The political divide is widening and becoming more and more polarised and entrenched within confined political party affiliation and identity. This polarisation has spilled over into the public and social arena. The past three years has shown that. Although most people adopted an ambivalent1 attitude towards covid and responses to the pandemic, a large percentage of the population fell, fervently, into one of two mutually antagonistic camps.
Even though many people recognise this failure, very few seem willing to challenge the underlying assumption that representative democracy (including the electoral system) is the gold standard for government. That unhelpful decisions are being made in our parliaments can be addressed, many suggest, by changing the politicians currently in power. And the means of doing that is via the voting system.
This basic assumption, it is claimed, originated in Athens some 2,500 years ago.
This assumption is not true, at least not entirely. The Athenians did not trust voting as a fair means of selecting their decision-makers. For that they used a lottery system. Today, this is known as sortition. Sortition has been covered in this blogsite a number of times previously: see here, here, and here for example.
Long before the Athenians began experimenting with sortition and democracy a number of other societies were testing out far more democratic processes than we use today. Evidence is mounting for the existence of citizen councils (where participation by lot is the basis of membership) and popular assemblies (open to any citizen to attend) as forms of decision-making many millennia ago.2
Archaeological digs in modern day Ukraine and Moldova since the 1970s have unearthed some spectacular finds known as ‘mega-sites.’ Not only have these sites thrown into doubt theories on how cities emerged, but also our assumptions on leadership, authority, and kingship some 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.3
Many of these sites have now been explored and documented, with the largest – Taljanky – hosting more than 1,000 houses and covering an area of 300 hectares. Many of these mega-sites are constructed in concentric rings with a huge open area in the middle.
Significantly, Graeber and Wengrow note that, ‘No evidence was unearthed of centralized government or administration – or indeed, any form of ruling class.’ As to the use of the large open central area, Graeber and Wengrow can offer no definitive answer, suggesting only that its use ‘ranged from popular assemblies to ceremonies or the seasonal penning of animals – or possibly all three.’
Some 3,000 km south-east of Moldova and Ukraine is the area known as Mesopotamia (Land between two rivers) where archaeologists date cities to more than 6,000 years old. Unlike those in Ukraine and Moldova though, these cities have been known for centuries, many of them mentioned in the Bible. Many of these cities have been excavated since the 19th century and the popular myth that this was The Land of Kings has persisted even up until the present day. However, that myth shrouds the area and covers up what was a diverse arrangement of leadership and governing styles.
Research since the 1940s and more recently suggests that popular councils and citizen assemblies were common features of Mesopotamian cities with Graeber and Wengrow stating that ‘it is almost impossible to find a city anywhere in the ancient Near East that did not have some equivalent to a popular assembly – or often several assemblies (for instance, different ones representing the interests of “the young” and “the old”).
Indeed, perhaps the oldest known written story or poem – Gilgamesh – refers to an “Assembly of city elders,” and another as the “Assembly of the city’s young men.”4 In the epic poem, written somewhere between 2,200 and 2,600 years ago, the tale is told of Gilgamesh, the King of Uruk, and a dilemma he is facing over whether to submit to King Akka of Kish or not.
The poem tells us that the “Assembly of elders” recommend he submit to King Akka. The “Assembly of young men” however, recommend resistance. Eventually Gilgamesh heeds the advice of the young men and Uruk is victorious over Kish.
The crucial thing to note in these pre-Athenian examples is that citizen assemblies and popular councils were being used and tested, at least 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. Athenian democracy did not emerge until some 1,500 years later.
Democracy Covered Over
So, what happened to these more direct, highly participatory, democratic forms?
They got covered over, and buried under earth mounds of voting, electoral systems, career politicians, political parties, and special interest lobby groups.
The archaeologists are doing it. It is time we did too.
It is time for us to dig up and unearth the democratic examples of years gone by. It worked for Gilgamesh and the citizens of Uruk.
An unearthed democracy could be: direct, truly representative, fair, and open to all to participate in.
1. I am using the word ambivalent here in its true, etymological, sense. Deriving from the Latin ambi meaning “on both sides” and Valentia meaning “strength.” This gives an idea of giving strength to both sides. Thus, instead of it having a rather insipid meaning of not caring, or indecisiveness, in this context I am suggesting an ability to hold (or at least be accepting of) both sides.
2. Just exactly where the division between citizen and non-citizen was drawn is unclear. There does seem to be some evidence suggesting that there was little, if any, distinction between men and women however, as there was in later Athens.
3. Graeber, David, & Wengrow, David, The Dawn of Everything, Penguin Books, 2022.
4. Johandi, Andreas, Public Speaking in Ancient Mesopotamia: Speeches Before Earthly and Divine Battles, University of Tartu, May 2020. In this paper Johandi also notes that the Gilgamesh poem refers to the Gods having their own Divine Assembly.