The Origin of Democracy

The Origin of Democracy

Press TV (2015)

Film Review

In this Press TV documentary about “democracy” in early Athens and Rome, what intrigued me most is that it glosses over burning questions that are glossed over in high school social studies. It has always mystified me why the Athenians put Socrates to death  and why the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official Roman religion in 313 AD – when only 20% of Romans were Christian and the emperor himself was non-Christian (he converted shortly before his death).

According to the Iranian scholars interviewed in this film, the supposed Athenian democracy was actually ruled by a hereditary nobility. Socrates ran afoul of them because he taught the Athenian form of government was actually a type of demagoguery. He was also highly critical of their lack of concern about morality, justice or the massive social inequality present in Athens at the time.

At the time of Socrates, only about 1/8 of the Athenian population (the landowners comprising the nobility) were allowed any input into government. Women and slaves (who comprised 3/4 of the population) and foreign non-slaves (about 10% of the population) were automatically excluded.

In addition to examining the contrasting political systems in the city-states of Athens and Sparta, the film looks at the Roman Republic (509-37 BC), which combined elements of both. It attributes attributes Constantine’s 313 AD Edict of Milan (which made Christianity the official religion) to a desire to unify the population during a period of growing class warfare and growing conflict with the Persian (Iranian) Empire. The latter, which stretched from the Indus to the Nile Rivers, was an enemy of Rome.

The film also explores two distinct differences between Western and Eastern systems of governance. Slavery was far more prominent under Western “democracy” and leaders were much hard to depose when they became corrupt. In contrast, Persian emperors were deposed when they became corrupt and lost the support of the people they ruled.

*A demogogue is someone who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.

Wukan: A Chinese Experiment with Democracy

 Wukan:  China’s Experiment with Democracy

Al Jazeera (2017)

Film Review


This very strange documentary is largely based on amateur footage smuggled out of China by social media activists. As the filmmakers point out, China experiences tens of thousands of mass uprisings every year. Most relate to local corruption and illegal theft and sale of communal land. In most cases, they fizzle out without producing any real change. A September 2011 protest in the village of Wukan was an exception. It resulted in villagers winning the right to choose their own village committee in democratic elections – a process virtually unheard of in Communist China.

Three months following the election of the new village committee (which was subject to heavy phone tapping and physical surveillance), county and provincial officials agree to return a few plots of stolen land to village farmers. Unfortunately, however, a ban on demolishing the wall surrounding their farms prevents the original owners from repossessing their property.

After a year, villagers succeeded in repossessing a second plot of land, only to find it unusable due to contamination with industrial waste. As provincial authorities continue to to stall on returning the stolen land, village protests resume. Only this time they are directed against the new village committee. There is considerable mistrust directed against the village chief especially, a man named Lin Zulan – who in the mean time has become secretary of the local Communist Party.

When two village committee members attempt to stand against him in the 2014, they are jailed on bribery charges (which surprisingly appear to be genuine). The two men have succumbed to a kind of entrapment – accepting “bonuses” at Lin’s direction without realizing this is bribery and illegal.

In 2016, after winning his sixth election, Lin organizes a petition and marching demanding the stolen land be returned. He himself is arrested on bribery charges, along with his grandson, a student in a nearby city (who has had no involvement with the protests). After Lin appears on TV to make what villagers believe is a forced confession on TV, his grandson is released.

The protests resume in earnest following Lin’s arrest. After 85 days of protests, there is a brutal crackdown – resulting in the murder, beatings and arrest of large numbers of villagers. Simultaneously the village is totally cut off physically and electronically from the rest of China.

After being warned of the crackdown, one of the village committee members escapes to New York, where he makes contact with the US pro-Chinese democracy movement. It’s their 2016 protest in front of the UN that brings the plight of Wukan to world attention.


The Myths of Capitalism

In The Myths of Capitalism, Michael Parenti explodes the most prevalent myths the ruling elite perpetuates regarding capitalism. Examples include

  • Capitalism produces prosperity – in truth capitalism produces prosperity for a handful of people and poverty for nearly everyone else. Parenti gives numerous examples of this.
  • The poor are responsible for their own poverty and are always looking for handouts – in reality, poverty occurs when the ruling elite privatize resources and public services to increase profits. Wherever capitalism is introduced, poverty follows.
  • Privately run businesses are always more efficient than those that are publicly run – Parenti gives number examples (including the post office, Medicare and Social Security) of government-run operations that have far less bureaucracy and far lower administrative costs than their private counterparts.
  • Capitalism fosters democracy – Parenti demonstrates quite ably how the exact opposite is true. A well educated working class that resists exploitation by exercising their democratic rights is an enormous threat to private profit. The US ruling elite fully supported the Bush/Obama suspension of basic civil liberties, the routine surveillance of the citizenry and the introduction of torture.

