Doesn’t Democracy Exist?


“Does democracy exist?” is a question that requires a lot of thought to answer, since there are a multitude of facts and opinions to deal with. It can be answered in many ways, which all boil down to a simple yes or no, or even to being inconclusive.

I believe that we should first look at the word itself. It originates from the Greek terms δῆμος (dēmos), meaning (common) people, and κράτος (kratos), meaning strength or power, ie. κρατεῖν (kratein), meaning to rule or to govern. The junction of these terms, in the form δημοκρατία (dēmokratía), came to mean, especially in the Athenian polis of the 6th and 5th centuries BC, rule by the people or government by the people – and has retained these meanings in its modern definitions (for example, in the famous Lincoln’s phrase: “the government of the people, by the people and for the people”), along with their implied, more explicit form, rule of the majority. However these denotations meant different things for ancient Greeks, French revolutionaries, American Unionists, Soviet communists etc. (depending on what groups the people was considered to consist of, and who was considered relevant enough to constitute the majority) – as democracy today still comes in different guises, allowing many countries, such as the United States and Great Britain, to turn it upside-down by favoring certain geographical areas in their electoral system, and thus abolishing its basic principle: the need for an elected government official to have a majority vote in order to win.
So, one might very well say that democracy does not exist – especially if one belongs to the losing side, like the Democrats when Trump became the President. But we should remind ourselves that even ancient Greeks who coined the term democracy, if we judge them by the standards most people take for granted today, were far from supporters of democracy – since in their time only native, male adults were allowed to vote, while women, foreigners and slaves were completely excluded from politics. In any case, it seems that what every country has in common is to call itself a democracy – even the North Korea. Therefore, it might be necessary for us to dig deeper, if we want to get to the bottom of the issue; we might have to pose another question, the Pascal’s Wager one, “does God exist?” – and then draw the parallels.

According to religions, Islam, Judaism, Christianity, he certainly and indisputably does. As for myself, I, too, believe that he does – although not as some anthropomorphic figure, with discernible, human features and faculties (which tends to be the image most Western theologies promote, endowing God, or his hypostases, with a distinctive personality), but as a higher power, force, or Heideggerian Seyn, that lies behind the Big Bang, abiogenesis and evolution. He does not even require to be called by a name; I might as well say that he does not exist. Einstein used to talk about a mysterious, pantheistic "God", who transcends our understanding – distancing his views, deliberately, from the teaching of Abrahamic religions. Either way, I think we can all agree that the mere existence of the universe and life is, by itself, a miracle – and that is enough to outline our analogy. I will suggest that democracy might be thought of in the same way we just show the God has been: that is, as equally complex and open to interpretations – and with no single answer to the question what it is.

To get closer to understanding our question of the (non-)existence of democracy, we could, provisorily, identify God with the state and religions with ideologies.

Within such conceptual framework, democracy would have no place, no equivalent among religions – at least the monotheistic, Abrahamic (Western and Middle Eastern) ones – if we regard it through the prism of its practical agency: as a means of coming to power. From such perspective, it might fit into this analogy only if we associate it with the archaic systems of government, inherent to the earlier stages of civilization, and linked to the prehistoric or ancient religions – pan(en)theistic poly and henotheisms, with various competing cults, and political necessity to accompany the conquest of another state by overthrowing or assimilating its religion. But it would be, nevertheless, an absurd arrangement for other reason – given that such archaic forms of government do not meet the basic requirements of democracy, stated in its definition, and therefore cannot possibly be related to it. One might even claim that democracy cannot be sustained, or that it has no place in any state at all (neither ancient nor modern). But, without democracy, as an instrument of order and legitimization of power, we would reasonably expect, having (allegedly) left behind dynastic successions, dictatorships and theocracies, for our society to gradually succumb to ochlocracy (“rule of the mob”) and anarchy. Yet, this cannot be, since today’s politicians will, regardless of circumstances, always be ready to replace one another: like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, where pigs slowly but inevitably replace the humans.

So what is democracy really? Is it something so preconceived, default and ‘natural’, that there is no point in trying to comprehend and let alone discuss it – as I believe is the case with God? Or is it – with respect to the common view of democracy as a pillar and theatre of human rights – the same as those rights, like the right to free speech?

If we take Rwanda, whose Government is suppressing free speech, but which is otherwise a thriving and prosperous country, we will see just how unsettling the implications of such assumption might be. Because, if this “most feminist country on Earth” with “one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa” – which Rwanda is today – were to allow freedom of speech it would most likely result in reigniting the ethnic conflicts that led to the Rwandan Civil War, and end up in a mass genocide, as was the case in 1994, tearing the whole nation apart. So, if one equates democracy with human rights, it could very well turn out that democracy is something harmful and dangerous (despite the Human Rights Watch’s complaints of “a crackdown on free speech” in Rwanda). Or, put differently, if exercising “government by the people” will amount to their mutual extermination, and right to free speech will clash with right to ethnic identity, and even right to life, then there is something wrong on both side of the equation (and one should keep in mind that Rwanda is just one of many examples).

What we can conclude, then, is that democracy does exist – at least in practice – and that it stands in the way of things being done. As someone who thinks about and tries to anticipate what will happen in 5, 10 or even 20 years, whose goal is to help Serbia to become a prosperous country, and who is a self-declared authoritarian, I am about to say something that might sound controversial – especially if grabbed out of context – but I will say it anyway, because it needs to be said: democracy is not something sacred, but an obstacle and enemy, a means to get into power for liberals, social democrats, conservatives, nationalists, greens and so on – an impetus behind a never-ending cycle, which has completely usurped our political process, instead of "quick fixes" that would have solved our problems long ago.