ﻁThe Demos Versus 'We, the People': from Ancient to Modern Conceptions of Citizenship ::: International Endowment for Democracy
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The Demos Versus 'We, the People': from Ancient to Modern Conceptions of Citizenship

By Ellen Meiksins Wood

From Democracy Against Capitalism. Cambridge University Press:1995. Chapter 7: pp. 204-237.

The ancient concept of democracy grew out of a historical experience which had conferred a unique civic status on subordinate classes, creating in particular that unprecedented formation, the peasant citizen. In allor at least a great dealbut name, the modern concept belongs to a different historical trajectory, most vividly exemplified in the Anglo-American tradition. The landmarks along the road to the ancient democracy, such as the reforms of Solon and Cleisthenes, represent pivotal moments in the elevation of the demos to citizenship. In the other history, originating not in Athenian democracy but in European feudalism and culminating in liberal capitalism, the major milestones, like Magna Carta and 1688, mark the ascent of the propertied classes. In this case, it is not a question of peasants liberating themselves from the political domination of their overlords but lords themselves asserting their independent powers against the claims of monarchy. This is the origin of modern constitutional principles, ideas of limited government, the separation of powers, and so on: principles which have displaced the social implications of 'rule by the demos'such as balance of power between rich and pooras the central criterion of democracy. If the peasant-citizen is the most representative figure of the first historical drama, in the second it is the feudal baron and the Whig aristocrat.

If citizenship is the constitutive concept of ancient democracy, the founding principle of the other variety is, perhaps, lordship. The Athenian citizen claimed to be masterless, a servant to no mortal man. He owed no service or deference to any lord, nor did he waste his labour to enrich a tyrant by his toil. The freedom, eleutheria, entailed by his citizenship was the freedom of the demos from his lordship. Magna Carta, in contrast, was a charter not of a masterless demos but of masters themselves, asserting feudal privileges and freedom of lordship against both Crown and popular multitude, just as the liberty of 1688 represented the privilege of propertied gentlemen, their freedom to dispose of their property and servants at will.

Certainly, the assertion of aristocratic privilege against encroaching monarchies produced the tradition of 'popular sovereignty' from which the modern conception of democracy derives; yet the 'people' in question was not the demos but a privileged stratum constituting an exclusive political nation situated in a public realm between the monarch and the multitude. While Athenian democracy had the effect of breaking down the age-old opposition between rulers and producers by turning peasants into citizens, the division between ruling landlords and subject peasants was a constitutive condition of 'popular sovereignty' as it emerged in early modern Europe. On the one hand, the fragmentation of sovereignty and the power of lordship which constituted European feudalism, the check on monarchy and state centralization exercised by these feudal principles, were to be the basis of a new kind of 'limited' state power, the source of what were later to be called democratic principles, such as constitutionalism, representation and civil liberties. On the other hand, the obverse side of feudal lordship was a dependent peasantry, while the 'political nation' which grew out of the community of feudal lords retained its exclusiveness and the political subordination of producing classes.

In England, the exclusive political nation found its embodiment in Parliament, which, as Sir Thomas Smith wrote in the 1560s, 'hath the power of the whole realme both the head and the bodie. For everie Englishman is entended to bee there present, either in person or by procuration and attornies, of what preheminence, state dignitie, or qualitie soever he be, from the Prince (be he King or Qucene) to the lowest person of England. And the consent of the Parliament is taken to be everie man's consent.1 It is worth noting that a man was deemed to be 'present' in Parliament even if he had no right to vote for his representative. Thomas Smith, like others before and after him, took it for granted that a propertied minority would stand for the population as a whole.

The doctrine of parliamentary supremacy was to operate against popular power even when the political nation was no longer restricted to a relatively small community of property holders and when the 'people' was extended to include the 'popular multitude'. In Britain today, for example, politics is the special preserve of a sovereign Parliament. Parliament may be ultimately accountable to its electorate, but the 'people' are not truly sovereign. For all intents and purposes, there is no politicsor at least no legitimate politicsoutside Parliament. Indeed, the more inclusive the 'people' has become, the more the dominant political ideologiesfrom Conservative to mainstream Labourhave insisted on depoliticizing the world outside Parliament and delegitimating 'extra-parliamentarv' politics. Running parallel with this process has been a growing centralization of parliamentary power itself in the executive, producing something very much like cabinet, or even prime ministerial. sovereignty.

There did emerge, in early modern England, a body of political thoughtespecially in the work of James Harrington, Algernon Sidney and Henry Nevillewhich, on the face of it, appears to run counter to this dominant parliamentary tradition. This school of political theory, which has come to be known as classical republicanism, had, or seemed to have, as its central organizing principle a concept of citizenship, implying not simply the passive enjoyment of individual rights which we have come to associate with 'liberal democracy' but a community of active citizens in pursuit of a common good. Yet there is one fundamental point on which early modern republicans like James Harrington agreed with their 'liberal' contemporaries: the exclusivity of the political nation. 2 Active citizenship was to be reserved for men of property and must exclude not only women but also those men who lacked, as Harrington put it, the 'wherewithal to live of themselves'that is, those whose livelihood depended on working for others. This conception of citizenship had at its core a division between propertied elite and labouring multitude. It is not surprising that republicans of this variety, when seeking models in antiquity, chose the aristocratic ('mixed') constitution of Sparta or Rome instead of democratic Athens.

In fact, such a division between propertied elite and labouring multitude may have belonged to the essence of English classical republicanism even more absolutely and irreducibly than to, say, Lockean liberalism. When Harrington set out to construct political principles appropriate to a society where feudal lordship no longer prevailed, he did not altogether jettison the principles of feudalism. It is even possible to say that his conception of citizenship was modelled in certain important respects on feudal principles. On the one hand, there was no longer to be a category of dependent property, a juridical and political division between different forms of landed property, as there had been between feudal lords and their dependants. All landed property was to be juridically and politically privileged. On the other hand, property itself was still defined as a political and military status; it was, in other words, still characterized by the inextricable unity of economic and political/military power which had constituted feudal lordship.

In this, classical republicanism was already an anachronism at the moment of its conception. Landed property in England was already assuming a capitalist form, in which economic power was no longer inextricably bound up with juridical, political and military status, and wealth depended increasingly on 'improvement' or the productive use of property subject to the imperatives of a competitive market. Here, John Locke's conception of property and agricultural 'improvement' was more in keeping with current realities. 3 And while Locke himself was no democrat, it is arguable that a conception of property such as his was ultimately more amenable to relaxing the restrictions on membership in the political nation. 4 To put it simply, once the economic power of the propertied classes no longer depended upon 'extra-economic' status, on the juridical, political and military powers of lordship, a monopoly on politics was no longer indispensable to the elite. By contrast, within a framework dominated by an essentially pre-capitalist conception of property, with all its juridical and political 'embellishments' (as Marx once called them), the 'formal' equality made possible by the capitalist separation of the 'economic' and the 'political' was not even thinkable (literally), let alone desirable.

CAPITALISM AND DEMOCRATIC CITIZENSHIP

Capitalism, by shifting the locus of power from lordship to property, made civic status less salient, as the benefits of political privilege gave way to purely 'economic' advantage. This eventually made possible a new form of democracy. Where classical republicanism had solved the problem of propertied elite and labouring multitude by restricting the extent of the citizen body (as Athenian oligarchs would have liked to do), capitalist or liberal democracy would permit the extension of citizenship by restricting its powers (as the Romans did). Where one proposed an active but exclusive citizen body, in which the propertied classes ruled the labouring multitude, the other couldeventuallyenvisage an inclusive but largely passive citizen body, embracing both elite and multitude, but whose citizenship would be limited in scope.

Capitalism transformed the political sphere in other ways too. The relation between capital and labour presupposes formally free and equal individuals, without prescriptive rights or obligations, juridical privileges or disabilities. The detachment of the individual from corporate institutions and identities began very early in England (it is, for example, reflected in Sir Thomas Smith's definition of a commonwealth as 'a societie or common doing of a multitude of free men collected together and united by common accords and covenauntes among themselves', 5 and in the individualistic psychologism that runs through the tradition of British social thought from Hobbes and Locke to Hume and beyond); and the rise of capitalism was marked by the increasing detachment of the individual (not to mention individual property) from customary, corporate, prescriptive and communal identities and obligations.

