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Rise of the Middle Class.

The idea that people should be directly involved in the governments that rule them goes back thousands of years

When people look for the roots of democracy they usually turn to the ancient Greek city of Athens of about 2,500 years ago. That's one time and place where ordinary people started to have a say in decisions that affected their lives. However, the seeds of democracy were planted generations earlier when Athens was governed by privileged aristocrats who inherited their wealth and power. It took more than 100 years to break up the ruling clans, but eventually craftsmen, tradesmen, and farmers became part of a group decision-making process.

A statesman called Solon played a major role in democracy's beginnings at the turn of the 6th century BC. Around 600 BC, farm labourers were in rough shape: they had to turn over one-sixth of their produce to the rich folks. If they couldn't pay their share, they became hopelessly indebted slaves. Solon changed that in 594 BC with his "shaking-off of burdens" Act abolishing the loans that enslaved the workers. Some historians say this major economic reform paved the way to more political freedom: the workers ended up owning some of the land and using slaves to do the work they previously had done themselves. The gap narrowed between them and their former masters.

By 500 BC, all Athenian citizens took part in assemblies, where laws received final approval. They also helped administer the laws and policies of the community through jury service and membership of the administrative council.

However, the Athenian assemblies were far from what we would call democracy today. All citizens didn't mean all people. Only males born in Athens qualified as citizens; women, foreigners, and slaves were not included. But, it was a glorious start at a time when Athens enjoyed economic and naval supremacy, flourishing creative arts, and philosophical inquiry.

Because of the small number of "citizens," Athens could have a direct democracy with "the people" taking part in all decision-making personally. Greek city states rarely had more than 10,000 citizens. (Today, with millions of people involved, having all citizens deciding on all issues is not possible. So, we elect representatives to make decisions on our behalf.)

The civilization of ancient Greece was absorbed into the Roman Republic. At first, the Romans adopted Greek notions of democracy into their own system. However, by about 150 BC, Rome began to slide into corruption and power was controlled by a few rich families. Eventually, emperors ruled Rome; some of them, such as Caligula (12-41 AD), were brutal monsters. By the first century BC, the idea of people governing themselves was well and truly buried. A small number of free cities in Italy, Germany, and Flanders carried on the democratic tradition. For the most part, though, democracy remained buried for almost 2,000 years.

For all of that period, people in groups were led by chiefs. Sometimes, they were elected; more often they fought their way to the top or inherited their position from a parent. Occasionally, these rulers were good. But, we can tell by some of their names - Ivan the Terrible, Ethelred the Unready, Maria the Mad One - that they weren't always the best that could be had.

Whether good, bad, or indifferent the days of royal power came to an end. A growing movement in many European nations demanded more say in how they were governed.

Before the end of the 19th century, every important Western European monarchy had adopted a constitution limiting the power of the Crown and giving a considerable share of political power to the people. In many of these countries, a representative legislature modelled on the British Parliament was instituted. British politics was then possibly the greatest single influence on the organization of world democracies. The French Revolution also was a powerful influence. Later, the success of democratic institutions in the United States served as a model for many peoples.

However, democracy doesn't grow unless the ground it's planted in is well prepared. When societies become complex and sophisticated, as happened in Europe, the aristocracy is driven to share the responsibility of running them with other citizens. The general idea is that the population then is divided into peacefully competing interest groups; otherwise a country could end up facing tyranny or anarchy.

So, multi-party democracies are best suited to nations that already have efficient bureaucracies and a middle class that pays income tax. It's also essential that primary issues such as borders and power-sharing have already been resolved.

Social stability results from the establishment of a middle class. It is authoritarian systems, including monarchies, that create middle classes -- which, having achieved a certain size and self-confidence, revolt against the very dictators who generated their prosperity.

For a fully-functioning democracy to work the general population must be well educated. Democracy is a complex notion and its intricacies are not easy to understand. Therefore, it is essential for the general public to be at least able to read and write in order to be contributing citizens in a democracy. Only rich countries can afford an education system that reaches all people adequately. So, national wealth is another pre-condition for democracy.

David Beetham and Kevin Boyle, in their book Introducing Democracy, outline the four main components of a functioning democracy today:

* Free and fair elections - the main device that makes public officials accountable and subject to popular control;

* Open and accountable government - open to public opinion so people can make an informed electoral choice; legally and politically accountable to ensure that public officials observe the rule of law and that the government justifies its policies and actions to parliament and the public;

* Civil and political rights - freedom of expression, association, movement;

* A democratic or "civil" society - the principle that social associations of all kinds, organized independently of the state, are also internally democratic, thus providing a strong foundation for a broader state democracy.

