Everyone knows that the word “democracy” has an ancient Greek origin, and that dēmokratia originally meant “rule by the people”. But it has since then had a complex history, accruing a variety of different meanings. Although today the term is thrown around with an easy familiarity, as if its meaning can just be assumed, it is evident that a bewildering array of different interpretations is possible. After all, a panoply of different twentieth-century political regimes have called themselves “democratic” – be it liberal capitalist regimes, revolutionary people’s republics, or satellite states of the Soviet Union.
It is not just that the term can be interpreted in different ways. Unpicking the genealogy of the term – the ways in which different senses have contested and displaced each other – reveals something highly significant. This is that the easy, familiar sense of “democracy” that is now dominant serves to keep hidden from view another leading sense (tied closely to the original ancient sense). This is crucial in the context of the unfolding Covid-19 pandemic as it ravages societies around the world. It is the sense of democracy that is blocked out from view by the dominant sense that is now needed more than ever. In turn, it becomes an urgent political task to recover it from the genealogy of “democracy”.
As Raymond Williams notes in his succinct entry on the term in his Keywords (1976), “democracy” entered the English language in the sixteenth century. It was then understood to mean “popular power” (and was considered equivalent to the Latin popularis potentia). A democracy was an arrangement whereby the multitude took over the reins of government from the privileged few. Such regimes were, of course, non-existent. They were also universally disparaged by political theorists as undesirable and dangerous. This is in line with ancient precedents, as when Plato has Socrates explain that “democracy comes about when the poor are victorious, killing some of their opponents and expelling others, and giving the rest an equal share in ruling under the constitution” (Republic 557a). The portrait that Socrates goes on to paint of democracy is far from favourable.
The understanding of democracy as popular power was universally accepted, and as universally condemned, except by certain radical movements of the dispossessed. It was in the late eighteenth century that this understanding of democracy was first contested, and a new sense of the word introduced. This new sense was self-consciously contrasted to the already existent one. The act of its introduction, whose prime movers were the founding fathers of the United States, was motivated directly by hostility to, and fear of, the idea of popular power. As Alexander Hamilton put it in 1777, “when the deliberative or judicial powers are vested wholly or partly in the collective body of the people, you must expect error, confusion and instability.” To avert these ills, Hamilton proposed “representative democracy, where the right of election is well secured and regulated and the exercise of the legislative executive and judicial authorities is vested in select persons”. The whole point of representative democracy was to deprive the people of power.
We thus have, from this period, two rival uses of the term “democracy”: in Jeremy Bentham’s now familiar terms, “direct democracy” was contrasted with “representative democracy”. It is not difficult to see that in modern liberal societies the latter has entirely won out (although referendums can seem to allow a glimmer of the former). But it is important to understand what this means: it is not just that citizens in liberal societies are more likely to favour one notion over the other. There is an important way in which the prevalence of the one notion renders the other invisible, in part because the Hamiltonian conception has managed to retain an aura left over from the idea of popular power. The battle over the ownership of terms that is responsible for this is itself a matter of political power.
We can see this played out in the nineteenth-century genealogy of the term. As the Hamiltonian conception became dominant, the traditional conception was restricted to political radicals and became associated, particularly, with socialism and anarchism. While the Hamiltonian conception insisted on institutions and procedures, the radical conception held on to the idea that democracy was popular power. This contest over the term is what underlies the apparently shifting stance on “democracy” in the writings of Marx. At times Marx speaks of himself as advocating democracy, meaning by this popular power. But Marx had a keen awareness of the way in which, if certain groups gain ownership of a term, the very speech act of their employment can have political implications. “Democracy” (along with “rights” and “equality”) seemed to him to be a term that had become decisively associated with liberal positions that he opposed, so that he progressively advocated eschewing use of these terms altogether – even if, for him, the true sense of “democracy” was that of the popular power he wanted to see realised through the victory of the proletariat in the class struggle.
The contrast between the two notions of democracy runs very deep. It is not just a matter of advocating different political arrangements, but of a fundamental difference about the nature and aims of political organisation. The radical conception sees democracy as a continuous project of collective self-determination, whereas the liberal conception sees it as a matter of having the proper institutions – institutions that in turn confer rights and freedoms on individuals. Each conception serves in decisive ways to render the claims of its rival invisible. The importance of this comes out clearly, as we will see, if we consider how the term “democracy” gets used in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Some have called SARS-CoV-2 a “democratic” virus. The Iranian health minister Iraj Harirchi declared that “this virus is democratic, and it doesn’t distinguish between poor and rich or between the statesman and an ordinary citizen.” The philosopher Slavoj Žižek has written that Harirchi “is deeply right – we are all in the same boat”. Taken literally, this is patently false. The virus is, of course, indiscriminate all right, but this does not mean that if affects all in the same way. Quite the opposite. Those who are more vulnerable for health reasons, or because their work brings greater exposure to the virus, are disproportionately hard hit. If we are in the same boat, some have got cabins while the rest are huddling on the decks, about to be thrown overboard.
Sometimes the idea that the virus is democratic is spelled out by specifying that it acts as a “great equaliser”, as if the virus itself was transformative of society in a democratic direction. It is difficult to know what rhetorical act is supposed to be performed by such declarations (as when issued on twitter by Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, or by the pop star Madonna in a bizarre monologue filmed in a petal-filled bath). Not only does the virus hit some people harder than others. Having done so, it does not act remotely as a great equaliser, but as a great exacerbator. The vulnerable and the poor, having been hit by the virus, will find their lives impacted much more deeply. They and those whom they infect face a spiral of mutually reinforcing poverty and ill health, in many cases resulting in death.
