MAJORITY RULES. We simply take it for granted that what the most want, the most get. Whether it be the evening’s choice of Netflix viewing, or the allocation of parliamentary seats, the will of the majority prevails.
The alternative to majority rule – minority rule – is dismissed out of hand. The idea of a small number of people determining the future of a much greater number of people is simply unacceptable. Democracy, in its essence, is all about the numbers: who has them; and who does not.
Most people are surprised to learn how recently this idea: that the greatest say rightly belongs to the greatest number; took root in human societies. While it is most unlikely that nomadic bands of hunter-gatherers would’ve followed a course of action to which most of its members were opposed, for most of the last 10,000 years the preferences of the majority haven’t amounted to a hill of skulls. Indeed, it is possible to argue that civilisation and oppression go hand-in-hand.
Even the shining example of Ancient Athens – the supposed birthplace of Democracy – was predicated on the political exclusion of women and slaves. Only about a third of the great city-state’s adult population were actually permitted to participate in its government. The man who could convince slightly more than half of Athens’ active citizenry to adopt his policies had a fair chance of seeing them enacted. In order to prevail, however, he only needed to sway roughly one-sixth of Athens’ population. Not really a majority. Not really a democracy.
It was, however, a great improvement on the chiefly, monarchical, and imperial political systems that prevailed across most of our planet for all but three of the past one hundred centuries. While it is true that chiefs felt obliged to give heed to the tribe’s most fearless warriors and its best hunters; and that Kings and Emperors could not afford to ignore the wishes of their most powerful nobles; the idea that humble farmers and craftsmen had as much right to a say in things as the Lord in his manor and his heavily-armed knights, would have struck the latter as both ridiculous and dangerous.
In this belief, political rulers have always been strongly supported by their religious counterparts. God (or the Gods) had a strange way of replicating in the sphere of the spirit the same pyramidal hierarchies that characterised the material realm.
The road to destruction, it seems, is broad enough to accommodate the overwhelming majority of humankind. “Straight is the gate, and narrow the way that leadeth unto life,” said Jesus, “and few there be that find it.” Certainly, the overwhelming majority of the cast of the very scary Book of Revelation end up in the fiery lake. It would seem that Heaven, like the very best country clubs, takes some getting into.
And yet, all those despised masses, all those damned sinners, remained unwaveringly receptive to the idea that they, too, had a role to play in the drama of human existence. That the Majority is neither to be despised nor damned.
Perhaps the greatest burden in that struggle to play a role and have a say fell upon the shoulders of women. For those who hold up half the sky constitute the most enduring majority of them all. Indeed, as Athens proved, if women have no say, then you do not have a Democracy. In the words of that indefatigable Suffragette, Emmeline Pankhurst:
“We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half.”
In an era when it is common to hear “leftists” dismiss Democracy contemptuously as “the tyranny of the majority”: and where it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the Majority, far from being, by democratic convention, always in the right; is, in the eyes of many of today’s fanatically self-righteous politicians, always in the wrong; then we would do well to dwell upon Emmeline’s words.
For although “bigot” may have replaced the word “sinner”, and “redneck” the word “serf”, it remains an inescapable truth that if the goal is to free the human race, then all of the human race – male, female, black, white, gay and straight – must be freed.
Knowing what freedom is, determining what freedom does, and receiving its blessings in proportion to their numbers.
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 January 2022.