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.