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Can the Internet Democratize Capitalism?

Posted on Feb 22, 2014

jumpinjimmyjava (CC BY 2.0)

By Yanis Varoufakis

(Page 2)

Today we tend erroneously to think that Athenian citizens lazed about in the Agora while the slaves did all the work. Though true for some Athenians (rich kids and their philosophising teachers), the labouring citizen was present in all realms of production (peasants, artisans, manual labourers) – see Finley (1980) and de Ste Croix (1981). Free men worked side by side with slaves and sometimes it was the slaves that enjoyed higher status in their ‘profession’. In this context, Athenian citizenship was inextricably intertwined with the unfreedom of slaves (as well as of women and the metics). More concisely, freedom and unfreedom fed of each other in ancient Athens; they were, in a sense, each other’s accomplices.

Aristotle’s definition of democracy (see Politics 1290b) is telling in this regard: A constitution in which “the free-born and the poor control the government; being at the same time a majority” (emphasis added). Meanwhile, in his Rhetoric (1367a) he defines a free man (eleutheros) as a masterless person who needs obey no one because he does not depend on having to produce or sell anything. Plato takes things further in the Statesman (289c ff.) saying that one is fit for public office to the extent that he is not supplying indispensable goods or services.

Of course, neither of these great philosophers were known for their democratic credentials. In fact, especially for Plato, quite the opposite is true. Nonetheless, what is of interest to us thousands of years later is that both Aristotle and Plato should see freedom not as the opposite of slavery but as the antithesis of dependent labour! In a sense, one’s genuine freedom depended on the extent to which one was free from both physical masters but, interestingly, free from the market as well.

As anti-democrats, Plato and his followers argued that political reasoning could not be entrusted to those who had to work for others – irrespectively of whether they were free labourers or slaves. In this sense, the Great Debate in ancient Athens (between democrats and their critics) had a clear frontline: Democrats invoked the Demos in a bid to assert the rights of the poor to isigoria. Not merely to have a voice but, more importantly, to have a voice of equal weight.


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That democracy survived for so long in classical Athens is an historical miracle. Never before (and possibly never since) had so large a percentage of poor labourers enjoyed such unprecedented direct decision making powers in matters of State. This influence kept Athenian democracy vibrant till the end. On the one hand the poor citizens, and their gentile supporters (such as Protagoras and Pericles), fought for its preservation. On the other, Aristocrats, who never accepted that their voice should have no more gravitas than that of a cobbler, fought for its diminution. It all made for animated Assembly meetings and fascinating debates in the Agora.

The question is: How did it come about? The brief answer is: Cleisthenis’ reforms extended citizenship to the Attica countryside, breached the State-community and fashioned a civic identity which was made quite independent from ‘birth rights’ (social class, that is). In short, the Demos was born. How did it differ from that which angloceltic liberals refer to as The People? In contemporary liberal circles The People are imagined as an abstract, disaggregated collection of private individuals; individuals defined by: (A) preferences, passions, instrumental rationality, and (B) rights designed to protect them from the arbitrary rule of the State.

In sharp contrast, Cleisthenis’ Demos was imagined as the State itself; as an active community of citizens in which the political sphere, the economy, the State and civil society all co-existed within the Assembly: Democracy was about the Demos getting (physically) together and engaging in a contest of opinions about what ought to be done. The point of the exercise was not to stage a process whereby the rulers consult the people but one in which the people rule.

We often forget that Athenian democrats saw no reason for constitutional rights whose purpose would be to shield civil society from State interference. In their eyes, the two were indistinguishable. It is this coincidence of the political sphere with economic life, but also culture, military affairs etc. that made it possible for the Demos to exercise real power in shaping everyday life.

Candour demands that even the most enthusiastic apologists of contemporary Western democracies admit that the latter come much closer to Aristotle’s definition of oligarchy than to his depiction of democracy. There simply is not, at least according to Aristotle, enough Demos in our Democracy today. Put differently, even though Socrates would not have been poisoned by the British or French Parliaments for smuggling subversive ideas into the mind of the young (protected, thankfully, by an impressive panoply of juridical authority), our electorates (‘We, the People’ in the language of the American Constitution) exercise no power over daily life which might be comparable to that of Athenian citizens. Moreover, there is a deep sense in which the power actually exercised (by both citizens and their elected representatives) has been declining steadily with every twist and turn of our recent political history.

Is it any great wonder that we are increasingly unwilling to put our energies into the political process? Is it surprising that a democratic process less redolent of a ruling Demos than of unaccountable oligarchy is ripe for neglect in the icy hands of apathy?

3.  Do we want the Demos to rule?

Even if the reader agrees that Athenian democracy is not to be scoffed at (as an historical juncture of momentous political importance), the natural rejoinder is: So what? Surely, industrial societies are too complex to be run by an Assembly of all citizens. Additionally it is perhaps a good thing that it is so, as Socrates’ fate testifies. Should e’democracy advocates take the direct democracy route, suggesting that ICTs are used to supplant representative government with an e’Assembly that will perform in cyberspace the functions of ancient Pnyka, they shall be laughed out of court.

Although the legitimacy of e’democracy would undoubtedly suffer if it were co-opted by supporters of direct democracy, it is useful to establish the precise reasons for this. Why is direct democracy feared? Most people would agree (as noted in the previous paragraph) that there is nothing wrong with it in principle; that, ideally, it would be best; but that in large and complex societies, it is simply unworkable. I think this is quite right. But it is not the whole story as to why direct democracy is dismissed so readily.

Put bluntly, many qualms about direct people-rule are due to a deep-seeded mistrust of ‘common folk’. The ‘democratic elites’ are not keen to see the Demos rule the land. At best, their reluctance takes the form of concern for the minorities’ protection from the tyranny of the majority. At worst, it extends to pure scorn for the capacity of the multitude to know what is good and proper for them. In effect, some of the ancient arguments in favour of oligarchy (e.g. those of Plato) are embedded in the defence of today’s representative democracies. If this is right, the ‘distance’ between decision makers and the people is not an undesirable feature that crept up on our societies imperceptibly but, rather, a feature designed into our system of government in order to keep the plebs in their place. But is this right?

I believe that a fair reading of liberal democracy’s history confirms that this is so: That the devaluation of citizenship is an integral component of a ‘successful’ modern democracy; not a failure to be corrected by technical means (including the best ICT has to offer). If I am right, e’democracy has its work cut out for it! Effectively, e’democrats will be facing the task not simply of involving more people in deliberations regarding policy making but, more ambitiously, of deploying new technology as a part of a broader political intervention whose purpose is to re-invent the political sphere.

The previous paragraph contains a large claim (in italics), without which the verdict concerning e’democracy’s ambitious task is ill-supported. What is its basis in fact? The next section shall attempt to argue that liberal democracy has its roots, not in ancient Athens, but in feudal Europe, the Protestant/Puritan ethic, and the tumultuous rise of the merchant as the pivotal figure around whom the economic sphere gained autonomy and dominance over political society. The culmination of this ‘story’ is that the Demos’ low participation in the democratic process was an inevitable end-state of this particular historical trajectory. None of this is particularly novel. However, e’democrats must be kept in touch with these historical facts because they speak directly to some potential features of the apathy causing the crisis of contemporary liberal democracy.

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