Why Democracy Sucks

Chinese Democracy Part I

I've been reading writers in China and they talk about democracy a lot. These are mainstream, mainland writers. These aren't dissidents, they're deciders. For example, this is from Wang Huning, a member of the Politburo:

The overall goal of China's political system reform is to follow the world trend of constitutionalism and establish a constitutional democracy. (1986, revised in 2012)

Also you get people like Professor Wang Shaoguang asserting that China is a democracy already, and in many way superior:

This article’s basic argument is that representative democracy is a gilded-cage democracy, which should not be nor can be the only form of democracy. Conversely, though the representational democracy that China is practicing has many flaws, it has tremendous untapped potential, signifying that another form of democracy is possible. (2014)

WTF is going on? Is China really becoming democratic? Is China democratic already? Before I even get to the Chinese sources, we've got to go back to the source.

Aristotle and Greek Democracy

Democracy is a Greek word meaning people (dēmos) and power (kratia). In places like Athens this was quite literal. Any citizen could attend the popular assembly (ie Parliament) and major offices were assigned by lot (ie randomly).  

The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens, Philip Brook Manville

You could say this was power to the people, but the definition of 'people' was violently circumscribed by a minority of dudes. Panels of demesmen decided who counted (male, not enslaved, child of citizens). If you were proposed as a citizen and somehow got rejected, the consequences were pretty dire. It's quite probable that you got sold into slavery.


We think this sounds batshit, cruel, and unfair today, but this is still how democracies are run. Everyone gets to vote, but someone gets to decide who 'everyone' is. You still have to have the right paperwork to be a person with power, and anyone else becomes an 'illegal' person with far less rights.

As Dimitry Kochenov goes into, modern democracy still preserves this original sin of citizenship (read more). According to his book, citizenship "elevates arbitrary exclusion to a widely excepted norm." While this is changing at some local levels ("The absurd argument that you need to be proclaimed to belong to the sacred community of citizens to decide on the garbage removal from your street has ceased to be convincing in Germany") it is still broadly the norm. And it's still wrong. Power to the people means all the people, not just who the demos deems worthy.

While there's much we still need to improve from ancient democracy, there's also something we've lost. What we have lost is awareness of the great diversity of it. Democracy wasn't one thing, it was like the early days of cell phones, there were a hundred different forms. Aristotle takes us around the Mediterranean looking at different examples, and to him they're all insufficient. The Lacedaemonians had elections (which Aristotle said led to corruption). The Cretans selected from a few families (which he said led to conspiracies). Aris said "there are very many species of democracies," and they were changing all the time.