ADELAIDE - In referencing the great unwashed, Phil Fitzpatrick has set me thinking about democracy and its origins.
Many readers will know that the concept of democracy arose in ancient Greece, notably in the city state of Athens. The word democracy is derived from the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (rule).
Democracy was established in Athens in 507 BCE. However, it was not democracy as we know it. Only adult males could participate in political debate or hold office. Women and slaves were excluded.
Importantly, Athenian citizens were deemed to be equal before the law and this principle is, in fact, far more important in modern democracies than the mere act of voting, although that is important too.
Athenian democracy lasted, nominally at least, for about 170 years. It was designed to be a means by which class related tensions within Athenian society could be managed without open conflict. For a while, it worked. Athens rose to become a great power of its era.
However, Athenian democracy slowly degraded into rule by a self appointed political elite. They managed to make an awful hash of governing Athens and, ultimately, through a combination of hubris and sheer incompetence, brought about its destruction by the powerful Persian Empire in 338 BCE.
The collapse of Athens and the other Greek city states saw the effective end of democracy as a viable political concept for nearly 2,000 thousand years. In fact, the whole notion of rule by the people was regarded with undisguised derision and contempt by the succession of emperors, kings, chiefs and other petty tyrants who ruled over most of humanity until comparatively recent times.
In those times, Phil’s reference to the great unwashed would have been regarded as an accurate description of the demos. The ruling elites regarded the huge bulk of the population as nothing more than instruments born to serve their needs and treated them accordingly.
To be born into the great unwashed was to be condemned to life as a serf or a slave. In either case your task was to be a part of a huge servant class that attended to the needs and wants of the ruling elite. Sometimes, you would be conscripted to fight in the endemic wars between the great lords of the land, in which your fate all too often was to die in dynastic struggles which you almost certainly did not comprehend much less care about.
The business of high politics was the exclusive province of the ruling elite who constituted a tiny but wealthy, ruthless and heavily armed minority of the population.
This situation persisted for a very long time. Serfdom had effectively vanished in England and much of Europe by about 1500 but persisted in Russia until 1861.
It was only with the gradual emergence of an educated and wealthy middle class of merchants and tradesmen that the great lords of the land were slowly but surely pushed into making political concessions that enabled some of these emerging elite to play a role in the governance of the state.
Despite these concessions, democracy as we know it really only begins to emerge in what might be called the age of revolution. This is generally said to have commenced with the English Civil War (1642 – 1651) in which the forces loyal to the king clashed with those of the parliament. The war culminated in destruction of the royalist armies and the arrest, trial and execution of King Charles 1st.
This event had several effects, the most immediate of which was the confirmation of the parliament as the sole source of political power and legitimacy in England. It wasn’t democracy as we know it because full adult suffrage still lay in the distant future, but the supposed divine right of kings to rule was consigned to the dust bin of history, at least in England.
The English Civil War sent shock waves through the many kingdoms, principalities and dukedoms of Europe. The previously unthinkable idea that kings might be deposed or made subject to the law as determined by a parliament suddenly became very thinkable indeed.
Somewhat ironically, the next great revolutionary upheaval was that of Britain’s American colonists who, having won the American War of Independence (1775 – 1783) threw off the yoke of British rule and established the world’s first modern republic.
The new American constitution commenced with the words “We the People”, thus signifying the primacy of the hitherto great unwashed in the new United States of America. Again, a collective shudder went through the crowned heads of Europe, although most seemed unable to grasp the true significance of what had happened in America.
If they had any doubts, these were swept away with the French Revolution (1789 – 1794) when yet another king lost his head and a short lived republic emerged. The ensuing period of European warfare (usually referred to as the Napoleonic Wars) lasted until 1815, only ending with the final defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, self proclaimed Emperor of the French, at the battle of Waterloo.
After a period of uneasy peace there were further revolutionary upheavals across Europe in 1848 which, although successfully repressed by the various ruling elites, put them on notice that the needs and aspirations of the great unwashed could no longer be entirely ignored.
In Britain, eligibility to vote was progressively extended until, in 1853, universal adult male suffrage was achieved. Universal female suffrage came rather later, with Britain’s distant colonies in New Zealand (1893) and South Australia (1894) being far ahead of the USA (1919) and Britain (1928).
In this way, in the USA and much of the British Empire at least, the great unwashed finally had the right to vote and modern democracy as we know it assumed more or less its current form.
