The Problem With Democracy Is That People Have Forgotten What It Means

Few are naive enough to believe that when the US and its decreasing number of allies invade countries for the purposes of regime change, that they are actually interested in “spreading democracy”. But beyond the discredited rhetorical ploy that the US continues to use for propaganda purposes, it is a bitter irony that many of the places the US has invaded are actually highly democratic, some of them arguably more so than the US.

To start with, it is important to consider what democracy actually means. The modern word democracy traces its roots to the ancient Greek word δημοκρατία (dēmokratía). This itself is a combination of the words demos, meaning people and kratia, meaning rule. Taken as whole, democracy therefore means rule of the people.

The idea of rule of the people is generally contrasted with an absolutest rule of a king or autocrat who may not rule in the interests of the people, as well as Kleptocracy (rule of the corrupt), Timocracy (rule of the landowners–aka the wealthy), Plutocracy (rule of the rich irrespective of land ownership) or Oligarchy (rule of the few/rule of the elite). However, even in some of the most putitively democratic systems, there are elements of Autocracy, Timocracy, Kleptocracy and Oligarchy.


There is no one political system implied by democracy, nor is total egalitarianism in governance a prerequisite for democracy. At the height of Athenian democracy in the 5th century B.C., power rested in the Athenian Ecclesia, an assembly made up of all male citizens of Athens. However, far from being the soul derivative of power, the Ecclesia was supervised by a chamber of elders (elites) called the Areopagus while daily administrative tasks were in the hands of a council of 500 Athenians called the Boule. Furthermore, far from being totally egalitarian, the revolting head of state in Athens was divided among a group of Archons, of which the Eponymous archon was the titular head of state during any given year on the Athenian calendar.

Athens was democratic in the sense that its Ecclesia was comprised of all adult citizens, thus guaranteeing a measure of government based on what the people need and desire. By contrast few governments are run in such a hands on manner in the modern era. Perhaps ironically to European or American readers, it was The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, formulated by revolutionary theorist Muammar Gaddafi,  which was the closest modern day equivalent to Athenian democracy and yet it was bombed by the United States and its allies under the dishonest guise that it was insufficiently democratic.

The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya

The Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya was governed by a series of Basic People’s Councils. These were local assemblies comprised of all adult men and women who debated and decided a course of action on matters of local administration. Whereas the non-citizen slaves of Athens and women are prohibited from participating in government, in Libya all men and women were encouraged to participate and unlike in post-2011 Libya, slavery was non-existent in the country.

At a national level, the General People’s Committee, was made up of 600 members of various Basic People’s Councils as well as full time administerial staff such as general secretaries. Finally, an executive body called the General People’s Congress, oversaw the business of the General People’s Committee. The General People’s Congress was comprised of 2,700 members of Basic People’s Councils in addition to civil servants and administrators.

Libya between 1977 and 2011 was a direct democracy, where like in Athens, ordinary people were not just listened to when considering the formation of laws, but they also take a hands on role in developing, debating and implementing those laws, along with the aid of oversight bodies which themselves were largely comprised of local councillors from throughout the country.


Unlike Libya between 1977 and 2011, Switzerland has a professional class of politicians, but major decisions are made by popular referenda where all adult citizens vote up or down on the implementation of new policies and laws.

Indirect Democracy 

A country does not need to have a hands on system of governance as ancient Athens and 1977-2011 Libya did, or Switzerland has today. A system in which the people rule, is more frequently based upon leaders who are responsive to the needs of wishes of the people.

The key element here is that the presence of democracy, literally the rule of the people, can come to pass through a single ruler or series of rulers who rule on behalf of the people. Whether these leaders are elected, appointed, or selected based on lineage is a separate issue, so long as they are ruling on behalf of the people, they are democratic.

While the DPRK calls itself democratic (it is in the official name of the country after all), many in the west believe North Korea to be highly undemocratic. The only way to find out is by determining if the North Korea leadership is governing on behalf of the wishes, needs and aspirations of the Korean people. If they are, as they often appear to be, then North Korea is democratic.

Suffrage and petition 

There are many ways that leaders can come to understand the needs, wishes and aspirations of their people. Today the most common forms are petition and suffrage.

A petition is simply an airing of grievances from the governed to the governing classes. This can come in the form of a letter, a public speech or a peaceful demonstration. If the grievances of people are addressed sufficiently, this is democratic, irrespective of whether these grievances are aired in a one party or multi party system. A single party that is responsive to petitions from the people is more democratic than a multi-party system whose elements universally ignore the people’s needs and desires.

Suffrage merely implies the right to vote whether voting in a referendum, as in Switzerland or voting for a Congress and President, as in the United States. While most kinds of suffrage are supposed to help elect representatives who will act for the people, in a two party system like that of the US where in recent decades both major parties have had remarkably similar policies, one witnesses the phenomenon of having the right of suffrage without necessarily attaining democratic results. For example, if in the 2008 election in the USA, one voted for Barack Obama over John McCain because Obama promised less war, one could see how such a person’s democratic will has been crushed as Obama went to even more wars than his predecessor George W. Bush who endorsed McCain in 2008.

Thus it becomes apparent that North Korea could actually be more democratic than the US, in spite of the US having many more avenues of suffrage vis-a-vis North Korea.


Because democracy is based on the feelings of human beings, determining what is and isn’t democratic can only be achieved by examining national democratic realities on a case by case basis. If an autocrat does not listen to his or her people, the country is not democratic, but inversely, if a country whose leaders who selected through suffrage does not serve the wishes, needs and aspirations of its people, it too is not democratic.

There is no one system which guarantees democracy, nor is there one method which has been proven to be universally effective in securing a democratic society.  Thus, when all is said and done, the US like any other nation, is incapable of ‘importing’ democracy to a foreign land. All the US is doing, is what every other hegamon has done – import its own system into foreign lands, without the consent of the people. Far from being democratic, there is another word for this: imperialism.

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