What can we learn from Ancient Greek democracy?
There has been a renewed interest in the theory and practise of democracy, particularly since the economic crisis of 2008. Whether it is the supposedly ‘direct’ democracy of the Occupy movement or the arguments about the role and function of ‘representatives’ like MPs, events have led to greater scrutiny of claims about how democratic a course of action is.
But, like much of our political vocabulary, the idea of democracy goes back to a very different climate: the ancient Greek city-state. Famously, the Ancient Athenians practised a very different form of democracy to that familiar to people today. Known as ‘direct democracy’, there were elections to a huge variety of important public offices, regular reviews and discussions of policy in the public assembly, and the use of sortition (appointment by drawing of lots) for some public offices. The range and depth of involvement in public matters seems positively radical by comparison to today, where at best citizens vote every few years. However, the practise of democracy in Ancient Greece was tied to objectionable practises such as slavery and the subjugation of women.
Is there anything positive to celebrate and learn from in the Greek’s practice of democracy? Should we re-incorporate the practice of sortition, or more general aspects of direct democracy, into how we do democracy today? Or can direct democracy only work in small, homogenous city-states? If the Greek’s conception of democracy could co-exist with slavery, does it just belong in the dustbin of history? What, if anything, can we learn from the Greeks?