13 February 2014

A Brief History of Democacy

Earlier today, I recapped the brief history of the economic system accurately described as communism, noting that this was an ephemeral phase in world history.  This follow up post, however, recalls the fact that democracy in its modern form or any approximation of it is also a very young form of government without a proven historical track record of stability.  So, it is not appropriate to assume that its current predominance means that we have reached the "end of history" so far as political arrangements go.

While communism is dead, and democratic capitalism is the predominant form of government in functioning, prosperous countries on Earth, it is too soon to declare that the end of history has arrived.  History offers many examples of long lived monarchies and few examples of long lived democracies.

Democracy has been very rare until very recently.

Prehistory and Legendary History

There is no evidence of the existence of any democracies at all in the Bronze Age or earlier than then for groups any larger than a tribe or band (a band is typically considered up to about 100 individuals, while a tribe might consist of dozens of bands and is a smaller social unit, for example, than the collective group of Jews in exile in the Biblical account or the barbarian tribes that brought about the collapse of the Western Roman empire, both of which would be called "chiefdoms" by anthropologists).

There are no descriptions of democratic self-government in Egyptian histories, Sumerian documents, Hittite documents, the Hebrew Bible, Chinese histories, Greek legendary histories or genuine Greek histories, the Rig Veda which is a legendary history and religious text of Northern South Asia, or the Avesta which is a legendary history and religious text of Iran.

Of course, it is worth noting that history itself and the first decent sized cites only date back to about 3500 BCE with multi-city sized kingdoms following soon afterwards, that prior to about 8000 BCE (Jericho) there were not even decent sized permanent villages except for a few places where villages based upon ocean coast fishing emerged.

Ancient and Medieval Democracies

The only notable and historically attested democracies that existed prior to 1200 CE in states of any size were: (1) a few democratic classical Greek city-states (e.g. Athens) which is also the only historically attested direct democracy of any consequence (from ca. 799 BCE to 356 BCE after which Alexander the Great and his successors ruled them until the Romans conquered Greece), (2) the Roman Republic (509 BCE to 27 BCE), (3) Iceland (930 CE-1262 CE), (4) at least a dozen Medieval self-governing cities called "communes" mostly in Germany and north-central Italy, and the (5) proto-legislative Medieval Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire and similar bodies in England and France.

These definitions of democracy are generous in each of these cases as the franchise was universally narrow rather than universal in the modern sense.  Women, children, slaves and other non-citizens were not entitled to vote, and frequently only property owners or even highly prosperous "plantation" sized property owners were entitled to vote.

There were at least a half a dozen small directly democratically governed Greek city-states and for a brief time they were united into "Leagues" with each city represented in a confederation and the individual city-states governed autonomously.

In the Roman case, which is notable as it was the only large state governed democratically, there were fewer than five hundred years in the history of the Roman Empire in which it was a "Republic", after which it reverted to its original state as a monarchy.  This is applying a generous definition of what constituted a Republic, as the traditional time span of the Roman Republic was interrupted by four dictatorships, one period of military rule, and multiple arguably extralegal successions, and as the processes involved weren't necessarily democratic by modern standards and involved a narrow franchise without a one man-one vote principle in most case.  Overall, the Roman Republic made up less than half of the history of a country that lasted, by tradition, from 753 BCE to 476 CE in the West, and several centuries longer in the East as the rump Byzantine Empire.

Iceland became a Scandinavian colony in 1262 CE and remained a colony until 1941, although the Althing met and had some political role during the colonial period as Iceland was a substantially self-governing colony.  As in the case of the Greek city-states, the number of people involved was modest.  Modern Iceland has a population of 315,000 people or so and its population during the Middle Ages would have been far, far smaller - no larger than a large Greek city-state.  Also, while the Icelandic people had a democratic assembly from 930 CE to 1262 CE, it did not have a full fledged state.  Rather than having an executive branch to, for example, arrest and punish law breakers, the assembly called the Althing simply authorized private individuals to take actions that would otherwise be unlawful as retaliation for violations of the law.

