The author (1922-1997) was political philosopher, social critic, psychoanalytical practitionar, famous Soviet scolar and economist. He worked during some time at the OECD and was co-founder of the now legendary, revolutionary journal and group of the same name:Socialisme ou Barbarie (1948-1967). This group developed a radical criticism on ‘communism’, based on the idea of workers’ control and exerted a great influence on the students- and workers’ revolt at Paris in May 1968 (in that period he conducted a political conference with Daniël Cohn Bendit).Till his recent dead, Castoriadis remained writing about political issues, inspired by his central theme: ‘the development of autonomy’.
Political and Social Writings (orig.: Franse teksten 1946-’79, Eng. trans.: 1988-‘93); L’institution imaginaire de la Société (1975, Eng. trans.: 1987, paperback 1997); Les Carrefours du Labyrinthe (1978, Eng. trans.: 1984); Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy (1991); World in Fragments (1997) belong to his most important works. See for an in memoriam and an extensive bibliografy: Cornelius Castoriadis Agora International Website
Version, fitted with headlines, of: The Problem of Democracy Today in: Democracy & Nature, The International Journal of Politics and Ecology, Vol. 3, nr. 2 (issue 8, 1997 pp 18-35); originally given as a speech in Athens, Greece, in February 1989 and then published in Greek in Cornelius Castoriadis, The Talks in Greece (Athens: Ypsilon, 1990). Translated by Dimitris Isigonis
Destruction of the biological wealth
I will talk to you about the present-day problems of democracy. I say present-day problems of democracy and not problems of present-day democracy because nowadays democracy doesn’t really exist anywhere. There are (maybe) same liberalist oligarchies in certain countries, relatively privileged, privileged in many ways. We must now be over five billion people on earth, and only 500 or 600 – at most 700 – million people live in countries where hunger is not an everyday problem, where persecution, imprisonment, oppression is not an everyday reality. But even in the economically developed and politically liberalist countries the situation, although it seems almost viable, is in reality desperate. It is desperate because unfortunately no one can see farther than one’s nose; still, humanity today is facing huge problems.
First of all it’s the problem I mentioned before. Six out of seven, if not seven out of eight, of the people live in a state of poverty and tremendous oppression. Then there’s the ecological problem, about which everybody is indifferent or is interested only in same of its views, while at this moment we’re sitting on a powder-keg or, to use another metaphor, we’re systematically, day by day, sawing the branch on which we’re sitting. At this very moment about 100,000 hectares of tropical forest in Brazil are being burnt systematically in order to create agricultural areas. Not only in Brazil, but everywhere in the tropical zone, forests are being destroyed. The destruction afforests goes along the destruction of biological species by thousands and by tens of thousands. As a great scientist bas said, for the future historians, the greatest madness of humanity in the twentieth century won’t be either thee wars or the nuclear bombs, or even a nuclear third world war; the greatest madness of humanity during this period will be the destruction of the biological wealth of the earth.
We live in fact in an oligarchy
In these developed and relatively liberalist countries, what’s happening in reality? Journalists and politicians are talking about democracy. The real form of government is of course totally oligarchic. There are some liberalist sides in this oligarchic regime: certain human’s and citizen’ s rights, a so-called free press, etc. But if one examines who are really governing, who really have power in their hands, one will realize that even in the worst periods of the so-called Roman democracy – which was never a democracy, but an oligarchy – the percentage of those who had power in society was bigger than it is today. For in stance, in France the adult and voting population is about 35-37 million people. If we gum up the so-called political class, the masters of economy, the people who really play an important role in manipulating the public opinion, especially by the media, we’ll probably reach a total of about 3,700 people. This is a ratio of one to 10,000. And at the same time there are people criticizing ancient Athenian democracy because a free population of about 100,000 people had maybe at most 100,000 slaves. I’m not saying this to justify slavery of course. I’m saying this to give some perspective on the situation today. I imagine that if you make a similar estimation in Greece you’ll find at most 800 or 1,000 people who are really playing a role in every kind of power. This is how the situation is.
