen as the victory of the best historically available option; and it has certainly brought a great many benefits of different kinds to immense numbers of human beings. But it has done a lot else too. Even if many of its concomitant effects are ignored, a very strong stomach is needed to see it as an outcome simply good in itself. Even then, it would require being terminally muddled to attribute the outcome to democracy as an idea.

Modern representative democracy has become, very recently, the canonical global form for legitimate rule as the sole defensible alternative to two versions of autocracy. The first is premodern and hard to adjust to the operating requirements of global capitalism, its plausibility constantly eroded by the latter’s impact on the daily lives of the population. The second is a version of socialism, the “wager on the weak”, which had a chequered career while it lasted but has now virtually vanished from the earth.

The one element clear right through representative democracy’s advance across the world has been the centrality of popular rejection of autocratic effrontery, often exhilarating at the time but in retrospect a transitory pleasure. The structure of modern representative democracy (the form of state now called by that name) does not provide a clear model for any community to rule itself in freedom, let alone in reliable serenity and prosperity. What it provides is a practical basis through which to refuse to be ruled unaccountably and indefinitely against your will.

Less steadily and on far less egalitarian terms, it also provides a framework through which to explore together what people should and should not attempt to do as a community. Virtually none of the elements of an answer to that question can come from democracy as an idea. Almost all have to be pieced together arduously from somewhere else.

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