Politics as Creation: The Greek Polis and Us


Neoliberal politics is the politics of the elites, and has very little to do with democracy – at least when compared to the first and true democracies created by the Greeks. In this article Ingerid S. Straume explores in what sense the radical impulse from the Greeks can inspire us today, especially in terms of political creation, following the important work of philosophers Hannah Arendt and Cornelius Castoriadis.

Critics have argued that the situation of the Greeks is too different to be able to inform our own political problems.Modern societies, they claim, are too  large, complex and differentiated to accommodate a direct democracy. At the same time, it is often said that the world has “grown smaller”. In certain, important aspects, I argue, we find ourselves in a predicament similar to that of the Greeks. Just like the well-being of the polis depended on the involvement of each and every citizen, so the well-being of the planet depends on us today: not as private individuals, but as citizens involved in political creation.

We are often told that we live in a democracy: a democracy that is a role model for other, less democratic nations – even though we know that the politicians we can choose between, are not the people we would really have liked to control our most important institutions. Even though we know that most decisions, when they reach the public agenda, have already been made elsewhere, by someone else, such as the representatives of capitalist and military corporations.

The real power of today is not held by the people, but corporations. How does this power operate? It operates to a large degree with our own consent. We already know that Google, Apple, Facebook and other corporations collect our personal data, and sometimes they sell them, or hand them to the NSA. Data about our interests and activities are collected through our own computers and web cameras, credit and debit cards, and cell phones. In the near future, when we enter a department store, we will be greeted personally, with name and reference to our last purchase. This technology is already available; all that is needed is for us to buy it and accept the conditions that follow. Which most of us will probably do. This is not a conspiracy theory; it is the latest development of big corporate capitalism.

One thing that seems clear is that there is an increasing gap between those in power and the rest, and that many of the new products that are instruments of our personal freedom, such as technologies for communication, are also spinning a net that makes it more and more difficult to find a space outside the power of corporate/military capitalism from where we can create new forms of power. We see, all over the world, calls for more real democracy, and also, for a revitalisation of politics itself. I will argue that we need to change the way we think about politics, i.e., we need better political theories, if you like.

After an introduction to Greek democracy, I will make a few comments on contemporary political thought, before I turn to the notion of political creation more generally. My approach to political creation is informed by two of the most interesting thinkers of the 20th century: Hannah Arendt and Cornelius Castoriadis.

Greek democracy

Even though there are many differences between us and the Greeks, there are also important aspects of Greek democracy that could inspire us to make our own democracies more democratic. The concept of direct democracy is often seen as more primitive than it actually was. In fact, the democracy of the Greeks was a very sophisticated set of arrangements, especially in terms of administration and separation of powers. Most of these arrangements were invented to prevent the abuse of power by the rich and the powerful: the aristocratic families and the so-called tyrants.

One of the most common objections against Greek democracy is that it did not include everyone among its citizens, notably women, and that the Greeks held a large amount slaves that, for the most part, were captured in war. Slaves – male and female – were used for farm labour, mining, in workshops and trade as well as for domestic chores. It is estimated that most Athenian citizens owned at least one slave, and on average in the 6th and 5th century BCE each Athenian household had three or four slaves.

However, this was not a unique arrangement in the Greek world, but a general arrangement in the whole region at the time. For example, the (much later) Roman republic held slaves on a much larger scale than did the Greeks. More importantly, however, the first recorded questioning of the practice of keeping slaves emerged with the Greeks, in Socrates’ dialogues; and the first condemnation of the practice was made by the Stoics.1So even though I acknowledge the problems connected to exclusion, I also think that the Greek citizenry was nevertheless much more inclusive and radical in its political arrangements than other, contemporary forms of rule – such as hereditary kingdoms and oligarchies which were in place at the time. And in no other contemporary polity were women and slaves part of the decision-making bodies.

There are various ways to determine the beginning of Athenian democracy. I will follow the interpretation of the historians Josiah Ober and Mona Ringvej, who see the reforms of Cleisthenes as a starting point, around the year 508 BCE. One important reform of Cleisthenes was the creation of ten artificial tribes, called phylai, which were comprised of settlements (demes) from the three major regions of Attica: inland, urban and coastal. The phylai were political units that broke with the geographical and the clans-based social order. They had several functions: they were the brigading units for the army; constituencies for the election of magistrates, and the units from which other administrative positions were appointed by rotation, election or lot. Importantly, the phylai had their own teams in sports competitions and singers or dancers at various festivals. Thus a new, political community was constructed across existing social and hierarchical divisions.

