Agoras in modern direct democracies

agora

All towns have, generally in the center of their urban territories, a large public square – mabe the first and foremost preopnent of the concept of “public space”. Its existence across the world’s cities can be traced back to Ancient Athens, where the first such space – named by the ancient Greeks as an Agora – served as a space where citizens would come and openly discuss the matters of the city and actively engage in shaping its lifestyle on a day-to-day basis. However, if one looks at how modern city squares look like, it can be observed that such activities are nowadays close to being non-existent outside of times of social unrest? This begs the question: why is the space that birthed democracy itself no longer actively engaging the citizens on a day-to-day basis?

At its roots, the agora is frequently cited as being the birthplace of democracy –the first and foremost of its kind being the Athenian Agora, wherein the ancient Greek citizens gathered in an open square to openly discuss issues of the city-state such as politics, economy, sports, religion and art. (Skordas, 2015) As the square was bordered by some of Athens’ most important buildings such as the Senate, the city noticeboard, the cenral Basilica, the judicial library and several courts of law, the Agora was not only spiritually, but physically close to the main forms of power that watched over the governing of the ten tribes that it was composed of, as well as of the city as a whole. (writer873, 2012) After being conquered by the Romans in the 1st century B.C. and subsequently becoming part of the Roman Empire and, later, of the Byzantine Empire, when it was constantly attacked by neighboring invaders, the values and practices of ancient Athens slowly faded until the end of the Middle Ages.

In spite of all this, the urban planning of cities continued to include in itself the city squares, which slowly turned into places that hosted commercial activities and, occasionally, cultural events or political rallies. However, outside any notable events, its main role nowadays is that of a transitory space- citizens pass through it without considering its symbolic value for the city, stopping only to sit on benches installed within it. To say, however, that the Agora has completely disappeared would be a gross overstatement.

Arguably, one must also consider the technological innovations of the past century and its enablement and empowerment of regular citizens in terms of communication, the most important in this context being that of the media. Aside from the three major power structures in the state – the executive, legislative and judicial ones, which were also present in the Athenian democratic society – the media now comes to the fore as a more lean and decentralized fourth estate, which closely monitors and scrutinized the functioning of the others, while intermediating this information to the larger public. It has come to play a very important, even crucial role in the functioning of modern democracies by providing timely information to the common population, shaping the public’s opinion and setting agendas for them to consider while making their choices. (University of San Francisco)

But what about the expression of the citizens themselves, and their possibility to express themselves in regard to the function of their cities and states? It is here that yet another important technological innovation comes into play: that of computers and of the Internet, which, in the course of a few ears, led to the rise of online communities and of, ultimately, social media. Here is where any individual or group, under the guise of anonymity or not, can freely express himself and raise awareness of issues that are concerning him or them. One of the most famous examples would be that of the Twitter Revolutions, where citizens used the social media website to extensively document the unfolding of periods of civil unrest, to coordinate themselves as to future actions and to share relevant information, not only amongst themselves, but for the entire globe. (Wikipedia)

Has the Agora shifted from the actual, physical plane into a more intangible one, i.e. the online plane and towards the media? Quite possibly so, which is a reason for rejoicing – that this space of open discussion and action that actively spins the wheels of democracy exists, and is accessible to users independently of their current location or time-zone. On the downside, however, is that the current layout of social media doesn’t really allow for too much of an intermingling of information from various, unexpected people such as an actual discussion – the user is either exposed to opinions of his own peers or of people posting under a certain hashtag that has to be searched for, or has to personally inform himself from any opinions he may find inside online media outlets, be they formal (newspapers) or informal (blogs). Even though the available information is much more plural now, the interface that leads to its access is one that enables the user who, by extension, can choose what to consume, what to avoid, or what to stop reading or listening to before its end. As for the squares themselves, they too continue to exist, however somewhat voided of their original intent outside of periods of social unrest, where its function is reactivated. Outside of those periods, there are hardly any moments in these squares where large amount of people gather to have a debate or discussion; even more so as public manifestations of any kind must be approved by the local administration, a bureaucratic process that implies the prescription of laws which prevent such events from happening frequently.

It is impossible for an individual living in the modern age to know exactly how a “common” day inside the Athenian Agora would have looked like, beyond what historic information has survived up to the current days regarding its activity. In spite of this, it may be quite easy to infer that there are some major differences to be had between what was then, and what was now. The following two questions remain: how exactly is this actually reflecting in the implementation of direct democracy, and, alternatively, how would a potential “revival” of the agora (effectively) function in complex structures such as modern states and transnational alliances?

Flavia Dima, Journalism Year III

Works cited

Skordas, A. (2015, February 3). Greek Documentary ‘Agora: From Democracy to the Market’ to be Broadcast Abroad. Retrieved April 5, 2015, from Greek Reporter: Greek Documentary ‘Agora: From Democracy to the Market’ to be Broadcast Abroad [Video] – See more at: http://greece.greekreporter.com/2015/02/03/greek-documentary-agora-from-democracy-to-the-market-to-be-broadcast-abroad-video/#sthash.csgxAMCn.dpuf

University of San Francisco. (n.d.). Media as the “Fourth Estate”. Retrieved April 5, 2015, from http://www.usfca.edu/fac-staff/boaz/pol326/feb12.htm

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Twitter Revolution. Retrieved April 5, 2015, from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twitter_Revolution

writer873. (2012, January 18). Law and Politics in the Athenian Agora: Ancient Democracy at Work. Retrieved April 5, 2015, from Ancient History Encyclopedia: http://www.ancient.eu/article/141/

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