The emergence of this isolated individual did, needless to say, have its positive side, the emancipatory implications of which are emphasized by liberal doctrine, with its constitutive concept (myth?) of the sovereign individual. But there was also another side. In a sense, the creation of the sovereign individual was the price paid by the 'labouring multitude' for entry into the political community; or, to be more precise, the historical process which gave rise to capitalism, and to the modern 'free and equal' wage labourer who would eventually join the body of citizens, was the same process in which the peasant was dispossessed and deracinated, detached from both his property and his community, together with its common and customary rights.

Let us consider briefly what this means. The peasant in precapitalist societies, unlike the modern wage labourer, remained in possession of property, in this case land, the means of labour and subsistence. This meant that the capacity of landlord or state to appropriate labour from him depended on a superior coercive power, in the form of juridical, political and military status. The principal modes of surplus extraction to which peasants were subjectrent and taxtypically took the form of various kinds of juridical and political dependence: debt-bondage, serfdom, tributary relations, obligations to perform corvée labour, and so on. By the same token, the capacity of peasants to resist or limit their exploitation by landlords and states depended in great measure on the strength of their own political organization, notably the village community. To the extent that peasants were able to achieve a degree of political independence by extending the jurisdiction of the village communityfor example, imposing their own local charters or replacing landlord representatives with their own local magistratesthey also extended their economic powers of appropriation and resistance to exploitation. But however strong the village community became from time to time, there generally remained one insurmountable barrier to peasant autonomy: the state. The peasant village almost universally remained as it were outside the state, and subject to its alien power, as the peasant was excluded from the community of citizens.

It is here that Athenian democracy represents a radically unique exception. Only here was the barrier between state and village breached, as the village effectively became the constitutive unit of the state, and peasants became citizens. The Athenian citizen acquired his civic status by virtue of his membership in a deme, a geographical unit generally based on existing villages. The establishment by Cleisthenes of the deme as the constituent unit of the polis was in a critical sense the foundation of the democracy. It created a civic identity abstracted from differences of birth, an identity common to aristocracy and demos, symbolized by the adoption by Athenian citizens of a demotikon, a deme-name, as distinct from (though in practice never replacing, especially in the case of the aristocracy) the patronymic. But even more fundamentally, Cleisthenes' reforms 'politicised the Attic countryside and rooted political identity there'. 6 They represented, in other words, the incorporation of the village into the state, and the peasant into the civic community. The economic corollary of this political status was an exceptional degree of freedom for the peasant from 'extra-economic' exactions in the form of rent or tax. 7

The medieval peasant, in contrast, remained firmly excluded from the state and correspondingly more subject to extra-economic surplus extraction. The institutions and solidarities of the village community could afford him some protection against landlords and states (though it could also serve as a medium of lordly controlas, for example, in manorial courts), but the state itself was alien, the exclusive preserve of feudal lords. And as the feudal 'parcellization of sovereignty' gave way to more centralized states, the exclusivity of this political sphere survived in the privileged political nation. 8 Finally, as feudal relations gave way to capitalism, specifically in England, even the mediation of the village community, which had stood between peasant and landlord, was lost. The individual and his property were detached from the community, as production increasingly fell outside communal regulation, whether by manorial courts or village community (the most obvious example of this process is the replacement of the English open-field system by enclosure); customary tenures became economic leaseholds subject to the impersonal competitive pressures of the market; smallholders lost their customary use-rights to common land; increasingly, they were dispossessed, whether by coercive eviction or the economic pressures of competition. Eventually, as landholding became increasingly concentrated, the peasantry gave way to large land-holders, on the one hand, and propertyless wage labourers, on the other. In the end, the 'liberation' of the individual was complete, as capitalism, with its indifference to the 'extra-economic' identities of the labouring multitude, dissipated prescriptive attributes and 'extra-economic' differences in the solvent of the labour market, where individuals become interchangeable units of labour abstracted from any specific personal or social identity.

It is as an aggregate of such isolated individuals, without property and abstracted from communal solidarities, that the 'labouring multitude' finally entered the community of citizens. Of course, the dissolution of traditional prescriptive identities and juridical inequalities represented an advance for these now 'free and equal' individuals; and the acquisition of citizenship conferred upon them new powers, rights, and entitlements. But we cannot take the measure of their gains and losses without remembering that the historical presupposition of their citizenship was the devaluation of the political sphere, the new relation between the 'economic' and the '.political' which had reduced the salience of citizenship and transferred some of its formerly exclusive powers to the purely economic domain of private property and the market, where purely economic advantage takes the place of juridical privilege and political monopoly. The devaluation of citizenship entailed by capitalist social relations is an essential attribute of modern democracy. For that reason, the tendency of liberal doctrine to represent the historical developments which produced formal citizenship as nothing other than an enhancement of individual liberty the freeing of the individual from an arbitrary state, as well as from the constraints of tradition and prescriptive hierarchies, from communal repressions or the demands of civic virtueis inexcusably one-sided.

Nor can we assess the ideological effects of the modern relation between individual citizen and civic community or nation, without considering the degree to which that 'imagined community' is a fiction, a mythical abstraction, in conflict with the experience of the citizen's daily life. 9 The nation can certainly be real enough to inspire individuals to die for their country; but we must consider the extent to which this abstraction is also capable of serving as an ideological device to deny or disguise the more immediate experience of individuals, to disaggregate and delegitimate, or at least to depoliticize, the solidarities that stand between the levels of individual and nation, such as those forged in the workplace, the local community, or in a common class experience. When the political nation was privileged and exclusive, the 'commonwealth' in large part corresponded to a real community of interest among the landed aristocracy. In modern democracies, where the civic community unites extremes of social inequality and conflicting interests, the 'common good' shared by citizens must be a much more tenuously abstract notion.

Here, again, the contrast with ancient democracy is striking. Constructed upon the foundation of the deme, the democratic polis was built upon what Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics called a natural community. That this 'real community' had real political implications is suggested by the tangible consequences of peasant citizenship. Nor was the contradiction between civic community and the realities of social life as great in Athenian democracy as in the modern democratic state. Modern liberal democracy has in common with ancient Greek democracy a dissociation of civic identity from socio-economic status which permits the coexistence of formal political equality with class inequality. But this similarity disguises a deeper difference between the two forms of democracy, reflecting radically different relations between 'political' and 'social' or 'economic' planes in the two cases.

In ancient Athenian democracy, as I argued in chapter 6, the right to citizenship was not determined by socio-economic status; but the power of appropriation, and relations between classes, were directly affected by democratic citizenship. In Athens democratic citizenship meant that small producers, and peasants in particular, were to a great extent free of 'extra-economic' exploitation. Their political participationin the assembly, in the courts, and in the streetlimited their economic exploitation. At the same time, unlike workers in capitalism, they were still not subject to the purely 'economic' compulsions of propertylessness. Political and economic freedom were inseparablethe dual freedom of the demos in its simultaneous meaning as a political status and a social class, the common people or the poor; while political equality did not simply coexist with, but substantially modified, socio-economic inequality. In this sense, democracy in Athens was not 'formal' but substantive.

In capitalist democracy, the separation between civic status and class position operates in both directions: socio-economic position does not determine the right to citizenshipand that is what is democratic in capitalist democracybut, since the power of the capitalist to appropriate the surplus labour of workers is not dependent on a privileged juridical or civic status, civic equality does not directly affect or significantly modify class inequalityand that is what limits democracy in capitalism. Class relations between capital and labour can survive even with juridical equality and universal suffrage. In that sense, political equality in capitalist democracy not only coexists with socio-economic inequality but leaves it fundamentally intact.

