Words, words…

A pretty informative (and visually attractive) short video in French about how the word “democracy” came to refer to an oligarchical system.

The French and American revolutions overthrew monarchical and absolutist regimes in order to give power to the people to institute “democratic” regimes. The story was beautiful… But digging a little into the subject, we find that the historical reality is very different. While the French and American revolutions rejected monarchy, they rejected democracy at the same time. They are not the point of departure for the power of the people, by the people, for the people but rather for the constitutionalization of a representative regime. “Democracy”, which our representatives like so very much to talk about today, was not part of the design.

The transcript is here.

One Response

  1. My translation to English:

    Words, words… Democracy? – #DATAGUEULE 74

    The French and American revolutions overthrew monarchical and absolutist regimes in order to give power to the people to institute “democratic” regimes. The story was beautiful… But digging a little into the subject, we find that the historical reality is very different. While the French and American revolutions rejected monarchy, they rejected democracy at the same time. They are not the point of departure of the power of the people, by the people, for the people but rather of the constitutionalization of a representative regime. “Democracy”, which our representatives like so much to talk about today, was not part of the design.

    If the clothes don’t make the man, the word “democracy” does not a democracy make. Hi there!

    “France is not, and cannot be a democracy.”

    It is not me who says that, it is Emmanuel-Joseph Sièyes, a deputy of the Third Estate, a central figure of the French revolution.

    It is September 7th, 1789, and it he who is called Father Sièyes makes this statement at the National Assembly, created 3 months earlier.

    “I have always supported a free republic, not a democracy, which is an arbitrary, tyrannical, blood-thirsty, cruel and intolerable government.”

    This time these are the words of John Adams, one of the “founding fathers” of the U.S. and its second president.

    But so what?

    Didn’t we talk about democracy during the great revolutions?

    It is “government of the people, by the people and for the people”?

    Not so much.

    “Law”, “people”, “liberty”, or even “nation” and “constitution” – these are the prominent words in the texts of the french revolution.

    The word “democracy” trails far behind.

    After “representative” and “sovereignty”.

    And when it is used, it is as a bogeyman.

    In the political world of those times – both in France and in the US – being called a “democrat” was clearly an insult.

    Sieyes discusses the risk of “a popular democracy with its turbulent and unpredictable actions”.

    The American Elbridge Gerry, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, fulminates: “The afflictions that we are experiencing stem from an excess of democracy.”

    It is therefore necessary to invent a system which protects society from itself, avoiding at all costs this dangerous democracy.

    The example of Athens was well-known to the political thinkers of our dears revolutions. But it is out of the question to use sortition. That was good for the Greeks.

    Let’s elect the representatives! That’s the route they take. Welcome to the aristocracy.

    And yes, Montesquieu clearly wrote in his “Spirit of the Law”: “Sortition is natural to democracy, elections are natural to aristocracy.”

    Placing elections at the heart of the freshly created republics
    means that an elite exists which is much more capable handling political matters than the others.

    This works well – this is the same elite that chose this system.

    But, where did this strange idea of an assembly representing the people come from?

    From the middle ages.

    The first Assembly General was convened in 1302 by Philip the Fair, King of France. Clergy, nobility, and the Third Estate were united for a very specific goal: legitimize the King against Pope Boniface VIII.
    The illusion of a national representation is there, but already without a trace of democracy.

    A few centuries later, at the dawn of the revolution, Sieyes, still him, made this comment: “We are all interested in nothing but commerce, agriculture, manufacturing, etc. The quest for wealth seems to turn all the countries of Europe into nothing but gigantic workshops.”

    For him, the people wish most of all to take care of their private property.

    The liberty of the period was that of being part of commercial society.
    Representative government is the solution.

    With it, the people delegate the public affairs to the representatives and can take care of their private affairs. The division of labor applied to politics.

    There remains one last sleight of hand.

    While democracy was still an insult, some used it as a campaign slogan.

    It is 1828 and Andrew Jackson is elected as the 7th president of the United States.

    How? By being the first to proclaim himself “a democrat”.

    He also presents himself as the candidate of the small people against the elites, winning the votes of masses.

    15 years later, all the other candidates would do the same.

    During that time, Jackson brings the party which supports him to change its name.

    And so the Republican party becomes… the Democratic party.

    Abracadabra! Early political marketing.

    In very different social contexts, the “Founding Fathers” of our Republics were openly opposed to democracy as a political regime. It is something that had nothing to do with their sincere intentions: liberty, equality, justice…

    These are, by the way, the elites that wrote the fundamental texts
    like the “Declaration of Human Rights and of the Citizen” in France, or the American “Bill of Rights”.

    Astonishing complexity.

    However, today the word “democracy” is lost. It no longer designates a political system but a set of ideas which anyone can rally around. This word, which has become sacred, cannot be assailed. Not being a self-proclaiming “democrat” is political suicide. Asserting that we are not a democracy is high treason.

    But then, how can we consider alternatives if we cannot deconstruct the existing system?

    Doubtlessly, it is going to require break out of this impasse in order to create a true democracy.

    Like

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