The State of Democracy

In New Zealand we live in a supposed democracy. But what does this actually mean? Can the average person on the street honestly give a decent definition of democracy? I doubt they could, since people have a very limited knowledge of the political process and the context in which it has developed. Often, the slogan “by the people, for the people, of the people” is thrown about, but this is just a slogan, it has no real substance, it does not offer a detailed definition of this institution that we supposedly take seriously in our country.

In the present times, a period of mass media, fast-paced change and global interconnectedness where ideas are quickly exchanged, I think the real message behind democracy is lost on most people. Indeed, for many people, although you might say a small minority, democracy is out of favour for a plethora of reasons. Many believe that the politicians do not adequately represent us, while some believe that the process is cumbersome, slow, and hinders progress.

On one side we often have, in the vein of Russell Brand, those who look for a utopian egalitarian state. On the other side there are those who wish we could do away with democracy and hand power to those who provide the most for society, the business owners. Both sides of the argument have some important criticisms to make, and yet both sides detest each other, while simultaneously both wishing for the same the thing, getting rid of the current system. My own view on this is that the system is dysfunctional but those of the past can offer us some hope and a model by which we can move forward.

The disillusionment in democracy is unsurprising when society feels disconnected from the political process and each other. Those in power know this and benefit from our inaction all the while presenting a façade of concern that voter turnout is low. Sorry, to burst these people’s bubble, but voter turnout is not democracy. The Athenian democracy, which by all accounts is the first democracy, at least in the western tradition did not believe in electing people to make decisions. This, from the people who invented the very word democracy (demos = people, kratos = power).

The concept of voting to the Athenians was, in fact, undemocratic and in was used only for the election of generals out of necessity. The rest of the political system was direct whereby the people voted on issues themselves. Other aspects of the system were controlled by a glorified lottery system. Most importantly, the political ideology was controlled by the people. This means that issues affecting people were brought before the rest of the population to discuss and resolve. The system we live under is a far cry from what the Athenians had. Political ideology is controlled by those in power. We can see this when politicians offer change piecemeal, discuss issues that only they wish to discuss, pass laws to protect themselves in power and all the while blaming us, the people, those who put these people in power, for low voter turnout.

One of the greatest aspects of the Athenian system was its inner contradictions. On the one hand decisions had to be discussed by the population, while at the same time political consensus was essential for the state to function. The rich and powerful were subservient to the masses, and yet were the leaders of the state. The Athenian system gives us something to think about. While the people controlled what was discussed and the issues brought forward it was those most capable of leading who lead the state. The Athenians faced issues similar to our own such as: how should we redistribute wealth? How do we involve more people in the political process? How can we make the system more efficient and fair? More importantly, they asked and answered I think very capably, how do we stop a small minority of the population having too much power in the state.

Some argue that direct democracy is unrealistic because nothing would be accomplished if everybody had a say on every issue. This does not seem the case in Athens where the demos decided on all issues including foreign policy and even conducting war. This was in society that was not face-to-face as some people think, and perhaps even less so than our own, given that nowadays we can communicate quickly via the internet. We also ought not to forget that under the democracy Athens lived through one of the most important golden ages in history of unprecedented wealth. They built the Parthenon, and developed many of the things we take for granted in the 21st century.

We owe a great deal of gratitude to the Athenians. Despite their many flaws, they are more like us than we give them credit. The most important gifts to us are the ideas of political equality before the law and freedom of speech. The positive right for every citizen to have their say on any issue he pleased not just those offered to us by politicians. One’s advice might be ignored. Nevertheless, the citizen was included directly in the process. These important aspects supposedly underpin our democracy, yet while we each have the right to freedom of speech, this freedom has no real power anymore. Things in New Zealand might not be as bad as they are overseas, but this does not make it right to just neglect our principles are dabble in hypocrisy. If we supposedly care about democracy we ought to take notice. Before long it could be gone.

From Athens to the 21st Century: Blueprint for Real Democracy

Direct participatory democracy in the 21st century is a viable alternative option to the restricted democracy that the majority of western nations live under. The inspiration for such a system can be found in classical Athens between 508 and 322 B.C.E. This article shall not give a detailed description of this system, for such a work would require a monumental work, rather I shall outline the Athenian system to demonstrate the important principles of large numbers who can control an ideological hegemony in the interest of the many. It shall also attempt to dispel some myths about direct participatory democracy.

The efficacy of such a system has been derided for centuries by political theorists as both impossible to implement, and even if so, would cause a general upheaval of society as the poor clamour for gross redistribution of wealth. What these people fail to tell you is that Athens solved these two problems in such a way that the elite retained their wealth but used it such a way that the Athenian economy was one of only a few in the pre-modern era to experience extensive and prolonged economic growth.

