“Direct democracy” and mass politics – part 1

The reformist idea of “direct democracy” is a recurring theme among critics of the dominant modern elections-based system of government. However, “direct democratic” systems, when considered as systems for representing popular interests, suffer from much the same problems that afflict elections-based systems.

The promise of “direct democracy”

The standard description of the Athenian democracy emphasizes the role of the Assembly. According to this description having thousands of Athenians assemble 40 times a year to discuss and vote on policy decisions was the main democratic mechanism in Athens. This institute, supposedly, distributed political power widely within the group of Athenian citizens. Wikipedia puts it this way:

It [Athens] remains a unique and intriguing experiment in direct democracy, a political system in which the people do not elect representatives to vote on their behalf but vote on legislation and executive bills in their own right.


Such ideas associating democracy with mass decision making motivated the Progressive politicians that were active in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century and who managed to institute a modern analogue of the assembly – the popular initiative – in many US states. An important influence on the thinking of those politicians is attributed to J. W. Sullivan’s 1893 book, Direct Legislation by the Citizenship Through the Initiative and Referendum. Sullivan writes:

There is a radical difference between a democracy and a representative government. In a democracy, the citizens themselves make the law and superintend its administration; in a representative government, the citizens empower legislators and executive officers to make the law and to carry it out. Under a democracy, sovereignty remains uninterruptedly with the citizens, or rather a changing majority of the citizens; under a representative government, sovereignty is surrendered by the citizens, for stated terms, to officials. In other words, democracy is direct rule by the majority, while representative government is rule by a succession of quasi-oligarchies, indirectly and remotely responsible to the majority.

Similar arguments appear in Marxist thought. Lenin writes:

Democracy is a form of the state, it represents, on the one hand, the organized, systematic use of force against persons; but, on the other hand, it signifies the formal recognition of equality of citizens, the equal right of all to determine the structure of, and to administer, the state. This, in turn, results in the fact that, at a certain stage in the development of democracy, it first welds together the class that wages a revolutionary struggle against capitalism–the proletariat, and enables it to crush, smash to atoms, wipe off the face of the earth the bourgeois, even the republican-bourgeois, state machine, the standing army, the police and the bureaucracy and to substitute for them a more democratic state machine, but a state machine nevertheless, in the shape of armed workers who proceed to form a militia involving the entire population.

And these same ideas are common today among critics of the dominant modern eletions-based system, such as people who identify with the global protest movement, and it often provides a starting points for proposed alternatives (1, 2). They are often accepted by sortition advocates as well. Ettiene Chouard, for example, keeps hammering in his presentation on his claim that in a democratic system the allotted officials would not make important decisions since all important decisions would be made by an assembly (some sort of a mass body, whose form Chouard leaves unspecified in his talk). Taking a path reminiscent of Sullivan’s, Chouard mentions the popular initiative system in Switzerland approvingly as a modern parallel to the Athenian assembly.

Poor prospects of delivery

The prospects of a “direct democratic” system of delivering on the hopes pinned on it are poor. The empirical evidence does not inspire confidence and theory is non-existent.

The Leninist state, of course, was very far from being democratic.

The initiative and referendum based systems – the Swiss and the Oregon System – make only a very small part of the political activity where they are in effect and are highly influenced by elites and money:

Swiss voters, like their American counterparts, often have relatively little knowledge about the specifics of the proposals voted. Many rely heavily on brief campaign slogans or on cues given by public figures or parties supporting or opposing the proposal. As in the United States, campaign spending is perceived to play a major role in determining the outcome of votes and is often dramatically unequal. There is also something of a trend toward the professionalization of campaigns, including the use of public relation firms.

As for Athens, it is unclear that the Assembly was the main democratic institute of the polis, or indeed that it was democratic at all. For one thing, the Assembly was a standard institute in non-democratic Greek cities, such as Sparta. Probably for this reason, the existence of an Assembly is not offered by Athenian authors as an attribute of a democratic system. If the Athenian Assembly was democratic, it would have to be due to particulars of that institution that made it different from other Assemblies. It is often suggested that the fact that in Athens anyone could speak and propose legislation made the Athenian Assembly democratic. But, of course, in a city of tens of thousands of citizens, most would never speak in the Assembly, much less write legislation. Anyone could speak in Athens just like anyone could run for President in the U.S and just like anyone can write a proposition in California.