THE AMERICAN REDEFINITION OF DEMOCRACY

Capitalism, then, made it possible to conceive of 'formal democracy', a form of civic equality which could coexist with social inequality and leave economic relations between 'elite' and 'labouring multitude' in place. Needless to say, however, the conceptual possibility of 'formal democracy' did not make it a historical actuality. There were to be many long and arduous struggles before the 'people' grew to encompass the labouring multitude, let alone women. It is a curious fact that in the dominant ideologies of Anglo-American political culture these struggles have not achieved the status of principal milestones in the history of democracy. In the canons of English-speaking liberalism, the main road to modern democracy runs through Rome, Magna Carta, the Petition of Right and the Glorious Revolution, not Athens, the Levellers, Diggers and Chartism. Nor is it simply that the historical record belongs to the victors; for if 1688, not Levellers and Diggers, represents the winners, should not history record that democracy was on the losing side?

It is here that the American experience was decisive. English Whiggery could have long remained content to celebrate the forward march of Parliament without proclaiming it a victory for democracy. The Americans had no such option. Despite the fact that in the struggle to determine the shape of the new republic it was the anti-democrats who won, even at the moment of foundation the impulse toward mass democracy was already too strong for that victory to be complete. Here, too, the dominant ideology divided governing elite from governed multitude; and the Federalists might have wished, had it been possible, to create an exclusive political nation, an aristocracy of propertied citizens, in which propertyand specifically landed propertyremained a privileged juridical! political/military status. But economic and political realities in the colonies had already foreclosed that option. Property had irrevocably discarded its extra-economic 'embellishments', in an economy based on commodity exchange and purely 'economic' modes of appropriation, which undermined the neat division between politically privileged property and disenfranchised labouring multitude. And the colonial experience culminating in revolution had created a politically active populace.

The Federalists thus faced the unprecedented task of preserving what they could of the division between mass and elite in the context of an increasingly democratic franchise and an increasingly active citizenry. It is now more generally acknowledged than it was not very long ago that US democracy was deeply flawed in its very foundations by the exclusion of women, the oppression of slaves and a genocidal colonialism in relation to indigenous peoples. What may not be quite so self-evident are the anti-democratic principles contained in the idea of democratic citizenship itself as it was defined by the 'Founding Fathers'. The framers of the Constitution embarked on the first experiment in designing a set of political institutions that would both embody and at the same time curtail popular power, in a context where it was no longer possible to maintain an exclusive citizen body. Where the option of an active but exclusive citizenry was unavailable, it would be necessary to create an inclusive but passive citizen body with limited scope for its political powers.

The Federalist ideal may have been to create an aristocracy combining wealth with republican virtue (an ideal that would inevitably give way to the dominance of wealth alone); but their practical task was to sustain a propertied oligarchy with the electoral support of a popular multitude. This also required the Federalists to produce an ideology, and specifically a redefinition of democracy, which would disguise the ambiguities in their oligarchic project. It was the anti-democratic victors in the USA who gave the modern world its definition of democracy, a definition in which the dilution of popular power is an essential ingredient. If American political institutions have not been imitated everywhere, the American experiment has nonetheless left this universal legacy. 10

In the previous chapter, I quoted a passage from Plato's Protagoras referring to the Athenian practice of letting shoemakers and blacksmiths, rich and poor alike, make political judgments. This passage, which gives _expression to the democratic principle of isegoria, not just freedom but equality of speech, neatly identifies the essence of Athenian democracy. Here, by contrast, is a quotation from Federalist no. 35, by Alexander Hamilton:

The idea of actual representation of all classes of the people, by people of each class, is altogether visionary. . . . Mechanics and manufacturers will always be inclined, with few exceptions, to give their votes to merchants in preference to persons of their own professions or trades. . . they are aware, that however great the confidence they may justly feel in their own good sense, their interests can be more effectually promoted by merchants than by themselves. They are sensible that their habits in life have not been such as to give them those acquired endowments without which, in a deliberative assembly, the greatest natural abilities are for the most part useless . We must therefore consider merchants as the natural representatives of all these classes of the community.

Some of the most essential differences between ancient and modern democracy arc nicely summed up in these two quotations. Alexander Hamilton is spelling out the principles of what he elsewhere calls 'representative democracy', an idea with no historical precedent in the ancient world, an American innovation. And here, shoemakers and blacksmiths are represented by their social superiors. What is at stake in this contrast is not simply the conventional distinction between direct and representative democracy. There are other more fundamental differences of principle between the two conceptions of democracy contained in these two quotations.

The concept of isegoria is arguably the most distinctive concept associated with Athenian democracy, the one most distant from any analog in modern liberal democracyincluding its closest approximation, the modern concept of free speech. Alexander Hamilton was no doubt an advocate of free speech in the modern liberal democratic sense, having to do with protecting the right of citizens to express themselves without interference, especially by the state. But there is in Hamilton's conception no incompatibility between advocating civil liberties, among which the freedom of _expression is paramount, and the view that in the political domain the wealthy merchant is the natural representative of the humble craftsman. The man of property will speak politically for the shoemaker or blacksmith. Hamilton does not, of course, propose to silence these demotic voices. Nor does he intend to deprive them of the right to choose their representatives. He is, evidently with some reluctance, obliged to accept a fairly wide and socially inclusive or 'democratic' franchise. But like many anti-democrats before him, he makes certain assumptions about representation according to which the labouring multitude, like Sir Thomas Smith's 'lowest person', must find its political voice in its social superiors.

These assumptions also have to be placed in the context of the Federalist view that representation is not a way of implementing but of avoiding or at least partially circumventing democracy. Their argument was not that representation is necessary in a large republic, but, on the contrary, that a large republic is desirable so that representation is unavoidableand the smaller the proportion of representatives to represented, the greater the distance between them, the better. As Madison put it in Federalist io, the effect of representation is 'to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens . . .'. And an extensive republic is clearly preferable to a small one, 'more favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal', on the grounds of 'two obvious considerations': that there would be a smaller proportion of representatives to represented, and that each representative would be chosen by a larger electorate, Representation, in other words, is intended to act as a filter. In these respects, the Federalist conception of representationand especially Hamilton'sis the very antithesis of isegoria.

We have become so accustomed to the formula, 'representative democracy', that we tend to forget the novelty of the American idea. In its Federalist form, at any rate, it meant that something hitherto perceived as the antithesis of democratic self-government was now not only compatible with but constitutive of democracy: not the exercise of political power but its relinquishment, its transfer to others, its alienation.

The alienation of political power was so foreign to the Greek conception of democracy that even election could be regarded as an oligarchic practice, which democracies might adopt for certain specific purposes but which did not belong to the essence of the democratic constitution. Thus Aristotle, outlining how a 'mixed' constitution might be constructed out of elements from the main constitutional types, such as oligarchy and democracy, suggests the inclusion of election as an oligarchic feature. It was oligarchic because it tended to favour the gnorimoi, the notables, the rich and well born who were less likely to be sympathetic to democracy. Athenians might resort to election in the case of offices requiring a narrowly technical expertise, notably the top financial and military posts (such as the military office of strategos to which Pericles was elected); but such offices were hedged about with stringent measures for ensuring accountability, and they were clearly understood as exceptions to the rule that all citizens could be assumed to possess the kind of civic wisdom required for general political functions. The quintessentially democratic method was selection by lot, a practice which, while acknowledging the practical constraints imposed by the size of a state and the number of its citizens, embodies a criterion of selection in principle opposed to the alienation of citizenship and to the assumption that the demos is politically incompetent.

The American republic firmly established a definition of democracy in which the transfer of power to 'representatives of the people' constituted not just a necessary concession to size and complexity but rather the very essence of democracy itself. The Americans, then, though they did not invent representation, can be credited with establishing an essential constitutive idea of modern democracy: its identification with the alienation of power. But, again, the critical point here is not simply the substitution of representative for direct democracy. There are undoubtedly many reasons for favouring representation even in the most democratic polity. The issue here is rather the assumptions on which the Federalist conception of representation was based. Not only did the 'Founding Fathers' conceive representation as a means of distancing the people from politics, but they advocated it for the same reason that Athenian democrats were suspicious of election: that it favoured the propertied classes. 'Representative democracy', like one of Aristotle's mixtures, is civilized democracy with a touch of oligarchy.