We might add checks and balances. In all democracies, government is divided into branches. In Canada, we have: the Executive Branch, which consists of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet; the Legislative Branch formed by the House of Commons and the Senate; and the Judiciary, the law-courts. The idea is that each branch checks and balances the power of the others. In this way, no one branch can behave in a dictatorial fashion. If it does, its power will be checked by one of the other branches.


1. While Athens is the focus for discussions on the beginnings of democracy, Sparta was about 100 years ahead of Athens. Find out what Sparta was like in 600 BC and why it didn't develop democracy to the same degree, d.

2. It has been argued by such political theorists as Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century that representative government is not realty democratic because the people are stuck with the government they elect for several years. Other, more right-wing, thinkers say a representative system gives people too much say. Discuss these two views.

3. Robert Kaplan in an article on democracy in Atlantic Monthly writes "the classicist Sir Moses Finley has noted that what really separated the rulers from the ruled in the ancient world was literacy: the illiterate masses were subject to the elite's interpretation of documents. [Similar] gulfs between rulers and ruled may soon emerge, not only because of differing abilities to process information and to master technology but also because of globalization itself. Already, barely literate Mexicans on the U.S. border, working in dangerous, Dickensian conditions to produce our VCRs, jeans, and toasters, earn less than 50 cents an hour, with no rights or benefits. Is that Western democracy or ancient Greek-style oligarchy?" Discuss what you think the future holds for these underprivileged workers.


Many scholars credit the fifth century Greek scholar Plato with setting the ground rules for Western democracy for more than 2,000 years. He was the first Western thinker to ask questions about justice, ethics, and politics.


Ancient Greeks had the absolute power of an oligarchy, where the few ruled the many. When "the people" expressed their will, by majority vote, nothing could block that. There were no rights. No judges. No lawyers. Both were seen as enemies of democracy, or the will of the people. As one classics professor writes: "... let us remember that enthusiasm for one's own rights has never automatically brought an equal regard for other people's ... Athens, after all, democratically passed measures that included colonialism, tax extortion from subject states, genocide, and mass murder ... on the whole, the record of the Athenian democracy is a good one, but excesses and aberrations such as these show the need for the rule of law as a control and check."


The rules we live by have been turned into great historic documents. For us, it's all in the Canadian Constitution, which promises us peace, order, and good government. The U.S. Declaration of Independence, asserts that every American has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, affirms the principles of civil liberty and of equality before the law.

In Canada, the government is divided into the legislature, executive and judiciary, each with its own specific powers. Elected representatives in the legislature adopt laws and vote on taxes and other revenues. The executive proposes legislation, presents budgets to the legislature and implements laws. The judiciary is the final interpreter of the laws.


During the second half of the 4th century BC, the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope founded the school of Cynics. Their belief was that civilization was an artificial and unnatural condition. From that came their idea of returning to a natural life, which they equated with a simple life; happiness can be attained only through self-sufficiency. Independence is the true good, not riches or luxuries.

Zeno of Citium, took the ideas of the Cynics a couple of steps further and founded the philosophy of Stoicism in about 300 BC. According to the Stoics, good lies not in external objects, but in the state of the soul itself, in the wisdom and restraint by which a person is delivered from the passions and desires that upset the ordinary life. The four main virtues of the Stoic philosophy are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance.

A distinctive feature of Stoicism is that all people are manifestations of the one universal spirit (God). They held that external differences such as rank and wealth are of no importance in social relationships. Thus, before the rise of Christianity, Stoics recognized and advocated the brotherhood of humanity and the natural equality of all human beings.

Stoic philosophy was very important in Rome as well. The philosopher Seneca (born about 4 BC and died 65 AD) was a prominent Stoicist and tutor to the Emperor Nero. Roman Stoicism emphasized the rights of the underprivileged and the equality of all before the Gods. It contributed to the development of modern democratic theory.


Anarchy - Absence of government; disorder.

Aristocracy - Government by the "best citizens; rule, ruling body, of nobles.

Autocracy - Absolute rule.

Democracy - (Greek demos, "the people"; kratein, "to rule") Government by the people; the principle that all citizens have equal political rights.

Oligarchy - Government, State governed, by the few.

Tyranny - Cruel and arbitrary use of authority.


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Publication:Canada and the World Backgrounder
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Previous Article:Canada's First Democracy.
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