Thus in the absence of compelling positive examples, a theory justifying the view that Assemblies are democratic should be demanded of the proponents of such institutions. No such theory has been offered. The implied theory – that the system provides choice of policy – stems from the same false premises that underlie the classical democratic doctrine (as Schumpeter put it) that purports to justify an electoral system.

In the second part of this post, I will offer a counter-theory: one which aims to explain why Assembly politics – the so-called direct democratic system – cannot in fact be democratic.

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65 Responses

  1. NIcely put Yoram — your conclusion, presumably, being that it was the reliance on sortition that made Athens uniquely democratic. But it remains the case that sortition, to the ancients, was a mechanism that enabled all citizens to rule and be ruled in turn, and this is inconceivable in large extended republics. Thus the modern case for sortition has to be based on an entirely different justification — the notion of a portrait in miniature of the citizenry — and this, like any other form of descriptive representation, only applies at the aggregate level. So you are left with the problem of how to fulfil active, individual political functions without breaching the democratic mandate (a single individual can only represent others if chosen by them) and it’s hard to see how this might be possible without direct democratic initiatives or party-political representation. This remains the case despite the fact that both of these alternatives are deeply flawed, for all the reasons that we can anticipate in your second post. I don’t think you need to convince anyone here about the flaws of direct democracy, what we need to do is come up with a plausible alternative.

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  2. Actually, I have seen no real indication that sortition was viewed by the Greeks as a mechanism that produces complete rotation in offices any more than ho boulemenos was viewed as a mechanism that produces complete rotation in speaking rights. If you know of such indications, please feel free to educate me. Logically speaking, BTW, such a view would be a difficult position to hold since producing complete rotations in a group of tens of thousands of people would be very difficult.

    Be that as it may, the argument for statistical representation certainly does not rest on the authority of opinion in antiquity. The argument rests on the expectation that an allotted body would be perceived by the population as promoting its interests.

    All of that, as you note, has little to do with the topic of the post here.

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  3. Obviously “complete” rotation is not going to happen, nevertheless most Athenian citizens would have participated in one or more offices during their lifetime. That’s why Aristotle characterised democracy as “rule and be ruled in turn”. This is a complete impossibility in large states.

    >The argument rests on the expectation that an allotted body would be perceived by the population as promoting its interests.

    Agreed. This would certainly be the case if it could be demonstrated that every AC would come to the same decisions irrespective of which citizens were selected. This would be like two polling organisations asking the same questions to two different randomly-selected samples, using identical methodologies. One would anticipate that both polls would generate similar, if not identical, results. This would be unlikely if the remit of the AC included policy generation and advocacy — both roles being based on the speech acts of individual agents. To claim that this would also generate identical results (so that it would make no difference which citizens were chosen) presupposes that elite and mass interests are internally homogeneous and transcend the particular human agents that articulate them. If that were true then I might trust such a body to promote my interests but, given the diverse nature of modern multicultural societies, I would be suspicious that arguments were being initiated by persuasive or high-status minority assembly members who were not like me at all. Such an assembly would be highly unlikely to be perceived by the population as promoting its interests. It’s relevant to note that one of the key arguments for deliberative democracy is the promotion of minority interests that fail to achieve representation in majoritarian elective systems, thus there is an inherent tension between minority and majority interests that make phrases such as “perceived by the population as promoting its interests” problematic.

    We’re clearly never going to agree on this issue, but I would still claim that most members of this forum need no convincing about the flaws of non-sortive political institutions. As such the pressing task is to address ways of minimising these flaws, as sortition alone will never be sufficient to ensure democratic equality in large modern states.

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  4. > Obviously “complete” rotation is not going to happen, nevertheless most Athenian citizens would have participated in one or more offices during their lifetime.

    So would the Athenians see those who didn’t get to serve in office as having been disenfranchised? Again, you provide no evidence that such ideas were current.