Television- and consumption masturbation
Along with this situation, we are observing an equally crucial and weighty phenomenon. The peoples of those countries played an important role in history. I am not talking about battles and conquests; lam talking about civilization and political I creation. Following the Dark Ages, which reigned from the Roman Empire till the beginning of the modem era, a liberty movement was recreated in Europe, starting with the first bourgeoisie who created cities that attempted to be self-governed. After several struggles and as a result of these struggles, in which the bourgeoisie played of course an important role and the lower middle class and later the labour class a great part, there are today what we call democratic institutions in these countries. These institutions were never a gift from the rulers, nor a gift from the capitalists, nor were they a sequel to this economic system. They were won by several struggles and cast piles of dead bodies and rivers of blood.
Where do these people stand today, and where do the Greek people stand? The most obvious characterization we could give is that they are in a state of political impassivity, privatisation, irresponsibility, cynicism, and indifference towards matters of public and political interest, and that in general they possess an attitude towards their private and public lire which is more or less a state of indolence into television and consumer masturbation. The present situation is not just the result of the conspiracies, manoeuvres and manipulations of the ruling strata. If the ruling strata are able to do what they do with impunity- and I believe that here in Greece you are, as the French say, paid to know that they do what they do with impunity, you know that on your skin – it is just because people remain impassive or at most they shrug their shoulders, saying, “We know them; they’re all the same scoundrels.”
People earn billions in the stock exchange daily
Recently, with the renaissance of so-called liberalism, same theorists who praise this situation have appeared. They say that now we have reached true liberty: individualism. Each person deals with his own lire, and therefore there are no political and social conflicts, there is no fuss or trouble, and thus the system works. Besides being hypocritical, this reasoning also contains a huge self-deception. The existing system, the way it is today, destroys its very survival. If it continues to work in same way, it does not work based on the people and institutions it produces. It works because, despite the prevalent mentality, despite the quality of the managers, there still are same people in certain parts of society and the state mechanism – let’s say x percent of the judiciary, y percent of the educators, or z percent of the working people in general – who, instead of complying with the prevalent philosophy and the prevalent mentality (namely, saying, “What do I care? Who is paying more? I’ll make a decision in his favour”) as they should do according to the really prevalent philosophy and the theories of liberalism, are still working in the traditional way. They still have same morality left. This makes at least same of the judges more or less impartial, and as are suit the rest are afraid of them. It makes same of the educators try to teach something to the kids instead of messing about, and it makes some of the workers screw the screws and keep the trains from derailing. But they should not really screw those screws, given what they are being paid and given that they see billions of defalcations or, even in normal enterprises, enormous fortunes being created in one day with no reason at all I am not talking about pampers [The author is referring to a scandal in witch money was delivered by a banker to the prime minister in diaper boxes]; l am talking about more serious things that are happening at the New York Stock Exchange, for instance, where with no economical basis at all, not even a right capitalistic one, billions are being made in one day with spin business. If this situation goes on, neither the biosphere in which we live, nor the society-sphere, if I may say that, will stand for long.
Democracy means power of the people
The regimes in these countries are a small minority of the earth’ s population. They call themselves democracies, and this word suffers from a tremendous prostitution. It is impossible for any African corporal with 10 machine guns and 20 jeeps to seize power without declaring that he is going to establish a democratic socialism, based on which he slaughters his opponents, takes over television stations, and deceives his people. The same bas happened with the word ‘socialism’. The Greek know this well. It’s the same with the word ‘revolution’. I imagine you see commercials every day about the revolution in refrigerators or the revolution in toilet paper.
We must return to the original meaning of the word ‘democracy’. Democracy does not mean human rights, does not mean lack of censorship, does not mean elections of any kind. All this is very nice, but it’s just second- or third-degree consequences of democracy. Democracy means the power (kratos) of the people (demos). Kratos in ancient Greek does not mean state in the present sense. There was no state in ancient Greece; the Athenian city was a polis or politia. Kratos in ancient Greek means power and probably violence or main force. It is characteristic that when in modem Greece a real state was created, we chose the word ‘kratos‘ from ancient Greek. We could have chosen the word ‘politia‘ (city). Democracy means power of the people. If we think deeply about these words, same substantial questions emerge. First of all, what is the demos, who is the demos, who belongs to the demos? Then, what does power mean? And the fact that the very characterization, the very term, that defines this regime produces these questions, shows the special nature of this regime, which is born at the same moment with the philosophical inquiry, as opposed to other farms of government in which such questions cannot be born. If the regime is a monarchy, one knows that power belongs to the monarch, who is appointed by the right of succession or any other way. Likewise, the aristoi (nobles) in an aristocracy are the ones that from birth belong to a certain social class. Democracy, by its name already, produces questions and problems. From this point of view, it is not accidental that its birth coincides absolutely with the birth of this limitless question that is philosophy.
