My colleague David Rapoport of the UCLA Department of Political Science, the founding director of our Center for the Study of Religion, was recently kind enough to invite me to an upcoming conference on democracy and violence. The following sketches an originary analysis of democracy along the lines of what I am preparing for this conference.


Modern liberal democracy was declared a few years ago by Francis Fukuyama in a famous article–and how many articles become famous?–to signify the “end of history.” This rash and paradoxical Hegelian claim aroused much controversy. Whether it requires that historically existing liberal democracies succeed in the face of the resentment they generate among the less successful, or that they indefinitely avoid destructive conflict among themselves, these are points Hegelians may wish to debate (A: If the real is rational, historical success is indeed crucial; B: But at the “end of history,” in the realm of freedom, the real need no longer be rational; history has taught us all we can know of rationality). But no one has really been able to attack the author’s central thesis, which is, “history” aside, that liberal democracy is the ultimate form of social organization and cannot in principle be improved upon.

Liberal democracy contains two essential components: (1) a free market economy, however qualified by political intervention, and (2) a democratic political system in which sovereignty ultimately resides in the citizenry as a whole and is regularly expressed in elections. Whatever the details, the essential feature of democratic politics is that only elected officials exercise political (legislative or executive) power, and that their election is always for a limited term.

Political theorists generally ignore the analogy between these two central institutions. Both the market and the elective political order are decision-making mechanisms that produce unanticipated results by aggregating the inputs of many individual participants. Both market prices and election returns are the resultants of a multitude of individual decisions, and neither can be determined in advance. Just as each citizen casts his vote as he sees fit, each participant in the market buys and sells as he sees fit, in both cases, of course, within the limits of what is available to buy, sell, or elect. But where there is demand, whether for goods or for political programs, the principles of both institutions dictate that someone will attempt to supply it, since “the people”‘s demand is the ultimate source of all power.

Why do these institutions fit so well together that we characterize the system that combines them as “ultimate”? In both cases, decisions are made in what seems intuitively to be the most “natural,” least constrained manner. At a given moment, the best price or course of action might be one dictated by an enlightened despot; but in order for the latter to impose his choice, he must have means of affirming his legitimacy as decision-maker independent of the will of the citizenry, who have no outlet for their resentment if they disagree, whereas in an elective system, all have had their chance at electing him and will soon have the opportunity to elect someone else in his place, and in a free market, buyers and sellers determine prices among themselves.

Democracy indeed seems more “natural” to us today than other systems, yet this was hardly the case in the past: in most places and periods of history, there have been no democracies at all, and people expected to be governed independently of their will by a single ruler and/or an elite oligarchy. If we feel able to affirm nonetheless that democracy is a “natural” institution, it is because we feel that any other system requires greater expenditure of real or potential physical violence in order to maintain itself. When we form voluntary organizations, our first impulse is to conduct business, whether as a collectivity or under the leadership of officials, according to the “one person, one vote” principle; any other procedure would reflect overt or implied coercion. Similarly, any spontaneous meeting of buyers and sellers will lead to a “free market,” different only from the “capitalist” free market in its local nature which limits the knowledge of supply and demand accessible to the parties to the transaction.

This suggests that both markets and democracy are minimal institutions, points of least resistance or “valleys” in institutional space. But neither this assertion nor that of their compatibility is an empirical statement, however they may be supported by empirical evidence. The same is true of our “moral sense” that all persons are essentially equal and in the general case should have equal rights. We can construct a “social contract” or even, a la John Rawls, an “original position” to make this point, but our intuition of human equality clearly precedes these artificial constructions, which are only meant to permit us to explore the consequences of this intuition.

In contrast to these a posteriori constructions, GA’s originary hypothesis constructs a plausible model of a minimal event that could indeed have given rise not only to our “moral sense” but to all the fundamental cultural elements–language, religion, art…–we share with other human beings. We need not “affirm” that such an event took place; we merely claim that its reconstruction offers the most parsimonious set of assumptions from which to derive what we know about the human-in-general. In the case at hand, in opposition to social-contract “scenes of origin” with which it is sometimes confused, the originary hypothesis explains in actu the connection between linguistic competence and moral equality that is implicit in the “natural” democratic slogan “one person, one vote.” What is “natural” about both the market and democracy is that they embody originary human reciprocity, which is not a biological but a cultural trait, one inherent in the symmetrical interchange of language. Our hypothesis explains as well why the slogan was not long ago “one person” but “one man,” in other words, why women were not only not included in the original notion of human equality but were denied voting rights in democracies until extremely recent times. In contrast, the a posteriori rationalism of the “original position” can only condemn earlier democracies for “sexism,” as though the passage from “one man” to “one person” were the simple rectification of a moral error rather than the result of a rational historical process.


What is to be learned from the historical origin of democracy in the late sixth-century Athenian polis? Politics as a self-consciously independent activity does not exist in predemocratic societies, where relations of power are inextricable from the system of ritual distribution. In primitive hunter-gatherer societies, this system is symmetrical, “equalitarian”; with the advent of agriculture and the accumulation of surpluses of food and consequently of labor, the ritual center becomes a source of redistribution, controlled at first by local “big-men” and eventually by a palace hierarchy such as prevailed in Greece in the Mycenaean era. The key step in the creation of Athenian democracy was Solon’s abolition of debt-enslavement (seisachtheia) at the beginning of the sixth century B.C.; the democratic citizen is “free” (eleutheros) because he has been freed from dependency on the ritual distribution system and its persisting aristocratic remains. This is a historically new conception of human identity: the citizen is an independent producer who is the master of his labor and can only be imposed upon through democratic decisions of the community within which he participates equally.

For the first time, the alienation of individual freedom to the center that is a necessity of all social organization becomes a reflective, voluntary act rather than one imposed by the sacred necessity of deferring violence. But political liberation is achieved only through the prior economic liberation of the citizen from the remains of the ritual distribution system. Some features of this liberation anticipate and even exceed those of the Early Modern homo economicus. The Athenian citizen was not, like the Roman, subordinated to a family he was obliged to perpetuate. Athenian parents could disinherit their children; conversely, there was no equivalent to the Roman patria potestas that affirmed the authority of the father over his adult sons. (See Raphael Sealey, The Athenian Republic, Pennsylvania State UP: 1987, chap. 2.) No doubt the Athenian economy was not the ever-expanding free market of “capitalism,” if only because it was largely driven by the need to bring in slaves from the empire to replace the free unpropertied citizens in performing labor for the rich. But the essential compatibility between economic and political freedom does not depend on capitalist accumulation; it suffices that the economy be composed of individual agents liberated from the preestablished identities defined by the old palace redistribution system and the aristocratic rule that followed it.

Athenian democracy is of world-historical importance because it is the first form of social organization that consciously implements our originary intuition of human linguistic reciprocity. In Athenian politics, the violent agon of physical conflict was deferred, not by ritual prescription, but by its systematic transformation into the peaceful agon of words. Aeschylus’ Eumenidescelebrates this revolution in human self-consciousness. Democracy is the ultimate political form because it directly implements the primary function of human culture: the deferral of violence through (the free exchange of) representation(s). But the Athenian experience shows that this is only made possible by the citizen’s economic liberation from the constraint of ritual distribution. It is this originary potential connection between democracy and the free market that is realized in modern liberal democracy.