    And what about serving in the courts and in the nomothetai? Nothing even remotely resembling rotation took place there. I recall that Arisophanes complains in the Wasps that the courts were full of old people who had nothing better to do. The complaint was not that some people get to serve more than others (i.e., that rotation doesn’t occur) – it was that a certain sector of the population was over-represented (i.e., that the sampling was not statistically representative).

    > That’s why Aristotle characterised democracy as “rule and be ruled in turn”.

    Actually, this is far from clear. The context seems to emphasize majority decision, which would imply that statistical representation is the crucial condition for delegation:

    One principle of liberty is for all to rule and be ruled in turn, and indeed democratic justice is the application of numerical not proportionate equality; whence it follows that the majority must be supreme, and that whatever the majority approve must be the end and the just. Every citizen, it is said, must have equality, and therefore in a democracy the poor have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme.

    But even if Aristotle would have insisted on complete rotations, this would represent his own political theory (and possibly that of others in his school). Can you provide any reason to think this was the conventional view?

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  5. >> The argument rests on the expectation that an allotted body would be perceived by the population as promoting its interests.

    > Agreed. This would certainly be the case if it could be demonstrated that every AC would come to the same decisions irrespective of which citizens were selected.

    Hardly. The fact that most samples prefer option A to B could be completely immaterial to serving the public interest if an option C exists which is superior to both A and B but is never taken because it is never put on the agenda.

    In fact, we could take your argument to its natural conclusion and assert that an AC that is deprived of all alternatives (and hence must always approve the single policy option that is proposed) is the most democratic since it will always make exactly the same decision.

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  6. Yoram,

    It is exciting for me to see how closely your piece here parallels a paper I have been working on. I will share the paper with the readers here when it is finished…I also contend that the mature “democracy” of Athens was essentially an allotted representative system, and that the Assembly was more symbolic than fundamental to the way it actually worked. Thus the wide-spread assumption that the democracy of Athens was based on the idea that all citizens could participate in all decisions is nonsense… and only serves to block further examination of how the problem of scale had been solved in Athens through representative bodies.

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  7. I don’t claim to be an expert on Athenian democracy but have assumed that 1) “rule and be ruled in turn” means what it says and 2) that Manin, Pitkin and other authorities who claim that the Athenians had no concept of political representation are reliable. And I’ve never claimed that rotation was the only principle in operation; there are obvious advantages of the random selection of jurors to ensure impartial judgment and as a barrier to corruption. But the example of juries and nomothetai certainly undermines the case for representation, given that they were packed with old people with nothing better to do and as a result entirely unrepresentative of the citizenry. The evidence from juries does undermine the rotation argument but supports the Dowlen-Stone thesis rather than allotted representation.

    If Terry and yourself wish to make the controversial proposal that allotment was viewed at the time as a system of statistical representation then the onus is on you both to prove it. As for your reductio of my judgment argument to one without alternatives, that’s just plain silly. As you know I’ve always favoured a broad and open agenda-setting process, the only proviso being the need to pass a democratic threshold prior to deliberative judgment by an allotted assembly. Direct-democratic initiative followed by public votation will give ample opportunity for options C, D, E . . . Z to get an airing, but will remove the possibility of the agenda being set by charismatic allotted individuals without widespread public backing. Such a system may not necessarily generate optimal outcomes from the epistemic point of view, but would be more likely to be perceived by the population (rightly or wrongly) to be promoting its interests. Given the low cost of online operations and my proposals for strict campaign limits and media plurality, it would be more difficult to argue that the agenda will necessarily be hijacked by the rich and powerful. As such it would stand a greater chance of gaining public support than a process that relied entirely on the internal dynamics of a small randomly-selected (but all-powerful) group, a constitutional proposal that most citizens would find pretty scary, notwithstanding the survey evidence that you are fond of quoting.

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  8. > But it remains the case that sortition, to the ancients, was a mechanism that enabled all citizens to rule and be ruled in turn, and this is inconceivable in large extended republics.

    If sortitional selection permeated the ‘democratic system’ — city councils, school boards, deliberative committees — might it not be possible that many citizens in a large republic would experience ‘rule and be ruled’ — at least on the local level? And would that not invest and empower a much broader base of citizen leadership?

