The Samovar


Democracy is one of those words that everybody uses but about which there is not a great deal of clarity as to what it means. The first ideas I can remember having of democracy were that it means a government elected by the people, or a government representing the will of the people. The first idea led me to declare that democracy was not a good thing, the second to declare that we do not live in a democracy (for various reasons to do with the biases and influences in our political process, and the impossibility of designing a perfect voting system). I no longer believe these. Instead, I now say that we do live in a democracy, that this is a very good thing, but that it means a lot less than many people think it does, and that we can do better.

For the past few years I’ve been considering an alternative view of democracy, which although it seems fairly obvious, doesn’t appear to be widely considered (Wikipedia’s article on democracy doesn’t mention anything like it anyway).

Democracy as elections, and democracy as government by the will of the people both have problems which relate to each other. The main problem with the democracy as elections theory is that it doesn’t explain why this should be a good thing. The most obvious response is that this process ought to result in a government that is representative of the electorate. Likewise, if you try to define democracy as meaning a system with governments that are representative of the people, you then have to explain how the system ensures that. Both of these views of democracy rely on the other, and they each have meaning only if they can be satisfactorily connected. Democracy as government by the will of the people is the intent, democracy as elections is the process used to try to ensure that.

It’s usually considered that you also need to have free and fair elections, secret ballots and a free press. It’s intuitively obvious at first glance that these things are all good ideas, and that not having them creates problems. The question is: does having them guarantee a representative government as a result? I know of no convincing argument that it does. Indeed, it misses out what I consider to be a fairly major additional requirement: that there is a certain level of equality of wealth and power in the society concerned. Even adding this in as another basic requirement for democracy, it’s not clear that this would guarantee a representative government. Maybe you also need a certain universal level of education and political awareness? How do you specify and guarantee that? You could go on and on.

There’s also the problem of what these requirements themselves mean. What is a free press for example? Is it just a press free from censorship? Or is there a requirement for a certain level of diversity? Can a press in a ruthlessly competitive free market, relying on advertising for most of its income be considered enough to satisfy the requirements of a democracy? Other questions you might need answers to are: what level of equality is required? What level of education and political awareness? Which form of voting system should we use (FPTP, PR, etc.)? This last question is related to perhaps the most fundamental question of all: what exactly is the will of the people? What does that even mean? These are all enormously complex questions, and without answers to them it’s not clear that we can say we know what democracy means in the standard view.

My alternative view doesn’t explain away the problems mentioned above, but I believe it clarifies the problems, connects the theoretical issues with reality more firmly, and suggests more useful ways of moving forward.

The first view is that democracy shouldn’t be seen as a positive guarantee of good government, it should rather be seen as a negative guarantee: a guarantee that the extremes of bad government are excluded. It’s clear that all our voting procedures, our not-quite-free press, our unequal society and so forth do not necessarily guarantee a government that is good in any sense of the word. But, it’s also clear that in this system it would be very difficult to get a really awful government that acted manifestly against the interests of everyone in society. In England, this view is a historically accurate one. The Magna Carta came about not because the barons wanted a good government that worked in the interests of everyone in society, but because the King was abusing his powers too much and it was hurting them. Further extensions to democracy in England came about gradually, slowly increasing the number of people whom the government could not systematically abuse. Each increase was hard fought for and was a reaction to abuses by the government, rather than an attempt to create a positive system of government. We should not expect a historical process that advances in reaction to abuses to have produced a system that goes far beyond the prevention of abuses to guarantee positive good government that works in the interests of all.

