Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens

The book Democracy in Crisis by Professor Jeff Miller will be published on January 6th 2022.

The storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 focused attention on the multiple threats facing contemporary liberal democracies. Beyond the immediate problem of Covid-19, the past two decades saw political polarization, a dramatic rise in inequality, global warming and other environmental threats, as well as the growth of dangerous cultural and political divisions. Western liberal democracies find themselves in the midst of what political theorists call a legitimation crisis: major portions of the population lack confidence in the ability of governments to address our most pressing problems. This distrust in government and traditional political parties opened the door to populist leaders and a rising tide of authoritarianism.

Liberal democracies face major structural and normative challenges in the near future that require us to look beyond the traditional set of solutions available. Democracy in Crisis points back to the world’s first democratic government, Ancient Athens, to see what made that political arrangement durable and resistant to both internal and external threats. The argument focuses on several distinctive Athenian institutions and practices, and considers how we might reimagine them in the modern world. The book addresses questions of civic ideology and institutions, with extended treatment of two distinctive Athenian institutions, ostracism and sortition.

The launch event is at the annual conference of the Association for Political Thought, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, but has moved online as a result of the Omicron surge. Details below:

Friday January 7th, 20:30 (GMT)

Anniversary Event: Storming of the US Capitol and its implications for democracy. Sponsored by History of Political Thought

Launch and discussion of Jeff Miller’s new book Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens (Imprint Academic)

Chair: Iain Hampsher-Monk (University of Exeter)

Presenter: Jeff Miller (SUNY, New Paltz)

Discussants: Yves Sintomer (Paris 8 University): Paul Cartledge (University of Cambridge); Daniela Cammack (UC Berkeley)

The introduction for the book, and reviewers’ comments, is on the Imprint Academic website. For 30% discount, enter code CAT21 at checkout.

The book argues that the principal problem with modern democracies is the atomised self, introduced by social contract theory (in its Hobbesian-Lockean liberal variant). The implication is that a revival of Athenian civic culture is as important as institutional change (the book focuses on sortition and ostracism). But, given that Athenian civic virtue was a direct product of the need of all citizens to join together and take up arms in defence of the polis (note the martial derivation of the word “virtue”), it’s unclear as to how that might be possible in a globalised world consisting of large multicultural states, although Jeff does make the case for a form of national service.

You need to register to participate in the anniversary event and there is a charge (£40; £20 students/unwaged) but this includes access to all three days of conference sessions, many of which will be of interest to members of this forum. Other highlights include Peter Stone’s session on democracy beyond elections, along with panels on political corruption, and publicity and privacy in democratic politics.

25 Responses

  1. As Keith points out, the large and diverse nature of contemporary liberal democracies presents real challenges for building a sense of community. I have no illusions about the difficulty of this problem.

    But I also think we have some untapped (or underutilized) possibilities. Let me list off just three of these briefly here:

    1. National service. This can take the form (of course) of military service, but we can think more broadly about how this responsibility might be fulfilled. Special urban and rural projects corps could take on much needed infrastructure work as well as projects which foster local community (urban gardens, trail building and maintenance, civic festivals, work details of various sorts, etc.). I have here in mind something like Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps

    2. More democratic workplaces. Increasing worker participation in decision-making usually reserved for management can give individuals a second “community” beyond the spot they live. Worker representation and requirements for diverse membership on boards of directors, more avenues for direct input from workers in managerial decisions, etc.

    3. Subsidies for local news sources. Local news sources are dying out in the US, and most people turn to large conglomerates to get a sense of what’s going on in the world. This has the effect of further politicizing our views, but also deprives people of local knowledge. Subsidies for local news and information would help address this problem – both in terms of the production as well as delivery of news. The idea here would be to encourage the exchange of information about items of local interest to the community.

    The key here is to remember that no one of these possibilities alone is adequate to the task. Rather, we need to think along multiple lines of approach combined with more formal legislative changes (such as wider use of sortition and citizen assemblies).

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  2. The introduction and a discussion is also available on academia.edu

    https://www.academia.edu/s/bb2dd5f3d5

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  3. Hi Jeff – welcome to Equality-by-Lot!

    I am not sure to what extent the blurb at the top really represents your lines of thought and analysis. It seems to me that the kind of thinking expressed in that passage (which is standard for much of the abundant “crisis of democracy” literature of the last decade) is mistaken. The crisis we are facing is not that some issues with the Western system – Covid-19, political polarization, inequality, and threats – are giving rise to distrust, populist leaders and authoritarianism. The problem is that the existing system is anti-democratic and that predictably, due to its oligarchical nature, it generates horrible policy outcomes. Thus the crisis is not a “crisis of democracy” but rather a “crisis of oligarchy” or, more particularly, a “crisis of electoralism” (which is our particular form of oligarchy).

