The idea that the people should share in their own government is at the heart of our understanding of what is meant by democracy. The philosopher Aristotle wrote: ‘If liberty and equality, as is thought by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.’ The democratic experiment of ancient Greece is still rightly regarded as an extraordinary phenomenon. The modern nation state, with universal adult suffrage, and populations numbering many millions, clearly has to function in a different way, and not all ways are democratic.Most modern democracies give their people the opportunity to elect a government every four or five years. Between elections the government carries on with its programmes and legislative schedule and with the raising or lowering of taxes, leaving the people who elected them to carry on with their own lives in relative freedom. While we call this system democratic, it is clearly many steps removed from the ideal of a continual and full involvement of all the people.
So, in a modern democracy, what are the responsibilities of a citizen? How can he or she participate in government ‘to the utmost’ as Aristotle expressed it? It is obvious that the first and most important duty is for us all to take an interest in the political and economic issues of the day, to think about them in a constructive way, to discuss them, and to vote whenever the opportunity offers. Creative thought about these issues is a real help to the finding of solutions, and also to the acceptance of solutions which might sometimes be disagreeable to many people. However, there are several disincentives to this.
Many suspect that politics is corrupt, because elected members are tempted to subordinate their principles to the alluring promises of commercial and industrial lobby groups. While this is an unfair characterisation of many principled and honest members, there is enough truth in it to taint the whole. The remedy for this situation lies in the hands of committed people of goodwill. If more people of goodwill were to get involved and stand for election at every level of government, this would help to offset intrigue and corruption. As Alice Bailey wrote: “The reason for the corrupt politics and the greedy ambitious planning of so many of the world’s leading men can be found in the fact that spiritually minded men and women have not assumed – as their spiritual duty and responsibility – the leadership of the people. They have left the power in the wrong hands and permitted the selfish and the undesirable to lead.”1
A more subtle disincentive lies in the convergence of opposing ideologies from right and left into a centre-ground dominance. Under normal circumstances in Europe, it is the party that can occupy the centre ground that will win an election. Naturally this is producing opposing political parties that don’t really have opposing policies jockeying for prominence in the centre. Some might argue that this is an improvement on the old factional and adversarial position of left and right, but it is generating voter apathy as either party will get to form a government and their policies will be roughly the same barring superficial differences. Noam Chomsky puts it rather bleakly when he writes: “What remains of democracy is largely the right to choose among commodities.” This trend has resulted in many people of goodwill forsaking party politics to get involved in single-issue campaigns such as the many development, environmental and human rights movements.
This brings us to another disincentive, how the media cover the political affairs of the day. In our digital age there has been a proliferation of television and radio channels, and media managers are constantly facing the problem of how to increase their ratings – particularly important if your channel relies on revenue from advertising. Newspapers too are generally experiencing a decline in circulation levels and respond to this by ever more extravagantly melodramatic headlines. Often the coverage of politics seems now to be more about sensational events than underlying trends, more about the personalities involved than the principles at issue. The effects of these disincentives seem to be a general decline in interest by the public. Nevertheless, as the current US Presidential campaign shows, when the issues are critical enough, and the right kind of politician comes along, in tune with the popular mood, interest can be re-vitalised, both in general, and perhaps more importantly, among young voters.
We need to balance pessimism by looking at democracy as a much more universal experience. A sense of group good and a spirit of co-operation are an inherent quality of humanity. This realisation is a much-needed counterbalance to the widely believed and incorrect view that human nature is basically conflictual and violent, and that only authoritarian systems of rule can curb this tendency. It has been said that a basic quality of humanity can be described in the phrase ‘harmony through conflict’. And while a sense of the dramatic and a morbid predilection with suffering keeps the ‘conflict’ side of this pairing uppermost in many peoples’ minds, the more prosaic ‘harmony’ has always manifested and continues to grow in meetings and assemblies and parliaments and clubs and committees throughout the world.
