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claude pérès

and the pursuit of happiness


Demokratia - δημοκρατία
Traditions of gatherings, discussions, debates and deliberations date
back to prehistoric Mesopotamia, to Assyria during the Isin-Larsa Period
or Old Babylonian1. Some scholars cite the example of South East Asia
under the Emperor Ashoka, where public discussions were highly valued2 .
It is argued that the African concept, Ubuntu, a commitment to the
community at large through deliberation, can be found in almost all
African languages3.

In different parts of the world, during different times, assemblies and


councils emerged, either comprised of elders or of men bearing arms or
even, rarely, the entire village. They would make up the assembly, called
to discuss political, religious or legal matters, or to address local disputes,
the control of resources, or to decide whether or not to go to war.

I would like to forget about theory and look into those experiences of
democracy throughout the world. Did they face the same challenges?
Were their responses different? What does it say about our idea of living
together? And our conception of Democracy?

1 Thorkild Jacobsen, Primitive Democracy in Ancient Mesopotamia, Journal of Near Eastern

Studies, Vol. 2, No. 3,1943.


2 Amartya Kumar Sen, Democracy and its global roots, The New Republic, 229, 2003.

3 Yusef Waghid, “Universities and Public Goods: In Defence of Democratic

Deliberation, Compassionate Imagining and Cosmopolitan Justice”, Blitzer E, Higher Education


in South Africa. Stellenbosch: Sun Press, 2009.
But first of all, that very term “Democracy”, how was is coined? It
combines the Greek term Demos, or “the people”, and Kratos, or
“power”, “rule”… We will focus on those terms later. And the word
Democracy emerged in Athens with arguably the most elaborate
democratic experiment in human history.

This Athenian democracy has come a long way. It traces its roots back
as far as the Bronze-Age Mycenaen world. The multiplicity of gods and
the multiplicity of rulers in aristocratic systems, made inconceivable the
authority of only one man. Instead the search for consensus among the
rulers, the Basileis was crucial. They would argue, debate, disagree and
challenge each other. My idea is that those Gods endlessly arguing and
this reluctance to accept the ruling of one man, paved the way.

Also, in the Ancient Greek culture, taking part in a Polis was essential.
The Polis, the political and social organization of the city, consists in a
commitment to the community at large. It functions like a language,
kept alive by the people who would practice it, both learning and
teaching it through that practice. The Athenian Polis gradually came to
be comprised of all adult male citizens. And the Athenian democracy
expanded. A large part of Athenian citizens would likely be called once
in their lives through allotment and regular rotation to look into legal and
political matters and consider a range of different arguments. They
would listen, change their minds, question, argue, etc and, thus, in doing
so exercise, modify and reinforce the democratic Polis. We will observe
how it evolved.

Alongside the word Demokratia which was likely used by Athenian


democrats4 to describe their organization, they also coined the term
“Isonomia”. The terms arguable meaning is equality before the law and

4 Mogens Herman Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes, University of

Oklahoma Press, 1999, pp. 70-71.


equality through the law5, with Isos, meaning equal and Nomos meaning
custom or law. My understanding is that Isonomia would work as a
balanced, intertwined correlation between liberty and equality. Since
inequality would mean less liberty for some, and less liberty would mean
less power for some, equality and liberty function as a sole concept by
which citizens hold these two notions, and keep each one of in check. I
would like you to keep in mind this delicate relationship between liberty
and equality. We will use it to read those democratic experiments we are
about to consider.

5 Gregory Vlastos, Studies in Greek Philosophy: The Presocratics, Princeton University Press,

1993, p. 99.
Demos - δῆμος

The term Demos, or “the people”, holds a double meaning of both the
whole people and also the “common” one. It is not clear whether the
word Demokratia, the power of the Demos, was coined first by the critics
of a Constitution that would, according to them, allow the poorest to
overpower the aristocrats. If so, they would have used Demos
pejoratively in the sense of “common people”. Or by the Athenian
Democrats themselves, who would have meant the whole people, thus
including the “common” one.

As I said, I would like to forget about theory. Instead of trying to define


what a Demos is, I would like to see how it works. One example, I think,
may provide some information about how people are brought together
or divided.

In the mid-twentieth century, an anthropologist described the social


organization of the Samale, a nomadic people in the Horn of Africa as
more or less “democratic almost to the point of anarchy”6 . Those
pastoral nomads move around the northern region of Somalia with their
flocks of sheep and goats, leading their camels with equipment-carrying.
Those are useless details but I love to picture them wandering through
the mountains. The hut (aqal) consists of curved wooden supports with
grass and animal hide coverings7. They are divided and unified by

6 I. M. Lewis, The Somali Conquest of the Horn of Africa, in The Journal of African History, Vol. 1,

No. 2, 1960, p. 215.


7 I. M. Lewis, A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics Among the Northern

Somali of the Horn of Africa, International African Institute, 1999, p. 56.


groups through a combination of lineage and clans8 . The cohesion
within the group is as strong as their antagonism against other groups.
Within the group, the members are bound in an egalitarian9 manner by
a contract, pledging “to support each other in collective political and
legal responsibility”10. Toward other groups, to protect their “rights in
livestock and their rights of access to grazing and water”11, they engage
in feuds and wars, mobilizing a sense of community that remains
otherwise loose, widely dispersed in the pastures.

