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di.mok'ra.si, n. [Gr. demokratia demos, people, and kratos,
strength, power.] That form of government in which the supreme
power rests with the people ....
president, whether Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal,
speaks lovingly of 'democracy', whenever the nation engages in some
escapade abroad. When the U.S. invaded Iraq, it did so, ostensibly,
to 'bring democracy to the Middle East.' When it launches a raid
in Grenada, or rains death on a poor neighborhood in Panama, when
it invaded Haiti in the last century, ad infinitum, it always did
so in the name of 'restoring democracy.'
What is this
democracy of which they so blithely speak?
We all have
heard the term since our infancy, but who really knows what it means?
I wanted to learn more about it, so I began to read one of the finest
historians I know of,
the great C.L.R. James, author of the ground-breaking *The Black
Jacobins*, an influential study of the Haitian Revolution. Some
years ago, James published a pamphlet titled, *Every Cook Can Govern:
A Study of Democracy in Ancient Greece* (Jackson, MS: New Mississippi,
Inc., Mar. 1986). I found myself (as I often am when I read his
stuff) blown away by what I learned. As his subtitle suggests, James
looks at Greek history for the roots of the democratic idea, and
finds it, in some stages, truly democratic, in ways we can hardly
imagine. He writes:
most striking thing about Greek democracy was that the administration
(and there were immense administrative problems) was organized upon
the basis of what is known as sortition, or, more easily, selection
by lot. The vast majority of Greek officials were chosen by a method
which amounted to putting names into a hat and appointing the ones
whose names came out. Now the average C10 bureaucrat or Labor Member
of Parliament in Britain would fall in a fit if it was suggested
to him that any worker selected at random could do the work he is
doing. But that was precisely
the guiding principle of Greek democracy. And this form of government
is the government under which flourished the greatest civilization
the world has ever known. [p.1.]
a revolutionary activist as well as a stellar historian, explains
that in Greek, the term *demokratia* could be used interchangeably
with the word *isonomia*, which meant equality. Using this system,
the Greek city-state decided issues of war and peace, of taxation,
of cultural affairs, and virtually every important affair of state.
They were so conscious of the seduction of power, and they so opposed
tyranny, that a man who (and yes, they tended to only allow the
franchise to men) held public office
could not serve again, as a general rule. Their service was also
subject to a time limit.
have, quite rightly, noted that the Greek democracy rested upon
slavery. That is true. But, James tells us, it was a slavery that
snobs, like Plato, who had trouble identifying who was slave, and
who was free, and he resented the fact that slaves would not clear
the street when he walked upon it.
James notes, tried representative democracy, and rejected it, out
of hand. What worked for them, was direct democracy, which means
that they believed that all were capable of governing the society
in which they lived.
The very fact
that such an idea surprises us, tells us how far this era has drifted
from fundamental notions of 'democracy.' In ancient Greece, the
citizen was seen as an able, trusted element of the state. In the
present era, the citizen is virtually superfluous. He is a tax source.
She is one who obeys her leaders. He is a dispensable cog in the
wheel, whose only real duty is to do what one is told.
mass demonstrations of Spring 2003, when millions took to the streets
of Washington, London and San Francisco, demanding that there be
"No War in Iraq." Here, in the alleged 'democracies' of
England and the U.S., governments ignored the people, and engaged
in imperial war, on a lie. In ancient Greece, some 2,500 years ago,
this wouldn't have been allowed.
We don't live
in a democracy. We live under the rule of a few. We live in an empire.
2004 Mumia Abu-Jamal
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© copyright 2003 by Mumia Abu-Jamal.
All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of the author.