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.

Source: MSS Research

Seyoum T.