Moving towards southern Somalia, some migrants settled and


adopted agriculture12. They kept this tradition of solidarity however and
still take on a fair share of collective work in the village, including
cultivation, water management, and hunting. The people in the southern
cultivated Sab has been described as “less bellicose”, with a more
hierarchical political organization13, suggesting that power struggles and
antagonisms had instilled and stiffened within the group.

Hold that thought. We will see more of the Samale later. I would like to
pause and consider another example dealing with this question of the
struggle over ressources.

8 I. M. Lewis, Clanship and Contract in Northern Somaliland, in Africa: Journal of the

International African Institute, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1959, p. 277.


9 I. M. Lewis, A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics Among the Northern

Somali of the Horn of Africa, International African Institute, 1999, p. 3.


10 I. M. Lewis, A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics Among the Northern

Somali of the Horn of Africa, International African Institute, 1999, p. 6.


11 I. M. Lewis, A Pastoral Democracy: A Study of Pastoralism and Politics Among the Northern

Somali of the Horn of Africa, International African Institute, 1999, p. 3.


12 I. M. Lewis, From Nomadism to Cultivation, in Man in Africa, Travistock Publications, 1969, p.

62.
13 I. M. Lewis, The Somali Conquest of the Horn of Africa, in The Journal of African History, Vol. 1,

No. 2, 1960, p. 215.


Noting that the “major political and religious centers” of the Maya
people during the Late Formative in Mesoamerica were located “near
natural or artificially created water supplies”, an archeologist emphasizes
the importance of those reservoirs for a cultivating population in zones
with dry-season episodes. Their development would allow more people
to come but would also cause power struggles. He imagines the
concentration of power in the hands of those who controlled the
reservoirs, who could command manpower to construct and maintain
them and thus the need for more social organization and stratification14.

But we are digressing… Let’s leave it at that and note that the control
of resources brings together and also antagonizes people. Let’s take
another example that might help us understand how people are unified
or divided…

A typical Kalabari fishing village, in the Eastern Niger Delta, before the
arrival of Europeans, had a population ranging from 200 to 100015. The
assembly of all adult males, ama kobiri, dealt with legal and political
matters. The solidarity in the community was based upon an open
lineage, combined with generational bonds.
The sense of community, here, was ritualized in two institutions. Ekine
was a series of masquerades during which one had to master a
sophisticated drum language referring to the traditions, myths and history
of the village. Periapu ogbo, meaning the association of head-hunters,
was a gathering of men who had successfully caught a man from
another village and brought him to be killed 16.

14 Richard E. W. Adams, Prehistoric Mesoamerica, University of Oklahoma Press, 1991, pp.

135-136.
15 Robin Horton, From Fishing Village to City-State, in Man in Africa, Travistock Publications,

1969, p. 40.
16 Ibid, p. 43.
By the way, it is worth noting that in the majority of Kalabari fishing
villages, the waters remained undivided, as the availability of the
resources, the fish, would vary with fish migration17.

As the Atlantic slave trade developed, slaves were bought and the
population of the village grew considerably. The community became
more stratified. Fewer people, those who controlled the slave trade,
concentrated more and more power in their hands18. The definition,
mobilization and reinforcement of the idea of community evolved. A
clear and symbolic line used to be drawn between the men of one
village and those of other villages, now it was a matter of degrees. Ekine,
the masquerade ritual, was then used as a way of acculturation: a slave
could climb the social ladder by showing his skills. Let’s take a break
here. I would like to stress out this question of degrees. My idea is that
some people are more or less part of the group. And here, by mastering
the culture, the history, the language of the group during the ritual, one
would show whether he is more or less part of the community. The
second ritual, Periapu ogbo, the head hunters’ association was replaced
by koronogbo, the strong club, a gathering of men , who wandered the
streets at night and killed those who spoke with a foreign accent19. One
scholar sees koronogbo as merely a threat meant to encourage the
learning of the Kalabari language and culture20.

17 Robin Horton, From Fishing Village to City-State, in Man in Africa, Travistock Publications,

1969, p. 44.
18 Robin Horton, From Fishing Village to City-State, in Man in Africa, Travistock Publications,

1969, p. 51.
19 Ebiegberi Joe Alagoa, Development of the Eastern Niger Delta States, in Journal of African

History, XII, 2, 1971, p. 276.


20 Robin Horton, From Fishing Village to City-State, in Man in Africa, Travistock Publications,

1969, p. 54.
I would like to refrain from sharing my personal opinion, just know that I
didn’t find any example of the making of a group that didn’t antagonize
other groups.

Now, let’s focus on another example of a more or less democratic


experience and see how it was organized.

