Political Equality: Equality of Power? Equality in Judgment? Equality of Exposure? Equality of Voice?: Distributing a Certain Equality of Equals and Unequals Alike

By: John Dunn

Democracies promise political equality, a powerful concept that is hard to define.


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Political Equality: Equality of Power? Equality in Judgment? Equality of Exposure? Equality of Voice?: Distributing a Certain Equality of Equals and Unequals Alike

As it was in the democracy of ancient Athens, the key pretension of modern democracy is its claim to authorize and legitimate rule by establishing and preserving political equality. Each citizen must recognize the authority of the laws and their authorized interpreters and enforcers because each citizen is equally their source and the basis of their authority over any. That claim has proved astonishingly potent across the world over the last century, but it remains very hard to pin down quite what it means. What has made it so powerful? What can it coherently mean? What has to be true for it to apply to a political order?

The quality of every human political system depends on a relation between judgment and power: on the accuracy and balance with which it assesses practical causality and on the steadiness and precision with which it transforms that assessment into effectively binding and focused public action. (This is a necessary condition for a polity to have merit, of course, not a sufficient condition. A polity might be effective and pursue abominable purposes with flair and tenacity. But even if every one of its ascertainable purposes was beyond reproach, it would still not have much merit unless it could convert these purposes into effective action.)

Human beings across time and space have interacted with one another, and continue to interact, in many other sorts of ways besides the political, and in many other types of setting besides that of a sovereign political unit: pre-politically, sub-politically, perhaps even post-politically, socially, culturally, imaginatively, intellectually, economically, even medically. None of these ways is insulated from politics: guaranteed either to be unaffected by, or to be inconsequential for, politics. But it is still right, well over two thousand years after Aristotle somewhat inadvertently coined the term, to think of politics as a distinctive domain of activity, which poses its own problems of understanding, and its own challenges to the practical wisdom of the wildly ingenious but prudentially all too erratic species to which we belong (Dunn 2000).

Democracy, another pregnant Greek word, coined well before Aristotle, though for distinctly less theoretical purposes, and far more recent than politics in its global impact upon speech and action (Dunn 1992; Dunn 2005; cf. Keane 2009), raises the question of the relationship between judgment and power in a peculiarly blatant manner, and was seen to do so from early on in its known political and semantic history. For admirers of most forms of political regime—from serenely inegalitarian aristocracy, through sacred monarchy or theocracy, to the most belligerently secular and supposedly egalitarian socialism—the relationship between power and judgment is pre-certified all but tautologically in the charter (or even name) of the regime itself (the rule of the best [ aristoi ‘the noble’], Le Roi Tres Catholique , the Slave of the Slaves of God, the rule of the collective good of society itself).[1] In democracy, however, what notionally rules is not something predesignated as good or capable, let alone something splendid or sacred. It is simply all the full citizens, all who are eligible in the first place to do so (Dunn 1993:1–28) on grounds of birth and age (along with those from elsewhere whom they graciously permit to join their ranks), and who do not subsequently disqualify themselves in some way or other from the privilege in the eyes of enough of their fellow citizens. Democracy is indiscriminate on principle in the empirical qualities which it anticipates or will tolerate in the constituents of its sovereignty. It may take away political rights with alacrity and some arbitrariness (consider the classical Greek practice of ostracism, or the dynamics of the Terror in Jacobin France, or Stalinist Russia). But it distributes such rights in the first place as unfastidiously, and even inattentively, as any political regime there has ever been. Moreover its extraordinary powers of geographical absorption and cultural adaptation, so conspicuously proven in what Samuel Huntington christened the Third Wave of its historical expansion (Huntington 1991), stem directly from this resolute lack of fastidiousness: from the promiscuousness with which it welcomes, and recognizes the political standing of, any more or less adult human population within reach. If you tell the historical story of its expansion, and do so in terms of its own criteria, the criteria which now dominate the normative political speech of most of the world, what is likely to strike you is the slow, faltering, endlessly obstructed character of its human extension, and the sullen existential bad faith which dogs its overt lack of fastidiousness every inch of the way. But this is a massive perspectival misjudgment. It misconceives both the basis of democracy’s dynamism and the source of its power.