    > The key here is to remember that no one of these possibilities alone is adequate to the task. Rather, we need to think along multiple lines of approach combined with more formal legislative changes (such as wider use of sortition and citizen assemblies).

    This also seems quite mistaken to me. A democratic power structure is an enabler of any meaningful democratization in our society. Mass political energy is a blunt and precious tool and cannot be used to pursue a laundry list of objectives (for one thing, it will take an elite group to draw up that list, which is a highly problematic starting point). Rather it has to be focused at the root of the problem in our system – the reliance on the electoral mechanism. Once that oligarchical mechanism is replaced with the democratic mechanism of sortition – and only once that is achieved – then other elements of a more democratic society can be realistically pursued.

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  4. Hey Yoram – thanks for the comments! I appreciate it.

    It’s certainly the case that by Athenian standard liberal democracies today look oligarchical. Ancient Athenians, in fact, generally identified elections as an oligarchic, not democratic mechanism, which is why they turned (mostly) to sortition instead. One of the chapters in my book makes the case that we ought to move in that direction, so I think we agree on this point.

    When it comes to what constitutes a democracy, I think it’s difficult to establish definitions by fiat. It’s a rare government today that doesn’t claim the mantle of democracy. Some of these claims we can quickly dismiss (exhibit A: the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea), but I also think there’s a broad overlapping consensus that the term “democratic” can be legitimately claimed by representative forms of government, so I suppose my use of the term follows that broad consensus.

    That being said, I quickly add that I think we need to become more democratic. This includes legislative changes, but also – and more importantly over the long-term – reinvigorating civil society and allowing for the sort of civic cohesion and underlying agreement on which any formal structures of government depend.

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  5. Regarding Jeff’s three points, Barbara Walters’ new book How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them is also a little weak on the latter. In addition to adding her voice to calls for the regulation of social media, she suggests using the power of online communities to incentivise pro-social behaviours. Walter cites Citizen University in the US, which tries to build networks around the idea of civic duty. In the UK we apparently have the National Citizen Service [I’ve never heard of it], which brings together teenagers from a wide range of backgrounds. But these feel like fragile roots in the face of politicians’ self-interest and the balance sheets of Facebook and Google. I’m more disposed to adapting the institutions of Athenian democracy to be better matched to liberal sensibilities (in the older sense of the word liberal), although this doesn’t go down well with communitarian-minded social democrats.

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  6. Delighted to report that Helene Landemore has stepped in to chair the launch event tomorrow (Iain Hampsher-Monk is unwell). Register at https://www.associationforpoliticalthought.ac.uk/conference/2022-conference/

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  7. Jeff,

    > I also think there’s a broad overlapping consensus that the term “democratic” can be legitimately claimed by representative forms of government, so I suppose my use of the term follows that broad consensus.

    This consensus needs to be challenged. As you write, in conventional speech one of the uses of the term “democratic” is as a public relations term. Keeping this use cannot be part of a scientific discussion. Following conventional use is not good practice when it is self-contradictory. If we are arguing that elections are an oligarchical, anti-democratic mechanism, then calling the systems that rely upon it “democratic” creates a confusion that undermines analysis.

    > legislative changes, but also – and more importantly over the long-term – reinvigorating civil society and allowing for the sort of civic cohesion and underlying agreement on which any formal structures of government depend.

    Such “reinvigoration” (this term problematically assumes a return to a mythical golden age) is not an independent process that can occur without a change to the power system. The lack of social cohesion is the direct result of the oligarchical nature of the existing system and of its policy outcomes and it cannot be reversed until power structures are democratized.

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  8. Hi Jeff,

    Thanks for this. I agree that one of the big problems we face is the corrosion of social life and community. And I agree that sortition alone, thought it might enable other solutions, can’t fix that.

    There’s an interesting feedback loop in democracy that many theorists don’t seem to address: Democracy allows people to choose their social environment. But the social environment influences the choices people make. There’s no single Right Answer.

    A sortitionate democracy might move in illiberal directions — infringing freedoms, generating further stress, conflict and division among people, and then infringing freedoms further. I hope it won’t, of course, and I suspect it would be less likely to go down that path than electoral democracy, but it’s still a possibility. And we can affect that possibility with other cultural institutions.

    However, I disagree strongly with national service, even if it’s not militaristic. Because it’s a form of compulsion. It’s imposed from above. Aside from being an affront to liberal values, it’s also liable to be counterproductive. Imposed values tend be shallow, or not take at all: You get behavioural compliance but not belief.

