I have recently been lucky enough to make contact with Roslyn Fuller, a leading expert in the study of the ancient Athenian political system, a form of direct democracy unique to that era of history and without parallel in the modern world.
Roslyn was very receptive to the idea of doing an interview and was more thorough in her responses than expected. Her responses really makes you reflect on the importance of learning from the ancient Athenian’s concept of truly democratic governance.
You can find more about her work at her website where you can find her articles, podcasts, radio interviews, information about her books and much more. Here is some information about Roslyn from her website’s about page:
Roslyn Fuller is the world’s leading authority on infusing the ancient ideals of Athenian Democracy with the participatory potential of modern information technology. Educated in Germany and Ireland with a PhD in International Law from Trinity College, Dublin, Roslyn’s experience as a lecturer, author, and political consultant has given her unique insights into structures of public governance and, above all, the mechanics of political power.
Having foreseen the current assault on democracy long before Brexit and Trump were household names, her relentless defence of people power has seen her articles and interviews published in countless newspapers and magazines.
Roslyn frequently speaks at conferences and universities around the world, sharing her vision of multiple, mutually-reinforcing democratic reforms first outlined in her ground-breaking and critically acclaimed book Beast and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose, an unflinching deconstruction of the myth of modern democracy and a road map to implementing real democracy in the age of the internet.
Once described as “the next Noam Chomsky”, Roslyn combines deep scientific research, a profound understanding of democratic history and cutting-edge information technology to chart a path towards a deeper, citizen-centric understanding of democracy.
Her research centre, the Solonian Democracy Institute, maps the emergence of democracy-enabling technologies and companies and hosts conferences which bring together the brightest minds in democratic innovation. Putting some of her theories to the test, Roslyn has been running an online political participation exercise in parts of North Dublin as part of her Fuller Democracy campaign for public office.
A true “renaissance woman”, Roslyn worked as a fine arts model during her university years, collaborating with some of Ireland’s best known artists and photographers. She is credited with bringing the art of body painting to Ireland in 2012 and famously combined her politics and her art in 2013 for the Wikilicious calendar project in aid of whistle-blowers.
Enjoy the interview!
Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and how you came to be interested in politics and ancient history?
I studied law with a specialization in public international law. Public international law is basically a combination of law and power writ large, and I see myself as fitting into a realpolitik tradition rather than an ideological one. This is where history comes in. Historical events really happened, so I find looking at history more useful than hypothesizing or philosophizing, as the ideological tradition tends to do.
My grandparents are from Spain and my mother was born in South America, so I think that fed into my realpolitische tendencies. When I was a teenager, my mom would sometimes cut out magazine articles about people being tortured and murdered in South America and tell me that would happen to me if I persisted in non-conformist political involvement. I’m guessing this was a very different kind of parental feedback than most people received, and I think it partly explains the differences between myself and other commentators.
A lot of people involved in political theory seem to conceive of politics as some kind of detached debating chamber, something you take part in out of interest or merely to score points. For me, it’s always been something you do because something is at stake that you can’t afford to let go, even if there is a cost to you for that.
I initially began looking at ancient Athens specifically, because I was trying to formulate a definition of democracy for my PhD thesis, which involved trying to make international institutions more democratic. The ancient Greeks invented the word democracy, so it seemed like a promising lead. I think part of the reason I remained interested in ancient history, generally, is that the political atmosphere back then was fairly pragmatic. There’s a brutal honesty that appeals to me.
I understand you are working on a new book. Can you tell us anything about that project?
I’m working on a few books, but the one that is taking most of my time is focused on NGO-funding patterns.
Increasingly, NGOs are funded top-down by either billionaires or large private foundations. And when I say this, I’m not referring to one or two NGOs of this nature, but tens of thousands of them. Whenever you see an organization cited in a paper, it is 8 or 9 times out of 10 one of these NGOs you are hearing from, and the person being cited is a paid staffer, not a grassroots volunteer. To make matters worse, the output of these NGOs is often incredibly polarizing, partly, I suspect, because they use media attention as one of their measures of success.
So modern oligarchs have moved on from just funding election campaigns and have now pushed grassroots groups out of the public sphere and replaced them with their own groups. Thus, we’re getting the opinions of the super-wealthy from several different angles and leaving out the contributions of ordinary people. This gives us a twisted view of public opinion. That’s the theme of much of my work – how public opinion and public interest are often skewed to make them appear to be more in line with the views of the super-wealthy. Founding and funding ‘civic society’ groups is one way of achieving this.
What is your method of writing?
The topic must be something that I’m very interested in myself and that I want to get to the bottom of.
I start by collecting information and seeing if that information is really leading anywhere interesting.