This view has several consequences. First of all, we should realise that the democracy that we have has been very hard fought for, and we need to preserve those aspects of it which prevent these extreme abuses. A danger of thinking of democracy in purely positive terms (how can we make government work better for everyone rather than how can we prevent the government abusing its power), is that by underestimating the importance of the negative aspect it potentially opens the door to precisely those abuses which democracy evolved to exclude. If you believe that the democratic process guarantees a government that is good in some positive sense, then it doesn’t make any sense to put restrictions on what that government can do – why hamper their good efforts? The present Labour government in the UK has introduced or attempted to introduce several pieces of legislation which reduce the limitations on its own power, supposedly to allow it to serve us better (to protect us from terrorism). The now infamous Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill attempted to give ministers the power to overturn legislation without consulting parliament. It’s important to realise that our democratic process doesn’t guarantee positive good government, and that’s why it’s absolutely essential to maintain those aspects which stop the government from abusing its power, even if that also makes it more difficult or stops them from doing some things which might be considered positive. Our democracy is not yet secure enough that we can forget about this fundamental negative aspect of it. In fact, it’s a relatively recent phenomenon. It wasn’t until 1928 in the UK when women were given equal voting rights to men that the majority of the population participated. Even now, the 21% of the population under the age of 18 cannot vote (see this fun age pyramid).

A second consequence of this view is that democracy develops by narrowing the window of opportunity for abuse. Advances in democracy are moments when an old form of systematic abuse ends. This can be a progressive notion. For example, at the moment I would argue that there are various structural aspects of our democracy and capitalist economy that mean that a series of governments which systematically favour the interests of the wealthy is possible. Changes in our society that made governments that were systematically biased in favour of the wealthy impossible or unlikely would be an advance in democracy. I would go further and say that the democratic case for socialism is strong, but that’s another story.

The obvious criticism of this view is that it misses out the positive aspect of democracy. Sometimes elected governments do things which are positively in the public interest, and the reason for that is that they were elected to do so. The creation of the NHS or the welfare state might be a good example of this. There are a few responses to this. First of all, there is a question of whether or not the creation of the NHS and welfare state were positive acts, but rather acts taken to avert further dissent (i.e. defensive manoeuvres). Secondly, the alternative view doesn’t say that positive acts are impossible, just that there is no guarantee that they will happen. To argue for the positive view of democracy you would have to argue how democracy makes these outcomes more likely. It’s not obvious to me that this is possible even if we had a good idea of what socially good outcomes might mean. Indeed, there is some good evidence that democratic structures don’t encourage such outcomes. For example, the median voter theorem is a mathematical idealisation of two party democracy which suggests that governments will tend to suggest policies which favour the median voter. This is clearly not encouraging policies which are representative of the electorate, but it is encouraging policies which exclude the worst extremes (although actually, the median voter theorem is a sort of perturbation analysis so it doesn’t say anything about extremes). A good example of this was Brown’s last budget which increased the tax burden on the rich and the poor, but decreased it for those in the middle. The third response to the criticism is that where abuse of a system is possible, it seems that it tends to happen. This makes understanding the extent to which democratic structures exclude possibilities for abuse much more important than understanding how they enable positive acts.

The idea of this way of looking at democracy is to better understand what it actually is and how things really happen, a realist view rather than an idealist one. But I am an idealist, so I also want to understand how to make things better and believe it can be done. This way of looking at things helps in various ways. First of all, it’s always good to be realistic about what is actually going on to better understand how to make things better. Much thinking about democracy appears to be of the self-delusional form. Secondly, it already suggests a whole series of ways of improving democracy by reducing the window of opportunity for abuse. Lastly though, it provides a better framework for proposing positive improvements to our democracy. By dropping the fiction that democracy is about good government and representing the people, it concentrates our attention on systematic analyses of what different democratic structures can do. It also strongly emphasises that positive functions of democracy have to be backwards compatible with the important negative function.

One day, we will perhaps reach a stage where we have a society of rough equality, where no part of it is systematically abused by any other part of it. At that stage, our thinking about democracy and government can begin to focus on ways to achieve more directly positive outcomes, but we haven’t reached that stage yet (and if we do reach that stage, we’ll likely be thinking about everything very differently anyway). At the moment, our problem is the opposite. We have many governments of democratic nations around the world systematically attacking fundamental aspects of democracy, we have the press becoming less and less free as it reduces spending to compete for ever diminishing profits and becomes more and more reliant on government and corporate propaganda. We also have the prospect of potential crises such as climate change, which mean that the negative function of democracy will become even more important than ever if we want to avoid the worst happening to our society in the aftermath of the crisis (for example, the BNP has an electoral strategy that is designed around gaining power in exactly this sort of crisis situation).