There were probably a dozen to a few dozen additional continental European "free cities" and independent monastic or academic communities from ca. 900 CE and into the modern era, such as the medieval communes of Germany and central-northern Italy.  It is this tradition from which democracy in self-governing Swiss cantons emerged.  As Wikipedia explains:
During the 11th century in northern Italy a new political and social structure emerged and the medieval communes developed to the form of city states. The civic culture which arose from these urbs was remarkable. In most places where communes arose (e.g. France, Britain and Flanders) they were absorbed by the monarchical state as it emerged.

Almost uniquely, they survived in northern and central Italy to become independent and powerful city-states. The breakaway from their feudal overlords by these communes occurred in the late 12th century and 13th century, during the Investiture Controversy between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor: Milan led the Lombard cities against the Holy Roman Emperors and defeated them, gaining independence (battles of Legnano, 1176, and Parma, 1248 - see Lombard League). Meanwhile the Republic of Venice, Pisa and Genoa were able to conquer their naval empires on the Mediterranean sea (in 1204 Venice conquered one-fourth of Byzantine Empire in the Fourth Crusade). Cities such as Parma, Ferrara, Verona, Padua, Lucca, Mantua and others were able to create stable states at the expenses of their neighbors, some of which lasted until modern times.

In southern and insular Italy, autonomous communes were rarer, Sassari in Sardinia being one example.

In the Holy Roman Empire, the emperors always had to face struggles with other powerful players: the land princes on the one hand, but also the cities and communes on the other hand. The emperors thus invariably fought political (not always military) battles to strengthen their position and that of the imperial monarchy. In the Golden Bull of 1356, emperor Charles IV outlawed any conjurationesconfederationes, and conspirationes, meaning in particular the city alliances (Städtebünde), but also the rural communal leagues that had sprung up. Most Städtebünde were subsequently dissolved, sometimes forcibly, and where refounded, their political influence was much reduced. 
Nevertheless some of this communes (as Frankfurt, Nuremberg, Hamburg) were able to survive in Germany for centuries and became almost independent city-states vassals to the Holy Roman Emperors (see Free imperial city).
Germany as a whole had a population of about 5-6 million in the year 1100 CE, and only a small portion of that population lived in free cities.  If the populations of Switzerland, Italy and Germany now were roughly proportional to what they were then, the population of northern and central Italy around 1100 CE was probably about 2-3 million, and the population of all of modern Switzerland was probably around 500,000 to 600,000.

The Kingdom of Sicily founded in 1130 CE prevented independent city-states from arising in Southern Italy.

Oxford, England may have also been democratic and reasonably autonomous at some point in the Middle Ages, but it subsequently came under the control of British authorities.

The Holy Roman Empire that claimed much of central Europe was never very powerful relative to its dozens of local princes, secular and religious alike.  But, during the reign of Maximilian I (1493-1519 CE), an Imperial Diet (a.k.a. Reichstag) was convened (not for the first time) in an effort by the him to obtain widespread assent from a fairly broadly representative body to the imposition of new imperial taxes in exchange for whatever concessions he would agree to in exchange (in the end, the effort was a bust).  Similar, ad hoc consultative bodies for these limited purposes existed in the Middle Ages in France and England that would in each case ultimately presage true legislative bodies in full fledged constitutional monarchies in each of these countries.

Late 18th Century Democracies

Only a handful of independent countries had democratic regimes in the late 18th century:

England.  England was the first state larger than a tiny city-state, canton or small island like Iceland to have democratic government since the fall of the Roman Republic ca. 27 BCE.  Arguably, England was democratic since the Magna Carta of 1215, the English period of republican government (i.e. without a king) from 1649 to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, or the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689 when the English Bill of Rights and certain perogatives of parliament were established, but more realistically, it was only a truly democratic when the first Prime Minister was appointed in 1721 as there was no democratically elected executive branch prior to that point, and parliament's sovereignty would not be established until the 19th century.  The franchise in the English democratic system was also quite narrow until well into the 19th century.

