Assembly Democracy

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John Keane:

"Democracy, like all other human inventions, has a history. Democratic values and institutions are never set in stone; even the meaning of democracy changes through time. This point is fundamental to The Life and Death of Democracy, which singles out three overlapping epochs in which democracy, considered both as a way of deciding things and as a whole way of life, has so far developed.

Its first historical phase saw the creation and diffusion of public assemblies. This period began around 2500 BCE, in the geographic area that is today commonly known as the Middle East. It stretched through classical Greece and Rome to include the world of early Islam before 950 CE; it came to an end with the spread of rural assemblies (called tings, loegthingi and althingi) to Iceland, the Faroe Islands and other offshore havens of what later came to be called Europe. Except for the bright moments associated with Scandinavia and classical Athens and republican Rome, this whole period is usually seen as a dark era of undemocratic degeneracy. 'With the fall of the [Roman] Republic,' says one respected commentator, typically, 'popular rule entirely disappeared in southern Europe. Except for the political systems of small, scattered tribes it vanished from the face of the earth for nearly a thousand years.'

That perception, steeped in modern Western prejudice, is piteously false. The truth is that during the first phase of democracy the seeds of its basic institution - self-government through an assembly of equals - were scattered across many different soils and climes, ranging from the Indian subcontinent and the prosperous Phoenician empire to the western shores of provincial Europe. These popular assemblies took root, accompanied by various ancillary institutional rules and customs, like written constitutions, the payment of jurors and elected officials, the freedom to speak in public, voting machines, voting by lot and trial before elected or selected juries. There were efforts as well to stop bossy leaders in their tracks, using such methods as the mandatory election of kings, limited terms of office and - in an age as yet without political parties, or recall and impeachment procedures - the peaceful, if usually rowdy, ostracism of demagogues from the assembly, by majority vote.

Many of these procedures played a vital role in the famous city of Athens, where, through the course of the fifth century BCE, democracy came to mean the lawful rule of an assembly of adult male citizens. Women, slaves and foreigners were normally excluded. The rest gathered regularly, not far from the main public square, at a spot called the pnyx, for the purpose of discussing some matter or other, putting different opinions to the vote and deciding, often by a majority of raised hands, or by chunks of pottery or metal cast by hand into a pot, what was to be done. This first phase of democracy saw the earliest experiments in creating second chambers (called damiorgoi in some Greek citizen-states) and federated alliances or consortia of democratic governments coordinated through a joint assembly known as a myrioi, as happened among Greek-speaking Arcadians during the 360s BCE. This period also witnessed important efforts to create ways of being that would later be regarded as vital components of a democratic way of life. Many of these innovations happened in the Islamic world. They included a culture of printing and efforts to cultivate self-governing associations, such as endowment societies (called the waqf) and the mosque and, in the field of economic life, partnerships that were legally independent of rulers. Islam poured scorn on kingship, and triggered unending public disputes about the authority of rulers. Towards the end of this period, around 950 CE, its scholars even revived the old language of democracy. The world of early Islam emphasised as well the importance of shared virtues such as toleration and mutual respect among sceptics and believers in the sacred, and the duty of rulers to respect others' interpretations of life. During this phase Muslims' belief that human beings were bound to treat nature with compassionate regard, as if it was their equal, because both were divine creations, also surfaced. That imperative would later come to trouble all democracies." (

More Information

  1. Source: The Life and Death of Democracy. By John Keane
  2. See also: Representative Democracy ; Monitory Democracy