April 13, 2007

Democratic Assemblies

Ian Appleby has written and posted a fantastic article about proto democracy amongst the Cossacks on his blog. I have made some comments over there about historical parallels but as they are on Ian's blog I will leave them there. What is interesting about Ian's article though is the way that it instantly calls to mind the fact that behind our word democracy lurk many meanings or concepts that we attach to it. The Cossacks basically used their assembly to elect a chieftan- an Ataman- or deselect him. In much the same way as the Romans voting in tribes elected a consul, the Cossacks filed through to elect their chieften having no doubt partaken in lots of political intrigue and infighting beforehand.

Ian has drawn some interesting conclusions about nascent nationalism from this and I won't contradict or discuss those ideas. One of the things which struck me though that he hadn't brought up is how the Cossack experience or indeed the Roman one and many other experiences in the past of forms of democracy, relied on gathering everyone together in a small area and then letting them vote after a bit. You could place experiences as different as the Athenian Assembly, the Polish Sejm and the New Model's election of Agitators in this category. It strikes me as interesting because of course that is the format with which representatives began too- the oldest representatives involved not mathematical proportions but the delegation of particular members from particular regions to the centre. There lie the origins of the English Parliament or the Spanish Cortes or indeed American government.

That has a consequence that is often forgotten about today but is brought out by Ian's piece. There was a formal franchise at such meetings- often though not in all cases wielded by those owning large ammounts of property or those of high status. Often though the most dramatic results of such elections took place outside the formal mechanisms of election- riots and brawls might errupt between rival supporters, in some cases leading to lynchings. In England election riots in the 18th Century were a common event, in Poland the Sejm was often punctuated by rioting and murder. E. P. Thompson wants wisely commented that whilst 18th Century England allowed property owners a degree of latitude in what they charged for their goods or did with their property, it also allowed rioters for instance to force people to sell bread at a certain price (such a case occured at Preston in 1791 for example). The same thing is true for elections- often rioting and threats of physical force became a way that the disenfranchised acquired a voice.

Its interesting to think why these meetings were important for those that held the franchise as well. Often they were occasions where bribery took place but also they were occasions when it was possible to see and evaluate a candidate. Replaced in the Nineteenth century by the great speeches delivered by politicians in order to make themselves known, the election meeting or indeed the Cossack meeting was a place where you could go and evaluate the character of your chief or representative. Its interesting that as the modern media has developed the franchise has become geographically widened. The media filters through to us a sense of what the politicians are- we can watch them on Television, read about them in Newspapers and the fact that we never will see any of them makes little difference to our ability to assess them as individuals competing to lead us.

At times it is useful to dangle a foot in the past to realise what function various bits of the political scene perform today- without the media we would have to have much more fixation on the meetings politicians would address. By conceding the function of filtering to the media, most of us now no longer have to listen to Gladstonian five hour addresses or partake in a day's electoral rioting, in that sense we have a classic division of labour. A division of labour that allows us to listen to music, to bring up our children, work or do one of the other myriad of things we do today, confident in the knowledge that the media in some form will bring us in a quick five minutes what we can't be bothered to spend five hours finding out. In a sense that is what blogs like this are about as well.

The key in this system therefore is to have a media which delivers the information in a fair way to us, making us understand what we don't need to find out- there is a problem potentially there of the way that we incentivise the delivery of information within the media. That is an issue probably too big to be dealt with at this time- but considering the way that a Cossack voted and the information that he used to vote, its possible to work out what an important part of our democracy the institutions of the press, television, blogs and radio are.


edmund said...

very intersting article tow things spering to mind.

one is this means should be wary of discoutin alltogether elecions in a clmiate of violence whether n Bangladesh or iraq , or El Salvador-they can still say a lot about public opinon

Secondly it underns the key role in the modern state in eliminating lawlessness anbd in so doing repalcing theorica possiblites of proepy and prosperity wiht hreal ones. If one's looking ofr a mono cacusla explantion why ireland reamined so poor in the 19th century the lack of effective law enforcement is it.

Gracchi said...

Thanks Edmund- yes I agree with both of your views- good comment- especially about the way that we should view violence in elections.