The A, B + C of Democracy

My parents used to have a book called “World History” which I flicked through every now and again.  It was not a happy read: one war after war, one king after another.  A Game of Thrones.  It made me think about how we got to be so peaceful today, living a happy life in Sydney.  Maybe people just got tired of fighting.  That seemed to be what happened in ancient Greece, in the city of Athens.

For as long as any Athenian could remember, the 10 city tribes murdered and Bullied each other to rule the city. After all the blood, sadness and grief, they eventually sat down to talk. They thought that a good way to avoid fighting was to somehow give every man a chance to have their say.  (At that time, it was the men who did all the fighting; actually nothing has changed!)

But with 30,000 men in the city, it was impossible to have a real discussion amongst them all.

They figured out that the best way to Collaborate – to work together – was to start with a discussion group made up of men chosen at random from the ten tribes. They invented the lottery system – the lucky draw!  It’s like placing all the names in a hat, and then having someone (blindfolded) pull out an agreed number of names. It’s the way the 12 person jury is selected in criminal courts.

The Athenians called their discussion group The Council: 500 men selected by lot; 50 from each of the 10 tribes.  In this way the Council was a mirror of the population at large: a mini-public.  No one person, or tribe, could bully any other, because they were all equally represented. The Council’s job was to propose the laws for city, after which another discussion group, called the Assembly, would then meet and vote.  Any man could attend the Assembly and speak and then after all the arguments for and against, a vote would be taken, and that would become the law. They called this system Demokratia – meaning rule of the people.

This system lasted for over 300 years, but it’s not the system we have today, even though we call it by the same name.  Today our democracy is mostly about politicians (men and women) selected through the popular vote.  Many people think that modern democracy is good because the people get to vote for who (the politicians) should be in the Council (Parliament/Congress) representing the people.  But, representative democracy tends to divide people, because it makes people argue about politicians, rather than about the proposed laws.

We think the original Athenian democracy is better, and several countries around the world are now trialling the jury method.  

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis


The newDemocracy Foundation

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