Thoroughly looking into ancient texts, a scholar depicts the evolution


of the social stratification in Eastern India during the first half of the
millennium BCE. Based first on lineage, the stratification evolved with the
shift toward agriculture. Division of territory and degrees of labor
became decisive in the social organization: the more one worked, the
lower he would be on the social ladder21.
In the Ganges Plain, the gana-sangha, meaning “assembly of equals”,
was a kind of proto-state, organized like an oligarchic republic, and
divided in two strata: the kshatriya rajakula, the ruling families, and the
dasa-karmakara, the slaves and laborers.
The group taking part in the decision-making process, was limited to
the heads of the ruling families who attended the assembly. Decisions
were deliberated on and sometimes voted on when a unanimous
decision could not be reached22.
Slaves were more expensive than the hiring of workers. They remained
an item of luxury23 .
The slaves and laborers were not represented in the assembly and had
virtually no rights24 .
The scholar points out that in the Buddhist account of the origin of the
State, likely the earliest theory of a Social Contract, there is a necessity

21 Romila Thapar, History of Early India, Penguin Books, 2002, p. 123.

22 Ibid., p. 148.

23 Romila Thapar, From lineage to State, Social Formations in the Mid-First Millennium B.C. in

the Ganga Valley, Oxford University Press, 1984,


24 Romila Thapar, History of Early India, Penguin Books, 2002, p. 149.
for authority to rule and maintain justice. This authority was necessary
due to disputes and struggles from the concepts of family and private
property25. We will come back to the gana-sangha later and see how
the raja established his power.

Now, I would like to make a point before going on. Let’s consider this
common sense idea about black, white and all the shades of grey. Say
that philosophy is about thinking the words used to think the world. For
centuries, after Socrates, Plato or Aristotle, philosophers focused on trying
to define what makes the world, Truth, Justice, Wisdom, Beauty and so
on… They would fabricate words or concepts, unify and classify things
and create their opposites. Here you would have a clear-cut white
opposed to a clear-cut black. And the black would be used as a proof
that the white exists… To be fair, the all philosophical adventure consists
in conceiving plenty of strategies to escape those dualisms. By the way,
Socrates, Plato and Aristotle happened not to be in favor of Democracy.
No wonder… If you consider the Truth as a fixed point, there is no room
for pluralism and debates… Anyway… The world happens not to be that
easily disciplined. And the words and concepts don’t function like a fixed
point but rather like a vanishing point. There is degrees of Truth. There is
things you will be more or less able to check. Words and concepts work
like combinations, mixtures… So you need to figure a different way to use
them that allows for their combinations and shift in degrees, to go on…
You need to think in shades of grey rather that in blind sided white and
black… Why am I trying to make that point? Because that is how groups
or Demos work. You will not find a specific, established group and you will
not find individuals that are permanently and equally parts of that group.
You will have combinations to define a group and degrees to locate the
individuals.

25 Ibid., pp. 149-150.


Now, we may proceed and look into the Athenian experience that will
provide another example of this proliferation of combinations and this
shift in degrees.

Before the constitution of the Athenian Democracy, the community at


large was organized in two strata, the aristocrats and the commoners.
During the Mycenaean civilization the agriculture was centralized and
controlled by a council of Basileis, noblemen26. After the decline of this
civilization, some Okoi, or families of farmers, were able to take control
over parcels of land and increase their wealth. During this transition,
between 900 and 700 BCE, the slave trade began to develop27, since
Slaves were useful in the fields.

The term Andrapodismos, enslavement, is used in Ancient Greece to


describe the conquest of a city—its pillage and its destruction—the killing
of adult males and enslavement of women and children28. Slaves were
war captives or captives of pirates29 who traded them. Slaves were also
Greek citizens in debt. Debts were tied to the debtor’s children30 or
himself 31. One scholar notes the correlated emergence of the slave
trade and the freedom of those farmers32, its acceptance blurred the
line between freedom and abuse.

26 Donald Kagan, Introduction to Ancient Greek History, Series of lectures at Yale University,

2007, Lecture 3.
27 Ibid., Lecture 5.

28 Mogens Herman Hansen and Thomas Heine Nielsen, An Inventory of Archaic and Classical

Poleis, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 120.


29 Donald Kagan, Introduction to Ancient Greek History, Series of lectures at Yale University,

2007, Lecture 16.


30 Ibid., Lecture 11.

31 Gregory Vlastos, Studies in Greek Philosophy: The Presocratics, Princeton University Press,

1993, p. 101.
32 Donald Kagan, Introduction to Ancient Greek History, Series of lectures at Yale University,

2007, Lecture 5.
As the increasingly wealthy farmers and slave trade began to emerge,
balance of power was shifting. The separation between aristocrats and
commoners was replaced. In the early stages of the Athenian
Democracy, social categories became based on wealth, and no longer
on birth33.
The peasants, who were asking for a fairer division of the land and the
redistribution of political rights, saw their requests denied. The only
economic measure was the cancellation of debts secured onto
individual persons: a citizen could no longer be enslaved, and citizenship
couldn’t be lost or sold anymore. A clear line between citizens and
slaves was drawn by granting minimal rights to even the poorest citizens.
One scholar argues that, thereby the elite expected a “large body of
persons” to side with them against the slaves34. These changes reinforced
the notions of citizenship and Demos. To sum it up, some people living in
Athens would be more or less or not at all citizens.

