Corbyn and the reinvention of Democracy.

In ‘The Corbyn Model of Leadership’ I linked the need to understand the management of Complexity with Jeremy Corbyn’s enthusiasm for a more participatory form of democracy. Today I want to discuss what made the first model of ‘participatory democracy’ such a resounding success from 508 BC to 332 BC and why it has much to teach us about tackling the complex challenges we face today.

Ancient Greek Society

Two thousand five hundred years ago, the area now occupied by modern Greece was divided into a number of city-states, each with between 150,000 and 250,000 inhabitants, most of whom would be women, children, foreigners and slaves, with only a fraction of the male population entitled to call themselves “citizens”. These city-states included Corinth, and Thebes and Delphi, but Sparta and Athens were the most important and powerful ones.

Sparta was a totalitarian, militaristic police-state; its government and legal system were held tightly in the hands of the same small group of aristocratic families for centuries. The state devoted the bulk of its resources to creating and sustaining a small but ferocious army, through which to initiate and dominate its alliances with other Greek city-states. To that end, Sparta’s 8,000 soldier-citizens and their families were supported by about 100,000 helots (enslaved labourers), who had no political, legal, economic or social rights. Their only role in Spartan society was to give their labour and often, their lives at the command or even the whim of Sparta’s soldier-citizens.

By contrast, between 600–300 BC. it is estimated that its chief rival, the city-state of Athens, had about 40,000 citizens. These 40,000 citizens were all free men who were, or had been, liable for service in the army or the navy, or had been awarded citizenship by reason of their contribution to the arts, culture, or prosperity of the state.

In Ancient Greece, as in almost every empire, state and society in the world until well into the 19th Century, slaves were an essential economic resource and of course they had few if any civil rights. At the same time, as was common until the early 20th Century in Europe, the USA and Latin America, the women of Ancient Greece had few if any civil rights and certainly were not regarded as the equal of men.

In many other ways, the culture and norms of Athenian society were very different to those of today, For instance, the homosexual grooming of adolescent boys by older, wealthier men was regarded as a vital part of their mutual social and cultural development. So, as individuals with 21st Century sensibilities, this was not a society in which many of us would feel at home or want to see revived.

However,as a system for managing complexity, Athenian democracy has much to teach us.

In ‘The Corbyn Model of Leadership’, I quoted Josiah Ober as suggesting that:

it was the superiority of its diverse- group processes that enabled ancient Athens to consistently out-perform rival city-states such as Sparta on so many fronts: from warfare to the arts to the sciences and philosophy.

Kleisthenes’ Democratic Reforms

In 508 BC, Kleisthenes, the newly-elected Governor of the City-State of Athens introduced radical democratic reforms. With these reforms, Kleisthenes (and his many supporters among the ordinary citizens) set out to break the power of the noble families who had dominated Athenian government since the founding of the city.

A few years before Kleisthenes was elected as Archon, a junta of oligarchs had seized power. They were allied with Athens’ traditional rival, Sparta. Kleisthenes himself was a member of one of the noble families, but he had broken away from them, to lead the protests against their dismantling of the civic and political rights that had given citizens at least a limited role in government for almost a hundred years.

The political chaos that had brought Kleisthenes to power was the product of the folly, greed, paranoia and faction-fighting of the leading aristocratic families. Kleisthenes could have chosen just to make a show of reform, with some cosmetic tinkering with the semi-democratic representative system that had been in place for most of the previous century. That system virtually guaranteed the continuing domination of Athenian government by one oligarchal faction or another. Kleisthenes thus seems to have looked at Athenian history and asked “How can I enable all the citizens of Athens to take an active part in government , so that, together, we can successfully manage all those conflicting interests and demands that otherwise can tear us apart?”

In Kleisthenes’ first days as Archon, the Spartans were thrown out of Athens, and the pre-existing civic and political rights of Athenian citizens were restored. Then followed a series of measures that destroyed the power of the oligarchs and the noble families. To take all 40,000 citizens of the Athenian city-state into partnership, Kleisthenes instituted a new civic structure (see Diagram below)





As the diagram shows, Kleisthenes divided the city-state into 150 Demes. All free men over the age of 16 living within the boundaries of a Deme were put on a roll, and the 150 Deme rolls were the basic citizenship registers..