It is precisely that unfastidiousness which gives it its awesome political reach: its capacity to intrude, establish itself, and make itself fully at home, in settings in which human beings in immense numbers have been bludgeoned into submission and bemused into servility for literally thousands of years (cf. Moore 1978). This is not a prediction of the political future of our world, which, for all I or you can know, may go in any number of directions. It is merely an accurate causal assessment of a prominent feature of its recent political past.

If democracy in this way is not merely categorically unfastidious over the sources of its authority, but actually draws its power precisely from that resolute unfastidiousness, how exactly has it handled, is it now handling, and can it in future handle the fundamental issue of the relationship between judgment and power which lies at its heart as a regime? And what is the relation between its approach to this fundamental issue today, its overt normative (ideological) commitment to citizen equality, and its covert but relatively complete reconciliation to the conspicuous political inequalities between citizens?

Some distinctions can helpfully be drawn from the outset. Since the issue of the relationship between power and judgment is so fundamental for every regime, it must always have a number of conceptually quite distinct dimensions. These dimensions all bear on one another causally more or less without interruption, if with varying weight. But they can be thought about quite separately from one another, and indeed must be so considered, if understanding of any of them is ever to be made at all clear, precise, or profound. Once they have been analysed separately, the analyses, of course, can then, and for many purposes must, be recombined and fitted together as accurately as possible, a model reassembled, and a series of more adventurous and practically orientated causal judgments at least attempted. But first must come the phase of separation.

Two plainly distinct ways of handling the relationship between power and judgment at the basis of a democratic regime are to view it as a problem of political ideology, or to view it as one of institutional design. A third and conceptually distinct way is to see it as a problem of political or economic strategy. Contemporary political thinking, both academic and practical, fails to register the distinction between these three cognitive and practical orientations at all clearly; and it is far from evident that anyone at present possesses a clear and coherent method for sustaining the distinction steadily in their analyses (Dunn 2000). But there is no pressing and obvious reason why we could not learn to keep the distinction clearly in mind, and think politically in future on the premiss that it is there to be drawn, and may well matter a lot.

In historical fact, democracy was a political regime before it was in any sense a political ideology (Dunn 1992). Perhaps it was also a political strategy before it even became a political regime, although the historical evidence on this point is somewhat murky, and the documents which we still have available to us may well be highly tendentious, whether we take the key historical phase in question, in the Athenian case, as far back as the reforms of Solon or as far forward as those of Cleisthenes or even later. But all this is rather distant news from ancient Athens. In the political history of the modern world, from the American or French Revolutions up to the present day, the first two elements in the sequence have been firmly reversed; and the causal role of political strategy, while certainly every bit as consequential in the fall of the USSR or Apartheid or the transformation of the South Korean security state as it can have been in the case of Cleisthenes’ rise to power, is little more legible in its incidence than in the first case, and just as unlikely to carry stable general implications. Where the modern power of democracy has come from is its ideological appeal, the imaginative force of its claim to furnish a uniquely sound answer to the question of why we should obey our rulers. (We should do so, it says, because they really are our rulers. Indeed, generously considered, they are simply us: it is we ourselves in the last instance under democracy who do the ruling.) Modern democracy does not seek to deny the reality of rule, a rudimentary concession to the evident in the intensely governed societies of the world today (cf. Finer 1997:70). What it does, as Plato noted in the Republic, is to distribute “a certain equality to equals and unequals alike” (558c). The equality which it offers is one of political recognition and entitlement in face of the endless range of often all too blatant inequalities of power, wealth, esteem, dignity, or cultural prowess which capitalist societies today are certain to display (just as ancient Athens itself notoriously did). In the eyes of its critics, from the Old Oligarch, author of The Constitution of the Athenians, onwards, this offer of equality was not merely in some ways normatively anomalous, it was also highly offensive. Athens, as the Old Oligarch pointed out and Benjamin Constant noted once more well over two thousand years later (Fontana 1988:309–328), was a peculiarly cosmopolitan, sophisticated (“Xenophon” The Constitution of the Athenians 2.7–8), and commercial polis, with a large, economically diverse, and remarkably uncowed slave population. It was more open, politically, culturally, and economically, to resident aliens (metics) than most other Greek cities; and as eager to milk the rich, to support its glittering choral and dramatic festivals and its grand public buildings and games, and to fund its powerful navy, as it was to exploit for the same purposes the empire which that navy enabled it to hold down.