Democracy is or wants to be a regime aspiring to social and personal autonomy (to set your own rules). Why are we talking here about autonomy? Because the majority of human societies have always been established on the basis of heteronomy (to have rules set by same other). The existing institutions in general, but the political institutions especially, were always considered given and not questionable. And they were made in such a way that it was impossible to question them. In primitive tribes, for example, institutions have been delivered by the founder heroes or the ancestors and are considered self-evident. What is correct and not correct, allowed and not allowed, bas been determined once and for all, in all fields. It is not even forbidden to question these institutions. There is no need to forbid it because it is, in fact, inconceivable to question them. People have embodied them. They have initialised them with their very upbringing, their very making as social persons.
The Athenians continually reformed their institutions
What happened in ancient Greece for the first time and was repeated in Europe from the twelfth to the thirteenth century and on? There was a rupture of this heteronomous status quo and a motion towards autonomy. This motion was expressed politically with the democratic movement and all the democratic institutions that were created. This rupture with heteronomy meant the questioning of the existing institutions, and this took place in ancient Greece. What we see in Athens, for instance, from 700 to 400 B.C. and on is the almost continual modification of institutions. Ideal institutions were never created, but Athenians never stopped reforming their laws so as to increase the democratic reality, namely, the possibility of real participation of the people in power.
Autonomy means that the political community gives to itself its laws and that it does so knowing that it does so, excluding every idea of extra-social source of the laws and institutions, either natural or traditional or metaphysical. The divine source of the laws is the case of the Jews in the Old Testament: Jehovah gives the laws to Moses.
Autonomy means that we’re giving ourselves our laws and our institutions, knowing that we are the ones who create them, knowing that we are the ones who make them. This is the highest kratos, the highest power that exists in a society: to be able to give ourselves our laws, namely, to also give ourselves the institutions under which we live and the government with which we determine our direction.
Autonomous people participate directly in the lawmaking process
Society is never just a simple synthesis, a simple summation of persons, because the very persons are being created by society. Therefore when we speak about an autonomous society and we want an autonomous society, this means ipso facto that we also want autonomous persons. We want persons capable of giving themselves their law, and, since in society it’s impossible for everyone to give him/herself law, capable of participating fully in the institution-making process in society. This means, basically, that a person’s education, not only in the sense of school and instruction, but education as a constant action of society on persons, beginning the moment of their birth and ending the moment of their death and channelled not only through schools but also through family, mother, company, neighbourhood, army, associations, newspapers, radio, television-education in the broadest sense and in all farms-must contribute to making persons truly autonomous. Autonomous persons are those who not only try to regulate their personal life in an autonomous way, but also try to participate in making laws that are necessarily social and limit or determine their lives. As a consequence, if we speak about autonomous persons we simultaneously speak about an autonomous society, about a society not ruled by divine revelation, a society with no idea of natural laws organizing social life, with no tradition, and of course not ruled by the power of one political party expressing the alleged historical determinism and historical necessities or the power of a secretary general or a president. An autonomous society gives itself its institutions and self-governs. When persons can say that society’s laws are also their laws, these
persons are autonomous and their society is autonomous as well.