The Deme rolls were then combined to form ten new ‘Tribes’. Each Tribe consisted of 15 Demes selected from the different regions of city, the Coast, the Hills and the Interior.

These regions were then subdivided into ten smaller areas called `trityes’, each with about 1,300 citizens. So far, so reasonably conventional. But then Kleisthenes delivered the blows that broke the power of the great families.

Firstly, a Trytesfrom one region was politically `combined’ with a Trytesfrom each of the other two regions into totally new politically entity called `a phylai’ — a `brotherhood’ of 4,000 citizens. Each of these ten new phylai was then named after a popular Athenian hero of the past and thereafter, for political purposes, all citizens had the name of their home-phylai permanently added to their identity. No matter where they actually lived, irrespective of rank or wealth, for political purposes, their `phylai’ name was where they belonged in political terms.

Then Kleisthenes replaced the elected Council of 400 wealthy aristocrats and merchants with two new institutions. Firstly, there was The Citizens Assembly, which was open to all Citizens, and meeting in Athens , thirty or forty times a year, and secondly, the `Boulê’.

The `Boulê.

Once a year, each phylai had to choose by lot, 50 of its members to live for a tenth of the year in a special ‘Boulê House’ next to the Assembly, and work together as the City-state’s Cabinet and administrative overseer. The Boulê supervised the actions of the state bureaucracy, and served as a court of impeachment against Athenian officials charged with misusing their powers. Then after a month they would be replaced by fifty citizens from another plylai.

The Boulê did not govern the city-state. It did not determine policy. Instead it organised the agenda for Kleisthenes’ greatest democratic innovation; The Citizens Assembly, open to citizens of all ranks, the Citizens Assembly was the key policy-making body in all aspects of the government of Athens.

Citizens Assembly

In order to allow proceedings at the Assembly to begin, a quorum of 6000 citizens would have to meet on the specially enlarged slope of the hill called Pnyx, to take decisions on an agenda that had been prepared by the Boulê , whose members — remember — had been chosen by lot. Except for brief periods in 411 BC and 404 BC, for a hundred and eighty years, this enormous Assembly would meet up to a forty times a year, i.e. three or four times a month. Normal meetings began at sunrise and stopped at noon. To get the requisite numbers to attend was not always easy because Athenians were as concerned to look after their businesses, feed their animals, sleep off hangovers, and live their daily lives as people are anywhere. If there was thunder and lightning, the business of The Assembly was abandoned because the Gods were obviously not in a good mood that day.

Scaling-Up Athenian Democracy

It is perfectly legitimate to point out that an all-male citizen-body of 40,000, living in a pre-industrial slave-served city-state, may not provide a reliable basis for participatory democracy for the tens, hundreds of millions of men and women living in 21st Century states. Thus, it could be — and often is — argued, as John Dunn did in Democracy: the unfinished journey 508 BC — 1993 AD. (OUP 1992)

Modern citizen bodies could not choose far more often than they do (by an interminable cascade of televisual referenda or other such expedients) … because nothing can or could be done to enable the vast bulk of citizens to know about or choose coherently in relation to, the vast bulk of the factors which shape, constrain or endanger their lives…. It is quite clear that the most skilfully designed and devoted of modern governments. — … could not organise themselves to be capable of doing anything of the kind.

However, as the diagram shows, Athenian democracy worked well not because 6000 citizens met on the Pnyx three or four times a month but because their deliberations were framed by the preparatory work of the Boulê and the constant renewal of people, knowledge and ideas that would have come from its diverse membership.

Over the years, if a citizen lived to middle age he would have attended many Assemblies, spent several months working in the Boulê, sat on citizen-juries at major civil and criminal trials, served in the army or the navy in several wars, been a member of the City Council, and possibly even served for one day as the Head of State,welcoming foreign dignatories and presiding over the Council’s business. And always being selected by lot and never by standing for election.

