The Multidimensional Crisis and Inclusive Democracy, Takis Fotopoulos (2005)

Chapter 11:

The meaning of democracy


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What is democracy?


The conclusion drawn in the first part was that, assuming that the ultimate cause of the present multidimensional crisis is the institutional framework which reproduces the present concentration of power at all levels, the way out of this crisis should be in terms of a new institutional framework securing an equal distribution of power, i.e. democracy. But, what is democracy? Everybody talks about democracy today but, in fact, few words, apart perhaps from socialism, have been so widely abused during the twentieth century as the word “democracy”. It is therefore important, before we discuss the proposal for a new liberatory project in terms of an inclusive democracy, to examine the meaning of democracy itself.


The usual way in which the meaning of democracy has been distorted, mostly by liberal academics and politicians but also by libertarian theoreticians, is by confusing the presently dominant oligarchic system of representative “democracy” with democracy itself. Thus, a modern textbook on the topic states that “the word democracy comes from the Greek and literally means rule by the people.[1] So, the author, having asserted that democracy is a kind of “rule” (an error repeated even by some libertarians today), goes on to argue that if ruling is taken to mean the activity of reaching authoritative decisions that result in laws and regulations binding upon society, then it is obvious that (apart from occasional referendums) only a small minority of individuals can be rulers in modern, populous societies. So, for the definition to be operational, ruling must be taken in the much weaker sense of choosing the rulers and influencing their decisions.[2]


However, as I will try to show below, the modern concept of democracy has hardly any relation to the classical Greek conception. Furthermore, the current practice of adding several qualifying adjectives to the term democracy has further confused the meaning of it and created the impression that several forms of democracy exist. Thus, liberals refer to “modern”, “liberal”, “representative”, or “parliamentary” democracy, social democrats talk about “social”, “economic” or “industrial” democracy, and, finally, Leninists used to speak about “soviet” democracy, and, later, “people’s democracies” to describe the countries of “actually existing socialism”.


Still, as this chapter will attempt to show, there is only one form of democracy at the political level, that is, the direct exercise of sovereignty by the people themselves, a form of societal institution which rejects any form of “ruling” and institutionalises the equal sharing of political power among all citizens. Two important implications follow from this thesis:


First, that all other forms of so-called democracy (“representative”, “parliamentary” etc.) are merely various forms of “oligarchy”, that is, rule by the few and that the only adjectives that are permissible to precede democracy are those which are used to extend the classical meaning of it to take into account democracy at the economic, or broader social domains. This is why in this book, to denote the extension of the classical conception of democracy to the social, economic and ecological realms, the adjective “inclusive” precedes the word democracy.


Second, that the arguments advanced by the “civil societarian” “Left” in favour of “deepening” democracy are nonsensical since they implicitly assume that the  present representative “democracy” is a democracy and the difference with classical democracy is just quantitative, whereas, in fact,  liberal “democracy” is not a democracy at all but what Castoriadis aptly called a “liberal oligarchy.”[3] In other words, civil societarians confuse the present “statist” democracy in which polity is separate from society with the classical conception of democracy in which polity was identified with the citizens.


But let us examine in more detail the historical conceptions of democracy starting with the classical Athenian conception.


The Athenian conception of democracy


It is well known that the Athenian democracy was a partial one in the sense that power relations and structures did not disappear in the Polis, not only at the economic level where inequities were obvious, but even at the political level where the hierarchical structure of society was clear with the exclusion of women, immigrants and slaves from the proceedings of the ecclesia. Still, as Hannah Arendt[4] points out, the Athenian democracy was the first historical example of the identification of the sovereign with those exercising sovereignty:

[T]he whole concept of rule and being ruled, of government and power in the sense in which we understand them, as well as the regulated order attending them, was felt to be prepolitical and to belong to the private rather than the public sphere. (...) equality therefore far from being connected with justice, as in modern times, was the very essence of freedom: to be free meant to be free from the inequality present in rulership and to move to a sphere where neither rule nor being ruled existed.

