By Roslyn Fuller
Zed Books (2015) p/b 414pp £14.99 (ISBN 9781783605422)
F’s title is taken from Aristotle, who famously declared (Politics 1.12) that ‘the polis is natural and prior to the individual … what is incapable of entering into [such a] partnership, or so self-sufficient as not to need to, would be a wild animal or a god’. Her thesis will not be new to classicists or anyone with an interest in history or political systems: that modern democracy, far from being the direct, participatory democracy of the sort developed by Athenians from the 5th-4th C BC, is actually republican oligarchy, controlled by the rich and powerful, often in consort with the media. Her argument is that our politics will function successfully only if we get back to that Athenian model.
Since this is a review for a classical website, it is necessary to point out that F.’s grasp of Greek and Roman language and history is tenuous: archês is not the Greek for ‘rule’, the Athenian boulê was not a 400-strong legislative debating chamber, the juries were not open to any citizen, Socrates did not advocate Plato’s theory of utopia, the singular of novi homines was not nove homine, and Opimius, not Opiumus, dealt with Gaius Gracchus. One hopes these last two were proof-copy misprints, but many more examples could be produced. If this standard of her ‘ten years’ research’ applies across the book, it does not encourage confidence.
That said, this very readable book is essentially a populist one—her ‘research’ derives almost exclusively from reading books, government sources and newspaper articles—and for that purpose, in broad outline, what F. says about the general principles of Athenian democracy is accurate enough. Her solution is not new: it is digital democracy, the whole populace being invited to press buttons on the issues of today.
The problem is that, whatever system one introduces, people have to get their information from somewhere. If that information is in the grip of the rich and powerful, changing the ballot-box will make no difference. That said, many of the rich and powerful provide us with our livelihoods, services and pensions: they need a say against potential government depredation or incompetence. F. simply assumes that their interventions must automatically be evil. Second, if digital democracy is to work, it is necessary to conclude that what works on the micro-scale—our jury system offers an analogy, and F. suggests others—would also work on the macro-scale.
It is surprising that the education of voters does not feature large in her book; and that Switzerland gets only a cursory nod. But referenda are as close as we currently get to Athenian democracy, and Swiss politicians can do nothing without getting popular approval through referenda, one issue at a time. It is the same at canton level too. A few years ago, the Geneva education authority decided to end the teaching of Latin in schools. It went to a referendum, and the proposal was rejected. The culture is endemic at all levels. Talk to any Swiss school head about changing the system of peg-numbers and (s)he will tell you that, exhaustingly and exhaustively, it will have to go through every staff, pupil, governor, parent and heaven knows what other committee before it is accepted.
So it can be done. The example of the British referendum on EU membership, however, let alone EU referenda (vote till you get the EU-approved answer), indicates that the system will not be changing any time soon.