Moreover, as a boy he would have listened to his older relatives talking about the debates they had attended, and what they had seen and heard in the Boulê, the Courts, the Council and the Assembly.

With all of that direct and indirect experience taken as the norm, Athenians would have thought it a profound blunder to settle for a version of democracy that centred on fighting elections to choose between one or other faction of the elites. Because, as is now becoming crystal clear to everyone who gives it a moment’s thought, to quote John Dunn again,

The affinity between elections and bribery is deep, intimate and of great antiquity.

Worse, as I spelt out in ‘The Corbyn Model of Leadership’ we also now have irrefutable proof that the elites who compete for our votes at elections rarely if ever possess the special skills and knowledge needed to manage the huge complexities of the challenges our societies are facing.

Moreover, systems and cybernetics research tells us that far from being a reason not to follow the Athenians’ lead, it is the very scale and complexity of those challenges that makes the re-invention of participatory democracy an essential pre-requisite for the survival of the human family.

From the Tanker to the Flock

Making major changes to complex, self-organising human systems is often compared to the many miles if takes to turn around a fully-laden tanker at sea. But complex self-organising human organisations are not like tankers, with a captain at the wheel and the engines on full power. They are much more like the huge flocks of birds that swoop and swirl across the skies to baffle the predatory hawks and eagles.

What is the system of control that produces such synchronised and coordinated activity by many thousands of individual animals? With the aid of computer simulations we now know that those incredible collective behaviours are guided by some simple rules that each bird follows in order to increase their own survival chances and those of the flock. Similar rules apply to the extraordinary collective behaviours of fishes, ants, bees and termites

Human beings are not birds or fishes, still less are we insects. But though complex human organisations are absolutely nothing like tankers, they have much in common with all the other complex self-organising systems in nature. Thus it seems reasonable to look at those simple rules that govern collective behaviours and see if they can help us to think about the scaling up of participatory democracies for the multi-millions of us living in modern societies.

The self-organising swooping and swirling of flocks can be replicated on a computer by applying three simple rules to thousands of ‘agents’ moving at a certain velocity: 1

  1. Alignment: 
    Alignment is a behaviour that causes a particular agent to line up with agents close by
  2. Cohesion:
    Cohesion is a behaviour that causes agents to steer towards the “center of mass” — that is, the average position of the agents within a certain radius.
  3. Separation:
    Separation is the behaviour that causes an agent to steer away from all of its neighbours.

A set of simple rules such as those, can be said to be the DNA of a complex self-organising flock of any size, whether small or large or enormous.

So we need to ask if there could be some easily-identifiable factors that would provide the basic rules, the DNA, of self-organisation in participatory democracies on any scale from the local to the national.

Dee Hock’s Complex, Self-Organising Purposeful Archetype

The possible model of what a complex self-organising system of participatory democracies could look like was the brain-child of a self-educated mid-level bank executive called Dee Hock.

We know it as VISA, the name that is on the credit and debit cards in a billion wallets in hundreds of countries around the world.

At the end of the 1960s, Hock and the multi-functional, multi-level team he formed, created VISA as an organisation that would be able to manage the the Bank of America’s nascent but disastrously insolvent credit-card business.

The new organisation would have to function without errors for (initially) millions, then hundreds of millions and now over a billion card-holders; thousands and now millions of traders of all kinds and scales, and dozens, now tens of thousands of banks and other financial institutions regardless of language, location, or ideology.

It took Dee Hock and his team about two years of intensive co-creativity to go from a blank sheet to the launch of what became VISA in June 1970.

Members are free to create, price, market, and service their own products under the Visa name,
(While) (A)t the same time, in a narrow band of activity essential to the success of the whole, they engage in the most intense cooperation.”2

This harmonious blend of cooperation and competition is what allowed the system to expand worldwide in the face of different currencies, languages, legal codes, customs, cultures, and political philosophies.