There are various reasons for the success of Athens. One of the factors was certainly the direct participatory democracy with its multiple institutions. The ‘constitution’ of Athens was a de facto federalist system. At the base were the 139 demes perhaps best understood as villages. These were the basic political unit are were the centre of political life for the everyday man.
Kleishtenes REFORMS
The demes were in turn organised into trittyes. This process worked to mix the Athenians up so that local political alliances could not be cemented in a bid to gain a stronger foothold in Athenian politics. With the trittyes it was practically impossible for one group, or even a small group to take control of Athenian politics through the manipulation of the voting and representation systems.

The phylai, or tribes, were the largest political groupings. These consisted of 10 trittyes again in such a way as to mix the groups up so that each tribe had to look out for the interests of each subdivision in that group. In 508 when democracy was first instituted, there were 10 tribes, increased from the previous 4 under the old regime.

At the ‘national’ level the participation by all citizens did not cease. The national system consisted of three main parts: the Boule (Council), the Dikasterion (Law Courts), and the Ekklesia (Assembly). The first two of these used a lottery system to allocate its members while the Ekklesia was open to all citizens.

The Boule was the body that oversaw the everyday business of the state. They numbered 500 lotteried officials with attendant slaves and servants available to assist in the business of government. They were in essence the executive branch of the government. All decisions were done by majority votes and every tribe was represented by 50 of its members chosen from the demes according to the proportion of their population. Members served for one year, and were restricted to twice in their lifetime and not within a period of 10 years between each.

The Dikasterion were the law courts where public disputes were settled. Each session consisted of either 201 or 501 jurors. There were no judges or legal experts, only public magistrates available to read out aloud to everyone the relevant laws. Courts met on most days of the year, and jurors received a daily wage much as they do these days when one is called up for jury service.

The most important body in the system was the Ekklesia. It was here that all Athenian citizens could come together and debate political issues. There were no restrictions on who could speak. The floor was open to everyone. Assemblies generally numbered 5000-8000 persons, about 1/5th of the voting population at any one time. For very important legal cases the Assembly would also sit in judgement and like all other decisions resolutions and laws were passed by simple majority.

The Athenian system is not a direct blueprint to a viable system of democracy in the 21st century. However, it provides the inspiration for system where large numbers are directly involved in the system. The numbers were so large in the Athenian system that bribery was virtually impossible. The wholesale purchase of politicians as it is done nowadays through lobbying groups and special interests would have been impossible in Athens.

Now, many political theorists would claim that Athens was not the real democracy that many idealists claim it was. The say that it was democratic in name, and that in reality the elite were the ones to control affairs behind the scenes. More often than not, such claims come from those who have not actually taken the time to consult the necessary literature on the matter. Thankfully, towards the end of the 20th and into the 21st century scholars are moving on from these cynical interpretations of the Athenian political system.

What is clear from the extensive evidence left to us by the Athenians is that the everyday people maintained an ideological hegemony over the elite. This meant that the state on whole served the interests of the majority but net necessarily at the expense of the rich minority. It is true that the rich were compelled to contribute to the costs of society through infrequent direct taxation and the system of liturgies. However, the fear of a grand, sweeping redistribution of land and wealth never happened in the c.200 years that Athenian democracy existed.

Indeed, to the contrary in these 200 or so years Athens went from being a middling power both militarily and economically to the regions’ leading economic power and a leading military power through the use of its swift navy.

In its own time, Athens was unique for its wide base of citizen participation. How the Athenians were able to mobilise themselves despite their large numbers in such a decentralised system is not short of phenomenal. The system enabled the Athenians to become very rich through the exploitation of local mines, and trade networks. Democracy made Athens an attractive destination of foreign traders, and by the late fifth century Athens was the trade hub of the Aegean. To those that claim that democracy is inefficient, I say, you have little evidence to support this claim, given that historically speaking the wealthiest and most successful nations have been democratic.

If we want to live in wealthy nations were the interests of the many in society are looked after it is high time that we start creating political systems that accurately reflect this aspiration. The current system despite what politicians and other supporters say is a system that is easily hijacked by the elite. We entrust a small group of individuals to look after the interests of us and yet those interests are consistently ignored in favour of the interests of the elite.

Moreover, we are convinced to vote for these people through a perverse ideology controlled in a vice-grip by the elite. When persons arise that attempt to offer change in the benefit of the poor majority, they are discredited by the machine of elite propaganda and piecemeal voting that is apparently what democracy is focused toward establishment candidates. We need a system that reflects the everyday man’s interest. They only way to do this is to work for it ourselves. The lesson we can learn from the Athenians is that not only is direct participatory democracy possible, it is actually more efficient and can promote economic growth and flourishing.

In conclusion, as outlined in this article, Athens provides the inspiration for a system of direct participatory democracy. This system should include all citizens in the system with the use of large numbers to counteract the aims of special interests who otherwise corrupt our politicians. The goals of such a system would be recreate a ideological hegemony in the interests of the many. The results will be more efficient for society in the long run, as such a system will promote economic growth and prosperity. Insofar as we all have an interest in society we should all have equal power to affect change and participate in our society.

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