What, exactly is democracy?

I've been asking myself this question more and more as I grew up in a world which declares the concept of democracy to be such an obvious moral imperative, to the point that there seems no longer to be any other legitimate alternative.

Of course, you will still find here and there resistances (like in North Korea or in some African or Muslim countries), but even these regimes are most often hiding behind some sort of democratic-sounding rhetoric; even they seem anxious to meet the standards of this predominant paradigm.

Yet, ask around and most of the time you will find completely different answers on the central question of what properly constitutes a democracy. You will have some consensus around ideas like the "right to vote," "freedom," and all those other empty words and phrases with which we have all become familiar.

But when one goes beyond this specious rhetoric, one sees that "democracy" is like any other concept: a matter of making people live together in relative peace as long as they all share some similar beliefs.

Another way to look at it would be to say that democracy is nothing more than a form of ambivalent coercion for the good of a few, meaning those who get to enjoy the full benefits of such a regime.

Don't get me wrong: I am not trying to say that democracy is worse or better than any other form of society. What I am saying is that we have now gone so far of understanding the true meaning of such a regime that its collapse is simply a matter of where and when the limits of the paradigm will become so insufferable that it will no longer be able to sustain itself.

An easy point of reference, of course, would be to compare democracy to the last decade of Communism, when everybody knew this was no longer sustainable and 1989 was then the spark that lead to its end.

Berlin, 1989: the "end of history," or so it seemed at the time..@

I would like, however, to go beyond this concept only for the reason that democracy hasn't been challenged of late in the West because no tenable alternative has yet manifested itself.


Historically speaking, the two biggest jewels of modern democracy, America and France, were both based on a concept that couldn't be further away from what supposedly inspired them both.

Let us first address the obvious, but important questions of semantics. "Democracy" is composed of two combined words, which are Demos (the people) and Kratos (strength). It is therefore predicated upon the idea that the people - whomever that may be - hold, as a group, some sort of strength.

One must ask then, what is this strength and what it is meant for?

There is also another fundamental idea behind democracy, which is an inherent, perpetual struggle against those who don't belong to the Demos in question. In other words, there is the idea of a dialectic between the Demos and another body of representation, and strength is in a way the instrument will create this dialectic.

I will even dare to go further and say that pretty rapidly in the history of Democracy, strength will be associated with violence. And this is indeed this violence - whether is it physical, intellectual, political, or cultural - which will shape the very definition of Democracy.

Indeed, the very concept of democracy has always been not only ambivalent but also deceptive, because it is made up of inherent contradictions. And this is when the strength of the people is then used to not only shape the idea of democracy but to defend and reenact it with the use of violence.


One of the first examples in which democracy had to use violence to defend but also to (re)define itself was during the confrontation between the Greek world and the Orient, hereby incarnated by the Persians. I don’t want to dwell too much on the narrative, but one can summarize these first conflicts - chiefly the battles of Marathon, the Thermopiles, Artemisium, and Salamis - as democracy put to a sort of test.

Indeed, what was then put to a test in these battles was the idea that people could live together in a way that would, in theory, give every single member of this body of people the right to decide for their own life. (I admittedly employ some degree of simplification  here, as my point is to show that violence was used in the very beginning of democracy.)

Even before this confrontation with a world so different than the Greeks was experiencing, violence was at the heart of the democratic way of life. I only have to quote the philosopher Heraklitus, who is known to have said “Polemos (i.e. war) is father of all things”. And this very concept was applied from the very start of democracy through the idea of the hoplite.

Hoplites: the shock troops of early forms of democracy

The hoplites (estimated to comprise a third to a half of its able-bodied adult male population) were primarily represented by free citizens—propertied farmers and artisans—who were able to afford the bronze armour suit and weapons. Among this crucial demographic, the use of violence was indeed a way of life, one which proved to be crucial to Greek democracy.

At this time, there was another concept, intrinsically linked to the one of democracy, which was the City-State. In the fifth century BC, Greece had seen many city-states flourish, but as they developed and became more powerful, they also started to enter into conflict with one another, to the point where killing one's fellow Greek neighbors came to be seen as not only normal but even healthy.

At some point, however, the Greeks came to acknowledge the necessity of uniting against the Persians, their common enemy. We only have to read Herodotus or Thucydides to understand that it is because of this major conflict against such a different world that the Greeks have been able to define further their way of life, by the simple fact that they realised that they were sharing the same beliefs.


