Modern democracy and its alienation

Editor's Note: Modern democracy is quite different from its origin. It has become a prerogative of certain groups, and a certain country. What's the root and original meaning of democracy? How to understand the term in today's world? What is wrong with western liberal democracy? Prof. John Keane, a political historian at the University of Sydney, and Wang Zhongyuan, a research fellow at the Fudan Institute for Advanced Study in Social Sciences, share their observations. The opinions expressed in the video are their own and not necessarily those of CGTN.

CGTN: What's the root and original meaning of democracy?

John Keane: In its original meaning, democracy referred to a form of self-government of the people. I call it assembly democracy. Its roots are actually older than classical Greece, Athens. Its roots actually stretch back into the area of Syria, the Mesopotamia, some 2,000 years before where the first assemblies appeared.

Then towards the 18th century, there came to be a different meaning. What was introduced was the idea of elections. So democracy became representative democracy. It meant self-government of the people through their chosen representatives.

CGTN: How to understand modern democracy?

Wang Zhongyuan: One study even identified more than 2,000 adjectives used to describe democracy in English literature. And each country has its own electoral system, party system, parliamentary system and constitutional systems. There is the majoritarian system, the PR (proportional representation) system, the mixed system, and dozens of subtypes. 

There is no single best arching system. Western countries also need to follow their own and choose a democratic system that adapts to their own culture, their own history, and their own social conditions.

John Keane: Democracy is one of these keywords which has become a global word and a heavily contested word. It's a slippery word whose meanings vary through time.

In my work, The Life and Death of Democracy, I point out that democracy means today self-government of the people through their chosen representatives. But it also means a form of self-government where there are many watchdogs that monitor the exercise of power. Democracy in a phrase comes to mean Jiandushi Minzhu, it comes to mean monitory democracy.

CGTN: Is there a necessary link between market-oriented economy and western liberal democracy?

Wang Zhongyuan: As the economy develops, citizens' aspirations for a better life, including for a better democratic life, will continue to rise. Economic development may be very helpful in consolidating democracy or securing stability of democracy, but it does not necessarily lead to liberal democracy.

John Keane: Because markets have a strong tendency to produce inequalities between capital and labor. Markets destroy the nature. They turn people into commodities. So the history of the relationship between capitalism and democracy has been tense and controversial. That relationship resembles a bad marriage. The partners stay together, but there is constant quarreling about how much market and how much democracy, and it is a key source of the ressentiment (resentment) and the populism.

CGTN: What's your observation of modern democracy?

John Keane: Big money is now a feature of elections. It's as if money speaks. That's true in India. It's true in the United States. And it's true in the European democracies as well. There is also the feeling among millions of voters that their voices are never listened to. There is a kind of anger and disappointment. So what we're witnessing in many parts of the world, whether in the United States or in Britain or in France, is the rise of populism.

Editor: Xiao Qiong

Graphic designer: Qi Haiming

Producer: Wang Ying

Chief editor: Li Shouen

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