This history is worth knowing for several reasons, the first of which is the fact that universal adult suffrage is, in a historic sense, a very recent development.
Second, it is worth noting that there is no agreed “perfect” version of democracy. There are often strikingly different voting systems in use, as well as different parliamentary structures and legal systems.
Indeed, it is arguable that many so called democracies are not really democratic at all. The forms of democracy may be in place but the reality is rather different.
Venezuela, Cuba, Egypt, the Peoples Republic of China and the Russian Republic are all ostensibly democratic but, in practice, are governed by what might be called an elected oligarchy.
I would even argue that the European Union is, in practice, not governed in a genuinely democratic way but by an unelected bureaucracy, albeit one appointed by the elected governments of the individual member nations of the EU. This view is, of course, hotly contested by Europhiles.
Third, an incidental effect of this history is that the newly independent colonies of the former British Empire have, in the main, chosen to become either democratic republics or, in some cases, to maintain the legal fiction that they are constitutional monarchies.
This is the case even though most of these newly established nations are not only artefacts of the colonial era and hence not “natural” entities, but also have no historic or cultural experience of democracy in any form.
This then is the historic context within which Papua New Guinea finds itself now governed by a unicameral parliamentary democracy based upon the so-called Westminster system, with the distant Queen Elizabeth II (Missus Qwin) as its titular head of state.
It also now has a cabal of luminaries who are Knights of the Realm which, when you think about it, is a rather bizarre state of affairs in a society which traditionally had a communalist social structure.
As for the great unwashed, this brings me back to Phil’s key point, which is that we the people have, at best, a pretty spotty record when it comes to the way we govern ourselves.
Basically, despite the best efforts of several generations of committed educators, many of us remain as gullible, ignorant and fearful as our mostly isolated, illiterate and impoverished ancestors.
Most people remain conspicuously parochial in outlook and even in a highly developed country like Australia, literacy and numeracy rates are alarmingly low, thus leaving many people ill equipped to cope with what is frequently a bewilderingly complex world.
That this should be the case in Australia or the USA or UK or Russia or China is a source of bewilderment and frustration for me and many others who sincerely believe in the democratic ideals that can and should govern all human societies.
Ignorance and fear remain the only plausible explanation for our persistent willingness to elect leaders and governments who are singularly unfitted to the always difficult task of governing in our increasingly complex world.
Even if our governments are basically competent we all too often rapidly dispense with their services if they tell us something we do not wish to hear or propose necessary reforms that bring with them threatening immediate change, whatever its actual merits in the longer term.
It is rare indeed for a genuinely competent and reforming government to either be elected or, if this happens, to survive long an electoral process that favours the purveyors of fake news, fear mongering and marketing spin over a sober and frank discussion of complex and difficult policy issues.
The unexpected re-election of Australia’s current Federal government is an exemplar of exactly this problem, although there were other factors at work too.
This may well be the fatal flaw in democracy. Certainly, there are still many who privately believe that the great unwashed mostly lack the necessary interest, intelligence, insight and judgement required to even understand the issues that confront them, let alone choose people to govern them who actually do have the required knowledge and skills.
These problems are hugely compounded in countries like Papua New Guinea, which are struggling with a host of immensely complex socio-economic, cultural and political problems that might well defeat even the best equipped and motivated government.
Little wonder that the post colonial world is, with depressingly few exceptions, finding that gaining independence is much easier than establishing an inherently stable, competent, efficient and reliable system of governance.
I am afraid the we the people need to get our collective act together or, as was the case in Athens so long ago, real political power will slowly but surely slip from our grasp and the rule of the oligarchs already evident in places like China, Russia and the Middle East, will become the new normal.
This is by no means a foregone conclusion but nor is it the case that the hard won gains of the past will persist unchallenged into the future. History offers no assurance that progress, however defined, will be smooth, linear and always towards the light.
In fact, I would submit that the warning bells of history are clanging loudly across much of the so-called democratic world as the grievous economic, social and environmental problems inherent in late stage neo-capitalism (and in so called authoritarian capitalism) become more evident by the day.
Will we the people heed their clarion call or simply drift complacently into a maelstrom of catastrophic events?
My rather pessimistic belief is that unless we act soon to force our various governments to confront these problems, we may ourselves be forced to fight once more for the very freedoms that our ancestors fought and died to achieve.
I for one do not want my grand children to live through the experiences forced upon my own father and grandfather or, worse still, find themselves part of a new version of the great unwashed.