Tuesday, June 3, 2008


Demo-archy? (Think oligarchy or monarchy.)

Michigan's Josiah Ober's 2007 paper questions today's perceptions of democracy:

In modernity, democracy is often construed as being concerned, in the first instance, with a voting rule for determining the will of the majority. The power of the people is thus the authority to decide matters by majority rule. This reductive definition leaves democracy vulnerable to well-known social choice dilemmas, including Downs’ rational ignorance and Arrow’s impossibility theorem. What I propose to do... is to look more closely at the original Greek meaning of “democracy” in the context of the classical (fifth and fourth centuries B.C.) terminology for regime-types. The conclusion is that democracy originally referred to “power” in the sense of “capacity to do things.” “Majority rule” was an intentionally pejorative diminution, urged by democracy’s Greek critics.

The paper is entirely interesting. Ober distinguishes between -arche and -kratos suffixes to differentiate control of the government and the capability to exert influence. The absence of monocracy or oligocracy testifies to the natural strength and capability of the individual or privileged few. By examinining the rights inherent to Athenian democracy---ἰσηγορία-equal access to address, ἰσηνομία-equal protection under law, and ἰσηψηφία-equal vote---and the use of ἰσοκρατία as periphrasis for δημοκρατία, he makes a compelling argument that democracy is originally and at its most basic level

the empowered demos” – it is the regime in which the demos gains a collective capacity to effect change in the public realm. And so it is not just a matter of control of a public realm but the collective strength and ability to act within that realm and, indeed, to reconstitute the public realm through action.

This thoughtful piece could, inter alia, lead to some reconsideration of recent neologisms. Since we have a thriving punditocracy*, what would a punditarchy look like? Can we even begin to fathom a government in which political appointments and power was invested solely in the hands of our favorite---and most detested---political pundits? Can one argue that we have an indirect version of it?

These are big questions. I'll leave them to the real pundits.

Update: I somehow forgot to include the link to the paper.

*Can you believe there is no Wikipedia entry for this term?!

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