The ‘life’ of democracy – from its roots in ancient Athens to today’s perverted and ‘creeping, crypto-oligarchies’ – is the subject of a newly-published book by eminent Cambridge classicist Paul Cartledge.

Our democracy would look like a creeping, crypto-oligarchy to the ancient Greeks – and many today may be coming to a similar conclusion.

Paul Cartledge

Following the history of democracy from its invention in 508 BCE to the 21st century, Democracy: A Life traces the development of political thinking over millennia. It also examines the many sustained attacks on the original notion of Athenian democracy across the intervening centuries which have left it degraded, deformed and largely unrecognisable from its original incarnation.

The book, published by OUP, traces the grand sweep of democracy in around 500BCE down through the Classical era to its general demise in its original forms about 300BCE. 

Thereafter, though the word democracy persisted, it continued only in degraded versions from the Hellenistic era, through late Republican and early Imperial Rome, down to early Byzantium in the sixth century CE. For many centuries after that, from late Antiquity, through the Middle Ages, to the Renaissance, democracy was effectively eclipsed by other forms of government – before enjoying a revival in 17th century England and further renewals in late 18th century North America and France.

“We owe to the ancient Greeks much, if not most, of our own currently political vocabulary – from the words anarchy and democracy to politics itself,” said Cartledge. “But their politics and ours are very different beasts. To an ancient Greek democrat (of any stripe), all our modern democratic systems would count as oligarchy: rule for and by the few.

“Politics is the art of the possible and the art of persuasion – and nowhere was this more evident than in ancient Athens where all but 20 of 700 offices of the Assembly were filled by lottery every year.”

The Assembly was government by mass meeting, every nine days or so. On the agenda of every principal Assembly meeting were such fundamental issues as relations with the gods, state security and the overseas supply of wheat.

However, the 6,000 or so ordinary members of the Assembly who were able and willing to turn up in central Athens could not decide such profound matters by themselves. At the meeting, they listened in the open air to the arguments and counter arguments of prominent and well-known speakers before a mass vote was taken on a show of hands.

Even with such mass participation, there was still the chance for further scrutiny if sufficient numbers felt an error or crime had been committed in and by the Assembly. People’s jury courts could stymie demagogic self-promotion and offer the chance of delivering a considered second opinion on a measure.

Above all, there was also the ‘Boule’ or Council of 500 – the Assembly’s steering committee and chief administrative body of the state. This annually recruited body, like the annual panel of the 6,000 jurors in the People’s courts, was filled by the use of lottery, not by election. The lot was, democrats believed, the democratic way to fill public offices. It was random, gave all qualified male adult citizens an equal chance of selection, and so encouraged them to throw their hats into the ring, to step up to the plate and do their public civic duty.

In essence, Cartledge argues that this truly represented government of the people by the people for the people.

“Ancient Athenians did not have political parties, they thought elections were undemocratic,” he added. “Any male who wished to attend the Assembly could do so, and anyone who wished to have his say could call out and make his voice heard. It was the equivalent of holding a referendum on major issues every other week.”

Cartledge argues that the notion of such equality today is but a pipe dream at best, at least in socioeconomic terms, when the richest 1pc of a country’s population can own more than the remaining 99pc put together.

“Today, our MPs get elected and feel they have to toe the party line. And they are in turn protected by the party system and infrequent elections. There is no way to be held to account after an election – and this is a modern phenomenon. The word ostracise comes from ancient Greece where politicians could be physically cast out for ten years if they were felt to be abusing office. If a week is a long time in politics today, you can imagine what a decade in the wilderness would mean.”

While few in number, Cartledge does highlight two modern democratic system where echoes of the Athenian concept of demokratia (demos meaning people and kratos meaning power) can be found.

In Switzerland, at the federal level, changes to the constitution can be proposed by citizens and can only be completed by referendum; and the Swiss populace votes regularly on issues at all levels of the political scale – from the building of a new street to the foreign policy of the country.

Meanwhile, following the 2008 financial crash in Iceland, referenda, assemblies, and a people’s parliament were formed as citizens of the country campaigned to make their voices and views heard by means of mass participation in the country’s new politics.

The notion of government by referendum is particularly apposite to the United Kingdom of 2016 as the battle lines are drawn, often with crude, crass and alarmist hyperbole from both the Leave and Remain camps, for the EU referendum on June 23.

“The EU referendum will give us an all too brief taste of what it was like in ancient Athens,” added Cartledge. “If it’s a majority of one, then that will be the decision. This system is so rarely used, and so risky, but it’s the nearest thing to trusting the people. It’s an extraordinary thing to trust people who are not experts – but this system existed and lasted for 200 years, and has flourished on and off since.

“Government by referendum suited the Ancient Athenians. Whether it’s a useful add-on to, or a flagrant contradiction of, our democracy – that’s a matter on which we the electorate should have been asked to give our decisive view. But our democracy, being as it is, merely representative – would look like a creeping, crypto-oligarchy to the ancient Greeks – and many today may be coming to a similar conclusion.”

Democracy: A Life is out now.

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