The Head of Capital and the Body Politic

What is capitalism? The term is etymologically related to cattle (and chattel). The basic notion of capitalism is fungible wealth. That is property that can be moved around, like cattle (or else what can be moved by cattle, such as being put in a wagon pulled by cattle or some other beast of burden). It relates to a head of cattle. The term capitalism is derived from capital or rather capitale, a late Latin word based on caput, meaning of the head.

A capital is the head of a society and the capitol is where the head of power resides — Capital vs. Capitol:

Both capital and capitol are derived from the Latin root caput, meaning “head.” Capital evolved from the words capitālis, “of the head,” and capitāle, “wealth.” Capitol comes from Capitōlium, the name of a temple (dedicated to Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god Zeus) that once sat on the smallest of Rome’s seven hills, Capitoline Hill.

But there is also the body politic or the body of Christ. The head has become the symbolic representation of the body, but the head is just one part of the body. It is the body that is the organic whole, with the people as demos: national citizenry, community members, church congregants, etc. This is the corporeal existence of the social order. And it is the traditional basis of a corporation, specifically as representing some kind of personhood. At one time, objects and organizations were treated as having actual, not just legal, personhood. The body of Christ was perceived as a living reality, not just a convenient way for the powerful to wield their power.

If you go back far enough, the head of a society was apparently quite literal. In the ancient world, when a leader died, they often lopped off his head because that was the source of the voice of authority. Supposedly, bicameral societies involved an experience where people continued hearing voices of dead kings and godmen, presumably why they kept the skull around. The earliest known permanent structures were temples of death cults with headless imagery, and these temples were built prior to humans settling down — prior to agriculture, pottery, and domesticating cattle. They built houses to their gods before they built houses for themselves. The capital of these societies were temples and that was the convenient location for storing their holy skulls.

Gobekli Tepe, like many other similar sites, was located on a hill. That has long been symbolic of power. After bicameral societies developed, they built artificial hills such as mounding up dirt or stacking large stones as pyramids. The head is at the top of the body and it is from that vantage point that all of the world can be seen. It was natural to associate the panoramic view of a hill or mountain with power and authority, to associate vision with visionary experience. Therefore, it made sense to locate a god’s house in such a high place. Temples and churches, until recent history, were typically the tallest structures in any town or city. In this age of capitalism, it is unsurprising that buildings of business now serve that symbolic role of what is held highest in esteem and so housed in the tallest buildings. The CEO is the head of our society, quite literally at the moment with a businessman as president, a new plutocratic aristocracy forming.

What we’ve forgotten is that the head is part of a body. As a mere part of the body, the head should serve the body in that the part should serve the whole and not the other way around. In tribal societies, there is the big man who represents the tribe. He is the head of the community, but his ability to command submission was severely limited. In Native American tribes, it was common for clans to make their own decisions, whether to follow the tribal leader or not. The real power was in the community, in the social order. The Amazonian Piraha go so far as to have no permanent leadership roles at all.

Even in the more complex Western social order before capitalism took hold, feudal lords were constricted by social responsibilities and obligations to their communities. These feudal lords originated from a tradition where kings were beholden to and originally chosen by the community. Their power wasn’t separate from the community, although feudalism slowly developed in that direction which made possible for the takeover of privatized capitalism. But even in early capitalism, plantation owners were still acting as the big men of their communities where they took care of trade with the external word and took care of problems within the local population. Store owners began taking over this role. Joe Bageant described the West Virginian town he grew up in during the early 20th century and it was still operating according to a barter economy where all outside trade flowed through the store owner with no monetary system being required within the community.

A major difference of the early societies is how important was social order. It was taken as reality, in the way we today take individuality as reality. For most of human existence, most humans would never have been able to comprehend our modern notion of individuality. Primary value was not placed on the individual, not even the individual leader who represented something greater than himself. Even the Roosevelts as presidents still carried a notion of noblesse oblige which signified that there was something more important than their own individuality, one of the most ancient ideas that has almost entirely disappeared.

