My Etymology of Democracy (so far)

A section from something I am currently writing that I thought sounded true…

When people use the word democracy, what they usually mean is the liberal-democratic State, with its enshrined constitution, system for electing representatives, established parties, and legitimated laws. That is not democracy. It is an oligarchical structure whose purpose is to organize a vast effort to prevent democracy from emerging. So at the outset, it is important to acknowledge that the way I understand democracy is different from that usual meaning. What is more, my conception is actively opposed to that meaning. When I use the word, I mean something most might call radical democracy. I mean a community in which people actively manage their own affairs for themselves. Democracy is a way of living in which people continuously and actively use their own power to decide the future of the community.

To dig a little deeper into that general statement about democracy, I find it is productive to creatively explore the word’s etymology. Democracy is made up of demos and kratia (see, among others, Weekly, 1952; Soanes and Stevenson, 2008; Harper 2014). The second term, kratia, is typically thought to mean something like rule, government, or authority. It even holds traces of the idea of domination. And indeed the root of the word does in fact have those connotations, both in the way it was used in ancient Greece,1 and in the meaning of our own words that bear its imprint (e.g. aristocracy, bureaucracy, meritocracy, etc.). Kratia in this sense refers to a power that controls, that limits, that dominates. It is a “power over,” a power of one entity to control others, a power that Deleuze and Guattari often call pouvoir. And in fact kratia is the most direct point of contact with Greek for our word “democracy”: the ending “-cracy” is most closely connected to kratia. But kratia‘s own etymology can be traced to a more general word, kratos, which means strength or power or might.2 We can read this more general term, kratos, in the mode of Spinoza or Nietzsche, to mean something like the power that humans have to act into the world, their capacity to affect the world around them in some tangible way. In this sense, kratos takes on a meaning more like “power to,” which is to say our power to create, to invent something new, to produce. This meaning is quite close to what Deleuze and Guattari call puissance. And so if we go back to the first Greek word, kratia, we can reappropriate its meaning, insisting that while it does bear the meaning of “power over” or pouvoir, it also evokes, from down deep in its roots, the idea of “power to,” puissance, or our human capacity to act into and change the world.3

I am not arguing that my etymology of kratia reveals that its true meaning is “power to” or puissance rather than “power over” or pouvoir. Rather I am saying that the word contains both ideas, that each is very much present in the word’s origins. And so we can choose to emphasize kratia‘s puissance meaning rather than its pouvoir meaning. We are already doing the opposite, favoring the pouvoir meaning over the puissance one. So I am suggesting merely that we have the option to see a different meaning in the word, one that emphasizes kratia‘s potential to evoke the meaning of puissance.

The other root of democracy, demos, is similarly complex. Certainly we think we know very well what it means, especially in the context of the word democracy: it means “the people.” And by this term, we think, we mean all people, everyone. However, for the Greeks, and in particular in Aristotle’s conception of democracy, demos did not mean all people. It meant instead the many poor, or, to be still more precise, it meant those who worked for a living and so lacked the leisure time necessary to devote themselves to political participation as citizens. Aristotle (1997) calls this class banausos technitēs, rendered as “vulgar craftsmen” by Reeve. They are “vulgar” because they spend their time working, doing the tasks necessary for the city’s survival, and so they do not have the leisure time (schole) to participate fully in politics and develop their civic excellence.4 For Aristotle, “democracy” means government or rule by the demos, which is understood to mean this class of laborers who lack civic excellence. As a result, he is not surprisingly quite critical of the idea.

However, in the modern era this classical, limited idea of the demos was expanded to include everyone. Hardt and Negri (2004, p. 240) think this expansion can be traced to Spinoza’s Political Treatise, and to his concept of democracy as the absolute political form, the form in which all people rule. But the idea is already there in Hobbes (1996, Chapters 17-18), for whom political society is established when each person contracts with every other person, so that they all leave the state of nature and enter together into the commonwealth. Even though actual political communities in the modern era restricted participation in political affairs greatlyrestrictions based on property ownership, gender, race, religion, age, and the likethose restrictions are not there in Hobbes. In his text, all persons, undistinguished by any social categories, are party to the contracts that establish the polity. And so in the modern era, at least since Hobbes, the word demos means all people.

If we put the parts of this not-so-simple etymology back together, we get a concept of “democracy” that joins the modern idea of demosall peopleto a kratia that has been returned to its roots in kratos, or puissance, or “power to,” or the capacity of people to act into the world to create something new. And so, if we choose to interpret democracy this way, it becomes a form of life in which all people are joined to their kratos, and use it together to directly produce and manage their lives in common.

