Instead of ‘demoarchy’, the Greeks chose the term ‘democracy’ to signal the fact that what they envisioned was not a form of rule (arche). Protagoras, Pericles, and Meletus described it as a non-elite telic mode of governance in which all citizens were equal and exercised power-with instead of power-over. Everyone’s will was expressed in the assembly (agora) and through consensus a ‘democratic people’ (demos) moved forward.
Through participation, people organized, brought into being, and practiced self-government together, by all having a say and hand in the decisions and actions of the community. This was the primary understanding of the term democracy until the eighteenth-century.
I do not romanticize Greek democracy and I understand that in this conception of democracy there was also an insider and an outsider, just like there is today in liberal democracy. Notwithstanding, what the term meant for the Greeks was different to what democracy means today when spoken of thinking only about liberal democracy. In fact, even in eighteenth century Europe many considered the idea of representatives as non-democratic. For example, during the French Revolution those who considered themselves democrats thought of representatives as a new kind of aristocracy. Furthermore, even James Madison, Founding Father of the United States of America, understood representative systems to be non-democratic.
What happens between 1780 and 1860, is that this primary mode of democracy is displaced by a state-centric conception that emanates out from Europe and North America. At this point, the definition of ‘democracy’ becomes formalized as the exercise of power over a governed electorate by an elected representative government, with elites envisioning a common will that has to be represented. Benjamin Constant’s 1819 lecture, The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns marks a key point in which the distinction between the primary and the modern forms of democracy becomes central to democratic theory. Constant vehemently defends the idea that the freedom of the ancients in their Greek city-state belongs to an earlier stage of development – one without any connection to the modern state – and argues that anyone defending such democratic practice is suffering from a ‘maladie infantile’. For Constant, the modern state requires a type of liberty that can only be provided by a representative government.
By 1850, the idea of democracy has become so intertwined with representation that the Russian philosopher Peter Kropotkin stops using the term democracy altogether, and begins to speak instead of mutual aid, self-government, or anarchy. Nevertheless, despite this appropriation of the meaning of democracy by the state, it would be naïve to assume that the governed of the time embraced the redefinition. In fact, it isn’t until the expansion of the middle classes in the twentieth century that people begin to have faith in the fact that elected officials might finally represent the community. And already by the second half of the twentieth century, the primary form of democracy begins to be described using terms and concepts like ‘deep democracy,’ ‘prefigurative democracy,’ ‘direct democracy,’ ‘radical democracy,’ or ‘earth democracy’. This is a necessary step taken by citizens themselves to differentiate their practices from the dominant representative mode of democracy through which we are presently ruled.
In the contemporary Western world, these two distinct types of democracy seem to be following their separate paths with occasional interactions that have both positive and negative consequences. Elites continue to defend the idea that representative democracy is the universal standard by which democratic achievement can be measured. In the meantime, citizens are responding by enacting participatory modes of democracy that have persisted through time. These are practices that are considered by these citizens to be the primary mode of being democratic.
In 2011, 15M in Spain exemplified the actuality of this primary sense of ‘democracy’ and crystalized a lifeway (a mode of being and a temporality) that has persisted. Following from this, as an exemplary model of democratic practices, a closer understanding of 15M modes of being can help us open up democracy beyond our current modern conceptions. By looking closely at 15M, we can understand democracy as a space within which multiple heterodoxies enter into dialogue and negotiate ways to co-exist peacefully and constructively without being subsumed. Most importantly, if we grasp 15M’s ‘democracy here and now’ approach, it will help broaden the monolithic thinking that trains us as civil citizens to understand power flows as stemming from above. Through this move, we will be able to see representative democracy as a set of governance practices, which although regulative are not in any sense constitutive of democracy. Furthermore, it will crystalize how citizens are able to transform elite democracies into non-elite democracies, by reclaiming the power of the Leviathan through speaking and acting otherwise..."