The myth of modern democracy
8th July, 2004
Far from being proof of our political emancipation, our right to vote in parliamentary elections is a symbol of power that keeps us powerless.
Although we assume that British democracy is modelled on the ancient Greek system, there are essential differences. The ancient Greeks did not vote for representatives. The 500-member governing council of Athens and most of the officials were chosen by lot, much as a jury is selected in modern Britain. The terms served were short: council members served for one year and could not serve more than two terms.
Athens was small: the total number of citizens probably never reached 50,000. By the time they died, most citizens had held political office of some kind at least once. The council coordinated the state and prepared proposals (changes in the law, declarations of war, and so forth) for the general assembly. Any citizen could attend the assembly, which met on roughly 40 days spaced throughout the year. Final decisions were taken there by votes cast directly on each proposal, after speeches for and against.
Classical historian Moses Finley defends ancient Greek politics against two camps of critics: elitists, for whom it was too democratic; and anti-elitists, for whom it was not democratic enough (because women and slaves did not have citizenship). For Finley, it was democracy of an extremely direct kind,...
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