The relationship between the rich, grand, and powerful (the khrēstoi , the dunatoi ) and the mass of the citizen body (the plēthos , the dēmos , hoi polloi ), both in other Greek cities and in Athens itself, was not one of steady mutual appreciation. Its social psychology was far from revolving around that unforced and authentic esteem for, and humility in face of, wealth or grandeur which Adam Smith diagnosed in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (especially the lengthy passage added to the sixth edition, Smith 1976:1.3.3, 61–66; Dunn 1985, cap 3, Hont 1994), and which Edmund Burke struggled to re-evoke in the teeth of the revolutionary storm (Mitchell 1989).[2] Throughout the world, the Old Oligarch insisted, the best elements in a society are opposed to democracy ( The Constitution of the Athenians 1.5). There is no city in which the best elements ( to beltiston ) are well disposed towards the dēmos (3.10). And the common people, understandably, fully returned the compliment, taking and retaining as much political power and as many political offices for themselves as they expected to prove advantageous (1.1–3), and discounting the claims to cultural and even moral superiority on the part of the wealthier and better born in favour of less impressive political leaders whom they judged to be more solidly committed to defending their interests: “For the people has no desire to be enslaved in a well governed city, but to be free and to rule. It has little concern for bad governance, for what you call good governance is itself the very source of its strength and freedom” (1.8; translation modified). The Old Oligarch makes it very plain that he views the democracy of Athens with distaste; but he has in the end few criticisms of the political good sense with which the majority of the Athenian citizen body pursued their practical interests, or even of the institutional design of the polity (esp. 3.1, 3.7, and 3.9) and the intermittent practices of class repression at home or abroad (3.12–13) through which they did so.

The Old Oligarch's argument is a very short and somewhat ungainly text, virtually at the beginning of systematic causal thinking about politics in the West. It may be seen, whether metaphorically or literally, as inaugurating a powerfully critical dissident intellectual community in symbiotic but resentful response to Athens’s dashing democratic experiment (Ober 1998). There were a number of later and far more polished and ambitious passages of thinking in or around Athens itself which attempted to take the measure of that experiment: notably the History of Thucydides, the major political dialogues of Plato, and the Politics of Aristotle. But none of them in the end offered as direct and synoptic a view of what that experiment consisted in; and none really offered a bolder or clearer diagnosis of the peculiar ideological potency of democracy as a regime. It is still a highly vexed issue within contemporary political struggle whether Lee Kuan Yew or the Old Oligarch is closer to the heart of the matter—whether or not it really is true, or within what limits it could possibly be true, that the common people do not wish to be enslaved in a well governed city, but to be free and to rule it themselves.

On the whole, however, the political history of the world over the last quarter of a century has given far more support to the judgment of the Old Oligarch than it has to that of Lee Kuan Yew. Certainly Singapore has sustained its claim to be well governed better over this period than the immense majority of contemporary states in all parts of the world. It is an appreciably better candidate for being so than the United States of America, and perhaps as plausible a one as Sweden or the United Kingdom. Unlike many other states in its vicinity (or elsewhere), moreover, it has not been recently shown up mercilessly for the fecklessness and the unflinchingly systematic dishonesty with which it has chosen to run its own economy. But precisely because of this comparative regional outperformance it looks less emblematic as a political formula than it seemed to many immediately before the 1998 Asian crash: more a sustained triumph of political improvisation on a reassuringly restricted scale than the sturdy maintenance of a dependable political and economic model for other states and populations across the world (cf. Kampfner 2010).

Distributing “a certain equality to equals and unequals alike” is, amongst other things, an ideological formula, a set of institutional structures, and a line of political and economic strategy. The distribution can be symbolic, and inauthentic, but it can also be eminently practical and audacious to the point of recklessness. It can be so, too, in each instance, in either direction. The equality can be effectively empty, or the inequality utterly precarious. What is really difficult to understand about democracy is less the structure and content of the trade-off matrix of values which are potentially at stake within it than the structure of the causal force field itself, and the historical flow of political judgment, which determines what exactly is, in the event, traded off against what. It is a truism that all actual regimes exist in history. They persist or change as they do because of the ways in which human agents decide to act within them. But democracy as a political regime is historical not just trivially and truistically, but in a peculiarly profound way (Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War; and see Farrar 1988). It is historical through and through, because its political content is so blatantly contingent: because it opens itself up so deliberately and unflinchingly to whatever decisions the majority of its citizens just happen to make.

