How Protest Is A Democratic Institution

The protestors in occupied Colombo

In ancient Athens, if you were a citizen you had every right to power yourself. Any citizen could just show up in the town square and govern themselves. Today we would call that a protest, and generally meet it with truncheons and teargas. But read a little history. People assembling and shouting is the most democratic institution there is.

A Disclaimer Because I’m About To Discuss Ancient GreeksPeople are quick to shun discussion of Greek democracy since they were slavers and sexists and hostile to migrants. But ‘liberal’ democracy was designed by slavers and sexists and people hostile to migrants so I see no reason to hold it in any higher regard. As to the fact that most people couldn't participate in Greek democracy, that's true, but citizenship is still a violently proscribed category today. The differences in cruelty are just a matter of degree, not kind, and in many ways, we're even more cruel.As to whether a technology meant for city-states scales to nations, that's an open question about democracy in general, not unique to any particular form.The modern, frankly religious, belief in representative democracy has really amputated our imagination. Democracy comes in many different forms. As liberal democracy completely breaks down we must - as I saw scrawled on a wall today - QUESTION EVERYTHING.

As Perikles put it:

Philip Brook Manville — The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens

Yet today, the conduct of modern democracies is in the hands of a few, usually an all-powerful President or Prime Minister, and a weak Parliament that generally follows along. People anoint these people through bribery festivals called elections, but we have no direct power.

The Greeks would call modern democracy an oligarchy (which wasn’t an insult, just a choice). We obviously wanted to preserve a class structure where a few rule the many. You can see that in the violent, classist, slaving places that ‘modern’ democracy came from (England, the US, France). They branded their system Democracy™️ for marketing and bombing purposes, but philosophically speaking it’s just the oligarchy of old.

To see how modern democracy is shit in org-chart form, behold this graphic of how the Athenians did it:

Ancient Greece — The Pursuit of Democracy (

The Athenians had an Executive, a Legislative, and a Judiciary, but above all of them, the people directly governed. The supreme authority was a People’s Assembly, that any citizen could physically attend. They usually didn’t, but if shit got real, citizens surely attended. The result would look a lot like a protest in a town square, but they had actual power. As they should and—with great difficulty—as big protests still do.

Philip Brook Manville — The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens

In this way, a protest is not a rebellion against democratic institutions. It is the re-emergence of a buried democratic institution, the one that’s supposed to be supreme over all. People somehow instinctively assemble in town squares to take power over what is rightfully theirs. Athenians understood this and made the People’s Assembly an institution, whereas our ruling elites try to make it illegal. But people power persists, especially in times of great turmoil. It is the true source of power, as much as elites try to bury it under elections.

Today we have a perverted idea that democracy is elections, but the Athenians only used elections for the Executive. The Legislature was selected by lot (randomly among the citizens), as was the Judiciary.

The reason modern states can’t do this is supposed to be that it’s not feasible, you can’t have direct democracy among millions of people. But well, why not? And how do you explain the fact that we do? ‘People’s Assemblies’ have spontaneously assembled everywhere from Bolivia to South Korea to Sri Lanka to overthrow leaders and change policies. This is direct democracy in action, happening across millions of people.

We call protests something that happen outside of democratic institutions, but dig a little deeper, do a little archeology. Protestors are really just dusting off the old People’s Assembly, the most ancient and powerful democratic institution of all.

Today we also have the equally perverted idea that representative democracy is the only possible form—that we simply must be ruled by the few—but why? Why do we need a class of corrupt, increasingly hereditary political elites making decisions for us? Are they really smarter and less awful than a random person off the streets? Have we not somehow created a system that rewards the worst among us, and gives the ‘donor class’ a license to steal?

As you can see from Athens, they elected the Executive, but the Legislature and Judges were chosen by lot. They had a foundational principle that citizens could make the law and were equal in its administration, so they literally selected random people for those spots. Today people would say that ordinary people are too uneducated or poor to make these decisions, but that’s not democracy. As Aristotle said: