The recent publication of John Burnheim’s autobiography by Sidney University Press (Burnheim, 2011) coincides with improved availability of his 1985 work, Is Democracy Possible? (Burnheim, 2006). Although SUP republished the book in 2006 they have only recently made it available on Amazon.com. John very kindly sent me copies of both books, even though he knew that I would not be the most sympathetic reviewer, as we have always disagreed fundamentally on the potential of sortition in our offline exchanges.
John divides his adult life into three two-decade periods during which he moved from the priesthood through philosophy to retirement, pausing en route only to (assist in) blowing up the Sydney University philosophy department (1973) and publishing an attempt to torpedo democracy in its modern incarnation (1985).
Born in 1928 in Sydney, Australia of Irish Catholic extraction, John discovered his vocation and entered the local seminary in 1943. From an early age he had been interested in philosophy and was sponsored by his diocese to take an MA in Ireland and a PhD (on Fregian logic) at the Catholic University of Louvain, which he gained with ‘grande distinction’ in just one year! Returning home to Sydney he became the rector of St. John’s College within the University, joining the philosophy department in 1960 on the retirement of the redoubtable John Anderson. Disillusioned with the Church’s response to the Second Vatican Council, John resigned his vocation in favour of secular humanism, immersing himself in the turmoil that split the philosophy department between analytic traditionalists (led by David Armstrong and David Stove) and Marxist-feminists. He then took early retirement (1990), moving briefly into commercial life (running a small yacht brokerage) before retuning to the life of the mind and art (an enduring interest).
This is a fascinating book, both on the level of a personal history and also a witness to the monumental intellectual and social changes that occurred during the second half of the Twentieth Century. It’s very readable and I’ve no mind to undermine sales with a long précis, so go out and buy it! My concern in this post is with the insights his biography provides into his major work Is Democracy Possible?
In the preface to the second (2006) edition (all page references not marked 2011 are to this book) John is commendably frank in admitting that the book is an attempt to forge a revisionist vision of socialism (iii) or Marxism (iv) and that this makes it a little dated for modern readers. In addition to the Cambridge school of political theorists, other prime influences include the analytical Marxists Gerry Cohen, Jon Elster and John Roemer (xi). While Marx predicted that the state would naturally wither away, Burnheim shares the anarchist view that it needs to be abolished in order for demarchy to blossom. The term ‘demarchy’ is derived from Hayek’s Law, Legislation and Liberty (Hayek, 1973, 1976, 1979) and Burnheim likens his own radical rethinking of socialism to Hayek’s market-based rethinking of liberalism (119).
Demarchy is best characterised as government by a large number of committees who are ‘statistically representative of those with an interest in their decisions’ (104, my emphasis). Such a policy has nothing to do with localism, decentralisation or ‘subsidiarity’, as the relevant distinctions are functional rather than those pertaining to scale. Although some demarchic committees may be small and localised (say, car-parking committees), others should even function at the international level (say, global warming). All committees would be established by sortition from a self-referring pool. Burnheim’s emphasis on volunteerism has found echoes in David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ proposals (although Burnheim’s allotted members would be remunerated) and the emphasis on self-reference is shared with Stephen Elstub’s model of ‘associational’ democracy (Elstub, 2008), Michael Saward’s Representative Claim (Saward, 2010), and other deliberative theorists who privilege the quality of the locutionary acts of the representative over concerns for accurate ‘mirror’ representation. As such Burnheim’s work has little in common with the Deliberative Polling experiments of James Fishkin which view volunteering as antithetical to accurate descriptive representation.
Burnheim is honest about the practical difficulties involved in implementing demarchy: ‘we are proposing to replace all our political elites, most of our bureaucracy and the private ownership of land and land capital’ (122). Although he acknowledges a historical materialist perspective (140), he doesn’t have the benefit of Marxist teleology or any historically-defined mechanism to resolve the contradictions in the old order. And his abolitionist goals are nothing if not ambitious, the candidates for the guillotine including:
- The state
- Elective democracy
- The police and armed services
- Private ownership of land and ‘land capital’
Burnheim is not clear as to exactly what forms of capital fall into the latter category – ‘demarchic control of the major productive enterprises’ is deemed necessary (p.130) – but, given the abolition of taxation and the consequent need to finance the requirements of all the functional committees (along with a generous welfare system) via the rent-seeking activity of ‘public’ financial institutions, then a substantial capital base would be required – particularly in countries with low land values and minimal natural resources. Bearing in mind that Burnheim’s Hayekian anarchism rules out the state as the means to bring about the necessary non-violent revolution it’s a little hard to see how exactly we are going to get from here to the demarchic future. To be fair to John, he is well aware of the uphill struggle for a demarchic settlement (acknowledging that it would need a ‘good deal of luck’ (123)), hoping instead that a gradualist approach (appointing new quangos by sortition from a volunteer base) would provide the necessary foot in the door (ibid.).