Interestingly, pre-modern people as with tribal people in some ways had greater freedom in their identity for the very reason their identity was social, rather than individual. The Piraha can change their name and become a new person, as far as other Piraha are concerned. In Feudalism, carnival allowed people to regularly lose their sense of identity and become something else. We modern people are so attached to our individuality that losing our self seems like madness. Our modern social order is built on the rhetoric of individuality and this puts immense weight on individuals, possibly explaining the high rates of mental illness and suicide in modern society. Madness and death is our only escape from the ego.

Capitalism, as globalized neoliberalism, is a high pressure system. Instead of the head of society serving the body politic, we worship the detached head as if a new death cult has taken hold. A corporation is the zombie body without a soul, the preeminent form of our corporatist society with the transnational CEO as the god king standing upon his temple hill. We worship individuality to such a degree that only a few at the top are allowed to be genuine individuals, a cult of death by way of a cult of personality, power detached from the demos like a plant uprooted. The ruling elite are the privileged individuals who tell the dirty masses what to do, the voices we hear on the all-pervasive media. The poor are just bodies to be sacrificed on the altar of desperation, homelessness, prison, and war. As Margaret Thatcher stated in no uncertain terms, there is no society. That is to say there is no body politic, just a mass of bodies as food for the gods.

The head of power, like a cancerous tumor, has grown larger than the body politic. The fungible wealth of capitalism can be moved, but where is it to move. The head can’t move without the body. Wealth can’t be separated from what the world that creates it. Do the plutocrats plan on herding their wealth across the starry heavens in the hope of escaping gravity of the corporeal earth? If we take the plutocrats hallowed skull and trap the plutocrat’s divine being in a temple hill, what would the voice tell us?

At the end of the Bronze Age, a major factor of the mass collapse of civilizations was the horse-drawn chariot. Horses were an early domesticated animal, a major form of fungible wealth. Horses and chariots made new forms of warfare possible, involving large standing armies that could be quickly moved across vast distances with supply chains to keep them fed and armed. Along with other factors, this was a game-changer and the once stable bicameral societies fell one after another. Bicameral societies were non-capitalistic, but the following Axial Age would set the foundations for what would eventually become modern capitalism. Bicameral civilization remained stable for millennia. The civilization formed from the Axial Age has maintained itself and we are the inheritors of its traditions. The danger is that, like bicameral societies, we might become the victims of our own success in growing so large. Our situation is precarious. A single unforeseen factor could send it all tumbling down. Maybe globalized neoliberalism is our horse-drawn chariot.

A head detached from its body is the symbol of modernity, grotesquely demonstrated by the guillotine of the French Revolution, the horror of horrors to the defenders of the ancien regime. Abstract ideas have taken on a life of their own with ideological systems far outreaching what supports them. It’s like a tree clinging to a crumbling cliffside, as if it were hoping to spread its limbs like wings to take flight out across the chasm below. In forgetting the ground of our being, what has been lost and what even greater loss threatens? Before revolution had begun but with revolution in the air, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in 1750 (Discourse on the Arts and Sciences), “What will become of virtue if riches are to be acquired at any cost? The politicians of the ancient world spoke constantly of morals and virtue; ours speak of nothing but commerce and money.” That question is now being answered.

* * *

There was one detail I forgot to work into this piece. Feudalism was on my mind. The end of feudalism was the final nail in the coffin for the societal transformation that began during the Axial Age. What finally forced the feudal order, upon which the ancien regime was dependent, to fall apart or rather be dismantled was sheep, another domesticated animal.

Feudalism was dependent on labor-intensive agriculture that required a large local peasant population. With sheep herding, fewer people were required. The feudal commons were privatized, the peasants kicked off the land, entire villages were razed to the ground, and probably millions of people over several centuries were made destitute, homeless, and starving.

Vast wealth was transferred into private hands. This created a new plutocratic class within a new capitalist order. There is an interesting relationship between domesticated animals and social change. Another example of this is how free-ranging pigs in the American colonies wreaked havoc on Native American villages and gardens, making impossible their way of life.

This process of destruction is how civilization as we know it was built. Some call this creative destruction. For others, it has been plain destruction.

