Thursday, 10 September 2009

Blogging for democracy

World rejoice. I am back.
I've been offline for a whole month and, although I am sure you missed me and, I assure you, I missed you back, I must report that it is possible to live away from a computer. For a few weeks, I caught a glimpse of a parallel universe in which my friends were not scattered the world over, my job did not rely on shared documents and email and day-to-day activities did not depend so totally on the internet.
You guessed it. I was on holiday.

In real life of course staying away from the computer is not an option. Work. Checking cinema listings. Submitting my tax return. Downloading the latest TED talk. Reading the papers. Chatting to friends. Grocery shopping. Job applications. Travel bookings and theatre reservations.
What did we ever do before the internet? But really, what are we really doing with the internet?

Bear with me.
I was walking through Athens a few weeks ago till a gaggle of teenage tourists caught my eye.
'The Pnyx. Where the hell is the Pnyx. I don't see anything' said one.
Behind you, you moron, thought I.
But I didn't say it. Because really, the Pnyx is not much to look at. Places where real business takes place rarely are. The Pnyx, or what is left of it, is easy to just walk past and, in the dark, it looks less like a world heritage site and more like an empty lot. Which, nowadays, it is in more ways than one.
So the tourists walked on, having decided that their guide book was rubbish and it was time for a drink and I was left thinking that they are not alone in having totally missed the Pnyx.

Athenian democracy was flawed, we all know that. But the one thing that was right about it was the Pnyx and everything that transpired there as this was where the citizens, free and equal, got to speak, openly and on any subject they wished to speak on.
Dull? I bet it was.
Every Tom, Dick and Harry having a constitutional right to go on and on and on (and on) about their pet peeve, their favourite gripe. Painful. But vital. For democracy. For community. For fairness. In the Pnyx no politician could ever claim to be 'the voice of the people'. The people would speak for themselves and tell him where to get off. The people can of course be wrong – they did, after all, kill Socrates and exile Aristeidis – but that's an occupational hazard if you are a democrat. At least back then the people had a chance to get it wrong themselves, rather than by proxy.

Democracy is not meant to be the system of good outcomes. Democracy takes care of the many. If the many are wrong, so is their polity. If the many are brutal so is their state. If the many are inspired, so is their society.
Democracy has nothing to do with the what and everything to do with the how.

For the ancients, getting that right involved leaving women and slaves out of it because they had no cognitive abilities. Do I disagree with it? Of course I disagree with it. But I don't disagree with the premise, even though it would leave me out in the cold without a vote.
Deciding who your citizens are is hard and every benchmark is arbitrary – gender, age, money, nationality, religion, race: what criteria define 'the people'?
Lines need to be drawn and it is not always obvious where you should draw them. Women today have universal suffrage while monarchs, refugees, migrants, lunatics, children and criminals don't get the vote.
Defining 'the people' is neither easy nor straightforward.
In Athens that group was narrow and closed. But at least it was equal and free. Which is more than we can say about the citizen body of any modern democracy.

In Athens only free-born, Athenian-born males of some property were part of the 'people'. The group was small. Still it had wild variations within. But once you were in you were in and you got to benefit from a system that was there to serve you. Now there's a thought.
Inequalities of wealth and status among citizens did not matter in the exercise of civic duty and the enjoyment of civic rights. Politics was the great leveller. The exact opposite of today's democracy where status, money, skin colour and connections determine power, access, influence and civic security.

Democracy in its purest form rested on three simple principles: isonomia, isopoliteia, isigoria.
All citizens are equal under the law.
All citizens have equal voting rights.
All citizens have an equal right to debate policy.

The Pnyx is the spatial substantiation of the principle of isigoria, the forgotten heart of democracy, the right and opportunity to speak on an equal footing in matters of state.

Of course, the three principles of Athenian democracy are mentioned in every self-proclaimed democratic constitution in Europe, America and, I am sure, in a few even less probable locations. We pay lipservice to isigoria: everyone is allowed to speak. Everyone is allowed to stand for election. Everyone is allowed to speak to their MP. In the UK you are even allowed to stand on a soap box and speak to the pigeons of Hyde Park Corner.
So bloody what?
It ain't the Pnyx is it? It ain't the Pnyx if nobody is listening.

Isigoria means you have a right to be listened to. Not just a right to babble.
Isigoria means you have guaranteed access to media that will allow your opinions to be heard and considered. In ancient Athens that medium was a rock near the Acropolis. Central. Good acoustics. It worked.
Today it would be an online citizen forum, a people's assembly, a rally.
Today it could be a million and one things – we have, after all, the internet.
We have it, but what do we do with it?

A lot. Actually.
Our governments may not be helping here. They don't protect our access. They don't encourage our participation. But now, for the first time ever, we don't need them to. We have the internet.
The internet is for porn and facebook.
The internet is for speed dating and spam email.
The internet is full of fascinating blogs, community portals, grassroot mobilisation sites, civil society organisations and communal action outlets.
The internet is our Pnyx.

So blog away my friends and let's get back what is rightfully ours.

And next time someone asks where the Pnyx is within earshot, I'll give them the only possible answer: it's wherever you make it happen.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. As you well know, I'm hardly a technophobe, but the Internet is no substitute for the Pnyx. The big flat rock had the advantage of being there; of being somewhere. The Internet is not anywhere. As you point out, the locality of the Pnyx, the fact that it was at the centre of civic life whether you liked it or not, gave it its value.

    Yes, anyone can post on the Internet, but they post in their own little corner - before long that corner will attract like-minded people, and what seems like vibrant debate will occur, but the truth is that the people who disagree with you will mostly have their own little corner and be busy agreeing between themselves.

    These ideological echo chambers are not suitable for discussing ta koina nor are they conducive to compromise and negotiation. If anything, they polarise and divide.

  3. The internet is our Pnyx. Couldn't agree with you more on that my friend.
    Plus we all have a right to vote, regardless of our age, gender, sexual preferences, religion, etc.
    What we don't have is worthy representatives. So we get to pick among the worst instead of among the best... if you know what I mean.

  4. @ Zirzirikos – I hear you. But to be fair, what I am dreaming of probably never happened. The vast majority of Athens' citizens didn't bother. I mean, let's face it, would you walk in from Lavrio every day just to debate? Some did. But most didn't. I guess the majority just popped in the days they went to market. Or when they knew something they were interested in was being discussed.
    The internet, by the sheer fact that it is not somewhere means that you can pop in and out all the time at your leisure. I don't think that what gave the Pnyx its value was its location but its function. The location served the function. In a modern, urban and digitalised era the absence of location also helps the function of e-civic interactions.
    Yes, you are right, people tend to talk to like-minded individuals. But the exchange of information and debate occurs nonetheless. Most civil society organizations are aggregates of like-minded individuals and no less effective for that.
    Online fora can be echo chambers. But they are not always.
    Genuine debate does spring up. And more importantly action ensues. And through action comes interaction and through that compromise. More people are active in civil society today than ever before. Why? Because through the internet they find each other and organise. That is what the Pnyx was meant to achieve. Breath-taking oratory was a side-effect, a brilliant side-show but not the purpose of the exercise.

    @ Dorothea – I know exactly what you mean. But if our attitude changes towards what we can and can't do, should and should not be leaving to others, then everything will change in good time.