So, it is obvious that libertarian definitions of politics as “the rule of one, many, a few, or all over all” and of democracy as “the rule of all over all”[5] are incompatible with the classical conceptions of both politics and democracy. It is, however, characteristic of the distortion involved that when libertarians attack democracy as a kind of “rule” they usually confuse direct democracy with its statist distortion. This is not surprising, in view of the fact that it is obviously impossible to talk about a “rule” in a form of social organisation where nobody is forced to be bound by laws and institutions, in the formation of which s/he does not, directly, take part.[6] Thus, as April Carter points out “the only authority that can exist in a direct democracy is the collective «authority» vested in the body politic. (...) it is doubtful if authority can be created by a group of equals who reach decisions by a process of mutual persuasion”. Not surprisingly, the same author concludes that “commitment to direct democracy or anarchy in the socio-political sphere is incompatible with political authority”.[7]


Therefore, the Greeks, having realised that “there always is and there always will be an explicit power, (that is, unless a society were to succeed in transforming its subjects into automata that had completely internalised the instituted order),”[8] concluded that “no citizen should be subjected to power and if this was not possible that power should be shared equally among citizens.”[9] So, although  the Athenian democracy was a partial democracy, this was not due to the political institutions themselves but to the very narrow definition of full citizenship adopted by them ―a definition which excluded large sections of the population (women, slaves, immigrants) who, in fact, constituted the vast majority of the people living in Athens. Unlike today’s “democracies”, which (after long struggles), institutionalised universal suffrage but at the same time secured the concentration of political power at the hands of a small political elite, as we saw in ch1, Athenian democracy was based on the principle that sovereignty is exercised directly by the citizens themselves. This is why classical Athens may hardly be characterised as a state in the normal sense of the word, as a state presupposes a sovereign and a centralised authority. As Castoriadis put it, “the Polis is not a «State» since in it explicit power ―the positing of nomos (legislation), dike (jurisdiction) and telos (government)― belongs to the whole body of citizens”.[10]


Still, Athenian democracy had a partial character not only because of the limitations of political democracy but also because of the fact that it was restricted to the political realm only. In fact, as I argued in TID, it was exactly the very limited nature of Athenian economic democracy[11] which, in combination with the limitations of political democracy, eventually led to its collapse. In other words, the final failure of Athenian democracy was not due, as it is usually asserted by its critics, to the innate contradictions of democracy itself but, on the contrary, to the fact that it never matured to become an inclusive democracy. Furthermore, this failure cannot be adequately explained by simply referring to the immature “objective” conditions, the low development of productive forces and so on ―important as may be― because the same objective conditions prevailed at that time in many other places all over the Mediterranean, let alone the rest of Greece, but democracy flourished only in Athens. Vice versa, the much lower development of productive forces did not prevent higher forms of economic democracy than in Athens to develop among aboriginal American communities where economic resources were available to everyone in the community for use and “things were available to individuals and families of a community because they were needed, not because they were owned or created by the labour of a possessor”.[12]


The Liberal Conception of Democracy


The liberal conception of democracy is based on the negative conception of freedom[13] and a corresponding conception of human rights. In other words, on a conception of freedom as the absence of restraint (“freedom from”) rather than on a positive conception as the ability to engage in self-development or participate in the government of one’s society (“freedom to”). This liberal conception is adopted not just by liberals but also by, individualistic anarchists and libertarians, whereas the positive conception has always been adopted by communists and anarcho-communists.


From the negative conception of freedom and a world-view which sees human nature as atomistic and human beings as rational agents whose existence and interests are ontologically prior to society follow a number of principles about the constitution of society: political egalitarianism, freedom of citizens ―as competitors― to realise their capabilities at the economic level and separation of the private realm of freedom from the public realm. These principles imply, in turn, a regime where the state is separate from the economy and the market. In fact, liberal philosophers not only took for granted the separation of the state apparatus from society but saw democracy as a way of bridging the gap between state and society. The bridging role was supposed to be played by representative “democracy”, a system whereby the plurality of political parties would provide an adequate forum for competing interests and systems of values. No wonder therefore that none of the founders of classical liberalism was an advocate of democracy in the sense of direct democracy, let alone inclusive democracy. 


