Social Origins of Democracy


Over the past two decades, a democratic revolution has been sweeping the world, starting in Latin America, then spreading through Eastern Europe and most recently across Africa. According to the research organization Freedom House, 117 of the world's 191 countries are considered democratic. This is a vast increase from even a decade ago. Over the past two centuries, the rise of constitutional forms of government has been closely associated with peace, social stability and rapid socio-economic development. Democratic countries have been more successful in living peacefully with their neighbors, educating their citizens, liberating human energy and initiative for constructive purposes in society, economic growth and wealth generation.

In spite of its enormous contribution to social development, the process responsible for the emergence and successful adaptation of democratic institutions in society is not yet well understood. For every success, there are instances in which the introduction of democratic institutions has failed or quickly reverted to authoritarian forms of government. A study of the relationship between the rise of democratic institutions and the development of other aspects of society may help us better understand and more effectively harness the power of democracy.

Most studies of the origin of democracy focus on one or a number of important factors and circumstances that seem to be associated with its emergence. This paper argues for a more comprehensive approach that views all the contributing factors as expressions of a more fundamental process of change in the society. It is this process that we must understand, if society is to acquire the capability to promote the successful adoption of democratic institutions in different social and cultural contexts.

A survey of nations that refer to themselves as ‘democratic' makes it evident that the term is applied to widely divergent forms of government. There is not and may never be a single formula for what constitutes democracy. However, underlying these different forms is a common principle. Democratic governments are those in which fundamental human rights of individual citizens are protected by the collective and in which the views of the population-at-large, not just a ruling elite, are reflected in the actions of government.

The central thesis of this paper is that the rise of democratic forms of government has been the result of a revolutionary shift in the relative importance and positions accorded by society to the individual and to the collective. This shift involved a movement toward a more balanced relationship between the rights and interests of the collective and the rights and interests of individuals. It has resulted in parallel developments in the spheres of philosophy, science, religion, economics, politics, education and social culture. In the intellectual sphere it gave rise to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, in the field of religion to the Reformation, in economy to the rise of capitalism, in politics to the rise of democracy.

In order to appreciate the import and magnitude of this shift, it should be recognized that until recently the individual occupied a distinctly subordinate position in society. The dominant governing principle behind social organization was preservation of the collective and leadership by a privileged elite-military, religious or aristocratic. During the last five centuries in Western Europe a sea-change occurred which sought to create a more equal balance between the political power of the ruling elite and the rights of individuals. The most distinguishing feature of societies embracing democratic forms of government has been the heightened value given to the full development of its citizens. This paper traces the factors leading to the emergence of the value of individualism in Western Europe over five centuries. It focuses on the emergence and development of democratic political institutions in Western Europe, particularly England.

Democratic values and institutions did not arise as a direct contradiction of authoritarian forms of governance. Rather they emerged by a gradual change in the principles that governed the distribution of power in society. An oligarchy of military strength, divine right, aristocratic lineage and land gradually gave way to an oligopoly of wealthy merchants. The parliaments of the first stage were congresses of feudal lords. The parliaments of the second were assemblies of rich traders. The idea of universal human rights and freedoms which we now identify as the essence of democracy was at first cited as a justification for redistribution of power to the commercial class and only much later as a principle for extending rights and privileges to all citizens. This shift continues today in countries around the world and may not yet have reached its acme in any country.

Historical Origins of Democracy

The genesis of democracy can be traced back to the Greek city-state of Athens. The democratic idea of a government responsible to the governed, of trial by jury and of civil liberties of thought, speech, writing and worship have been stimulated by Greek history. Emphasis on liberty and the studies related to man were the main tenets of ancient Greece. It was their sense of liberty and independence, individual and collective, which inspired them to accomplishments in philosophy, politics and science. The Greeks gave to mankind the idea of politics as the business of citizens as against the arbitrary rule of the despots.

The democracy propounded by the Greeks enjoyed a short span of life. The Romans, successor to Greek ideas and institutions, at first seemed to embrace Athenian democratic principles. The regime of the Romans was a mixture of kingship, aristocracy and democracy. Its aim was the collective welfare of the society. But the exigencies of governing an expanding empire led to the corruption of individual rights by the power and expediency of monarchy and aristocracy. For a few hundred years, the Empire ruled by well-disciplined Roman legions maintained conditions of relative peace and security throughout much of Europe. With the decline of the Empire, Europe became more vulnerable to an increasing frequency and intensity of barbarian attacks. Without Roman legions to protect them, local populations fell back on feudal system in which trained warlords and their horse soldiers protected the people in exchange for loyalty and serfdom. Physical security and subsistence level existence were purchased at the cost of individual freedom. Fear and ignorance compelled submission to arbitrary authority.

