In appropriate to explain rather than define democracy

In recent times, democracy appears to have acquired a universal status that is formidable and attractive. The appeal of democracy seems irresistible and the promise very great. Perhaps, this is why every state, every government lays claim to democracy. Even systems that are clearly despotic are clothed in democratic apparel in order to justify repressive actions and activities. Thus, what we currently find is the existence of different models, kinds and types of “democracy”. This may be part of the reasons for the difficulty in achieving a unanimous definition of democracy. Consequently, many theorists and policy makers think that it is more appropriate to explain rather than define democracy as any definitional approach no matter how simple or complex would be unsatisfactory.
Etymologically, the word democracy was derived from two Greek words, Demos (people) and Kratos (rule). Perhaps, this is why many people think that democracy was a Greek invention; that it originated in Athens in the fifth century B. C. This may be contested if we consider that democracy as a political cum social construct has never been the property of any single social unit. Many other ancient democracies, including those of Africa such as the Igbo, also generated and utilised indigenous and reliable democratic cultures.
It should be noted that democracy has not always attracted great remarks. Before his death in 347 B.C., Plato had seen democracy as an ordinary and immoral system which produced dangerous individualist tendencies for private property and wealth. Hence, he described it as the government of shoemakers and shopkeepers. Also, in his study of constitution, Aristotle rated democracy poorly and classified it as a perverted system of government, especially one that gives full rights to demagogues. However, the fortunes of democracy improved hugely from about the period of the Enlightenment, perhaps due to the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the middle-class. From then till the present time, the democratic theories canvassed and applied in various systems can be classified roughly into Liberal Theories of Democracy: Representative and Participatory Democracy; Socialist Democratic Theory and Mixed Theories of Democracy.
It has been observed that “there is… no philosophy so inspired… that it was not some response to the social and historical conditions in which it was spawned” (Ekekwe, 2015: 16). Consequently, our objective in this piece will be to highlight the historical basis and basic assumptions of each democratic theory so that we can see that every democratic construct is value-laden and designed essentially to achieve an objective or some objectives. As Ojo (1999:197) would put it, every “democracy is a political system that is guided by a set of ideals towards achieving the conditions of its own ideal. As each theory developed, its admirers suggested principles, standards and processes; propagated them and sometimes uprooted contrary views in the quest to realise conscious ends. The study does not claim to incorporate all “theories” of democracy, but the ideas and contributions which we consider very fundamental to the development of democracy are crafted and aligned in an evolutionary trend of some sorts.

With the demise of the medieval epoch, the Renaissance/Enlightenment era (14th–18th century) was ushered in. This epoch also called the Rebirth of Learning witnessed a great rise in commerce, transportation and communication. This period also created a new set of wealthy people who used their dominance in the parliament to challenge royal absolutism. The struggle for supremacy between parliamentarians and monarchs resulted in turmoil and chaos, especially in England. Hence, Thomas Hobbes who is often identified as the progenitor of the liberal idea saw the need for order and stability as paramount in state building. For Hobbes, without law and order, there would be no security of life and property, and man’s existence will never be anything more than a chaotic, violent and bloody struggle for power, “a condition of war of every man against every man” (Hobbes, 1985:196). Since its initial articulation, Hobbes’ thesis has often served as the foundation of liberal theory which assumes, in the main, that the people are the ultimate sovereign and source of all political authority.

By the third quarter of the Renaissance, John Locke became the leading figure in liberal theorising. In his Two Treatises of Government, Locke dealt a devastating blow on the idea of divine right of kings and argued that God was never known in human history to have ordained one individual and his lineage for leadership. All people are servants of one God and have certain inalienable rights which include the right to life, liberty and property (Locke, 1980:17). Like other social contract theorists, Locke postulated that the state or government is the result of a contract entered into by men who originally lived in a state of nature. The people agreed among themselves and turned over their natural rights of self-preservation to the sovereign (the state or government). Since the contract was not just an agreement among the people, but also one between the people and the sovereign, those who rule must take cognisance of the inalienable rights of the people. But if the state fails in this task, citizens have the right — and sometimes the duty — to withdraw their support and even to rebel. According to Locke (1980:75-78):
The Legislative power is that, which has a right to direct how the force of the common-wealth shall be employed for preserving the community and the members of it…. But because the laws have a constant and lasting force, and need a perpetual execution, or an attendance thereunto; therefore it is necessary there should be a power always in being, which should see to the execution of the laws that are made, and remain in force….Though in a constituted common-wealth…there can be one supreme power, which is legislative, to which all the rest are and must be subordinate, yet the legislative being only a judiciary power to act for certain ends, there remains still in the people a supreme power to remove or alter the legislative, when they find the legislative act contrary to the trust reposed in them.
What this means is that power comes from the people but held in trust by government officials who are only representatives of the people. Thus, consent and representation are basic ingredients of governance which must find formal expression in the running of the state. The people must have the opportunity to institute, select or elect government which in turn makes and enforces laws on behalf of the people. However, these government laws must be such that guarantee and protect the inalienable rights of the people, especially right to life, liberty and estate, a general name for property in Locke. Thus, democracy can be seen to be Locke’s answer to the problem of political absolutism that subjected individuals and their liberties and freedoms to the absolute authority of the Leviathan or in modern terms, the state.
Two strands of political thought came to the fore, namely (1) the quest for the substance or purpose of government and (2) attempts to attain universal franchise. Jeremy Bentham and James Mill were the forerunners in developing the argument in relation to each problem. In respect to the problem of determining the purpose of government, they developed the theory of utilitarianism: the principle of the greatest good of the greatest number of people (Adams, 1993). The concern was how to promote the happiness of the majority of the people and not the whole community. This tendency is criticised as a prelude to and justification for the tyranny and dictatorship of the majority and the marginalisation of the minority. Regarding the issue of franchise, the theorists advocated universal suffrage. The idea grew from the recognition that those who had political power would oppress those who did not have it. The vote was political power, or at least the lack of the vote was lack of political power. Therefore, everybody needed to vote for self-protection (Macpherson, 1977). We should note that although power passed over to the land-owning class after the bloodless revolution of 1688, the industrial revolution had occurred and a wealthy group of industrial capitalists also emerged. It was therefore no longer possible for political power to continue to be monoplised by the landed gentry. Hence, the suffrage must be broadened to enfranchise the industrial capitalist class which was now seen as an important part of the community. It seems that liberal democracy of the early classical period was an attempt to mainstream the industrial capitalists who had become so powerful that they could not be ignored in the polity. The theorists over-emphasised the importance of capital and tended to overlook the damage that industrialism was doing to workers and other non-capital owners.