Burnheim’s involvement with Marxist thinking has always been somewhat ambivalent – Althusser in particular (who was very influential in the Department of General Philosophy at Sydney which he headed after its foundation in 1973) with his notion of ‘privileged access to the truth as the warrant for authority’ (p.119) clearly reminded him too much of his earlier faith in the Catholic Church as the medium of divine revelation. Nevertheless in his biography he still holds out hope for a ‘Communist Luther’ and is particularly inspired by James Fishkin’s DP experiment in Zeguo, China, where the ‘hope finally resurfaced’ (2011, p.135). Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, Fishkin’s work is antithetical to Burnheim’s views – DP participants are (in effect) conscripted, deliberation is restricted to selecting from alternatives prescribed in advance by the sponsoring authority (in this case local communist party officials) and participants do not get to choose their own expert advocates. This has nothing in common with Burnheim’s preference for policy emerging out of conversations among a committee of volunteers, derived from his own philosophical perspective in which rationality is an emergent property of social interaction. Burnheim’s approach is antithetical to agonistic perspectives on democracy, and rejects the liberal reliance on mixed constitutions in which one ‘power’ is checked by another, preferring instead that demarchic committees should ‘negotiate’ with each other.
Whilst it’s misleading (and insulting) to seek to explain a political theorist’s work by reference to his own biography, nevertheless John’s autobiography does provide some very helpful insights. His hatred of state sovereignty would appear to be not unconnected to his rejection of Catholicism:
The whole of creation depended on the will of God . . . In submitting to his will we achieved our destiny as his creatures. Similarly ultimate political authority was supposed to repose in the sovereign, to whose decisions all good results were attributable and to whom his subjects owed ultimate obedience. The earthly fulfillment of the subject lay in identification with the power of the monarch, or the nation conceived as a sovereign entity. (2011, p.143)
When Burnheim gave up on the authoritarian church, he also gave up on the authoritarian state (democratic or otherwise) and the authoritarian behaviour of David Armstrong and his philosopher colleagues, but he was equally repelled by the undisciplined and ignorant behaviour of the radical democrats who were responsible for the anarchy in his university department. Burnheim’s ideal of government by voluntary committee is his own via media between an authoritarian Scylla and a democratic Charybdis, derived from his own experiences in 1970s university politics:
At regular weekly meetings attended by staff and mainly senior students with a strong commitment to the continuance of [the department], discussion was rational and well-informed. But when issues became divisive, mass meetings of hundreds of students [up to 500] were polarised by inflammatory speeches and politicised resolutions were passed. (2011, p.115)
One is reminded of criticisms of Athenian direct democracy by Harrington and other conservative critics. But is government by voluntary committee democratic? Although Burnheim’s 1985 book is entitled Is Democracy Possible? he never actually answers this question, preferring instead to consider whether demarchy is possible (his concluding chapter). But is demarchy (government by informed conversation) democratic?
My answer would be a qualified ‘no’ – i.e .only democratic in the sense that the pre-1867 House of Commons (the last instance in Britain of an elected house with a conversational decorum) could also be said to be democratic. Burnheim argues that his demarchic committees should be formed by sortition from volunteers who are ‘interested’ (p.59) in the particular function of the committee, ‘committed people who act on principle’ (p.73). No doubt it helps for people to find their work interesting, but the word ‘interest’ was also used to describe the ratepayer franchise, the male-only franchise and other forms of limited ‘stakeholder’ democracy. Although Burnheim assures us that institutional safeguards could be imposed to protect such committees from corrupt ‘interests’ it would strike me as relatively straightforward for lobby groups to either flood the sortition base with their supporters or else to use a variety of strategies to persuade those who have drawn the golden ticket to sponsor their own agenda. Burnheim also relies on the naïve notion that statistical representation ensures democratic accountability: ‘Granted a sound statistical procedure the people automatically control the broad outlines of the result simply by being what they are’ (p.85, my emphasis). Unfortunately the falsity of this conclusion was demonstrated by Hannah Pitkin two decades before the publication of Burnheim’s book (Pitkin, 1967, p.145); Burnheim’s conclusion only applies to collective actions (such as voting) but cannot apply to individual speech acts, the core function of a demarchic committee: ‘Is [the representative] really to literally to deliberate as if he were several hundred thousand people?’ (ibid.)
But even if it were possible to insulate demarchic committees from lobbyists and other corrupting forces, is it necessarily the case that those with an ‘interest’ in a topic are best enabled to judge policy impartially? (c.f. Madison’s objection in Federalist 10):
Granted that they volunteer to work in this particular area rather than some other or none, it is likely that they feel more strongly than most people about the issues involved and that they have or are prepared to acquire superior knowledge of the problems. So it would be reasonable for the group that these people represent statistically to accept them as representatives in decision-making (p.81, my emphasis).
