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Delivering "People Power": Lessons from Ancient Athens

A sign reading "Direct Democracy" at a protest in Athens in 2011. Photo: Ggia CC BY-SA 3.0

Take a straw poll of nearly any Western country and you’ll soon notice that a lot of people are unhappy. Neoliberal economics has brought skyrocketing inequality, a callous disregard for the claims of human dignity, a disintegrating social contract and a generation of millennials, the vast majority of whom will be more educated and work harder than their parents, but who will somehow still be worse off.

Yet for all of the injustices this generation has had to stomach, it hasn’t yet been able to sustain a viable counter-movement. Instead, we’ve seen loosely related threads rise, peak and fall away again: Occupy, Syriza — even the long-standing climate change movement tends to lose a little steam every time an international conference fails to deliver convincing results, as demonstrated most recently by the COP21 meeting in Paris this fall.

Part of the difficulty in sustaining the momentum for real change is doubtless down to demographics with the young, who have been hit hardest by austerity, outnumbered by more sheltered baby boomers.

However, I believe that the biggest reason popular movements seem to never-endingly coalesce and evaporate with little to show for it is due to our very conception of democracy.

It is a fundamental characteristic of the current political system that change — even immensely popular change — can only be achieved at great cost and with an enormous time lag. That trait is embedded in the very core of what we call democracy and it is why the odds appear to be stacked against radical movements for equality, regardless of the popularity they enjoy.

Social fragmentation and political apathy

It’s no secret that over the past thirty years, Western society has fragmented, with traditional forms of collective activity replaced by atomized lifestyles that can only be sustained through hyper-vigilant self-reliance.

Instead of working unionized jobs, many millennials have been banished to the ranks of the precariat, working freelance or on contract without steady colleagues. Even those with good jobs are frequently pressured to jump from workplace to workplace or even from country to country on the quest to keep a foothold on the increasingly shaky corporate ladder.

Millennials are expected to change jobs nearly 20 times over their ‘careers’. In this social merry-go-round of ever rotating acquaintances and work colleagues, many people lack both community and financial stability. In other words, the social fabric that is key to facilitating sustained political action on the part of ordinary people is threadbare.

Keeping up momentum is more difficult when you are worried about where your next meal will come from and aren’t in any one place long enough to build trust with your peers. It’s no surprise that we are living this way; after all, social security was purposely eradicated via the aggressive deregulation and neo-liberalization of the past forty years.

The insecurities that deregulation has brought are so glaringly obvious that many choose to focus on bringing regulation back, especially those who remember how (comparatively) good things were when labor, business and trade were subject to a bit more red tape. The flaw in the ointment here is that under the current political system, one is only allowed to regulate after one wins an election.

To make matters worse, because some aspects of deregulation — like international trade liberalization — are subject to international agreements, meaningful change would really only be feasible under a high level of cooperation across many governments, which means winning several elections in close proximity to each other.

That is a difficult task, perhaps even impossible.

Kicking the election habit

Much as we celebrate them, elections are a statistically flawed, deeply biased exercise that delivers but the crudest approximation of the popular will, and sometimes not even that.

Take the latest British elections as just one example. In what was heralded as a change in British politics, in which voters allegedly had more choice than ever before, the Conservative Party won 36.9 percent of the vote, 51 percent of seats in Parliament and 100 percent of all political power in the country.

Since voter turnout was only 66 percent, the Conservatives came to power on the back of a 24 percent popular vote. Yet the party has the right to make all rules for the entire country of Great Britain and every person in it for the next five years.

At the same election the British Labour Party increased its vote share by 1.5 percent yet lost 26 seats. This kind of whimsical result is fairly normal, and while first-past-the-post is definitely the worst electoral system, they all have their flaws – flaws that can be exploited by those in power.

Winning an election depends more on gaming the system to maximize seat gains with minimal votes than it does on winning genuine support. Tactical expertise, deep pockets, and the ability to gerrymander trump popular support more often than all but the most cynical would care to reflect on.

Even where popular movements manage to leap these hurdles and succeed at the polls, the chances of it being translated into the law of the land are still minimal. It is a critical weakness of elections that they confer power on only a few people, and it is easy to bribe, remove or otherwise reduce the efficacy of those people, provided one has the willpower and resources to conduct the kind of concerted campaign this requires.

The former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and US President Barack Obama are but two politicians who have been effectively sidelined from government despite having procured strong mandates from the electorate.

Agreeing to only effect change through the electoral system essentially dooms any poorly-resourced sector of society to failure, even if they represent the majority. At the very least, it sets the bar so high that the time lag between popular endorsement of reform and it actually being carried out can be measured in years, even decades.

It is difficult for the poorly-resourced to win elections, hard to carry out their platform if they do win, and nearly impossible, given today’s realities of workplace fragmentation and social instability, to build up pressure to force change between elections. However, for those with many resources at their disposal, it is easy to win elections (even without popular support), simple to ramrod legislation through, and child’s play to influence decision-making in between elections, primarily through direct, private meetings with government officials.

This all adds up to one inescapable conclusion: continuing to accept the legitimacy of the electoral system is tantamount to accepting the legitimacy of elite-only rule and the neoliberal economics it espouses, markedly increased social stratification and an end to any sort of pretense of equal opportunity.