    I think if we want to regenerate community, we need to do it by supporting people’s autonomy. Give them a space to act and work together of their own accord.

    My personal quartet of big hitters would be sortition, democratic workplaces, democratic schools, and the (unfortunately unnamed) participatory neighbourhood system designed by Open Works. Each one is extremely powerful by itself, but together, I think they’d be unbeatable.

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  9. Hi Liam – I’m not familiar with Open Works participatory neighborhood system (and a quick search didn’t seem to bring it up). Mind supplying a link so I could take a look? Thanks.

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  10. Hey Jeff, not time for this now, we need you online at the zoom booklaunch in 15 minutes!

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  11. Jeff,

    Sorry about the late reply. The key documents are on the Participatory City Foundation’s website:

    Designed to Scale http://www.participatorycity.org/designed-to-scale

    Tools to act http://www.participatorycity.org/research

    The current implementation in Barking and Dagenham is called Every One Every Day, which has a website of its own:
    https://www.weareeveryone.org/

    Unfortunately, there’s no clear descriptive name for the idea, but multiple vague but chipper brand names, and not much has been written about it from the outside, so it’s not very findable.

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  12. Liam,

    What do you mean by “democratic schools”? Can you flesh out this idea a bit?

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  13. Yoram,

    Democratic schools are governed by the students attending them — up to and including hiring and firing the staff. They tend to have regular school meetings where students and staff can vote, and a judicial council (composed mostly of students) to handle disciplinary issues. Generally students spend their time however they wish — some have voluntary lessons, and some have no lessons at all unless the students ask for them.

    Even with my optimism about the ability of people to govern themselves, I was a bit skeptical when I read about the concept. But these schools do exist, and by all accounts they seem to work perfectly well. Students who attend don’t seem to do any worse than those who attend normal schools. The two most famous examples are Summerhill in the UK, which has been going since 1921, and Sudbury Valley in the US, since 1968. There are now quite a few around the world.

    The best introduction to the concept is by Peter Gray here:
    https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/freedom-learn/200808/children-educate-themselves-iv-lessons-sudbury-valley

    And Summerhill describes itself here: https://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/a-brief-overview

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thanks, Liam. I’ll have a look at the links.

    My skepticism is based on 2 points. First, my recollection of my experience as a student is not that of having myself or ever hearing from my fellow-students good ideas of how to run the school.

    Second, in retrospect after having devoted not insignificant time to studying and to thinking about studying, I don’t think creating a good school is obvious or easy. Thus, asking students to just wing it seems unreasonable. It also implies the message that “things are simple”, which is a very poor form of education in itself.

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  15. Yoram, it that’s your experience with schools, would you not extrapolate that to a CA that is invited to “just wing it”, or is there an age threshold above which the ignorance of youth turns into the wisdom of crowds?

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  16. Note that a student has far more experience of education (as a consumer) than, say, a randomly-selected CA member on how best to mitigate anthropogenic climate change.

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  17. Hi Liam,

    Ok, I’ve read the two pages you linked to. I think the two descriptions very different. The Summerhill school sounds like a good school (at least in some basic common-sensical respects like having no forced class attendance), but it does not make any claims to being student run.

    Gray’s claims about self-management, on the other hand, are quite far fetched and would require a detailed record from a much less interested party to make convincing. The notion that a body of 200 people – of any age – could self manage without any organization simply by having a once a week meeting and courts for settling complaints seems highly counter-factual. Gray does not mention an organization, but if one exists, and again it seems unlikely that one would not, then it would surely carry significant power.

    Other obvious procedural and political questions remain unaddressed. Who recruits new staff? Based on what? How are the day to day decisions made? Wouldn’t the popular students get to have disproportional power?

    But all of that does not touch on the real difficulty: how do we know (how would we even know) that the students are getting a good education? Is the fact(?) that the students are happy good enough? Is the fact(?) that the parents are happy good enough? Why should we believe that these schools are giving a significantly better education than other schools?

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Yoram:> how do we know (how would we even know) that the students are getting a good education? Is the fact(?) that the students are happy good enough? Is the fact(?) that the parents are happy good enough?

    How do you reconcile your scepticism regarding educational outcomes with your oft-repeated claim that a system is democratic if the demos is happy with the outcomes? Leaving aside the fact that Summerhill parents are paying a shed-load of money in fees, it would be easy to devise a questionnaire. Rephrasing your question:

    >how do we know that the [system is democratic]? Is the fact(?) that the [people] are happy good enough?