Democracy is not that good and was considered to be poor by the Greeks. The problem is that if you are in the minority (which could be quite large) it might be a major pisser depending upon how beneficent your society is.

Democracy’s value, if you can call it that, is that it works and justifies a society which is largely apathetic about most things, which is largely about what goes on in life.

Under those circumstance Democracy is a form of Oligarchy by stealth, getting away with it due to general apathy, or you might call it a sort of natural utilitarianism by proxy; you had just better hope that it’s a beneficial one.

Comment by Mikey

An excellent and intriguing post. So: is your conclusion that stable democracy is the best but not infallible form of government yet attained?

I agree that the term “Democracy” has taken on a politically magical sort of property as it’s envoked by various world leaders in reflection of the downtrodden citizens of otherwise failed or tyrannical states. Of course one can see the fallibility of such magical properties in the Palestinian elections a year and more ago. The mainstream assumption seems to be that Democracy=Stability. The reality is rather quite the reverse. A functioning “democracy” requires a stable foundation of middle class, womens rights, a degree of ethnic equality and an economically level playing field. The common misconception seems to be a top down assumption that a “free will” form of governance will realize the basic liberties described above.

Speaking from an American perspective, the idea of America being a “Democratic State” is a bit of a misnomer. In reality we are a Representative Republic. We utilize the democratic process but are not directly governed by it. Which, in my opinion, isn’t a bad thing. A true democracy would be, at best, an incredibly lethargic form of governance, at worst a violent fomentation of mob rule.

Comment by Jay@Soob

I’m not that commited to call it the best, only to call it not the best, true to form I do not have a conclusion so, from the commited point of view, I get what I deserve. Democracey=sufficient stabilty until it does’nt, what I want is a leader I can trust, and who does not take my icecream away. My problem is that I do not have a Leader I can trust but I can’t be bothered to do anything about it, so I will not vote, that will show ’em.

Comment by Mikey

Hi Mikey and Jay, sorry for my slow response.


In defence of democracy, it’s better that a minority be exploited by a majority than that a majority be exploited by a minority (which is probably the alternative).

Government in Western democracies is by oligarchy, but it’s by a heavily constrained oligarchy (which was the point of my article), it can’t do anything which would be too outrageously exploitative or they would be booted out.

Personally, I don’t want a leader at all, trustworthy or not, but obviously a leaderless society is a long way off for us yet.


Yes, I think that Churchill was about right in his oft misquoted “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (full quote below which is quite interesting). Certainly, there’s no other form of government existing at the moment that is any better.

I agree that people tend to use the word democracy in a sort of magical sense, and tend to have unrealistic hopes about what introducing just voting to a country can do. Having a more historical view of democracy is helpful here, it makes you realise that all the elements that make Western democracy work (to the extent that it does) took many years, much hard work, and the fundamental reorganisation of society to achieve. You can’t just superpose voting onto a country’s form of government and hope it will work. That’s also not to say that it’s necessary to go through all the hundreds of years of history that Western democracy has had, there is probably a shorter way, but we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulty and the inertia that needs to be overcome to get there.

I think the idea of a ‘true democracy’ is not well defined. Democracy is, according to my view in the article above, a minimal standard that is the least that needs to be achieved, not an ideal standard to be aimed at. Taken to the logical extreme, democracy ceases to be meaningful.

Full quote from Churchill:

“We accept in the fullest sense of the word the settled and persistent will of the people. All this idea of a group of supermen and super-planners, such as we see before us, “playing the angel,” as the French call it, and making the masses of the people do what they think is good for them, without any check or correction, is a violation of democracy. Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by all constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of ministers who are their servants and not their masters.”

