Democracy, What Does it Mean?

We know (or think to know) the exact meaning of the word “democracy”. Our idea of democracy is grounded on personal experiences of democratic – or undemocratic – national systems as well as on something we studied at school: the Magna Charta, the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen, the United States Declaration of Independence.

And we all know the origin of the word in ancient Greece from the two words “Demos” and “Kratia“: people and power. So, democracy literally means power to the people or power for the people. No doubt it means for us free elections, equality, pluralist society, fundamental rights,  access to justice.

We tend to forget, nonetheless, that this definition is relative in space and time. In the ancient Athens as in the 13 American colonies there was an aristocracy living on the work of slaves and women enjoyed very few fundamental rights. Only in the XX century, our democracies acquired the current structure and still… we cannot say they perfectly mirror our ideal of democracy. Let’s face it: democracy is more a process than a state. Whatever the democracy we are in, there is always something we can do to improve it. This is clearly recognized in international rankings – such as the Democracy index or the Global democracy ranking.

Both rank countries according to levels or degrees of democracy, not just by its existence/non-existence. Not only democracy is different according to historical evolution, it is also different according to the territorial dimension we are in. Democracy in a city-state is radically different from democracy in a big country: different ways to build consensus, different ways to participate. In the first it is easy to use the instruments of direct democracy, in the second it is less. And still, both are states.

The difficulties involved in moving this democracy model from the state to the global arena are all too evident: we deal with a community of states and a community of individuals (humanity!), both crossed by deep cultural differences and dramatic inequalities. Not only there isn’t a shared concept of democracy in a framework different from the state, but it is simply impossible to apply to international organizations a model of democracy conceived in the eighteenth century for the state. Several attempts have been done by academia to build an autonomous model, but we are far from a shared vision. Moreover, international organizations are the result of a different evolutive path over the centuries, grounded on the principles of international law: a law for states, not for individuals inspired by the different logic of international relations.

So, a new democratic model for global institutions has to be implemented and, at the same time, old visions  -not serving us anymore- have to be dismantled. Utopistic? For sure! But have we a different choice? Before an institutional formula for global democracy, we need a methodological approach to get there. The aim is double: to evaluate the existing “level” of democracy in international organizations and to propose possible reforms in line with the legitimate expectations of democracy emerging in the global civil society.

Utopistic? For sure! But have we a different choice? Before we imagine an institutional formula for global democracy, we need a methodological approach to get there. The aim is double: to evaluate the existing “level” of democracy in international organizations and to propose possible reforms in line with the legitimate expectations of democracy emerging in the global civil society.

My suggestion is to ground this process on values more than on rules and institutions: let’s identify values first. My choice? Legitimacy, Accountability, Inclusiveness. They will be explored, one by one, in the following posts.

Which is your idea of democracy? Do you have a different list of values? A ranking of priorities? I’d love to know!

2 comments

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