Democracy: What Would It Be Like?

| by Arthur D. Robbins

( January 14, 2015, Boston, Sri Lanka Guardian) What would it be like if we really lived in a democracy? These days just about everybody seems to be enjoying the benefits democratic government, that is if you believe government propaganda and you are one of the credulous many who are eager for a sense of well being at any price. But what is usually called democracy is in fact an oligarchy of elected representatives responsible to the business interests who bankrolled their campaign. If people were actually given the opportunity to choose democracy, they might do so, provided they understood what the word actually means. Our one uncontested example is ancient Athens.

In ancient Athens, in the 5th century, B.C.E., there was no written constitution. There were no written laws. There was no codification of the laws. The ekklesia in session was the government. It evolved organically over the generations in response to changing conditions and the emotional and intellectual makeup of those who attended. In the United States we have a written Constitution.
Ancient Athens was a citizen-state. It was the political center for the larger landmass known as Attica, a peninsula extending southward into the Aegean Sea. At 9,000-10000 square miles Attica is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island. Attica’s population during the height of Athenian democracy in the fifth century B.C.E. was between 300,000-350,000. Of that number some 30,000-40,000, or about ten percent, were citizens. Only adult males over the age of eighteen years who served in the military qualified for citizenship. Women were denied political rights as were slaves, about 20,000 of them, and metics, or foreigners.

What made ancient Athens a citizen-state? It was self-governing. That is to say the citizens themselves ran the government on a day-to-day basis. The citizens—not their representatives— gathered in the Assembly at least once a month and more frequently as required. There, citizens debated and voted on the issues that affected their community and their nation as a whole. By a show of hands and sometimes by casting a black (no) or white (yes) ball into a clay jar, they voted to go to war or not, to receive ambassadors or not, to grant a certain individual citizenship or not.

Athenians voted on which projects to fund and which not to fund. They voted on laws regulating the exportation of grain, which was in short supply. They decided how much should be charged for leasing a temple’s land. They decided how many and who should be the envoys representing Athens in foreign lands. The week-by-week conduct of a war had to go before the Assembly week by week.

The Ekklesia (Assembly) met at the Pnyx, an amphitheater located about one half mile outside of Athens, itself. At the front end of the Pnyx was the bema, or stepping stone, where a citizen would rise to address the Assembly. As many as six thousand would be in attendance on a given day. The presiding officer would begin each session with the question, “Who wishes to speak?” Any one in attendance had the right to address the assembly.

The bema was the material embodiment of “equal speech” — isēgoría —i.e. the equal right of every Athenian citizen to debate matters of policy. Note the difference between “equal speech,” or “political speech,” the right to debate and legislate, and what today we call “free speech,” the prohibition against being denied the right to speak. We could be speaking on a street corner or marching in a protest. “Free speech” says we have the right to do that. It says the right cannot be taken away. “Free speech” has no particular context. We are granted the right to say what we want, provided, it turns out, we do not threaten the governing powers. “Free speech” is a civil right. It is not a political right. It does not give us the right to set national policy. “Equal speech” in ancient Athens did.

Haranguing some passerby to vote for a certain candidate is not political speech nor is voting in an election. “What about writing a letter to my congressman? Isn’t that political speech?” No. It is complaining or pleading. Most of the time it changes nothing. It has no real power. It is not constitutive. It does not have the power to bring something into existence. Only political speech does.

In 1789, the year the Constitution was ratified, the United States covered a landmass of over 500,000 square miles and had a population in excess of 3,000,000. As was the case in ancient Athens, women and slaves, about 200,000 were denied political rights. In the House of Representatives, made up of sixty-five members, thirty-three individuals would constitute a quorum. Of these, seventeen would constitute a majority, the sense of the House.

There were twenty-six members of the Senate, two for each state, of which fourteen would constitute a quorum, eight of whom would make a majority, or the sense of the Senate. Seventeen in the House plus eight in the Senate equals twenty-five. Thus it appears that the liberties, happiness, interests, and great concerns of the whole United States were dependent upon the integrity, virtue, wisdom, and knowledge of 25 or 26 men.

