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Participatory democracy, only suitable for relatively small places?

par Matt 8 Mai 2012, 16:25 English



In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx (1852a) claimed:

“The parliamentary regime lives by discussion, how shall it forbid discussion? […] the representatives, who constantly appeal to public opinion, give public opinion the right to speak its real mind in petitions. […] When you play the fiddle at the top of the state, what else is to be expected but that those down below dance?”

With this metaphor, Marx points an important element: democracy is not only about elections: it implies the participation of the citizens as well in order to become a government for the people and by the people. However, for multiple centuries, the world of politics has been divided in two: a side is composed of politicians (the fiddle player) and the other one of ordinary citizens (the dancer).

First, what is democracy? Etymologically, it is a government which is ruled by the people. When this word was originally created in the middle of the 5th century BC (Encyclopedia Britannica. n.d.), it was a direct democracy: e.g. in Athens, citizens exercised the power, since they debated and voted policies in the Ecclesia. However, democracy became less and less participatory as time passes. Nowadays, Modern States do not use direct or participative democracy to lead public policies or enact laws; they prefer to employ representatives i.e. often called deputies elected by the people. This system is defined as a “representative democracy” or a “parliamentary regime” as described by Marx. How to explain this participatory democracy disappearance process? Montesquieu (1748) answered to this question:


“As in a country of liberty, every man who is supposed a free agent ought to be his own governor, the legislative powers should reside in the whole body of the people. But since this is impossible in large states, and in small ones is subject to many inconveniences, it is fit the people should transact by their representative what they cannot transact by themselves.”

For Montesquieu, it is because it is impossible for large states to be a participatory democracy than representative democracy developed. This argument is claimed, defended and promoted by a very number of scholars, philosophers and politicians to defend representative democracy. However, with the recent developments of civilizations and humankind, I state, in this paper, that the thesis of the impossibility to build a participatory democracy in a large state is wrong. In this regard, I define participatory democracy as a form of democracy where people participate in the policy and law creating process.

In order to prove the inappropriateness of this opinion, I will first develop the idea that Montesquieu has of participatory democracy.  Then, I will argue against it, using history and contemporary facts.

Creating through transmitting Montesquieu

 What made Montesquieu claimed the impossibility to build a direct democracy in large states? In its books, he never explained why it is impossible concretely, nevertheless we can guess why since it is a very common thesis during its century, and still defended nowadays. The arguments claimed by the defender of this theory are, indeed, not wrong. However, they simplify greatly the reality and this succession of simplifications makes their final opinion incorrect. In this part, I will communicate the common arguments in order to prove and argue the thesis relatively large state can’t use participatory democracy is true is wrong, describing the usual argumentation process used. Indeed, defenders use a set of arguments then they apply to history to prove these arguments are true. I will know show their vision of the historical development and arguments they develop.

A summary of these arguments could be:

A set of technical arguments: i.e. the large size of a country makes impossible for the citizens to unite regularly in an assembly since they are too far away of the meeting point, or it is impossible to unite all the population of a country in one place since the population is too high, or other arguments regarding technical or organizational problems, eventually regarding the cost.

 - Even if we solve the technical problems I just described; a large population multiplies the number of different opinions, thus it is impossible to conclude a common opinion accepted by everyone and to convert into an effective policy or a law.

 - Even if we succeed to form one opinion, and to write one law or one policy, it will be a bad decision; when a country is large, we can observe that the feeling of common interest decreases, as well as the feeling to form one community. We can observe that divisions occur, e.g. depending of the place, the ethnicity, the religion, etc. Thus people do not defend the interest of the state, but their own and their relative interest.

 - Even if there is no division in the country; it will be a bad law or policy.  Since the people are far away from the center, they are less susceptible to be totally aware of all the affairs in the State, thus since the judgment of the people is altered, politicians need to use more populism and rhetoric to make their ideas accepted than in a small city. Thus, the chosen solution in a big country under participatory democracy is not the best solution, but the one which have been the best defended by a politician (Plato, n.d.).

Hence even if a participatory democracy is set up in a country, it will fail very fast. Hence, participatory democracy is only suitable in small area with not much population. Then, to prove that these arguments are right, they are usually applied to history this way: since participatory democracy existed only in small independent area such as city-states e.g. Athens, it means these arguments are true. The direct consequence of this theory is that its lead inevitably to the opposition to participatory democracy in our large contemporary states.  This theory and this set of arguments is very seductive, nevertheless, it remains wrong. I will now explain why. It is not the good approach; it seems logic and rational but it is not.


Teachings from History

The main problem of this approach is the importance of the size of the country and the number of people as fixed. However, this importance is not fixed; I state that the importance of this factor changes with history. Sometimes, the importance of the size of the country is a very important data in order to explain the impossibility to build a participatory democracy, sometimes it is of minor importance.

