Intifada, the Origin of Democracy

It’s a testament to the contradictions of our present barbarity that while the whole world recognizes that crimes against humanity, if not the crime of genocide itself, are being committed by the State of Israel against the Palestinian people, the political-economic institutions of the U.S., and their dutiful servants in government, academia, entertainment, and elsewhere, only allow for the continual provision of funds and material in support of these ongoing atrocities.

This barbarity runs deep, down into the very meanings of words — words that, haunted by ideological, religious and superstitious fears, spread and reproduce this confusion, mystification, and barbarity. The word intifada, for example, which refers to a political uprising in general, and to a popular Palestinian uprising against Israeli occupation in particular (as opposed to the military operations of Hamas, or anything antisemitic or Judeophobic), literally means a shaking, a shaking off of something burdensome. And though paranoia and ignorance have blinded many to this, the word intifada is also fundamental to the concept of democracy (a concept so often, ironically, presented as intifada’s antithesis).

In fact, the democracy of ancient Athens (the progenitor of our egalitarian, emancipatory ideals) only emerged after a type of intifada. The reforms of Solon, the ancient lawgiver (c. 600 BCE), for instance, are described by the Greek word seisachtheia. Like intifada, seisachtheia means a shaking off of burdens.

Appearing in courthouses throughout this civilization alongside portraits of such lawgivers as Justinian, Moses, and Hammurabi, Solon is remembered for reforming the harsh laws of Draco. Draco’s (Draconian) law notoriously imposed the death penalty for even such minor infractions as petty theft. Repealing these, Solon is said to have introduced the idea of proportionality to punishments and questions of justice. Limiting the death penalty, Solon allowed it only in cases of intentional murder (something our evangelical religious zealots lust to roll back).

Related to proportionality (and the striving toward political equality and equality before the law that it implies), Solon is perhaps most celebrated these days for his program of debt cancellation, the freeing of debt slaves, and his widening of the political sphere.

And while Solon’s reforms did not wipe out all debt, or redistribute property as many urged, and did not extend to allowing the poor to hold political office, during his time as archon the poor did accrue some political power (the right to sit on juries and attend the Assembly) along with their newfound political recognition.

These reforms were referred to as seisachtheia. The first part of the word appears in our modern term seismology. And, just like the root of intifada, nafada, it means to shake. The latter part, achtheia, comes from the term achthos. Generally translated as burden, though sometimes as affliction, it refers to the burden of debts that both extends from and leads to the burden of our social and political alienation and exclusion.

It was only after this seisachtheia, this proto-intifada, that democracy was able to develop toward our modern understanding of democracy as not just a method of counting votes but as a system of political and social norms (one that recognizes that political legitimacy is limited by the degree to which it fails to shake off impediments to equality, inclusion, justice and human dignity). Not coincidentally, intifada is also described, by such thinkers as Edward Said, as a movement in pursuit of equality, inclusion, justice, and peace, a “peace with justice,” as Said put it — a shaking off of the same burdens of oppression that are impediments to a properly democratic social life.

In light of this history it is a shameful irony that the State of Israel, touted by so many as the only democracy in the Middle East, imposes a burden, an achthos, on the Palestinian people that makes those of Solon’s time look mild. For though debt and debt-slavery is a burden, it is less of a burden than generations of brutal occupation, mass murder, ecological devastation, and what for the past six months looks far more like a war of extermination than any effort at self defense.

Indeed, as it’s being waged nearly exclusively against a defenseless people, this war of extermination cannot even really be described as a war. It can, with greater accuracy, be described simply as an extermination. A genocide that, streaming live, is simultaneously its own trial.

Presented with this, it is imperative to recognize that intifada and democracy are ultimately one and the same. Those arguing against the former are at the same time arguing against the latter.

Moreover, shaking off the burdens that are impediments to justice is double-sided. In addition to a (long overdue) ceasefire halting the burdens of barbarous violence, and ending the occupation, the burdens presented by conditions of injustice, barbarity, and disease must be removed by building the conditions of justice (schools, hospitals, housing, and other necessities), not as alienable commodities but as public goods, or human rights (in Gaza and everyplace else burdened by their absence).

Rather than the post-Cold War globalization of the 1990s, which intensified the global economic order of exploitation leading to today’s ecological calamity, we need a globalization of peace, justice, health, and ease. Rather than the globalization that is further colonizing and commodifying the world, we need one that will decolonize and decommodify it. This is the sort of globalization we need, and one way the slogan Globalize the Intifada can be interpreted.

This is also how we ought to interpret the concept of democracy. For democracy is always arriving, always shaking off the burdens that impede it. Whether these appear as racism, sexism, nationalism (of which Zionism is but one brutal instance), ecological destruction, exploitation, poverty and debt, these and other burdens to the democratic ideal must be shaken off in order to advance toward a genuinely just society (a society beyond the nation-state and beyond capitalism, in which humanity can not merely survive, but flourish). Though it burdens us to different degrees, it is the same affliction burdening all people, all over the world, and desperately needs to be shaken off if we’re to stave off the complete obliteration of (our) humanity.

Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and adjunct professor. He lives in New York City and can be reached at and on twitter @elliot_sperber