In representative “democracy”, as Hannah Arendt stressed, the age-old distinction between ruler and ruled asserts itself again since “once more, the people are not admitted to the public realm, once more the business of government becomes the privilege of the few”.[14] In this light, one may be led to a different understanding of the motives behind the liberal adoption of representative “democracy”. Thus, instead of considering representative democracy as a bridge between state and society we may see it as a form of statist “democracy”, whose main aim is the exclusion of the vast majority of the population from political power, as John Dunn[15] pointed out:

It is important to recognise that the modern state was constructed, painstakingly and purposefully, above all by Jean Bodin and Thomas Hobbes, for the express purpose of denying that any given population, any people, had either the capacity or the right to act together for themselves, either independently of, or against their sovereign. The central point of the concept was to deny the very possibility that any demos (let alone one on the demographic scale of a European territorial monarchy) could be a genuine political agent, could act at all, let alone act with sufficiently continuous identity and practical coherence for it to be able to rule itself (…) the idea of the modern state was invented precisely to repudiate the possible coherence of democratic claims to rule, or even take genuinely political action (…) representative democracy is democracy made safe for the modern state.

As regards the historical evolution of (liberal) representative “democracy” one has to notice that although society was separated from the economy about two centuries ago , when, within the marketization process, most social controls over the market were abolished and a process of concentrating economic power was set in motion, still, the separation process had begun earlier, in sixteenth-century Europe. At the political level, the emergence of the nation-state, at about the same time and place, initiated a parallel process of concentrating political power, initially in the form of highly centralised monarchies and later in the form of liberal “democracies”. From then on, as Bookchin points out, “the word «state» came to mean a professional civil authority with the powers to govern a «body politic».”[16]


It was also during the same sixteenth century that the idea of representation entered the political lexicon, although the sovereignty of Parliament was not established until the seventeenth century. Thus, in the same way that the king had once “represented” society as a whole, it was now the turn of Parliament to play this role, although sovereignty itself was still supposed to belong to the people as a whole. In fact, the doctrine that prevailed in Europe since the French revolution was not just that the French people were sovereign and that their views were represented in the National Assembly, but that the French nation was sovereign and the National Assembly embodied the will of the nation. As Anthony Birch[17] stresses:

this was a turning point in continental European ideas since, before this, the political representative had been viewed in the continent as a delegate. According to the new theory promulgated by the French revolutionaries (...) the elected representative is viewed as an independent maker of national laws and policies, not as an agent for his constituents or for sectional interests.

In fact, one may say that the form of liberal “democracy” that has dominated the West in the last two centuries is not even a representative “democracy” but a representative government, that is a government of the people by their representatives, as Bhikhu Parekh[18] rightly points out:

Representatives were to be elected by the people, but once elected they were to remain free to manage public affairs as they saw fit. This highly effective way of insulating the government against the full impact of universal franchise lies at the heart of liberal democracy. Strictly speaking liberal democracy is not representative democracy but representative government.

The Marxist-Leninist conception of democracy


It could be argued that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, this is also a statist conception of democracy. This is because; in this conception, democracy is not differentiated from the state for the entire historical period which separates capitalism from communism, that is, for the entire period that is called the “realm of necessity” when scarcity leads to class antagonisms which make inevitable class dictatorships of one kind or another. In Marx’s view, socialism will simply replace the dictatorship of one class, the bourgeoisie, by that of another, the proletariat.[19] Lenin was even more explicit:

Democracy is also a state and consequently democracy will also disappear when the state disappears. Revolution alone can “abolish” the bourgeois state. The state in general, i.e. the most complete democracy, can only “wither away[20] (…) there will then be no need for society to regulate the quantity of products to be received by each; each will take freely according to his needs.[21]

It is therefore obvious that in this worldview, a non-statist conception of democracy is inconceivable, both at the transitional stage leading to communism and at the higher phase of communist society: in the former, because the realm of necessity makes necessary a statist form of democracy where political and economic power is not shared among all citizens but only among members of the proletariat; in the latter, because when we reach the realm of freedom, no form of democracy at all is necessary, since no significant decisions will have to be made! Thus, at the economic level, scarcity and the division of labour will by then have disappeared and there will therefore be no need for any significant economic decisions to be taken about the allocation of resources. Also, at the political level, the administration of things will have replaced the administration of people and there will therefore be no need for any significant political decisions to be taken either.