In 1762, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote his book, The Social Contract. Rousseau argued that in order to be legitimately binding, the contract to establish a political community must be unanimous and that to achieve its aims people must give up all their powers because if anything were left outside of public control, it could be insisted that other things should be exempted and the idea of the contract to create a public authority would be defeated. The assumption was that a legitimate and effective contract would involve each person giving up all of his powers to everyone else, and the result would be the creation of a “moral and collective body, composed of as many members as the assembly contains voters, and receiving from this act its unity, its common identity, its life and its will” (Rousseau, 1968: 15). The will that this body politic or public person acquired was the “General will” which embodied a moral imperative for people to promote common interests. Since everybody’s involvement was needed to forge this kind of solidarity, it has been argued that Rousseau’s social contract provided the starting point and the basic material for discussion of the participatory theory of democracy (Pateman, 1960).
It may be safe to suggest that Rousseau’s theory of participatory democracy was built round the central assertion that the people cannot be considered in isolation from their institutions. However, he conceived participation not as an activity which occurs when elections are conducted, but one of continuous involvement in the decision making institutions of the community. To achieve this, society should be organised in such a way that no citizen is rich enough to buy another and none is so poor that he is forced to sell himself. It is important that everybody should own some property because the security and freedom it gives to the individual is the basis on which people can claim political and economic equality and independence. In fact, Rousseau was concerned not so much with representation, but with the question of effective participation in the political process. Every man would be a member of the assembly because everyone possessed political freedom to so do. Participation for him did not mean taking part in the election of rulers but in the making of decisions in the assembly. Such participation would be a way of protecting private interests and ensuring good government. When people participate in the making of decisions on the floor of the assembly, they will in the process learn the lessons of fair play and justice. This individual learns that he must take into cognisance wider interests to gain the cooperation of others. People therefore develop a sense of justice, fair play and reciprocity. The more the people participate, the better able they are to do so. Rousseau’s ideal system was designed to develop responsible individual, social and political systems through the participatory process. However, just as Rousseau envisioned, the political prescriptions drawn from his theory would apply in small communities such as the cantons of his native Switzerland. Indeed, “these cities would have to be ‘very small,’ since they would be governed by a legislature made up of the people as a whole meeting periodically” (Rousseau, 1968: 90-91). Therefore, the pessimism remains that Rousseau’s theory of democratic participation offers no great help in dealing with the gigantic states we have in the world today.
It appears that Rousseau created a huge challenge for the liberal world – that of finding a way to achieve participatory democracy in modern, complex society. The motivation could be the perception that participation and political stability are so bound up with each other that they are difficult to separate. In this case, John Stuart Mill counted on two things, namely, broadening the franchise and spreading producers’ co-ops. The first strategy would lead to increased-capacity (in terms of formal right) to vote and be voted for, while the second would break down economic inequality by making more workers part owners of firms and industries. It would seem for Mill that it is only through actual involvement in joint political and economic activities that people can transcend the consciousness of themselves as consumers and appropriators. Mill believed that the people have the moral and intellectual potentials for mutually enriching co-operative behaviour and that democracy can help to develop these potentials. It is because of this belief in the developing mission of democracy that Mill is sometimes classified as a developmental democrat (Macpherson 1977; Held 1996). It may be difficult to accept that Mill’s intervention achieved the task of ensuring everybody’s participation in governance. Even if more people could be enfranchised or a greater degree of equality achieved, the fact remains that few individuals will always be needed for decision-making at some stages of the political process. Hence, Madison et al. (1987) felt that one way out is that every political constitution should aim at obtaining for leaders people who possess the wisdom to discern and the virtue to pursue the common good of the society. Again is that elected officials each of whom represents a specific group interest can maintain peace among groups in their bargaining and negotiations, provided that there are enough different groups represented.


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