A Truly Free People

“We may awake in fetters, more grievous, than the yoke we have shaken off.”
~Abraham Clark, signer of the Declaration of Independence and member of the Annapolis Conference

How many Americans understand or even suspect the radicalism that once inspired a people to revolt against one of the most powerful empires in the world? How many grasp how daring and vast was this experiment? How many know the names of these heroes? Besides maybe Thomas Paine, how many know about Ethan Allen and Thomas Young? I must admit that Abraham Clark is new to me.

I’ve often written about Paine. His example is inspiring and his life quite amazing. He practically came out of nowhere, setting the colonial world ablaze with his words. And he walked the talk, putting his life on the line again and again. But anyone can fight. What matters is what is fought for. Paine took revolution seriously, believing it to be more than a shifting of power from one ruling elite to another. He was not alone in this thought. Nor was he alone in understanding it was a class war. Clark, for example, shared that sentiment. They understood those who possessed the land and wealth would control the government, as that was always the principle of every despotic government, the very basis of monarchy and aristocracy.

Those like Paine, however, understood that there was a difference in the past. There had been countervailing forces that protected the commoners. For all the faults of feudalism, it enforced a social order of rights and obligations, not just the peasants to their lords but also vice versa. To be a peasant meant to belong to the land, quite literally, and no one could take it away from you, that is until that social order came undone. It wasn’t revolutionaries that destroyed the ancien regime. It was those in power, the supposed defenders of the ancien regime.

What the ruling elite possessed, in many cases, had been stolen. In dismantling feudalism, eliminating the Commons and the rights of the commoners, in creating a new class of landless peasants concentrated in the cities, they made revolution all but inevitable. This radical, anti-traditional capitalism oddly became the defining character of modern ‘conservatism’.

Joseph De Maistre, a French counter-revolutionary, noted that people only identify as conservatives after so much has already been lost. Conservatism isn’t so much conserving still existing and fully thriving traditions, but lamenting and romanticizing what once was or is imagined as having been. Conservatism is just the other side of radicalism. But, according to Corey Robin, conservatives understand full well that the ultimate blame for the destruction of the old order is the old order itself. Feudalism, as such, committed suicide. Conservatives don’t care about the old order itself or any of its traditions. Their only concern is to rebuild a rigid hierarchy, but almost any new system can be made to work for this purpose, even something as radical as capitalism that was the very cause of the destruction of the old order.

I’ve pointed out many times before that there was a strange phenomenon in post-revolutionary America. How quickly conservatives took up the rhetoric of the political left. How quickly the aristocrats and plutocrats co-opted the revolution. There were increasing restrictions in certain areas, specifically those without power began to have their rights constrained. This wasn’t just seen with poor whites or white women. “In some places, propertied women, free blacks, and Native Americans could vote, but those exceptions were just that. (Ed Crews)” True, they were exceptions, and yet for during the era leading up to the American Revolution these exceptions were becoming ever more common—to such an extent that a movement was forming, the very movement that helped give such moral force to the revolutionary zeal.

The revolution gave form to that radicalism, even as it strengthened the reactionary forces against it. In the following decades, so much was lost. “After the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, only a few percentage of Americans had the right to vote (the plutocratic elite of free white male landowners which added up to, as some calculate, around 6-8% of the total population who were eligible voters).” In several states, women had gained the right to vote and then in the early years of the new country they lost the vote again. But, of course, among the biggest losers were blacks, including free blacks, as they suddenly were perceived as a greater threat than ever before. What rights and freedoms they had slowly gained were eroded way as America moved closer to civil war. Black churches were shut down for fear of slave revolts and the few free blacks that had the vote lost it—as a newspaper described in 1838:

Since Jackson’s presidency, there’s been a push to give all white men the vote, even if they don’t own property.

Right now, free black men have the vote in several states. But as states revamp their constitutions to loosen voter requirements for white men, blacks are being stripped of rights they had.

Pennsylvania’s constitution of 1790 gave the vote to “every freeman of the age of twenty-one years.”

Today that was changed to say “every white freeman.”

