March 17, 2012

Was Democracy originally African?

Was Democracy originally African? That's what Professor Tiky of Connecticut University argues in a recent paper. However his argument has multiple flaws- both in terms of what he writes, he nowhere proposes a definition of what democracy is and in terms of what he says about history- Rome would count as a democracy under most definitions, ancient Egypt under Akhenaten almost certainly not. But the paper is interesting- less for what it says historically- than for what it says about Professor Tiky's own preconceptions. The paper could have only been written by a twentieth century scholar, and possibly by one in the United States: it focusses on Africa rather than on the individual countries within Africa and reveals an interest, less in African societiies in the past, than in present issues today.

Professor Tiky is trying to reverse what he sees as an inherent injustice: Europe and most particularly Greece has traditionally been awarded the palm for inventing democracy but it did not do so. Solon, the Athenian, picked up his ideas about democracy from Ancient Egypt and distributed them in Athens. This historical claim is really the centre of Professor Tiky's attribution- but it rests upon nothing in particular. Solon did claim to have picked up his ideas in Egypt- but then many Greeks did claim to have picked up their ideas in Egypt, just as today one might claim to have absorbed one's ideas in the US. It was a signal of their quality- but not neccessarily a claim to truth. The Pharonic system did not have much in common with Athenian democracy as launched by the great statesman and if he did take something from Egypt, what he did not take was fully formed democracy. Professor Tiky argues that ancient Egypt and pre-colonial Africa demostrated democratic stateforms: but even here his work is suspect. For a start, he implies that Egypt was monotheistic when it was only for a brief period under the Pharoah Akhenaten. More importantly he does describe African forms of hereditary statehood and rebellion as a means of controlling governments: these could have grown into democracy but it seems doubtful to me that they actually were democratic stateforms. He neglects the role of Islam in the institutional development of Africa and his account of Africa itself is deeply flawed- suggesting that there is an inherent African path through history is as ridiculous as suggesting there is an inherent European one!

LinkNot much can be salvaged from Professor Tiky's piece. Even his correct point that nothing is inevitable in history is marred by his consideration of African history as the history of a single family. This article could only have been written in the late twentieth or early twenty first century and is peculiarly American in its continental focus. More importantly though what Professor Tiky shares with those he opposes is the point that history determines politics in a very crude way. Whether Africa invented democracy or not at some point in the past, tells us nothing about the sustainability of current African democracy. Wherever democracy was invented, at some point it was new- and now it spreads over half the globe. That historical process is not owned by one continent- or one nation- it can't be: nor is its rise and fall determined by the origins of the concept itself.

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