Democracy in this sense, as both Thucydides and Plato strove to convey, cannot be a constitutional regime. A constitutional regime has a pre-guaranteed institutional structure, steadily and dependably arrayed to restrict and frustrate at least the more erratic and short term fluctuations in the judgment of the dēmos : sometimes, too, to block more obdurate and steady purposes which have been pre-identified as wholly indefensible. A constitutional regime protects the citizens against one another, and defends their rights just when these most need defence, when they face the full wrath of a majority of their fellow citizens. It confines the political history of a society within a set of rationally pre-specified limits, and promises to enhance the personal security of every citizen by doing so. Its essence, as Montesquieu and Madison each clearly recognized, is obstruction and delay (Manin 1994). Montesquieu and Madison are the great exponents of the political significance of institutional causality in modern political thinking, greater in the end, for all their archaism and relative intellectual directness, than either Karl Marx or Max Weber, let alone their endless academic epigoni. A clear majority of contemporary political scientists follow in the footsteps of Montesquieu or Madison, striving to capture the causal dynamics of the full panoply of modern political institutions, and doing so with particular assiduity and self-assurance within those modern state forms which are most at ease with having their institutions subjected to this sort of surveillance. It is far from clear, even cumulatively, that contemporary political scientists understand modern democracy very well (cf. Dunn 1996, 1998, and 2000). But, between them, they know a staggering amount about it; and insofar as they do not really understand it, it is hardly from want of trying.

The natural approach for political scientists who wish to understand modern democracy is to approach it by attempting to isolate and measure accurately the causal properties of its constitutive institutions in action. But this is a particularly forlorn line of attack on a regime which is so profoundly historical in character. The causal properties of institutions are either too vague or too crude to be politically very instructive in any polity, all on their own. But the explicit ideological point, and a large measure of the special political eligibility, of democracy in its contemporary avatar is precisely to be causally indeterminate at the institutional level; not to pre-guarantee outcomes in advance of the making of sovereign choice. (For the political importance of this see, for example, Przeworski 1991.) This is because modern democracy, like ancient democracy and despite their stark institutional contrasts, is deeply engaged with the idea of freedom, if less in this case with not being under a wholly alien will than with remaining entirely at liberty to decide anew (Dunn 1996, 1999).

The main tension between equality and inequality in contemporary democracies still rests, as it did in the poleis of ancient Greece and Athens in particular (Jones 1956:54–61), in the security and determinacy of the ownership of property. A constitution could pre-guarantee property against political choice, as modern political economists from Hayek to James Buchanan have argued that it ideally should (Gamble 1996). But a democracy which permitted its constitution to do this would have abrogated a large proportion of its democratic credentials precisely by doing so. Ancient Athens never abjured the possibility of sovereign reallocation of property rights, even if Athenian jurors and magistrates had to swear oaths not to tamper with them in detail (Ober 1998:148, Hansen 1991:77). The systematic threat of debt repudiation and land redistribution hung over the economic, social, and political lives of many Greek communities for lengthy periods of time. The Old Oligarch paints a picture of the wealthy and well born as permanently anxious over the risks to their economic privilege, and the grumblings of wealthy Athenians at their exposure to the maintenance costs of naval vessels and religious festivities have been passed on to us evocatively by Isocrates (Ober 1998:262–265). It would be possible to distribute a certain equality (an equality of formal and perhaps substantive security of social rights or existing economic entitlements) to equals and unequals alike, and to sustain this distribution steadily over time by establishing an institutional structure which guarantees it. The only threat to this balance of equality and inequality over time would then have to be a threat to the viability of the institutional structure as a whole. This is not merely the formula recommended by Hayek and Buchanan, it was also, more tacitly, a formula recommended in emphatic preference to democracy by Whig critics of the Philosophic Radicals like Thomas Babington Macaulay a century and a half earlier (Lively and Rees 1978). If the suffrage was made universal, Macaulay warned, property would be expropriated, capital would be destroyed, and civilization itself would rapidly crumble. But it was not Macaulay but the hapless James Mill whom he pilloried so brutally, who has proved to be right. What has rendered political democracy fully compatible with capitalist production over very long periods of time has not been the pre-ascertainable causal characteristics of either the political or the economic institutions which constitute each of them, but a cunning and bewilderingly elastic ideological formula, and a sequence of varyingly felicitous political and economic strategies. Of these two, the ideological formula has almost certainly been indispensable; but it is too elastic, and hence too difficult to grasp accurately, to provide a clear and compelling explanation of the outcome. (It may only have stretched this far up to now; but who of us can tell how much further it might yet stretch without snapping, or in quite which directions?) And the political and economic strategies have been so diverse, and so uneven in their success over time and space, as to seem more a part of the substance of what still needs to be explained than the structure which might explain this.

