No Bourgeoisie and Greeks, no Democracy?  

There are a few more interesting things to point out about the nature of Berber political institutions.

One is about democracy. One of the most famous claims in political science is due to Barrington Moore who in his great book, The Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (it wasn’t just the title but also the analysis which helped to inspire our own 2006 book Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy), argued that it was the rise of the middle classes, what he called the bourgeoisie using Marxist terminology, which underpinned democracy. To be fair this was only in some circumstances, particularly when they were autonomous enough to avoid making coalitions with landed elites and simultaneously could avoid the threat of revolution.

Moore’s work, which was heavily grounded in the experience of European political development, was perhaps an incarnation of an old line of thought which traced the notion of democracy back to ancient Greeks who supposedly created democracy and also put forth the idea that democracy might be a feasible system of government. Indeed, Aristotle discussed democracy, though he did not really approve of it. So do you need to have a middle class to have democracy? And is it true that the roots of democracy as a set of political institutions can be traced back to the Greeks?

To think about these questions let’s return to the Atlas Mountains of southern Morocco. In our last post we talked about the state and the Saints, and how they related to society. Now the Berber tribes also had elected chiefs who ruled for a year with re-election precluded (so there were one year term limits).

Gellner in Saints of the Atlas describes the elections as follows (p. 81): 

The principals governing elections are rotation and complementarity, Suppose a tribe to consists of three sub-clans A, B and C. If this year is the turn of A to provide the chief for the tribe as a whole, then the electors will be the men of B and C. Next year the chief will be chosen from B and it will be A and C who provide the electors; and so on. You can be part of the pool of candidates, or have the vote, not both. The purpose of this mode of election are obvious enough. It prevents the emergence of real and permanent concentration of power in anyone’s hands.

In addition these rules were re-inforced by the election of several chiefs with different spheres of authority. So the Berbers didn’t just have “democratic elections” to choose their chiefs, they also had checks and balances (hold on, wasn’t it Montesquieu or James Madison who invented those?).

Gellner concludes (p. 82):

If one considers that by all accounts the main danger to most other Moroccan Berber societies outside the central Atlas, was the periodic if ephemeral emergence of petty tyrannies, one cannot but admire the elegance and effectiveness of the check-and-balance constitutions of the High Atlas Berbers.

So the Berbers had elected leaders and checks and balances (Berber elections are described by Gellner on pages 84-87 and are not exactly like modern democratic elections, for instance there was no specified rule about how many votes a winning candidate needed and the Saints, who supervised the elections, strove for unanimity around a particular candidate, a process which could go on for days).

Of course they might have borrowed this from the Greeks. When Europeans discovered the ruins of Great Zimbabwe in the 19th century, they couldn’t believe Africans could have built such an amazing city. So they tried to link it to the Egyptians or Phoenicians. In the 1960s the white supremacist regime led by Ian Smith even promoted this idea in history books!

But the truth is that, most likely, Africans developed the great Zimbabwe themselves, and likewise the Berbers developed these institutions themselves, and without help from the Greeks. It is also clear that they did so without a middle class, which did not exist in Berber society.

So much for the need for bourgeoisie and the ancient Greek heritage for democracy.

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