Varoufakis on democracy

An excerpt from a 2019 discussion between Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek economist and politician, leader of the MeRA25 party, and Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party UK MP.

CL: Your country is seen as the birthplace of democracy. In your opinion has there ever been a really good democracy we can look at and say, ‘That was when it was working well’?

YV: Democracy is always unfinished business. It is imperfect by design, especially in societies with vested interests vying for domination. But the merits of studying ancient Athenian democracy, which only lasted a few decades, is that it was the first and last time the poor controlled the government. Which is, interestingly, Aristotle’s definition of democracy. It was a remarkably radical idea that control over the instruments of the state should be independent of wealth.

CL: How did it work?

YV: Back in the times of the grand debates at the Pnyx, which was the parliamentary space in ancient Athens, there were two opposing parties: the Aristocrats and the Democrats. The Aristocrats hated democracy with a passion – but all the great philosophers we now eulogise like Aristotle and Plato were on the side of the Aristocrats. Nevertheless, the Aristocrats, who hated democracy, supported elections. And the Democrats did not.

CL: That sounds very paradoxical.

YV: The argument was that the Aristocrats could afford to buy influence in an election, so elections were an enemy of democracy. Democrats supported a lottery – sortition, as it is called today. Every official position in Athenian democracy was elected by lottery, including judges. Their terms were confined to six months. The only posts not sorted by lottery were the general, who had to know how to conduct a war, and bankers. The officials responsible for minting the money and for quality control of products like wine were slaves. Why? Because citizens had the right not to be beaten. Slaves did not. The idea was that bankers had to fear that they would be beaten up if they messed up the finances of the city. I think this is a splendid proposal for the City of London!

CL: That would certainly shake things up! And it’s so interesting. In terms of learning from that for today, are powerful corporations the new aristocracy?

YV: The corporations, the media moguls who effectively control public opinion, the equity and pension funds that own the corporations – that is the grid of aristocratic power. And the pertinence of the Athenian idea is evident when we look at ways progressives are thinking about breaking the stranglehold over power by these groups. At DiEM25 [Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 , founded in 2016 in Berlin, with Caroline’s participation] we have been talking about citizens’ assemblies – not to replace Parliament, but to function side by side with it. In Ireland with the abortion issue this process broke that deadlock and allowed Parliament to free itself from years of impasse. The Brexit process is never going to go away. The only way to unite the country is through citizens’ assemblies becoming part of national politics, local politics and party structures. In DiEM25, we have a coordinating committee but when decisions are controversial, a validating council of 50 men and 50 women chosen as a jury at random from our members have the final word. So many disputes have been resolved that way. It frees up the coordinating committee when we know there is this backstop of randomly chosen democratic opinion. Parliament needs that.

CL: If someone said, ‘Doesn’t that undermine the influence of Parliament?’ – would you just say that is the point, you need to check its power?

YV: I would make a more radical claim. I think it enhances the legitimacy of Parliament. A citizens’ assembly offering checks and balances means Parliament’s importance in expressing the views of the British people is enhanced. The British Parliament has never been less sovereign than today.

One Response

  1. I had a brief email exchange with Varoufakis on this in 2018 but he didn’t seem to engage much – he was busy which was understandable. In any event, I’m gratified he’s given it more prominence in this interview.

    Liked by 1 person

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