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Myth in the Origin of Democracy

The central, binding myth for the modern Western state is that of Democracy, celebrated in the festival and performance of elections, reiterated with extraordinary frequency in public and conversational discourse, and noisily contested by the heterodoxy –  those opposing institutionalised power.

The orthodox myth of Democracy carries enormous influence in twenty-first century societies. In its institutional meaning the symbol ‘democracy’, and the related terms ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’, represent concepts associated with the mandate of Government. These symbols are instrumental in persuading populations to voluntary cede decision-making over their lives and communities to the executive of governments and representative forums; to cede moral judgement in many matters to another arm of Government; to allow the enforcement of  legislation by police.

The diversity of organisations and individuals that employ these terms, including the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea  and even the United States Government, demonstrates both the influence and the depth of the symbol’s referents for both adherents and opponents of State power.  The use of the words ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ are almost politically ubiquitous, the prominence and political potency of these symbols for the orthodoxy ensure their re-interpretation and re-iteration by dissenting voices.

Two distinct definitions of ‘democracy’ proposed by Noam Chomsky in his critique of global democratic processes in Necessary Illusions describs a critical divide between orthodox and heterodox democracy. Orthodox democracy, that of the state, Chomsky asserts, is narrowly conceived: the citizen is a consumer, an observer but not a participant. (Chomsky 1999 p27)  But heterodox democracy indicates a citizen’s opportunity to inform themselves, to take part in inquiry and discussion and policy formation, and … political action.’ (Chomsky 1999 p27)  This second form of democracy symbolises direct, independent, individual political action. ‘In Chomsky’s first model democracy’ is no longer a motivating force: political action is reduced to a proxy, ritual, infrequent ballot.  Here the symbol denotes the relationship between the individual and the institutions of state in which political will is invested.

Herbert Marcuse suggests in One-Dimensional Man that modern Western civilisation represents one ‘project’ of realisation among others’ (Marcuse 1968 p14), warning that such a project ‘tends to become exclusive and to determine the development of the society as a whole.’ (Marcuse 1968 p14)  If our technologically-driven civilisation is ‘the latest stage in the realisation of a specific historical project’ (Marcuse 1968 p14)  then the society of Classical Athens is the crucible of many of the specifics of the Western political and intellectual paradigm.

Deleuze and Guittari, in analysing Clastres’ model for the state in Mille Plateau, identify a ‘voluntary submission’ (Deleuze and Guittari 1987 p359)  intrinsic to the State:   ‘In what way did people want or desire servitude, which most certainly did not come to them as the outcome of an involuntary and unfortunate war? They did, after all, have counter-state mechanisms at their disposal. So how and why the State? Why did the State triumph?’ (Deleuze and Guittari 1987 p359)

Despite the enormous influence of the symbolic architecture of democracy, details of the mythic narrative of democracy are largely lost in the West. Knowledge of democracy is focused on the present for many people – on the drama of elections, and the processes of Westminster or US-style parliaments.   Today there remains the FACT of the origin of democracy in ancient Greece, its  and awareness that Athenian democracy was limited to free adult males.  But many of the powerful symbols of the modern state – Democracy itself, the ballot, court, juries – derive from the Hellenic example of two and a half millennia ago. Together these symbols underpin the modern Myth of State, reinforcing its gravity, permanence, and benevolence in the minds of its citizens.

The fundamental purpose of the Western myth of state could be described as the provision of a narrative of civilisation’s origins. The invocation of its symbols become commemoration, or celebration, or reiteration, of a significant historical event: the transition of civilisation from the ancient tribal mode to the rational Western state. All but the barest of details appear to have disappeared from the narrative of democracy’s origins, but the central fact of this critical transition retains all of its moment.

An uncritical reading of the origin of the phenomenon and lexicon of Democracy – ‘DEMO = for the people. ‘KRATIA’ = rule’ (Kinzl 1978) – suggests that over a period of centuries, in the Hellenic region of.  the Mediterranean, and particularly in Athens, the idea gradually emerged, in concert with the development of rational beliefs and rudimentary sciences, that communities might deny total power to kings and tyrants and rule themselves by ballot. At the beginning of the fifth century BC an Athenian nobleman, Kleisthenes of the Alcmeidenae, was instrumental in driving out the tyrants Hippias and Hipparchus and establishing accord between gentry and commons (Heredotus, The Histories). He drafted a new constitution for Athens, and the first democratic state was conceived.