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

It’s easy to say that it’s better for the larger number to exploit the smaller number from a Utilitarian point of view, but what if You are not of that view and what if the difference is 45/55% of 10 million? That’s a lot of exploited, even if it does not come to exploitation, the point is it leaves a lot of people out of sorts, and that’s why it is not a good system and relies on apathy to work. Now if you have a majority that is the ‘Leader’, it being a ‘Leader’ of many components. There is where we find the opportunity or failure, in that large numbers are more easily influenced than small groups. Democracy is a bit of a myth really. It’s a category mistake which may loose those nice new clothes. I think we had a democracy when the first/second world war was on the go, or is that too complex to blame on the big D. In defence of D, it seems you can fool all of the people all of the time, especially if you hold the majority. What you want is a Philosopher King, educated and trained to rule.

Comment by Mikey

But Mikey, 6m exploiting 4m IS better than 4m exploiting 6m. Admittedly, neither is great but that was kind of my point. Democracy is a minimum standard, not an ideal. (Actually, I would say that nowadays, with democracy, it’s more like 2m exploiting 8m rather than pre-democracy where it was more like 10,000 exploiting 9.99m.)

I don’t think democracy is ‘a bit of a myth’, it’s just misunderstood and doesn’t quite live up to its reputation. I would say without doubt that democracy is an advance on monarchy and oligarchy, which historically speaking appear to be the alternatives. As an anarchist, I think that anarchy (in the political sense of the word as a form of society rather than meaning chaos) would be an advance on that. There’s probably something in between too (maybe call it participatory democracy or something like that).

Likewise, I would absolutely argue against the idea of the ‘Philosopher King’. At best the concept of the enlightened dictatorship is just a way of expressing a fantasy that everything could be perfect if only everything were perfect. Is there any content to that concept at all? Worse than that, it obscures the point that politics is not about management – that’s the fallacy of New Labour. It’s not like there’s a ‘correct’ way of doing things and all that needs to be done is to work out what that correct way is, if only there was some way, some wise individual that could do that. Politics is about conflict of interests, differences of opinion about what constitutes good, and about the development over time of actually existing imperfect societies.

It’s true that large groups can be manipulated by propaganda (and are being, even today). This casts doubt on the ideal of democracy as representation of the interests of the people, but it doesn’t cast doubt on my reconception of democracy as a minimum standard which only serves to reject the extreme worst forms of government (although it pushes the boundaries of what is possible).

I’m not sure what you’re getting at with the first/second world war. We had democracy, but Nazi Germany didn’t.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

The moral justification of exploitation (even if imperfect) based upon numbers is just a social advancement on ‘might is right, to the victor goes the spoils’. So even if your principle is correct, it cannot really be correct on the grounds which you specify.

To attempt to clarify political discussion we have to come to terms with the concept of degree. Can something be wrong or right, or more wrong or more right. Is it a scale of say wrongness or are they different things which we have accidentally/on purpose put on a scale (category mistake). If it were not a scale then we would have to have a set of rules (voted for of course in a democracy) which fits for every conceivable human interaction with other humans or any part of the world. Here we find a practical problem of deciding what is wrong/right or more objectively correct under the circumstances. So to cut a long story short we have principles which are interpreted at the point of application, which does not sound too bad but has not solved the impracticality problem. The difficulty lies in that old chestnut, arguing from the particular to the general and/or the other way around.

One might argue that the solution to this impracticality is best found in democracy, where the price to pay, or the advantage, is the amount of jaw-jaw constantly required. Your position is that jaw-jaw is superior to war-war and that democracy is the best chance to get to and maintain jaw-jaw, compared to other political systems which have a greater tendency to move to war-war, or even exploitation. The jaw-jaw is facilitated by parliament and the general principles are laid down in statute and applied in particular (post transgression) by the courts. Sounds like a plan, how good a plan is it, Dan postulates, not as bad as some others He could name; thus Dan is setting out on a defence of making the best of a bad job, Mikey has no such imperative. And history has not experimented on the others enough yet.