No ancient Greek interpreter of democracy as a political system of whom we are aware seriously doubted that democracy in action could and would constrain economic inequality (though Athens gave reliable guarantees that it would refrain from doing so by expropriating property over more than two centuries: Hansen 1991:77). Few supporters of democracy as a regime doubted that it should do so, and not merely seek to alleviate the more malign consequences that might reasonably be thought to follow from extremes of economic inequality. Most of the legacy of causal thinking about the domestic politics of Greek poleis centres on the issue of what conditions could keep political, social, and economic conflict within bounds, and stabilize the cities’ political structures. One element in this puzzle was the challenge of how to distinguish benign softening of economic extremes from malignant interference with the entitlements and security of the natural objects of popular envy (the khrēstoi , to beltiston ). Another was the assessment of the balance between urban and rural elements in a population and the geographical scale which favoured or militated against drawing this distinction in at all the right places. A third was the structure of political decision-making and legislative and judicial activity which best facilitated doing so.

All of these issues are analysed extensively in Aristotle’s Politics , and addressed more sporadically throughout a wide range of Greek sources. Aristotle’s was far the most systematic and carefully thought-through account, though it lacks the political focus and incisiveness, or the feeling for the drama of politics, of the more powerful passages in Thucydides or Plato. Out of this extended sequence of reflection (cf. Ober 1998) there came neither a ringing vindication of democracy as a state form; a decisive refutation of its practical political merits from a nonaristocratic point of view (though Plato attempted something very like this at one point in his life); a clear set of institutional recipes for taming its political imprudence or potential malignity and confining this within safe limits; nor a compelling recommendation of an alternative regime form better fitted to the social and economic conditions of the Greek world at the time, and fully capable of establishing and defending itself against the challenge of democracy. Some ancient democracies were overthrown at particular points in time by domestic political challengers (Athens itself for a brief time, famously, amongst them). Some, in effect, tore themeselves to pieces in savage civil war. But ancient democracy as a sovereign political form was crushed militarily from the outside. It was not argued from the field by disapproving intellectual critics; and it did not succumb to its own internal political enemies, as the city republics of medieval Italy largely did to the Renaissance princes who succeeded them (Skinner 1992). When ancient democracy was at last crushed, therefore, it left the question of its own political merits still largely unanswered. Intellectually speaking, its legacy was more an enigma than a political recipe; and the political history of the world for the next two thousand years did very little to resolve the enigma, or to extract a plausible recipe from its resolution (Roberts 1994, and see Hansen 2005 on the long gap in sympathetic attention to the Athenian democratic experience): not least because it did very little to encourage anyone to make any serious attempt to do either (Dunn 1992).

Since at least the outbreak of the French Revolution, however, the enigma has been distinctly more pressing, and the urge to identify a plausible political recipe altogether more intense. The quest for such a recipe has centered, as Filippo Michele Buonarroti noted in the wake of Thermidor, on a long-drawn-out ideological and practical struggle between partisans of the order of equality and partisans of the order of egoism (Buonarroti 1957:I,25–28; Dunn 2005). The order of equality explains itself. If the idea that adult human beings are indeed equal in their final value, and can and should be politically equal just because they are so, has the political force and imaginative appeal which it clearly has exerted over at least this period of time, why should they not be economically equal too (and thus at least permit themselves to be socially equal as well, instead of being divided up into little cohorts of mutually contemptuous companions, all striving to distinguish themselves gratuitously from most of their fellow humans)? The partisans of the order of equality, Babeuf and Buonarroti’s co-conspirators and their natural imaginative allies across time and space, believe that human beings should indeed be economically equal, and should be so precisely because only through an effective equality of economic entitlements can they hope to realise, across the lived texture of the societies to which they belong, the real equality of final value which genuinely is theirs. The partisans of the order of equality were often distinctly fair-weather friends of democracy, not least because the sovereign dēmos so often proved far from zealous in its commitment to economic equality, and less than trustful of the navigational credentials, or the claims to political authority, of their would-be leaders towards this egalitarian destination (cf. Dunn 1984).

