The New Frontier
in Democratic Theory and Practice:
Organizational Forms that Simultaneously Optimize Autonomy & Community

©1997, Andrew Dinkelaker

Chapter 1a - Introducing the Four Quadrant System

[table of contents]  [previous]  [next]

It is not uncommon for individuals who live in the United States to think of this country as an exemplary “democracy” when, in truth, it is at best a distant approximation of a democracy. Everyday in the press we see it referred to in this way, contrasted favorably with non-democratic lands, touted as an ideal, a model for other countries to emulate. Even if we are suspicious of such propaganda we are likely to take certain incidental qualities typical of our forms of government (electoral processes, representational decision making, and majority rule) as defining characteristics of a democracy. But if we do, we fail to understand the essential nature of democracy. Some contemporary theorists make this point by distinguishing a “pure”, “radical”, “direct”, “participatory”, “strong”, or “deep” form of democracy as distinct from the attenuated forms we have become habituated to in modern day America.

In an attempt to discern the critical qualities that make a democracy a democracy -- the essential insight into social organization that stands behind the concept -- I have arrived at a rather unconventional definition of “democracy”. I define it as a unique form of socio-political organization deliberately designed to maximize interpersonal interdependence while simultaneously optimizing the autonomy of the individual. Democratic forms of socio-political organization, in other words, honor the freedom of individuals and seek to encourage their full participation both qualitatively and quantitatively in the group. Both the rights of individuals and the social cohesiveness of the community are valued. At first glance this agenda might almost seem contradictory, or paradoxical. Are not the goals of individual autonomy and a cohesive interpersonal community mutually exclusive options? Herein lies the truly remarkable insight that is the inspiration behind genuine democracy -- the recognition that autonomy and community are not mutually exclusive options -- and may in fact be complementary forces. This profound insight challenges head on, the fallacy that would pit the individual irreconcilably against society. This, the primary fallacy in socio-political thought continues, even today, to infect our deepest beliefs. It runs rampant through our prevailing ideologies and plays havoc with our social organizations. We shall call this the Autonomy-Vs.-Community Fallacy. It was only with the advent of the concept of democracy that humankind began to see through this “versus” fallacy. In that moment, it was clearly seen that to enhance community it was not necessary to diminish individual autonomy, or the vice versa -- as community does not develop at the expense of autonomy but flourishes as a result of developed autonomy. And, real community (as opposed to pseudo-community) flourishes under the nurturing care of autonomous individuals.

Social ecologist Murray Bookchin describes the unique combination of the principles of autonomy and community that is at the heart of the concept of democracy:

-page 10-

The common principle that legitimates direct action and direct democracy is a body politic’s commitment to the belief that an assembled public, united as free and autonomous individuals, can deal in a competent, face-to-face manner with the direction of public affairs.

No concept of politics has been the target of greater derision and ideological denunciation by the State, for it impugns every rationale for statehood. It substitutes the ideal of personal competency for elitism, amateurism for professionalism, a body politic in the protoplasmic sense of a face-to-face democracy for the delegation and bureaucratization of decision-making and its execution, the re-empowerment of the individual and the attempt to achieve agreement by dialogue and reason for the monopoly of power and violence.1

The full realization that community and autonomy are not conflicting aspirations is a fairly recent achievement in democratic theory. Although in earlier periods there was the glimmer of a recognition that autonomous individuals can cooperate in organizing and planning their lives, and conversely, that they can collaborate - each sensitive to the needs and abilities of the other - while remaining cognizant and respectful of the freedoms of the other. This profound insight into the nature of the relationship between autonomy and community is, in essence, a contribution of the 20th century to democratic theory and practice. But it has its roots in both: 1) the classical democratic theory of ancient Greece, which established the notion of popular sovereignty and valued increased participation of individuals in socio-political process, and 2) 18th and 19th century socio-political theory, which focused on the “rights” of the individual and offered a refined notion of the meaning of individual autonomy. It has not been until fairly recently, however -- in the theory of Bookchin, other anarchists, and the likes of John Dewey and Philip Slater -- that these two concepts have been combined in a workable way to deepen our insight into the very nature of democracy.