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  9. Terry,

    > the Assembly was more symbolic than fundamental to the way it actually worked

    I am not saying that the Assembly was a symbolic institute – this is a matter of fact that I cannot judge. I am saying that the Assebmly was not a democratic institution. Or to be more exact, I am claiming that the procedure of mass voting in the Assembly was not a democratic device. Instead, the democratic element in the Assembly was the power of the Boule to shape its agenda.

    > Thus the wide-spread assumption that the democracy of Athens was based on the idea that all citizens could participate in all decisions is nonsense… and only serves to block further examination of how the problem of scale had been solved in Athens through representative bodies.

    Exactly!

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  10. > Given the low cost of online operations and my proposals for strict campaign limits and media plurality, it would be more difficult to argue that the agenda will necessarily be hijacked by the rich and powerful.

    Your claims fail the tests of both theory and practice.

    The problem is not the cost of online operations. The problem is scarcity of cognitive resources. It takes material resources to command the attention of a large number of citizens, and therefore the agenda in mass politics is always necessarily dominated by the rich and powerful.

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  11. >If sortitional selection permeated the ‘democratic system’ — city councils, school boards, deliberative committees — might it not be possible that many citizens in a large republic would experience ‘rule and be ruled’ — at least on the local level? And would that not invest and empower a much broader base of citizen leadership?

    I’m sure that it would help towards creating a participatory ethos, but I don’t see how that would add up to rotation as practiced in small political communities. From the perspective of democratic theory statistical representation would be the defining principle of a large-scale sortion-based system, not rotation, and that imposes significant constraints on the mandate of sortition-based assemblies, ruling out agenda-setting and advocacy.

    >Instead, the democratic element in the Assembly was the power of the Boule to shape its agenda.

    There was a significant probability for a citizen to serve on the boule once, or even twice, in his lifetime. Not so in large modern states, hence the need for representative or direct-democratic institututions to shape the agenda.

    >The problem is scarcity of cognitive resources.

    I don’t know what this means — are you suggesting that there is an inverse correlation between wealth/power and stupidity? Or are you referring to the media as a cognitive resource? (if so, see below).

    >It takes material resources to command the attention of a large number of citizens.

    Agreed, hence the need for strict limits on campaign funding, along with the break-up up of media monopolies. And it remains the case that the web makes it far easier for those other than the rich and powerful to command the attention of a large number of citizens. html is a cognitive resource that is open to everybody and requires no significant material resources. I would invite anyone in the UK to google “digital book printing”. My own firm (7 employees) ranks in the top three, ahead of some huge conglomerates and this is entirely down to user links (no search optimisation tools employed). This is a banal example, but nevertheless demonstrates that in the html world, material resources don’t count for everything.

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  12. Yoram,

    Perhaps my word “symbolic” was a bit exagerated, but here are my points. After the codification around 403 BCE, The Assembly was extremely limited (they could give out honors, and declare war, and a few other things). It could not take up an agenda item that had not first been considered by the allotted Council of 500. It could not pass any law…but only propose the initiation of the process, which established an allotted Legislative Panel (nomothetai), which had to pass any new law. Decisions of the Assembly could be overturned by the allotted People’s Courts. After 355 BCE the few remaining political prosecution functions of the Assembly were also stripped away and given to the People’s Courts. Although Hansen asserts the Assembly was viewed as the most important body, I think that was more sentimental than reality. It is akin to saying that the average American people are in charge in the United States, because the Constitution states that “we the people” have established it.

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  13. Terry,

    You may be right. But even if much of the power was shifted to the nomothetai and the courts, these were also mass political bodies, whose setup (short term, large number of members, agenda set externally) limited their political power.

    To me, the real question is the balance of power between the Boule (democratic element) and the Rhetores Kai Strategoi (elite). I don’t know whether this balance shifted over time and in what direction. I’ve seen it claimed (possibly Hansen) that toward the end of the democratic period, some professionalization occurred as the top financial positions became elective.

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  14. Keith,

    >> The problem is scarcity of cognitive resources.