Then there is the assembly of Athenian citizens, called the Ecclesia. All men above the age of 202 could meet, and were expected to do so. At the height of the classical period, the Ecclesia met 2-4 times per month, with an estimate of 6 000 attending. The assembly had four main functions: it made executive pronouncements or decrees, such as deciding whether or not to go to war or granting citizenship to a foreigner; it elected some officials; it legislated; and it tried political crimes. As the system evolved, the last function was shifted to the law courts (where the citizens also had to serve). The standard format of the assembly was that of speakers making speeches for and against a position followed by a general vote (usually by show of hands) of yes or no.

Another important democratic function was performed by the Council of the 500, the boule, which was central in the administration of the city. The most important function of the boule was to draft the deliberations for discussion and approval in the Ecclesia. The Boule also directed finances, controlled the maintenance of the fleet and of the cavalry, judged the fitness of the magistrates-elect, received foreign ambassadors, advised the generals in military matters, and could be given special powers by the Ecclesia in an emergency. The boule also served as executive committee for the assembly.

With the reforms of Cleisthenes, the Athenian boule was expanded from 400 to 500, with 50 members from each of the new, ten tribes. The 500 were chosen by lot from the various demes, where each deme had a certain number of places proportional to its population. At the beginning, membership of the council was restricted to the classes with most property and to citizens over the age of thirty. However, as Athenian democracy evolved, restrictions like these became more and more relaxed and toward the end, even citizens without private property had full citizen-rights. The reason was probably that the inclusive running of the polis was very time-consuming.3

Members of the boule served for one whole year, and no man could serve more than twice in his life (and not in the same decade). While a citizen was in service at the council, the city had to take care of his economy and household. The boule assembled every day, except during festivals and “ill-omened days”. The agenda of the boule was administered by another Greek invention, the prytany, which consisted of 50 of the council’s 500 members. The Greek year was divided in ten ‘months’, and for each month, a new prytany was appointed. The prytany was responsible for preparing the agenda of the boule, which is of course one of the most important functions in a democracy. Every day, a new citizen was put in charge of the prytany, a function that each person could only fill once in a lifetime. This way, power was spread across geographic areas, socioeconomic positions (except slaves and women) and at the same time, restricted in time. Thus no person could accumulate more power than any other. The result was a constitution that was able to distribute power and share responsibility and knowledge across a very large range of the population, even with today’s measures. Through the means of rotation and lot, a radical equality and political competence was also ensured.

The Athenians did have elections, but not for politicians. The democratic idea was that no person’s opinion is more important than that of another. However, when the city needed a new general or a ship builder, the Ecclesia was called upon to make an election. The Athenians did not leave it to other experts or bureaucrats to choose an expert. Why? Because they thought that the users of the expertise, i.e. the people were competent to judge the experts, and to choose the best.

The citizens had many duties. They served in committees, military service and not least, they had extensive jury duties. Some historians believe that the time-consuming activities of direct democracy was one of the reasons why the democracy of Athens more or less collapsed in 322 BCE. But the Greeks did more than take part in politics; they also valued sports, the arts and humanities. We often talk about the twin birth of democracy and philosophy. In order to understand the Greek democratic experience, the Athenian tragedies are considered to be particularly important. The Athenians had annual tragedy competitions where important aspects of the democratic experience were elucidated and deliberated collectively and in a strong form, through the use of the chorus, emotional intensity and other dramatic means.4

What I think is important to understand, is that democracy, at its inception, was an entirely new creation, a new way of ruling a society, namely self-government. Even today, the experiences the Greeks are considered as a very radical form of government.

Liberalism: The Ideal of Disengagement

Political liberalism, which is the dominant theory of Western academia, rests on what I would call a very simple political and social ontology. The elements of this ontology are people, or agents and objects. These objects can be anything from physical objects to elements in a model world, such as goods, interests, and the global market.5 In this scenario, the agent’s relationship with things can be characterised in two ways: either as dependent or independent. The logic is that an agent is free insofar as he or she is able to choose between, control and manipulate objects. The essence of freedom, then, is independence from one’s environment, and the ability to manipulate and control it in accordance with one’s interests. The ideal here is of course a free market; or a political system where we can elect politicians who represent our interests without any substantial demands on ourselves. Hence, through the notion of a free market the economic sphere could become a model of freedom, rather than a sphere of dependence, as Hegel thought.