A 'PEOPLE' WITHOUT SOCIAL CONTENT

The Federalist argument, which is predicated on a conception of the 'public weal' as more rather than less distant from the will of the citizens, displays a very particular conception of citizenship which contrasts sharply with the ancient Athenian idea. The modern American conception of citizenship may be more inclusive and universalistic than the Athenian, more indifferent to the particularisms of kinship, blood ties, or ethnicity. In this respect, it is more like ancient Roman citizenship than Athenian. But if US citizenship has more in common with Roman than with Greek civic identity in its universality, its capacity for extension to 'aliens', it may also have something else in common with (not just republican but even imperial) Rome in this respect, namely a greater distance between the 'people' and the sphere of political action, a less immediate connection between citizenship and political participation. US, like Roman, citizenship may be more expansive and inclusive than the democratic citizenship of Athens, but it may also be more abstract and more passive.

If it was the intention of the 'Founding Fathers' to create this kind of passive citizenship, or at least to temper the civic activism of the revolutionary culture, it differs from Athenian democracy in another respect. It has been argued that in both the American and the Athenian cases, the emergence of democracy resulted from, among other things, 'a pre-existing democratic culture' outside the political realm, egalitarian habits in 'civil society'. 11 Cleisthenes's act of 'foundation', it is suggested, had the effect of institutionalizing this pre-existing democratic culture. But, if this is so, then the US Constitution is related to its pre-existing democratic culture in a rather different sense.

The founders of the US Constitution were faced not only with a democratic culture but with fairly well-developed democratic institutions; and they were at least as much concerned to contain as to entrench the democratic habits which had established themselves in colonial and revolutionary America not only in 'civil society' but even in the political sphere, from town meetings to representative assemblies. They achieved the desired effect in part by widening the distance between civic identity and action in the public spacenot only by interposing the filter of representation between the citizen and the political sphere but even by means of a literal, geographic displacement. Where Cleisthenes made the local deme the basis of Athenian citizenship, the Federalists did their best to shift the focal point of politics from the locality to the federal centre.

It says a great deal about the meaning of citizenship and popular sovereignty as conceived by the Founding Fathers that some anti-Federalists attacked the anti-democratic implications of the proposed constitution by rejecting the Constitution's opening formula, 'We, the People...' 12 This formula, apparently the most unambiguous appeal to popular sovereignty, seemed to its critics as, on the contrary, a recipe for despotism, for an extensive empire ruled at the centre by an unrepresentative and tyrannical state. For these critics, the more democratic formula, closing the distance between the people and the realm of politics, would have been 'We, the States ...'. The Federalists' invocation of 'the people' was, according to such anti-Federalists, simply a means of vesting true sovereignty in the federal government, giving it the stamp of popular sovereignty while actually by-passing institutions more immediately accountable to the people and converting republican into imperial government.

Americans were later to discover anti-democratic possibilities in the doctrine of 'states' rights' that could not have been foreseen by either early critics or advocates of the Constitution; but to their contemporaries it seemed clear that the Federalists were invoking popular sovereignty in support of an effort to distance the people from politics and to redefine citizenship, shifting the balance away from republican activism to imperial passivity. The 'people' was no longer being defined, like the Athenian demos, as an active citizen community but as a disaggregated collection of private individuals whose public aspect was represented by a distant central state. In contrast to the ancient notion of citizenship as sharing in a political community, even the concept of individual rights, which may be modern democracy's greatest claim to superiority over the ancient variety, bears the connotation of passivity. 13

The 'people' underwent another major transformation in the hands of the Federalists which again sets their conception of democracy far apart from the democratic principles embodied in the idea of isegoria. The very possibility of reconciling Hamilton's particular conception of representation with the idea of democracy required a major innovation, which remains part of our definition of democracy today. The concept of 'representative democracy' itself would have been difficult enough for Athenians to absorb, but I can imagine conceptions of representation based on more democratic assumptions than Hamilton's (not least, that of Tom Paine). What is more important here is the fact that Hamilton's conception required the complete evacuation of any social content from the concept of democracy and a political conception of the 'people' in which social connotations were suppressed.

Consider, by way of contrast, Aristotle's classic definition of democracy as a constitution in which 'the free-born and poor control the governmentbeing at the same time a majority' (Politics 1290b), as distinct from oligarchy, in which 'the rich and better- born control the governmentbeing at the same time a minority'. The social criteriapoverty in one case, wealth and high birth in the otherplay a central role in these definitions. In fact, they outweigh the numerical criterion. Aristotle emphasizes that the true difference between democracy and oligarchy is the difference between poverty and wealth (1279b), so that a polis would be democratic even in the unlikely event that its poor rulers were at the same time a minority.

In his account of the ideal polis, Aristotle proposes a more specific social distinction which may be even more decisive than the division between rich and poor (Politics 1328a-1329a). In the polis, he suggests, as in every other natural compound, there is a difference between those elements that are integral parts and those that are necessary conditions. The latter merely serve the former and cannot be regarded as organic parts of the whole. In the polis, the 'conditions' are people who labour to supply the community's necessities, whether free men or slaves, while the 'parts' are men of property. The category of 'necessary' peoplewho cannot be organic 'parts', or citizens, of the ideal polisincludes banausoi, those engaged in 'base and mechanic' arts and trades, as well as othersincluding small farmerswho must labour for a livelihood and lack the leisure (and freedom of spirit?) to 'produce goodness' and to engage in politics. This, then, may be the critical dividing line between oligarchs and democrats: whether 'necessary' people should be included in the citizen body.

The social distinctions drawn by Greek anti-democratsbetween conditions and parts of the polis, or 'necessary' and good or worthy people, kaloi kagathoi or chrestoialso defined the anti-democratic conception of freedom, as against the democratic constitutional ideal of liberty, eleutheria. Critics of democracy might oppose eleutheria altogether, by identifying it with licence and social disorder; but this was just one of the strategies adopted by oligarchs and philosophical opponents of democracy. Another one was to redefine eleutheria so that it excluded labourers, craftsmen or traders who were not slaves. Aristotle in the Rhetoric (1367a), for example, defines the eleutheros as a gentleman who does not live for someone else's sake or at someone else's beck and call because he does not practise a sordid or menial craftwhich is why, he maintains, long hair in Sparta is a symbol of nobility, the mark of a free man, since (Aristotle rather quaintly observes) it is difficult to do menial labour when one's hair is long. And what he has to say in the Politics about the ideal state, among other things, suggests that this distinctionnot the distinction between free men and slaves but that between gentlemen and banausoi, as well as other 'necessary' peopleshould have not only social but political and constitutional implications. Here, all those supplying the community's basic needsfarmers, craftsmen, shopkeeperscannot be citizens at all.

It hardly needs adding that this kind of distinction between freedom and servility is even more emphatic in Plato, for whom bondage to material necessity is an irreducible disqualification for practising the art of politics. In the Statesman (289c ff.), for example, anyone supplying necessary goods and services, any practitioner of the 'contributory' arts, is basically servile and unfit for the political artfor example, agricultural labour should even be done by foreign slaves. So, for both Plato and Aristotle, the distinction between freedom and servility, douleia, would then correspond not just to the juridical difference between free men and slaves but to the difference between those who are free from the necessity of labour and those who are obliged to work for a living.

That this conception of eleutheria was not so distant from at least some conventional usages is suggested by M.I. Finley's definition, that 'the free man was one who neither lived under the constraint of, nor was employed for the benefit of, another; who lived preferablyon his ancestral plot of land, with its shrines and ancestral tombs') 14 But if this was indeed the conventional usage, there would have been some significant differences between how the ordinary Athenian citizen understood its implications and the meaning attached to it by Plato or Aristotle. For these opponents of democracy, even the independent craftsman or small farmer, for example, could not be said to be free in this sense, to the extent that his livelihood depended on providingand sellingnecessary goods and services to others. I doubt that the Athenian craftsman or peasant citizen would have been prepared to accept this extended definition of douleia, however metaphorical. But the main point is that it would not, for the democrat, be the relevant one in defining citizenship. while for Plato and Aristotle, at least ideally it would. Even in Aristotle's best practicable polis, there is some question about the citizenship of craftsmen, let alone hired labourers.