    > I don’t know what this means

    Actually, an explication of this matter is what part 2 of this post is about. (And I might add that I am not surprised to note that despite your early expectations, you find yourself in opposition to those arguments.)

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  15. Yoram,

    Yes, according to Manin and Hansen the financial officers were elected rather than selected by lot. The assumptino is that like generals, these were seen as requiring technical expertise, rather than just common sense. But… Somewhere (now I don’t remember where) I read that one reason for election of financial officers was the Athenians wanted to assure the financial officers were rich enough that if they were caught doing something wrong or stealing, they would be rich enough to pay a fine that was large enough to cover the harm done.

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  16. > I read that one reason for election of financial officers was the Athenians wanted to assure the financial officers were rich enough that if they were caught doing something wrong or stealing, they would be rich enough to pay a fine that was large enough to cover the harm done.

    I have read this reasoning too – more an issue of holding them liable than a political (elite or common people) decision

    Interesting post I must say – assemblies are always regarded as a purely democratic device (just look at the Occupy!-people), although anybody who has been part of such assemblies (as myself in the past) knows how easily they are dominated by small and well-organised groups…

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  17. > anybody who has been part of such assemblies (as myself in the past) knows how easily they are dominated by small and well-organised groups…

    Right. In a sense, the entire citizen body is an assembly – we are all formally equal, with equal political rights and rights of speech. Yet we are finding it very difficult to exert influence to promote widely shared interests.

    Anyone who is unhappy about the control of elites of current societies should ask themselves how it is that they can do that. Why is it that the 99% cannot overpower the 1%? What prevents the majority from setting a new agenda and implementing it? Will those same effects not be replicated in the systems that are being proposed?

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  18. This assumes that the interests of the 99% (and conversely, the 1%) are homogeneous, widely-shared and therefore easy to convert into a “new agenda”. The sociology underlying these assumptions is, at best, contentious, given the diverse nature of modern multicultural societies and the erosion of traditional socio-economic classes. It may have been true in antiquity, given that Aristotle based his political typology on the distinction between the few rich and the many poor, it may have been true when Marx wrote Kapital, but is largely irrelevant nowadays. When the masses were invited to rise up and throw off the yoke of oppression they opted to go shopping instead.

    Although many on this forum parrot the claim that policies are decided by the 1% in order to favour the interests of the 1%, most elected politicians would reply that their agenda is largely dictated by the need to appeal to the 99%. The same politicians might even be be attracted to the notion of acceding to the considered judgment of an allotted chamber (dominated by the 99%) rather than just playing to the crowd in the gallery, as the notion that statesmanship is a noble calling has not entirely disappeared as the result of the dissemination of the cynical ideology displayed in this post. Manichaeism has largely disappeared from theology but is alive and kicking on equality-by-lot.

    Yoram: >In a sense, the entire citizen body is an assembly – we are all formally equal, with equal political rights and rights of speech.

    Yes, that was Rousseau’s view (except for the “rights of speech”). This was because speech acts distort the formal moral equality of all citizens required by the social contract (that’s why he drew a sharp distinction between the “physical” and “moral” elements of the political community). This would particularly be the case if only a microscopic subset of all citizens were entitled to attend the legislative assembly. You accept this point with respect to large assemblies (where you refer to it as demagoguery) but appear to believe that sortive assemblies are magically exempt.

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  19. > Manichaeism has largely disappeared from theology but is alive and kicking on equality-by-lot.

    Right, because the phrase “we are the 99%” is used only on this forum (and 2,590,000 other websites).

    Luckily for us, we can always count on you to be here with your endlessly repeated pearls of sophistication and worldly wisdom to set us all right. (But who will set right the other 2,590,000 websites?)

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  20. Yes I have to admit that post-Marxist political anthropology has a very long tail. But if you were only to remove your head from the sand and address the arguments (the guiding principle of deliberative forums) then I would not need to repeat myself so often. I don’t like having to adopt this sort of tone, but it’s a little galling when careful argumentation is ignored or dismissed with a sarcastic swipe.

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  21. We clearly have fundamentally divergent views on what constitutes “careful argumentation”. But be that as it may, I can’t see what legitimate purpose is served by repeating your position (carefully argued or not) over and over.