When I feel like I’ve reached the end of all available information, I start re-reading it and my notes again and again, writing down the thoughts I have as I read them. Eventually that forms itself into certain themes and questions. Then I think about those questions and start filling in information gaps. If the issues uncovered are interesting and I think other people should know about them, I’ll try to write my thoughts into an article or book.
I go through a lot of edits, because it is hard to cram a lot of information into a short space.
However, if you do something original, you need that information, because you are going against a lot of previously held assumptions.
Chomsky famously referred to this as the issue of ‘concision’ – that the media wants you to make a point concisely, but that this is only possible if you are making an unoriginal point.
Unoriginal content also tends to be a smooth read; the reader doesn’t need to exert themselves, because most of the information is already known and the conclusions are expected.
If you make a more original contribution, the reader has to exert themselves to understand the new arguments. It’s more demanding of them. So, trying to bridge that gap between a comfortable read and substance worth writing about is a huge challenge.
I try to get other people to read the manuscript once in a while and get their feedback about any parts they find confusing or boring.
Once I’m done writing, I fact-check multiple times, although, of course, I also do this while I am writing. Later, after the book has been accepted for publication and edited, I consolidate most of the footnotes, so there aren’t upwards of a thousand footnotes in a book.
I’ve never been one of those people who writes a certain number of words a day, because for me the struggle is more around the ideas. Once those click into place, it’s just about making them clear to the reader. So, it’s more like sculpting or making a film in your mind become more clear, rather than writing in a straight line.
What is the most difficult part of writing a book like your latest works like “In Defence of Democracy” or “Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose”?
Something that is increasingly an issue is that even publishers are becoming partisan. Facts don’t readily align to simplistic political agendas. I’ve almost stopped writing for newspapers, because they constantly try to edit me onto one side or the other. I think a very high number of writers would agree with me that avoiding eight billion taboos because editors can’t handle facts is the most depressing thing to ever hit publishing.
What is the biggest change to thinking about democracy in modern times that you think we can learn from the ancient Greek city states?
I think the biggest gain would be the focus on direct democracy which automatically foregrounds the issue at stake, rather than representative party politics which lends itself to focusing on ideology and personality. I just feel like this is more pragmatic and cuts quicker to the point.
One of the more famous recorded events in Athenian democracy are the so-called Mytilenean Debates. This was a debate about what to do with the inhabitants of Mytilene who had rebelled against the Athenians and been repressed. One argument was to kill them all (a fairly standard approach back then), while the other argument was to kill only the leaders.
Today, this is often seen in stark terms: killing everyone was bad and killing only the leaders was a lot better and more just.
But this is not the way the Athenians saw things. Both speakers made very pragmatic arguments for their favoured course of action. The speaker in favour of killing everyone argued that they had to set a very strong example that would deter other nations from rebelling or the Athenians would get a reputation for being soft and end up dealing with rebellion everywhere. Ultimately more people, including more Athenians, would be killed. The speaker in favour of killing only the leaders argued that simply killing everyone could backfire, as people would become less likely to surrender and more likely to support a rebellion once it started if they thought they would be killed in any event. Being more lenient might encourage democrats in those States to pull down their own rebels, knowing they would get support from the people of Athens if they did so.
So, what would today be seen in theological terms of good and evil was back then a pretty pragmatic debate focused on the concrete issue.
I think we’d save a lot of time and energy by doing this today.
Political commentators often make the argument that people ‘don’t have time for politics’, but mainly they don’t have the time or desire to deal with histrionics and irrelevant side issues. Dealing with the actual issue at stake often takes comparatively little time and effort.
Were the ancient Greek systems of government better at limiting the power of the super-rich than today’s modern democracy?
Well, there were a whole lot of Greek systems. The Spartans, for example, were famously opposed to luxury. However, they also weren’t exactly a model for democracy.
The Athenians (which is the system I know most about myself) were definitely more-or-less capitalists. Some people owned land, others ran factories. The protection of private property remained under the democracy and some people were very well-off.
However, the de facto privileges of the wealthy were limited in some ways. One was that the very first reform regarded as pivotal for democracy was a major debt relief programme. During the pre-democratic period, there was severe economic inequality, so this debt release helped to even up the scales. Another is that rich people in democratic Athens had to foot the bill for many public expenses, particularly military and public entertainment expenses. The third stems from the way the institutions themselves operated.
Rich people had advantages (also in democracy) just because of their lifestyle – they were usually better educated and had more time on their hands. However, they couldn’t lock others out of participating in the democratic institutions, as these were freely open and required a very high level of participation from average people just to keep functioning. You did not have to gain admission to this system by running a costly campaign. You could just show up.
In addition to this, anyone could find themselves hauled before a court, and since this court was made up of average people, it really paid to keep on their good side. Today, we have a situation where wealthy people often escape corruption charges or other forms of malfeasance with little or no punishment. Anyone in Athens had to live with some concern about ‘the people’ who were making the rules and implementing them.