    Of course the answer in both cases is a resounding “no”.

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  19. Jeff’s book proposes the modern adoption of ostracism as well as sortition and I made the following suggestion to the discussants after the launch:

    The highlight of the panel for me was Daniela’s refocusing on the vital role of the Athenian assembly in ensuring perceived democratic legitimacy — all citizens could (in theory) attend and the losers of the assembly vote could not ignore the sea of hands raised against them. The challenge for democratic innovators is how to establish a modern form of experiential majoritarianism. This is particularly problematic for sortition advocates (like me) — although one can argue for the educational potential of deliberative democracy, that only applies to the tiny number selected by lot. To everyone else it would just be another form of elite rule — albeit aleatory rather than oligarchic.

    But it would be possible to combine ostracism and sortition, especially in the light of Jeff’s observation that a modern ostracism would be technological rather than geographical. Imagine an annual ostracism, in which (say) five candidates were selected by a mass poll. They would then be put on trial before a jury of 5,001, selected by lot, with quasi-mandatory participation for those selected. The candidates could appoint their own defence team, the full trial would be streamed live and the final up/down vote would be performed live on TV, with the loser excluded from public office and social media for ten years. Could anyone claim that was a fix?

    In the light of the character attacks that have erupted on this blog recently, perhaps we need to institute something similar!

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  20. The launch event (hosted by the Association for Political Thought annual conference) is now online at YouTube. The event was chaired by Helene Landemore (Yale) and the discussants were Paul Cartledge (Cambridge), Daniela Cammack (UC Berkeley) and Yves Sintomer (Paris 8 Universite). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3-PS2wzBIj0

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Yoram,

    Sorry about taking so long to reply to this. I’m sure you can guess part of the reason behind the delay.

    But all of that does not touch on the real difficulty: how do we know (how would we even know) that the students are getting a good education?

    I’m focussing on this point because, as you say, it’s the real difficulty.

    Good education is a complex term. There are both practical matters and value judgements wrapped up in there. So I think’s best I pull it apart, and look at some of the components.

    The first component is purely practical. Any school system had to provide the population with enough competence to live in and maintain a technological civilisation. In other words, if the nation has people who can’t manage their finances, or it fails to train enough engineers of various types, it’ll go downhill. (Some people don’t want a technological civilisation, but we can disregard them.) This is a pretty clear fail condition: Regardless of other virtues, any school system that doesn’t meet this standard won’t work.

    So – do democratic schools meet this condition? There’s good reason to believe they do. The research that has been done on graduates seems to indicate they don’t do any worse in terms of university acceptance rates and life opportunities than graduates of other schools.

    For the sake of intellectual honesty, I have to say that the evidence isn’t ideal. One study is by Peter Gray, the psychologist I linked above, and David Chanoff, who is from the original Sudbury school. The other studies are from Daniel Greenberg and Mimsy Sadofsky, who are also from the original Sudbury school. None of these are disinterested parties. And the sample sizes are rather small. How bad is this? There’s no evidence to the contrary (that I know of, at least). And in the realm of social theory, we generally expect a link between advocacy and evidence anyway (if you find a system works, you tend to advocate it; and if you’re interested in a system, you tend to study it.)

    To all of the above, we can add a wealth of less direct evidence. It’s a robust result that people who are more autonomous tend to exhibit more motivation and creativity, for example, which lends support through consilience. We also have other evidence that students given direct control of their own education can learn very well. And we have lots of other examples of graduates who don’t seem to be disadvantaged in any way (vulnerable to selection bias, yes, but important nonetheless).

    As is so often the case, there isn’t enough research. But the research that does exist, despite its flaws, indicates there’s no problem in preparing students for life in the real world. I’d say we can be cautiously optimistic.

    The second component, since you mentioned it, is happiness. This is not sufficient, no. But it is extremely important. From a broadly humanistic perspective, I’d count happiness as a primary value. And when it comes to schooling, an institution where nearly all the population will spent a significant portion of their lives, in a fairly emotionally vulnerable state, it’s important. Do democratic schools make students happy? They certainly seem to. And we can add that autonomy in general is a plus for human wellbeing – a point that has intuitive and empirical support. Do normal schools make students miserable? Almost certainly yes. There’s lots of evidence about rising stress levels in a school environment.

    The third component is somewhat fluffier: the long term behaviours, personality traits, and tendencies the students carry with them into adulthood. This hits the point Jeff is concerned with, I think. The benefits of a democratic school here are obvious. A normal school is an environment of obedience, passivity and being subject to arbitrary authority. A democratic school gives students the experience of autonomy, agency, and, crucially, having to live in a shared environment with others who also have agency, and who might disagree. If experiences of youth generalise to later life, then democratic schools will encourage democratic societies in general.