Most of the presentation focuses on the corporate crime and corruption and routine economic instability inherent in a capitalist economic system. Under modern industrial capitalism the only way to keep the economy from collapsing is to undertake a permanent state of perpetual war.

Unemployed? Broke? How to Start a Co-op

Own the Change: Building Economic Democracy One Worker at a Time

GritTV (2015)

Film Review

Own the Change is a documentary about how to start a worker cooperative. The inability of the global economy to provide a living wage for millions of Americans has prompted a surge in the formation of cooperatives, where workers own and run their own business and share equally in the profits. I expect this will be an extremely inspiring film for people of any age who are unemployed or earning a wage that is too low to survive on. The biggest problem in starting a coop, as with any small business is start-up funding. Most new coops rely on individual members’ savings for capital, as major banks no longer offer small business loans. Members with no upfront cash can contribute their buy-in as a payroll deduction. Sometimes new coops can access grants and low interest loans from non-profit groups and government agencies. Crowdsourcing* is another increasingly common option. The second most difficult aspect of coop formation is learning to make decisions collectively. Democracy is a foreign concept to most people. Many are more comfortable with someone in authority telling them what to do. It takes practice to learn how to make decisions by consensus. As one coop member explains in the film, a good coop uses horizontal (equal) decision making at the board level to make basic operating decisions. Vertical decision making works better in the field, where people with technical knowledge and skill need to be in charge of how the work product is delivered. The most inspiring coop depicted in the documentary is a Bellingham Washington cooperative started by caregivers fed up with their extremely low pay and lack of input into working conditions. For people thinking of starting a coop, the best place to start is the US Federation of Worker Cooperatives, a national grassroots organization for worker cooperative businesses. Their website is a fantastic source of legal and business advice, including funding options: *Crowdsourcing is the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.

Lowering the Voting Age

vote 15 16

In late January, the British Labour Party announced that lowering the voting age to 16 would be one of the first acts of a new Labour government. According to Labour’s shadow justice secretary Sadiq Kahn, lowering the voting age is a crucial way of tackling “the public’s malaise towards all things political.”

He argues that getting the public into the habit of voting is key to raising the numbers of British subjects who participate in elections. He claims that people who vote when they first become eligible are more likely to keep on voting.

There’s a growing European movement – led primarily by youth demonstration councils and parliaments – to lower the voting age to 16. At present young people vote at 16 in Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Mann and Slovenia (if in full time employment). In the UK a bill to reduce the voting age to 16 received its second reading in Parliament just before the 2010 elections. There is also an initiative in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to lower the voting age to 16 in all EU countries.

In other parts of the world, young people vote at 17 in Sudan, Israel (in municipal elections), North Korea, East Timor, and the Seychelles. They vote at 16 in Brazil and Nicaragua, and there is a bill bending in the Taiwan legislature to lower the voting age to 17.

Taxation Without Representation

There are obvious civil rights issues in denying 16 and 17 year olds the right to vote. Especially as many are in full time employment and pay taxes. Although there is no constitutional guarantee against taxation without representation, there is a strong tradition in common law that people who pay taxes should have some say in how their tax money is spent. As I recall, it was a common rallying cry leading up to the American Revolution.

There is a certain illogic in allowing teenagers to work (and pay taxes), drive, have sex and be tried as adults – and at the same time claiming they are too “immature” to vote. Let’s get serious here. Which is more dangerous – driving or voting? It’s really scary to think that in fourteen states, teenagers are competent to receive the penalty at 16. In five states they can be executed at 17. Yet they aren’t competent to vote aren’t until their 18th birthday.

Current Teenagers are the Most Politically Aware Ever

The most compelling argument in countries that have lowered the voting age is that our current crop of teenagers is the most politically savvy ever, thanks to the Internet.

Another really persuasive argument relates to a demographic crisis facing all industrialized countries. In all of them, a large cohort of baby boomers will spend approximately 20 years “in retirement,” with a relatively small pool of working adults paying for their social security benefits, health care and nursing homes. The issue has already reared its ugly head with controversial proposals to force members of generation X and Y to work till age 70 before they can retire.

As the Danish representative who introduced the Vote at 16 initiative to the European Parliament points out, denying 16 and 17 year olds input into this major policy shift is a clear invitation to civil unrest.

The most common counter argument to reducing the voting age is that 16 and 17 olds are too immature to make logical choices and exercise good political judgement. If we followed this thinking to its logical conclusion, the US would have to increase the voting age to 65.

For more information on the UK movement see

photo credit: Adam Scotti via photopin cc