If one rounds off the numbers and does a comparison, ancient Athens with a population of 300,000, was governed by 30,000 men. The United States in 1790 with a population ten times that of ancient Athens or 3,000,000 was governed by 91 men. 30,000 vs. 91 describes the difference, numerically speaking, between a democracy and an oligarchy.

In the year 2015, combining the Senate and the House, there is a governing body comprised of 535 men and women for a country with a population in excess of 300,000, 000, or 10,000 times that of ancient Athens. Thus there is roughly one voice for every 600, 000 Americans, hardly what one would call a democracy.

Can we even conceive of transposing the benefits of ancient Athenian democracy onto the United States of America, a country covering a landmass of approximately 3,500,000 million square miles, with a population of over 300,000,000? If we start on a small scale and use our imagination, perhaps we can.

If we return to the concept of “equal speech,” “political speech” or isēgoría, and apply it to our current situation in the year 2015, we realize that, in the United States, political speech is reserved for the governing oligarchy. The 435 men and women who sit on the floor of the House of Representatives have the right to speak. They can debate and legislate, set policy. 623 of us sit in the gallery observing and listening to what takes place on the floor. We cannot speak. We can only listen and observe. We are politically powerless. We lack political speech. We are “speechless.”

Well just suppose that the 623 of us in the gallery decide to descend on to the House floor and enter the debate. We now have a political voice. We are no longer “speechless.” There are now 1058 of us on the floor, instead of 435. 623, the majority of us, are free spirits. We didn’t get to the floor by soliciting millions from corporate donors to whom we then owe our allegiance. We are “walk-ons,” “free agents” with a political voice. We simply speak our minds and vote what makes sense to us based on our various backgrounds and interests. Such an assemblage is a lot more likely to speak for the common good than Lockheed Martin.

Let us imagine that as citizens with political speech, on the floor of the House of Representatives, in the year 2015, we have the same rights as the ancient Athenians gathered in the Pnyx, in the 5th century B.C.E., more the 2,500 years ago. In ancient Athens anyone could declare before the assembly that a law was unconstitutional or at odds with the common good. If a majority agreed, the law was null and void and the proposer of said law was penalized This right was known as graphe paranomon. Now we have that right, those of us on the floor of the House of Representatives in the year 2015. Anyone one of us can declare a law unconstitutional or at odds with the common good. If a majority of us on the House floor agree, that law is null and void. We could start with the “Patriot Act” and then pass on to the “National Defense Authorization Act of 2014,” both of which violate the Constitution. Now they are out the door.

And further we have the right of eisangelia or denunciation. Anyone of us can charge a citizen with treason, the attempt to overthrow our democracy, or corruption, taking payment to make a proposal before the Assembly, in this case the House of Representatives. What is jubilantly known as “Obamacare” was proposed by the insurance companies who stand to gain the most from its enactment and dutifully inscribed by the congressmen who, undoubtedly were duly rewarded for their efforts. Once again, out the door, if a majority of us are convinced of the justice of the accusation. Anyone of us can charge an office holder with malfeasance or incompetence. If the majority agrees that individual is removed from office.

In ancient Athens there was a monthly inspection of those magistrates who were entrusted with public funds. Also, on a monthly basis, the assembly would call a vote on the magistrates. At this time any government official could receive a vote of no confidence and be dismissed. Such accusations were not uncommon. “Ancient democracy was as a rule characterized by frequency of political prosecutions, whereas oligarchies suffered from the opposite defect, that leaders hardly ever called to account at all.” (Hansen, 218) Wouldn’t it be nice if we in the 21st century had that same power? If only we could weed our garden, we could make room for healthy growth.

In ancient Athens, in the 5th century, B.C.E., there was no written constitution. There were no written laws. There was no codification of the laws. The ekklesia in session was the government. It evolved organically over the generations in response to changing conditions and the emotional and intellectual makeup of those who attended. In the United States we have a written Constitution. Fifty-five men — landed aristocrats, speculators, merchants, attorneys — now dead for more than two hundred years, determine the government we live under. In ancient Athens the living governed themselves.

