Democracy is supposed to be a system of ruling ‘by the people, for the people’, but representative democracy (democracy as it is practised in most of the west) actively and repeatedly keeps ‘the people’ out of the decision-making process.
Journalist Patrick Chalmers, an expert on political structures, looks to Athens – the birthplace of this modern, failing system – to find a better solution in citizens’ assemblies.
An Athenian remedy: the rise, fall and possible rebirth of democracy
Aside from clashes between police and protestors, Athenians that summer held people’s assemblies, mass gatherings of strangers talking together in public spaces. These assemblies were what first brought Sagris to Syntagma Square with her mother Tatiana Skanatovits, an actress and assembly organiser. Daily meetings in front of parliament saw people tell their stories of crisis, debate alternatives, and decide on assembly actions.
The economic crisis triggered a well-documented political crisis, the irony of which is not lost on those from the country that gave the world democracy
“If we are talking about democracy, I believe that right now I’m not living in a democratic regime, so I don’t see why I should participate in a process like this,” he said the day before the ballot. “It hurts me deep in the soul to say that, but after 30 years I will not vote.”
For Aristotle, whether states were oligarchic or democratic was deeply ingrained in their ways of working – the politics of structure itself. He believed that cities that chose their office holders, jurors and judges by lottery were democratic and that those using elections were oligarchic – that’s Greek for government of, by, and for the few.
Citizens’ assemblies are happening everywhere from Australia to Canada, Bolivia to France.
The need to build trust and broad interest are also key. After decades of political apathy and the erosion of trust in elected representatives, citizens need faith in their own capacity to shape policy. And that of their peers. Knowing what examples of self-governance have worked, and how, certainly helps.