It’s not just the radicalism that I wanted to bring attention to. What occurred to me is how this relates to the issue of the ancient world. Many revolutionaries looked back to ancient Rome and Greece. The idea of The People originated with the Greek démos.

It is hard for many of us today to take seriously this view of society and politics. We automatically see it as a fiction or an abstraction. But this is because organic communities are almost entirely dead in the modern West. The visceral sense of belonging to a people and a place, to one’s kin and neighbors, a coherent sense of community—this is foreign to us. We’ve become fully alienated, in terms of both the Marxian species-being and Cartesian anxiety.

I’ve had on my mind that human nature itself might in a sense be radical. It’s only in taking the ancient world seriously that we can begin to grasp who we are and what we might become. If we aren’t mere individuals, if we aren’t just billiard balls crashing into one another, then what are we? In our attempts to understand ourselves, what kind of world do we create? And in creating this world, how does this further shape that understanding?

To rethink human nature is a radical act because the very potential of radicalism exists within human nature. The new individualistic self took root in the Axial Age. And the psychological self took shape in the Renaissance. But it was the printing press that brought these ideas of the self down into the mess domain of public politics. Pandora’s Box was opened.

These were no longer just ideas to be pondered by the intelligentsia. Their radical potential became manifest. Yet enough of the older senses of self clung to the roots. The feudalism that had its origins in the ancient world was able to hold on into the revolutionary era, the old order still being fresh enough in public memory to be a source of inspiration for the 19th century Romantics.

The notion of The People was being reshaped by new ideas. But the very sense of being a people was nothing new. It was at the very heart of a still living tradition. It was that meeting of the old and new that led to such unpredictable results.

Christian G. Fritz, in American Sovereigns, writes (pp. 3-4):

It seems puzzling today that Americans once considered their sovereign to be the people acting collectively. Modern scholars suggest that sovereignty of the people a rhetorical flourish lacking practical application as a constitutional principle. As a crucial “fiction,” the people’s sovereignty had enormous political influence. But modern accounts of America’s constitutional history neglect the constitutional authority once imputed to such a collective sovereign and as such they fail to appreciate the earlier existence of a widely held belief in collective sovereignty that lost sway only after the Civil War.

The lost view of sovereignty assumed that a majority of the people created and therefore could revise constitutions at will, and that a given majority of one generation could not limit a later generation. America’s first constitutions, being an expression of people’s sovereignty, could not be turned against the majority of the people. Indeed, those constitutions frequently contained express provisions recognizing the broad scope of the people’s authority. Such statements encouraged an expansive view of the constitutional revision. The essence of the rule of law—that binding law exists above both the governors and the governed alike—was challenged by the idea that a sovereign people could not be bound even by a fundamental law of their own making.

Under the expansive view, adhering to procedures specifying constitutional change provided one means of determining the will of the sovereign. Nonetheless, constitutional text requiring special majorities could not prevail over the clear will of a majority to dispense with such requirements if that majority so desired. The key to legitimacy was whether constitutional change expressed the will of the collective sovereign, not adherence to specific procedures. While Americans frequently followed such procedures, for many those steps were simply useful, not indispensable. They were not the only legitimate tools available for a sovereign to articulate its will.

It is time we reclaim our own history.

We are still on that cusp of transformation. Much of the world has to varying degrees maintained organic communities. Many populations still have that communal sense of identity, as a present reality or in the not too distant past. The rural lifestyle and tight-knit small communities is within living memory for a significant number of Americans. Even the ancient traditions of subsistence farming and barter economy continued into early 20th century America. The majority of Americans left the rural areas less than a century ago.

I wouldn’t be so dismissive of that ancient view of being a people, a communal self, not the same thing as collectivist ideology. It’s lasted for millennia. And it was never limited to the Greeks, even though their surviving texts made it famous. For many people today, this is a very much real experience of social reality.

