The whole of the twentieth century is categorized by determining the best form of government. In the end, democracy won out. Today, representative democracies are considered the most legitimate form of government. Yet the notion of democracy is not as new as one might think. Ever since the ancient times, philosophers and thinkers have written extensively on defining democracy. They have vehemently debated what constitutes one and whether it is the best form of government for the benefit of citizens. Views on democracy are widely varied and span thousands of years. Three philosophers who have contributed much to this ongoing raging discussion are Plato, John Locke, and Karl Marx.
Plato carried out his life in the dwellings of the Ancient Greek democracy known as Athens. Athens has been somewhat of an inspiration for many modern democracies today. Yet when Plato wrote The Republic he expressed a profound cynicism and contempt for the system. Bear in mind, he wrote during the aftermath of Athens’ crushing defeat against the military oligarch of Sparta during the Peloponnesian war.
Plato categorizes people based on the hierarchy of their soul. He believes the soul is divided into three parts: knowledge, spirit, and appetite. Philosophers, such as himself, place most importance on knowledge and truth seeking, therefore are the most fit and least corrupt people to rule over a state. The wealthy, honorable and courageous are the most spirited and end up ruling over oligarchies and those who place importance on appetite govern democracies.
For Plato, organization of the soul is a microcosm for the state. Democracies are governed by appetite. He believes this is the second worst form of government. Democracy places too much emphasis on equality. Plato believes the notion of equality is silly and dangerous. All pursuits of appetite are entitled and equal. One’s desire to cure cancer is as equal and respected as one’s desire to break a world record in eating the most hotdogs.
Plato writes that this aspect of democracy inevitably leads to the worst form of government, which is tyranny. If in the democracy one’s appetite is power, one will do all that is necessary to obtain it in absolute form. He takes control by any means. For him, the ends always justify the means. He turns the democracy into a state that is ruled both by his love of power and fear of losing power. The tyrant is paranoid and isolated. He is in control of the sacred and the profane.
Generations pass and the world shifts from ancient times to the period known as the enlightenment. It is in this period where John Locke makes his major contribution to democratic theory. Locke is considered by many to be the father of modern political philosophy. This is also called liberalism.
The liberal has fundamental disagreements with the ancients. Where ancient philosophers believe that lives are fated, notions such as justice are absolute and not everyone is equal, liberals believe that man is in control of its own destiny, that there should be emphasis on progress and that, at least in the state of nature and public life, we are all equal.
Locke is a proponent of the idea that humans are endowed with certain inalienable rights. These include, but are not limited to, the right to self preservation, pursuit of desires, freedom of worship, the right to subdue and cultivate the earth, and the right to protect property. These rights exist in the state of nature, which is a world without government. The human capacity for reason is what protects these rights in the natural state. The issue that emerges is that in the state of nature reason is not guaranteed. Locke believes that people must consent to a governing body that respects and enforces these rights. Government, for Locke, is guaranteed reason.
Locke describes two ways in which people consent to government. Government is set up through popular sovereignty, the nature of democracy. After the government is set up, those who are born into it consent tacitly. There is a representative body that creates laws. Laws must be consistent with natural laws and are designed to protect freedoms. They are a check and balance to ensure that people’s pursuit of desires do not conflict and inhibit the pursuits of others. People are free in all areas where there is an absence of law. Laws must only be created when they are necessary, therefore the representative body is not constantly in session.
The executive, however, is constant. It is the job of the executive to enforce and interpret the laws made by the representative body. The executive also holds the right to punish those who violate the laws. This is the basis for the set ups of most modern democratic governments.
Locke gives rise to the concept of paradigms. One is the separation of church and state. The state deals with the protection of life and rights while the church deals with the salving of souls and the afterlife. Locke believes that no one can know the true religion, so the state must tolerate all of them and religions must tolerate each other. Locke believes that the only two groups who are incapable of this kind of toleration are Catholics and Atheists. He writes that Catholics cannot honor the political body because the agenda of the pope contradicts and supersedes the state. Locke feels that due to the absence of religion, Atheists have no incentive to honor contracts and the consent of government.
The other paradigm is that of the public and private. Man is equal in the state of nature and like in most modern democracies, equal under the law and in public life. However man is not meant to be equal in private life and ownership. Locke was a very wealthy man and desires a government that is determined to protect wealth and property. Man owns what he has applied labor too and that must not be infringed or taken away. Locke believes the best way to distribute resources in a democracy is through a free market based on currency, in other words, a capitalist society.
A few hundred years after the enlightenment comes the industrial revolution. During this time, the United States is a powerful representative democracy. Its founders used the basis of Locke’s ideas to write its constitution and set up its government. The US is also one of the most successful capitalist and industrialized competing powers in the world. The country has generated a substantial amount of wealth and innovations enjoyed by its citizens. The United States is basically the embodiment of Locke’s principles and philosophies. This is also the time in which Karl Marx lays down a philosophy of his own.
Marx writes that all of human history is categorized by class struggle. This class struggle exists in stages. It began with master and slave, later came serf and lord, presently there is capitalist and worker. Marx and Locke are both liberals and both believe in progress. There is progress within these stages. Marx says that those who live in capitalist democracies, such as the United States, enjoy the most freedoms and best lives of all generations before them. Yet capitalism is in no way an end. It is the final stage before communism.
Marx takes issue with many of the presumptions of capitalist democracies. One in particular is the paradigm of public and private life. Marx does not believe they are consistent but rather a contradiction. The private and the public have different goals and agendas that need to be fulfilled.
This paradigm is a result of political emancipation, the progression from religious based states to democratic ones. What comes next is human emancipation or communism. Marx challenges the notion that freedom and equality is categorized by government guaranteed rights. True freedom and equality exits under communism, where there is no concept of separate states, property, and public and private life. Capitalism is the stage in which most of the wealth needed to sustain communism is produced. This is why Marx says that a democracy like the United States is the best launching point to move in that direction.
Marx writes that democracy and capitalism come out of the feudal period. Back then, the struggle was between lord and serf. There was also a ruling king. But during feudalism there existed a money making merchant class. These people were largely self made and began to question authority and arcane ideas. This is why there is great emphasis on rising above the previous generations and individual worth and gain under capitalism. Therefore those who live in democratic capitalist society are naturally questioning of government authority.
Ironically enough, the system is set up so that the working class perpetuates the authority of the capitalists on the top. They enable their own oppressors. This is a result of worker alienation. Workers are alienated from the product they produce because they do not own it and reap its rewards. They are alienated from the process due to the division of labor. They are alienated from themselves because work is no longer something they enjoy but something they must do for a wage to survive. Because they are alienated from themselves they do not see themselves in others and are thus alienated from each other, making it difficult to unite.
As it is natural for citizens of capitalist democracies to question government authority, it is natural for citizens to question self perpetuated authority once it is recognized. The goal of Marx’s writing is to help others recognize and understand this so that they can question the presumptions of capitalism. Once this happens, Marx believes the working class will rise up out of the democratic capitalist stage, which Locke has described, into the final stage of communism.
Plato, Locke and Marx all come from different times and write widely differing views on democracy. Plato says it is the second worst form of government and will devolve into tyranny. Locke says it is the best form of government and is a free market institution to ensure life, liberty and property. Marx believes that it is the current best form of government that will eventually evolve into communism, where there is no free market and property. At the end of the twentieth century, democracy may have emerged as the dominant form of government in the world, but its definition, its merits, and its benefits have been debated throughout the history of human civilization and still being debated today. Democracy may currently be the dominant form of government, but whether it is the best form still has yet to be seen.