British democracy? No thanks!

Paul Cartledge
18 July 2001

It has been brought to my attention, as I sit (or flit) contentedly in the Elysian Fields, that you British have recently held what you call a General Election. I am told that you consider this to be one of the benchmarks of a truly democratic constitution in healthy action. Let me tell you: from where I sit (or flit) it is anything but.

A lottery of democracy

Take the very idea of elections, for a start. We Athenians regard them as very much a second best. Or even a first worst, from our own democratic perspective. You see, elections favour an elite - those who are already well-known or notable, perhaps because of their family background, their education or their personal wealth. Such advantages are inegalitarian and unfair. Democracy is all about equality - equality both of opportunity and of outcome. The way to achieve that when it comes to appointing to political office is not by elections, but by the use of the lottery. The lottery is anonymous. It encourages all to put their names forward. It maximises the chances of any one individual being selected. It is premised on the belief that all those who are duly qualified, that is all citizens, have a duty as well as the right, privilege and capacity to exercise responsible political functions, to be politically active on behalf of the community.

People power (ours) versus oligarchy (yours)

Ah, I hear you object, but even you supposedly radically egalitarian Athenians use election to fill some offices, and indeed the highest offices involving military or financial responsibility and authority. Why do you make exceptions to your precious rule of selection by lot precisely in the cases of the most important offices of government? A fair objection, I agree - superficially. We use election selectively because we recognize that in certain cases - the security of the community, its financial administration - individual expertise or personal capacity are relevant factors. But we make doubly sure in those cases that even (or, rather, especially) the elected officials are democratically controlled, by making them subject to instant recall, by limiting their terms of office, and by forcing them to render accounts regularly - to the People as a whole.

Besides, it’s not only a matter of the lottery versus election, if I may say so. We Athenians would even question whether what you British call ‘democracy’ is really democracy at all, in any useful sense of the word. You see, for us ‘democracy’ meant just what it said: ‘People-Power’.

All the People (that is, the duly qualified adult male citizens) genuinely exercise self-government, directly, without the intervention of a Government chosen to act in the People's name and ruling through (and over) citizens elected to represent the People in parliament. Ours is a direct, unmediated form of democracy. Your so-called democracy is really a form of disguised oligarchy, the rule of a Few not only in the name of, but also in the place of the Many.

Representative randomness

Ah, I hear you object again - but how many of you Athenians regularly turn up to discuss and vote in your Assembly? How genuinely participatory is your so-called People Power? Or is it not the case that in reality a handful of professional politicians carve up the jobs and offices among themselves and relied on only a selection of the so-called masses turning out to participate? And what about the women?

Well, let me take the last point first. I’m told that it was only in the twentieth century that your women achieved exact citizen equality, even though so-called democratic institutions had been in place for the men for many years, even centuries before that. As for the numbers or proportions of us who actively participate in voting, I have to admit that we are lucky to have more than twenty per cent of us voting at any one Assembly. But it is not always the same twenty per cent, and our citizen body is a lot more homogeneous socially and culturally than your electorate - so that any random fifth of us stand a good chance of being representative of the whole in tastes, aspirations and inclinations.

Living politics in Athens

Besides, our Assembly meets to take major public policy decisions every nine days on average throughout the year. Every nine days; as opposed to your general elections every, what, four or five YEARS? So don’t talk to me about ‘unrepresentative’ decision-taking! As for our professional politicians, they too are no less subject to popular control than elected or allotted office-holders.

But it’s not just a question, anyhow, of how many, or how often: the difference between our democracy and yours is also a difference of essential nature - or rather culture. We live politics in a way you apathetic Britons simply could not begin to understand. Politics is not for us a separate sphere of activity, to be indulged in occasionally and for the most part reluctantly. For us, the polity is our very life and soul. It gives us, as one of our leaders (Pericles) famously said, a model of the good life to die for. How many of you Britons, I wonder, could honestly say that?

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