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The evolution of Western democracy

Published on 30 August 2013
Updated on 30 January 2024

David Graeber is a favourite anthropologist of mine. He writes clearly and cleverly. And his insights are often arresting, even when (or precisely because) he does fieldwork in contemporary society. He offers an engaging interpretation of direct action in North America, which is both humorous and thought-provoking (see ‘On the Phenomenology of Giant Puppets: Broken Windows, Imaginary Jars of Urine, and the Cosmological Role of the Police in American Culture’ in the essay collection Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire by David Graeber).

Another essay from this collection examines the evolution of ‘democracy’ in Western culture (see ‘There Never Was a West Or, Democracy Emerges From the Spaces In Between’). Graeber, a committed anarchist and postmodernist, dismisses the idea that philosophical concepts are passed down in a linear ‘chain of intellectual being’. He argues that valuable ideas are often rediscovered or resurrected from overlooked or neglected bodies of knowledge, reshaped in modern discussions. Frequently, only the terminology survives. This concept aligns with Eric Hobsbawm’s ‘invention of tradition’ (see The Invention of Tradition), which explains how new practices are portrayed as ancient traditions, similar to the Scottish kilt’s 19th-century promotion as a longstanding national custom, despite its relatively recent inception.

Three Highlanders in uniform stand together (left); Barrington of Durham, kneeling on one knee, measures with a foot-rule the length of the kilt of the most prominent.
Three Highlanders in uniform stand together (left); Barrington of Durham, kneeling on one knee, measures with a foot-rule the length of the kilt of the most prominent (Wikimedia).

Graeber contends that the 17th-century formation of the Atlantic System destroyed numerous societies in America and West Africa through colonisation and the slave trade. Migration led small communities to new lands, where groups like pirates, escaped slaves, colonists, and adventurers experimented with forms of self-governance. Pirates, for instance, operated with vertical organisation in battle but adopted horizontal self-management in their havens. From these diverse experiments, the notion of democracy as self-rule was born: ‘They inhabited spaces of democratic improvisation, in which a jumbled amalgam of people, most of which with at least some initial experience of methods of communal self-governance, find themselves in new communities, outside the immediate supervision of the state.’

The practice of democratic improvisation, or experimenting with forms of self-governance, expanded beyond its initial communities. More and more colonists tasted the savour of democracy. Resistance, then rebellion against the mother-country state, ensued. Revolution was successful. The rebellions against the mother countries were successful, leading to the formation of new states. However, these new states were formed as republics, not pure democracies. They were designed with systems of checks and balances, intending to prevent what was seen as the dangers of direct democracy or ‘rule of the mob’, which was believed to have contributed to the downfall of ancient Athens.

I like this process, for it fits with the evolutionary experience of biology. Speciation tends to occur in small populations which, by chance, were separated from the main body. The chances of favourable mutations spreading in a small group and establishing themselves are greater than in a large population, which tends to be stable and revert to the mean. Genetic drift certainly plays a role (its role is sorely underestimated).

I also like the view that real-world experience drives institutional and intellectual change, similar to how natural selection works through trial-and-error. Only social behaviours that have proven themselves in preserving groups (and, I’d say, in fostering self-domestication) survive. There is a subtle irony in all this: Western expansion destroyed traditional societies of the Atlantic Rim, but from this destruction, new forms of government emerged that eventually challenged the Western system. This is akin to saying that the meteorite destroying the dinosaurs allowed mammals to emerge from their rat holes.

Pirate Boarding by Andrey Serebryakov (Jose Art Gallery).
Pirate Boarding by Andrey Serebryakov (Jose Art Gallery).

Graeber concludes: ‘These authors are searching for the origins of democracy precisely where they are least likely to find it: in the proclamations on the states that largely suppressed local forms of self-governance and collective deliberation, and the literary-philosophical tradition that justified their doing so.’ He may have a point.