Maybe we should take more seriously what once motivated revolutionaries, the attempt to carry that ancient tradition into a changing world, an anchor in turbulent seas. And as we become increasingly disconnected from the past and alienated from our own human nature, this way of seeing the world becomes ever more radical. The term ‘radical’ etymologically comes from late Latin, meaning of or pertaining to the root. And, I might add, a revolution originally meant a return. We could use a radical revolution right about now, a return to our roots. That is an original intent that might mean something. We can only move forward by seeing the path we’ve been on.

Otherwise, we will be doomed to repeat history. A bad situation being replaced by worse still. That was the warning given by Abraham Clark and many others as well. Within that warning is a seed of hope, that maybe one day a generation will take up the task of becoming a truly free people.

Démos, The People

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
~ Declaration of Independence

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
~ Constitution of the United States

Inventing the People: The Rise of Popular Sovereignty in England and America
Edmund S. Morgan
Kindle Locations 62-82

Government requires make-believe. Make believe that the king is divine, make believe that he can do no wrong or make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people. Make believe that governors are the servants of the people. Make believe that all men are equal or make believe that they are not.

The political world of make-believe mingles with the real world in strange ways, for the make-believe world may often mold the real one. In order to be viable, in order to serve its purpose, whatever that purpose may be, a fiction must bear some resemblance to fact. If it strays too far from fact, the willing suspension of disbelief collapses. And conversely it may collapse if facts stray too far from the fiction that we want them to resemble. Because fictions are necessary, because we cannot live without them, we often take pains to prevent their collapse by moving the facts to fit the fiction, by making our world conform more closely to what we want it to be. We sometimes call it, quite appropriately, reform or reformation , when the fiction takes command and reshapes reality.

Although fictions enable the few to govern the many, it is not only the many who are constrained by them. In the strange commingling of political make-believe and reality the governing few no less than the governed many may find themselves limited— we may even say reformed— by the fictions on which their authority depends. Not only authority but liberty too may depend on fictions. Indeed liberty may depend, however deviously, on the very fictions that support authority. That, at least, has been the case in the Anglo-American world; and modern liberty, for better or for worse, was born, or perhaps we should say invented, in that world and continues to be nourished there.

Because it is a little uncomfortable to acknowledge that we rely so heavily on fictions, we generally call them by some more exalted name. We may proclaim them as self-evident truths, and that designation is not inappropriate, for it implies our commitment to them and at the same time protects them from challenge. Among the fictions we accept today as self-evident are those that Thomas Jefferson enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, that all men are created equal and that they owe obedience to government only if it is their own agent, deriving its authority from their consent. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate these propositions by factual evidence. It might be somewhat easier, by the kind of evidence we usually require for the proof of any debatable proposition, to demonstrate that men are not created equal and that they have not delegated authority to any government. But self-evident propositions are not debatable, and to challenge these would rend the fabric of our society.

Civil Rights and the Paradox of Liberal Democracy
Bradley C. S. Watson
pp. 1-3

Any discussion of liberal democracy requires some definition of terms. Defining democracy is a notoriously complex enterprise, made the more so by adding the qualifier liberal. Yet most would agree that we in the Western world live in regimes that share one overriding and defining feature: they are all “liberal democracies.”

The ancient understanding and practice of democracy, to the extent that it implied rule of all free persons in a regime, clearly would not qualify as such. No distinction can of course be drawn, in terms that are acceptable to modernity, between free and unfree persons. Modernity in fact marked a fundamental departure from all views that claimed relevant political distinctions could be drawn between individuals. This is one way of understanding the meaning of liberal in the phrase “liberal democracy.” For Locke, the state of nature is notoriously a state of freedom, but also a state of equality

wherein all the Power and Jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another: there being nothing more evident, than that the Creatures of the same species and rank promiscuously born to all the same advantages of Nature, and the use of the same faculties, should also be equal one amongst another without Subordination or Subjection, unless the Lord and Master of them all, should by any manifest Declaration of his Will set one above another, and confer on him by an evident and clear appointment an undoubted Right to Dominion and Sovereignty.

Thus, for Locke, is consent a function of the nature of things. And freedom, in civil society, cannot be understood apart from consent.