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  22. “This assumes that the interests of the 99% (and conversely, the 1%) are homogeneous, widely-shared and therefore easy to convert into a “new agenda”. The sociology underlying these assumptions is, at best, contentious, given the diverse nature of modern multicultural societies and the erosion of traditional socio-economic classes. It may have been true in antiquity, given that Aristotle based his political typology on the distinction between the few rich and the many poor, it may have been true when Marx wrote Kapital, but is largely irrelevant nowadays. When the masses were invited to rise up and throw off the yoke of oppression they opted to go shopping instead.”

    Of course the interests of the “99%” aren’t homogenous. There’s a reason why much of the left would rather organize two-thirds of such mass.

    “Most elected politicians would reply that their agenda is largely dictated by the need to appeal to the 99%.”

    I’ll eat crow when issues like working hours per week, proportional representation, corporate personhood (as opposed to acceptable limited liability), urban gentrification, economic rent, real wages, labour bargaining power, and mass media are raised systematically by those same politicians you’re more sympathetic towards.

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  23. Jacob, I’m glad we are in agreement about the impossibility of a clear distinction between the 1% and the 99%. It’s important (from a democratic perspective) to ensure that your 66% is not prey to “organisation”, hence my insistence that the agenda should be set by the 100%, rather than those with an axe to grind.

    Regarding your second point, this isn’t the forum to go into substantive political disagreements, so I’ll only respond that politicians who seek to defend capitalist modes of production do so because they believe (rightly or wrongly) that free-market capitalism is the best way of furthering the interests of all members of society. Given this belief (alongside the reality of globalisation), then policies that would appear to be designed to further the interests of the 1% may also be of greatest benefit to everybody in the same political community — or at least that’s the claim. So politicians who argue against (eg) shorter working hours and minimum wage levels cannot automatically be assumed to be in the pocket of the 1%. So there’s no need for you to eat any crow.

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  24. My point was more basic than that. There aren’t many politicians even *complaining* about longer working hours per week, lack of PR, corporate personhood, urban gentrification, economic rent, decline of real wages and labour bargaining power, and private control over mass media. You can’t argue for or against something if it hasn’t been raised, but those who may be against something may have incentives to ensure it’s brushed aside.

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  25. Fair point. My only concern is the default assumption of many posts on this list that elected politicians are by definition only working to protect the interests of the 1% and that a switch to sortition would automatically lead to legislative outcomes that are in the interests of the remaining 99%.

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  26. To both of you, I think a new article is in order in light of Occupy and May Day events coinciding today.

    Keith: I agree with you, and that is precisely why I’m for the 67% “falling prey to organization”: classes for itself can only be expressed in the form of genuine and mass political party-movements (neither electoral machines nor ephemeral “social movements”).

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  27. It all sounds a little anachronistic to me — what is this “class” (comprising 2/3 of the population) that you seek to “organise”, what are its defining socio-economic characteristics and its objective interests? Does this “class” cut across ethnic, cultural and educational boundaries, the public and the private sector, and how does it map onto the traditional political landscape (if at all)? And, most importantly, how does it correspond with the prevailing distinction (which strikes me as equally mythical and theory-driven) between the 1% and the 99% that is constantly reiterated on this blog? What class do empirical individuals fit into? For example I am a student and also a capitalist, with a good level of income, earned, no doubt, from the exploitation of those who I employ. But I also go to work most nights and weekends, running the printing machines, and helping staff earn their monthly bonus. So does that make me one of the 1%, the 33%, or the 66%? A good friend of mine is an impoverished aristocrat (The Hon. . .) with a negligible income, but he spends most of his time working with the Occupy movement — what class does he belong to? Our manager at work is very well paid, but he left school with no qualifications and, until very recently was a private in a tank regiment, what class does he belong to? What class do you belong to? And Yoram? And the various well-paid university teachers on this blog (unlike Ollie Dowlen, who scrapes together a living teaching people how to play the guitar)?