The philosopher Charles Taylor has a fitting diagnosis for this phenomenon. According to Taylor, the striving for mastery of the world of objects (i.e., agency) represents a tendency in the natural and social sciences that Taylor calls ‘naturalism.’ Naturalism, like free market ideology, is really about the agent: “Behind and supporting the impetus to naturalism … viz. the understandable prestige of the natural science model, stands an attachment to a certain picture of the agent. This picture is deeply attractive to moderns, both flattering and inspiring. It shows us as capable of achieving a kind of disengagement from our world by objectifying it.”6 According to Taylor, this objectification of the world builds on a much deeper, metaphysical notion, viz. the myth of the “disengaged self”, which holds a certain status of freedom, dignity and power. Due to its desirability, the impetus to naturalism is strong even in disciplines where the natural science model is clearly inadequate, such as political theory.

According to Taylor, the myth of the disengaged self also has a societal aspect: “The ideal of disengagement defines a certain – typically modern – notion of freedom, as the ability to act on one’s own, without outside interference or subordination to outside authority. It defines its own peculiar notion of human dignity, closely connected to freedom. And these in turn are linked to ideals of efficacy, power [and] unperturbability …”7

The pleasure we (Modern, Western people) acquire from viewing ourselves as free, disengaged, and dignified, Taylor claims, makes these theories very resilient against critique. They offer flattering, yet unrealistic ideas of the nature and conditions of the human being, especially in terms of agency. Theories that conceive of individuals as able to construct their own meaning; choose their own values, etc. are, of course, much more enjoyable to apply than sociologically orientated theories that place emphasis on structural power and collective meaning making, not to mention false consciousness and repression.

The phenomenon I have just described in one example of what Cornelius Castoriadis calls social imaginary significations, which orient and provide meaning for social phenomena. Accordingly, one of the reasons why politicians are reluctant to let go of capitalism as a model for political development is the strong attraction of the significations embodied in the imaginary of capitalism. I have already mentioned free choice and individual agency. The third signification, which is often implicit, is the notion of perpetual growth, which in the long run is assumed to lead to prosperity for all. In my view, it is first of all the attraction of these significations that explains the resilience of capitalism – significations that are largely unchallenged by contemporary political and economic theory.

Hannah Arendt and Castoriadis are among the few thinkers who have had a genuine curiosity for the Greeks. Both have used the Greek case as a mirror or contrast to our contemporary political system – and found that the scales are not tipped in our favour. First of all, political representation, as in our party system, is not democratic in their opinion. Deciding who should represent us once every four years, where the people have very little influence on their way to power and – more importantly – on setting the agenda of political debates, is miles away from people ruling themselves. But more importantly, our system suffers from the lack of politics in a strong and explicit sense. I am building here on a distinction that is sometimes made in French political thought:

- The political (field): institutions of explicit power and regulation thereof
- Politics: the explicit activity of questioning these institutions and their ‘foundations’

The political exists in all known societies, whereas politics is a rare activity that emerged with the twin birth of democracy and politics.

A society without politics is a society without freedom

The philosopher Hannah Arendt has taught us to appreciate the difference between that which is private and that which is public, and to understand that a society without the latter – a society without politics – is a society without freedom. In the public space –first instituted with the Greeks as the Ecclesia and the Agora – Arendt finds a new phenomenon; a new mode of living together that she calls public. In the public sphere, people were able to come forth in action and words, and show who they were. This is for Arendt probably the most important aspect of the Greek way of life.

Public concerns are common concerns, where the main question is how we should live together. However, Arendt refused the idea that politics should be about something: for her, it was all about individuals coming forth, in speech and deeds, showing who they are for each other. The modus of politics was action (praxis), not making or fabrication (poiesis). One of her reasons is that there can be no theory for political action; a theory where the results are thought out in advance. Action, for Arendt, is about people acting spontaneously as beginners, beginners of acts that move in a web of other spontaneous beginnings in a “concert” whose end results can never be predicted or pre-directed. “In man, otherness, which he shares with everything that is, and distinctness, which he shares with everything alive, become uniqueness. Speech and action reveal this uniqueness.”8 The general meaning of ‘action’ is to begin, to set something into motion, but in Arendt’ssense ‘action’ is not the beginning of something, it is the beginning of ‘somebody, who is a beginner himself’.9

In fact, Arendt only speaks of action in connection with a ‘who’, the doer or actor who comes forth as a speaker of words: “though his deed can be perceived in its brute physical appearance without verbal accompaniment, it becomes relevant only through the spoken word in which he identifies himself as the actor, announcing what he does, has done, and intends to do.’ For ‘[i]n acting and speaking, men show who they are, reveal actively their unique personal identities and thus make their appearance in the human world’10.