The full meaning of the combination of demos and kratein in the modern age was captured by no less an authority than Abraham Lincoln: government of the people, by the people, for the people. For my purposes, this definition will suffice. Implied in it are, to use the terminology of social science, several “tests” of whether the democratic, or republican, threshold is being met. First, inclusiveness–the people as a whole in principle constitute the demos; second, an entitlement–the entitlement of the people to rule; third, an empirical claim–that the people actually exercise their entitlement to rule; and, finally, an end to which rule is directed–the true interests of the people. It is a definition that does not imply a simple majoritarianism. It must be the case, in Lincoln’s words, following Locke, that no man is good enough to govern another, without that other’s consent.

Harry V. Jaffa has long argued that the conception of equality expressed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence is the political expression of “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” It is these natural laws, he argues, that the U.S. Constitution–and the regime of which the Constitution is the organizing document–were designed to implement. [ . . . . ]

But the very phrase “liberal democracy” points to the paradox that is the subject of this book. Democracy implies the consent of the governed, which consent rests, explicitly or implicitly, on the recognition of the effective political equality of the individuals who constitute the demos. Liberalism implies a respect for, nay, an exaltation of, the individual qua individual, which respect or exaltation is in tension with the idea of consent of the whole. This brings to light the inadequacy of a relatively common definition of liberal democracy; it is inadequate because it fails to take into account the true meaning of liberalism: “‘Democracy’ . . . refers to the location of a state’s power, that is, in the hands of the people, whereas ‘liberal’ refers to the limitation of a state’s power. From this viewpoint, a liberal democracy is a political system in which the people make the basic political decisions, but in which there are limitations on what decisions they can make.” But liberalism in its contemporary incarnation frequently results in the individual using the state’s power, whatever the wishes of the majority. Liberalism thus appears to be linked with those passions in the human soul that tend toward the tyrannical, where tyranny is understood as the rule of the one in his or her own interest. Liberalism so viewed threatens to make the first “test” in Lincoln’s definition difficult to meet, and, by extension, all the other tests. But this tension is a commonplace, and it merely adumbrates the paradox of liberal democracy.

Strong’s Concordance

démos: a district or country, the common people, esp. the people assembled

1218 dḗmos (from 1210 /déō, “to bind, tie”) – people bound (tied) together by similar laws or customs (like citizens in an ancient Greek city forming an assembly, cf. 1577 /ekklēsía).

In the NT, 1218 (dḗmos) refers to people unified in conviction and showing it in public opinion, i.e. their “collective persuasion.”

[1218 (dḗmos) is the root of the English word, “democracy.” Ancient Greek used 1218 (dḗmos) for “the body politic” (J. Thayer).]

Political organization
Foundation of the Hellenic world 

The Mycenaean texts frequently include the word damo, the demos or village defining both the geographic position and the population of the communities. The context reveals that the word did not have an administrative meaning but it signified the collective body of the people of each administrative unit. The words demos and telestai are also used as synonyms which indicates that the major landholders sometimes represented the people. One of the offices which refer to Pylos was the damokoro, a complex adjective deriving from demos and the korete. The damakoro were employees appointed by the wanax.

Athenian Political Art from the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BCE: Images of Political Personifications
Amy C. Smith, edition of January 18 2003
page 8 of 26
The Stoa Consortium

Demos (ὁ δῆμος) was used through the middle of the fifth century to refer to commoners. But in fifth century Athens demos also meant the sovereign body of free citizens. As commoners comprised a good part of the citizenry in the democracy, the two definitions—commoners and citizens—coexisted through the Classical period. It is the sovereign Demos that would have been revered in the cult with the Nymphs, on the Acropolis at Athens: an inscription dating to 462 attests a joint sanctuary of Demos and the Nymphs, who may have been the Horai (Seasons) and/or Charites (Graces) (IG I2, 854). Certainly in the second half of the fifth century, demos sometimes took on negative connotations, and the demos is increasingly represented as gullible and fickle, capable of being deceived by politicians, as exclaimed by the chorus of aristocratic cavalrymen in Aristophanes’ Knights (in 424), for example (Aristoph. Kn. 1111-18). (Aristophanes was probably the first to personify Demos, but similar characters may have been portrayed in the lost comedies of Eupolis and Cratinus.) Tension between the two views of demos—the commoners who are ridiculed, on the one hand, and the sovereign people, who warrant respect—seems to have been reflected in the personification of Demos on stage and in visual arts. In Knights Aristophanes is also sympathetic, and clearly sees the demos as capable of reform, for the crux of the play is Demos’ rejuvenation. The youthful Demos at the end of the play vows to restore old-fashioned ways in the government, a solution for which the democrats frequently yearned.