Could we further contend that the state—characterised by Graeber as a system of organised violence—functions as a Bernard machine, inherently inclined to self-replication? Bernard machines, as I’ve described in my piece ‘Of alpha-bullies, free-riders, and Bernard machines’, are homeostatic systems. Termite mounds serve as exemplary illustrations, sustaining numerous generations of termites within a meticulously regulated habitat. Termites maintain this system by consistently adhering to straightforward physical principles that align with the system’s requirements. Similarly, one might propose that, once established, a state could autonomously reproduce and sustain itself with minimal intervention, such as policing. However, this assumption may not prove accurate. In considering the anti-globalisation movement and now Occupy Wall Street, Graeber observes that ‘the directive action approach proved so successful that short-term objectives were achieved almost instantaneously’. He is accurate in this assessment. The ‘Washington consensus’ has been fundamentally altered, and the issue of social inequality now firmly occupies the centre of contemporary political debate. Behavioural economics is gradually displacing rational expectation economics. The Gini coefficient is at the forefront of many politicians’ minds as they recognise the necessity to engage with it.

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators stage a protest near Wall Street in New York City on October 5, 2011. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images
Occupy Wall Street demonstrators stage a protest near Wall Street in New York City on October 5, 2011. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images

I propose two ideas: the unyielding nature of cultural innovation and the foundational role of self-domestication in society. Regarding the first, no tyrannical system endures indefinitely: as authority is structured hierarchically and passed down to lower social tiers, individuals adapt what they receive to their own ends. Eventually, this grassroots level undermines the elite’s objectives. We do more than just endure or react; we innovate, and through this innovation, society adopts new methods. The concept of self-domestication, established when humans evolved into social and political beings hundreds of thousands of years ago, continues to underpin society. Consider the termite queen, an absolute ruler unaware of her workers’ integral role in the colony. Yet, even the most tyrannical leaders are aware of their societal role. This is exemplified by figures like Stalin, who, despite their paranoia, envisioned leading their people towards a utopian future.

I used the term ‘conjecture’. Why so? The ideas presented, like those by Graeber, are plausible but not necessarily causally proven. But once one moves away from verifiable causal links, over-determination accrues. Historians like Graeber look for indications of unrecorded social processes in historical events, but it’s often unclear whether these are meaningful or coincidental. For example, the Boston Tea Party participants dressing as Indians could be symbolic or just a random choice. Graeber’s historian friends find it significant. Who knows? Out of such threads one can create many weaving patterns. And let’s face it: plausibility has ‘self-serving’ written all over it. We introspect: what is ‘plausible’ is validated by our personal experience (we yell: ‘it makes sense’ in a parody of Archimedes’ ‘eureka).

Marx spoke of the ‘bourgeois class’. He made it the centrepiece of his analysis. Ever the punctilious and meticulous selves, after WWII, French Marxist historians looked for archival evidence of an emerging bourgeois class but were largely disappointed (see The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History by Robert Darnton). The French Annals School posits that society is primarily influenced by enduring forces, not by specific historical events such as royal reigns or battles. This view aligns with my own, as I also question the significance of historical figures like Alexander the Macedonian in the broader scope of history. However, there’s a level of scepticism about our capacity to completely comprehend or reveal the deeper, underlying currents that drive societal changes, suggesting that attempts to do so might lean heavily on conjecture. This scepticism is akin to the uncertainty of ancient cartographers who marked unexplored areas on maps with ‘hic sunt leones’ (here be lions), indicating the speculative nature of our understanding of history’s lesser-known aspects, which could be as varied as the mythical creatures in old legends.

Reading Graeber is essential to remove the blinkers and rose-coloured glasses that deceive us into thinking we can fully understand reality. These are merely self-serving ideologies. Yet, we don’t have an alternative set of lenses at our disposal. We must embrace our limited vision and lack of precision, and appreciate that this very imprecision is what stimulates our creativity.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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