The Western World prides itself on its practice of and belief in democracy. But what actually is democracy, how has it evolved, and what has it ultimately meant to our society? The answers might surprise you.

The History of Democracy

The word “democracy” comes from the Greek meaning “rule of the commoners”. It is a type of political system, or a system of decision-making within an institution, or organisation, in which all members have the equal share to power. Systems of democracy stand in contrast to other forms of government, including monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, and oligarchy. But rather than the “rule of commoners” many scholars over the centuries have criticised the use of the word "democracy" in this context since the same evidence also can be interpreted convincingly to demonstrate a power struggle between primitive monarchy and noble classes, a struggle in which the common people function more like pawns rather than any kind of sovereign authority.  Socrates was the first to raise the question, further expanded by his pupil Plato, about the relation/position of an individual within a community. Aristotle continued the work of his teacher, Plato, and laid the foundations of political philosophy.

The cornerstone of democracy became the free and secret ballot, or vote. The notion of a secret ballot, where one is entitled to the privacy of their votes, is taken for granted by most today by virtue of the fact that it is simply considered the norm. However, this practice was highly controversial in the 19th century; it was widely argued that no man would want to keep his vote secret unless he was ashamed of it.
In Australia, the two earliest systems used were the Victorian method and the South Australian method. Both were introduced in 1856 to voters in Victoria and South Australia. The Victorian method involved voters crossing out all the candidates of whom he did not approve. The South Australian method, which is more similar to what most democracies use today, had voters put a mark in the preferred candidate's corresponding box. The Victorian voting system also was not completely secret, as it was traceable by a special number. The South Australian method was secretive.

Internationally, the end of the First World War was a temporary victory for democracy in Europe, as it was preserved in France and temporarily extended to Germany. Already in 1906 full modern democratic rights, universal suffrage for all citizens was implemented constitutionally in Finland as well as a proportional representation, open list system. Likewise, the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 inaugurated a few months of liberal democracy under Alexander Kerensky until Lenin took over in October. The terrible economic impact of the Great Depression hurt democratic forces in many countries. The 1930s became a decade of dictators in Europe and Latin America.

World War II was ultimately a victory for democracy in Western Europe, where representative governments were established that reflected the general will of their citizens. However, many countries of Central and Eastern Europe became undemocratic Soviet satellite states. In Southern Europe, a number of right-wing authoritarian dictatorships (most notably in Spain and Portugal) continued to exist. The aftermath of World War II also resulted in the United Nations' decision to partition the British Mandate into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. On 14 May 1948 the state of Israel declared independence and thus was born the first full democracy in the Middle East. Israel is a representative democracy with a parliamentary system and universal suffrage.
India became a Democratic Republic in 1950 after achieving independence from Great Britain in 1947. After holding its first national elections in 1952, India achieved the status of the world's largest liberal democracy with universal suffrage which it continues to hold today. Most of the former British and French colonies were independent by 1965 and at least initially democratic; those that were formerly part of the British Empire often adopted the Westminster parliamentary system. The process of decolonisation created much political upheaval in Africa and parts of Asia, with some countries experiencing often rapid changes to and from democratic and other forms of government. In the United States of America, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights Act enforced the 15th Amendment. The 24th Amendment ended poll taxing by removing all tax placed upon voting, which was a technique commonly used to restrict the African American vote. The Voting Rights Act also granted voting rights to all Native Americans, irrespective of their home state. The minimum voting age was reduced to 18 by the 26th Amendment in 1971. New waves of democracy swept across Southern Europe in the 1970s, as a number of right-wing nationalist dictatorships fell from power. Later, in Central and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, the communist states in the USSR sphere of influence were also replaced with liberal democracies.

Democracy and Capitalism

Since the 1950’s the United States has actively used both covert (even subversive) and overt actions to both promote and enforce what they labelled “democracy” upon foreign nations and cultures across the globe. In fact, what they were representing was capitalism, falsely aligning one with the other so as to make them perceived as one and the same. But they are certainly not. Interestingly, the US and Britain have recently promised to reward Arab countries which embrace democracy. But, in truth, the so-called democracy that the US endeavours to spread and even impose upon as many countries as possible is really just a push for capitalism and all that it represents. It is a denial of the human rights of the majority of human beings. Unfortunately western capitalism and the ideals of democracy are contradictory. Capitalism is inherently pessimistic or nihilistic. It is always, "things are about to fall apart, so let me take mine now," or "I will take mine, and the rest will take care of themselves." Democracy denies the Hobbesian[1] war of all against all, and capitalism, pretending to prophecy it, creates it and enshrines it at the centre of our pantheon, as the true, the human, the only way to live. [1]Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher and political theorist best known for his book Leviathan (1651), in which he argues that the only way to secure civil society is through universal submission to the absolute authority of a sovereign.

Imagine how we would respond to a tragedy of the commons under the rulebooks of democracy and capitalism. We are, you and I and some others, the residents of a village which adjoins a commons where we all graze our sheep. Under the democracy rulebook, we meet as the village council; our concern is how to preserve the commons for our children's children. Under the capitalist rulebook, meeting as the board of directors of the Intercontinental Sheep-Grazing Company. Our discussion, abruptly, is about how to maximize shareholder value, by extracting every last possible dollar from the commons this fiscal period. Our grandchildren are nowhere in the conversation; they are not shareholders. Under the separation of powers implied by the two rulebooks, we are relieved of the necessity of thinking about the future, because it is someone else's job.
Our democracy creates equality of opportunity, so that every child growing up in our village can dream of being a sheep magnate. But any ambitious youngster, perceiving the differences between the two rulebooks, will prefer to give his allegiance to capitalism, because it offers quicker personal progress than democracy. Democracy preaches incremental change, but capitalism offers overnight transformation, the opportunity to sell something a day after you bought it for ten times what you paid. Cooperation is the key feature of democracy, but capitalism is usually thought of (it need not be) as a zero-sum game in which, if I have more, it is because you have less. It is inherently competitive and based upon the notion of individualism rather than community. Versions of capitalism, like the one I believe in, in which we all grow together, are less interesting to the ambitious, because they too closely resemble democracy.

Capitalism defines the things and even people around me as objects that I can pick, pluck, mine, farm, manufacture, or sell. The people can I employ, buy from, sell to, sell, convince and exploit. The capitalist rulebook authorises its followers to behave as if democracy does not exist. Business can almost never be conducted as a democracy, for the very reason that it exists to seize a profit from the world. As a citizen or resident, a business should share the values of the community in which it resides, which means that its urge for profit should be balanced by other considerations. Instead of making twenty, and stripping the land, it will make ten or fifteen, and repair the land. But such philosophies are almost never imposed on businesses by themselves, because businessmen think that this kind of thinking is somehow ludicrous and foreign.
Unfortunately, they do not arrive at this conclusion because they are original thinkers, rejecting the common wisdom of society; they think this way because this is the schizophrenic teaching of society. Any request for moral behaviour in business is greeted with incredulity and "we're not a charity, you know." Morality in business is not merely a matter of refraining from committing fraud or theft. Compliance with the laws and living according to a moral light are entirely different matters. But our businessmen think what our business schools teach, and what society unthinkingly accepts, that each of us is licensed to chase the dollar without regard for anything except the laws. There is a moral pitfall that consists of thinking that anything that society will sell you a license to do cannot be wrong.

The last battle between democracy and capitalism is fought on the field of political campaign contributions. Money buys influence, determines policy. The “common people” have virtually lost all power to protect the village for the benefit of all.

To maintain legitimacy, economic policy must seek to promote the interests of the many not the few”. - Martin Wolf

Geoff Mooney