In addition to participating in the debates occurring in the Assembly, the Athenian citizen might serve on the Council of five hundred (the boule). The boule was responsible for drafting preparatory legislation for consideration by the Assembly, overseeing the meetings of the Assembly, and in certain cases executing legislation as directed by the Assembly.

The members of the boule were selected by a lottery held each year among male citizens over thirty years of age. Fifty men would be chosen from each of the ten Athenian tribes, with service limited to twice in a lifetime. There were ten months in the Athenian calendar, and one of the ten tribes was in ascendancy each month.

The fifty citizen councilors (prytanies) of the dominant tribe each month served in an executive function over the boule and the ekklesia. From that group of fifty, one individual (the epistates) would be selected each day to preside over the boule and, if it met in session that day, the ekklesia. The epistates held the keys to the treasury and the seal to the city, and he welcomed foreign ambassadors. It has been calculated that one-quarter of all citizens must at one time in their lives have held the post, which could be held only once in a lifetime. Meetings of the boule might occur on as many as 260 days in the course of a year.

Suppose we wanted to set up a democracy in the United States. It would be easy enough to do so by simply multiplying sufficiently the number of assemblies. How does the number 18,000 sound? Sounds like a lot? That is the number of school districts in the United States. Each school district could have an assembly that debated and voted on national legislation and policy. Votes could be tabulated on a national basis and thus would the citizens govern themselves. Extrapolating somewhat to the larger scale, we could have a boule of 2,000 selected by lot from around the country. This council of 2,000 would set the agenda for the various local assemblies.

Let us imagine that the assemblies meet forty times a year as they did in Athens and that they are sitting three or four days a week. Let us imagine that some meetings are held in the evenings and over the weekends. Maybe 500 citizens would attend a given assembly, with different citizens in attendance from one session to the next based on interest and availability. If you do the arithmetic you will learn that on a given day 9,000,000 Americans are actively involved in governing themselves, determining how monies should be spent, whether or not to wage war or peace. That is democracy at work.

Yes, you might lose some television time but just think, you and your friends and neighbors would be running the show. You wouldn’t have to sit by, leading a life of quiet desperation, passively enduring the depredation of the economy, the ecology, foreign lands and cultures all to serve the predator class in control. Such participation would be uplifting and invigorating. Yes there would be the stress of disagreement and debate and division of opinion. But you would get better at expressing your thoughts and winning others to your side. And you, yourself, might grow and learn from what others have to say. You might find yourself with a sense of pride for being an American.

The third element of the Athenian Democracy — the Ekklesia and the boule are the first two — was the system of jury courts known as the dikasteria. Jurors were selected by lot from an annual pool of 6,000 citizens (600 from each of the ten tribes) over the age of thirty. There were both private suits and public suits. For private suits the minimum jury size was 201; it was increased to 401 if a sum of more than 1,000 drachmas was at issue.

For public suits there was a jury of 501. On occasion a jury of 1,001 or 1,501 would be selected. Rarely, the entire pool of 6,000 would be put on a case. No Athenian juror was ever subjected to compulsory empanelment, voir dire, or sequestration, nor was any magistrate empowered to decide what evidence the jury could or could not be allowed to see. It was forbidden by law to pay anyone to represent you in court.

Jurors could not be penalized for their vote—unless it could be shown that they had accepted bribes. But the practice of selecting juries randomly on the morning of the trial and the sheer size of the juries served to limit the effectiveness of bribery. The Athenian court system did not operate according to precedent. No jury was bound by the decisions of previous juries in previous cases. This is a striking difference between Athenian law and more familiar systems such as Roman law or English common law. The Athenian system of justice was consistent with the prevailing opposition to elitism and the oppressive effects of received wisdom in matters of justice. Each citizen used his own common sense to make judgments based on personal belief and prevailing mores.