What is of interest in declarations about the “great equaliser” isn’t so much exactly what might be meant (perhaps just the trivial point that some richer people will be humbled by the discovery that they can’t buy their way out of exposure to the virus). It is the liberal conception of democracy that underlies the notion that the virus could do any equalising work here and now (rather than, say, acting to show up inequalities more starkly, leading to possible equalisation in future). To think this involves conceiving of equality as abstract and individualistic: we are “in the same boat” not because a contagious virus activates our solidarity, but because it will hit each individual in the same way.
A different way the concept of democracy is routinely invoked in the context of the pandemic is in the idea that governments’ attempts to contain it pose a threat to democracy. Unlike the claim that the virus itself is democratic, which is patently false even on its own terms, this idea has something going for it. The constraints imposed by “lockdown” evidently pose a threat to basic freedoms that are routinely thought of as part and parcel of democracy: freedoms to trade, to move about and to assemble.
The underlying conception of democracy is again the dominant, liberal one. Democracy is threatened in so far as a set of abstract individual rights and freedoms are threatened. The individual citizen is thus placed on a pedestal. Individual rights and freedoms are sacrosanct. The state regrettably has to interfere with these, but it does so in the long-term interests of those to whom those rights and freedoms accrue. So really the state is absolved of responsibility. A convenient upshot of this is that in so far as anything goes wrong, the responsibility automatically rests with the private individual.
This individualist conception of democracy has a further benefit for those in power. It allows the construction of a narrative according to which the virus is a threat from outside, facilitating talk of a “war” on the virus. Our way of life, resting on our individual rights and freedoms, must be protected from the alien invader, SARS-CoV-2. The virus passes through us, to be sure, but our agency is of no concern except in so far as our individual rights and freedoms are at stake. Now, as with the “war” on drugs, there is no such thing as victory in this war. All that is assured is that the regrettable failure that results cannot be attributed to the government, which did everything it could to safeguard the rights and freedoms and its citizens as far as maintenance of liberal economic order allows.
A crucial feature of the liberal conception is that while in fact it actually serves to concentrate power in the hands of a few, it sells back to the multitude a notion of democracy that allows them to regard themselves as loci of democratic power. Mikhail Bakunin put it pointedly when he wroteof representative democracy (in Statism and Anarchy) that this “form of the state, based on the pseudo-sovereignty of a sham popular will, supposedly expressed by pseudo-representatives of the people in sham popular assemblies, combines the two main conditions necessary for their success: state centralization, and the actual subordination of the sovereign people to the intellectual minority that governs them, supposedly representing them but invariably exploiting them.”
The dominance of the liberal conception, and its success in overwriting the radical conception, has served to make it invisible that democracy as the radical conception understands it is precisely what is desperately needed as societies are drawn deeper into the world order that Covid-19 helps to reinforce – a world that tends to the ever greater empowerment of the privileged at the expense of everyone else. The language used by protestors against social distancing (e.g. in Michigan and other states in the USA) indicates the extent to which citizens of modern liberal societies have internalised the notion that their individual rights and freedoms are sacrosanct, even while power is concentrated ever further away from these citizens.
The fittingness of the radical conception to the real demands of human society is brought out in the Covid-19 crisis by showing up that we human beings are, in our nature, contagious beings. Yes, the virus is not itself human, and its spread is not fully within our control. But we do have agency in its transmission. This is reflected in the power of social distancing. Social distancing is an act of human solidarity that demonstrates how there is collective agency in our interconnectedness, the same interconnectedness that allows the virus to spread through us. We can empower ourselves in the service of the negative project of fighting the virus, just as we can empower ourselves in the positive promotion of the ends of human life, such as health, meaningful activity and collective enjoyment, by acting in a concerted, self-determining way, as the radical conception has it.
The pandemic has produced a dawning realisation of our interconnectedness, and how this is differentially mediated through the class structure of our society. Early on there was much talk of the importance of “frontline”, “essential” or “key” workers. It was recognised that these frontline workers included not just nurses, doctors and carers, but cleaners, supermarket workers, call centre operators, refuse collectors, couriers, and many others. A sharp division, with a traditional class character, became clear between those who could stay home and very largely shield themselves from the virus, and those who were required to put themselves directly in harm’s way. There was a weekly “clap for carers” (abandoned in the UK after 28th May) in which this difference was (partially) acknowledged. But the incipient realisation of the pressure put on these sectors of the workforce cannot really productively go anywhere in a society shaped by the liberal conception of democracy. Such societies are, we must remember, already “democratic”, and so there is no question of empowering these sectors of society in the way the radical conception envisages; it can only be a matter of the re-administration of existing arrangements (usually in terms of the diversion of funds).
It is no accident that the liberal conception presents itself as already manifested in the framework of existent societies. After all, it was invented to justify the framework implemented by the founding fathers of the United States, those great foes of the traditional conception of democracy in terms of popular power (as Arthur O. Lovejoy comprehensively demonstrates in Reflections on Human Nature). Accordingly, the response to the extreme disparities in how different sectors of society have already been affected by Covid-19 is to write more reports, and ensure that all the mechanisms of liberal democracy are ticking over correctly. As the crisis deepens over the coming years, and the workforce is further immiserated, this will continue to be the response.
It is only radical democracy that can disrupt this pattern. Radical democracy does not implement a framework or a set of principles and procedures. It is a project for the realisation of popular power. As such its implementation is open-ended and ongoing. It is only such a project that can deliver the prospect of the concerted, collective action that will protect all members of society against the virus by the only means that will be effective: their active empowerment. Without it the repressive and destructive tendencies of representative democracy to which Bakunin adverted, and the concentration of power in the hands of an ever more restricted oligarchy, will be a foregone conclusion. Covid-19 will have merely been a catalyst in the general destruction.