What does it mean for people to be able to say that society’s laws are also their laws, namely, that they embrace them fully? It does not necessarily mean that they agree with all of them. But it does necessarily mean that they have truly and actively participated in making these laws and institutions and in putting them into effect. Since society consists of a theoretically limitless and indefinite number of persons, this entails that there is full equality of participation of all people in all institution- making powers that could exist today in a society and in making these institutions work. Consequently, as regards anything that can be explicitly legislated in society, whether it’s about institution-making power (that is, the power that determines the basic institutions within which society operates) or exercising these legislated powers (for example, legislature and executive), everyone should have the greatest possible possibility, not just typically but substantially, to participate in exercising these powers. The greatest possible possibility, not just typically but substantially: this means that we do not limit ourselves to saying that citizens are called once every five years to choose the representative who will decide for them, but that citizens decide on their own about the laws under which they wish to live. It also means that they do not elect directly or indirectly people who will govern them, but they themselves govern. AU such decisions considering the future of society-because this is what government is: to govern means to make decisions considering what must be done-whatever concerns basic governmental decisions must be long to society as a whole. People should have not just the typical right to participate; they should also be educated in every aspect mentioned before in order to be able to participate.
Here I would like to observe one or two things. First a mention of the ancients, or rather of the great Thucydides. When Thucydides wants to characterize a city as free, he characterizes it as “autonomous, self-judging and independent.” The city for Thucydides means always the citizens. He never speaks of states or dominions. For example, the words ‘Athens’ and ‘Sparta’ in Thucydides have only a geographical sense. When he speaks about the tighting cities in the Peloponnesian War, he always says ‘Athenians, Lacedaemonians, Corfians, Corinthians’. One of the orators in Thucydides says, ” The city are the men.” The notion that a state, a dominion, a city is a territory, which is dominant in modem philosophy of the law and constitutional theory, is plainly a feudal conception and bas no relation at all with the democratic tradition. So Thucydides gays ‘autonomous’. He also gays ‘self-judging,’ namely, the very city tries every violation in the lire sphere of the people. As you know, the members of the ancient Athenian jury courts were elected by lot and not professional judges. He also gays ‘independent’: the power belongs to the people. A city is a number of citizens who govern themselves. As a consequence, if we are not autonomous, self-judging, and independent, we cannot live in democracy or say that we live in a democracy.
No political equality without economical equality
Another point I’ d like to insist on is the relation between equality and freedom. For a long time now, already from the nineteenth century, there bas been a widespread rhetoric and sophistry which reappeared with renewed force since Russia became an alleged ‘communist’ society [In this section, the author is referring to the time before the break up of the USSR]: if you wish to be free, you cannot be equal- because in Russia people are equal but not free-and if you wish to be equal-as in Russia-you cannot be free. This reasoning contains many fallacies and lies. In reality, people in Russia were neither free nor equal. A prisoner in a concentration camp is in no war equal with the guard of the camp or the colonel in command of the camp or the secretary of the party committee that is in charge of the area or the people in the politburo. And it was the very lack of political freedom that made political and economic inequality possible in Russia. Inversely, in capitalistic countries, it’s being said that there is freedom but not economic equality. Certainly there is not economic equality, but there is not political equality either. There is only a typical political equality. The average Greek citizen, the peasant, the doorman, the driver, the worker, the conductor, and everybody else does not really have the same political rights as the members of the ruling political class. I’m not talking about economic inequality; I’m talking about political inequality. There is a political privileged class in Greece which is in a completely unequal political position compared to the simple men and women, and of course since there is a tremendous economic inequality, as there is in capitalistic regimes, there can be no political equality. If I have a lot of money, I can buy a radio station and a TV station; thus economic inequality is transformed into political inequality because I can tell the people what they must think and what is the news. (News is always filtered or presented under a certain illumination.)