This disclosure of who, in contradistinction to what someone is, is of great political importance to Arendt, who is deeply critical of political regimes and theories that are only able to conceptualize people in terms of anonymous (life) processes, the extreme case being totalitarianism, but a tendency that is also strongly represented in Marxism.

A very important backdrop to understand Arendt, was the experiences of the second world war and the phenomenon of totalitarianism, a term she coined in her original analysis of Nazism and Stalinism which for her were two sides of the same coin.11 In totalitarianism, individuality and plurality had become impossible through the destruction of the public realm and the common world in-between people. Under totalitarianism, people could not come forth and show who they were, not only for fear but also due to the logic of fascism. Fascism, for Arendt, equals anonymity by creating a mass consisting only of ‘individuals’, i.e. specimen. Arendt saw a similar threat in the technocratic spirit of the 1950s and 60s, when mass society (she lived in the USA) and social engineering threatened to blur the important distinction between that which is private and belonging to the household and the economy, and that which is public, where people act as free and unique actors.

Arendt’s refusal to concede that politics is also about something, and about making something, is one of her most difficult points. Some very good thinkers have tried to defend Arendt’s viewpoint and found some reasons that could be used to back them up. For example, Doug Torgerson has argued that politics is about keeping the public space open through ongoing discussion.12 Arendt stresses the distinction between the public realm of politics and the domestic and economic sphere of the oikos. In her own time, after WW2, she noted that the public sphere was looking more and more like a market place. And as Edward Snowden has showed us, this marketplace is now under heavy surveillance.13

However, as Castoriadis and others have noted, the Greeks did not only come forth and shine in glory, showing who they were as unique actors, as Arendt thought. In a side comment, he points out that the problem with Hitler and Stalin was not that they did not show who they were – they did this more than well enough – the problem lies elsewhere. More importantly for our discussion, however, the Greeks also made laws for themselves through processes of collective deliberation. Athens, for example, was a very efficient polity in terms of administration as well as war. It was an expansive regime that took a lot of colonies and built a very large fleet. History, for example the history of the workers’ movement shows us that politics is indeed about something, as Arendt’s critics have emphasised. It is first of all about the conscious creation of institutions, such as laws. The laws that govern ourselves.

In order to understand the politics of the Greeks, we therefore need to go beyond Arendt. I have chosen to study Cornelius Castoriadis, who was a political thinker, philosopher and psychoanalyst, very active on the antiauthoritarian left. In his early years, while working as a resource economist in OECD, Castoriadis’ political interests were self-organisation and anti-bureaucracy.14 Like Hannah Arendt, Castoriadis was fascinated by workers’ self-management and council democracy such as the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

When we look at the history of the workers movement, however, Castoriadis is clear that it is not all about coming forth and showing who one is. Workers’ struggles have indeed been about economy and social rights – causes that Arendt has insisted have nothing to do with authentic politics. At this point, and in a historical perspective, her analyses are too abstract.

In his later years, Castoriadis became very interested in the Greeks. He saw in the twin birth of democracy and politics a new phenomenon, a new grasp of the world (saisie du monde) which he calls the project of autonomy. The Greeks, for the first time in history, realised that the laws, norms and institutions that regulate a society is not something that is imposed or derived from the outside, from holy scriptures, gods, ancestors or the tradition, societies are created by themselves, that is, by ourselves. This insight is at once a terrible responsibility, and the greatest form of freedom.

“… creation, as the work of the social imaginary, of the instituting society […], is the mode of being of the social-historical field, by means of which this field is. Society is self-creation deployed as history. To recognize this and to stop asking meaningless questions about ‘subjects’ and ‘substances’ or ‘causes’ requires, to be sure, a radical ontological conversion.”15

For Castoriadis, history is not something that happens to a society, it is first of all creation of society, by society. The Greeks realised that this creation was their responsibility. There were no foundations in the human domain (nomos). Democracy was therefore also a tragic regime. And the Athenians also played out the paradoxes connected to this insight in the tragedies. With this insight came also a great responsibility for each and every one, to learn, to listen and to reach the best decisions possible.

Political Creation

So if we agree with Castoriadis that politics is about creation – of laws, norms and institutions – what are the conditions for political creation in our own time? Are we still in a position where we – as a demos – can decide what the laws and norms we must follow, should realise? That is, are we able to step back – as a collective; reflectively – and put our institutions into question; and then, on the basis of our collective questioning, change these laws and institutions?