The United States.   The restive thirteen colonies declared independence in 1776, but for a much smaller territory than its current boundaries.  They had limited democratic rights in colonial legislatures on the model of their colonial master, England, starting in the 1600s, while the Puritans had a fairly fully democratic form of local government from the start in the 1600s of their own design and based upon democratic governance structures for Protestant churches.  While Martin Luther is seen as the first theological figure of the Reformation (which begins in 1517), but the Protestant Swiss theologian John Calvin's work in the mid-1500s, was seminal in the area of democratic church governance, which would later provide a model for secular democratic reformers.

Switzerland.  The Swiss Confederation of 1648 to 1798 when it collapsed had oligarchic rule at the canton level, but only ad hoc agreements on a case by case basis divided by religion and was generally disorganized; power was in councils established at the canton level.  Also, the pre-Swiss federation sovereign cantons were very small; there are 26 Swiss cantons in a country that currently has 8 million people and it had thirteen cantons and far fewer in the 17th-19th centuries.  Council members generally served for life and only aristocrats had any political say.  Per Wikipedia:
During the 17th century seats in the councils became increasingly hereditary. There were between 50 and 200 families that controlled all the key political, military and industrial positions in Switzerland. In Bern out of 360 burgher families only 69 still had any power and could be elected by the end of the 18th century. However, the aristocracy remained generally open and in some cities new families were accepted if they were successful and rich enough.
Switzerland was briefly united as a Helvetic Republic on the French model from 1798-1803 CE, when it was an autonomous dependent state of revolutionary France.  A confederation of independent cantons was restored from 1803 to 1848, at which point a federal constitution uniting Switzerland again and to the present was adopted.  The quality of democratic rule vis-a-vis ancien regime oligarchy improved greatly in Switzerland during the 19th century prior to federation, particularly in Protestant cantons.

France.  The French Revolution of 1789 briefly established a Republic, but by 1793 after a convoluted evolution of the regime, monarchy was restored until 1871.  The bloody, confusing and lawless character of this revolution set back the cause of democratic government by about eighty years in the rest of Europe by provide a bad example of what democratic government involved.

* European Free Cities.  At least some autonomous and democratically self-governing free cities, and academic and religious communities may have persisted into the 18th century from the Medieval era.  But, there were probably far fewer at this point because monarchs in this period had begun to assert more control over their territory and to consolidate more territory into coherent geographical entities that left fewer gaps outside the control of the more powerful monarchs.

By 1796, there were four city-state Republics left in the vicinity of Italy (although some controlled more territory than their immediate urban area). Genoa and Lucca were on the Northwestern coast of modern Italy and were fairly compact.  Venice filled the space between Switzerland and the Adriatic Sea and also extended along the Adriatic Sea's eastern coast that is now controlled by modern day Croatia.  At the far end of this part of Venice's territory was a small city-state called Ragusa that also bordered the Ottoman Empire.

Map via Wikipedia.

More Recent Democracies

Most current democratic capitalist regimes are very young and many have shown signs of non-democratic instability in the 20th century or later.

Democracies in Europe and North America.

France was briefly democratic at the end of the 19th century, but its revolution ended badly and lead to a new monarchy before democracy took hold more or less permanently in 1871, although the post-revolutionary monarchy in France from 1793 to 1871 included consultation with a democratically elected parliament supporting an Emperor who held exclusive executive and judicial power.

A substantial part of the United States attempted to secede from 1861-1865 (although the resulting government was democratic by long term historic standards although with a narrow franchise), so no one regime was present for that entire period.  Much of the Western United States was non-democratically ruled by France or Spain or Mexico or Russia or Britain or the King of Hawaii, or by territorial governors, until much later dates than 1776 CE.  For example, Alaska was a possession of imperial Russia for much of the history of the United States.

The Kingdom of Sardinia became a constitutional monarchy in 1848 in the wake of the anti-monarchical uprising of that year that mostly failed elsewhere.  This constitutional monarchy, which had democratic elections with a limited franchise and certain civil rights for its citizens, expanded to include almost all of modern northern and central Italy (much of which had been home to democratic city states since Medieval times which lost their autonomy as this point, but not the right to democratic participation) by 1861 when the Kingdom was rechristened the Kingdom of Italy.  The Kingdom of Sicily, which included the southern portion of the Italian peninsula was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, bringing limited democracy to all of Italy at that point.

