TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Revisiting Democracy

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Wes Tirey looks at Alain de Benoist’s “Democracy Revisited,” from Telos 95 (Spring 1993).

In his book Radical Democracy, C. Douglas Lummis writes that democracy is a “whore among political words.” Indeed, anyone who sees the ideals of inclusionary dialogue and autonomy that democracy is supposed to represent juxtaposed with the “democratic” endeavors of certain political actors knows quite well that democracy and its meaning are in desperate need to be revisited. Alain de Benoist does just that in his article “Democracy Revisited.”

While Benoist may not be as harsh as Lummis in his undertaking, he nevertheless writes, “[t]he near unanimity on democracy as a word, albeit not always in fact, gives the notion a moral and almost religious content which discourages further discussion.” Thus, those who fundamentally oppose “democracy” are somehow cast as morally deficient or, severely, as totalitarian—a rhetoric familiar to those living in Western liberal “democracies.”

Benoist traces the genealogy of democracy, touching briefly upon a number of political communities that have or had “democratic tendencies.” More specifically, Benoist discusses Scandinavian democracies, writing that “[s]uch democra[cies] typically included certain hierarchical structures, which could [be] describe[d] as ‘aristo-democr[acies].'” He adds that “[t]his tradition, based also on mutual assistance and the sense of common responsibility, remains alive in many countries today.”

Indeed, one may certainly caution against attaching aristocracy with democracy (rightfully so, I would argue). Yet Benoist continues to point out certain movements that reflect democracy and some of its ideals. He writes:

[I]t is worth mentioning the existence of important communal movements based on free corporate structures whose function was mutual help and the pursuit of economic and political goals. At times these movements were on a collision course with the powers of the monarchs and the Church. As such, they had to draw on the support of the burgeoning bourgeoisie. At other times, the same movements backed the monarchy in its fight against feudal lords, and consequently, contributed to the rise of the mercantile bourgeoisie.

As Benoist explains, “[t]he notion of democracy did not appear in modern political thought until the 18th century,” and Montsquieu “defined democracy as a representative form of government.” This is, of course, opposed to Cornelius Castoriadis’s argument that the only acceptable form of democracy is direct democracy—that “[r]epresentation is the political self-alienation of the body politic.”[1]

But it is more often than not the case that one does not usually think of Benoist’s initial historical examples when thinking of democracy; rather, one may be compelled to think of the Athenian model. For the Athenians, democracy

meant first and foremost a community of citizens, i.e., the people gathered in the ekklesia. Citizens were ranked according to their deme, which had territorial, social and administrative significance. The term demos, Doric in origin, designates people who live in a given territory, which determined social status. To some extent, demos and ethnos coincide: democracy could not be conceived in relation to the individual, but only to the polis: to the city as an organized community. Slaves were excluded from voting not because they were slaves but because they were not citizens. This seems shocking today, yet which democracy has ever given voting rights to non-citizens?

Moreover, for the Athenians, the concept of liberty (so often attached to contemporary political rhetoric championing “democracy”) “is a function of someone’s origin.” Benoist continues:

The original meaning of “liberty” does not suggest at all “freedom”—in the sense of emancipation from a collectivity. Instead, it implies inheritance, which alone confers liberty. Thus when the Greeks spoke of liberty they did not have in mind the right to break away from the tutelage of the city or the right to free themselves from the constraints to which citizens were bound. Rather, it was the right and the political capability, guaranteed by laws, to participate in the life of the city, to vote in the assembly, to elect magistrates, etc. Liberty did not legitimate secession; instead, it sanctioned its very opposite: the bond which tied people to their cities. This was not liberty-autonomy but liberty-participation; it was not meant to reach beyond the community but was practiced solely in the framework of the polis. Liberty meant adherence.

Furthermore, “[a]mong the Greeks individuals were free because (and to the extent that) their city was free.” That is to say, a city functioned equally insofar that citizens were participatory in the political endeavors of their city. Yet “[f]or the Greeks equality was only one means towards democracy.” What’s more, “[t]his equality of rights is by no means equivalent to natural equality.” Rather:

Equal rights for all citizens to participate in the assembly does not mean that men are by nature equal (nor that it should be preferable that they are). Rather, the citizens’ privilege is the right to benefit from equal identification with the city and entitlements to vote.

Benoist continues:

In the eyes of the ancient Greeks it was considered natural that all citizens be associated with political life not by virtue of some universal and inalienable rights of a “man by himself,” but from the fact of common citizenship. In the final analysis, the crucial notion was not equality but citizenship. Greek democracy was a political regime in which all citizens saw their liberty as founded in a guaranteed equality that entitled them to enjoy civil and political rights.

Yet ancient and modern democracies are continuously compared, and “[c]uriously, it is modern democracy that is used as a criterion to evaluate the democratic credentials of the former.” But with democracy’s birth in Athens, its model “should be used as a paradigm of ‘genuine’ democracy.”

Thus to revisit democracy is to revisit Athenian democracy. But this is not to say that one needs to return absolutely to the ways Athenians exercised their political decision making techniques. In fact, “it means reappropriating and adapting the concepts of ‘people’ and ‘community’ to the modern world.”


1. See Cornelius Castoriadis’s The Problem of Democracy Today.

Read the full version of Alain de Benoist’s “Democracy Revisited” at the Telos Online website. If you are affiliated with an institution that is an online subscriber to Telos, you have free access to our complete online archive. If not, you can purchase 24-hour access to this and other Telos articles at a per-article rate. Follow the article link for more details.

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