Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained

The True Meaning of Democracy

Reading Room: Chapter 13 Summary

Democracy Defined

“… alone I pass’d through ways
That brought me on a sudden to the tree
Of interdicted knowledge; fair it seem’d …”

Democracy is, in its Greek origin, a political word. “Demos” refers to the people, “kratos,” to power or rule. So that democracy is a form of government in which the people rule. The people, meaning all citizens living under a particular government, exercise power on their own behalf. The people and the government are one and the same.

Sometime in the eighteenth century, democracy took on a second meaning. It became equated with freedom from arbitrary constraint. This kind of democracy is a negative concept in that it incorporates the wish to be free from something, to be left alone, to not be bothered. I am referring to such democracy as civic democracy. It is quite different from political democracy in that it does not describe a form of government.

In the nineteenth century, the word democracy took on yet another meaning. If we are, all of us, to be free from want, we need to live in a society where there is a relatively equal distribution of wealth. Such concerns usually fall under the heading of social democracy.  While social democracy is about the distribution of wealth, political democracy is about the distribution of power.

There is yet a fourth meaning which adheres to this most sticky of words, democracy. This particular kind of democracy, however, has no form, has no program, has no content. A “democratic leader” will talk and act in a folksy, anti-elitist way, create an atmosphere of well-being but will stand for nothing in particular that he is willing to openly advocate that is truly democratic. He will speak of “prosperity” and “liberty,” but will offer no concrete proposals. This is what rhetorical democracy is all about, appearance, sleight of hand, empty promises. It is one of the reasons democracy has such bad standing and is so often the object of ridicule.

Vandina Shiva holds out another option. She calls it “Earth Demcoracy.”  Where there is earth democracy, there is self-governance organized around issues of access to and distribution of natural resources. The local community controls its supply of water. It controls its seeds. It chooses the crops it plants and the means of fertilization. Localization becomes the answer to globalization. Diversity is the answer to uniformity and centralization, diversity of species, of crops, of peoples and cultures.