The contemporary attempt to reconcile the principles of increased participation and individual autonomy ultimately leads to a definition of democracy that relevates consensus forms of decision making as its quintessential methodology.2 Consensus, as a form of decision making, was deliberately designed in answer to the need to articulate rules for social interaction that simultaneously optimize both of these parameters.

In this chapter it is my purpose to review the development of the concept of democracy through its four historical phases and to articulate an understanding of how the first two phases (classical Greek and 18th and 19th century theory) prefigured the insight into the relationship between community and autonomy that occurred in the fourth contemporary phase. I will also lay out a conceptual framework that conceives of these two parameters (community and autonomy) as variables which can be used to distinguish

-page 11-

four general “forms” of socio-political organization, one of which is “democracy.” This framework will assist us in conceptually locating democratic forms amongst other types of organization.

History of Democracy

Philip Green in his book Democracy: Key Concepts in Critical Theory remarks on the two major “modern meanings” of democracy -- which pivot respectively, around the notion of “popular power” (i.e.. popular sovereignty) on the one hand and “democratic rights” on the other.3 Interestingly, the two meanings of the term correspond not only to the two aforementioned principles (autonomy and community) by which we define genuine democracy, but also to the two interests respectively explored in the first two historical phases. In the first phase (classical Athenian democracy), the emphasis, as we shall see, was primarily on increased participation in the political process. There was a movement away from governance by the few, the aristocracy, toward governance by the many, the majority. This required the birth of a cluster of new concepts -- the notion of a public political sphere and the idea of a citizen body as a whole (the “polis” or “demos”). Anthony Arblaster considers the key to Athenian democracy to have been the encouragement of the “direct personal participation” of citizens in a public decision making forum, the Assembly, which was “the concrete embodiment of the principle of popular sovereignty.”4 Although the Athenian emphasis in democratic theory and practice was on participation within a political community, some attention had also been given to the question of individual autonomy. According to R.K. Sinclair:

The concept of the sovereignty of the Demos (or the sovereignty of the majority) continued to be regarded as fundamental to democracy in the fifth century and the fourth century, though various writers, or the same writer in different contexts, might associate different features with this central concept. Freedom or liberty (eleutheria) was commonly held to be a fundamental characteristic of democracy, and in this Herodotos -- and his contemporaries of the mid-fifth century -- clearly concurred. Aristotle, who was writing his Politics in the years between 335 and 332, identified the sovereignty of the majority and freedom as the two things which were regarded as the defining features of democracy and noted that people asserted that freedom was the aim of every democracy.5

The emphasis on optimizing participation troubled some Greek theorists at the time, who were concerned with the possibility that majority rule might devolve into a “tyranny of the majority.” This concern was not adequately addressed, however, until nearly two thousand years later during the second phase of the development of democratic theory and practice, in the 18th and 19th centuries. The emphasis during this second phase was

-page 12-

on articulating elaborate conceptions of individual “freedom” and “autonomy.” Theorists were interested in ensuring that minorities would not be overwhelmed by the views of the majority. In the interim between phase one and phase two strong nation-states had come into existence and the perceived threat that they represented to the freedoms of individuals succeeded in sharpening the focus of theorists on the topic of rights in contrast to increased participation.

If it was participation that was emphasized in the first phase, and autonomy in the second, in the third phase -- which has aptly been described as “democratic elitism” -- the concept was basically co-opted and its practice severely attenuated. Democracy, in this view, was ironically considered to be best administered by an elite -- a new class of experts and technocrats. This orientation even further removed citizens from direct involvement in decision making, and their “participation” was limited to the occasional casting of ballots for the election of representatives.

In the fourth phase of the development of democratic theory and practice the principles discovered in the first two phases were actively synthesized. Methods for ensuring the simultaneous optimization of participation and autonomy (i.e., consensus decision making) were developed, freeing democratic theory and practice from its previous emphasis on representational forms of democracy using majority rule.

