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Democracy: The Historical Accident

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The Barbarian in History

If the Roman Empire had never been invaded by barbarians, parliament and, therefore, representative democracy, would never have evolved in western civilization. An accident of history has been elevated into a prescription for the world, largely for its association, until recently, with growth and development. The rise of China and the East Asian 'miracles' has demonstrated that democracy is not a precondition for development.

In ancient times, civilizations were ruled by emperors, that is to say, they were empires. The Egyptian Empire, for instance, passed through twelve dynasties from 3,100 BC to 30 BC, when it became part of the Roman Empire. According to S.E. Finer, this 'palace polity' has been the most common throughout history, as opposed to the 'forum polity' of Greece, the Roman Republic, and the Italian city-states until the rise of America and, briefly, France.

Most civilizations were surrounded by barbaric people, from the Guti around Mesopotamia to the Germanic tribes around the Roman Republic and Empire. These 'barbarians' have played a greater role in history than they have been credited with.

Civilized societies were settled agricultural societies practicing trade within and with other societies. They were highly stratified, with the king and priests at the top and the workers at the bottom (slaves were significant only in Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic, as I have argued elsewhere.) Barbaric societies were nomadic and unsettled. At the same time, they were highly egalitarian. The king, in barbaric societies, was elected: his office, or function, wasn't hereditary. Dynastic succession was usually peculiar to civilized peoples, like the Romans and the Egyptians.

I spoke above of the islands of civilization in a general sea of barbarism. The sea posed a constant threat of flooding the islands. If one imagines the possibility of the Maghreb countries' teeming millions paddling across the Mediterranean today like the Cubans descending on America, or Vietnamese on Australia to overwhelm the European Union by sheer number, one will understand what I mean. Consequently, every civilization had its frontiers where the two societies met, bought and (usually) fought. The most visible monument of such a contact point is the Great Wall of China, erected over 2,000 years ago by the Ch'in dynasty to keep out the northern barbarians. (The wall was subsequently destroyed and rebuilt by the Sui and Ming dynasties.)

The Roman Empire relied on natural boundaries to keep the barbarians out, such as the Rhine between Germany and France. But the barbarians crossed the Rhine and flooded the Empire indeed, in 476 AD, taken to be the year of the demise of the Western Roman Empire, the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the barbarian Odoacer.

For 1,000 years thereafter Western Europe had no government. No other civilization in the world experienced such breakdown; which is why no other civilization had a Renaissance - there had been no scope of rebirth simply because there had never been a break with the past. Only in the fifteenth century did strong monarchs begin to create centralized governments throughout Europe.

The Germanic tribes, as the northern European barbarians were known, brought with them their peculiar social organization, and we shall focus chiefly on their idea of kingship.

As I have said, the king in barbaric societies was usually elected, and he was more a war leader than a king in the usual sense of the word. The Germanic tribes were, therefore, democratic societies, and we already see the seeds of the modern Western democratic states emerging (curiously, a throwback to barbarism). Tacitus has given us a vivid anthropological description.

An aspiring European king generally had to contend against three powers for supremacy: the Church, his fellow-barbarians - the nobility/aristocracy and, in more settled times, the merchants.

Of these, the first was obviously unique to Europe alone no other civilization had inherited an organized Episcopal, hierarchical Church from a dead empire. This was the beginning of 'civil society' beyond the state, apart from business, away from politics, an entity autonomous.

The second power had been initially absent. When Rome collapsed and government died, so did trade, and with trade, the town. Merchants became prominent before and after the crusades, when the Mediterranean had been cleared of the Muslim threat. Indeed, the fourth crusade was a purely commercial enterprise.

The idea of universal taxation had been buried beneath the rubble of Rome. To levy taxes, even, and especially, to finance wars (that royal pursuit), the king was frequently compelled to convene a parliament of (in order to parley with) the above three groups and win their consent. The situation stemmed from his position within the second group, where he was merely primus inter pares. One of the first examples of such compulsion resulted in the signing of the Magna Carta by King John. Much later, in 1789, the convening of a defunct parliament to defray the cost of involvement in the American War of Independence resulted in the French revolution. Between these two events, of course, lay the English civil war, ignited when Charles I had to convene parliament to pay for his Scottish adventures. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 consummated the power of parliament by dispatching a Catholic king who had sired a Catholic heir out of England without a shot being fired. Parliaments didn't like kings, and kings didn't like parliaments.

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Iftekhar Sayeed teaches English and economics. He was born and lives in Dhaka, ‎Bangladesh. He has contributed to AXIS OF LOGIC, ENTER TEXT, POSTCOLONIAL ‎TEXT, LEFT CURVE, MOBIUS, ERBACCE, THE JOURNAL, and other publications. ‎He (more...)
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