In this part of the paper, using history, I will state and explain one argument. First, the argument that states since participatory democracy succeeded only in city-states, it means that participatory democracy can succeed only in small places is wrong. Secondly, I will show how Athens was functioning and why it was functioning to see the importance of the argument of the size of a country regarding the setup of a participatory democracy.

Since participatory democracy succeeded only in city-states, it means that participatory democracy can succeed only in small places; wrong.

Why participatory democracy didn’t appear in big states? We can distinguish multiple periods with different reasons to explain why. However, this question is often the same that asking, why democracy didn’t appear? It is not because a regime didn’t appear that is was not suitable. The thesis I propose in this paper is that the reason why participatory democracy disappeared was its inappropriateness to the Modern Age and its fragility, not the size of the country.

Three dates sign the end of participatory democracy in history: The end of Athens since it was the end of a major participatory democracy city. Then, the end of the Roman Empire, since after this date, cities lost their power, the only place where participatory democracy was possible at the time; people in the countryside were not rich and educated enough, with poor means of communication, population wasn’t dense; Marx (1852b) defended what I state:

“A small holding, the peasant and his family; beside it another small holding, another peasant and another family. A few score of these constitute a village, and a few score villages constitute a department. Thus the great mass […] is formed by the simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes. […] the identity of their interests forms no community, no national bond, and no political organization among them, they do not constitute a class. They are therefore incapable of asserting their class interest in their own name, whether through a parliament or a convention.”

The last one is the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 where monarchies become the center of political life, thus democracy could not develop. Hence, the importance of the size of a country is just one criterion which explains the rarity of participatory democracy. In reality, hence, the historical roots of the thesis we are studying are incorrect: history does not prove that participatory democracy can only exist in small countries. If participatory democracy happened only in city-states, it was because of the historical context.

The example of Athens

The City-states and apogee of participatory democracy

During the classical antiquity, cities were the first and only sedentary political entities since states didn’t exist yet. They stayed administrative, economic, intellectual centers and ruled over large territories for one approximately one thousand years. Since they were the main actors of wars and conflicts, they became independent, autonomous and the leading force of history. Scholars called them city-states.

Some grew so much that they created empires e.g. Rome or Carthage. Some created original political system and developed new way of thinking and new way to rule, e.g. Athens. However, most of them were just medium sized-city ruling over the surrounding countryside, particularly inside the Roman Empire or in Ancient Greece. This idea was so established in people’s minds that in Latin, the word city (civitas) means the city and all the depending lands in the countryside dependent of the city. This societal organization in Europe was particularly favorable to the creation of direct democracy. Since small local area was independent and autonomous, a large freedom of political organization was possible. Indeed, during this period, city-states could be mainly organized in three different ways (Aristotle, n.d.): under the form of an autocracy e.g. Sparta, a direct democracy e.g. Athens or a monarchy e.g. Rome. Democracy had multiples advantages, which explain the great success of Athens during the fifth century.

First, what was participative democracy in Athens? There were three major institutions which rule the city. The first one is the administration, which own executive powers; their members are most of the time elected in the Ecclesia, such as the magistrates, the generals, diplomats, etc. The second one is the Ecclesia, which is occurred forty times a year and owns the legislative power to make laws. The last one is the Boule, which is composed of five hundred members representing their tribes and chosen randomly by sortation (Morris, 2005).

How to explain the process that led to the setup of this system?

First, the main reason is a set of decisive actions of one charismatic politician: Pericles. He used its wealth, its political skills and its prestige coming from its military success, creating by successive reforms, democracy and then promoting it during all his life. Thus, the political system was possible only with the action of an individual, without it Athens would probably not have known democratic reforms (Ober, 2010). 

Secondly, then, the city was located in a small area with small population compared to the empires or the countries of the time. The first consequence is that the small size of area allows the population to unite regularly at the Ecclesia which is not possible in a bigger country. The second consequence is described by Montesquieu: “The inhabitants of a particular town are much better acquainted with its wants and interests than with those of other places; and are better judges of the capacity of their neighbors than of that of the rest of their countrymen.” Hence, the second consequence is that, like in a lot of ancient Greek cities and unlike empires, population shared a very strong identity and a strong feeling of common interest.   It is important to notice the important fact than in a small country people know each over, thus not only they know wants and interests of the city as Montesquieu claimed, but have confidence in the people elected since the people know the elected. Why do people know each over? Obviously, a smaller place and less people allow people to meet more; it is easier to speak to the one you want to speak, etc.