One of the most remarkable events of the last 100 years is the way in which democracy has burgeoned all around the world. In 1900 no country could boast of a multi-party democracy powered by universal suffrage. In 1997 60% of the nations of the world could claim to have this. And now in 2008, of the 194 countries in the world, only 54 are judged to be non-democratic and authoritarian, the remainder having partial or fully democratic regimes.
There are many external reasons for this: the spread of mass education – arguably the most spiritual event in the world in the last 150 years; widespread economic growth; the development of planetary communications like the Internet which exposes everyone everywhere to new ideas and a sense of being related to the whole human family; affordable international travel. All of these factors broaden our thinking.
These are important reasons. But the inner spiritual causes for this move towards democracy are in the long run more important and therefore are our main concern here. We could express these spiritual causes in the following way:
·The desire for freedom spiritually understood
·The growing sense of responsibility and the soul impulse to express this in practical service.
·A recognition of group consciousness
·A realisation that a large group accountable to an electorate can have the power to offset or negate the selfishness of an ambitious ruling clique.
These spiritual causes are erupting into the world of human thought and activity in a myriad ways. Like all manifestations of spiritual ideas, they are subject to varying degrees of distortion. The desire for freedom in the spiritual sense has perhaps best been formulated by Franklin Roosevelt in the ‘Four Freedoms’ – freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. But, if these are not matched with a corresponding sense of loving responsibility toward the whole, they can become distorted by selfish motives into licence, superstition, personal aggrandisement at the expense of others, and the stockpiling of armaments.
An awareness of the limitations of human thought and the widespread prevalence of selfish motives naturally leads the person of goodwill to consider how best to help foster the good aspect and counteract the negative. Aside from engaging in politics, there are many other ways in which a responsible person should contribute to the community, to the nation and to the world. These can all be summed up in the words ‘practical citizenship’.
For example, consider citizenship in connection with financial responsibility. Some see taxes as at best an annoying reality: others see an opportunity to cheat. But a responsible citizen sees taxes as a formulated way to contribute financially to the whole of which they are a part – they are then perceived rightly as an opportunity to serve. We also need to remember that our financial contributions do not end at local or national boundaries. Our developing sense of global citizenship should now be leading us all to require our elected representatives and governments to measure up to a global financial responsibility and foster a ‘contribution ethic’. In this connection, and as responsible global citizens, we should also devote time and energy to supporting the work of the United Nations. The eight ‘Millennium Development Goals’, were formulated under the auspices of the UN with the aim of significantly reducing poverty and hunger, and tackling ill-health, gender inequality, lack of education, lack of access to clean water and environmental degradation by 2015. To achieve these vital goals the committed support of global citizens everywhere is much needed in both holding the vision before the eyes of humanity, and in pressurising our increasingly democratic governments to act on their promises by properly funding the needed programmes. We will then collectively begin to manifest the visionary words of Barbara Ward who wrote: “It is a question of us, the people of the world doing something to help us the people of the world”.
Shakespeare observed that: “the course of true love never did run smooth”. It can equally be said with great accuracy that the course of true democracy never does run smooth. This paralleling of love and democracy is no coincidence, for, as we have seen, at the root of democracy lies the soul, the principle of love within humanity. What we call democracy is simply an expanding of the idea of group co-operation and responsibility onto a national and supra-national level.
So what is the future for democracy now? We can be certain that the next few years will test humanity to the utmost. In part this testing will be characterised by a huge tension between the desire of some to impose solutions to humanity’s crises in an authoritarian way and the desire of the majority to retain the creative initiative and potential to reach a solution in a consensual way inspired by the soul. The former is the way of dictatorship and, while it might resolve problems, humanity will not have benefited or spiritually grown from having understood the issues and made the right choices. This latter is the democratic way and the way of the soul of humanity. It is the biggest challenge to ever face democracy and humanity. But with a cultivated and widespread goodwill we can rise to the challenge.
1. Alice Bailey, Problems of Humanity pp.168-9. Lucis Publishing Companies, 1964.