The word “exile” has an interesting history.
It comes from the ancient Greek word “ostraca”, which refers to a shard of pottery or stone.
Ostraka was abundant in ancient Mediterranean communities, and people used them like scraps of paper.
They scratch small notes on it, or paint miniature scenes on it, or use them to keep notes of recipes and ingredients.
But in ancient Athens, during the early period of the city’s famous democracy, the ostraca was used for an additional purpose.
Institution of ‘excommunication’
Each year, Athenians are asked if they would like to hold a special vote to expel someone from the city-state (usually a member of the prominent elite).
If they vote ‘yes,’ the voting is held two months later.
During the vote, they will write the names of the people they wish to dispose of in the ostraca, and hand over the ostraca to the official.
Officials will count the names, and whoever receives the most votes will be dumped over the next 10 years.
It is exclusion, which comes from using the ostraca to expel the person.
“It’s a negative popularity contest,” historian James Sickinger, of Florida State University in the United States, told the Smithsonian Magazine last year.
“From the start, it appears to be used against individuals who may not be guilty of a criminal offense, so [a case] cannot be brought to court, but in other ways violate or violate community norms and threaten civil order. “
In today’s language, these ancient democratic practices can be described as part of a culture of annihilation.
But historians say it played an important role in reducing political tensions among the Athenians.
And the Athenians didn’t abuse it. Fewer than 20 exclusions are known to occur, and the targets are usually powerful individuals accused of corrupting civil society in some way, or planning to do so.
The ‘people’ are responsible for their policies
One of the joys of researching the history of a word is studying its native culture.
Another interesting element of Athenian democracy was the way policies were adopted by its citizens.
Member of ball (the leader of the city-state who is elected by lottery each year to serve a one-year term), will propose a policy.
But the policy can only be adopted if citizens vote in their favor.
Citizens who vote (the Assembly) Consists of every male citizen of a certain age (the people are slaves who hold the patriarchy, so that women cannot vote, and so are slaves).
The total population of the population voting sits somewhere between 30,000 and 60,000.
The civic assembly will meet three or four times a month to discuss the boule’s latest policy proposals, with about 6,000 residents attending each meeting.
The assembly is responsible for declaring war, and for electing military generals and judges, and it has the final say on laws, among many other things.
‘We are not a democracy’
Jeremy McInerney, Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, said the Assembly voted on everything from raising taxes to building the Parthenon.
It made their political culture very different from today’s “representative” democracy.
“They don’t delegate to a group of representatives,” McInerney told the National Geographic TV mini-series “The Greeks” (2016).
“If you had a time machine and an Athenian fell into the US, the Athenians would say ‘yes, you’re not a democracy. You know, you yourself didn’t vote on the most recent tax hike or Obamacare or anything like that, that was decided for you, ‘”he said.
Archeology professor John R. Hale, of the University of Louisville, makes a similar statement in the same series.
“We can become a democracy but we really are not,” he said.
“We like to call ourselves that, [but] we are not a democracy. This is not power for the people, it is power for an elected group of leaders whom the people, yes, have chosen, but must then endure once they are in a destructive position in power. “
As a thought experiment, think about modern Australian economic policy.
Australia’s economic policy setting is controlled by a small political and bureaucratic elite as well as ‘independent’ bodies such as the Reserve Bank.
Since the 1980s, their policy settings have been built around a specific world view.
This world view has, in general, focused on the “supply side” of the economy.
A budget surplus is seen as an inherently good thing.
It doesn’t prioritize the original “full job,” instead of setting an unemployment rate that depresses wage growth and calms workers.
It has yet to prioritize poverty eradication, even though it is within the government’s jurisdiction to lift hundreds of thousands of households out of poverty by increasing social security payments (as the federal government did over the past few months, during the pandemic, before sending the household back into poverty).
It received a large increase in wealth inequality, and the emergence of a phenomenon called “scarring” unemployment (which refers to the scars left on individuals and communities from long-term unemployment).
It keeps an eye on a situation where Australian house prices have become one of the most expensive in the world.
The public has little control over the policy platform.
Votes for a single policy are rare
In our “representative” democracy, voters are rarely given the opportunity to vote on a single policy (the marriage equality vote in 2017 was a recent exception).
They never have the power to vote on every policy, individually, submitted to parliament.
On the other hand, our major political parties take a series of policies for elections, and if they win the election, they claim to have the “mandate” to implement each of their policies.
They also say they have a mandate to “rule”, meaning they are comfortable drafting new laws not considered in elections.
And there are no mechanisms for citizens to remove individual politicians from power (unless section 44 of the constitution is involved), besides waiting for the next election. Even so, if you are not a voting member of those politicians, you have absolutely no power over them.
This is far from being a genuine Democrat (from demo, “people,” and kratos, “power”).
What if things were different?
But what if Australians had the opportunity to vote on individual policy, like the Athenians?
What unemployment rate will we choose? Would we be happy with a five percent unemployment rate? Two percent? Less than two percent?
What if we could vote on the minimum wage rate, or who should be appointed to the Administrative Appeals Court?
Will we choose higher or lower corporate and personal income tax rates? What if we had the opportunity to choose the maximum number of residential properties a person could have?
Or what if we could vote on how much money to dedicate to saving the Great Barrier Reef and Tasmanian forests, and which organizations to trust with that money?
The possibilities are endless.
And when you think about it, you realize how little control Australian voters have over major policy settings.
What can voters actually vote for?
Over the past year, important debates have taken place about the suitability or otherwise of our economic institutions.
Is the Reserve Bank’s inflation targeting regime still fit for purpose?
Should we create a file economic stability board which has the power to stimulate or suppress demand by manipulating tax rates?
It’s not like voters haven’t complained about some of these things for decades, or try to come up with alternative policy ideas of their own.
But more elite members been willing to accept new ideas recently, so that the public “debate” becomes lively and exciting.
Unfortunately, voters will not have the opportunity to vote on any substantive policy change, not at the individual policy level.
No, unless Australia becomes more democratic.