- Where did the idea of Democracy Come From?
Where did the idea of democracy come from? The idea that ordinary people should be entitled to a say in the decisions that affect their lives is one that has emerged as an aspiration in many different historical societies.
It achieved a classical institutional form in Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. From the early fifth century on-wards, when property qualifications for public office were removed, each Athenian citizen had an equal right to take part in person in discussion and
Votes in the assembly on the laws and policies of the community, and also to share in their administration through jury service and member-in their administration council, which were recruited in rotation by lot.
The example of this first working democracy has been a reference point and source of inspiration to democrats ever since.
The fact it coincided with a period of Athenian economic and naval supremacy, and with an enormous flourishing of creative arts and philosophical enquiry, put paid to the idea that giving ordinary people say in their affairs would produce either a society of drab uniformity or irresponsible government, as the critics of democracy have often asserted.
- Direct Democracy
Athenian democracy was both more and less democratic than the democracies we know today.
It was more democratic in that citizens took part in person in the main decisions of the society (‘direct democracy’), whereas today’s representative democracies are indirect, and citizens stand at least at one remove from the decisions-making processes of government and parliament.
For direct democracy to be possible requires a relatively small citizen body capable of being accommodated in a single place of assembly, and one with enough time free from others responsibilities to be able to grasp the evidence and arguments necessary to make an informed political decision.
Neither requirement for direct democracy is met by the citizen bodies of today, though there is a scope for their involvement in direct decision making at national level in elections and referenda, and for more continuous participation in decision –making at very local levels.
- Exclusive Citizenship
Athenian democracy was less democratic than democracies of today, however, in that citizenship was restricted to free-born males; it excluded women, slaves and resident foreigners these groups ensuring the continuity of the domestic and productive work necessary to enable the male citizens to engage in political activity. So the active participation of a direct democracy was only possible at all because the citizenship was restricted. The people certainly ruled, but they did so form a position of privilege.
- Modern Exclusivity
It is worth recalling that similar restrictions on citizenship existed in most Western parliamentary systems until well into the twentieth century. The principal made famous by the French Revolution that all political authority stems from the people was not intended to include all the people. Thus it is only in this century that women and property less males have been granted the suffrage in most Western countries; and even today not all adult residents of a country are entitled to vote in its elections, however much they may contribute to its economy.