The first concept one must think about is who belongs to this Demos - and by extension who is excluded - A good idea of such a reflection is given by  Aristotle in his Politics. Here what he has to say about the members of a democracy, the citizen:
“A citizen pure and simple is defined by nothing else so much as by the right to participate in judicial functions and in office […] Hence the citizen corresponding to each form of a constitution will also necessarily be different. Therefore the definition of a citizen that we have given applies especially to citizenship in a democracy; under other forms of government it may hold good, but will not necessarily do so.”
I find this definition to be central, as it sets the base for all reflexion around the idea of democracy but also around the body which creates and define democracy. One realises quickly that there were several different definitions of a citizen, whether you belong to one political entity or the other. But the idea which still strikes me the most is the one of exclusivity. Indeed, from the words of the philosopher himself citizenship and therefore full enjoyment of the benefit of democracy is not meant - by any means - to be shared by everybody.

This sets up another question: What is to be done with the ones that live among the citizenry but don’t possess the "citizen" title?

We are chiefly talking about women, children, as slaves, and foreigners. In some cases, this non-citizen population greatly outnumbered the actual citizenry. In Sparta, for example, citizens represented about 1% of the total population of Sparta and its surroundings.

During what we call the Peloponnesian Wars, fought between Sparta, Athens and their allies, two very different concepts of democracy were at stake. I believe the understanding of this conflict is utterly essential if one wants to comprehend the rhetoric used by our modern society, whereby democracy is mandated to be inclusive, rather than exclusive.

This fundamental dialectic, which defines who belongs to the body of citizens and who doesn’t, has followed democracy from its very beginning until now.
And this dialectic has to do with another embedded idea in democracy: equality.

In the French Constitution, for instance, it is clearly said that all French people are equals, at least in the regard of the law. This, therefore, means that any person living in France at a certain time is equal to its peers when it comes to the law.

As normal and trivial as it may sound, one has to question this notion of equality in order to understand the idea of democracy itself.

Indeed, there seems to be a contradiction between the idea of exclusivity - only a few are able to enjoy the benefits of democracy - and the one of including more and more people within the core body of citizens. This fundamental contradiction will become the burden that democracy will have to bear and violence will be the manifestation with which this contradiction will express itself.

This contradiction will be at stake for instance from Pericles to the Gracques or even at the end of the  Roman Republic, when the optimates lead by Pompeus will oppose the populares lead by Julius Caesar.

Indeed, it seems almost impossible to reconcile the fundamental elitism of the democratic regime - after all, it’s all about acknowledging that someone or a group of people are a better fit not only to lead but very much to grasp and define an idea of reality - with the idea that everybody is equal.

To understand this contradiction, one need to realise that the idea of equality is expressed in its core by the right of the citizen to vote. Thus, the idea of democracy implies that we are all equal in the right we have to express some sort of opinion by electing a representative of the citizens.

One can rapidly understand the limits of such concept, as the idea of equality is here merely used to obtain an ascendency upon your fellow citizen, which by definition would go against the idea of equality.

Polybius had understood this contradiction very well, and his praise of the Roman Constitution really pinpoints the limits of such a regime. The concept of equality is therefore used only to enlarge the body of the electorate - the people able to vote - in order for some to reach more power. One can easily draw a parallel with the ideas of enlarging our electorate, by for instance plant the idea of mass immigration and multiculturalism. Indeed, by welcoming all these people in the body of citizens - or at least voters - it then becomes very clear that the goal is for some to play the populares card in order to consolidate an ascendency more and more challenged by the true citizen - those who didn’t have to migrate in order to be integrated in this new body of voters.

To conclude, I would say that it is through the use of violence that democracy has been able to sustain itself against, this time, the excluded members of the society. We have seen it time and time again, from the partisan of democracy, being ready to use any mean necessary for this idea of democracy to prevail.

 Democracy can then only exist by the constant re-enactment of its core values, violence but maybe first and foremost its power to convince through the Logos.


  1. There is a visible end to democracy in Eire as they emigrate and leave it to "refugees" formerly known as asylum seekers. Does anyone agree with David Hamiltons' old point before he retired that "As the Irish are abandoning Eire to asylum seekers the only realistic thing is to form a Greater Ulster Council to take over Eire and preserve it from foreign domination."

  2. Democracy is a system where the group that controls public opinion through propaganda is the group in power. Only politicians who are in line with this manufactured public opinion get on the ballot.

  3. It spawns Political persecution -

    1. During the period of terrorist attacks in London, Manchester, the police arrested more people for hate speech than terrorist connections. Its easy to see whose side the police are on.

  4. Democracy: government by the 51% most wise alternating with the 51% least wise.

    The alternative? Government by the 1% most wise alternating with the 1% least wise.

    Is it not a sad realization that the wisest among us are usually long dead?


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