Not so, for two reasons: 1) In large societies, most people are affected by most important decisions – we all (apart from the Greeks) pay taxes, most of us have children to educate, and we all want to walk the streets without getting mugged and have our health taken care of. So it’s not at all clear that the ‘interest’ criterion is any more than the distinction between the opinionated busybody and the ‘silent majority’. The volunteer system would also over-privilege the participation of the leisured, the articulate and the wealthy – especially ‘those who are active negotiators in their everyday lives (p.127) – and disadvantage, for example, self-employed business people. As expertise is not considered a qualifying factor for membership in a demarchic committee (unlike in Burnheim’s university example), sortition from an ex-officio base is ruled out. Demarchic committees would most likely be dominated by ‘a few enthusiastic and able people [who would] make the running, and come up with the new ideas, the decisive arguments’ (ibid.). No doubt this is true but it’s unclear how to reconcile it with democratic norms, given that such people will be entirely self-selecting and cannot claim any ‘mandate’, the statistical one only applying in aggregate. Do we want to be ruled by ‘a minority . . . [willing] to envisage solutions that certainly would not be chosen by most people who are not so strongly affected by those issues’ (p.131, my emphasis). As we have seen, in modern societies most people are affected to a greater or lesser extent by all the major political issues.
But there is a further, and more critical epistemic objection to Burnheim’s proposal: there is now a wealth of research that indicates that optimal decisions (from an epistemic point of view) are made by groups that have a wide diversity of perspectives, and any process that encourages consensus is harmful to this (Estlund, 2007; Landemore, 2007; Page, 2006; Surowiecki, 2004; Tetlock, 2005). Whilst true sortition (random sampling of the whole population) retains this diversity, sortition from self-referring volunteers will tend to encourage similarity rather than difference.
Burnheim unwittingly provides the evidence to support the argument for epistemic diversity when he contrasts enlightened criminology with ignorant public opinion:
It is often the case that a relatively small deliberative body will take a much more enlightened view on a matter than the general public does . . . Not many people understand a great deal about criminology . . . their judgment is not soundly based. (p.69).
Granted that criminologists (both professional and amateur) may well take a more ‘enlightened’ (aka liberal) perspective. does this give rise to optimal penal policy? It’s a simple fact in the UK that since the introduction of ‘civilised’ penal policies by Roy Jenkins in the 1960s, recidivism rates have skyrocketed. This would appear to be the direct result of civilising policies based on informed criminology, whereas most ex-cons would endorse the popular prejudice that, pace the ‘informed’ perspective, the best approach to recidivism is to make the penal experience as unpleasant and as uncivilised as possible – that way offenders will do as much as possible not to have to return to prison. Such perspectives may be ‘short-sightedly conservative’ (ibid.) but they are based on sound common-sense popular inferences.
To choose another example rather closer to home, two members of this forum – Yoram Gat and myself – hold very strong opinions on the appropriate role that sortition might play in society. Given our strong interests we are probably the least capable of impartial judgment in this particular domain. Much better for Yoram and myself to be permitted equal time to present our opposing arguments and then for the outcome to be decided by others who are less ‘interested’. This is the rationale behind the Fishkinian decision-making process: interests and judgment are diametrically opposed. It’s hard to imagine anything much worse than a committee composed entirely of the self-nominated, the only danger to the alternative model being some of the judges falling asleep while Yoram and myself were ranting on!
Based on his own experiences at Sydney University Burnheim assumes that the mini-populus (Fishkinian) alternative to committees of volunteers would simply enfranchise the uninformed prejudices of the rabble – the two stark alternatives being enlightened demarchy or ignorant democracy. But this is just a straw man. Fishkin’s experiments in deliberative polling started not long after the publication of Burnheim’s book and have demonstrated convincingly that volunteering is not a prerequisite to informed deliberation. All that is needed is a clear choice of proposals (supplied in advance) and balanced expert advocacy (Gat and Sutherland in the above example). Burnheim dismisses this because ‘people would be reduced to accepting or rejecting proposals’ (p.2). True, but if the proposals were arrived at by a democratic mechanism prior to adversarial debate and deliberative scrutiny this would have the advantage of providing a deliberative procedure that was also democratic (as opposed to proposals that emerged from the smoke-filled rooms of the demarchic committee men).
Is (such a) Democracy Possible? Yes.
Burnheim, J. (2006). Is Democracy Possible? Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press.
Burnheim, J. (2011). To Reason Why: From Religion to Philosophy and Beyond. Sydney, Australia: Darlington Press.
Elstub, S. (2008). Towards a Deliberative and Associational Democracy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Estlund, D. (2007). Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hayek, F. A. (1973, 1976, 1979). Law, Legislation and Liberty. London: Routledge.
Landemore, H. (2007). Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many. Harvard.
Page, S. (2006). The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Pitkin, H. (1967). The Concept of Representation Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Saward, M. (2010). The Representative Claim. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Surowiecki, J. (2004). The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few. London: Abacus.
Tetlock, P. E. (2005). Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Could We Know? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.