Nayada Sagris was nine when her life collided with the realities of Greek politics. It was the summer of 2011, with people massed in their thousands on Athenian streets protesting ongoing government efforts to renegotiate their country’s rising debts.
Greece was already a couple of years into “the crisis”, as many locals still call it, which meant severe public spending cuts, tax hikes, and public asset sales following the global financial collapse of 2007-2008. Its effects are still being felt.
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.
Sagris, now 17, remembers days spent painting, talking and protesting, the time marked occasionally by volleys of tear gas fired by riot police. For her younger self, the political technicalities weren’t her main focus.
The Greek crisis played out in ways unique to the country, due in part to years of budget mishandling by governments on the “left” and “right”. Adopting the euro in 2001 meant handing chunks of power over economic and finance policy to European-level bodies. Greek politicians lost flexibility on managing an economy based mainly on shipping and tourism, limiting their options to EU-wide remedies that didn’t fit.
That loss of powers to foreign institutions and creditors is bitterly familiar to dozens of countries around the world, particularly poorer ones. States across Africa, Latin America and Asia have suffered much the same over decades at the hands of lenders and the World Bank and IMF. Ecuador, for example, has been in the news as IMF-imposed austerity measures have seen indigenous people protesting in the streets of the capital Quito.
What was startling about Greece was to see those same throttling policies and financial penalties applied to a relatively rich western country. Its economy suffered the longest recession of any advanced capitalist economy, worse than the US depression after the crash of 1929. It’s no wonder Greek politics are in turmoil, with poverty and social exclusion significantly worse and hundreds of thousands of well-educated Greeks having left to rebuild their lives elsewhere.
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. Asking some how they would vote in European Parliament elections last May was to invite a political history lesson.
Petros Vourlis, an electrical engineer professionally but also an advocate for comprehensive political reforms, wasn’t planning to tick any boxes on EU elections day.
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.”
But what exactly qualifies as a “democratic regime”? Our default response is usually one where governments are chosen by periodic elections that are “free and fair”. They include basic freedoms for people to speak, assemble, and associate politically with others. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index series is maybe the best gauge of how states measure up on that scale, though it has both flaws and omissions.
What have the ancient Greeks ever done for us?
What all various modern measures of “democracy” ignore is how government by election was not the way ancient Athenians either imagined or did what they called rule by the people.
Aristotle (384–322BC) was not only a philosopher but also a pioneering giant of political science. He observed and classified how city states of his time did their politics, identifying six regimes in all. The three “ideal” ones – where rulers would rule for the benefit of all citizens – were monarchy, aristocracy, and polity. Respectively, that meant rule by the one, the few, or the many. He called their real-life equivalents – where rulers ruled for their own benefit – tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy.
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 of Athens didn’t only gather to discuss but to actually make political decisions, which then became the laws of the city’
He argued that lotteries extinguish the electoral campaigning advantages of wealthier, more expensively educated candidates over poorer adversaries. He reasoned that a handful of people, grown used to generations in office, are easier to corrupt than the many.
Introducing a democracy teach-in Sagris attended on the eve of elections last May, Alexandros Schismenos, an activist academic and Aristotle expert from the University of Ioannina, said: "Around us is what we call public space, the space of public contact, commercial space but also the space of ideas, where philosophy is born."
Lean and good-looking, his dark curls tied in a knot, Schismenos cut the figure of a modern-day Aristotle.
“Citizens of Athens didn’t only gather to discuss but to actually make political decisions, which then became the laws of the city,” Schismenos added.
That made for personal politics quite unlike those we know from representative democracies today. Citizens were ever ready for lottery selection as judges, jury or political office holders – active decision makers in the affairs of their city. That they were chosen by lot – not election – was the critical issue for Aristotle.
The potential of citizens’ assemblies
Lottery selection has come back in political fashion in recent years, using techniques to promote informed debates among those chosen. This system is being used to address real political issues and recommend policies to governments.
Citizens’ assemblies are happening everywhere from Australia to Canada, Bolivia to France, and plenty of places elsewhere. Among the stand-out examples, Ireland broke a decades-long deadlock over its abortion ban in 2017 by using a citizens’ assembly to debate the issue over five weekends.
Belgium’s Parliament of the German-speaking Community has just begun the most startling version to date, creating a lottery-selected second chamber to run a series of citizens’ assemblies on its topics of choice. One of the demands made by Extinction Rebellion, a UK direct-action climate movement that’s barely a year old, is that a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice be established to break the deadlock over effective action to tackle the climate emergency. In June 2019, Britain’s parliament announced plans for something like that, an assembly “designed to explore views on the fair sharing of potential costs of different policy choices”. The work of the assembly has yet to begin, and so its outcome remains to be seen.
Despite the growing popularity of lottery selection for citizens’ assemblies, their potential help in reanimating democracy is not all plain sailing. For one, critics point out the flaws with the original system. While it is true that Athenian women, slaves and foreigners took no part as citizens, those same exclusions prevailed for original versions of today’s electoral governments. At the time of the first presidential elections in the United States in 1789, only 6% of the population – white men with property – were eligible to choose the first US president.
Once adopted, the survival of citizens’ assemblies isn’t guaranteed. The recently elected Madrid city council, for example, immediately signalled its intention to dismantle the world’s first "permanent" deliberative citizens’ body in a city, which had been hailed as a breakthrough project. Like all ideas that challenge incumbent power, the mechanisms of original Athenian democracy face dangers of institutional capture – not least the look-a-like versions that cloak business-as-usual powers in the shiny new clothes of original democracy.
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.
Sagris’s own path to personal political literacy, built as she and her mother returned repeatedly to Syntagma to join fellow Athenians imagining responses to the country’s financial crisis, shows the irreplaceable value of getting stuck in.
"I remember we’d seen a bit about it on television, on the news, how there were many people gathered on Syntagma square," she recalls.
"I was still in my ballet clothes. I remember I got to know in just one day so many people, lots of kids but also lots of grown ups. I would sit, I would paint, that was my first contact with Syntagma."
The assemblies’ combination of “demos” (people) exercising “kratos” (power, or government) was not exactly how ancient Athenians practised “democracy”. Aristotle could certainly have found fault with the formula. Yet he’d also have recognised assemblies’ democratic core: the absence of elected representatives taking the place of citizens.
Mass participation in debates and decision-making, combined with the use of lottery tickets to determine rally speakers, also echoed elements of the original. These ideas and the more formalised nascent citizens’ assemblies have the potential to revitalise an idea that seems to be faltering the world over. They would certainly have caught the eye of ancient democrats.