A never ending story?
On the need of representative democracy to adapt to social change “Democracy is the worst form of government”, yet, the only one without any credible alternative as Winston Churchill once asserted (Wikiquote, 2010). Despite its shortcomings democracy and representative democracy in particular, is still regarded as the most favorable system to organize society in the Western world that is. It has a long and rich history, beginning in ancient Greece. With the development of mass industrial society in the early 19th century, democracy has had to adapt to increasingly social conditions. It is in this period that representative democracy actually came emerged.
This essay will look deeper into the rise of representative democracy, as well as factors which contributed to its success. It will first give a brief outline of direct democracy as it was perceived in ancient Greece, because this form of government organization could be seen as the root of contemporary representative democracy. The arguments of ancient philosopher Pericles, who was in favor of direct democracy, afford much substance on the subject matter.
The rise of mass industrial society pushed Pericles arguments to its limits, however. In a context of complexifying social relations his arguments, prove rather impracticable, even dangerous, when applied to the mass industrial society without modification. The main section considers key thinkers on the matter of representative democracy, and attempts to evaluate solutions they put forward to ease the relations between industrial society and governance.
From Pericles and his thoughts on democracy the essay moves on to consider the teachings of Niccolo Machiavelli, and their continuing influence on leadership in general and the style of Tony Blair in particular.
Another key thinker on the matter, who deserves to be mentioned, is James Madison. He was president of the United States from 1809-1817 and highly skeptical of direct democracy. Madison‟s concern very much lay with the rights of minorities and the threat of a „Tyranny of the Majority‟. Madison‟s woes connect strongly with the case of the minaret ban in 2010 in Switzerland and thus his ideas remain to be relevant into the 21st century.
In the third section this paper jumps to contemporary times and the information age. It will look at representative democracy in times of intensified flows across territories, and how it could deliver to the demands of the information society, i.e. adapt to social change once more. Implicit in this analysis is the objection that a tremendous transition is taking place, which reconfigures and frames social relations in decisive ways.
The works of Manuel Castells, who argues that representative democracy is in retreat, and David Held, who gives recommendations of how democracy itself should be re-designed to ensure its future survival, is highly relevant at this point.
The concluding section will summarize key points and arguments and thereby reinforce the notion of representative democracy as a living and enduring political idea. Lively debate and resulting institutionalization have enabled it to survive throughout centuries, and only if it is able to re-adapt again it will retain its relevance and legitimacy in a globalized future.
Exclusion through inclusion: Pericles and democracy in the Athenian polis As the introductory section outlined, representative, or indirect, democracy developed with the rise of mass industrial society. In order to able to analyze the contemporary significance of representative democracy as a political idea, it is firstly necessary to take a closer look at its sibling direct democracy, which essentially was born in ancient Greece. One of the most enthusiastic advocates of direct democracy was the Athenian politician Pericles. He not merely encouraged active political participation of the Athenian citizenry, but saw public political participation as a duty. He asserted that a man who is not interested in politics “has no business here at all” (Pericles in Thucydides, 1972 [fifth century BC], p. 147). A lively debate amongst the citizenry of the Athenian polis - the Greek city-state - would have to precede any legitimate political decision. Tolerance and respect for the law are the pillars upon which such a political culture is build (Pericles in Thucydides, 1972 [fifth century BC], p. 145). As one of the first systems of government that fostered direct participation, Pericles‟ account of democracy has its shortcomings. For Pericles only Athenian male citizens were considered as eligible for political participation and to have a valid voice in public debate. Women, as well as slaves and foreigners had no right to present their view of how politics should be conducted in the Athenian polis. Pericles was not aware of the oxymoronic structure in his proposal. By promoting extended inclusivity (of citizens) he gave rise to extended exclusivity (of non-citizens) at the same time.
More power for some does not necessarily translate into rising levels of democracy at large. This string of political participation promotes class politics and group domination or submission, respectively. The unequal distribution of power and access to the decision-making process never really lost relevance. The section on James Madison in the fourth paragraph is going to penetrate the matter more deeply. The main shortcomings of Periclean direct democracy, however, are exposed by the size and complexity of industrial mass society. Modern society is without historical precedent when it comes to complexity of social relations brought on by accelerated population growth. It is obvious that the population of the Athenian polis of 315,500 in 431 BC (around Pericles‟ time) (Charles Sturt University, accessed 2011) is no match to the 40 million people in the United Kingdom alone in 1901 (London Metropolitan University, accessed 2011). It follows that mass society is by far more plural and challenging to govern than the relatively small population of ancient Athens (The Open University, 2008).
The turbulent times of heavy industrialization were crying out for a new system of governance. Representative democracy seems to echo the demands of that outcry. Perpetual unrest and struggle can only be prevented when justice is induced through widened opportunities of participation for mass society citizens. The next sections will give an overview of the development of representative democracy, and critically discuss the ways it is being kept alive.
Democracy and the rise of mass politics during industrialization The development of representative democracy is closely connected with the rise of industrialization at the end of the 19th century.