If we want to be free in society we must be truly equal. There is no need to discuss the rest of the sophisms raised against the alleged levelling that true equality would bring about. When we talk about equality we do not mean uniformity of persons. If there is a society that creates uniformity it’s the present one. Each one believes that he is special and different from everyone else, but at eight o’clock in the evening he presses the same button and watches the same nonsense on the same TV. He buys the same clothes; this is the personal freedom that he’s allowed by the social institution of fashion. When we talk about equality we mean a politically important equality, namely, equal possibilities for true participation in the institution-making process in a society and in the exercise of whatever powers there are in a society. This entails direct democracy, about which I’ll say a few words later. The notion of equality bas of course same important economic consequences. True political equality is impossible, especially in a society of the present farm, structure, and formation, since there are such tremendous economic inequalities: there is no war we can find, and we never have, a means of establishing a water-proof partition between the economic and political domains. Since there is tremendous economic inequality, as there is today, people who have economic power in their hands will necessarily and regardless of their intentions, transform it into political power as well. History as a whole – not so much ancient Greek history, in which money did play a certain role, but Roman and modern history – proves this facto This also leads to another consideration. It would never be possible that the very persons we want to be free citizens could be free citizens in their political lire and slaves in substance in their economic productive lire. It’s not possible that people will go to an assembly of political freedom on Sundays and that for the remaining five or six days they will be just screws on a mechanical system of production. It is impossible to educate citizens-because once again education does not stop at elementary or high school- into being free and responsible and willing to take part in the public affairs and, at the same time, oblige them to spend the greatest part of their waking lire in an hierarchical structure in which they can do nothing but constantly execute what their superiors tell them on the one hand and on the other what is written in the regulations (which five times out of 10 are comically absurd). If factories and public services manage to function, it’s because employees violate to a large extent the regulations in order to be able to do their jobs. This is proven by the fact that one of the most effective farms of strike is what is called in French ‘zeal strike’: the employees begin to apply the regulations to the letter, and this can make everything collapse in an hour. Why is that? Because the regulations were not made by the employees; they were made by technicians, by engineers, by people with diplomas from polytechnic schools, and by others who do not know how the jobs are really done. An autonomous society would never accept an economic situation in which on one hand there is a tremendous economic inequality and on the other the working people, namely, the whole population, are placed like ants into hierarchical structures where they have no say about what they do or how they do it. The reasons for this are not charitable but political. Self-‘administration of the productive units by the producers is a necessary precondition for a truly autonomous society and democratic schools as well.
Bureaucracy is always an enemy of democracy
Nowadays we ascertain not only economic farms of domination, but political farms, as wail. If an exploitative and oppressive regime was created in Russia after 1917-most likely more exploitative and far more oppressive than any other class regime known before then-this was not due to the capitalists but to the fact that through the very communist party, the Bolsheviks, a bureaucracy was created and connected to the bureaucracy of the factories, the army, and other social branches-a bureaucracy that very soon was consolidated as the absolute ruling class and established the regime of the bureaucratic, totalitarian capitalism.
Therefore it is not only economically privileged and ruling classes that are opposed to democracy, but also political bureaucracy, which constantly tends to be produced and reproduced, whether it rallies round a charismatic person or not. Usually, at least in the beginning, it rallies round a charismatic person who tends and finally manages to monopolize power and obliterate every start of democratic principles. The modem farm of the political parties is very apt at creating bureaucracy. Remember that parties in the present meaning of the word never existed in ancient Athens. Parties were created during the modem era. It is one of the tragic ironies of history that the first real parties, in the present sense, were created by the labour class in its struggle to be free. (The bourgeois parties in Europe followed, imitating them.) The labour parties degenerated relatively soon and became bureaucratic.
The ruling stratum that a democratic movement can and must face is not only the economic oligarchy; it is also political oligarchy and political bureaucracy. Here I would like to underline a point that is old in political philosophy but forgotten by many people, especially in Greece. We constantly accuse rulers of ruling. This is as foolish as accusing thieves of stealing or blond people of being blond. A ruler’ s job is to rule. If we must accuse someone we must accuse ruled people of letting themselves be ruled. We cannot say that the people are all powerful and, at the same time, that any demagogue can lead them by the nose. We must say that people have some responsibility in what happens today. Of course this is not enough, because we are not moralizing. We say that so as to remind the citizens that what happens happens with their participation, their complicity. But we cannot star with this.
The myth of political expertise
Why does complicity exist in the form of apathy, indifference, cynicism? On the one hand, the whole historic wave of modem society is leading people to indolence, individualism, consumerism, and television masturbation. On the other hand, there is something that needs discussion and probably refutation. The population bas been infiltrated by a central capitalistic imaginary sense, the myth of knowledge, the science of the experts, of the people who know. This imaginary sense is what supports the main structure of society-hierarchy-which is completely incompatible with every democratic institution. Why are some people on top and the rest below them? Because they are educated, they know better, they are experts, etc.
