The Evolution of Liberal-Democracy, Part I — Absolutism, Feudalism and the Road to Revolution


The popular uprisings presently aflame across the Middle East give one pause to consider the hardiness and stability of Australia’s political system.  In 110 years, we’ve managed to get by with only one quasi systemic crisis in 1975, which is a testament to the durability of the constitutional framework established by Australia’s political elites during the 1890s.

The relative stability of our political system belies the fact that its ideological roots stem from a grand compromise, a centuries-long project by European, American and Australian political elites to manage the politics of socio-economic inequality and avoid the extremes of revolutionary social unrest.  This is the project of liberal democracy.

So what exactly is liberal democracy?  Andrew Parkin, a former colleague of mine in the School of Politics and International Relations at Flinders University, defines it as “a political system in which democratically based institutions of government are constrained by liberal-inspired constitutional arrangements, political practices and popular expectations that limit the scope and capacity of the governmental sector.”  The key theme here is the tension between liberalism and democracy.

The liberal democratic tension is not just an intellectual discussion about political theory.  It is a story that takes us from ancient Greece to modern-day Canberra, via the Bastille in Paris and the industrial factories of the English midlands.  It is a story of revolutions and social transformation.  Most importantly, it is a story about the uneasy compromise that has allowed competing groups and individuals in our society to agree on procedures for the division and distribution of scarce resources and services, without the need for armed coercion or violent protest.  Through the sweep of history, this has not been the norm.

Democracy was Born at a Toga Party

Our story begins in the 5th century BC in ancient Greece.  Democracy comes from the Greek words demos meaning ‘the people’ and kratos meaning ‘power’. Effectively, the word ‘democracy’ means ‘people power’ – the right of people to make decisions on how they are governed.  As the Greek definition suggests, democracy is a form of government which is carried out directly by the people.  It places emphasis upon popular participation and popular sovereignty, such that all members of a polity have more or less equal access to power.  In this case, the male citizens of the city-state of Athens met at regular assemblies to decide on major decisions of state by popular vote.   It is important to note, however, that Athenian citizenship was denied to women, slaves and foreigners.

Can you imagine all of Australia’s 20 million citizens had to vote on each one of the hundreds of pieces of legislation that pass through parliament in Canberra every year?  What about 300 million Americans voting on every bill passing through congress in Washington DC?  It’s just not possible.  For practical reasons, in modern democracies citizens elect representatives to govern on their behalf, and these representatives remain answerable to the citizenry at periodic elections.  This is what Abraham Lincoln meant in his shorthand definition of democracy: “of the people, by the people, for the people”.

The Enlightenment: Birthplace of Modern Political Ideas

After the demise of classical Greek civilisation, it was nearly two thousand years before democracy was to re-emerge.  Let’s fast-forward to the feudal societies of Europe in the Middle Ages.  In thirteenth century England, kings ruled by decree from God—the divine right of kings—over land-holding nobles who held sway over vast estates.  The mass of people, the peasants, were tied as slaves to the particular estate on which they lived.

In 1215, King John of England signed off on a historic document with the English nobility—the Magna Carta—which placed some limitations on the powers of the monarch and gave birth to many important legal principles that remain with us to this day.  The Magna Carta represented the beginning of parliament as alternative centre of power to monarchy, where limited power began to be shared with the nobles.

By the seventeenth century, the feudal order in England and its strict social hierarchy were beginning to break down.  The English Civil Wars (1639-60) challenged the divine right of kings and sought to replace absolute monarchy with limited constitutional government.

This coincided with a new intellectual and philosophical climate sweeping across Europe known as the Enlightenment.  In this new era, reason and rationality began to replace religious faith and superstition in the thinking of Europe’s intellectuals, ideas which continue to underpin the leading ideologies of our society today.

One influential enlightenment figure was John Locke, who in 1690 published his Two Treatises on Government, in which he argued in favour of limitations on government power based on a ‘contract’ between the government and the governed, in which people give up certain rights to the government in order for protection.  French philosopher Jean Jaques Rousseau argued in The Social Contract (1762) that governments must represent the “general will’, not just that of individuals.  For Rousseau, governments should only be formed with the consent of the people and their powers limited by a system of checks and balances.

Can you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men…

John Locke also argued that the people had a right to resist or overthrow the government if it violated its contract with the public.  The ideas of John Locke and his contemporaries found expression in the American Revolution.  The American Revolution was the political upheaval during the last half of the 18th century in which the thirteen British colonies in North America at first rejected the governance of the parliament in London, and later the British monarchy itself, to form the United States of America.

The American Revolution paved the way for a number of novel systemic innovations in democratic governance.   Institutions of government were introduced in order to protect individuals from autocratic government.   The powers of government were separated into executive, legislative and judicial branches to prevent the rise of a new, home-grown absolute monarchy, while federalism divided powers between states and central government.

Now bear in mind, when the enlightenment thinkers were talking about the rights of the people, they were only referring to the landed aristocrats who wanted to increase their power in the political process. The incorporation of the property-less masses into the political process was yet to register on the radar of elite thinking in the Western world.  Despite what is commonly thought, the American Revolution was a rebellion of American aristocrats against the British crown.  It did nothing to alter the social and class structure of the American colonies.

That all changed shortly thereafter with the French Revolution (1789–1799), a period of radical social and political upheaval during which the absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years.

French society underwent an epic transformation; the old order based around the monarchy, the aristocracy and the church was swept away under sustained assault from various sections of French society, including liberal political groups on the one hand, and populist mass uprisings on the other.

Old ideas about hierarchy and tradition succumbed to new liberal principles such as citizenship and inalienable rights.  However, unlike the American Revolution, the French Revolution featured strong democratic impulses yielding to the diffusion of power to the masses, the popular will and power of oppressed.

In a revolution, all the old rules get broken. Revolutionaries have to reconstruct the political realm from scratch. Without the old order to regulate French society, the revolution degenerated into a witch hunt, an unrestrained orgy of retribution and violence known as the “Reign of Terror”.  Up to 40,000 people were executed, including members of the monarchy, former aristocrats, members of the church, and anyone else accused of “betraying the revolution”.  For liberal thinkers ever since, the French Revolution served as a warning against ceding control of unrestrained power to the people.

The upcoming second act of this story takes us to the industrial revolution and the birth of modern capitalism, where transforming social and class relationships led to a grand compromise between liberal values and the democratic impulse.  Stay tuned…


Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and methodologies for undergraduate teaching. He also teaches Australian politics.  Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship.  He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea.

Ben welcomes constructive feedback.  Please comment below, or contact Ben at

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.


One comment

  1. Thanks for the history recap Ben. The current goings on in the Middle East seem to have echos of the French Revolution which led to a period of great chaos and turmoil and ultimatley to another dictator. I fear that the same fate awaits the Jasmine Revolutionaries (in Egypt especailly) when the people realise that democracy on its own doesn’t put food on the table.

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