Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens

The book Democracy in Crisis by Professor Jeff Miller will be published on January 6th 2022.

The storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 focused attention on the multiple threats facing contemporary liberal democracies. Beyond the immediate problem of Covid-19, the past two decades saw political polarization, a dramatic rise in inequality, global warming and other environmental threats, as well as the growth of dangerous cultural and political divisions. Western liberal democracies find themselves in the midst of what political theorists call a legitimation crisis: major portions of the population lack confidence in the ability of governments to address our most pressing problems. This distrust in government and traditional political parties opened the door to populist leaders and a rising tide of authoritarianism.

Liberal democracies face major structural and normative challenges in the near future that require us to look beyond the traditional set of solutions available. Democracy in Crisis points back to the world’s first democratic government, Ancient Athens, to see what made that political arrangement durable and resistant to both internal and external threats. The argument focuses on several distinctive Athenian institutions and practices, and considers how we might reimagine them in the modern world. The book addresses questions of civic ideology and institutions, with extended treatment of two distinctive Athenian institutions, ostracism and sortition.

The launch event is at the annual conference of the Association for Political Thought, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, but has moved online as a result of the Omicron surge. Details below:

Friday January 7th, 20:30 (GMT)

Anniversary Event: Storming of the US Capitol and its implications for democracy. Sponsored by History of Political Thought

Launch and discussion of Jeff Miller’s new book Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens (Imprint Academic)

Chair: Iain Hampsher-Monk (University of Exeter)

Presenter: Jeff Miller (SUNY, New Paltz)

Discussants: Yves Sintomer (Paris 8 University): Paul Cartledge (University of Cambridge); Daniela Cammack (UC Berkeley)

The introduction for the book, and reviewers’ comments, is on the Imprint Academic website. For 30% discount, enter code CAT21 at checkout.

The book argues that the principal problem with modern democracies is the atomised self, introduced by social contract theory (in its Hobbesian-Lockean liberal variant). The implication is that a revival of Athenian civic culture is as important as institutional change (the book focuses on sortition and ostracism). But, given that Athenian civic virtue was a direct product of the need of all citizens to join together and take up arms in defence of the polis (note the martial derivation of the word “virtue”), it’s unclear as to how that might be possible in a globalised world consisting of large multicultural states, although Jeff does make the case for a form of national service.

You need to register to participate in the anniversary event and there is a charge (£40; £20 students/unwaged) but this includes access to all three days of conference sessions, many of which will be of interest to members of this forum. Other highlights include Peter Stone’s session on democracy beyond elections, along with panels on political corruption, and publicity and privacy in democratic politics.

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