This is not to say that Aristotle's definition of democracy was the conventional one. The very concept of demokratia itself may originally have been an anti-democratic coinage; 15 and it was also anti-democrats who were likely to define democracy as rule by the demos in its social meaning, the lower classes or the poor. A moderate democrat like Pericles defined the Athenian constitution not as a form of class rule but simply as a government by the many instead of the few. Nevertheless, it was critical to his definition that rank was no criterion for public honours and poverty no bar to office. For Pericles no less than for Aristotle, a polis ruled by a political community that did not include the demos in its social meaning would not have qualified as a democracy. 16

Pericles may not, like Aristotle, have defined democracy as rule by the poor; but it was rule by the many including the poor. More than that, it was a democracy precisely because the political community included the poor. In fact, the conflation of meanings in which the demos denoted both the lower classes and the political community as a whole is suggestive of a democratic culture. It is as if the Roman category plebs, with all its social connotations, had replaced the category populusand even this does not fully convey the democratic implications of the Greek usage, since plebs, unlike demos, could not be identified with the poor or the masses.

In the Greek context the political definition of the demos itself had a social meaning because it was deliberately set against the exclusion of the lower classes, shoemakers and blacksmiths, from politics. It was an assertion of democracy against non-democratic definitions of the polis and citizenship. By contrast, when the Federalists invoked the 'people' as a political category, it was not for the purpose of asserting the rights of 'mechanics' against those who would exclude them from the public sphere. On the contrary, there is ample evidence, not least in explicit pronouncements by Federalist leaders, that their purposeand the purpose of many provisions in the Constitutionwas to dilute the power of the popular multitude, most particularly in defence of property. 17 Here, the 'people' were being invoked in support of less against more democratic principles.

In Federalist usage the 'people' was, as in Greek, an inclusive, political category; but here, the point of the political definition was not to stress the political equality of social non-equals. It had more to do with enhancing the power of the federal government; and, if the criterion of social class was to have no political relevance, it was not only in the sense that poverty or undistinguished rank was to be no formal bar to public office but more especially in the sense that the balance of class power would in no way represent a criterion of democracy. There would, in effect, be no incompatibility between democracy and rule by the rich. It is in this sense that social criteria continue to be politically irrelevant today; and the modern definition of democracy is hardly less compatible with rule by the rich than it was for Alexander Hamilton.

There was a structural foundation underlying these differences in the relation between political and social meanings of the 'people' as conceived respectively in Athens and post-revolutionary America. The Federalists, whatever their inclinations, no longer had the option, available to ruling classes elsewhere, of defining the 'people' narrowly, as synonymous with an exclusive political nation. The political experience of the colonies and the Revolution precluded it (though, of course, women and slaves were by definition excluded from the political nation). But another possibility existed for Americans which had not existed for the Greeks: to displace democracy to a purely political sphere, distinct and separate from 'civil society' or the 'economy'. In Athens, there was no such clear division between 'state' and 'civil society', no distinct and autonomous 'economy', not even a conception of the state as distinct from the community of citizensno state of 'Athens' or 'Attica', only 'the Athenians'.

Political and economic powers and rights, in other words, were not as easily separated in Athens as in the US, where property was already achieving a purely 'economic' definition, detached from juridical privilege or political power, and where the 'economy' was acquiring a life of its own. Large segments of human experience and activity, and many varieties of oppression and indignity, were left untouched by political equality. If citizenship was taking precedence over other more particularistic social identities, it was at the same time becoming in many ways inconsequential.

The possibility of a democracy devoid of social contentand the absence of any such possibility in ancient Greecehas, again, to do with the vast differences in social property relations between ancient Greece and modern capitalism. I have suggested that the social structure of capitalism changes the meaning of citizenship, so that the universality of political rightsin particular, universal adult suffrageleaves property relations and the power of appropriation intact in a way that was never true before. It is capitalism that makes possible a form of democracy in which formal equality of political rights has a minimal effect on inequalities or relations of domination and exploitation in other spheres. These developments were sufficiently advanced in late eighteenth-century America to make possible a redefinition of democracy devoid of social content, the invention of 'formal democracy', the suppression of social criteria in the definition of democracy and in the conception of liberty associated with it. It was therefore possible for the Federalists to lay claim to the language of democracy while emphatically dissociating themselves from rule by the demos in its original Greek meaning. For the first time, 'democracy' could mean something entirely different from what it meant for the Greeks.

For the Federalists in particular, ancient democracy was a model explicitly to be avoidedmob rule, the tyranny of the majority, and so on. But what made this such an interesting conceptual problem was that, in the conditions of post-revolutionary America, they had to reject the ancient democracy not in the name of an opposing political ideal, not in the name of oligarchy, but in the name of democracy itself. The colonial and revolutionary experience had already made it impossible just to reject democracy outright, as ruling and propertied classes had been doing unashamedly for centuries and as they would continue to do for some time elsewhere. Political realities in the US were already forcing people to do what has now become conventional and universal, when all good political things are 'democratic' and everything we dislike in politics is undemocratic: everyone had to claim to be a democrat. The problem then was to construct a conception of democracy which would, by definition, exclude the ancient model.

The Constitutional debates represent a unique historical moment, with no parallel that I know of; in which there is a visible transition from the traditional indictment of democracy to the modern rhetorical naturalization of democracy for all political purposes, including those that would have been regarded as anti-democratic according to the old definition. Here we can even watch the process of redefinition as it happens. The Federalists alternate between sharply contrasting democracy to the republican form of government they advocate and calling that very same republican form a 'representative democracy'. This ideological transformation takes place not only in the sphere of political theory but in the symbolism of the new republic. Just consider the significance of the appeal to Roman symbolsthe Roman pseudonyms adopted by the Federalists, the name of the Senate, and so on. And consider the Roman eagle as an American icon. Not Athens but Rome. Not Pericles but Cicero as role model. Not the rule of the demos but SPQR, the 'mixed constitution' of the Senate and the Roman people, the populus or demos with rights of citizenship but governed by an aristocracy.

FROM DEMOCRACY TO LIBERALISM

As late as the last quarter of the eighteenth century, at least until the American redefinition, the predominant meaning of 'democracy', in the vocabulary of both advocates and detractors, was essentially the meaning intended by the Greeks who invented the word: rule by the demos, the 'people', in its dual meaning as a civic status and a social category. This accounts for the widespread and unapologetic denigration of democracy by the dominant classes. Thereafter, it underwent a transformation which allowed its erstwhile enemies to embrace it, indeed often to make it the highest _expression of praise in their political vocabulary. The American redefinition was decisive; but it was not the end of the process, and it would take more than another century to complete. In 'representative democracy' rule by the people remained the principal criterion of democracy, even if rule was filtered through representation tinged with oligarchy, and the people was evacuated of its social content. In the following century, the concept of democracy was to distance itself even further from its ancient and literal meaning.

In the United States and Europe, the essential question of the social composition and inclusiveness of the 'people' who had the right to choose their representatives had not yet been resolved, and it continued to be a fiercely contested terrain until well into the twentieth century. It took a long time, for example, for the Americans to improve upon the ancient Greek exclusion of women and slaves, and the labouring classes cannot be said to have won full inclusion until the last property qualifications were abolished (and even then, there remained a wealth of devices for excluding the poor, and especially blacks). But already in the second half of the nineteenth century, it had become sufficiently clear that the issue was being decided in favour of 'mass democracy'; and the ideological advantages of redefining democracy became increasingly obvious as the era of mass mobilizationand mass electoral politicsprogressed.The imperatives and constraints imposed on the ruling classes of Europe by an inevitably growing democratization have been very effectively described by Eric Hobsbawm:

Unfortunately for the historian, these problems [posed for governments and ruling classes by mass mobilization] disappear from the scene of open political discussion in Europe, as the growing democratization made it impossible to debate them publicly with any degree of frankness. What candidate wanted to tell his voters that he considered them too stupid and ignorant to know what was best in politics, and that their demands were as absurd as they were dangerous to the future of the country? What statesman, surrounded by reporters carrying his words to the remotest corner tavern, would actually say what he meant? ... Bismarck had probably never addressed other than an elite audience. Gladstone introduced mass electioneering to Britain (and perhaps to Europe) in the campaign of 187G No longer would the expected implications of democracy be discussed. except by political outsiders, with the frankness and realism of the debates which had surrounded the British Reform Act of 1867.

