Following the breakdown of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, democracy is the state-form that has the monopoly on political legitimacy. This legitimacy is derived from participatory democracy, the direct self-rule of the Athenian polis, where every adult male finds himself part of the executive at some time in his life. But the modern state and a global capitalist economy are unsuited for such "radical" democracy because the citizen can never comprehend all the things in the world that affect and endanger his life. Indeed, the modern state, with all its facets and resources, is often unable to understand the world with sufficient clarity. Thus the state must be constructed and perpetuated alongside democracy - for political authority must be exercised. What representative democracy does is to make this legitimate.

That representative democracy appears to many as a contradiction has made a cynical view of it popular. It is mainly defined in negative terms - it isn't fascism, it isn't Communism - simply because the twentieth century has taught us to value it over the alternatives. Its emergence in the last third of the last millenium should not be put down to a renewed interest in the idea of popular self-rule, but rather a breakdown in the means of subjection among the ancien regime of Europe. That it has proved singularly compatible with capitalism helped it along greatly, although both Adam Smith and David Hume eyed it with suspicion. John Dunn says representative democracy has secured three political goods which encourage its perdurance -

  • 1. It helps to protect the citizens of a nation from its government.
  • 2. It establishes governmental responsbility to the governed.
  • 3. It makes both democracy and the modern state compatible with the modern capitalist economy

Point three is very important, but the Ancients would have been surprised. Capitalism can only function when property rights are respected to a sufficient degree to allow the market to allocate resources efficiently and generate wealth. Many people have opposed democracy precisely on the grounds that it can undermine property rights, being essentially rule by the poor (who outnumber the rich in any society). Aristotle and Edmund Burke agreed on this point, but their pessimism was perhaps ill-founded - the property of the rich was relatively safe against the egalitarian demands of the Athenian poor and has continued to be so in our modern societies. This is perhaps because the market economy has political legitimacy as a means of advancing the wealth of all.

Properly understood, democracy and capitalism are both systems of individual freedom. But because they operate in different spheres of life the choices made in one sphere may not be compatible with those made in the other. As a political system democracy aims to promote the general good of all those under its sovereignty, and may pursue human ends other than the efficient operation of the market. It is generally accepted in modern social democracies that some goods have to be public, but there are no scientific criteria for deciding which these should be - this is another potential point of conflict between the two systems. The collapse of the USSR has shown that the state is not in the position to take on the responsibility of running the whole economy, and it is generally accepted that a market economy secures the advance of wealth. Representative democracy hence then does tend to protect the rich from the poor.

Dunn identifies three questions that must be posed to representative democracy to challenge its legitimacy. The first is whether it can ever tame the business cycle and secure an increase of opulence indefinitely, or whether representative democracy is cursed to see the onset of class warfare at bad parts of the cycle. Modern economists can not fully explain or predict the progress of economies, but the material well-being of society is key to the progress of democracy. When economic instability pushes people to seek security rather than freedom, an erosion of the democracy is bound to take place. A radical attack on the rich, carried out in ignorance of their role as a public good, could have dire consequences for both governed and governor.

The second question is whether any criteria can be established on who would be best to govern us. As natural science continues to expand our capacity for action and has now put mankind in a situation where it can destroy itself, this is becoming more and more crucial. As a system of free choice, representative democracy does not give us any clue on who to choose to rule us. The centuries have seen many different theories and musings on this subject, but no answer. This is a singularly difficult question, but one we must be aware of. Because of the complexity of the modern state and its constant growth, different answers to this question will be correct at different points in time and space.

The third is how safely we can approach the ideal of the Athenian polis in the modern world. Those who understood the modern world most acutely - Hannah Arendt, Max Weber, Karl Marx - have all commented on the alienation of modern man with regard to his environment. The ideal of living in prelapsarian freedom no longer seems realistic, as the modern global economy necessarily involves subjection to the authority of some hierarchy. The modern state itself - especially its bureaucracy - encourages alienation because it seems so vast and inhuman. But amidst this the ideal of citizen self-rule remains, as the legacy of the Athenian demos is the belief that the voice of humankind can ring out in controlling its own affairs. There is no clear limit on where the line on freedom should be drawn to ensure a stable society, but the continuation of the ideal ensures the survival of the reasonable hope that the voice of man will never be silenced.

The Dunn book mentioned is Democracy: the unfinished journey, 508BC to AD1993 (Oxford, 1992). Arendt speaks about modern man's alienation in The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition and Between Past and Future. Marx does so in Capital.