However, the Marxist abolition of scarcity depends on an objective definition of “needs”, which is neither feasible, nor ―from the democratic point of view― desirable. It is not feasible because, even if basic needs can be assumed to be finite and independent of time and place, we cannot make the same assumption about their satisfiers (i.e., the form or the means by which these needs are satisfied), and even more so about non-basic needs. It is not desirable because, in a democratic society, an essential element of freedom is choice as regards the ways in which needs are formed and satisfied.


Therefore, the communist stage of post-scarcity is in fact a mythical state of affairs, since it is obvious that the level of development of productive forces that is required, so that material abundance for the entire population on Earth can be achieved, makes it at least doubtful that such a stage could ever be achieved without serious repercussions to the environment. Unless, of course, “needs” and “material abundance” are defined democratically (and not “objectively”) in a way which is consistent with ecological balance ―a process that presupposes an economic democracy.


Within the problematique of the democracy project, therefore, the link between post-scarcity and freedom should be broken. The abolition of scarcity, and consequently of the division of labour, is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for democracy. The ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom should be de-linked from the economic process. Still, from Aristotle, through Locke and Marx, to Arendt and Bookchin, the distinction between the “realm of necessity” (where nature belongs) and the “realm of freedom” always has been considered to be fundamental. However, although this distinction may be useful as a conceptual tool in classifying human activities, there is no reason why the two realms must be seen as mutually exclusive in social reality. Historically, there have been several occasions when various degrees of freedom survived under conditions that could be characterised as belonging to the “realm of necessity”. Furthermore, once we cease treating the two realms as mutually exclusive, there is no justification for any attempt to dominate Nature ―an important element of Marxist growth ideology― in order to enter the realm of freedom.


In conclusion, there are no material preconditions of freedom. The entrance to the realm of freedom does not depend on any “objective” factors, like the arrival of the mythical state of affairs of material abundance. So, neither capitalism nor communism constitute historical preconditions to enter the realm of freedom.


The conceptions of “radical” democracy


In the last ten years or so, and particularly after the collapse of “actually existing socialism”, several versions of what is usually termed “radical” democracy have flourished among socialist statists (post-Marxists, neo-Marxists ex-Marxists et al). The common characteristic of all these approaches[22] to “radical” democracy is that they all take for granted the present institutional framework, as defined by the market economy and liberal democracy, and suggest various combinations of the market with forms of social ownership of the means of production, as well as the “democratisation” of the state.


The Habermasian school, for instance, promotes a “proceduralist” model of democracy, which not only sees democracy as a set of procedures rather than as a regime, as Castoriadis[23] rightly points out, but it is also utterly irrelevant to the present trends of the market economy and the bureaucratisation of today’s “politics”. Thus, Habermas ignores the fact that the present internationalised market economy can easily marginalize any “autonomous” from the market public spheres (co-ops etc.) ―unless such spheres are part of a comprehensive political program aiming at a new form of society. Equally ignored by him is the fact that, even at the political level, the possibility of autonomous from the state public spheres is effectively undermined by the marketisation process (deregulation of markets, etc.), which enhances not the “civil society” but, instead, the elites in effective control of the means of production.  Similar arguments could be advanced against the various versions of “red-green” democracy proposed by the Marxist ecological left.[24]


Others talk about a process of democracy rather than a set of procedures. Thus, Chantal Mouffe’s version of “radical” democracy is differentiated from that of the Habermasians by postulating that a final realisation of democracy is impossible, because of “the unresolvable tension between the principles of equality and liberty”.[25] The author sees “radical” democracy as the only alternative today and explicitly states that “such a perspective does not imply the rejection of liberal democracy and its replacement by a completely new political form of society, as the traditional idea of revolution entailed, but a radicalisation of the modern democratic tradition.”[26] Clearly, Mouffe’s “radical” democracy is based on the assumption of separation of political from economic liberalism (i.e. of representative “democracy”) from the market economy. But, the fact that political and economic liberalism have always been inseparable is not a historical accident. The marketisation of the economy, i.e. the minimisation of social controls on the market in the last two centuries, was based on the ideal of a “free” (from state controls and restrictions) individual. So, Mouffe’s version of “radical” democracy is grounded on a negative conception of freedom and an individualistic conception of autonomy, which is assumed separate from collective autonomy. Finally, the author derives a typical postmodernist (and conformist) conclusion: as the identities of citizen and individual can never be reconciled, since they correspond to the tension between liberty and equality, the project for democracy will never be completed. So, for Mouffe’s “radical” mind, the tension between liberty and equality has nothing to do with the unequal distribution of political, economic and social power and it is therefore pointless to think about a liberatory project that could create the necessary institutional conditions for eliminating this tension!


