Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

This Is What Direct Democracy Looks Like: How Athens in the 5th Century BC Resolved the Question of Power

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

This Is What Direct Democracy Looks Like: How Athens in the 5th Century BC Resolved the Question of Power

Article excerpt

The recent emphasis on governance and calls for stakeholder input in policy and decision-making highlights the value currently given to direct democratic procedures. Ongoing social movements, such as 'Occupy Wall Street' (OWS) in the US, are implementing alternative direct democratic processes, although we have yet to see their long-term impacts. In planning, public participation processes, such as public meetings, community advisory boards and citizen commissions are usually advisory. Their recommendations can be ignored and/or distorted by governing structures and interests groups, via agenda setting, backstage negotiations or during implementation (e.g. Laurian, 2005; 2007; MacCallum, 2009).1 Although the impacts of direct participation in planning are not systematically assessed, anecdotally, direct democracy in planning appears weak (Laurian and Shaw, 2009).

Direct participation in planning may not be structured to generate significant impacts because it typically fails to overcome biases created by power imbalances among stakeholders. To investigate how power could be practically addressed in the context of local governance, I describe the strategies used by the first and only successful direct democratic regime that ever existed and lasted: Athens in the 5th century BC.2

Key features of Athenian direct democracy3

Direct democracy was incrementally refined in Athens from the 6th to the 4th centuries bc based on the principles of individual freedom and the expansion of citizens'4 rights: equality at birth (isogonia) and equality of political rights (isonomia), of speech in political assemblies (isegoria) and of power (isokratia).

Early in the 6th century, Solon (Athens' statesman and lawmaker, 638-558 bc) began enacting important social reforms, e.g. abolishing slavery for debt, eliminating birth rights and government by divination and forming a Council of 400 citizens. In the 5th century, Athens was strong, winning battles at Marathon (490 bc), Salamin (480 bc), Plataea and Mycale (561 bc) and leading the Delian league. I describe below the features of Athenian democracy as it was fully implemented in the 5th to 4th century under the leadership of Demosthenes. Athens' democratic regime fell in the 3rd century, not because of institutional issues, but because Athens was ruined by the Peloponnesian war against Sparta (431-404 bc). After a brief Spartiate dictatorship, democracy was restored for 80 years until the Macedonian conquest (322 bc). In the 3rd century, the democracy was repeatedly challenged and restored (from 307 to 300 bc, in 295-294 bc, and from 287 to 262 bc) until Athens placed itself under the protection of the Roman Republic at the end of the 3rd century.

The principal features of Athens' direct democracy in the 5th to 4th centuries were: (1) a combination of decentralised and centralised legislative power, emphasising 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.

Decentralisation and centralisation of power

Before the 5th century, Cleisthenes (chosen leader of Athens, circa 570-508 bc) had replaced traditional tribal structures by 139 demes5 distributed into 10 tribes, each divided into 3 trittyes. The trittyes managed local affairs as sovereign assemblies. Demes elected or randomly selected, for one-year terms, their executive delegates for local affairs (demarchos). Demes also selected representatives (50 members from each tribe) to sit on Athens' Council of 500 (replacing the Council of 400) which handled minor governance issues.

Major political questions that engaged Athens as a whole (e.g. war6) were handled via direct democracy by vote of the demos (all citizens) at the Assembly (ekklesia). The Assembly, whose powers were unlimited, was the place of decision-making, not dialogue or debate. …

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