Phase One: Athenian Democracy

Democracy is a complex and conceptually rich term. Throughout the ages people have debated its value and have quibbled over its definition. At its core, however, the concept embraces a profound insight into the principles of human social organization. It appreciates the fundamental role played in government by the citizenry as a whole, the “demos”. But it also honors the autonomy of the individual citizen. Indeed, it was the concept of the “citizen”, in Athenian democracy, that reconciled the rights of the individual to freedom and self-determination with the needs of the demos or “public” body. Through a long and arduous process in Athens a role for the individual qua “citizen” was distinguished. Decision making had been previously associated with the aristocracy - it was their sole privilege. Now a role was being fashioned for the ordinary individual, who was recognized as “autonomous” -- responsible for making his own decisions. Also, and this is what makes Athenian democracy unique and brilliant, there was a move in the direction towards maximizing the participation of citizens in the decision making processes of the community. Women, slaves, and foreigners were excluded from the political process through patriarchy, slavery, and xenophobia, thereby limiting the composition of the citizen body, the demos. Nevertheless, for the first time, the principles of autonomy and community were institutionalized in the same socio-political system.

The term “democracy” first appeared in Ancient Greece during the fourth century B.C. as a combination of two shorter Greek words, “demos” and “kratos”. Demos refers to the citizen body as a whole -- to “the people” or even “the mob”, “the rabble”

-page 13-

or “the lower classes”.6 Kratos had two closely associated meanings -- power and rule. Hence, “democracy meant rule by the people or the many; but because the many were also poor, it was often taken to mean rule by the poor, or by the rabble.”7 For the Greeks the term “insonomia”, which means “equality,” was virtually interchangeable with the word democracy, a fact which speaks to the egalitarian principle underlying democratic theory.8

Originally the Greek term for tyranny (tyrannis), which first made its appearance in the mid-seventh century B.C., was a neutral word connoting absolute sovereignty that was synonymous with the word “king” (basileus). It did not imply any sense of disapproval. However, the term was later to be specifically associated with the violent seizing of power and the oppressive exercise of unlimited authority. This shift in meaning, it has been argued, demonstrated a new propensity in Athenian culture toward the condemnation of absolute power.9

Sparta’s adoption of a constitution, circa. 675 B.C., was to have a very important impact on the rest of Greece, not so much because of the changes it effected in Spartan life per se, but because it promoted “politics as a collective activity, as the business of the citizens themselves, and the idea of politics as rational, regulated government as opposed to the arbitrary unpredictable rule of despots...”.10 The code defined rights associated with specified roles in society and so it also had the secondary benefit of bringing into relief the notion of a “citizen” -- an individual member of the body politic with specific rights and responsibilities.

In 630 B.C. there was an attempt by Klyon to assume tyrannical rule in Athens, supported by the Megaraian troops of his father-in-law, ruler of neighboring Megara. The coup failed, but stirred up discontent among Athenians. Nearly ten years later Drakon, inspired perhaps by the Spartan constitution, drew up and published the first Athenian Law-Code. The existence in written form of such laws made it possible for underclass groups to come face to face with the full implication of their position and to criticize and push for changes in the laws.

In 594 B.C. Solon was elected archon (chief magistrate), and in a move presumably intended to strengthen his position among the Athenians, initiated reforms that “shook off the burdens” of the hektemoroi and debtors. The hektemoroi were a large number of small farmers in and around Athens who had to pay a portion of their crops to the landlord. According to the law of the time the hektemoroi, like the debtors, would become slaves if they failed in their fiscal obligation to their landlord. Solon’s reforms not only abolished that system but also forbade the use of persons as security for payment.

Under Solon, Athenian society was conceived of as having four classes. The requirements for assuming public office were shifted so that eligibility depended not on membership in a particular family, but on membership in a particular class.11 Even with

-page 14-

these changes the old aristocratic council, the Areopagos, remained as it was before, because council members were required to have previously held the office of archon and only members of the ruling class had held that office. It would have taken decades for the composition of the council to fully reflect the formal changes implicit in the new concept of the “governing” class established by Solon. But although all four groups of citizens had the right to attend the Assembly and could exercise their right to vote and to serve as members in the courts; spending time in open forums to discuss and develop policy required leisure, which was something only the well-to-do citizens had. Still, Solon’s initiatives brought about a sense of importance and competence to the role of the Assembly. This was accomplished by establishing the Assembly as a legally independent body, separate from the whims of both the magistrate and the Areopagos. In addition, Solon reformed the court system, ending control over the courts by the Areopagites (magistrates). Regarding the new court system:

The exact range of its competence is disputed; the mechanics of its operations unknown but at the very least in some cases an Athenian could appeal against some kinds of punishment imposed by a magistrate and appeal to a jury composed of any men who sat in the assembly.... Once more the laws are being set above the magistrate who administers them and this time the final judgment on those laws is to be given by a random cross-section of as many Athenians as care to take an interest.12

The effect Solon was looking for was to create a constitution in which every section of society was allotted its “rightful” place, while at the same time allowing for sufficient amounts of flexibility so that the society could adjust to changes in the future. It was hoped that the constitution would be considered sacred and change would occur, if need be, without violence from within.

