Where has true democracy gone?

Currently reading an interesting Paper on the search for True Democracy written by Roger Peach, where the writer traces the concept and practice of ‘democratic governance’ from its roots in the history of Athens, around 500 years BC, through to the present bastardization of the concept, a flagrant display of which is currently being played out inside the crumbling limestone of the Palace of Westminster.

Not only did the ‘Greeks have a word for it’, they also had a clever device ( a ‘kleroterion‘ to ensure impartial ‘fair play’ in the selection of their officials..

13.11.19 330px-AGMA_Kleroterion

kleroterion in the Ancient Agora Museum (Athens)

In governancesortition (also known as selection by lotallotment, or demarchy) is the selection of political officials as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates,[1] a system intended to ensure that all competent and interested parties have an equal chance of holding public office. It also minimizes factionalism, since there would be no point making promises to win over key constituencies if one was to be chosen by lot, while elections, by contrast, foster it.[2] In ancient Athenian democracy, sortition was the traditional and primary method for appointing political officials, and its use was regarded as a principal characteristic of democracy.[3]

Today, sortition is still commonly used to select prospective jurors in common law-based legal systems and is sometimes used in forming citizen groups with political advisory power (citizens’ juries or citizens’ assemblies).[4]

Athenian democracy developed in the 6th century BC out of what was then called isonomia (equality of law and political rights). Sortition was then the principal way of achieving this fairness. It was utilized to pick most[5] of the magistrates for their governing committees, and for their juries (typically of 501 men). Aristotle relates equality and democracy:

Democracy arose from the idea that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All are alike free therefore they claim that all are free absolutely… The next is when the democrats, on the grounds that they are all equal, claim equal participation in everything.[6]

It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.[7]

In Athens, “democracy” (literally meaning rule by the people) was in opposition to those supporting a system of oligarchy (rule by a few). Athenian democracy was characterised by being run by the “many” (the ordinary people) who were allotted to the committees which ran government. Thucydides has Pericles make this point in his Funeral Oration:

“It is administered by the many instead of the few; that is why it is called a democracy.”[8]

The Athenians believed ‘sortition’ to be democratic but not ‘elections’[5] and they used these complex procedures – with purpose-built allotment machines (kleroteria) – to avoid the corrupt practices used by oligarchs to buy their way into office. According to the author Mogens Herman Hansen the citizen’s court was superior to the assembly because the allotted members swore an oath which ordinary citizens in the assembly did not and therefore the court could annul the decisions of the assembly. Both Aristotle[5] and Herodotus (one of the earliest writers on democracy) emphasize selection by lot as a test of democracy,

“The rule of the people has the fairest name of all, equality (isonomia), and does none of the things that a monarch does. The lot determines offices, power is held accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public.”[9]

Past scholarship maintained that sortition had roots in the use of chance to divine the will of the gods, but this view is no longer common among scholars.[10] In Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades used sortition to determine who ruled over which domain. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld.

In Athens, to be eligible to be chosen by lot, citizens self-selected themselves into the available pool, then by lotteries in the kleroteria machines. The magistracies assigned by lot generally had terms of service of 1 year. A citizen could not hold any particular magistracy more than once in his lifetime but could hold other magistracies. All male citizens over 30 years of age, who were not disenfranchised by atimia, were eligible. Those selected through lot underwent examination called dokimasia in order to avoid incompetent officials. Rarely were selected citizens discarded.[11] Magistrates, once in place, were subjected to constant monitoring by the Assembly. Magistrates appointed by lot had to render account of their time in office upon their leave, called euthynai. However, any citizen could request the suspension of a magistrate with due reason.

With a hat-tip to Roger Peach for his excellent research.

Acknowledgment to Wikipedia for information on ‘sortition’ .

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s