The people's existence was made subordinate to the rights and arbitrary rule of monarchs, feudal lords and priests. Surrounded by an infallible Pope on one side and a divinely ordained monarch on the other, the population was denied fundamental rights and privileges. A rigid structure of governance, economic activity controlled by feudal lords and thought defined by religion ruled society. Economically, land was the basis of wealth. Socially, heredity was the determinant of position and opportunity. Intellectually, theological doctrine was the sole arbiter of truth. In short, economic, religious and civil liberties, which are the core of democracy, were suppressed by forces of religious and political absolutism, and did not re-emerge until the 15th century.

The Rise of political institutions in Italy

Centuries of relative physical security and stability under the feudal system led to the re-emergence of long suppressed human energies and aspirations. The feudal system maintained a delicate balance between the rights and power of feudal lords and those of the central monarch.

The growth of guild crafts and trade created new centers of wealth and power concentrated in cities. The rise of city-states undermined the power of rural, land-based feudal kingdoms and created an alternative source of support for the monarch. The merchant class that rose to power in these city-states utilized the power of their new found wealth to leverage greater economic freedom and political independence from the monarch in exchange for financial support. As early as the 11th century, the bishops lost control over the Italian city of Lombardy to self-governing communes, whose members were appointed by their citizens. By the end of the century, the commercially active Italian cities of Venice, Florence and Genoa enjoyed a considerable degree of political freedom. Local independence created a rivalry of cities in the fields of art, literature and philosophy. In their attempt to bring themselves to the forefront, aristocrats and princes took over the patronage of literature and art from the Pope. Academies were founded by patron princes in Florence, Naples, Venice, Milan and Padua. Through these academies the influence of new learning infiltrated the late medieval society. The new humanistic education and economic prosperity of the Italian city-states brought into greater prominence the role of the individual in social advancement.

The growth of commerce spurred the rise of money as a new center of wealth. The shift from a land-based to a money-based social system laid the economic foundation for the emergence of individualism by according status and privileges to those who acquired wealth by effort and merit rather than restricting it to a hereditary aristocracy. It undermined the power of the feudal lords and transferred power to a new merchant class. The organization of agriculture also underwent tremendous changes. It was found that free laborers who paid rent or worked for wages produced more crops and generated more profits than enserfed laborers. The shift to a new system of wage payments for agricultural labor not only increased agricultural productivity, but also freed peasants from permanent ties to their feudal rulers. The decline of feudalism that resulted led to an increase in individual economic freedom.

This new economic freedom became the breeding ground for the rebirth of Greek ideas. It was the wealth gathered from commerce that financed the Renaissance. Cities became fertile soil for the spread of humanistic thought, social aspirations and individual enterprise, leading to the rebirth of classical learning and literature in Renaissance Italy. The rise of vernacular languages acted as a channel for the spread of humanistic ideas to all sections of the society. Humanism tried to free intellect from the control of religion. The new humanism transformed the medieval ideal of a man with a sword to that of individual attaining worth by absorbing the culture of the Greeks and Romans. Study of the Classics was no longer confined to the clergy and aristocracy. Humanism opened the gates of secular learning to layman. The hereditary base of social privilege began to give way.

The new economic, political and intellectual environment contributed to religious reformation. The Reformation was a direct attack on the suppression of individualism by a despotic church organization. The Reformation transmitted new humanistic ideas to all parts of Europe. It shifted authority in the sphere of religion from the institution of the church to the individual. It sowed the seeds of freedom that later sprouted in the economic, political and social spheres.

Origins of Democracy in England

The fall of the Roman Empire in the West (476 A.D) and barbarian invasions that followed marked the beginning of the Middle Ages in England. Feudalism and Catholicism spread as remedies for the resulting insecurity, fear and poverty. In the absence of a strong protective government, people surrendered their lands and labor to local warlords in return for shelter and support. The quest for physical security resulted in economic subjection and military allegiance to those who could organize defense and agriculture. Wars, famine and plague forced the peasant and serf to accept the suzerainty of temporal and spiritual lords. Every family had a lord to protect or subject it. This gave rise to a landed aristocracy and the concentration of wealth in the hands of a few. Under the feudal system, ownership of land was the principle source of wealth and power.