There were dozens of smaller states in what is now Germany as recently as 1814, after the French under Napoleon conquered them he merged these states into a Confederation of the Rhine in 1806 that imposed French style constitutional monarchy upon the princes in this region.  In 1815 when French control ended, thirty nine states (35 monarchies ruled by "princes" and 4 free cities) more or less identical to those of the Confederation of the Rhine joined to form a loose association called German Confederation for mutual defense against the larger Prussian and Austrian Kingdoms.  An effort to draw up a democratic constitution for Germany at Frankfurt in 1848 was crushed by the King of Prussia.  Germany didn't exist as unified country in approximately its present form until the 1871 when it arose from territory annexed by the Kingdom of Prussia and proclaimed itself the German Empire, at which point the entire German Empire (including basically Austria, Prussia and the German Confederation) became a constitutional monarchy.

Almost every democratic capitalist country in continental Europe had to start over from scratch after World War II in 1945 after Nazi expansion had turned their states into authoritarian puppets of, or close allies of Hitler.

Greece had a coup in 1967.  Portugal had a coup in 1974.  There was coup in Cyprus in 1974.  A coup in Spain was narrowly averted by it constitutional monarch in 1981.  The successor regimes to the Soviet Union and its allies date to 1990 or later.  West and East Germany reunite in 1990.  The Soviet Union and Yugoslavia start to split up in 1991.  Czechoslovakia splits up in 1993 and in the same year Boris Yeltsin in a newly independent Russia defeats an attempted coup in Russia.  Montenegro and Kosovo broke off from Serbia even more recently.  For several years of the Chechen civil war, Russia was not effectively in control of that part of its territory.

Recent Democracies in Colonial Territories.

Almost every country outside the Americas that was at one time or another a colony of a European power (except India which gained self-governance in 1935, 79 years ago) gained independence sometime after 1945.  This was followed, first by a violent division of India into non-Muslim India and Muslim Pakistan, and in the 1970s by the further division of Pakistan as Bangladesh broke away from it in a civil war.  Pakistan and Bangladesh have had many coups since their formation.

The modal date at which these countries gained independence is 1960, just 54 years ago.  Most of these nations have had functioning democratic capitalist regimes for only a small fraction of the time that they have been independent nations.

Many nations in the Americas (including Canada) gained independence in 19th century, but all or almost all of the nations of Latin America have experienced many coups and long periods of non-democratic rule.

For example, Mexico was ruled by royally appointed Spanish governors starting around 1521 CE when the conquistador's destroyed the Aztec Empire and was briefly ruled by a local emperor who was a general involved in the independence movement before a Republic was declared in Mexico in 1823.  Democratic government was interrupted after 41 years, when King Maximilian I ruled from 1864-1867.  A decade after he was deposed, a dictatorship by Porfirio Dias was in place from 1877-1880 and 1884-1911 (all but four years of a 34 year period of time), followed by six years of war and rule by competing local warlords in a time of anarchy until a new constitution was adopted in 1917.  Multiparty politics persisted in Mexico under the new constitution for twelve years.  Then, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) became a dominant party from 1929 until 1997 when it lost a congressional majority for the first time since 1929; in the year 2000, the PRI lost the Presidency for the first time in more than 70 years.  Since 1997, Mexico has had just 17 years with a competitive in practice multiparty political system.  Other parties weren't banned from 1929 to 1997 but they had only a little more clout than third parties do in the American two party system during that time period.


Multiparty democratic systems have been the majority form of government in the world for only about half a generation.  There is no obvious alternative that seems poised to replace these systems, but until they have been widespread and stable for much longer in a much larger part of the world, it is too early to assume that this is the only possible viable and stable political system going forward.

Indeed, the evidence that democracy is stable over the very long term (in terms of multiple centuries) is not at all solid.  It is entirely possible that democracies are only metastable and have a strong tendency to devolve into monarchies or dictatorships or oligarchies, given sufficient time.  On the other hand, it is also possible that democracies are only unstable early on in the process of becoming established and then are at least as hard to dislodge as any given monarchical dynasty.

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