Cartledge: Crypto-oligarchy

Paul Cartledge is continuing his assault on the modern conventions about democracy:

To an ancient Greek democrat (of any stripe), all our modern democratic systems would count as “oligarchy”. By that I mean the rule of and by – if not necessarily or expressly for – the few, as opposed to the power or control of the people, or the many (demo-kratia).

That is the case even if – and indeed because – the few happen to be elected to serve by (all) the people. For in ancient Greece elections were considered to be in themselves oligarchic. They systematically favoured the few and, more particularly, the few extremely rich citizens – or “oligarchs”

[…T]here are a number of ancient democratic notions and techniques that do seem highly attractive: the use of sortition, for instance – a random method of polling by lottery that aimed to produce a representative sample of elected officials. Or the practice of ostracism – which allowed the population to nominate a candidate who had to go into exile for 10 years, thus ending their political career.

And comparison, or rather contrast, of our democracies with those of ancient Greece does serve to highlight what’s been called creeping crypto-oligarchy in our own very different (representative, not direct) democratic systems.


Democracy in short has changed its meaning from anything like the “people power” of ancient Greece and has seemingly lost its purpose as a reflection let alone realisation of the popular will.

One can well see why Winston Churchill was once moved to describe democracy as the worst of all systems of government – apart from all the rest. But that should be no good reason for us to continue ignoring the widely admitted democratic deficit. Back to the future – with the democrats of ancient Greece.

8 Responses

  1. Yes, elections are (inherently) an oligarchic mechanism. “Representative democracy” is a contradiction in terms. It isn’t even crypto-oligarchy; it is plain oligarchy. In the US at least, this is by design–since 1787.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Given the unpopularity of Clinton and Trump, an ostracism contest would make more sense than an election contest.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ted,

    > “Representative democracy” is a contradiction in terms

    “Electoral democracy” is a contradiction in terms. But if the representatives are allotted then a representative democracy is not only possible, it is the only democratic possibility in a mass society.

    > It isn’t even crypto-oligarchy

    It’s crypto in the sense that the official ideology is democratic.


  4. z13z13z,

    Having elections with both a positive vote and a negative vote (and the winner is the one with maximum net vote) could be a marked improvement over the existing system.


  5. I maintain that an allotted body is excellent as a bureaucratic/executive steering committee (like Athens’ Council of 500), while legislative sovereignty is retained by the entire people in a vast but well ordered network of community assemblies. Such a democracy would be fundamentally different than a system in which a few “representatives” have ultimate decision-making power. The latter is by nature undemocratic and cannot be made democratic.


  6. >Given the unpopularity of Clinton and Trump, an ostracism contest would make more sense than an election contest.

    Interesting suggestion. Elections, according to Headlam and Finley, are the modern analogue of ostracism and the political trial. But this is a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. Ober, in his book Democracy and Knowledge describes ostracism as a proto-information market, in that it is predictive of possible future damage to the polis. Hansen has argued that Aquinas’ mistake when he re-introduced 6th-century Athenian electoral practice to the modern age in Summa Theologica was that he left out the (draconian) punishment that Greek politicians suffered when they made a mistake. Modern politicians can just walk away from the mess they have made.


  7. Ted:> legislative sovereignty is retained by the entire people in a vast but well ordered network of community assemblies.

    I’m keeping a beady eye out for the herd of flying pigs, but no sign of them yet! Perhaps you would like to compose a new verse for John Lennon’s song:

    Imagine all the people,
    Living life in deliberative exchange of reasons

    Doesn’t scan too well, but then I never was much of a poet.


  8. […] Against Elections was published in English and received some attention. In Canada and the UK sortition was discussed by academics. In the US, sortition was mentioned in a workshop of the […]


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