In the realm of religion, the Papacy reigned supreme. In the Middle Ages, to be literate meant to know Latin, because the Holy Scripture and anything else of importance were written down in that language. Commoners were not taught Latin and were not allowed to read the Bible. The church controlled people's intellectual horizons through a hierarchy of parish priests, monks and preaching friars and created its influence on all walks of human life. Papal taxation on the land was very high. By 1279, the Church of England had amassed enormous wealth in the form of taxes and land. In order to enhance their power, the Popes themselves used war as an instrument of policy.

Politically, the Divine Right theory of kingship prevailed. According to this doctrine, the king was considered the representative of God on earth. In the early Middle ages, kings were chosen or accepted by the great barons and ecclesiastics. Their direct power was limited to their own feudal domain or manors. The serf and the vassal swore loyalty to the lord who protected them, rarely to the king whose small and distant forces could not reach out to guard the remote areas of his realm. The kings, lacking the machinery for imperial taxation, could not pay for standing armies, so their dependence on the lords further strengthened feudalism. In an age of faith, kings were also compelled to accept the suzerainty of the papacy. Moreover, the monarchs needed the support of the church in their fight against feudal barons. These conditions limited the power of the monarch. The rigid social hierarchy severely restricted human freedom. People lived in a closed society that left little scope for individual advancement.

By the dawn of the 11th century, the cessation of attacks from barbarian invaders and the stability of the feudal system provided a sense of physical security. The energy expended in self-defense was diverted to other walks of life. The rise of a money economy, the revival of commerce, the rise of guild and communes, the decline of feudalism and the accumulation of agricultural surpluses provided the basis for economic recovery and significant material progress. Physical security released aspirations for economic freedom. This economic advancement strengthened the liberalizing forces in the agrarian society.

Shift of power from feudal lords to the monarch

The first stepping stone to the emergence of democracy was the destruction of feudalism and the stabilization of monarchical authority. The old hierarchic social order did not dissolve completely, but it became more elastic and adjusted itself to the new conditions. The stabilization of monarchical authority and the growth of nation-state lessened the importance of feudalism. Till the 15th century, England was a cluster of counties divided among various feudal lords with a monarch dependent on them for military and financial support. The growth of the nation-state diminished the importance of feudal lords. Agreements were made with the feudal barons to serve for pay, with a stipulated retinue of mercenary soldiers. The use of such agreements and of pay changed the complexion of the army and undermined the territorial basis of feudal service. This helped break down the rigidity of feudal hierarchy.

Power shifts from land to money

The rise of a money economy sounded the death knell of feudalism. "Feudal customs and practices completely decayed by 1500. Personal unfreedom and the status of villeinage were eradicated by 1640." Land, the basis of power in the medieval period, lost its importance. It took centuries for this process to reach completion. But the seeds were sown with the birth of money. With the growth of a money economy, the feudal lords found the serf labor less competent than free labor. So they commuted the old feudal dues into fixed money payments. Lands were leased to free peasants in return for rent. Serfdom lost its foundations and gave way to peasant proprietorship. The peasantry achieved a degree of freedom and prosperity that it had not known in the last thousand years. The lessening of the old seignorial relations between lord and the cultivator coupled with the continued disintegration of the manorial system further spurred the social position of the individual citizen. The decline of feudalism opened the doors for agricultural development. In the feudal period, agricultural production was aimed only to meet the needs of the lord and his manor. The profit motive released by the money economy transformed feudal subsistence production into commercial agriculture. The new commercial agriculture helped change the unreflecting peasant of the 13th century into an individualistic and enterprising farmer. The freedom and emergence of individual as a result of the breakdown of feudalism and shift from a subsistence economy to a market economy prepared the grounds for the growth of English democracy.

Waves of inflation that swept through England during the 15th century provided additional impetus for the new agrarian economy. The rise in population and increase in the flow of silver and gold from America and Spain were important causes for inflation during this period. The price rise stimulated the commercial exploitation of land. It shattered the financial stability of the Crown, though the extent of the damage to the Crown only became fully apparent two centuries later. By depressing royal income deriving from fixed land rents and taxes and by increasing royal expenditure, the price rise made the king increasingly dependent on the Parliament for finance. The loss of the Crown's financial independence was one of the most important reasons for the growth of political democracy. The price rise redistributed national income among the rising class of gentry and merchants. This redistribution of national wealth undermined the medieval concentration of wealth that had contributed to the suppression and serfdomlitic had a loralmMl="styleowthe rolutionofit motive released by the money economligious anring this yet ha prepared the greaterront, aristocratial agry ad. Feudaliy. < left li-merchants. Tyee rne Ased htinued diss. The organirise merchants. Tyee rnave way to grolaceudal dues rve fence lordields of ard social spheres.

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