Is voter apathy and little control by non-elites baked into western “liberal” democracy?

And if so, can internet initiatives improve things, asked Yanis Varoufakis on NC. The entire post is rather interesting in its interpretation of what western “liberal” democracy was supposed to mean and achieve:

Magna Carta, the defining document to which the West turns when in search of its political and legislative ancestry, was not about fashioning an Athenian-style masterless Demos: It was about entrenching the rights of masters vis-à-vis the Monarch. Its purpose was to give them, the lords and masters, the freedom to do as they pleased with their property, their servants and their slaves. Echoes of Magna Carta could be heard even in post-revolutionary America and they may resolve the puzzle of how, in the US, the loudest voices for liberty came from slave-owners.


But where I got the most out of it was when it discussed some features of Athenian democracy that I didn’t remember from history (or philosophy or politics) class:

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.

Because this is of course the crux of modern western democracies – there are numerous needs, such as for food, shelter, personal development, that one can only satisfy by offering up labor in a “market” of very skewed power distributions. Thus becoming unfree.

In the same vein, this is very interesting:

Thus the Demos are not merely The People. The are The Ruling People. To make this point more sharply, it is useful to recall that Athenians avoided elections. Indeed elections were thought of as oligarchic in the sense that they favoured the gnorimoi (the well known) thus giving inordinate power not to solid arguments but to social status. Only positions in which technical expertise was necessary (e.g. Chief Architect or Stratigos, commander of the armed forces) were distributed by elections. The rest were decided by lotteries, leaving matters to the goddess Tyche (meaning Luck, an illegitimate daughter of Zeus)

Given that most people with political decision making power nowadays don’t know their supposed areas very well (something that can be seen with the shuffling of ministers from family to labor to war, for instance), relying in experts instead, there’s indeed no good reason not to assign such positions by lottery only and avoid the forming of incestuous political elites. German MPs will have their salaries increased to more than 9,000 euros per month soon – don’t think it would be interesting to the working poor and unemployed if they had a chance to end up in this position every two years or so?

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