What is less easy to understand in the history of the modern resuscitation of democracy as a political form is the role of the order of egoism. Here Buonarroti’s nomenclature is a bit misleading. As the Old Oligarch plainly grasped at least as clearly as Adam Smith himself, few human beings in fact need to be encouraged to feel some concern for their own interests, or to act on that concern insofar as they see reasonably promising opportunities for doing so. But this in itself is scarcely an inegalitarian heresy. What made the partisans of the order of egoism politically malign in Buonarroti’s eyes was not their relaxed acceptance of the motivational basis of all human agency, it was their promiscuous embrace of a very definite system of production, the structures of property rights on which this was based, and the vertiginous economic disparities which it generated so e ndlessly and uncontrollably. The true political enemy of the partisans of equality was not the ego (or human agency as such). To speak with brisk imprecision, it was capitalism.

You cannot have genuine political equality, a capitalist economy, and economic equality; and where you do not have economic equality, you will not have social equality, and will, as time goes by, have more and more pressing reason to wonder whether you really do have political equality either. There is something anomalous about capitalist democracy (Dunn 2007), as there was about the assembly democracy of ancient Greece. It still lies in the distribution of a certain equality to equals and unequals alike; and it remains eminently possible to find it offensive in more than one direction—either because it leaves some so very unequal, or because it at least holds open the possibility of equalizing the power of those who have done nothing themselves to win it, and have no purely personal claims to be given it by anyone else in particular.[3]

The real zealots of the order of equality, the true socialists, have now been driven from the field, if less humiliatingly so in Greece than in numerous other settings. They may eventually make an effective comeback. But to do so at all durably what they require is a means for mastering modern global economic causality which at present seems a pure fantasy (cf. Dunn 1990). The impulse for them to come back remains extremely strong, and, as far as I can see, is simply ineliminable. But global economic causality is exceedingly recalcitrant to mastery; and, unless we have Armageddon instead, it is here to stay for some little time. Yet it remains a central conundrum of recent world political history just why its true socialist enemies have been so comprehensively routed. Why does political equality not favour true socialism quite overwhelmingly over time, as the Old Oligarch or Macaulay would have confidently assumed? This is scarcely a new puzzle; and there are plainly a number of elements to the answer (cf. Przeworski 1985, 2010), the relative weight of which is likely to vary considerably from instance to instance.Part of the answer, plainly, is that most human beings are not deeply and stably moved by pattern theories of justice, [4] whether because they do not find them normatively persuasive, or because they have never seen much occasion to expect them to loom large in real economic and social life (Runciman 1967). No doubt part is simply the inherent game-theoretical difficulty of judging what it does make sense to do in a domain—politics—which is always bound to be extravagantly complicated (Dunn 2000). No doubt part is just that most of us, for one reason or another, lack the optimism, resolution, or nerve to press our supposed interests with much persistence or energy against determined opposition. No doubt part very much remains the dedicated, cunning, ruthless, and indefatigable efforts of the dunatoi to keep them more or less in their place. But, when due allowance has been made for all these interesting and illuminating lines of thought, it is still a trifle puzzling why political systems grounded on equal formal political powers across a citizen body should fail to favour economic redistribution towards the mean quite powerfully and steadily over time. It would certainly be more to my personal political taste, if they in fact did; and there have been protracted periods, especially in the long boom which followed the end of the Second World War, in which they at least appeared to do so. But the present, of course, is hardly one of them; and it has not been one of them for some time (Wilensky 2002).