I his myth bas infiltrated deeply into people’s psyche, and in order to amuse you a little and break the probably dull sequence of these reasoning, I will tell you a true story that happened to me. Fortunately in Greece we have the good habit of talking to taxi drivers and thus have an idea of people’s thoughts. In the days of the ‘apostasy’ and confusion, I was in Athens and took a taxi. The driver was a nice, smart man. The situation seemed bad, I told him. Yes, he rep lied, it’s terrible but don’t worry. Why not? I asked.
“There’s Andreas (Andreas Papandreou, the Prime Minister),” he’ said. — “Oh,” I said, “and what is he going to do?” ‘: , He replied, “Right now he cannot do anything; he’ s gone to Bulgaria for 48 hours.” “Why bas Andreas gone to Bulgaria for 48 hours?” “Because,” he replied,” the Bulgarian government is in deep trouble with the financial situation and invited Andreas for 48 hours to put things right for them.”
I think there is no need to comment on this. The man who told me that was a very normal person; he wasn’t born an idiot. He drove perfectly, and he told me nice jokes, and so on. With this mentality, people voted Andreas twice-the first time could be forgiven, the second not-and brought him into the swim. Andreas is an expert, isn’t he? Koutsogiorgas (vice-president of the government) is also an expert in pampers and other things. And everybody else is an expert too, you know. What do l know in comparison?
Let them decide. The same happens in the labour movement; it’s the leaders who know, the secretary generals, people like Zachariades. And here things are worse-due to marxism-because of the theoretical consolidation. Behind the secretary general or the party cadres there is the marxist theory that gays the truth about history, about society, about how socialism should be built, about when we must strike, when we must not, when we must take up arms and take the winter palace, and so on. All these questions have been examined closely and the solutions are in Das Kapital or the 60 volumes of Lenin ‘s Complete Works. Experts have studied those hooks; they know. You can go and stick up proclamations because it’s the only thing you can do. This mentality began to exist a century ago, namely, since the 1880s. Contrary to what was happening in the beg inning in trade unions and labour parties, where direct democracy truly existed, a bureaucracy began to take over. Where did this bureaucracy draw its power from? The explanation that the development of bureaucracy was due to ‘objective reasons’ (economic, necessity to organize, etc.) is in my view completely insufficient and regards only secondary points, or it’s just a consequence of a deeper cause. This deeper cause, the true explanation, is once again the labour class and the population in general being infiltrated by this capitalistic imaginary sense: the leaders and rulers should be people who are qualified to lead and to rule, namely, people who are knowledgeable about the science, the technique, of governing. This notion is, of course, totally opposed to the ancient Greek notion about democracy and politics, a notion that Protagoras states in a very beautiful way in his speech in the harmonious dialogue of Plato and which Plato, although an enemy of democracy, quotes very faithfully. The subject at this point of the dialogue is who is a politician and who is not, who is knowledge- able about political science and who is not. And Protagoras answers the question by a myth. When Zeus dealt with men, he gave each man a certain specialty, but political knowledge was equally distributed to everyone. That’s why, Protagoras gays, you see that when Athenians want to decide in the Assembly of People (ecclesia) how to build a ship or a temple, they call the specialists and listen to them. If a non-specialist wants to speak, they shout him down. But when they are discussing the general political matters of the city, every citizen can speak and everybody listens to him with attention. Behind this myth lies this profound political and philosophical notion of the ancients that there is no science, no systematic knowledge with proof and technical instructions for political matters, but there is people’s opinion, which must certainly be educated and improved from experience, but which is not a science.