I think we must accept that capitalism is not going to break down easily. Old Marx was right about many things, but the internal contradictions inherent in the capitalist system have not led to a break-down of the system as such. Rather, it seems that capitalism thrives on contradictions and ambivalence or double standards.

We are beginning to see how resilient and adaptable capitalism really is. Capitalism, as an economic system is capable of drawing every phenomenon into itself and turning it into a tradable asset. Untouched nature, anti-capitalist life-styles, spirituality and mindfulness are examples of profitable goods. A very chilling example, in my view, is what is happening with the right to pollute, so-called clean development mechanisms (quotas for CO2 emissions) which have turned out to be a profitable business for investors, but with no documented effects for the environment. Under capitalism, phenomena such as pollution, extinction, exploitation and resistance are constantly turned into something else. Through techniques such as decoupling, green economy and various forms of partnership, all in the name of free trade, capitalism has been able to make a profit.

However, I would like to end on a positive note – even though the backdrop is very sinister. The success of the Greek polis democracy was that the Greeks knew that the well-being of the city depended on each and every one of them. Today we – the world – are facing a challenge greater than ever in the ongoing climate changes and the rapid extinction of species. In this respect, the world has grown smaller. We now find ourselves in a predicament similar to that of the Greeks. Just like the well-being of the polis depended on the involvement of each and every citizen, so the well-being of the planet depends on us today: not as private individuals, but as citizens involved in political creation.

So how can this be done? Many scholars despair that it is so hard to change our behaviour … others are arguing that we need to change our world view and our relationship to nature. However, I want to stay on the political path, and end with a point from Castoriadis: a piece of political advice he offered to the student revolt in May 1968 in a publication from the same time.

If we want to change the system, Castoriadis argues16 we must first of all refuse to accept the alternatives offered by the system. These alternatives are often posited as dichotomies, in terms of either – or. As long as we choose one side of the dichotomy over the other, Castoriadis warns us, we are still on the old ground as established by the system, and whatever side we choose, the system will swallow or incorporate our position. A few examples from today would be:

- Either green growth or brown.
- If we don’t do it, somebody else (and worse than us), will
- We must use economic incentives to foster change, e.g. make it profitable to recycle and expensive to pollute
- We must use our money where we can make a change most cost-efficiently

All these arguments are being used by Norwegian politicians to continue extraction, export and consumption of oil and gas. To posit ourselves on new ground, following Castoriadis, would for example mean to advocate de-growth. Now what would that look like? We do not know. That is why de-growth would be an entirely new, political creation with – possibly – far reaching consequences.

The article is based on a speech that Ingerid S. Straume held  at an arrangement by the curatorial project V.O.L.T. at the House of Literature in Bergen, 16. June 2015. The speech was first published at Academia.edu.


1. J. M. Roberts: The New Penguin History of the World. Penguin Books, 2007, p. 176–177, 223.
2. Who had served two years of military service?
3. Mogens Herman Hansen (1999): The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes. University of Oklahoma Press.
4. Sophocles’ Antigone is often mentioned in this connection, as a case of political deliberation and paradox.
5. Ingerid S. Straume (2011): The Political Imaginary of Global Capitalism p. 34. See: https://www.academia.edu/421718/The_Political_Imaginary_of_Global_Capita....
6. Charles Taylor (1985): Philosophical papers Vol 1. Human Agency and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 4.
7. Ibid. p. 5.
8. Hannah Arendt (1998): The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 176.
9. Ibid. 177.
10. Ibid. 179.
11. Hannah Arendt (1958): The Origins of Totalitarianism. Cleveland and New York: World Publishing: Meridian Books.
12. Doug Torgerson (1999): The Promise of Green Politics. Environmentalism and the Public Sphere, Duke UP.
13. Surveillance by whom? We are not quite sure. Our politicians are currently negotiating new treaties that will probably undermine what is left of our political systems, treaties like TISA and TTIP whose contents are secret.
14. Castoriadis was known for his analysis of the Soviet Union, which he called a capitalist bureaucracy. He saw the Soviet Union not as an opposite of Western regimes, but more as a reverse mirror image. The Western form of rule for Castoriadis was not so much democracy as bureaucratic capitalism.
15. Cornelius Castoriadis (1997): World in Fragments. Writings on Politics, Society, Psychoanalysis, and the Imagination. California: Stanford University Press. 13-14.
16. In his analysis, capitalist bureaucracy and hierarchy.