Talk given to the Critical Antiquities Workshop based at the University of Sydney on December 2/3, 2021.
Paper Abstract: What difference does regular proximity to unknown others make to democratic politics? Many people dislike—even fear—crowds, but gathering together physically may help to foster solidarity and collective agency in a way significant for democracy. Drawing on a variety of ancient Greek sources, I suggest that being with many unknown others when deciding on collective actions helps us to act together successfully because it gives us information about the feasibility of rival plans, leading us to commit to one unanimously. That effect is particularly supported by public mass majoritarianism and helps to explain why that procedure has historically seemed attractive to participants, including outvoted minorities. Two conditions are important. Open mass meetings should be routine and empowered, as they were in ancient Greece and Rome, rather than ad hoc and purely remonstrative or appreciative, as they typically are in modern democracies. And assemblies should retain the power to convene themselves, as in ancient Greek democracies, rather than be convened only by elected officials, as in the Roman Republic. Absent those conditions, proximity becomes hitched to populism in a way that remains debilitating today.
Conversation Series on Philosophy and Ideas hosted by the Harvard University Center for Hellenic Studies, March 19 2021.
Michael Tomasky, “Athens Saved its Democracy. Will America?” Article in The Daily Beast, April 2, 2019.
BBC Radio 4 (UK). Interview on representation in ancient and modern democracies. Part of a three-part series entitled “Rethinking Representation” presented by David Runciman. Broadcast May 31, 2019.
Half-hour interview with Niklas Ekdal on democracy ancient and modern. Part of a six-part series entitled “Historien om förfallet” (The story of decadence). Broadcast June 23, 2015.