After a series of events, including the rise and fall of a tyrant and
violent riots35, democracy was fully established. The poorest could take
equal part in the decision-making process. One scholar emphasized the
politicisation of the citizens and the emergence of a jealous conscious
towards the Athenian citizenry36.
In times of “chronic malady of poverty” 37, as another scholar phrases
it, the poorest will enjoy equal political rights while still struggling to cover
basic necessities.

33 Ibid., Lecture 11.

34 Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 62.

35 Josiah Ober, The Athenian Revolution of 508/7 B.C.E., in Cultural Poetics in Archaic Greece,

Cambridge University Press, 1993, p. 216.


36 Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 68.

37 Gregory Vlastos, Studies in Greek Philosophy: The Presocratics, Princeton University Press,

1993, p. 102.
In the early Athenian democracy, citizenship was limited to adult
males with a citizen father, representing 20 per cent of the population.
Women, slaves and foreigners, called Metics, were excluded. Soon,
citizenship was also offered to metic residents of Athens who had
desirable skills38.
Two centuries later, after their defeat in the Peloponnesian war, the
city-state was ruled by Spartan oligarchs. Exiled Athenians, alongside
mostly Metics and slaves39, were gathered to form an army to overthrow
these tyrants. When the proposition was made to grant citizenship to the
soldiers who had fought to liberate Athens and restore Democracy, the
Athenians voted no40 .

The Ekklesia, the Athenian Assembly, which met 40 times a year on the
Pnyx hill 41, was open to as many as 50000 men. Though most of them
lived too far away to attend, approximately 6000 men were actively
participating42. While the leisure class comprised just 5 to 10 percent of
the population, prominent citizens, orators, litigants and politicians were
primarily, if not entirely, members of this class43.

The variety of combinations and degrees implied by the term Demos


—to unify and oppose, disunify and re-oppose—didn’t only shape the
Athenian social organization, but also their relationships towards the
region.

38 Donald Kagan, Introduction to Ancient Greek History, Series of lectures at Yale University,

2007, Lecture 11.


39 Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 97.

40 Donald Kagan, Introduction to Ancient Greek History, Series of lectures at Yale University,

2007, Lecture 21.


41 Mogens Herman Hansen and Thomas Heine Nielsen, An Inventory of Archaic and Classical

Poleis, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 630.


42 Ibid., Lecture 15.

43 Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 192.
The Greeks were divided into four tribes speaking different dialects.
Depending on their circumstances, they would emphasize their
commonality, when unified against a common enemy 44 (Persa,
Syracuse, etc.). When worried by the growing influence of one of them
(Sparta, Macedon…), their cultural and religious distinctions were
emphasized45. The Athenian democracy was, therefore, engaged in
constant battles and wars. As they sought hegemony in the region, they
committed Andrapodismoi, the destruction of conquered cities, while
slaughtering the men and enslaving women and children46.

Though, I will not elaborate on the modern representative


democracies, I will add a few notes to put our study into perspective.
The American Republic would have been seen as an oligarchic regime
by the Greeks 47. At its founding, only white, land-owning men could vote
— representing just 6% of the population48. Women, black men, poor
men, Native Americans, foreigners were denied the same rights.
Today in the US, only 20% of legislators in the Congress grew up in
working-class homes and only 2% have held working-class jobs49.
The Founders were reluctant to engage the US in war and saw warfare
as a threat to the check-and-balance system. According to the
founders, war would grant extended power to the Executive arm50.
Despite this, the US has fought in a dozen wars since the revolution.

44 Jennifer T. Roberts, The Plague of War: Athens, Sparta, and the Struggle for Ancient Greece,

Oxford University Press, 2017, p. 12.


45 Cf for example Donald Kagan, Introduction to Ancient Greek History, Series of lectures at Yale

University, 2007, Lesson 21.


46 Cf Mogens Herman Hansen and Thomas Heine Nielsen, An Inventory of Archaic and Classical

Poleis, Oxford University Press, 2004.


47 Cf Aristotle, Politics IV.

48 Expansion of Rights and Liberties - The Right of Suffrage, Online Exhibit: The Charters of

Freedom. National Archives.


49 Nicholas Carnes, White-Collar Government, University of Chicago Press, 2013, p. 6.

50 Cf James Madison, Political observations, 20 April 1795.


The open-source database Wikipedia maintains a list where war
crimes perpetrated by so-called democratic regimes—the US, UK,
France, etc.—are recorded. They are, of course, horrifying to read.
Executions of defeated soldiers, massacres of civilians, rape and torture
seem inconsistent with the very idea of democracy, but they are all too
recurrent to be written off as irregular incidents. Do those crimes
contradict, weaken or disprove the idea of democracy? Or do these
incidents define it?

