When asked what he thought about the worldwide consequences of the French Revolution, Zhou En Lai – a prominent Chinese Communist leader – was famously heard to explain in 1972 that it may be just a bit too early to say![i]
But what about historical progress? Is democracy and its attendant social structures merely a product of a western culture that claims the Greeks as ancestors? Many within the Chinese government sure seem to think so.
However, is this merely an authoritarian government jockeying for legitimacy, trying to head off its own democratic revolution? Or, is this in fact a genuine critique of a new form of cultural imperialism? My friend and I hope yours, Gwynne Dyer, would argue for the former.
(If you are not already acquainted with Mr Dyer, I would recommend a quick peruse through his Wikipedia page as well as his own home page – linked above. They can do him far more justice than I in a sentence or two.)
As Mr Dyer notes in his conversation with podcaster Dan Carlin, something remarkable has happened over the past few decades throughout the world. If we can for the moment exempt much if not all of the Middle East from our discussion, we can see that throughout much of the world, by all measures, people are living in a far more democratic context than they used to be. Indeed, in large swaths of Africa, post-colonial strongmen have increasingly been replaced by far more democratic, albeit colossally imperfect governments. Indeed, the same can be said for much of Asia and Eastern Europe. (Dyer even insists that we should not give up entirely on Russia. I’m personally sceptical though!)
Mr Dyer, in opposition to much of the cultural relativity of post-modern thinking and post-colonial studies that insists we shy away from certainties and shared human values, sees democratisation as a human, not western trend.
He offers, as he puts it, a ‘grand historical theory’ on this trend.
Human beings have an evolutionary inheritance that is egalitarian. For most of human history, approximately several million years and up until about five or ten thousand years ago, most people lived in little societies. These societies were for all intents and purposes egalitarian. With groups of only 100 or so people (and considerably less if one discounts the children), there was very little hierarchy and decisions were generally made through discussion and by consensus. And that’s the way we lived for at least several million years.[ii]
And then, some 10,000 years ago we invented agriculture, and that was the end of that.
This new mode of living allowed societies to accumulate surpluses of food, to become more specialised and so become more differentiated, and thusly stratified. Soon most of us were living in far larger, far more complex societies, and well, suddenly the old ways of making decisions were no longer possible. No longer did we know everyone, and no longer could all sit around the camp fire and make govern ourselves by consensus. There were simply too many of us to make this possible.
Functionally, these societies needed hierarchy, needed stratification, and above all, needed to be governed by the few. And so humanity dipped into a 10,000 year night of dictatorship, tyranny and oppression, and to quote the author of this theory, “Boy, is it not pretty.”
That’s the history, but not the prehistory of humanity.
And what we often overlook is that what we consider ‘history’ is a mere blink in evolutionary terms.
However, in the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries, we begin to see something (re)emerge in Western Europe. We begin to see real democratic revolutions going back even to the English Civil Wars where they actually killed the king!!
What’s changed? Why did the dark night begin to give way to those first muted rays of dawn?
Well, Mr Dyer argues that it’s not that Anglo-Saxon culture is either leading the way or special in any particular way, but rather that their technology let them have the first go at re-engaging our egalitarian heritage. These societies were still big, but they were acquiring technologies that allowed them to begin to have wider societal discussions about their collective futures, their shared values and their goals. The conversations that used to take place around the campfire, that had gone silent for millennia began to take place again but this time in newspapers and books.
As inheritors of this legacy of democracy, we in the West often look back to the Greeks and their ideals of democracy for the origins of our own democratic impulses. The modernist might see a direct historical line down through the ages, from there to here, from our Greek ancestors (?) to our own selves. This line might even be described as the inevitable process of historical progress, of the essentiality of our own culture’s supremacy, of the universality of the Western project and the inevitability of our current cultural, social, and indeed, economic dominance. A post-modernist might equally be inclined to take the opposite view and while still holding a direct line, counter that democracy as a value, an ideal is not something inevitable or essential to humans generally, but rather the result of a particular cultural legacy.
