Thursday, November 24, 2011

True Democracy (in ancient Athens)

WARNING! This post contains some speculations on matters of history and etymology. I find that sort of stuff very interesting, but it’s not for the squeamish.

We don’t always know what we mean when we say “democracy”. It signifies different things in different contexts. There is “representative” democracy, in which voters elect a limited number of oligarchs to pass laws and hire bureaucrats to interpret those laws and security personnel to enforce them. And there is “pure” or “direct” democracy, in which all licensed electors vote for or against specific propositions.

It was the city-state of Athens in Greece 2500 years ago that gave us the concept of democracy. In their usage it was a liberal kind of representative democracy - a reform imposed by a popular dictator who set out to break the power of the City’s hereditary rulers - property-rich native families whose clannishness had long inhibited the development of the City’s full economic potential.

Hitherto, all eligible citizens could vote for members of the governing Assembly: no problem there. But each family always voted together as a bloc, for its own relatives. The liberal dictator’s new constitution created artificial groups with the authority to elect representatives to the Assembly. Think of school “houses” with elected leaders to represent the members in matters involving the governance of the school.

Each “house” had its own meeting-place called a deme, where the voting took place. Hence deme-ocracy, -cracy being the standard English transliteration of the Greek word meaning “rule”. The members of each deme were a carefully chosen cross-section of the citizenry; social classes and families were so mixed that none of the traditional factions could gain dominance. That was the innovation.

There were occasions in ancient Athens when the entire electorate voted as a bloc, but only ever on issues, not on candidates for the Assembly. Athens’s democracy never meant “rule by the people”, especially in the sense of the direct voting we associate with Switzerland.

By 500 B.C. the franchise was the monopoly of male hereditary (bloodline) citizens. The rest of the population- women, slaves and long-term residents, could not vote. This situation particularly irked the immigrants, who at that time dominated commercial life, and were nearly as numerous as the citizens. Giving them the vote was deemed necessary to prevent an exodus of foreign investors and their skilled foreign workers, which might have seriously damaged the local economy.

Sound familiar? Immigrants in Cayman who benefitted from the mass Status grants of 2003 may well owe their good fortune to FCO clerks who remembered their school history lessons. What a thought! In Athens, mass grants of citizenship happened more than just the once. The occasional merging of immigrants and bloodline natives is what set Athens above and apart from its more village-oriented neighbours. Will bloodline Caymanians have the gumption to do the same? Doubtful, I’m afraid.

Incidentally, the demes would not have been specially created for the purpose, merely adapted for it. Brand-new places would never have been able to override family loyalties. It’s far more likely that they had existed in some form or other for some respectable traditional purpose. For me, the most likely original purpose would be religious shrines to a highly respected god. My candidate for that honour is Themis, one of the earliest recorded Greek gods, who was associated with the divine law and custom-law, which in England is called common law.

It would have been a stroke of genius to choose that god’s traditional holy places as venues for the casting of votes under the new constitution. Themocracy, democracy: potato, potahto.