Before Democracy

“Democracy” is a gospel word in our culture.  It’s sacred.  But, when we use it, what do we mean by it?  It comes to us, we know, via the Greco-Roman inheritance of “the West”: Demos (the people), Kratia (rule by).  That seems clear enough – rule by the people  – but do we have that?  If we dig a little more deeply into that inheritance, we find some seriously unsavoury things that taint the idea of democracy almost beyond bearing.  First, in that Athens of origination, only male propertied citizens had “the vote”.  This left out women, slaves and all the marginally free.  We might also note that, as Athens was developing the brilliant intellectual culture that could propound “democracy” (who was and wasn’t included in the “demos”), it had, simultaneously developed that military “advance”  – Hoplite units – and had used them to take over the productive land of its closest neighbours – and, not only the land, but the neighbours, themselves, who became serfs if not outright slaves (more probable, but it’s hard to say with certainty) and who thus obligingly created surplus wealth which underwrote the leisure for such philosophic delvings: so much for “democracy” as the guarantor of justice.  Those who resisted were criminalized and sent to the silver mines of Laurion (such a lovely word, forever marred), to endure unimaginable horror, blessedly cut short by the eighteen month life expectancy thereafter.  Since finding these things out (not in the history books of childhood – mustn’t sully the faith of innocents), I have found it increasingly difficult to feel any allegiance to that history, that heritage, or those institution.  From the beginning, “democracy” meant the rule of the few (voters) over the many disenfranchised enslaved.  We only thought it meant something different – but we were led to believe by vested interests.  Knowledge may yet set us free.

But there is more.  Even if one grants the innovation of voting, the idea of a majority “winning” over a minority of voters has its own problems.  Someone will come out of the vote disgruntled – and depending on how many, up to the edge of that majority, that could be a substantial number of people who have been excised from the governance of their world and their lives.  In our own system,  a minority government can mean that one party has more than any other but less than all the others combined – meaning that more voted against a government than for it – a peculiar situation for the idea of democracy, surely. More on this later – and its alternatives.

This already problematized word “democracy” has been further qualified by the development/dilution of the “representative” idea  – moving away from direct rule by the people (even those privileged few) to rule by/of even fewer – and trouble really begins to undermine a sacred relationship between persons and their environment: political, social, economic, cultural and ecological.  That single further step begins the process of fascism – it can not be otherwise, since, once that single vote has been balloted, the “winner” can make decisions according to his/her own dictates, possibly following the constituency “goals, interests and values” (as a Legal Defence Lawyer on Bioneers put it) – or, of following the dictates of his/her own conscience (sic)  – or, of following the dictates of pressure applied from other “goals, interests and values”, neither those of constituents nor of the “representative” him/herself, except in so far as there is some sort of “reward” for bending in a direction external to the constituency of election.   In this structure, a very few govern the very many – and if it was once, ever “on behalf of the people”,  it soon becomes a way of transferring wealth and power from them to a smaller and smaller coterie, who become progressively more and more able to control the realm for their own purposes and benefit.

A “party system” confounds things even further.  Particularly in our own times when, in order to curry votes in a consumer culture, the pitch to voters will reveal as little as possible of real issues, real solutions or real consequences and will, instead, focus on presentation in the form of sound and image manipulation: not new but with powerful new technologies to which we have been conditioned to respond in a kind of short circuited, distorted awareness.

You and I have heard it said that “democracy may not be perfect but it is the best system yet developed”.  Is it?  Before “democracy” there was a process called “consensus” – talking it out until everyone involved, every “stakeholder”, not only “had been heard” (a tepid inauthenticity) but had worked out a way to come to civic agreement for general governance.  No one was left out, no one was disenfranchised, no one was criminalized and a majority did not impose on a minority but neither did a minority impose on a majority.  We don’t hear much about “consensus”, so enthralled have we been taught to be about democracy, subverted as it has been made to be.  Consensus takes longer – perhaps very much longer but, in the end, what results is sustainable because nothing and no one has been violated – there is no grudge festering, no injustice suffering, no inequality growing – and subverting it is a whole lot more difficult.  It is this type of “democracy” – a true governing by the entire people – that the “Occupy” movements are trying to establish and sort out.  More power to them.