This condition of remaining joined to their kratos is important, because the principle operation of the modern State, the State as it is imagined in Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau and right up to the present day, is to separate people from their kratos. This separation is most palpable in Hobbes, where in the contract5 that creates the State, all persons agree explicitly to surrender the kratos they have in the state of nature to a power outside themselves, a power that is separate from and other than the people: the State or Leviathan. The State’s purpose is to use everyone’s aggregated power to control them, “to keep them all in awe,” as Hobbes puts it in Chapter 13, and thereby achieve peace. This separation is baked in to the design of almost all such foundational political contracts: people are separated from their puissance, and that puissance is transformed into a pouvoir that is used to rule them.

This same operation that separates people from their puissance also turns democracy into oligarchy. That is because people no longer retain their puissance and use it to rule themselves. Instead they surrender their puissance to a subset of society, to a governing few that has been set aside to rule the rest. This is, in fact, precisely the meaning of the word “oligarchy,” a community in which the few (oligos) rule the rest.

So, conceived in this way, democracy means people retain their kratos and use it to rule themselves. But if we choose to think of democracy this way, we must be alert to the challenges. Perhaps the most apparent one is that if we want to realize this democracy, if we wanted to be democratic in this way, then we would need to fully retain and use our kratos. This state of being, it seems clear, would be exhausting. It is not something we could sustain for long. It would require too much activation, too much effort.6 It would overwhelm us and leave us spent. And so it is necessary to think of democracy not as a state of being, but as a process of becoming. Democracy is better thought of as a constant struggle to become democratic. A struggle by everyone, all of us, to refuse to surrender our kratos, to retain it, to practice using it together with others, and to learn to more effectively manage our affairs in common.

1Here I mean, primarily, the way it is understood in Plato’s and Aristotle’s political philosophy.

2Douglas Harper (2014) writes that this Greek word has even deeper roots, in the proto-Indo-European kre-tes, also meaning power or strength.

3Spinoza, by whom Deleuze and Guattari are greatly influenced, expresses similar ideas to puissance and pouvoir in his work, using the terms potentia and potestas, on which see Holland (1998), who refers the reader to Gueroult (1968/1974)). Hardt & Negri (2000, 2004), also inspired by Spinoza, conceive of something very similar in their terms “constituent power” and “constituted power.”

4This distinction between faded from our culture only very slowly. As late as A Midsummer Night’s Dream (late 16th century), Puck uses the term “rude mechanicals” to describe the workingmen who are staging a play for the nobles.

5It is really contracts, millions of them. This fact is important, but it is beyond the scope of the chapter.

6“It would take too many evenings,” as Oscar Wilde was supposedly fond of saying (about both democracy and socialism).

Aristotle. (1997) Politics. Translated by C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett.

Hardt, M. and A. Negri (2004) Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire. New York, Penguin.

Harper, D. (2014) Democracy. The Online Etymology Dictionary. Accessed July 31, 2014.

Hobbes, T. (1996 [1651]) Leviathan. New York, Cambridge University Press.

Soanes, C., & Stevenson, A. (2008) Concise Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Weekley, E. (1952) A Concise Etymological Dictionary of Modern English. Secker & Warburg.

No to Ressentiment, Yes to Puissance!


In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche offers a withering criticism of what he calls ressentiment, the habit among the oppressed to focus all their attention on their oppressors, to obsessively document why those oppressors are evil. Ressentiment defines the oppressed as good, but only negatively: we oppressed are good only because we are not them. Ressentiment largely ignores the oppressed and their qualities because it is consumed with detailing the evil of the oppressors. Nietzsche thinks ressentiment is bad because it causes the oppressed to become trapped in a destructive energy, an energy whose purpose is only to obliterate what exists, rather than to create something new in the world. But what’s worse is that ressentiment’s consuming obsession renders the oppressed totally blind to themselves, to their capacities, to their potentials, to their strength, to their power to act into the world and create something new. The oppressed blind themselves to what we might call, after Deleuze & Guattari, their puissance. The endless attention paid to the oppressors makes it seem like they are the only ones capable of acting into the world, the only ones capable of creative agency. But of course they are not the only capable ones. We (the oppressed, the mass of people) are capable too. But we won’t see that ability unless we wean ourselves off of the easy drug of ressentiment.

My sense is that a large majority of the left media is consumed by ressentiment, that it spends most of its time complaining about the evils of those in power. One particularly spectacular example is Jim Hightower’s obsession with the Koch brothers, but there are countless others. And so this media, just like the corporate media, pays very little attention to how people everywhere are using their power to creatively construct another world.

It frustrates me, even to the point of ressentiment, and alas I guess this post in mostly in that key. So enough of this post. Enough of ressentiment. Here’s to becoming obsessed with our own puissance instead.