If we really want to effect change, rather than playing the electoral game where we have been set up for failure, we need to empower people to affect politics under the prevailing, highly decentralized conditions. And oddly enough, going back in time – far back in time – gives some ideas on how this could be achieved.

What we have to learn from the Athenians

When I first began researching democracy, it did not even occur to me to investigate how politics worked in ancient Athens. I simply assumed that democracy then was like “democracy” today. However, when I finally did begin examining this ancient society, I realized that the truth was much different.

The word demokratia meant “people power” in ancient Greece, and while Athens was far from a utopia — we all know their record on women’s liberties and slavery — the Athenians managed to organize their political landscape in a way that delivered a high degree of political equality and freedom among citizens — things we claim to want.

The Athenians achieved this by setting up institutions that made it easy for people to have an immediate and meaningful impact on public affairs. There was no glorious struggle for a peoples’ say in Athens — such things were institutionalized into the very fabric of government.

The two primary organs for this were the Assembly, where citizens met four times a month to pass laws and decrees, and the courts, which were staffed by randomly selected citizen jurors. The majority of civil posts were also held by randomly selected citizens working in panels, and elections were downsized to the absolutely necessary, for example, the selection of military strategists.

Participation was not seen as a privilege that needed to be earned, but as a duty to be compensated in cold, hard cash. As the prominent Athenian orator Pericles once put it: “we… consider the man who takes no part in public life not as one minding his own business, but rather a good for nothing.”

Funnily enough, we still shell out for the only form of participation for which we randomly select citizens today — jury duty. It’s a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that people from all walks of life are only able to participate when they must be compensated for their time. Aside from this one telling trait, however, Athenian democracy, even the knowledge of Athenian democracy, has nearly vanished.

That’s a shame, since the Athenian system dealt with corruption and bribery — two of the biggest problems with electoral democracy today — very effectively. In a society where no individual held power, political corruption was simply a conceptual non-starter. Athens also incorporated a link between citizen participation and decision-making that was highly accountable and — by today’s standards — virtually effortless.

An Athenian could have a proposal debated and decided on within a very short space of time simply by tabling it in the Assembly. He did not need to spend a substantial portion of his life protesting, petitioning, hiring a PR agency or otherwise trying to call attention to an issue. An Athenian might not always get the outcome he desired, of course, but getting the issue onto the public agenda wasn’t much of a challenge.

Even a group of people who were fragmented and lacked the resources to maintain a high level of organization over a long period — farmers scattered over a wide area, for example, or people with disparate backgrounds but similar political views — could come to Assembly and have their concerns heard and dealt with in a matter of hours.

Democracy in Athens was responsive because people held power, and it was harder to wear down popular opinion by throwing money against it. We can’t recreate Athens, of course, but we can learn from it.

Enabling direct participation with technology

While Athenian democracy can seem alien at first glance, it did allow the average person a level of political participation in a world that otherwise held little certainty, and we are already beginning to see some of Athens’ basic principles surfacing again. It is when these strands coalesce that we will get real change.

One element here are the randomly selected people’s assemblies that have been convened from Iceland to Australia over recent years.

In Ireland, the Constitutional Convention, composed of 33 political party members and 66 randomly selected citizens, passed recommendations for no less than 18 Constitutional amendments, including a recommendation for a referendum on same-sex marriage. After decades of political dilly-dallying, same-sex marriage was guaranteed constitutional protection with a vote of 62 percent in favor last May. The Convention’s other recommendations, which included implementing social, cultural and economic rights, showed just how far ahead the average person was of the political establishment and what a high level of consensus could be achieved through direct debate.

Another strand in the movement towards an Athenian system is the re-introduction of pay for participation, for example through a basic income linked to a citizen’s participation. The costs of such a move are lower than one might think — most developed countries could easily cover pay for participation at rates comparable to Athens just with the funds recovered from tax evasion, and there is reason to believe that such a system could even be used to replace welfare entitlements at a lower total cost.

Yet a third strand of the resurfacing Athenianism is participatory budgeting, allowing people to choose specific projects to be funded by public revenues. Originating in Porto Alegre, Brazil in the 1990s, participatory budgeting is now in use from New York to Paris. The unwashed masses’ favorite projects? Education, road safety and providing access for the disabled.

Finally, there are the movements focused on enabling direct online participation. IServeU allows citizens to have a direct say in Councillor Rommel Silverio’s vote on Yellowknife City Council in Canada, while Loomio has been used to allow direct citizen participation on Wellington City Council in New Zealand. These online platforms allow people to debate directly with one another and to vote, lowering the costs of peer-to-peer debate by cutting out the expensive travel.

What all of these strands have in common, is that they create a hub for direct citizen engagement. People are no longer fragmented or isolated. They do not have to win the right to participate in decision-making. Instead, this is freely provided on an equal basis, and, in some cases, even enabled by providing the money that allows citizens to escape from time-poverty.

This turns the tables on traditional neoliberal politics and economics. Popular movements need no longer struggle to be heard against a tide of experienced, well-resourced elites, a circumstance which has eroded so much hope and enthusiasm for politics. Instead participation becomes simple and easy, even under the current difficult conditions. People are empowered — and where people hold power, you have democracy.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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