Thirdly, Athens owned a good standard of living before the democracy was taken in place, and the citizens owned a good education: how is it possible to debate or write laws without being able to write?

Fourthly, because of a large period of stability in Athens, coming from the fact that Athens won great military victories of Athens (Thucidide, n.d.).

How to explain that this system was running well?

Then, advantages that create participatory democracy permit to maintain democracy. Democracy permits to increase the stability and decrease the probability of a revolution. Moreover, Pericles invested a lot in education, thus increasing the productivity of the people, thus their wealth, and increasing the quality of the debates in the Ecclesia.

However, why the system failed?

However, wealth attracts. Athens was rich, beautiful, and the light of Greece, however, it was weak. During the fourth and third century BC, Athens was attacked by successive hostile armies, such as the Spartan army, and the kingdom of Macedonia. Athens was finally annexed in 338 BC and lost its wealth as well as its democracy. Hence we can consider at a failure to constitute and build a durable civilization, since the city lasts only one century in a democratic form. 

 Nevertheless, the failure of Athens did not end participatory democracy; we observed many other cases particularly in some part of the Roman Empire with some cities far away from Rome and strongly independent


Conclusion and synthesis

The main idea in this paper is that the criterion of size is not important, it is the consequence of the size which is important, and the fact that consequences of the size can vary, depending of the situation the country, politically, economically, culturally, technically. If I take the argument “the big size of a country makes impossible for the citizens to unite regularly in an assembly since they are too far away of the meeting point”, the thing is that it is not the size of the country that make impossible participatory democracy, it is the fact they cannot unite regularly thus they cannot communicate. E.g. I have already said that, at the end of the Roman Empire, cities lost their power and it was not possible to build a participatory democracy in large countries based on the countryside. The reasons were the consequences of a large size; this size makes the people from the countryside not rich since working in agriculture, education insufficient because of the societal organization in the countryside at the time, with poor means of communication due to the lack of advances, and as Marx said, no national feeling and it is impossible to form a participatory democracy with such societal characteristics.

Consequences vary. What are the consequences of a large state determining the possibility of participating democracy? If we take the case of Western Europe: Obviously, they are different: there is no lack of communication, a good education and people are rich enough to participate in political process and with a national feeling. Thus, why participatory democracy should be impossible nowadays in Europe? Teachings from the present times

What the recent evolutions teach us? We can observe successful experiences of participatory democracy in area large as France or Germany, with more than 60 billion people (Blondiaux, 2004).

First, participatory democracy exist obviously in local democracy: e.g. local assemblies or councils, for example town meeting and neighborhood councils in the USA (Berry, 1993), in France, “comités de quartiers”.

Then, it exists as well at the national level: “citizen-jury” (Dienel, 1997) in France and Germany; it is the association of multiple voluntary or selected randomly citizens during around one week. They form one group of people; the main goal is for them to elaborate a common choice on a precise subject (local or national) on a debated subject at the national level. This group must create a judgment which should enhance and light the point of view of the authority.



Thus, from the teachings of past and current societal, economic, political technical evolutions, we can conclude that the sentence “participatory democracy is only suitable for such places of a relatively small geographical area and less population” is invalid, since participatory democracy exists nowadays in large places, at least in some specialized domains I have already described. Moreover, I have described the common arguments defending this thesis and showed they were invalid as well. The importance of a big size size in participatory democracy is not decisive, it is the consequence of a big size which is decisive, and consequences change with society, culture, geographical area, technical advances. The consequence of a large size in nowadays countries with cars, internet, forum, telephone is not the same as a large size two thousands year ago, where it took day to communicate and to travel to two points we consider now as near with the risk to be attacked by bandits.

The main question about participatory democracy is not “can we do it”? It is: “do we want it?”



Aristotle (n.d.), Corpus Aristotelicum

Berry, J.M. (1993). The Rebirth of Urban Democracy, Washington D.C, Brookings Insitutions

 Blondiaux, L. (2004) L’idée de démocratie participative : enjeux, impensés et question récurrentes. Chaire de recherche du Canada en Mondialisation, citoyenne et démocratie.

Dienel, P (1997). Die Plannungzelle, Westdeutscher, Opladen, 1997

Marx, K. (1852a). The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Chapter 2

Marx, K. (1852b). The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Chapter 7

Montesquieu. (1748). The spirit of the laws, book XI: of the laws which establish political liberty with regard to the constitution

Morris, I. (2005). The growth of Greek cities in the first millennium BC, Stanford University, retrieved from http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/morris/120509.pdf

Ober, J. (2010) Wealthy Hellas, Stanford university, retrieved from http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/ober/051001.pdf

Platon (n.d). The Republic

Thucidide (n.d.), History of the Peloponnesian War


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