The age of democratization thus turned into the era of public political hypocrisy, or rather duplicity, and hence also into that of political satire. 18

In earlier times, democracy had meant what it said, yet its critics showed no hesitation in denouncing the stupidity, ignorance, and unreliability of the 'common herd'. Adam Ferguson was speaking in the eighteenth century for a long and unembarrassed tradition of anti-democrats when he asked, 'How can he who has confined his views to his own subsistence or preservation, be intrusted with the conduct of nations? Such men, when admitted to deliberate on matters of state, bring to its councils confusion and tumult, or servility and corruption; and seldom suffer it to repose from ruinous factions, or the effects of resolutions ill formed and ill conducted. 19

This kind of transparency was no longer possible in the late nineteenth century. Just as the ruling classes sought various ways to limit mass democracy in practice, they adopted ideological strategies to place limits on democracy in theory. And just as revolutionary theories were 'domesticated'for example, by French, American, and even English ruling classes20so too they appropriated and naturalized democracy, assimilating its meaning to whatever political goods their particular interests could tolerate. The reconceptualization of democracy belongs, it might be said, to the new climate of political hypocrisy and duplicity.

In an age of mass mobilization, then, the concept of democracy was subjected to new ideological pressures from dominant classes, demanding not only the alienation of 'democratic' power but a clear dissociation of 'democracy' from the 'demos'or at least a decisive shift away from popular power as the principal criterion of democratic values. The effect was to shift the focus of 'democracy' away from the active exercise of popular power to the passive enjoyment of constitutional and procedural safeguards and rights, and away from the collective power of subordinate classes to the privacy and isolation of the individual citizen. More and more, the concept of 'democracy' came to be identified with liberalism. 21

The moment of this transvaluation is difficult to isolate, associated as it was with protracted and arduous political and ideological struggles. But hints can be found in the unresolved tensions and contradictions in the theory and practice of nineteenth-century liberalism, torn between a distaste for mass democracy and a recognition of its inevitability, perhaps even its necessity and justice, or at any rate the advantages of mass mobilization in promoting programmes of reform and the wisdom of domesticating the 'many- headed hydra', the turbulent multitude, by drawing it into the civic community.

John Stuart Mill is perhaps only the most extreme example of the contradictions that constituted nineteenth-century liberalism. On the one hand, he showed a strong distaste for the 'levelling' tendencies and 'collective mediocrity' of mass democracy (nowhere more than in the locus classicus of modern liberalism, his essay 'On Liberty'), his Platonism, his elitism, his imperialist conviction that colonial peoples would benefit from a period of tutelage under the rule of their colonial masters; and on the other hand, his advocacy of the rights of women, of universal suffrage (which could be made compatible with a kind of class tutelage by maintaining weighted voting, as he proposes in Considerations on Representative Government); and he even flirted with socialist ideas (always on the condition that capitalism be preserved until 'better minds' had lifted the multitude out of its need for 'coarse stimuli', the motivations of material gain and subjection to the lower appetites). Mill never resolved this systematic ambivalence toward democracy, but we can perhaps find some hint of a possible resolution in a rather curious place, in his judgment on the original democracy of ancient Athens.

What is striking about Mill's judgment is his identification of Athenian democracy with its encouragement of variety and individuality, in contrast to the narrow and stultifying conservatism of the Spartanswhom Mill, as we have seen, even called the Tories of Greece. This characterization of ancient Athens contrasts sharply, of course, with Mill's account of modern democracy and the threat he perceives in it to individuality and excellence. The very different assessment of democracy in its ancient form was, however, made possible only by a conspicuous evasiveness about the one literally democratic feature of Athenian democracy, its extension of citizenship to labouring, 'base' and 'mechanic' classes. While Mill advocated a (qualified) extension of the suffrage to the 'multitude', he evinced a notable lack of enthusiasm for rule by the demos and was not inclined to dwell on its role in the ancient democracy. Far better to invoke the liberal values of classical Athens.

And so we come to 'liberal democracy'. The familiarity of this formula may disguise everything that is historically and ideologically problematic in this distinctively modern coupling, and it could do with some critical unpacking. There is more to this formula than the expansion of 'liberalism' to 'liberal democracy'that is, the addition of democratic principles like universal suffrage to the pre-democratic values of constitutionalism and 'limited government'. Rather more difficult questions are raised by the contraction of democracy to liberalism. There is a long-standing convention that political progress or 'modernization' has taken the form of a movement from monarchy to 'limited' or constitutional government to democracy, and more particularly from absolutism to 'liberalism' to 'liberal democracy'. In a sense, the process I am describing here reverses the conventional sequence: democracy has been overtaken by liberalism.

There was no 'liberalism'no constitutionalism, limited government, 'individual rights' and 'civil liberties'in classical antiquity. Ancient democracy, where the 'state' had no separate existence as a corporate entity apart from the community of citizens, produced no clear conception of a separation between 'state' and 'civil society' and no set of ideas or institutions to check the power of the state or to protect 'civil society' and the individual citizen from its intrusions. 'Liberalism' had as its fundamental pre-condition the development of a centralized state separate from and superior to other, more particularistic jurisdictions.

But, although 'liberalism' is a modern coinage which presupposes the 'modern' state (at least early modern absolutism), its central conceptions of liberty and constitutional limits have an earlier provenance. Liberal conceptions of limited or constitutional government, and of inviolable liberties asserted against the state, have their origins, in the late medieval and early modern periods, in the assertion of independent powers of lordship by European aristocracies against encroachment by centralizing monarchies. These conceptions, in other words, at the outset represented an attempt to safeguard feudal liberties, powers and privileges. They were not democratic in their intent or in their consequences, representing backward-looking claims to a piece of the old parcellized sovereignty of feudalism, not a looking forward to a more modern democratic political order. And the association of these ideas with lordship persisted for a long time, well beyond the demise of feudalism.

There is no doubt that these essentially feudal principles were later appropriated for more democratic purposes by more 'modern' or progressive forces. Since the seventeenth century, they have been expanded from the privileges of lordship to more universal civil liberties and human rights; and they have been enriched by the values of religious and intellectual toleration. But the original principles of liberalism are derived from a system of social relations very different from the one to which they have been adapted. They were not conceived to deal with the wholly new disposition of social power that emerged with modern capitalism. This inherent limitation (about which more in a moment) is compounded by the fact that the idea of liberalism has been made to serve much larger purposes than its basic principles were ever intended to do. Liberalism has entered modern political discourse not only as a set of ideas and institutions designed to limit state power but also as a substitute for democracy.

The original, aristocratic idea of constitutional checks on monarchical power had no associations with the idea of democracy. Its identification with 'democracy' was a much later development, which had more to do with an assertion of ruling class powers against the people. The unquestionable benefits of this 'liberal' idea should not obscure the fact that its substitution for democracy was a counterrevolutionary projector at least a means of containing revolutions already underway, stopping them short of exceeding acceptable boundaries.

The first significant encounter between democracy and constitutionalism may have occurred in the English Civil War. Here, a revolutionary popular army of an unprecedented kind had been mobilized by Oliver Cromwell. But when army radicals demanded the franchise and asked what they had fought for in the revolution if they were to be denied the right to vote, the right to be governed only by their own consent, the army grandees led by Cromwell and his son-in-law Ireton responded by saying that these people had gained quite enough already. They had won the right to be governed by a constitutional, parliamentary government and not by the arbitrary rule of one man.

It never occurred to Cromwell to claim that what he was proposing was democracy. On the contrary, he was deliberately offering a substitute. He might have said that political authority in some mysterious though largely notional sense was ultimately 'derived' from the people (an idea of medieval origin), but he would have understood that democracy was something else. Like his contemporaries in general, he would have understood the idea of democracy in more or less its ancient, and literal, meaning. His successors in the settlement of 1688 were in even less doubt that parliamentary government (or 'constitutional monarchy') was meant to be an oligarchy.