What is it reasonable to conclude, at this point in modern political history, about the fundamental properties of democracy, not as a diffuse qualitative value which may or may not inform the milieu of everyday life, but as a political regime? How much confidence (or indeed hope or fear) is there still good reason for us to feel in its capacity to handle the fundamental relationship between judgment and power? How effectively can we expect it to deploy the balance of purposes and practical wisdom amongst its citizen body in acting out their public choices? The Athenian democracy did not get a very good press from many of its contemporary literary commentators. But ancient historians of the last few decades, no doubt largely because of the rather different ideological pressures that bear upon them, have tended to take an increasingly positive view of its political performance (See Jones 1956, Finley 1983, Hansen 1991, Ober 2008 for powerful assessments.) How positive a view should we in our turn take of the political performance of the ever more obtrusively capitalist representative democracies of our own day (Dunn 2000)?

You could take the view that this regime form has performed badly because it has diverged distressingly from your own political tastes, or that it has recently surpassed itself by conforming more and more punctiliously to these. But there is little political insight to be elicited from that type of judgment. What can reasonably be inferred more analytically is that there is no reason to presume this regime a reliable corrective of the intentions of its sovereign citizenry (nothing surprising there, especially after 1933), and no reason to credit it with determinate causal properties at an institutional level which ensure either its practical wisdom or its effectiveness in implementing those purposes which it does espouse either formally or substantively (little surprising there either). If this is right, then the comparative political advantage of this regime (so strikingly proven in political struggle across the world since 1939) must lie principally either in the rather abstract ideological formula which still lends it its political name, or in the miscellany of political and economic strategies which happen to have been pursued within it over the same time period. There is something powerfully right about each of these diagnoses. But both are intellectually somewhat discouraging, if in very different ways. If that is all we understand about it, we still do not understand much more about democracy nearly two and a half millennia after the Old Oligarch, even if all of us are now drowning in additional information on the topic.

The political and economic strategies have been far too diverse over this time span to confer solid political merit on the regime form within which they have been implemented (cf. the chapters on Chile and on Nigeria in Haggard and Webb 1994): quite apart from the fact that most of them would turn out, even on cursory inspection, to have been implemented in quite other sorts of regime too at much the same time, since the current practical inspirations of economists now leak so relentlessly across the world, often with surprising indifference to the ideological coloration of those to whom they are proffered (Dunn 1990).

What is permanently disconcerting about democracy, because rooted so deeply in its ideological formula, is its explicit and utterly promiscuous openness to any judgment whatever, provided only that the citizenry can be persuaded to espouse it. What this calls for, in those who find themselves subject to a democracy, but also, still less comfortably, in those who on balance, for one reason or another, accept its claims to their political allegiance, is a certain fortitude in the face of politics. It cannot and must not be any form of epistemic assurance that matters are bound politically to come out for the better. No such epistemic assurance is in principle available; and it corrupts our severely limited resources of practical wisdom and capacity for mutual frankness to suggest that it might be, let alone that it in fact is.

We come back, then, to the ideological formula. What is appealing about this is the degree of equality which it does offer to equals and unequals alike, not the determinacy or reliability of its promises to alleviate or rectify inequalities, or the harms which often very obviously follow from them. That, and the fact that equality is indeed offered at the level of ultimate political authority. What it promises is that our governments truly are ours in the very last instance, even in the teeth of the abundant evidence of their formidable otherness in virtually any other instance. Most crucially, it assures us (and in ways which are not essentially deceptive) that we can get rid of the personnel of this government when enough of us feel strongly enough for a sufficiently protracted period that we simply cannot stand it any longer.

Democracy as a regime form, in any institutional format, cannot promise capable or benign judgment. It cannot promise well-considered economic or political strategies. It cannot promise governmental coherence or efficacy. Indeed, as a regime form, it cannot (except by its own sovereign political whim) promise even personal security. All it can promise is a certain equality, and that as a regime form it at least does not determinately preclude any of the many other merits which it cannot in good faith guarantee. On the whole the Old Oligarch was more or less right. It is not easy in principle for the less than equal (those who most need the protection) to find a regime form which will protect their interests better than one which is subject, however elusively, to the democratic ideological formula. This tells us very little about which institutional forms to favour for the less than equal (or for democratic rule itself) at any particular time, and nothing at all about what political or economic strategies to place our trust in. But it perhaps does do something to explain the source of the formula’s political appeal, and to show why none of us should be surprised to find ourselves at intervals deeply affronted by what is done in the dēmos ’s name and by its authority. What I have tried to do is to restore a little of the mystery to the apparently politically obvious—to persuade you that democracy really is hard to understand, and will probably always remain so. I have done so because I am confident that much of the politics is in the mystery: not just in barefaced, skillfully deployed and well-funded befuddlement, but in a real enigma.