I wrote above that representative government is one step toward “fascism” and that it could not be otherwise.  In the forums I read and contribute to, some have objected that the word “fascism” is being over-used and incorrectly used.  For these critics, it must refer to the narrow specifics of the Nazi, Italian and Spanish regimes of the last century. The word itself comes from the bundle of rods that the Caesars (and even Roman generals)  held, like sceptres, to indicate their right to rule, often, as Caesar (all of them) said so often, “on behalf” of the Senate and People of Rome (over other people, over other cities, countries, nations, resources and cultures) – it has an imperious effect because it derives from imperial hegemony – and that hegemony is the essence of fascism (the “better”/superior  rule the “peasants”/inferior for the good of “all” – ostensibly for the good of the peasants themselves but patently not so, but for the continuing benefit of oligarchs instead).  We do not notice it until the empire we are in is conquered or threatened by another – and then the totalitarian requirement of every empire looms over us from an outside mirror – or,  unless our extreme subaltern status means that the empire we are in rests so heavily on our backs that we can not avoid noticing.  We are so used to following within that imperial zeitgeist that, when required to follow something new, we are momentarily disjointed – some will re-align quickly, some more slowly and some will stay “in resistance” – but what is hard to shake off is the following itself.   It was not always so.

As any student of cultural anthropology learns, one of the first lessons in governmental diversity comes from the ethnographies about hunter-gatherers/foragers – who, almost alone among human societies, abhor “following” leaders.  In this extensive literature of observation, they are famously noted for having developed social “leveling devices” that deliberately undermine every dynamic toward the accumulation of power in the execution of what might be called the “portfolios” of human organization.  The one who brings down game, (this is the classic text-book example), gets no praise for the achievement.  The arrow or spear is likely to “belong” to someone else, whose kill it will officially be and who may distribute the fruits of the kill according to his or her own obligations.  No leader of a hunt also heads a village, no leader of a village also heads the rituals of religious affirmation, there is no “office” to inherit and no inheritance of status to begin with  – one could, in a pinch,  go it alone, or one could seek other groups – one is not “legally” bound – except through the affective ties of kith and kin, strong to be sure they are, but they are not the legal serfdom of “advanced” civilizations.  Leadership among foragers, such as it usually is,  is very temporary, very specific, very ephemeral – very easily de-constructed  –  and continually challenged.

Then, at some unknown point in human history, for some unknown reason, a flip happened – a flip of astounding consequences, a flip of tragic potential.  Perhaps we will never know why – although the betting now is that is was some awful combination of increased population and ecological catastrophe (does this sound unsettlingly familiar?).  And, suddenly “Big Men” emerge – “leaders” to chieftains, chieftains to kings, kings to emperors, emperors to presidents (elected by the few, with the powers of empire but with the facts and the system disguised), – all those titles that – for some deep reason – “inspire” some men (and women) to surrender their own governance for a government by others and to take to following with a commitment deep enough to kill for and to die by.   “Loyalty” comes out of the data as the mysterious glue that transformed kin relations of small egalitarian bands into tribal configurations of allegiance that make organized war on other human communities – and begins the long march toward the coerced assimilation of land and peoples into ever larger conglomerates,  where government is farther and farther from the majority, from the masses, of persons governed.  People are conscripted into empire through legal, economic, physical and emotional force – and force is at the unlovely heart of all state polities.  Loyalty trumps personal sovereignty (perhaps, by now, we are even puzzled by the concept) and it even trumps community – but whatever kind of virtue loyalty is, it is one with a sharp double edge.