Private cases were put forward by the litigants themselves, and single speeches on each side were timed by water clock. In a public suit the litigants each had three hours to speak. Much less time was allotted in private suits, the time proportional to the amount of money at stake. Justice was rapid, because a case could last no longer than one day. There were no lawyers. There were no judges, only juries of the litigants’ peers. This was amateur justice—perhaps the best kind.

There were about eleven hundred magistrates or administrators in Athens whose job it was to oversee the day-to-day responsibilities of a complex communal life. There was water supply and grain supply to attend to. There were building projects. There were issues of trade. There were religious festivals to organize and oversee. Of these eleven hundred administrators, all but one hundred were chosen by allotment. An individual would put his name forward to hold a certain office in the year prior to his desired tenure. He had to be at least thirty years of age, or in some cases forty. His name was chosen at random from the pool of nominees, and he held office for a year. Generals and those in charge of large sums of money were elected.

It was assumed that magistrates had no special expertise. The lack of expertise was mitigated by the fact that magistrates served as part of a panel overseeing a certain function, and that what one lacked in knowledge another might have. A magistrate could hold his position only once in a lifetime, another way of minimizing the amount of harm any individual could cause. As a further precaution, all magistrates were subject to a review beforehand that might disqualify them for office. Any citizen could challenge a magistrate for his conduct, leading to a trial that could result in his being removed from office and possibly penalized. Thus, accountability to the citizenry was built into the system at the most fundamental level. Even Pericles, the most esteemed figure in Athenian life, could be chastised and fined for his conduct of the war with Sparta.

If we consider broadly the form of government in ancient Athens and its system of justice, one overriding dynamic becomes evident: fear of power, fear of the concentration of power, fear of the abuse of power. This was reflected in the use of large juries (thus making bribery and manipulation more difficult), the absence of lawyers, the absence of a police force, the wide use of arbitration, reliance on current values and common sense for passing judgment (rather than the intricacies of common law), the use of a citizen army rather than a standing professional army controlled by the state, and the use of sortition (lottery) rather than election as a means of choosing magistrates and members of the boule, brief tenure in office.

Ancient Athens was not a perfect government, but it was a functioning political democracy. The people of Attica governed themselves. The wealthiest aristocrat and the humblest artisan stood on equal footing in meetings of the Assembly, as participants in the Council, as jurors, and as magistrates. There were no representatives. There was no monarch. There were no oligarchs.

Athenians of all classes were the state. They debated on equal footing the issues of the day, passed laws, ran the city on a day-to-day basis, filled the juries, and held all magistrates and even generals accountable for their conduct. There was no privileged class safe from public scrutiny and accountability.

These were a dynamic and self-confident people. Their intellectual and artistic achievements provide the foundation for Western civilization. Basically, they invented democracy. They were our first and remain our enduring philosophers, many of whose ideas are as valid today as when they were uttered some twenty-five hundred years ago. Greek architecture inspires us still. The vibrancy and richness of Greek dramatic writing from this era have yet to be equaled.

It is highly unlikely that a different form of government could ever have produced such riches, certainly not the one proposed by Plato in his Republic or the one that existed in Sparta. It was the democratic governing process itself—the pride it inspired, the intellectual and oratorical skills it required—that produced a public capable of creating and appreciating such a rich cultural life. One can wonder what America might become under similar circumstances.

Recommended reading

There are many excellent sources on the subject of ancient Athens. I recommend as a starting point: H.D.F. Kitto, The Greeks; R.K. Sinclair, Democracy and Participation in Athens; I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates; and Mogens Herman Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes. Hansen’s is the definitive text. It is comprehensive. It is detailed. Its only drawback is that it covers 4th century Athens when Athenian society was depleted by the war with Sparta and democracy was in decline.

Arthur D. Robbins is the author of Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained: The True Meaning of Democracy, referred to by Ralph Nader as “An eye-opening, earth-shaking book… a fresh, torrential shower of revealing insights and vibrant lessons…”