If that is indeed right, there is still pressing reason to look back to the Athenian precedent, for all its unblinking historical distance and the endless disparities between its structures and culture and our own. Equality was a conspicuously organizing idea in the articulation of Athens’s democracy—if not its most potent inspiration, by far its most prominent semantic motif. Ancient historians continue to differ sharply over the relative ideological weight of categories like isonomia or isēgoria in defining the basis of Athenian citizen identification with the polis (in the huge majority of instances) of their birth. They also differ on the relative causal weight of the different institutional specifications of these values in defining Athenian public choices on particular occasions or determining the directions of Athenian political commitments or the outcomes to which these led over lengthier periods of time.

If the dēmokratia of Athens was a koinonia of citizens (Aristotle Politics 1278b, Hansen 1991:ch. 4), what these citizens held in common, in the teeth of the drastic differences between their lives, their fortunes, their talents, and their privileges, was a certain equality. That equality was in no plausible sense descriptive. It was emphatically not an equality in causal power, the capacity to get their own way whatever that proved to be (cf. Dunn 2010 on Hobbes’s conception of power). It was scarcely an equality, either practically or normatively, in the quality of their judgment about anything in particular, least of all any choice of major political moment (Bourke and Geuss 2009). It was very plainly not an equality in rhetorical prowess or intellectual cogency, facilities which cannot plausibly be held true of any human population ever. But if it was scarcely an equality in voice, there is a much stronger case for its having been a true equality of voice: not just a formal entitlement, but a real opportunity to say what they wished and had the nerve to say over public decisions great or trivial at the point at which these were taken. (The most illuminating discussion of the balance between discretionary personal commitment, the opening of offices to perceived and endorsed talent, and the carefully egalitarian balance secured by rotation is now Farrar 2010, glossing especially the remarkable recuperative labours of Mogens Hansen, who as she says “arguably knows more about the detailed workings of Athenian democracy than anyone since Aristotle” (Farrar 2010:162), on the basis of protracted engagement with the limitations of contemporary representative practice in the United States. (Cf., more abstractly, Lidel 2007, or for the modern deficit Pettit 2008).

Much the same is true of the equality of exposure carried by citizenship, where no citizen could expect to be privileged when it came to fighting on behalf of the polis or contributing the financial resources it required of them to pay for its religious ceremonies or weapons of war. Equality of exposure was more a matter of duty than one of entitlement, but equality of voice, its counterpart in terms of entitlement, comes closer to capturing the true appeal of Athens’s democracy, not as an alternative to the presumed practical services which it provided to the majority of its citizens over time (Finley 1983), but in defining the setting in which its political appeal was most direct, immediate, and engaging.

It is worth pressing the question how far any contemporary self-characterized democracy (for all its cornucopia of goods and services in times of plenty) can hope to match that appeal in directness, immediacy, or engagement. Insofar as none simply can, that would be a notable political weakness, and one which, on the roller coaster of modern global economic transformation, may yet prove their Achilles’ heel.[5]


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Note 1
Compare, though, the subtext of even the most theocratic of contemporary regimes: the role of the Expediency Council, alias The Assembly for Diagnosing the Interests of the People, in Iran today (Gardiner 1999:15, and for the eminently secular preoccupations of Khomeini himself, Abrahamian 1995).

Note 2
Compare Isocrates’ summons to resuscitate a constitution once effectively sustained but now dismally lost—in effect to resuscitate an (at least imagined) Athenian ancient regime: Ober 1998:282–283.

Note 3
A clash between two vivid, if perhaps unequally normatively insightful, intuitions about justice (Rawls 1972, Nozick 1975).

Note 4
For a particularly balanced and illuminating discussion see Sen 2009.

Note 5
As will be apparent throughout, the understanding of the workings of Athenian democracy which underlies this essay is wholly derivative: originating especially with the unforgettable teaching of Moses Finley; continuing with more than three decades of close discussion with Cynthia Farrar; and, within a burgeoning and often extremely illuminating literature, from protracted and admiring study especially of the remarkable contribution made by the work of Mogens Hansen.