We see that the very definition of the Demos, the establishment of a


group, a community, scholars would call it a unit, generates a multiplicity
of degrees and antagonisms between those who are more or less or not
at all parts of the Demos. We see that birth, wealth, culture, merit, are
used to locate the vanishing point of the Demos until a redefinition
mobilizes different combinations to locate it elsewhere, depending on
the circumstances. To be clear, yes, the wealthiest or the well-born, the
more cultivated or any other merit depending on the criteria, will enjoy
more rights and antagonize more and more with those who are
somehow lesser citizens, up to the end of the spectrum. Let’s go straight
to the point… The definition of a Demos appears to be arbitrary and
creates plenty of inequalities. Obviously, the definition of a Demos is not
exclusive to Democracy, all types of systems establish a Demos, a group
or a people, but it is a prerequisite, as the name Democracy suggests. I
mean you need to have a Demos if you want the Demos to rule. Now,
we are stumbling… Because the definition of a Demos seems to pose a
threat to or, say, contradicts the very idea of Democracy—in which
every one is supposed to take an equal part to the community.
Kratos - Κράτος
Kratos means “power”, “dominion”, “domination” or even “rule”… The
critics of democracy will emphasize the “domination” aspect of the
meaning to condemn democracy as inherently brutal, a domination of
the majority, i.e. the poor. I would be curious to see an example of the
poor dominating a society, though. Modern scholars note that as a suffix,
Kratos is not used to describe a regime, but refers to political offices or
decisions to be made. They therefore redefine Kratos as a strength, a
“capacity to do things”, an empowerment which rebuffs the very idea of
domination51.

I would like to focus my attention on that question of liberty, power


and the decision-making.

Among the Samale, the nomadic people in the Horn of Africa, the
heer, a contract or treaty in the egalitarian sense 52, binds each member
to his group. The word heer also refers to the rope fastening at the top of
the nomadic hut to the ground. Within a group, the heer consists of a set
of obligations, rights and duties, and provisions of compensations in case
of homicide, wounding and insult, from adultery to defamation. It also
defines the collective responsibility in case of disputes with another
group, since each member receives or gives his share in the

51 Josiah Ober, The Original Meaning of “Democracy”: Capacity to do things, not Majority Rule,

Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2007


52 I. M. Lewis, Clanship and Contract in Northern Somaliland, in Africa: Journal of the

International African Institute, Vol. 29, No. 3, 1959, p. 282.


compensation53. I assume the paying of your share of the damages
because of the action of someone in your group is indeed binding.
The elders may order a member who neglects or refuses to fulfill his
duties to be punished, or even excluded from the group. Between
groups, an ad hoc panel of arbitrators will try to settle the dispute,
though they have no means to enforce their conclusions.
The heer is not static and is constantly being revised54 as the size of the
group varies. It may be enlarged to include a whole clan when at war or
reduced because of conflicts or new attachments. It is worth noting that
when a man refuses to meet his obligations and is supported by his close
kinsmen, their party will pay money to secede55. With the possibility to
challenge a ruling, or to dissent and escape the group’s authority,
stratification of the social organization is inconceivable.

I would like to take another example and track a movement of


concentration of power.

In the Ganges Plain, during the first half of the millennium before our
era, the Raja was merely a leader. His power was checked, in a sort of
“government by discussion”56, as one scholar phrases it. These checks
were orchestrated through assemblies and councils: the vidatha, a
gathering for ceremonies57, the sabha, a council of a chosen group and
the samiti, an assembly of the clan.
As “the need for protection and for social regulation” became
necessary58, a “military leader” was selected. The Raja had to defend
the settlement, carry out raids and win booties to reinforce his status.

53 Ibid., p. 283.

54 Ibid., p. 286.

55 Ibid., p. 283.

56 J.P. Sharma, Republics in Ancient India, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1968, p. 13.

57 J.P. Sharma, Republics in Ancient India, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1968, p. 77.

58 Romila Thapar, History of Early India, Penguin Books, 2002, p. 119.


Assuming more and more privileges, and gaining more and more power,
soon he associated his influence with a territory, and began
incorporating the families settled in the villages along with the wider
clans59.
Ceremonies, rituals, sacrifices became a necessity in order to establish
his authority. The priest developed his influence, both legitimizing and
challenging this authority60. The Raja also reinforced his power by rooting
his legitimacy in a lineage, allowing his office to become hereditary61.
The influence of the assemblies declined: “the sabha could act as an
advisory body to the Raja, but he was the final authority”62 . The notion of
the State had emerged 63.

I glance through this example, but I think it gives an idea of how a


power can grow and strengthen.

A very different movement, a wide and ambitious spread of power,


can be traced through the Athenian experience. Over almost two
hundred years, from the late sixth century through to the late fourth
centuries BCE, the Athenian democracy deepened.

