“Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.”
Thus said Aristotle.
Here’s another quote from more recent times.
“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”
So said President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Today’s post started as an ill-defined idea in my head following me reading a recent essay over on Patrice Ayme’s blog. It was his (her?) post of the 17th July in which was written, “Representative democracy has to be destroyed as an ideal.” and later,
Meanwhile the French People would be well advised to search for a new form of government more appropriate to the modern world, and the increasing democracy we all dearly need.
One does not have to look very far for inspiration: the Confoederatio Helvetica next door, an independent, and central part of the Franks’ Francia, is enjoying a much more direct form of democracy.
that caused me to leave a comment,
I read a deeper malaise in your essay, Patrice, and that is the failure of ‘representative’ democracy in country after country around the world. In fact, it’s inspiring me to write a post over on LfD about the possibilities for truly democratic government.
that, in turn, was replied to by Patrice:
Please go ahead, Paul, and keep me informed! ;-)! And you are completely right. Representative democracy is actually oligarchic representation. Athenians had 80,000 citizens, and 80,000 legislators. France has about 1,000 times more citizens, and one half of a thousandth (1/2,000) fewer legislators. That makes the French democratic index half of a million times less than the Athenians!
Let me step back for a moment.
Over the life of this blog, I have touched on the vulnerability of human life on this planet more than once. It’s not being at all smart to say that mankind is crapping on its own doorstep and our future is in severe doubt. The reason I say it’s not smart is simply because millions of people almost certainly think that or something pretty damn close.
Maybe the huge divide between what ‘the man in the street’ knows makes common sense and the terrible lack of common sense shown by so many of our governments is at the root of the problem. In other words, our representative democratic system isn’t working.
Here’s a letter from the pages of the Tampa Bay Times from just last Tuesday.
Tuesday’s letters: Our democratic system is at risk
There are thoughtful, informed people who are worried that our democratic system of government is not working and the whole enterprise is at risk. I think there is only one solution to the problem: to elect people who have demonstrated the ability to work cooperatively with others and solve problems.
It is foolish to think that the personalities of members of Congress change when they arrive in Washington. A worrisome number were fools, buffoons and rigidly ideological before they were elected, and there is no realistic possibility that anyone or anything can change their personalities after they are elected and while they are in office.
It is a crisis long in the making. Most students finish high school with little or no understanding of American history or the way their government works. There is no understanding of the idea of citizenship and the heavy responsibility imposed on citizens who live in a democratic republic. There has never been so much information so easily available that could allow people to make wise use of their votes. But without the perspective of education and a deep understanding that voting is everything in our system of government, it all may slip away.
Roger C. Benson, St. Petersburg
“to elect people who have demonstrated the ability to work cooperatively with others and solve problems.”
I wouldn’t argue at all with the wisdom in those words. But I would add to it.
It’s my sense that many citizens in many countries feel that the whole business of government has got to large, too complicated, too remote and, frankly, has less to do with working “cooperatively with others and solve problems” than with feeding its own mouth. Take voter turnout.
Why such high levels of absenteeism; for want of a better description?
Let’s go back to the Athenians as Patrice mentioned. Plenty on the web to read but this article caught my eye.
Athenian Democracy: a brief overview
Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of February 28, 2003
· Summary ·
This article was originally written for the online discussion series “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context,” organized by Adriaan Lanni and sponsored by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies. Its purpose is to introduce, very briefly, the institutions of the Athenian democracy during the late 5th century BCE through the end of the radical democracy in the late 4th century. This is a companion-piece to “The Development of Athenian Democracy,” also written for the CHS’s discussion series.
· Introduction ·
The city of Athens lived under a radically democratic government from 508 until 322 BCE. Before the earlier date there was democracy to be found here and there in the government of Athens, and democratic institutions survived long after the latter date, but for those 186 years the city of Athens was self-consciously and decidedly democratic, autonomous, aggressive, and prosperous. Democracy in Athens was not limited to giving citizens the right to vote. Athens was not a republic, nor were the People governed by a representative body of legislators. In a very real sense, the People governed themselves, debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains (for the latter, see Aeschin. 3.157).1 The Athenian democracy was not, of course, a free-for-all of mob rule. The Athenians understood the value of checks and balances and of enforcing time for reflection before acting. They understood that professionalism is necessary in certain jobs, that accountability was necessary of most jobs, and that some jobs required absolute job-security. The system evolved over time, suffered two complete breakdowns in the 5th century, and is certainly open to criticism at many points during its history. Nevertheless, it was coherent enough during those two centuries that we can describe it, in general terms, without being too far wrong on any point. And despite its moments of imprudence, injustice, and indecision, it was an experiment remarkable enough to deserve our attention.
The early history of Athenian Democracy and its development is the subject of another article in this series. This general description of how the Athenians governed themselves will focus on the 4th century BCE, both because the democracy was most fully developed during that time and because the majority of our evidence either comes from that period, or describes the the Athenian government during that period.
Now there’s much more to read here for those so interested but I want to highlight a section from the above. This section:
In a very real sense, the People governed themselves, debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains. The Athenian democracy was not, of course, a free-for-all of mob rule. The Athenians understood the value of checks and balances and of enforcing time for reflection before acting. They understood that professionalism is necessary in certain jobs, that accountability was necessary of most jobs, and that some jobs required absolute job-security.
So from 322 BCE to 2014 AD!
A few days ago, Jeannie needed to change some details regarding her US Social Security payment. We saw that it could be done online. As one would expect, setting up online access for Jean meant jumping through a number of security hoops. All more or less sorted in 20 minutes.
It was clear that it would be incredibly difficult for someone to fraudulently break into her online SSA account. Think of the millions who perfectly happily manage their bank accounts online.
Ergo, there are no technical issues why every single eligible voter in the USA (and many other countries) couldn’t move towards governing themselves in a direct manner just like the Athenians. Indeed, voting in the USA at times of Presidential elections is permitted. But all that is doing is participating in a system that isn’t delivering real democracy.
We need to govern ourselves: “debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains.” Because humanity is facing some issues that are very great indeed!
Or have I missed something bloody obvious?
I opened today’s post with two quotations. I shall close by offering another two.
“If we don’t hang together, we most assuredly will hang separately.”
Benjamin Franklin advising the original continental congress of what became the United States of America.
“A key political question today is: Do you support the well-being of the Earth and the life that the Earth supports?“
From a good friend and supporter of this blog who chooses to remain anonymous. Who then added: “This question has spiritual, natural and rational implications which frame the debate in terms of human values greater than money.”