However, things did not turn out this way. Approximately 34 years later, in 561 B.C., Peisistratos, working outside of the constitutional system, was able to usurp power. Overall, the Athenians during the period of his tyrannical rule continued to develop their political understanding, exercising their power to reject the magistrate’s decisions in the courts and to vote against “authority” in the assembly. Economically, Athens flourished and more citizens could afford to participate in planning the future of the community.

Peisistratos and his son and successor, Hippias, made few if any substantial changes to the system itself although all the highest offices continued to be held by his personal friends or appointees. A sense of national identity and solidarity, however, was established by national religious events and the institution of Athenian coinage and currency systems. The tyranny ended in 510 B.C. when Hippias was run off by a family of aristocrats (Alkmeonids) who had succeeded in securing the support of the Spartan army. For the next two years all the competing factions which had laid low during Hippias’ tyrannical rule resumed their rivalries, ultimately narrowing the field into two competing camps: one led by Kleisthenes of the Alkmeonids and the other by Isagoras. Kleisthenes, with the general support of the Athenian citizenry, was able to rout Isagoras and the Spartan forces whom he had summoned to his aid. Along with gaining the

-page 15-

support of the Athenian demos (citizens), Kleisthenes instituted a number of reforms contributing to the creation of a new tribal system which had as its focus the ”deme” (a village, ward, or a locality) as the basic social unit. These units, perhaps 170 in all, were combined to form 30 groups called trittyes, contiguous and naturally distinct blocks of territory. Each of the ten new tribes which replaced the old Ionian tribal system was composed of three trittyes. The Council was thus enlarged from 400 to 500 members, with fifty from each of the ten tribes. This had the effect of creating unity amongst the various deme, as well as a new sense of equality between deme members. These changes focused loyalty on the deme: the “deme constitution took the place of phratry practice [family order], deme officials replaced the leading family of the district, and this constitution, moreover, was democratic, the officials were elected.”13

[In many ways] these changes, drastic as they were, were no more than a continuation and formalization of precisely that process of informal liberation from the shackles of aristocratic control which the tyranny had encouraged. It need not have been very long before the ordinary demesman began to see in the deme name he shared with his aristocratic neighbor, in the deme assembly where he still may have voted for his aristocratic neighbor, real signs of independence and equity.14

Though Kleisthenes effected significant political changes that moved the Athenian system toward democracy he took good care to rally political support for himself while at the same time seeing to it that his rivals lost their opportunities for influence and power. Much of the redrawing of the tribal lines was done consciously to reach these ends. Although Kleisthenes’ reforms redistributed power to the demos, he was confident that the demos would continue to accept his rule and his policies. However, this was not to be the case. In less than ten years the demos began to exercise their autonomy and eventually, in the years to come, they took charge completely.

Kleisthenes’ reforms had not altered the structure of the central government of Athens, built around the old aristocratic council the Areopagos. But by 462 B.C. all of the powers of the Areopagos were transferred to the Council of 500, to the Assembly, and to the popular courts. The Areopagos, the last vestige of aristocratic power, comprised what might be called a “structural anomaly” in the context of the new democratic political system. Without much fanfare it disappeared as a political force in Athenian society and the demos was at last free to govern itself. The ordinary Athenian who had been formerly limited to indirectly expressing his or her discontent with the factional squabbling of the aristocracy, now assumed direct responsibility for decision making as a matter of course.

The Athenian demokratia was founded on two cardinal principles: an absolute acceptance of the laws (including what we would call the constitution)... and on the

-page 16-

belief that everyone who has been admitted to the society governed by these laws had an equal right and almost equal duty to administer and maintain them.15

The process of democratization was completed with the assistance of the renowned Athenian statesman Pericles who for the next 30 or so years was rewarded by repeated re-election. The Greek populace presumably knew that they had the option to throw him out of office if they were dissatisfied with his performance, but chose to elect him year after year “...because they knew that he was honest and capable.”16 After his death in 429 B.C. the Athenians actively exercised their option to choose by selecting leaders who were not from among the aristocracy, the traditional ruling families of Athens. They were nonetheless merchants and manufacturers, citizens from the lower classes who, under the new system had prospered and increased their wealth and influence. Ironically, Aristotle criticized these leaders, referring to them pejoratively on occasion as “demagogues.”