Originally limited to only the wealthiest citizens, almost all the offices
were gradually opened to more and more people. Payments for
attendance in the Assembly or the courts allowed the poorest to
participate64.
During the aristocratic regime, the Archons, or rulers, were elected
from the aristocracy for a non-renewable term of one year. This

59 Romila Thapar, History of Early India, Penguin Books, 2002, p. 121.

60 Ibid., p. 120.

61 Ibid., p. 121.

62 Ibid.

63 Ibid., p. 120.

64 Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 98.
prevented anyone from expanding his power and popularity65. During
the democratic regime, the rotation was still annual, but the offices were
allocated by allotment among almost all citizens 66. Ostracism was
another measure to forbid anyone to gain too much influence, as the
Assembly could vote to ban someone from Attica for 10 years 67.
Their sense of citizenship developed as they were taking part in the
decision-making process, thereby learning and experiencing their rights.
They must have been galvanized by a sense of entitlement as a vast
proportion of the population was still denied those very same rights. The
influence of the wealthiest or the wellborn faded as they saw even the
poorest members of society could stand up to them68. Failed coup
attempts by some of the elites increased the jealousy of the democrats69
and they became even more suspicious of displays of wealth and
power70 .
While the wellborn could still leverage their education or generosity 71, I
could not find any provision aimed to protect the rights of the most
fragile dissidents from normative social pressures, and a duty to prove
that they were worthy of citizenship.

I would like to look into a different kind of experiences, a different way


of making decisions, the search for consensus. I sense that considering
an example where the concentration of power is made impossible will
help us understand what the power is about.

65 Donald Kagan, Introduction to Ancient Greek History, Series of lectures at Yale University,

2007, Lecture 10.


66 Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 8.

67 Donald Kagan, Introduction to Ancient Greek History, Series of lectures at Yale University,

2007, Lecture 12.


68 Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Princeton University Press, 1989, p. 80.

69 Ibid., p. 94.

70 Ibid., p. 86.

71 Ibid., p. 85.
During the mid-twentieth century, a scholar describes the handling of
disputes in rural central Java72 aiming to reach a consensus or
unanimous decision.
In a dukuhan, a local village, the population forms a small community
which is careful to maintain social harmony and cooperation. While the
authority structure of administration is a pyramid, at the dukuhan level
authority is loosened as a spirit of independence from the government is
growing. Decision-making meetings are open to all the male residents
over 18 and all married women. Matters are not decided by voting but
rather by trying to achieve unanimity.
Depending on the matters—taxes, division of land, irrigation water,
labor for community projects (like the building of a school or the
establishment of a cooperative…)—the propositions would be initiated
by individuals, small groups or by the local authorities. Arguments would
be heard, avoiding direct confrontations while the initiators make their
case and try to gain support. Objections would then be raised and
modifications considered. Talented orators and influential figures would
try to weigh in, but if an essential unanimity was not secured, the
proposal would be tacitly dropped or postponed. It is worth noting
though that these meetings were called less frequent, as they tended to
antagonize people.

In observing the committee in Pentrediwaith, a British village where


people are said to avoid the “open expression of conflict” and try to
reach unanimity, a scholar addresses the issue of consensus. He notes
that those who decide in this committee are those who will implement
the decisions and will also be affected by them. Hence, unanimity

72 Robert R Jay, Local Government in Rural Central Java, The Far Eastern Quarterly

Vol. 15, No. 2, 1956, pp. 215-227.


appears necessary, since a dissatisfied minority could block their
implementation73.

The Founders of the Republic of the United States expressed concerns


about the tyranny of the majority or the possibility for a faction, even
amounting to a majority, to “adverse to the rights of other citizens” 74. In
this example, that concern is null as the minority is able to prevent a
decision to be implemented. The scholar tells the anecdote of a
secretary of the committee, “who was on the losing side” when a
decision was made and “forgot to write the minutes” of the debates 75.

Let’s take another example of this decision making process by


consensus where a majority can’t impose their ruling.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded in the 17th century by a


group of Puritan refugees from England. While the founders of the
settlements “abhorred democracy” 76, one century later the townsmen
had to open their local gatherings to most of the male population.
Women, tenants and men living with their fathers were excluded as it
was assumed they would do as their husbands, fathers or landlords
desired77. During the meetings of the men of the town, they too had to
try and reach unanimity as they had no “autonomous instrument” to
enforce their decisions78.

73 F.G. Bailey, Decisions by Consensus in Councils and Committees: with special Reference to

Village and local Government in India, in Political systems and the distribution of power,
Routledge, 1965, p. 9.
74 Cf James Madison, Fœderalist 10, 1787.

75 F.G. Bailey, op. cit., p. 8.

76 Michael Zuckerman, The Social Context of Democracy in Massachusetts in William and Mary

Quarterly 25, 1968, p. 525.


77 Ibid., p. 533.

78 Ibid., p. 526.
It is worth noting though that, in fanatic pursuit of harmony, and where
differences in values, religion, nationality or culture were rejected79,
unanimity became a coercive device. Casting a vote meant to
“participate in the consolidation”80 and normalization of the community.
That means you would vote like the others to show that you are part of
their group… From time to time even a decision of the majority could be
dismissed when the majority consisted of the newcomers or the
poorest81, particularly when it went against a minority who were intent on
traditions and clinging to privileges and prejudices.

I think we had a glance on the decision-making process by consensus


and its limits. Let’s leave it at that for now. I would like to focus on
another example of this movement of concentration, spread and re-
concentration of power.