So well-off people in Athens had to negotiate the democracy. Some of the affluent, like Pericles, were great defenders and contributors to democracy. Others felt extremely limited by it and resented it, deeply. About halfway through the democratic period, the democracy was overthrown by these anti-democratic oligarchs in an absolute bloodbath. Although democracy was restored (against pretty amazing odds), it was still a very traumatic experience. So, Athenian democracy is often accused of being illiberal, but, if anything, they may have been a bit too liberal vis-à-vis the anti-democratic super-rich forces in their country.
By contrast, our system today basically greases the wheels of legalized corruption by ensuring that only the affluent or those who agree to serve them have access to power. We also use several mechanisms including international treaties to ‘lock in’ decisions and keep ordinary people from being able to affect them.
Do you think the ancient Greek system of sortition for decision-making can be used today? Would it be a better fit for national or local politics in a modern democracy especially given the population of some modern democracies like the United States and even India?
I’m glad you asked this question, because Greek sortition has been severely misrepresented in modern times. It does have an important role to play in democracy, but a very different one than the modern sortition movement has made out.
The modern ‘sortitionist’ idea is to randomly select say 100 or 500, or, for all of me, even 1000 people, and get them to either make decisions that are binding on the whole population or to advise an elected body. These are often called citizens’ assemblies or citizens’ juries.
Many modern sortitionists believe that politicians are unaware of what their constituents want and need randomly selected people to tell them (an amazing belief as politicians have been running far larger surveys and focus groups for precisely this purpose all this time).
They also tend to believe that when citizens selected for this special participation change their minds about an issue and split off from what the citizenry in general thinks that this is a good thing and shows that those selected have become more ‘informed’ through their participation.
Finally, sortitionists also mainly believe that what they are striving for is citizen ‘involvement’, ‘participation’ or ‘voice’.
But democracy doesn’t mean ‘people involvement’, ‘people participation’ or ‘people voice’ it means ‘people power’.
That’s a very, very different thing.
Government in ancient Athens did not work along modern sortitionist ideals, and this isn’t just a historical quibble – there’s a reason it didn’t work that way and a reason it couldn’t work that way. That reason is the complete lack of accountability in the system the sortitionists propose versus the very high level of accountability in the Athenian system.
The main decision-making forum in Athens was the Assembly, which every adult citizen male could attend and speak at. This is where motions were debated and passed. These motions were eventually divided into what the Athenians called laws, which they regarded as very long-term regulation, and what they called decrees, which they used more frequently, including for very important decisions.
So, for example, the Mytilenean Debates I spoke of earlier, occurred in the Assembly. People listened to the arguments and then voted. The person who took upon themselves to make the winning arguments in that case appears to have been a ‘complete nobody’ (if I can use such a vicious term) in Athenian politics.
Although Athenian democracy was structured it wasn’t controlled.
This person made that argument because they felt like it. They were free to do so. It was ‘random’ in the sense that no one saw it coming, but it wasn’t random in the sense of the ‘random selection’ proposed by sortitionists today where only a tiny, curated number of people are allowed to participate.
There were other institutions in Athens that utilized sortition, such as the courts or the Council of 500, which set (in a rather loose fashion) the Assembly agenda among other things, and the nomothetai who only existed for part of the democracy and were supposed to scrutinize and check that new laws didn’t contradict old laws (note – only laws).
However, very importantly, this sortition occurred on an absolutely massive scale relative to the population. They literally invented little stone machines to speed up the process – that was how much of this they were doing.
So, in deep contrast to modern sortition, it wasn’t like you were specially selected for participation and vested with unaccountable authority to the exclusion of others; it was more like just pitching in once in a while. Also, you had to show up and put yourself forward for this process.
Similarly, some officials were selected randomly, although they did not have much power, and were answerable to the Assembly. It was very different than being a modern official today, much less a modern politician.
So, there are a whole bunch of differences here: the first is the voluntary nature of participation; the second are the sheer numbers involved, which made the whole process less exclusive, more representative and harder to manipulate; and the third is the nature of participation – people selected by lottery fulfilled important duties, but they were not sectioned off and insulated from a society that then had to live by their decisions.
Direct democracy was very strong in Athens, possibly the strongest the world has ever seen in a complex society. In addition, punishment for mistakes was quite harsh in the ancient world. Even tyrants had to worry about the success of their policies.
Sortitionists, on the other hand, propose to select miniscule groups of people to either serve as glorified focus groups or to make decisions for everyone else and then waltz off from those decisions consequence-free.
There are other major problems with modern sortition that I went into in In Defence of Democracy, but I will leave it at this.