Although democracy, in theory and practice, had been firmly established at this point, several oligarchic revolutions occurred over the span of the next decade. One regime, the so called “Four Hundred”, established itself in 411 B.C. only to be expelled and replaced by a more moderate oligarchy - the “Five Thousand”. In 410 B.C. Athenians fully restored the democracy, but they were subjected again, only six years later, to the “Thirty” an oligarchy backed by Sparta. Democracy was restored in the following year and a general amnesty was established. It was not until 322 B.C. that Athenian democracy was finally brought to an end at the hands of foreign invaders.

In spite of the active incorporation of patriarchy and slavery into its fold, Athenian society demonstrated that certain democratic structures that protect against political professionalism and the development of bureaucratic structures while encouraging rotational leadership, active participation, face-to-face gatherings and deliberations, and the sense of equality before the law (isonomia) and before the general assembly (isogora) could exist. Therefore, it is important to view Athenian Democracy as a “successful” experiment in the direct participation of an active and autonomous citizenry within a city-state. The emphasis was clearly on establishing the idea and practice of popular sovereignty, the rule of the many.

Phase Two: 18th and 19th Century Democratic Theory and Practice

According to Charles Sherover in The Development of the Democratic Idea: Readings from Pericles to the Present six “key prophets of the democratic revolutions” helped us to form our contemporary notions of modern democracy:

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527), the first modern democrat, was a political realist whose justification for democracy was pragmatic and utilitarian. John Locke (1632-1704), one of the most influential, wrote to defend a revolution in the

-page 17-

making. The Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), seeking reforms in absolutist France on the basis of a seeming misconception of English government, effected an influential revival of Classical doctrine. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), more than any other man, made popular democracy into the ideology of our time and helped to inspire the political revolutions that shaped the new age. Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), taking his cues from the English and the French, wrote the platform for the first modern revolution explicitly fought in the name of popular liberty. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), looked beyond the new national states to a vision of world peace which the democratic revolutions first made possible.17

Each of these theorists was concerned with the issue of individual freedom. Machiavelli, foreseeing the rise of the modern nation-state, sought to describe a socially stable governmental system that nonetheless guaranteed personal liberty. According to Locke, in the words of Sherover, “society does not create individual rights; they are inalienable and are grounded in the permanent moral order... Society arises to protect these rights...”.18

Sherover found in Locke’s view an “equation of the common good with individual rights... Locke was very emphatic about the absolute nature of private rights”.19 Montesquieu, recognized as the “grandfather” of the American constitution, also valued political liberty:

Ever since Plato’s recoil from the direct democracy of Athens in the light of its persecution of Socrates for advocating unpopular opinions, political thought has been wary of the potentials for a tyrannous majority in a popularly based government. Montesquieu’s doctrine of the limitation of all governmental powers within a constitutional system provides the mechanism for the limitation of the majority itself. It proposes a method for maintaining a popular voice in the formation of governmental policy without permitting it to degenerate into mob rule. Montesquieu’s insight was that effective continuity of majority rule necessitates a constitutional limitation on what the majority can do. However controversial this may have appeared at the time it would seem to have provided the assurance of individual liberty in the modern representative state.20

Thomas Jefferson spoke to the “inherent” and “inalienable” rights of men and translated that principle into the Declaration of Independence, positing personal freedom within an American context. In addition, in the words of Sherover, “the protection of the minority was to become a prime concern of Hamilton and Madison in the eighteenth century and the creative role of unpopular minorities became the focal point of John Steward Mills reformulation of democratic theory in the nineteenth century.”21 Finally, Kant saw human freedom as “the true essence of what it is to be human”. In his work he

-page 18-

elaborated a concept of the autonomy of individuals that is still used by contemporary anarchist theorists in their arguments. It was Kant who, in the words of Sherover, “suggested politically what had already been implicit in his moral theory -- that individual freedom is more crucial than the doctrine of popular sovereignty or any other social value which had been paired with it in the various formulations in the democratic revolutions.”22