    Those three components, I think, generally give a plus to democratic schools as far as good education goes.

    As for some specific worries:

    The notion that a body of 200 people – of any age – could self manage without any organization simply by having a once a week meeting and courts for settling complaints seems highly counter-factual.

    If we’re talking about any other organisation, I would tend to agree.

    A nation or even a small city has a huge amount of internal complexity. There’s lots of stuff going on inside them, and if it’s not co-ordinated, things could go badly wrong. A business, even if it’s only a few dozen people, has to deal with a highly complex outside world – products to make, customers to serve, balances to manage, and the like, so it too needs to be capable of co-ordinated activity.

    But a school – especially a school like this – is far simpler. For the most part the students just do their own thing, individually or in informal groups. Not much activity needs to be co-ordinated. Of course, they do live in a shared environment, so some collective activity is required, but nowhere near as much as in a business or a city. In this case, a relatively light structure seems sufficient.

    And there is organisation. The meetings, with a chairperson and organised rules, as is the judiciary committee. Apparently there are also some committees[3], which might be what you’re concerned about. (Do they hold power? Some, possibly. But since they’re subordinate to the general meeting, and since the population of the school is constantly changing, I don’t think there’s anything too pernicious there. Incidentally, it seems the judiciary committee is selected by lot.)

    having devoted not insignificant time to studying and to thinking about studying, I don’t think creating a good school is obvious or easy. Thus, asking students to just wing it seems unreasonable.

    This goes with the above point, I think. If the students had to design a new curriculum, plan classes or work out an ideal way of studying, then yes, that would be asking too much of them, and the operations of the school would certainly be too complex to do with a simple weekly meeting.

    But they don’t have to. Democratic schools adopt a very simple approach, which is: Let the kids do as they please, and they follow their passions and learn what they need to along the way.

    I respect your erudition and the time you’ve put into thinking about studying. It’s a complex area, and I certainly don’t think we’d want to ask every child to create an ideal study plan.

    But I think there’s a broader principle at work here: It’s easy to learn topics you’re interested in. Curiosity and play are the primary drivers. Geeks of all stripes pick up huge amounts of information about their favourite topic. And even where effort is necessary (usually only at more advanced levels), motivation is still high. Learning topics you’re bored by is like pulling teeth.

    And none of that means the children have to figure out everything alone. There are still staff who can provide help, in terms of study techniques, advice, or information.

    I think that covers everything. Tell me if I’ve missed anything.

    I wouldn’t suggest we tear down all existing schools and replace them all at once. As with most things, it’s prudent to proceed by degrees and learn as we go, just in case we’re mistaken. The evidence isn’t indubitable. But it is broadly positive, and there are many good reasons to think they would be tremendously beneficial.

    [1] Gray and Chanoff here: https://cdn2.psychologytoday.com/assets/attachments/1195/democratic-schooling-aje_0.pdf
    [2] https://bookstore.sudburyvalley.org/product/legacy-trust
    [3] Committees are mentioned in the first video, and JC selection by lot in the second https://sudburyvalley.org/how-school-operates

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  22. Keith,

    Thanks for the video.

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  23. […] in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens was marked with discussion threads on academia.edu and Equality by Lot (EbL). Whilst the debate on the former was (on the whole) polite and informative, the latter […]

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  24. Hi Liam,

    I agree with most of your points. I am not concerned about a shortage of technical skills, and student happiness is very important. Surely forcing people to learn subjects they find uninteresting is both ineffective and creates bad habits and attitudes.

    What I think is more difficult are three things that may be related. The first is the issue of self-governance. This is a difficult matter in any group. You are saying that in schools it is easier than in other environments. Maybe, but if so this needs to be carefully established.

    The second thing that is difficult is finding the right balance between independence and guidance. Maybe this could also be described as balance between freedom and (self) discipline. The notion that learning just happens spontaneously in an optimal way seems unlikely to me. Personally, I think that with good guidance I would have avoided a lot of dead ends and would have found interesting and useful ideas much earlier and used them more effectively.

    Finally, if guidance, structure and resources are to be provided – what is the best way to do that? What arrangement would have been most illuminating for me personally? I don’t feel I have good answers for that and I don’t even know how we would find out.

    Due to all these difficulties, it seems to me that the idea that improved schools are a foundation for democratizing governance is not a promising way forward. It is more difficult to create good schools than to create democratic governance. This is why I am so focused on sortition. It seems like a relatively simple answer to the problem of democratization.

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