Similar arguments could be put forward about the essentially a-historical character of David Miller’s “deliberative democracy”,[27] which presupposes a degree of statism that is no longer possible in the present internationalised market economy, or Paul Hirst’s model of “associational” or “associative” democracy,[28] which does not aim at a radical transformation of society at all, or, finally David Held’s “cosmopolitan model of democracy”,[29] which attempted to internationalise the utopian (because of its hopelessly “closed” character) civil societarian approach, making it in the process even more utopian!



[1] Anthony H. Birch, The Concepts and Theories of Modern Democracy (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 45.

[2] Ibid., p. 48. 

[3] Castoriades, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 221.

[4] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), pp. 32-33.

[5] William McKercher, “Liberalism as Democracy,” Demoracy & Nature, Vol. 3, No. 2 (1996)

[6] April Carter, Authority and Democracy (London: Routledge, 1979), p. 380.

[7] Ibid., p. 69.

[8] Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 156.

[9] Aristotle, Politics, Book VI, 1317b.

[10] Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy, p. 157.  Bookchin also agrees that, “the «state», as we know it in modern times, could hardly be said to exist among the Greeks” M. Bookchin, From Urbanisation to Cities, p. 43.

[11] As I argued in TID the evolution of political democracy in Athens was associated with a parallel process of expanding economic democracy only in the narrow sense of reducing income inequalities, Fotopoulos TID, Ch. 5.

[12] Murray Bookchin, Remaking Society, p. 50.

[13] See Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty” in Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969).

[14] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (London: Penguin, 1990), pp. 237-38.

[15] Dunn, Democracy, the Unfinished Journey, pp. 247-48.

[16] Murray Bookchin, From Urbanization to Cities, p. 43.

[17] Birch, The Concepts and Theories of Modern Democracy, p. 58.

[18] Bhikhu Parekh, “The Cultural Particularity of Liberal Democracy” in Prospects for Democracy, ed by David Held (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993), p. 172.

[19] Thus, for Marx, the state in the transition period ‘can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat, Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1937), p. 25.

[20] V. I. Lenin, The State and Revolution (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1917), pp. 31-32.

[21] Ibid., p. 165.

[22] See for a detailed assessment of the radical democracy approaches, TID, Ch. 5.

[23] Cornelius Castoriadis, “La democratie  comme procedure et comme regime” in La Montee de l’ insignificance, Les Carrefours du Labyrinthe IV (Paris: Seuil, 1996), pp. 221-241 [reprinted in Democracy & Nature, (greek edition) No. 1 (1996)].

[24] See e.g. James O’Connor, “Democracy and Ecology,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Dec. 1993) and John Dryzek, “Ecology and Discursive Democracy,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, Vol. 3, No. 2 (June 1992), p. 37.

[25] Chantal Mouffe, “Democratic Politics Today” in Dimensions of Radical Democracy, p. 13.

[26] Ibid., p. 1.

[27] See David Miller, “Deliberative Democracy and Social Choice” in Held’s Prospects for Democracy; see also D. Miller, Market, State and Community: Theoretical Foundations of Market Socialism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989).

[28] Paul Hirst, “Associational Democracy” in Prospects for Democracy, pp.112-35. See also, Paul Hirst, Associative Democracy: New Forms of Economic and Social Governance (Amberst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994).

[29] David Held, “Democracy: From City-States to a Cosmopolitan Order?” in Prospects for Democracy, pp. 13-52 and, also, his Democracy and the Global Order (Cambridge, Polity, 1995).


























































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