And yet, as Josiah Ober explains in his conversation (and if you are interested in the entire discussion you’ll have to do a little digging in the archives here – May 1, 2007) with yet another friend of ours here at Beams and Struts, Robert Harrison, “if you look at the explosion of democracy in Athens and a few other city states, it is correlated with the emergence of alphabetic writing fairly shortly before in the Greek world.”
No doubt this history soon turns dark and so the Greek city-states, like most of the rest of the societies in the agricultural world, revert to much more authoritarian systems of government. But this brief flirtation of a much more complex and hierarchical society with the old egalitarian impulse, rather than being the product of a ‘special culture’ should be understood in much more embracive human terms.
But how to account for this revolutionary albeit brief experiment with democracy? I would argue that rather than looking at the particular characteristics of the culture or people, it might be more useful to see it rather as the consequences of the ability of the population (all men to be fair...but what are we looking for here? Perfection?!) to once again see themselves as a united group of people, able now through the use of the written word, to have conversation across the cities and regions that were much too big to allow for the inhabitants to gather round the fire.
If you look at the origins of democracy in Athens, one thing that emerges very strongly is that the emergence of democracy is the emergence of a demos, of a group of citizens the understands themselves to be a united community onto the stage of history, visible as an actual actor in history, as a vocal and present actor in history…The very moment of the beginning of democracy at the end of the Sixth Century is an Arendtian moment, it’s revolutionary, it’s remarkable, I think it’s one of the great ruptures in all of human history.
Similarly, as mentioned above, if we look at the ruptures that took place across Europe over the past few centuries, it’s correlated with or follows upon the development of printing presses.
If this is true, that it’s technology – whether a system of writing or the means to spread this system – and not having Greeks as ancestors that’s the real driver of democracy, then it’s rather more a matter of historical randomness than cultural superiority or the like that democracy appears to arise from a specific and particular cultural formation that is Western Europe. If the printing press had first appeared in China, then, Mr Dyer argues, that’s where you would have had ‘the first dawn of democracy.’
As it is, we have seen democratic movements of some kind or another rise up all around the world for centuries – even in China! It would seem that as soon as the discussion becomes technically possible, we begin to see that old egalitarianism re-emerge and to push at the edges of authoritarianism.
A similar breakout can be said to be occurring at the moment as well with the explosion of participatory forms of democracy across the globe. As Mr Dyer pointed out, a remarkable thing is now taking place. Post-colonial African strongmen are virtually a thing of the past as are many of the military governments that once ruled south-east Asia.
Around the world, a new technological revolution is now occurring and should be understood not as something new or culturally specific, but rather part of a human historical – not cultural – continuum.
Mr Ober explains:
I think the alphabet, the printing press, the use of electronic media today may really be similarly gigantic moments in terms of how human beings can share what’s in their heads, and I think that each of these other two great leaps forward in terms of communication technology had big impacts on the new forms of politics, there’s reason to imagine this one will too.
Indeed, if (pre)history can teach us anything it is that the urge towards a more equal and just society is something that may be built into our very DNA. We have existed as a cooperative, egalitarian species for far longer than we have lived under the thumb of hierarchy and tyranny. To argue, as the Chinese government and rabid relativists are too often tempted to do, that the values of our different cultures trump the shared values of our humanity is not only to ignore millions of years of genetic history, but it is to privilege Nurture to the exclusion of Nature entirely. And, as we all know, that is just plain silly.
Democracy is not, as it is so often mistaken to be, a Western political system of government. It is an inherited dream, a human value, a genetic impulse that should not – nay, cannot – be suppressed in the name of ‘cultural values’.
[i] Quoted in Simon Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989). Although this quote is well-known, finding a reliable citation proved a difficult task. It will suffice, I think, to take as accurate Mr Schama’s citation.
[ii] Stokes Brown, Cynthia. Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. New York: The New Press, 2007; Fagan, Brian. People of the Earth: An Introduction to World Prehistory. Harper Collins, 1992.