Let us move now to an historical perspective. If we go back a couple of millennia (or thereabouts) we can find myths, or what we now call myths, which had a great influence on how people thought the world was and how they behaved and functioned socially. Led in principle and application by those myths. Many have now slipped into legend and some we still have influencing Us today. The peeps involved however, still have the same biological needs and we are still ‘social animals’. When I say that democracy is a bit of a myth I am doing it from an objective usefulness perspective, as did Greeks, the on the usefulness bit, (or at least Plato). For the objective bit we have to get Ryle. Gilbert enlightened Us with the idea of the category mistake, or what might be described as ‘calling things which are different the same’. Apples being the same as pears, if you call them fruits but we had to shift a category to do that.

If you are being exploited, does it matter who is doing it to you, how many of them there are or how they organise themselves politically? It would be true to say that you understood your exploiter better if you knew which political/social organisational name could be applied to them. Would that make the exploitation less onerous? Less wrong? More acceptable? Which exploiter would you like to pick? A philosopher king, a democratic tyranny, a despot? When is a cult a religion? How many does it take to make the exploitation right. If it is right (because the majority is big enough), is it the exploited who are wrong? How dare they make the poor majority exploit them this way? It is wonderful what you can say when you ditch objectivity and indulge in category shifting so prevalent in political opinions and aided by the mystifying shifts from particular to general.

A democratic group is just a bunch of despots all doing the same thing, or agreeing to do the same thing, or made up of enough apathetic members who do not get in the way of activists who do the wrong thing in their name, and cannot be bothered to stop them. And if we apathetic lot carry on thinking that it’s OK because we live in a democracy and voted for them, is that what is really going on, or are we living in a myth?

A philosopher king is no worse than a demo-apathetic tyranny, it is not grounded in perfection but in the attempt to produce the best way, most quickly. Un-educated democracy takes too long, doesn’t know what it is doing and is easily acquired by a (relatively fast moving) determined group who operate below the anti-good detection threshold, a threshold which (due to apathy) is very high in lethargic, dull witted democracy. Democracy is non-adaptive compared to some other systems, adaptation it is said, is the secret of success, or getting your own way, either politically or environmentally. (PK is also the only possible foundations of Anarchy). To give democracy a philip, one could argue that it is so slow that it can be corrected before it goes wrong, which requires that correction is somehow quicker than mistake/nasty stuff, which is just what Dan has suggested and the basic grounds of His support of the myth of democracy. Playing around with the difference between the search for perfection (whatever that may mean) and the pursuit of best, seems to be back to categories. Categories can be managed (correctly) but societies and the difference between their members are hard to fit into categories, this can denigrate management.

And so to war – Was not the second one not just a continuation from the first, parts A and B? With a change of government on the one side, the Germans, changing a Monarchic/Oligarchic tyranny for a nice straight forward Despotic one, all under the myth of democracy? England had it’s version of democracy too, even related by blood to the German one. It is to the interest of all the warring parities to maintain the myth of democracy, even more when there is a war on and you can do without internal strife, thank the lord for apathy, it is really useful for getting your own way. Did those happy warring types not live in a democracy, even if there were less entitled to vote at the time? What level of extremes rejection was going on there then, all of 90 odd years ago, under the name of democracy. Is your democracy somehow better than theirs? WW 1 was one monarchic/oligarchic democratic empire under attack by another. People did not think that it (warring for domination) was wrong, all the participants had been at it or tried to be the winners at it for quite some time. How fairs the reputation of your democracy there?

To have a philosopher king you have to have a university of government. Have universities advanced knowledge up from the apathy of accepting myths? Therein lies the option of apathy removal, when the language of politics is as common and as understood as the mother tongue. Politics, through fast moving, educated, representation from large groups of the enabled-oligarchic-knowledgeable are an advance on apathetic-minimum-standard secretive-oligarchic-democracy. Democracy is a step backward, not forward, because there will be less evolution.

Step away from the popularised, often invented to maintain democracy, think to the so-called unthinkable and the fuller picture may arrive. Then choose. Chance would be a fine thing. As long as they don’t take my ice-cream I’m happy (but not fooled) with your minimum standard (mythical) democracy. Long live the apathetic, stress free, I hope!

Comment by mikey

Hi Mikey,

To be honest, I’m having a little bit of difficulty following what you’re saying, but I’ll do my best.

“Can something be wrong or right, or more wrong or more right.”