‘Kleisthenes made the ‘deme’ or village into the fundamental unit of political organization and managed to convince the Athenians to adopt their deme-name into their own. To prevent regionalism from creeping back into the system as people changed their address, Kleisthenes decreed that a citizen, once assigned to a deme, must retain that deme-affiliation even if he moved to another part of Attica.’ (Blackwell, 1997 )

Thomas R. Martin writes that ‘with these reforms the fundamental bridge from clan to city-based representation of individuals was crossed.’ (Martin 1991)

Other historians are more circumspect in their interpretation of Kleisthenes’ action: ‘His reforms, seen broadly, took two forms: he refined the basic institutions of the Athenian democracy, and he redefined fundamentally how the people of Athens saw themselves in relation to each other and to the state.’   (Blackwell 1997 )

Deleuze and Guittari describe these events as a moment of near-apotheosis : ‘The state is what makes the distinction between governors and governed possible. … we do not see how the State can be explained by what it pressuposes, even with recourse to dialectics. The State seems to rise up in a single stroke, in an imperial form, and does not depend on progressive factors. Its on-the-spot emergence is like a stroke of genius, the birth of Athena.’ (Deleuze and Guitarri 1987 p359)

On the one hand Kleisthenes democratic reforms are interpreted as the defining moment in humanity’s advancement to a civilised condition, on the other a critical historical shift in the investment of public power in particular instititions, deserving of examination because they are ancient models for their counterparts of the present day.

Some scholars, sceptics of the traditional story of democracy’s birth, indicate Hellenic democracy was a part of a wider movement across Attica and beyond.  In his book Early Popular Government Outside Athens W. Eric Robinson notes Heredotus made observations about ‘demokratia gegographically at a distance’, such as that at Cyrene, and that this evidence ‘broadly concurs with that provide by Aristotle. (Robinson 1998)  Generally he observes ‘The city- state was essentially a socio-political edifice ripe for such a development (p. 65), and it is not remarkable that the emergence of the polis  form in the eighth century should have coincided from the outset with mass participation in discussion, if not governing, as the Homeric texts well illustrate.’  (Robinson 1998)

His conclusion is that numerous colonies across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea reflect some form of democratisation in their initial stages, (Robinson 1998) and that further ‘these colonies did not acquire their participatory form of government from Athens’  (Robinson 1998)

The proposition that there were democratic movements all over the Hellenic world at the time of Kleisthenes in Athens, lends support to a heterodox doctrine that retains a mandate for democratic action in the hands of the people, a democracy that is spontaneous and popular, capable of grass roots generation, and possibly regeneration.  But it is not refutative of the myth of Athenian democracy as a source of a specific exemplar particularly well remembered in extant historical and theoretical texts.

Other scholars, however, specifically disrupt the original narrative, and impugn the good intentions of Kleisthenes, the instrumental democratic innovator, in re-examination of the events of the critical period for Athenian Government. In his treatise Democracy: A Study of the Early History of the Term Konrad H. Kinzl asks’When was the term DHMOKRATI/A coined, and what did the creator of this term intend when he coined it?’ (Kinzl 1978)

Kinzl’s approach encourages a more cynical and critical interpretation of the origins of Democracy in language and politics, but one that informs an understanding of the use of the political symbol in the modern era. Thomas Martin suggests optimistically that ‘as an aristocrat looking for popular support, Kleisthenes had reason to invent the kind of system he thought ordinary people wanted.’ (Martin, 1991)

But Kinzl argues that the term was a neologism in the time of Kleisthenes (Kinzl, 1978) and possibly merely a political device used to describe a ‘New Deal’ for the disenfranchised commons of Athens while the power of the old nobility was surreptitiously restored.

Mythographer Robert Graves suggests in Greek Myths that Kleisthenes’ manipulation of Democracy as a symbol of institutionalisation and the State involved a historical and mythological revisionism. (Graves, 1960 p352)  In retelling the story of Theseus, the fabled founder of the Athenian city-state, who purportedly introduced political innovations of his own, Graves notes ‘The mythical elements of the Theseus story have been submerged in what purports to be Athenian constitutional history; but the federalisation of Attica is dated several hundred years too early; and Theseus democratic reforms are fifth-century propaganda, probably invented by Kleisthenes.’ (Graves, 1960 p352)

In the Development of Athenian Democracy Christopher Blackwell corroborates this interpretation of the importance of the Athenian moment for the modern State (Blackwell, 1997), placing the science of rhetoric itself at the centre of a social and political revolution. He asserts that  ‘the idea that persuasion, rather than force or status, should constitute the mechanism for political decision-making in the emerging Athenian democracy fit well with the spirit of the intellectual changes which were taking place during the late Archaic Age.’ (Blackwell, 1997)

Rather than exposing any one ‘true’ narrative that informs and limits interpretation of hellenic democracy for modern people,  exploration of the narrative elements latent in the myth of State exposes a history of narrative contestation:  what is most familiar about the political milieu in which the origin of democracy evolved are the manipulations of representation, narrative, symbol, and event that characterise our own democratic institutions.  The character of discourse as well as its content is the inheritance of the Athenian iteration of the myth of State.

If the investigation of Democracy reveals a history of semiotic manipulation, the interpretation of which is reliant in part on problematic sources, then it can be argued the true influence of the classical episteme on the modern democratic model derives from deeper currents in Hellenic civilisation.