The Development of Athenian Democracy
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of January 24, 2003
(Section 1 of 7)
The Stoa Consortium

Greek word Demos (δῆμος, pronounced “day-moss”) has several meanings, all of them important for Athenian democracy. Demos is the Greek word for “village” or, as it is often translated, “deme.” The deme was the smallest administrative unit of the Athenian state, like a voting precinct or school district. Young men, who were 18 years old presented themselves to officials of their deme and, having proven that they were not slaves, that their parents were Athenian, and that they were 18 years old, were enrolled in the “Assembly List” (the πίναξ ἐκκλησιαστικός) (see Dem. 44.35; Aristot. Ath. Pol. 42.1).

Another meaning of Demos, to the Athenians, was “People,” as in the People of Athens, the body of citizens collectively. So a young man was enrolled in his “demos” (deme), and thus became a member of the “Demos” (the People). As a member of the Demos, this young man could participate in the Assembly of Citizens that was the central institution of the democracy. The Greek word for “Assembly” is ekklesia (ἐκκλησία), but the Athenians generally referred to it as the “Demos.” Decrees of the Assembly began with the phrase “It seemed best to the Demos,…”, very much like the phrase “We the People…” that introduces the Constitution of the United States. In this context, “Demos” was used to make a distinction between the Assembly of all citizens and the Council of 500 citizens, another institution of the democracy (see below). So some decrees might begin “It seemed best to the Demos…”, others might begin “It seemed best to the Council…”, and still others might begin, “It seemed best to the Demos and the Council….”

So the Athenian Demos was the local village, the population generally, and the assembly of citizens that governed the state. The idea of the Demos was a potent one in Athens of the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.

It had not always been the case. The Iliad—the work of literature that was the shared text for all Greeks—describes a world whose values pre-date those of the Athenian democracy. One passage from it, especially, suggests that the idea of the “demos” changed dramatically in the years leading up to the 5th century. [ . . . . ]

The Homeric hero Odysseus did not favor putting rule into the hands of the Demos. What happened, then, to change the status of the Demos from that of a lowly mob, to be beaten down with a stick, to that of the ruling People of classical Athens?

Democracy : the Rule of Nobody?
John Keane


Any contemporary effort to rethink the meaning of democracy must start by tracing the word democracy back to the Greeks, who are customarily thought to have invented the word and given it meaning. The platitude that democracy means the rule of the sovereign people usually points to its ultimate origin in or around classical Athens during the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. Most contemporary textbooks read by students andteachers concerned with the history of democratic theory and institutions repeat the point that this is where the history of democracy began. Thereis indeed an old and venerable tradition of doing so, yet new researchcalls this Myth of the Greek Origins of Democracy into question. It turns out not only that the arts of self-government sprang up much earlier, for instance in ancient Mesopotamia, where popular assemblies (pu-uh-ru)wielded power, including the election of kings.1 Even the root of the word democracy pre-dated the ancient Greek city states. References (in the Linear B script) to the dāmos are evident during the Mycenean period (c. 1500-1200 BCE), when it is used as a noun to refer to a group of former landowners who lose everything and are dispossessed of political power2. The nuances need not detain us here, except to note a key point : that the dāmos is a sectional or self-interested group that has its eyes on power, but is for the time being shut out from power.

