The public debates of the outraged in Athens are the closest we have come to democratic practice in recent European history. Thousands of people come together daily in Syntagma to discuss the next steps. The parallels with the classical Athenian agora, which met a few hundred metres away, are striking. Aspiring speakers are given a number and called to the platform if that number is drawn, a reminder that many office-holders in classical Athens were selected by lots. The speakers stick to strict two-minute slots to allow as many as possible to contribute. The assembly is efficiently run without the usual heckling of public speaking. The topics range from organisational matters to new types of resistance and international solidarity, to alternatives to the catastrophically unjust measures. No issue is beyond proposal and disputation. In well-organised weekly debates, invited economists, lawyers and political philosophers present alternatives for tackling the crisis.
This is democracy in action. The views of the unemployed and the university professor are given equal time, discussed with equal vigour and put to the vote for adoption. The outraged have reclaimed the square from commercial activities and transformed it into a real space of public interaction. The usual late-evening TV viewing time has instead become a time for being with others and discussing the common good. If democracy is the power of the “demos”, in other words the rule of those who have no particular qualification for ruling, whether of wealth, power or knowledge, this is the closest we have come to democratic practice in recent European history.
The realisation that the demos has more collective nous than any leader, a constitutive belief of the classical agora, is now returning to Athens. The outraged have shown that parliamentary democracy must be supplemented with its more direct version.