Lucie Laurian is associate professor at my MPL alma, the University of Iowa. She always does really interesting work, but I just recently discovered that she is interested in Athenian democracy! Whoohoo!! A fellow nerd! Now we have something really cool to talk about when I see her at ACSP!
Here’s the manuscript:
Laurian, L. (2012). This is what direct democracy looks like: How Athens in the 5th century BC resolved the question of power. Town Planning Review, 83(4), v-xii. doi:10.3828/tpr.2012.2
The goal is to describe how direct democracy functioned in Athens. In planning, we are supposedly big on the idea of citizen participation and governance. I say supposedly not because I believe the soggy, line, which must be 40 years old now, of tired planning theory that “planners aren’t technocratic experts handing decisions down to communities” etc etc. I view that line of thinking in planning as a bit ahistorical; when the state has power, planners who work for the state have it. When state power and legitimacy erodes, so it does for planners who work there. It’s citizen movements, their potential, and the laws they’ve gotten passed, see Manuel Castells, that have ensured that planners, regardless of whether they can produce a decent ‘technocratic’ analysis or not, have to play nice with communities.
Even so, planners allow for representative decision-making even in citizen participation. We don’t gather and incorporate the reflections of everybody; even in well-intended, genuine attempts at inclusion, we gather the viewpoints of those who show up, and we often take what they say as speaking for ‘the community’ although it is now technologically feasible to subject just about every detail of a project to a direct vote. Yes, not everybody has access to online, but you could have tools where people without computers come in a library to vote if they choose. You could get a lot closer than what we do.
Laurian’s point is that Athens managed to do quite a bit of direct democracy using pottery shards for 5,000 people. No, not everybody got to participate, we know that, but the level of direct democracy in Athens, sustained over the course of ~300 years, is pretty impressive. Its methods and tools could readily adapt to neighborhood level decision-making about specific issues and not just votes on representatives. Laurian highlights four major facets to Athenian democracy:
(1) a combination of decentralized and centralized legislative power, emphasizing governance by all citizens at the central Assembly for major decisions;
(2) absolute freedom of speech and transparency;
(3) effective strategies to avoid power accumulation and corruption; and
(4) regime flexibility.
#3 and #4 are probably the most interesting. In order to challenge power accumulation, Athens reconstituted the representative components of its office-holding leadership every year; people held the job for one year, and they were not allowed to have more than office. Generals were exempted, which makes sense. That means the entire civil administration was recomposed every year. Can you imagine? Now, we are talking about a society not troubled with many managerial issues we have today: we don’t necessarily want Joe Citizen, for example, overseeing the nuclear regulatory commission. But it does make for a really interesting, if not terribly practical, idea that we rotate the job among nuclear physicists. Nonetheless, for planning, the idea holds some merit. If we ever got serious about the idea that planners hold no ‘special’ technical expertise, planning jobs could readily rotate from citizen to citizen. The idea that how planners have no ‘special’ expertise is a pretty devastating assumption for the conception of a profession, let alone the ethics of being a theorist teaching in a planning program charging tuition to train professionals.
Ostracism was another tool that allowed everybody else to kick you out if they felt you were getting too grabby with power. Like historian Donald Kagan, Laurian treats ostracism as a pretty handy tool. It was a bloodless way of shutting down domineering types. It also moved them so that they didn’t wind up as permanent democratic discontents. It was possible to vote to un-ostracize somebody if they seemed sincerely over their bug. I need to learn more about it. I’m less convinced it wasn’t a mechanism for hosing your political enemies. Certainly better than killing them off, though, and since it seems like many of them wound up living in their family estates on the ocean somewhere, hardly a major hardship other than thwarted ambition.
The whole functioning unit had many volunteers: 6,000 according to Laurian. By relying on large numbers, the system disallowed graft and promoted transparency. You couldn’t bribe 1500 jurors, for example. It’s hard to keep a cabal going if you’ve got to get through hundreds and hundreds of people.
My one wish for this manuscript is that Laurian apply her ideas more to democratic theory to planning, and she doesn’t do it. I’ve done more extrapolating here than she does. (But then, I’m freer as a blogger than she is, with reviewers standing on her neck). I would like to know what she thinks about how the volunteerism and institutions in Athens might be mirrored or learned from now, and where the possibilities for direct democracy reside in planning given that we do have the possibility for direct voting. We don’t have the ethic of voting, certainly, or the ethic of service, that Athenians appear to have had, if our sources are proper indicators.