    When I originally studied social stratification in the 1970s (1st Class Hons, sociology, since you ask), the term “class” had specific socio-economic referents, whereas it’s now something of a catch-all term that means whatever those who use it choose at the time. Why do (some of us) continue to use these hollowed-out terms or, worse still, throw around arbitrarily-selected percentages (that would normally be associated with class-based analysis) without using the c-word? Modern sociology is based on fluid and overlapping categories of occupation, income, interests, culture and ethnicity; quantitative categorisations can be made for each of these, but aggregating them in a meaningful way is a fruitless exercise, usually driven by dogmatic rather than social-scientific motives.

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  28. Many of those not in your class (at least you’re open about your background) are “dependent on the wage fund, including employed and unemployed, unwaged women ‘homemakers’, youth and pensioners […] not just mean the employed workers, still less the ‘productive’ workers or the workers in industry” and are “separated from the means of production and hence forced to cooperate and organise to defend its interests” (Mike Macnair).

    Depending on the extent of your income from capital, you may actually belong to the 33% instead of the 1%, though.

    We’re not sociologists. Sociology is way more an analytical tool than a political one. What good is the analysis if there’s no politics.

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  29. If you want to get the politics right then you need to get the sociology right first. Just come back from a seminar by Andreas Kalyvas from the New School spouting all sorts of radical democracy stuff but it was all based on junk sociology. How can you prescribe if you don’t analyse first? It’s like a doctor prescribing on the basis of having read Galen or Hippocrates. Marx’s prescription was based on a remarkably accurate analysis of the sociological conditions that were prevalent at his time. His only mistake was when he tried to extrapolate it, assuming that social science obeyed the same deterministic laws as natural science; the mistake of his acolytes is to assume that 19th century class analysis is still of relevance today.

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  30. Neither Marx nor myself said that there were/are only two classes under capitalism, if that’s what you’re referring to. 1) The managerial class has grown. 2) Today’s actual bourgeoisie would include one particular occupation not seen in his time: the individual big fund managers. 3) Today’s actual working class would include its newest strata, most of the so-called “precariat” (actual freelancers don’t count).

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  31. I’m glad to see that we are all agreed on the need to base political initiatives on empirical class analysis, rather than plucking arbitrary percentiles out of thin air. I still need convincing about the need not to switch off the life-support machine currently keeping alive archaic categories like bourgeousie and working class, but that’s fine if you can back it up with substantive sociological research. And it’s a huge improvement on the tired old tropes of “elite” (1%) and “masses” (99%) constantly repeated on this blog.

    I’ve been re-reading Hansen’s 2005 pamphlet in which he refers to the class-based view that democracy is the rule of the poor as a myth inspired by writers who were hostile to democracy, like Plato and Aristotle and perpetrated by the Marxist tradition (writers like C.B. Macpherson and Geoffrey de St. Croix). According to the latter tradition:

    “Demokratia is taken to be class rule rather than popular government, and demos is understood in the sense of the common people, not the whole of the people as Perikles, Demosthenes and other Athenians preferred to believe . . . The Marxist view is a continuation of the philosophical tradition [of Plato and Aristotle] and treats ancient Greek democracy in general [as opposed to Athenian democracy]. The liberal tradition emphasises the Athenian view of liberty and equality as the basic democratic values, and demos is understood in the constitutional sense as denoting the whole of the people, ie all adult male Athenian citizens. In the Marxist tradition, on the other hand, the demos is taken in its social sense; it denotes the common people, i.e. the poor who are exploited by the rich but in a democracy can use their majority in the political institutions as a weapon in the class struggle.” (M.H. Hansen, The Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and its Importance for Modern Democracy, p.19)

    It strikes me that much of the discourse on this blog is along the lines of the Aristotelian-Marxist tradition, rather than the liberal tradition. Hansen claims that the latter is based on the writing of historians, not philosophers and that it focuses on Athens, rather than conflating Athenian democracy with the very different practices of other Hellenic politeia.

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  32. “I still need convincing about the need not to switch off the life-support machine currently keeping alive archaic categories like bourgeoisie and working class, but that’s fine if you can back it up with substantive sociological research.”

    Maybe “bourgeoisie” (today’s plutocrats have much more in common with the feudal elites than with the then-revolutionary bourgeoisie), but not “working class” as I’ve paraphrased above. I think you, like Guy “Dangerous Precariat” Standing still have in mind the factory worker, the so-called “industrial working class.”