The opposition of democracy and constitutionalism may have been resolved by the later democratization of parliamentary government; but this process was not unambiguous. It was not simply a matter of adapting constitutional to democratic principles. There was also an assimilation of democracy to constitutionalism. The framers of the US Constitution, while still obliged to accommodate themselves to the ancient definition, took a significant step away from it and toward oligarchic constitutionalism, seeking to appropriate the name of democracy for something not so very distant from Cromwell's anti-democratic republicanism. Here too the intention was to hold the Revolution within acceptable limitsthough in the conditions of revolutionary America, the Federalists did not, like Cromwell, have the option of limiting the franchise to a small minority and were obliged to find other ways of distancing the 'people' from power, ensuring that political rights would be largely passive and limited in scope.

Today we have become thoroughly accustomed to defining democracy less (if at all) in terms of rule by the demos or popular power than in terms of civil liberties, freedom of speech, of the press and assembly, toleration, the protection of a sphere of privacy, the defence of the individual and/or 'civil society' against the state, and so on. So, for example, 'The Glorious Revolution', said Margaret Thatcher, opening Parliament's tricentenary celebration of that ambiguous event in 1988, 'established the enduring qualities of democracytolerance, respect for the law, for the impartial administration of justice'.

These are all admirable qualities. It would have been a good thing if the Settlement of 1688 had indeed established them, as it would have been a distinct improvement on Thatcher's regime if her government had indeed been committed to them. But they have little specifically to do with democracy. Conspicuously absent from this catalogue of democratic characteristics is the very quality that gives democracy its specific and literal meaning: rule by the demos. It remained for the left wing of the Labour Party, in the person of Tony Benn, to point out in his own response to these parliamentary festivities that there was little democracy in a 'revolution' which did nothing to promote popular power, as it excluded women and propertyless people, while firmly consolidating the rule of the dominant classindeed, if anything establishing a regime even less democratic in the literal sense than the preceding one. 22

The very possibility of identifying the Glorious Revolution as a defining moment in the history of 'democracy' bespeaks a very particular ideological disposition (by no means confined to Thatcherite Tories). The rewriting of history which has forged a new pedigree for the concept of democracytraceable not to ancient democracy but to medieval lordshiphas pushed any other history to the sidelines of political discourse. The alternative tradition which emerged in early modern Europethe egalitarian, demotic and democratic traditionhas been effectively suppressed, as oligarchic Rome, Magna Carta and the Glorious Revolution have taken precedence over democratic Athens, the Levellers, Diggers and Chartists, while in the US, the Federalist solution has pushed aside the story of its more democratic competitors. Democracy, in its original and literal meaning, has been on the losing side. Even democratic socialist movements which kept the other tradition alive have increasingly come to accept the liberal domestication of democracy.

LIBERAL DEMOCRACY AND CAPITALISM

The oligarchs of 1688, defending the rights of Parliament against the Crown, made their 'revolution' in the name of liberty. They were asserting their right, their freedom to dispose of their propertyand their servantsat will against interference from the king. The property they were defending was already substantially capitalist, but the liberty they invoked to protect it, in a usage virtually synonymous with privilege, was rooted in pre-capitalist lordship.

This takes us to the heart of the contradictions in 'liberal democracy'. What makes the story of modern democracy particularly interesting and problematic is that, at the very moment that the history of democracy was being conflated with the history of lordship, lordship itself had already been displaced as the main form of domination. It had been replaced not only by a centralized state but by a new form of private property, in which purely economic power was separated out from juridical status and privilege. Lordship and extra-economic modes of exploitation had, in other words, been replaced by capitalist property. Ideas of freedom rooted in traditional privilege may have remained for a time well suited to the interests of the propertied classes, and today they may even serve more democratic purposes in transactions between citizen and state; but they are not designed as a check against the new forms of power created by capitalism.

Liberties that meant a great deal to early modern aristocracies, and whose extension to the multitude then would have completely transformed society, cannot mean the same thing nownot least because the so-called economy has acquired a life of its own, completely outside the ambit of citizenship, political freedom, or democratic accountability. The essence of modern 'democracy' is not so much that it has abolished privilege, or alternatively that it has extended traditional privileges to the multitude, but rather that it has borrowed a conception of freedom designed for a world where privilege was the relevant category and applied it to a world where privilege is not the problem. In a world where juridical or political status is not the primary determinant of our life chances, where our activities and experiences lie largely outside the reach of our legal or political identities, freedom defined in these terms leaves too much out of account.

There is here a paradox. Liberalism is a modern idea based on pre-modern, pre-capitalist forms of power. At the same time, if the basic principles of liberalism pre-date capitalism, what makes it possible to identify democracy with liberalism is capitalism itself. The idea of 'liberal democracy' became thinkable and I mean literally thinkableonly with the emergence of capitalist social property relations. Capitalism made possible the redefinition of democracy, its reduction to liberalism. On the one hand, there was now a separate political sphere, in which 'extra-economic'political, juridical or militarystatus had no direct implications for economic power, the power of appropriation, exploitation and distribution. On the other hand, there now existed an economic sphere with its own power relations not dependent on juridical or political privilege.

So the very conditions that make liberal democracy possible also narrowly limit the scope of democratic accountability. Liberal democracy leaves untouched the whole new sphere of domination and coercion created by capitalism, its relocation of substantial powers from the state to civil society, to private property and the compulsions of the market. It leaves untouched vast areas of our daily livesin the workplace, in the distribution of labour and resourceswhich are not subject to democratic accountability but are governed by the powers of property and the 'laws' of the market, the imperatives of profit maximization. This would remain true even in the unlikely event that our 'formal democracy' were perfected so that wealth and economic power no longer meant the gross inequality of access to state power which now characterizes the reality, if not the ideal, of modern capitalist democracy.

The characteristic way in which liberal democracy deals with this new sphere of power is not to check but to liberate it. In fact, liberalism does not even recognize it as a sphere of power or coercion at all. This, of course, is especially true of the market, which tends to be conceived as an opportunity, not a compulsion. The market is conceived as a sphere of freedom, choice, even by those who see the need to regulate it. Any limits that may be necessary to correct the harmful effects of this freedom are perceived as just that, limits. As with most kinds of freedom, there may have to be certain restrictions or regulations imposed on it to maintain social order; but it is still a kind of freedom. In other words, in the conceptual framework of liberal democracy, we cannot really talk, or even think, about freedom from the market. We cannot think of freedom from the market as a kind of empowerment, a liberation from compulsion, an emancipation from coercion and domination.

What about the current tendency to identify democracy with the 'free market'? What about this new definition, according to which the 'new democracies' of eastern Europe are 'democratic' in proportion to their progress in 'marketization', President Yeltsin's accretion of power to the presidency is 'democratic' because it is conducted in the name of 'privatization' and 'the market', or General Pinochet was more 'democratic' than a freely elected Salvador Allende? Does this usage represent a subversion or distortion of liberal democracy?

The balance has certainly been tilted too far, but it is not completely inconsistent with the fundamental principles of liberal democracy. The very condition that makes it possible to define democracy as we do in modern liberal capitalist societies is the separation and enclosure of the economic sphere and its invulnerability to democratic power. Protecting that invulnerability has even become an essential criterion of democracy. This definition allows us to invoke democracy against the empowerment of the people in the economic sphere. It even makes it possible to invoke democracy in defence of a curtailment of democratic rights in other parts of 'civil society' or even in the political domain, if that is what is needed to protect property and the market against democratic power.

The sphere of economic power in capitalism has expanded far beyond the capacities of 'democracy' to cope with it; and liberal democracy, whether as a set of institutions or a system of ideas, is not designed to extend its reach into that domain. If we are confronting the 'end of History', it may not be in the sense that liberal democracy has triumphed but rather in the sense that it has very nearly reached its limits. There is much good in liberalism that needs to be preserved, protected and improved, not only in parts of the world where it scarcely exists but even in capitalist democracies where it is still imperfect and often under threat. Yet the scope for further historical development may belong to the other tradition of democracy, the tradition overshadowed by liberal democracy, the idea of democracy in its literal meaning as popular power.