In the Medieval Europe, from Italy, Spain and France to Germany and
Russia some villages, too small to be of any interest to the aristocracy,
were self-governing82, managing their political and legal matters or their
commons. The assemblies were equally open to the richest and the
poorest, even to the serfs and the women83 in some towns. The decision-
making process was based on consensus84.
The vast majority of medieval towns however, fell under the authority
of a lord or a bishop who placed their men in strategic positions, from tax
collection to legal matters. The increase population and growing

79 Ibid., p. 538.

80 Ibid., p. 544.

81 Ibid., p. 542.

82 Paul Viollet, Les communes françaises au Moyen Âge, in Mémoires de l'Institut national de

France, tome 36, 2e partie, 1901, pp. 368-369.


83 Paul Viollet, Les communes françaises au Moyen Âge, in Mémoires de l'Institut national de

France, tome 36, 2e partie, 1901, p. 371.


84 Ibid., p. 370.
influence of merchants led to the formation of craftsmen guilds which
disturbed the balance of power. The bourgeoisie, consisting sometimes
of the town's entire population, the people living in the bourg, the small
town or sometimes already limited to the most powerful residents85,
became a powerful entity. The town’s claims for autonomy caused strife
between the bourgeois, the aristocracy and the clergy. In the early 12th
century, the town of Cologne rose against the Bishop 86. Later, in Flanders
or in the region of Liège, the bourgeois also rioted against the Bishop and
the aristocracy87. Some French villages also fought, while other towns
bought their autonomy by paying off the local prince or king88.
In varying ways, the idea of towns, communes and the recognition of
the bourgeois as a unity played out across medieval Europe. Often
protected and unified by a charter, the bourgeois took an oath, a
conjuratio, pledging assistance to their fellow townsmen89. This assistance
could mean managing the common goods, like land, forests 90, the oven
and mill, or sharing the wages for a teacher, doctor or surgeon. They
might even carry fire insurance 91. They sometimes looked into the
regulations of the edible goods (fish, meat, bread, wine, etc.) or
regulations of hawkers or weights and measures 92. They contributed to a

85 Henri Pirenne, Histoire de la Constitution de la ville de Dinant au Moyen-Âge, Gand, 1889, pp.

34-35.
86 Frank R. Lewis, The Wards of Cologne in the Middle Ages, in

Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law, Vol. 21, No. 4 (1939), p. 233.
87 Henri Pirenne, Histoire de la Constitution de la ville de Dinant au Moyen-Âge, Gand, 1889, p.

42.
88 Paul Viollet, Les communes françaises au Moyen Âge, in Mémoires de l'Institut national de

France, tome 36, 2e partie, 1901, p. 373.


89 Paul Viollet, Les communes françaises au Moyen Âge, in Mémoires de l'Institut national de

France, tome 36, 2e partie, 1901, p. 401.


90 Juan Sempere, Histoire des Cortès d’Espagne, Bordeaux, 1815, p. 40.

91 Paul Viollet, Les communes françaises au Moyen Âge, in Mémoires de l'Institut national de

France, tome 36, 2e partie, 1901, p. 404.


92 Ibid., p. 474.
common fund to pay for communal expenses93. Sometimes they were
responsible for the payment of a common tax to the king94. The
bourgeoisie also came to handle legal and judicial matters, sometimes
sharing the offices with the aristocracy95 or the clergy 96. Being a part of a
Commune was seen as a privilege97.
Though the diversity of forms across Europe makes a comprehensive
depiction very difficult, it is possible to observe a similar evolution in the
shift of power. The assemblies usually included all the population of the
town. The General Assembly, the Concio in Venice, the Arengo in other
Italian cities, were open to all citizens98. The entire population of French
towns, accustomed to taking part in the decision-making process, kept
meeting under the communal regime99. In English towns, the mass of
citizens could participate in free elections100.
Soon, a stratum of the population began to concentrate the power. In
Cologne, the Richerzeche, a corporation of the wealthiest, expanded its
influence over the management of affairs101. During the 13th century, in

93 Juan Sempere, Histoire des Cortès d’Espagne, Bordeaux, 1815, p. 44.

94 Charles W Colby, The Growth of Oligarchy in English Towns, in The English Historical Review,

Volume V, Issue XX, 1 October 1890, p. 636.


95 Paul Viollet, Les communes françaises au Moyen Âge, in Mémoires de l'Institut national de

France, tome 36, 2e partie, 1901, p. 475.


96 Henri Pirenne, Histoire de la Constitution de la ville de Dinant au Moyen-Âge, Gand, 1889, p.

30.
97 Paul Viollet, Les communes françaises au Moyen Âge, in Mémoires de l'Institut national de

France, tome 36, 2e partie, 1901, p. 372.


98 Horatio F Brown, Venice, an Historical Sketch of the Republic, London, 1895, p. 273.

99 Paul Viollet, Les communes françaises au Moyen Âge, in Mémoires de l'Institut national de

France, tome 36, 2e partie, 1901, p. 417.


100 Charles W Colby, The Growth of Oligarchy in English Towns, in The English Historical Review,

Volume V, Issue XX, 1 October 1890, p. 641.


101 Frank R. Lewis, The Wards of Cologne in the Middle Ages, in

Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law, Vol. 21, No. 4 (1939), p. 234.
the region of Liège, the word bourgeoisie began to refer only to
landowners and merchants102.