When I first began to think about these things, I planned out a book tentatively called “Troop, Herd, Hive: Metamorphosis in Human Identity”.  Many mammals have troop social orders, and most have at least mild alpha leadership, like, for example, wolves. Interestingly, primate troops have uneven developments of “alpha” leadership,  from strong (upland Baboons) to low (Savannah Baboons and Chimps).   From our own ethnographic record, foraging humans (in troop demographics) apparently over-road any biological determination toward alpha leadership in favour of leveling out both opportunity and results – “meritocracy”, then, was considered uncivil by hunter-gatherer standards – it undermined cooperative community cohesion, necessary for survival.  By the time we reached the population demographics of herds, however, we were followers of alpha leaders – we need only think of Homer’s Troy as an early example of “a thousand ships” – why would people (men? women?) follow orders and marshal themselves and their resources for war in a distant land, for spurious reasons?  By that time, it would seem, herd mentality had literally taken over.

My fear, at the time I was mapping out the book, was that our numbers were heading toward those of hives and that it was possible to see some metamorphosis (I will not say “development”) in that direction, at the social level, the cultural level and at the psychic level.   My daughter said, “Perhaps we need more research on hives, so at least we could choose what kind of hives we could live in” – good idea.   As I have stated elsewhere, I am not convinced that democracy can be practiced at the epidemiological level we are now at – but neither do I like empires of herds, much less of hives.  Like many in the environmental movement, I am convinced that they way forward must be found in the distant (not immediate) past – that we must go back to smaller scales to make democracy workable, so that “democracy” can mean consensus.  Perhaps, rather than “Before Democracy”, I ought to have said “Before Athens” – although, bless’em, the people of Athens are now fighting for the rights of the commons against the power of oligarchy.

Finally, recently my congregation raised the issue of democratic governance of the church, with a plea to “trust” our leaders.  We will, apparently, discuss this in a congregational conversation.  In conjunction with the experiments in consensus governance happening in “Occupy” spaces –  and an examination of the shortcomings of “traditional democracy” – this becomes an interesting meditation in spiritual politics.  What we are being urged to do seems almost reactive to the immediate past of the loyalty state,  a counter trend away from a new awareness of consensus toward that bastion of pseudo democracy, representative government:  the one that says, you are governed by another but in your own name; you should accept this gracefully, gratefully and respectfully.  This is not so very surprising in a church environment, even one whose heritage comes from the Radical Reformation rather than the Magisterial Reformation or from Catholic authority – but we no longer lead, we, too, think following is virtuous.

Through the lens of “Occupation theology”, though, the leading question is this: why ought we to “trust” leaders, to surrender government to anyone?  And, shouldn’t the idea of “trust” be reversed?  “Trust” is derived from “true”, “truth” – thus,  when leadership is true to its constituents, then trust would follow after, not follow before.   And perhaps we need to challenge the idea of leadership itself, even more than we have already done  –  since this invitation  suggests that “leadership” is still an important concept.  Although the invitation does put the question of leadership on the table, the form suggests that we still invest in it   –  and expect co-members to do so as well, indeed, enough to have offices through which leadership executes policy and perpetuates the institution itself.

Yet, this situation in my congregation offers an opportunity that might be applicable to the larger condition of our societies – now at a crossroads of so many dimensions.  One of those dimensions is the fundamentally urgent and critical question of how to return governing power to the governed when human demographics are hovering between herd and hive numbers (we may have already passed the 7 billion mark this week).   Is it possible to form networks of small consensus groups – as the Occupy Movement is trying to do?  For “the masses” to reform themselves into small enough units for consensus governance to be a real possibility? Can technology help inform, connect and sustain such consensus formations?

Could a congregation like ours turn from representative “democracy” to consensus democracy – and be part of that network of return, as part of the Great Turning, the Transition that  people all over the world are longing for and striving for? The congregation might be small enough to practice consensus governance directly (rather than majority governance and/or representative governance), especially with advances in technology.  Perhaps we, like the Occupy Movement, need to Occupy our worship space and practice consensus political spirituality – or at least give it a try.  I can’t think of a better space to rehearse democracy in its truest form, to hone our civic skills in a truer form – what a gift that would be.  These relationships of sovereign equals, engaged in the essential projects of community, were, after all, there in human societies and in human spirituality “Before Democracy”.  That urge for both sovereignty and community retains our truest humanity.


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