“The only true form of democracy is direct democracy”
How can people’s opinion be educated? How can people form an always better opinion and judgment on political matters about which there is no science? There is only one way: by exercising political power, discussing, and making decisions. Naturally, the modem conception of democracy, the notion that democracy is representation, is completely opposite from that of the ancients. This discussion started a long time ago, and Rousseau himself, writing at the end of the eighteenth century, said quite plainly that the only acceptable or true form of democracy is direct democracy. There is a phrase in Rousseau that could be found in Marx or Lenin when they were criticizing the parliamentary system. The British, according to Rousseau, think that they are free because they elect their deputies once every five years, but they are deluding themselves: they are free one day every five years. I would say that Rousseau does not follow his reasoning to the end, because naturally they are not free – as we are not and you are not – not even one day every five years. What you are going to vote this one day every five years bas already been prescribed. First of all it bas been prescribed by the political parties that appear. Then it bas been prescribed by the stuff they have been filling our heads with for five years. It bas been prescribed by the irreversible conditions created by the people who are in the swim. We could go on showing how it bas been prescribed for at least an hour. Once irrevocable representatives have been elected, their first and main concern is to secure their re-election – unless we believe in Santa Claus. Every other matter is secondary, and you can see this both in the level of representatives and the level of presidents. The only thing they are interested in is how to secure their re-election (regardless of what constitutional law professors may be teaching). Anything else is nonsense. Representation is the political self-alienation of the body politic. The only possible form of democracy is direct democracy, namely, a democracy where people decide for themselves and not by means of irrevocable representatives.
For a long time now, there bas been an argument and a discussion that would be dishonest not to mention. We know that direct democracy existed. It existed in Athens and some other Greek cities. Not all. It never existed in Rome. If any university professor talks to you about Roman democracy, you can laugh. Rome bas always been an oligarchy. If any marxist tells you that Athenian democracy was based on slavery, you can laugh again. Slavery existed everywhere in the ancient world, but democracy did not. You can tell him also that he doesn’t know marxism because Marx himself wrote, correctly, that the real socio-economic basis of ancient democracy was the small independent production of free farmers and craftsmen. The basis of Athenian democracy was not slavery; the rich owned slaves, most of the rest did not. The basis of the Athenian democracy was that the peasant walked 25 kilometres to go to the ecclesia to discuss and decide; the Athenian craftsman and the sailor from Peirius did the same.
Television can be an instrument of direct democracy
This naturally presupposes a small number of citizens in a political community. There is a famous phrase of Plato, in the Laws, if I remember correctly, where he is discussing the ideal dimensions of a city and gays that the ideal dimensions as regards population (not territory) is the number of people who, gathered in one place, are able to hear an orator speaking. This is a very important notion; you can immediately see its different extents. Equally important is the fact that people are more or less familiar with each other. In the dialogues of Plato, for instance, Socrates is in a gymnasium, where young men are gathered, and asks, who is that man? And he is told, how come you don’t know, he is the son of so-and-so. Oh! says Socrates, of course, that’s him, and doesn’t he have so-and-so for a cousin? Because when the free citizens are 30,000, and 10,000-15,000 of them are living in Athens, people are familiar with each other; each man knows more or less a few things about everyone else or can easily learn what kind of a man he is, what he is able to do and not able to do.
The great American sociologist Lewis Mumford discusses Plato’s phrase in a book of his in 1936 and states correctly that by the invention of radio, the limits of direct democracy had become the limits of the planet. I, if l’m allowed to mention myself, mentioned the whole story 20 years later [in Content of Socialism, 1957] and mentioned also that television can serve direct democracy. Naturally, with the existing political status quo, television serves political corruption. But this itself is of no interest. I mean that the technical means exist for rational and thoughtful collective decisions, surpassing the limitations of the classical direct democracy (the Athenian, for instance). New structures and new farms Deed to be invented and created. This notion, though, is insufficient. In order to put television, radio, etc., into the service of direct democracy, it is necessary to destroy their unipolar structure: one active transmitter and innumerable passive receivers. In order to turn television into a democratic instrument, we must turn the one-way street into a two-way street.
Only incidentally can I mention another huge problem of our days- the ecological problem. I mention it only to stress that if we take it under consideration, it is immediately obvious that the matter of democracy is universal-the matter of democracy is a matter of universal democracy. There are no ‘national’ solutions to the ecological problem: a tanker of 500,000 loos passes 400 kilometres away from your coasts, and if it sinks, as bas happened so many times before, your coasts get covered with oil for years-not to mention the atmosphere, the forests, etc.