In Venice, the Concio, a general assembly of all the citizens, never


deliberated but only voted on major decisions such as the election of
the higher magistrate or declarations of war. This changes after a
reckless decision to rush into war, preventing the people from adopting
more “rash resolutions”103. It was therefore decided to create a
deliberative assembly. The idea to allow all citizens to take part in the
deliberation doesn’t seem to have been contemplated. Instead, a body
of representatives, elected for one year by the entire population was
created. From the second year, they were chosen by their
predecessors 104, separating themselves from the rest of the Venetians.
Gradually, the Concio was deprived of any power.
In the French Communes, while all the population could take part in
the deliberative process, the poorest slowly lost their grip on power.
Whether they didn’t have time to spare since they had to earn their
living105, or because they felt helpless against the influence and prestige
of the wealthiest106, the poorest saw the more powerful take control of
the government. Small councils were then established, depriving the
general assemblies of any power107, imposing their rules and regulations
on the community108. The members of those councils began to nominate

102 Henri Pirenne, Histoire de la Constitution de la ville de Dinant au Moyen-Âge, Gand, 1889, pp.

34-35.
103 Horatio F Brown, Venice, an Historical Sketch of the Republic, London, 1895, p. 103.

104 Ibid., p. 104.

105 Paul Viollet, Les communes françaises au Moyen Âge, in Mémoires de l'Institut national de

France, tome 36, 2e partie, 1901, p. 417.


106 Ibid., p. 472.

107 Ibid., p. 468.

108 Ibid., p. 474.


their successors109, reinforcing what had by now become oligarchic
regimes. In Spanish towns, the wealthiest plotted, traded and poured
money into holding and keeping control of the municipal offices110.
In English towns, the oligarchy began to “arbitrarily” tax the rest of the
town111, and deprive the poorest of commercial rights 112, going as far as
excluding them from their right of suffrage113 . Later, the Founders of the
Republic of the United States trusted a chosen body to “best discern the
true interest of their country”114, but in those days, in England, those
chosen bodies seem to have simply ruled as they pleased115. The
communities broke up into classes, evermore hostile to one another 116.
Injustices, usurpation, oppression and attempts at extortion provoked
incessant protests and riots117.

109 Edouard de Laplane, Essai sur l'histoire municipale de la ville de Sisteron, Paris, 1840, p. 18.

110 Juan Sempere, Histoire des Cortès d’Espagne, Bordeaux, 1815, p. 241.

111 Charles W Colby, The Growth of Oligarchy in English Towns, in The English Historical Review,

Volume V, Issue XX, 1 October 1890, p. 644.


112 Ibid., p. 645.

113 Ibid., p. 648.

114 James Madison, Fœderalist 10, 1787.

115 Ibid., p. 645.

116 Ibid., p. 646.

117 Ibid., p. 641.


Isomoiria - ισομοιρία
We see the notions of liberty, power and decision-making at work with
those examples. At some point, liberty and power seem to coincide, as
power may imply the liberty to do. Liberty and equality work in balance.
More liberty for some means less liberty for others to enjoy. Thus liberty
shifts into something else, a different kind of power, an abusive one. I
mean the liberty to do over others can not be called liberty but abuse.
We saw how small communities had to reach consensus or unanimity
since they had no enforcement ability. It suggests the brutality required
for a part of the group to enforce their rules when they can. And we saw
how the concentration of power seems to function exponentially. The
more a power extends, the more power it will need to reinforce itself. We
also saw how a group can apply a social pressure and how differences
can be seen as a threat for the group. I think, those are the limits or the
obstacles the making of a Democracy has to face.

But I would like to be a little more personal. I was surprised how… I will
name it, even if it sounds exaggerated… I was surprised how inherently
xenophobic the making of a Demos seems. And the inequalities and
antagonism it generates. I was not expecting either that social
inequalities could threaten to that extent Democracy. For those reasons,
I doubt the promise implied by the word Democracy can be fulfilled
solely by the making of a Democracy. We need to question how we
establish a group ; we have to address the problems of social inequalities
; and we ought to spread and seize the power and not let a group, a
body, an individual keep their grip on our mutual liberties and turn them
into an abusive power… I would like to share a last comment. I was also
surprised by the need in the decision making process for debates,
deliberations, pluralism. How they strengthen the political fabric. That
means we also have to cherish the differences and protect the
minorities. Not because it is the right thing to do but because the promise
of Democracy is at stake.
The Athenian experience might be the only example in history that
such a vast and deep spread of power turned back into liberties.
However, the question of equality remained unsolved. When the Demos
fought to obtain a redistribution of power, they asked for Isomoiria,
consisting in “redivision of the land as well as redistribution of political
rights and privileges”118. We saw that their economic demands were
dismissed. They were granted Isonomia, the equality through the law.
One scholar suggests that this Isonomia, the other term used to refer to
Democracy by the Greeks, can be seen as “the record of a defeat for
the poorest section of the demos”119.


118 Gregory Vlastos, Studies in Greek Philosophy: The Presocratics, Princeton University Press,

1993, p. 101.
119 Ibid., p. 102.
©claude pérès, 2019