The discussion of individual liberties, for these theorists, was always accompanied by an elaboration of auxiliary qualities such as equality, participation, or community, but these usually played a subsidiary role in their theories. Among the six, Rousseau seems to have been the only one who emphasized participation over freedom: “In sharpest contrast to Locke, who was emphatic about individual rights but vague about those of society as a whole, Rousseau’s emphasis suffered the same defect in reverse. ...Rousseau raised more forcefully than any predecessor the question of the relation between freedom and equality...”.23 It was Rousseau who visualized the community as the well spring of our individual rights and freedoms.

Phase Three: “Democratic Elitism”

This phase actually constitutes a departure from democratic theory and a co-optation of the theory of democracy by apologists for autocratic forms of socio-political organization. This phase constitutes a modern defense of elitism that is based on the assertion that the best interests of a society of free people depend upon the ability of the elite to lead and the majority to passively follow. Peter Bachrach, in his book entitled The Theory of Democratic Elitism: A Critique, argues that all elite theories are founded upon the assumption that the common individual is inherently incompetent. The individual is not to be entrusted with his or her own liberty. Leaders are necessary either in the guise of the philosopher king or in the robes of the lofty judge. Indeed, according to these theorists, to continue to advocate for a theory of democracy that calls upon the participation of the masses (for their own self-development in governing themselves) is a dangerous anachronism. “Thus it is said [by these theorists] that there is no alternative but to recast democracy, emphasizing the stable, constitutional, and liberal nature of the system of elite pluralism; the competitiveness of political elites, their accountability to the electorate at periodic elections; and the open, multiple points of access to elite power for those who bother to organize to voice their grievances or demands.”24 In Bachrach’s assessment of democratic elitism , “the ordinary man [sic] still plays a role in the system... but by and large he [sic] does, and is expected to, remain relatively passive -- in fact the health of the system depends upon it.”25 Peter Green succinctly describes democratic elitism as “little more than elective monarchy”.26

[table of contents]  [previous]  [next]


1. Murray Bookchin. (1982). The Ecology of Freedom. p. 133.
back to text

2. The word “relevate” means “to bring into relief”. I borrow the term from philosopher C.O. Evans, who derived it from the noun “relevation” (i.e., the action of raising, or lifting up). He uses it as a verb to refer to an act of selective attention in which an object that is in the background of awareness (where it is tacitly experienced) is brought into focus in the the foreground of awareness (where it is explicitly experienced). Evans also uses the word “relevate” to refer to the similar act of effecting a change in status from implicate order to explicate order.
back to text

3. Green. (1993). p. 21.
back to text

4. Anthony Arblaster. (1987). Democracy. p. 18.
back to text

5. R.K. Sinclair. (1988). Democracy and Participation in Athens. pp. 20-1.
back to text

6. Arblaster. (1987). p.13.
back to text

7. Arblaster. (1987). p. 13.
back to text

8. 1C. L. R. James. (1986). Every Cook Can Govern. p. 2.
back to text

9. W. G. Forrest. (1978). The Emergence of Greek Democracy. p. 83.
back to text

10. Arblaster. (1987). p. 22.
back to text

11. Forrest. (1978). p. 161.
back to text

12. Forrest. (1978). p. 173.
back to text

13. Forrest. (1978). p. 195.
back to text

14. Forrest. (1978). pp. 196-7.
back to text

15. Forrest. (1978). p. 221.
back to text

16. C.L.R. James. (1986). pp. 14-15.
back to text

17. Charles Sherover. (1974). The Development of the Democratic Idea. pp. 90-1.
back to text

18. Sherover. (1974). p. 96.
back to text

19. Sherover. (1974). p. 98.
back to text

20. Sherover. (1974). pp. 101-2.
back to text

21. Sherover. (1974). pp. 98-99.
back to text

22. Sherover. (1974). p. 117.
back to text

23. Sherover. (1974). p. 111.
back to text

24. Peter Bachrach. (1967). The Theory of Democratic Elitism: A Critique. p. 8.
back to text

25. Bachrach. (1967). p. 8.
back to text

26. Green. (1993). p. 14.
back to text