That particular connotation of exclusion is carried over into the word demokratia (δηµοκρατία) that was spoken in the various classical Greek dialects. That the past was to echo into the present should not be surprising when it is considered that those who principally referred to the demos were its fearful opponents. The term became common currency in a phase of transition when (most famously in Athens) politics was dominated by aristocrats locked in competition with themselves and with their opponents. What this self-styled class of aristoi had in common was their mostly hostile regard for a sectional group that was seen to be dangerous because it was property-less and hungry for political power. Such references help to explain why democracy (demokratia : from demos and kratos, rule) had so few intellectual defenders, and why its critics pointed to the demos as a potentially destructive force within the life of the political community.

Few observers have spotted that the negative connotations of the word demokratia – a form of polity defined by the exercise by some of self-interested or sectional power over others – are buried within the very word democracy itself. The verb kratein (κρατείν) is usually translated as‘to rule’ or ‘to govern’, but in fact its original connotations are harsher, tougher, more brutal. To use the verb kratein is to speak the language of military manoeuvring and military conquest : kratein means to be masterof, to conquer, to lord over, to possess (in modern Greek the same verb means to keep, or to hold), to be the stronger, to prevail or get the upper hand over somebody or something. Homer’s Odyssey and Sappho’sSupplements both use kratein in this way. The noun kratos (κράτος), from which the compound demokratia was formed, similarly refers to might, strength, imperial majesty, toughness, triumphant power, and victory over others, especially through the application of force. The now obsolete verb demokrateo (δηµοκρατέω) brims with all of these connotations : it means to grasp power, or to exercise control over others.1

From the standpoint of today, these are indeed strange and unfortunate connotations. They bring us to a first major difficulty in simple-minded uses of the word democracy : that it is the carrier of exactly the opposite meaning of what most democrats today mean when they speak of democracy, in much more complex ways, as non-violent inclusiveness, power-sharing based on compromise and fairness, as equality based upon the legally guaranteed respect for others’ dignity. Interpreted simultaneously with ‘classical’ and ‘modern’ eyes, the word democracy is untrue both to itself and to its users. It is a double-standard word. Like adouble-agent that charms those around it into thinking that it is something that it is not, talk of ‘democracy’ invokes an original meaning that betrays what the word today conveys. For Greek commentators and critics alike, demokratia was a unique form of rule – note the accurate Latin translation of kratein with regulare : to control, to exercise sway over – in which the demos acts as a selfish body in pursuit of its own particular interests. Here the word demokratia has one thing in common with other contemporary words used to describe the rule of sectional interests – words like aristokratia (αριστοκρατία : aristocracy), ploutokratia (πλουτοκρατία: the rule of the rich) and monokratoria (µονοκρατορία monocracy, or the rule of a single person). To speak of demokratia is to point to a particular group whose particular interests are not identical with everyone’s interests. In a demokratia the demos holds kratos,1 which is another way of saying that it is prone to act forcefully, to get its own particular way by using violence, either against itself but especially against others. This is exactly what Plato meant by his remark that democracy is a two-faced form of government, ‘according to whether the masses rule over the owners of property by force or by consent’2. The unknown Old Oligarch had much the same thing in mind when dressing down demokratia as the rule of the lowest and most misguided section of the population, the demos, who sometimes strive to exercise power by making common cause with sections of the aristoi.3 When this happens, the people are ruled in their own name. Demokratia still refers to a form of sectional rule based on force but its emphasis undergoes a subtle shift, towards something like empowerment through the people. Demokratia is a form of polity in which the people are ruled while seeming to rule.

Strategic Abuses of Democracy

It may be objected that a genealogy of the word democracy is an exercise in antiquarianism or, worse, intellectual pedantry. The charge might be persuasive if indeed democracy as a form of government had been confined to the ancients. That was of course not to be, for the revival of the discourse of democracy in the late sixteenth-century Low Countries prepared the way for the emergence of democratic institutions as a modern form of life – as a sui generis mode of organizing power. What is of interest here is that the divisive, exclusionary connotations of the word democracy did not disappear with its ‘modernization’. They were if anything resuscitated and strengthened by a political tendency that has in the meantime become something of a well-established pattern : the tendency of actors to invoke the word democracy, understood as popular sovereignty, as a handy weapon in the struggle for power over others.