The organization was based on “biological concepts” to enable it to evolve, and in effect, to constantly re-invent and re-organize itself.

I believed then and believe today that we were creating an archetype, however clumsy, of organization next century.”

Purposes and Principles 3

Hock refers to self-organising, complex organisations as ‘communities’ in which there will be “coherence and cohesion within infinite diversity.”

The DNA that gives them the properties of coherence and cohesion are a set of shared purposes and principles.

Thus, “the success of any healthy institution has infinitely more to do with clarity of shared purpose and principles, and strength of belief in them, than to all assets, technology or management practices, important as they may be.”

Obtaining coherence and cohesion starts with defining “with absolute clarity … the Purpose of the community”, through engaging in “an intense effort … involving a broad group of representative people”.

“Purpose is derived from morality, from vision, from collective wisdom, not from individual ambition or greed”. That, says Hock, is where the whole industrial system, including both corporations and governments, has strayed so far off track.

The Purpose of VISA as an organization was defined as “to create the world’s premier system for the exchange of value. Guaranteeing to transport, and settle transactions twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, around the globe.”


The Principles, combined with the Purpose, constitute the body of belief — the DNA — which Hock says, “will bind the community together and against which all subsequent decisions and acts will be judged.”

The principles that determined the eventual design of the VISA system were:

  • Power and function in the system must be distributed to the maximum degree possible
  • The system must be self-organizing
  • Governance must be distributed
  • The system must seamlessly blend both collaboration and competition
  • The system must be infinitely malleable, yet extremely durable
  • The system must be owned cooperatively and equitably.

When the Purpose and Principles are complete, the nascent-community can then begin to Design an organization that could best embrace the Purpose and Principles. From these foundations come the Structure of the organization: the charter, the bye-laws etc.

Hock then says that

If you get the Purpose right, you may get the Principles right.
If you get the Principles right you may get the Design right.
If you get the Design right, you may get the Structure right.


If you get Purpose, Principles, Design and Structure you will attract the right People.
Now you will inevitably get the Practice right and realize your Purpose far beyond your original expectations.
Properly done, the inevitable result is a self-organizing, self-governing complex capable of constant learning and evolution.

Kleisthenes, Hock, Corbyn and Democracies for the 21st Century

Before 1995, Clause 4 of the Labour Party Constitution of 1918 was printed on the back of the Labour Party’s membership cards.

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

Soon after Tony Blair became the leader of the party, the Constitution was rewritten, and Clause 4 was replaced by the Clause 1 of 1995 on the back of the membership cards:

The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.

Anyone who is interested in the future of the Labour Party might spend an enlightening few minutes comparing the differences between the Purposes as stated in the 1918 Constitution and those of 1995. However, in 2016, both are almost equally obsolete. With the centenary of the 1918 Constitution just up ahead, this is an excellent moment for Jeremy Corbyn to invite members of the party to revisit the question of the Purposes and Principles that would be fit for the 21st Century and beyond.

Hopefully the outcomes would benefit from a close study of Kleisthenes and his model of participatory democracy, Dee Hock and the VISA model of an effortlessly efficient decentralised self-organising system, and from the many other examples of the successful management of complexity under the most unpromising circumstances.

So the good news for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party is that although they are facing problems of intimidating complexity, there are tried and tested approaches with which he could initiate the co-creation of participatory communities, enterprises and democracies. In the next few decades, they could could give us a fighting chance of successfully coming through the challenges that are threatening our very existence.

1 Vijay Pemmarajun: The Three Simple Rules of Flocking Behaviors: Alignment, Cohesion, and Separation.envato-tuts+ 21 Jan 2013

2 M. Waldrop: The Trillion-Dollar Vision of Dee Hock. The corporate radical who organized Visa wants to dis-organize your company.

3 Dee W. Hock, Birth of the Chaordic Age. Berrett-Koehler. 1996

4 Bonnie Durance: The Evolutionary Vision of Dee Hock: from chaos to chaords. Training and Development 1997

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