Every elected official must be removable at any moment
Direct democracy, so as to be nourished, needs to be truly direct at a certain level. It needs to be a democracy of a quasi-Athenian type at the base level, namely, there bas to be a network of decentralized and self-governing communities. People should be educated in autonomy, self-judgment, and independence at the level or dimensions of a city between 20 and 50-at most 100-thousand inhabitants, the dimensions of a factory for productive self-management, or the dimensions of cooperatives of five to 10 villages. In these dimensions, people can form an ecclesia and decide on every issue that exclusively concerns them. In an ecclesia, some people, not representatives, could be charged with constantly revocable power to take part in higher dimensional units-districts, prefectures, regions, nations, continents, planet. As regards the basic unities of direct democracy, the ancients could suggest a few things, not to be initiated but to think on. For instance, in ancient Athens, a lot of basic powers were exercised in rotation: for one month one certain tribe held some offices and among them, every day a different person was supervisor of rectors, that is, president of the Republic. Next month it was some other tribe’s turn. In other cases the archons were elected by lot. Athenians elected by vote, as you know, only for offices that really required a specialty, such as the general’s office. Commanding an army in battle is not a thing anybody can do; one needs special training. The generals were elected by vote and remained revocable. Modem liberation movements have created similar democratic forms: the council and the labour council. The genera! assembly of all the interested elected representatives who are not only responsible but constantly revocable as well. So they have to answer for what they have done to the people who elected them.
This is neither the time nor the place for a detailed description of a direct democracy comprising millions of people. We must, though, stress two basic principles: on the one hand, true direct democracy in the base unities, where direct democracy can really function; on the other hand, every authority that needs to be elected is not only elective, but constantly revocable and responsible. In this war we can begin to face the problem of direct democracy in the dimensions of present-day societies and its expansion in continental and planetary space.
Astynomos Orgè, the ‘institution-making’ passion
I’m now reaching my final point. AU this is important, of course, but it is not vital for direct democracy to function, namely, for freedom to exist. Whether it is 20-30 thousand or 3 billion people, one thing needs to exist behind, below, and above all institutions, one thing that no one can decide or legislate. This thing is the constant creative activity of the public. Only the public – not me, nor you – can find how it’s possible for resonance to exist between a central radio or TV station and the public that receives it. The public, the people, will find a way to create forms we cannot even imagine, forms that could solve problems that seem insuperable to us. So what is needed is this constant creative activity from the public, and that means mainly everybody’s passion for public affairs. That is not a discovery of mine; it exists in that magnificent choral in Antigone that begins “polla ta deina kai ouden anqropou deinoteron pelei” [There are many amazing phenomena, but no one is as amazing as a human being] and where Sophocles, among other wondrous human characteristics, mentions what he calls “astynomos orgè.” Astynomos means institution-making and orgè, from which the word orgasm is derived, is urge, passion. People in their heat of passion created real cities, like the one Sophocles was born in and for which he wrote his tragedies.
If this passion for public affairs, this astynomos orga, does not exist, we can make good spectacle, write good hooks, create impeccable philosophical systems, but all this will not mean anything. To conclude, I would like to mention the view that’s completely opposite to the one we state here based on the amazing and dazzling phrase of Sophocles about the “astynomon orga,” the modern view about such things, the view of the modern alleged democracy and liberalism. It was expressed with great density and profoundness by a French political philosopher of the nineteenth century, Benjamin Constant, in a famous text of his where he compares the freedom of the ancients with the freedom of modern people and, beginning from what we were saying about ancient democracy, he says that indeed, in ancient democracy, as people had nothing else to do (that’s how he explains it), they had this political pass ion, while ourselves, here I am quoting, “ all we seek from the state is to consolidate our delights.” And he is not saying this as an accusation or irony. He is saying this because he knows, already from 1820, about modern men and women. This is, I hope by half, but definitely is by that half, a tragic truth about the modern world. What people want nowadays is to consolidate their delights. And they ask this from the state.
They do not see public affairs and they are not interested in them anymore. Beyond themselves and their direct circle of friends there is for them a father-state or mother-state-a state being at the same time a monster and a kind of Santa Claus who produces bank notes, licenses, jobs, and so on, but a state that must consolidate our delights. As long as this notion, this tendency, this profound imaginary point of view of the modem person towards public affairs and politics still exists, , whatever we say could be or may be a seed for a furore generation but “does not benefit us at all. What’s pre-eminently needed today and seems to be missing for the time being, is pass ion for public affairs, responsibility, participation, the “astynomos orga.”