Sortition would be better used at the local level in small towns, especially if they struggle with finding participants, or in overseeing implementation where it can help to prevent corruption. However, I think the direct decision-making component of Athenian democracy is the more urgent issue for us today. Sortition, especially small-scale sortition, combined with oligarchy is a big mistake.
Do you think a version of the ancient Athenian practice of ostracism could have a use in modern democracy?
This is a very good question, because ostracism is a method the Athenians used to resolve protracted political battles. When arguments were going on and on, they would pass a resolution allowing for an ostracism. Then on the day of the ostracism vote (which required a large quorum), voters would write the name of the person they wished to see ostracised – that is exiled from Athens for many years – on a pottery shard (called an ostraka). Whoever got the most votes ‘won’ being kicked out of Athens.
Ostracism was not an everyday occurrence. It was heavy-handed, but also a way of getting over fights that were becoming divisive beyond endurance. If you were a person who wanted to be influential in Athenian politics, you had to take this into account as a risk factor.
However, I don’t think it could be used in an age of telecommunication very well. Iran tried this with Ayatollah Khomeini, after all.
Today ostracism would be illegal in most countries, it’s not great for pluralism, and of course, you lose the skills of the person you have so ostracised. The Athenians were constantly calling back people they had exiled.
It is still something that needs to be resolved, as there are times when opposition morphs into outright sabotage of what is clearly a majority decision, but perhaps we could reach better rules, such as locking in decisions for set periods of time based on the percentage of the vote it received. A vote that received 70% support would thus be harder to overturn in the short-term than a vote that received 50% support, etc. It’s an idea, anyway. I think we’ll either need to be more accepting of majority decisions, at least in the immediate aftermath of the decision, or come up with something that achieves the goal of ostracism without being ostracism.
Can modern technology help us bring back some aspects of ancient Greek direct democracy?
Yes, it kind of dawned on me towards the end of writing my PhD, which was in 2010, that it would soon be possible to communicate peer-to-peer on an ongoing basis and that all of this Athenian stuff was about to get a lot more relevant.
I think sooner or later almost everyone likens internet technology to the invention of the printing press, because the basic premise is the same: more communication more cheaply increases efficiency.
You could set up an Athenian-style democracy tomorrow with the technology that is out there, and to some extent we already see this happening, for example, with the Five Star Movement in Italy that makes some of its internal party decisions online.
However, what is really important to keep in mind are the social structures surrounding this technology.
Just voting online, for example, in referendums and elections, is something that seems to be catching on fast. Impressive as advances in election security have been, I’m still a very paranoid person around this point. I prefer a more deeply engaged form of democracy, as in Athens, where people could propose, debate and decide on issues, and where the incentives to cheat would be dramatically lowered.
The essence of Athenian democracy (and this is where modern sortitionists get it so wrong) was that it was uncontrollable.
So, if you are fighting a strong centralized power (and oligarchs are a strong centralized power), divide into too many branches for them to control.
There is a legendary Chinese figure called ‘Yu the Great’ who succeeded in instituting flood control by creating irrigation canals rather than damming rivers (as had previously been done). That is the strategy pursued here. Others believe they can beat oligarchs at their own game, but I think democrats need to use what has been given to them – numbers.
There is more detail on this at the end of In Defence of Democracy.
I don’t propose these changes because I am a person who just wants to make the world a better place or help people participate for its own sake. I see (and this was the subject of Beasts and Gods) that we live in a waning democracy, increasingly controlled by the super-wealthy. Unfortunately, technology plays into that by dramatically increasing the possibilities for surveillance and totalitarianism, so for me this isn’t just about making improvements, it’s about switching to a system less liable to the particular forms of exploitation we are currently seeing and occupying the technological space before someone else gets to it completely.
Imagine a world where the Catholic Church had managed to control every printing press in Europe. That is what I am afraid of.
Do you have advice for other writers like yourself interested in writing about ancient history?
It took me years and years of reading scholarly work about ancient history to begin to grasp these issues. It was fascinating, but also a slog, and I really had no idea where it was going to lead me. I was actually a bit panicky about whether I was wasting years of my PhD chasing something that might not lead anywhere.
If you are writing a fiction book, you can probably get away with less. People expect you to embroider. But for non-fiction, obviously, you need to up the game.
Also, it helps to spend a lot of time imagining what it was like to live in this society. You have to constantly remind yourself that people at that time thought very differently about many things, partly due to their circumstances.
Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to mention?
There is a quote attributed to Solon (actually apparently it was one of his friends): ‘Law is like a spider’s web: it traps the weak, while the rich break through without trouble’.
It’s important to have good laws, but they only get you so far. You have to ask where the power resides in a society, the ultimate power, and it never, ever resides in two places at once.