Although we have found new ways of protecting 'civil society' from the 'state', and the 'private' from intrusions by the 'public', we have yet to find new, modern ways to match the depth of freedom and democracy enjoyed by the Athenian citizen in other respects. In The Persians (242), Aeschylus has a chorus of Persian elders tell us that to be an Athenian citizen is to be masterless, a servant to no mortal man. Or recall the speech in Euripides' The Suppliants (429 ff.), describing a free polis as one in which the rule of law allows equal justice to rich and poor, strong and weak alike, where anyone who has something useful to say has the right to speak before the public that is, where there is isegoriabut also where the free citizen does not labour just in order to enrich a tyrant by his toil. There is something here which is completely absent from, and even antithetical to, the later European concept of liberty. It is the freedom of the demos from masters, not the freedom of the masters themselves. It is not the oligarch's eleutheria, in which freedom from labour is the ideal qualification for citizenship, but the eleutheria of the labouring demos and the freedom of labour.

In practice, Athenian democracy was certainly exclusive, so much so that it may seem odd to call it a democracy at all. The majority of the populationwomen, slaves, and resident aliens (metics)did not enjoy the privileges of citizenship. But the necessity of working for a living and even the lack of property were not grounds for exclusion from full political rights. In this respect, Athens exceeded the criteria of all but the most visionary democrats for many centuries thereafter.

Nor is it self-evident that even the most democratic polity today confers on its propertyless and working classes powers equal to those enjoyed by 'banausic' citizens in Athens. Modern democracy has become more inclusive, finally abolishing slavery and granting citizenship to women as well as to working men. It has also gained much from the absorption of 'liberal' principles, respect for civil liberties and 'human rights'. But the progress of modern democracy has been far from unambiguous, for as political rights have become less exclusive, they have also lost much of their power.

We are, then, left with more questions than answers. How might citizenship, in modern conditions and with an inclusive citizen body, regain the salience it once had? What would it mean, in a modern capitalist democracy, not only to preserve the gains of liberalism, civil liberties and the protection of 'civil society', nor even just to invent more democratic conceptions of representation and new modes of local autonomy, but also to recover powers lost to the 'economy'? What would it take to recover democracy from the formal separation of the 'political' and the 'economic', when political privilege has been replaced by economic coercion, exerted not just by capitalist property directly but also through the medium of the market? If capitalism has replaced political privilege with the powers of economic coercion, what would it mean to extend citizenshipand this means not just a greater equality of 'opportunity', or the passive entitlements of welfare provision, but democratic accountability or active self-governmentinto the economic sphere?

Is it possible to conceive of a form of democratic citizenship that reaches into the domain sealed off by modern capitalism? Could capitalism survive such an extension of democracy? Is capitalism compatible with democracy in its literal sense? If its current malaise proves still more protracted, will it even remain compatible with liberalism? Can capitalism still rely on its capacity to deliver material prosperity, and will it triumph together with liberal democracy, or will its survival in hard times increasingly depend on a curtailment of democratic rights?

Is liberal democracy, in theory and practice, adequate to deal even with the conditions of modern capitalism, let alone whatever may lie outside or beyond it? Does liberal democracy look like the end of History because it has surpassed all conceivable alternatives, or because it has exhausted its own capacities, while concealing other possibilities? Has it really overcome all rivals or simply obscured them temporarily from view?

The task that liberalism sets for itself is, and will always remain, indispensable. As long as there are states, there will be a need to check their power and to safeguard independent powers and organizations outside the state. For that matter, any kind of social power needs to be hedged around with protections for freedom of association, communication, diversity of opinion, an inviolable private sphere, and so on. On these scores, any future democracy will continue to have lessons to learn from the liberal tradition in theory and in practice. But liberalismeven as an ideal, let alone as a deeply flawed actualityis not equipped to cope with the realities of power in a capitalist society, and even less to encompass a more inclusive kind of democracy than now exists.



NOTES

  1. Sir Thomas Smith, De Republica Anglorurn, ed. Mary Dewar (Cambridge, 1982), p. 79.

  2. The practical differences between republicans and Whigs, or at least the more radical wing, in the politics of the seventeenth century were not always clear.

  3. See Neal Wood, John Locke and Agrarian Capilalism (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1984).

  4. For a powerful critique of attempts to portray Locke as a democrat, see David McNally, 'Locke, Levellers and Liberty: Property and Democracy in the Thought of the First Whigs', History of Political Thought, 10(i) (1989), pp. 17-40. I have also argued against such interpretations in 'Locke Against Democracy: Consent, Representation and Suffrage in the Two Treatises', History of Political Thought, 13(4) (1992), pp. 657-89, and 'Radicalism, Capitalism and Historical Contexts: Not Only a Reply to Richard Ashcraft on John Locke', History of Political Thought, 15(3) (1994).

  5. Smith, De Republica Anglorum, p. 57. It is interesting in this connection to compare Smiths definition with that of his contemporary, Jean Bodin, who, in his Six Books of the Commonwealth, treats 'families, colleges, or corporate bodies', not individual free men, as the constituent units of the commonwealth, reflecting the realities of France, where corporate institutions and identities continued to play a prominent role in political life.

  6. Robin Osborne, Demos: The Discovery of Classical Attika (Cambridge, 1985), p. 189.

  7. For more on these points, see my Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy, (London, 1988), pp. 101-7.

  8. For a discussion of the relation between peasants, lords, and the state in medieval and early modern Europe, see Robert Brenner, 'The Agrarian Roots of European Capitalism', in TH. Aston and C.H.E. Philpin, eds., The Brenner Debate: Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe (Cambridge, 1985), pp. 213-327.

  9. On the nation as an 'imagined community', see Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (London, 1983).

  10. For an illuminating discussion of this model and its implications, see Peter Manicas, 'The Foreclosure of Democracy in America', History of Political Thought, 9(i) (1988), pp. 137-60. On the Federalists in the context of the debates leading up to and surrounding the Constitution, see Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (New York, 1972).

  11. See W.R. Connor, 'Festival and Democracy', in Charles Hedrick and Josiah Ober, eds., Democracy Ancient and Modern (unpublished, 1994).

  12. For a discussion of this point, see G. Wood, Creation, pp. 526-7.

  13. See Martin Ostwald, 'Shares and Rights: '"Citizenship" Greek and American Style', in Hedrick and Ober, eds., Democracy.

  14. M.I. Finley, Ancient S1avery and Modern Ideology (London, 1980), p. 90.

  15. See Paul Cartledge, 'Comparatively Equal', in Hedrick and Ober, eds., Democracy.

  16. Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War II. 37.

  17. Hamilton's views are fairly unambiguous, but even the more 'Jeffersonian' Madison felt the need to dilute the powers of the popular multitude for the protection of property. See, for example, G. Wood, Creation, pp. 221, 410-11, 503-4.

  18. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Empire: 1875-1914 (London, 1987), pp. 87-8.

  19. Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, ed. Duncan Forbes (Edinburgh, 1978), p. 187.

  20. Hobsbawm, Age of Empire, pp. 93-4.

  21. The meaning of the word 'liberalism' is notoriously elusive and variable. I am using it here to refer to a body of commonly related principles having to do with 'limited' government, civil liberties, toleration, the protection of a sphere of privacy against intrusion by the state. together with an emphasis on individuality, diversity and pluralism.

  22. The 'tolerance' of the 1688 Settlement was, of course, strictly limited, excluding Catholics from the monarchy, and indeed all non-Anglicans from public office and the established universities. As for 'respect for the law', it was unambiguously the law of the dominant propertied class, embodied in a Parliament which, especially in the eighteenth century, embarked on a spree of self-interested legislation, multiplying the number of capital crimes to protect private property, undertaking a series of Parliamentary enclosures, and so on. The 'impartial administration of justice' is a quaint way of describing the justice of the gentry as administered by the landed class itself notably in the persons of Justices of the Peace. But then this unqualified praise for the Glorious Revolution came from a Prime Minister who presided over the most sustained attack on both popular power and civil liberties in Britain since the advent of universal suffragein the form of security laws, destruction of local authorities, profoundly restrictive trade union legislation, etc.

    If anything, 1688 represented a regression of democratic power, not only relative to the more radical period of the English Civil War, hut in some respects even in comparison to the restored monarchy. In fact, the franchise was more restricted in the eighteenth century than it had been for much of the seventeenth.



  
 
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