Technically speaking, my position on ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ is that there is no objective sense to them. That said, there is enough of an overlapping consensus in many applications of these words that we can sensibly use them. So, I would say it’s uncontroversial to say that killing two people is worse than killing one person. Similarly, it seems uncontroversial – to me at least – to say that all other things being equal, 40% of the population being exploited is better than 60% of the population being exploited. It seems to me that if you want to disagree with that, the onus is on you to explain why.

We don’t need to have general principles that explain why one situation is better or worse than the other, because this is just a discussion between you and me, not the basis for an ongoing decision-making process. That said, I think you’d find pretty wide agreement that the 40% being exploited is better than the 60% being. So I don’t see that there is an ‘impracticality’ problem.

“One might argue that the solution to this impracticality is best found in democracy…”

OK, let me see if I understand what you’re getting at. I think you’re working with the idea that the function of government is to produce decisions about what we as a society should do. Your ‘impracticality’ problem is the impracticality of divining what we as a society want (or alternatively, what is best for us as a society).

Now, I don’t accept this starting point. First of all, there is no ‘what we as a society want’. You cannot, even in principle, regardless of practicality problems, aggregate individual desires and preferences into social ones. It’s mathematically not possible. That was the point of Arrow’s possibility theorem (that’s a link to an article I wrote on the topic btw). In brief, this is Condorcet’s paradox (which is a simple version of what Arrow talked about): Suppose you have a ‘society’ of three citizens, say A, B and C. Now, they have to make a decision between three policies, say x, y and z. A prefers x to y and y to z. B prefers y to z and z to x. C prefers z to x and x to y. What policy should this society of three people enact? Two citizens (A and B) prefer y to z, but A and C prefer x to y. Confusingly, two citizens (B and C) also prefer z to x. So none of the policies x, y or z will do, since whichever one the society chooses, the majority of citizens will prefer a different one. There is no objective answer to this puzzle, you have to give up the idea that there is a ‘right’ thing to do. Incidentally, there is some definite possibility of debate about this – for instance suppose there is a fourth policy w which everyone prefers. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. Also, maybe this situation of cyclical preferences doesn’t happen in practice. If not, it might make sense to talk about aggregate preferences. My opinion is that the evidence stacks up against the idea of objective measures of better and worse social preferences.

The second reason I don’t accept this starting point of government as a mechanism for optimal (in some sense) decision making is that it tries to say that government is much more than it ever has been. That’s all covered in the thing I originally wrote though, so I won’t say it again here.

“A democratic group is just a bunch of despots all doing the same thing, or agreeing to do the same thing, or made up of enough apathetic members who do not get in the way of activists who do the wrong thing in their name, and cannot be bothered to stop them.”

It’s not just haphazard chance that no democratically elected government has tried to say that all but a tiny fraction of the money that everyone has earnt should be transferred into the bank accounts of them and a few of their friends. They can’t take everyone’s ice cream, because they would get voted out. They can of course, take quite a lot of icecream and get away with it. But the mechanism of electing democratic government excludes the possibility of them taking all the icecream. My question to you is: why wouldn’t the philosopher king take all the icecream? I think that this question should be key for you. Without an answer to it, we can’t possibly consider a philosopher king as an alternative.

“A philosopher king is no worse than a demo-apathetic tyranny, it is not grounded in perfection but in the attempt to produce the best way, most quickly.”

But there is no ‘best way’. It doesn’t mean anything. If you think it does – tell me what it means.

“What level of extremes rejection was going on there then, all of 90 odd years ago, under the name of democracy. Is your democracy somehow better than theirs? WW 1 was one monarchic/oligarchic democratic empire under attack by another.”

A couple of points: (1) as you say, representation back then was not as it is today. Half the population alone were instantly disenfranchised for being female. (2) People didn’t know what a world war would be like before WW1. A democracy can certainly make mistakes. It’s even capable of destroying itself through environmental destruction, incorrect use of nuclear technology, etc. But I don’t see how a philosopher king does any better in this respect.

Comment by Dan | thesamovar

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