    Anyway, one can be an advocate of demarchy and participatory democracy without being a supporter or sympathizer of “liberal democracy.” Besides, you forgot that there’s a history between the Aristotlean view and Marxist development: the sans culottes radicalism in revolutionary France.

    It was they who called for a sort of “rule of the poor” by being more explicit in opposition to universal suffrage. Though the suffrage was limited to male property owners, they wanted the suffrage to be shifted entirely to everyone else (except female property owners).

    I read Hansen’s book, and he makes some good points, but I naturally disagree with his liberal thesis.

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  33. That’s very interesting and it certainly dispels any residual belief that Marxist-inspired approaches are advocating democracy (as opposed to the dictatorship of one social class). Unfortunately the lot would not work in this respect, as it is a great equaliser, so would that suggest C.L.R. James was not a Marxist? Perhaps this is the reason that sortition was not seriously considered at the time of the French Revolution as it was realised that, pace Aristotle, it would not lead to rule by the poor — the only way to achieve that would be via the sort of constitutional gerrymandering that you describe.

    John Burnheim has acknowledged that he is no democrat, so that rules out demarchy from an egalitarian perspective. I’d love to know what people mean by “participatory democracy” — at his talk last night the Marxist Andreas Kalyvas argued that for the Greek protest movement to become democratic would require the modern equivalent of the Law of Solon, which required all citizens to take sides at a time of crisis (stasis). Unfortunately this wouldn’t go down well in a country that has a collective memory of civil war, not that this bothered Andreas very much on account of the necessity to break a few eggs when you make an omelette. He also praised Jefferson’s wish to refresh the tree of liberty from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

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  34. There goes your jargon again. The lot would work wonders, provided that those eligible would meet certain social criteria (or, rather, those not eligible are those who don’t meet certain social criteria).

    In your suggestion, that would mean that the sans culottes would have limited sortition to those of their class(es). That’s class democracy, not liberalism.

    Have you not heard of participatory democracy before?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Participatory_democracy

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  35. Huh? My point is that democracy means rule by the 100% rather than excluding certain social classes, such as male property holders (which you said was the policy of the sans culottes). In my understanding of sortition, there are no selection criteria, and that’s OK with me. I’ve certainly heard of participatory democracy before, it’s just that it’s equally oxymoronic as deliberative democracy. Advocates of both approaches don’t appear remotely bothered whether those who deliberate or throw stones on the streets represent the views of the majority. Needless to say my understanding of the demos is in majoritarian terms — a prejudice that I share with most liberal democrats.

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  36. I have to throw your “Huh?” back at you. Realistically, anyway, there is no pure “universal suffrage.” Already, discrimination based on age is a given; there can be no true “rule by the 100%.” My understanding of the demos is more explicitly majoritarian. Participatory democracy is somewhere in between so-called “representative democracy” (or, to be more accurate, rule-of-bourgeois-law constitutionalism) and direct democracy.

    Can you please prove your accusation near the end there? That throwing of stones was quite a strawman.

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  37. Two accusations in fact:

    1. Habermasian deliberative democrats are not really concerned about representativity, on account of their emphasis on rationality and discourse ethics. According to Elster, deliberative democracy is when “citizens” deliberate (it matters little which citizens and how accurately they reflect the views and interests of their peers).

    2. Participative democrats are equally careless over issues of representativity as they privilege the role of activists. Andreas acknowledged that only 200,000 or so out of a population of 10 million or so Greeks were protesting, but he defended this as a form of participative democracy (claiming that the non-participation of the others was on account of a combination of heavy-handed policing and false consciousness). It would be more accurate to describe the right to protest and dissent as a liberal check on democracy than as “participative” democracy.

    In sum I have a Hayekian suspicion of adjectives added in front of words like democracy as they usually turn them into the opposite of the original meaning.

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  38. Sorry for the delay in contributing to this discussion. As you may have noticed, I tend to binge on this blog, reading and commenting on 20 posts in one day before my time gets completely consumed by other matters for a month or so.

    Re: ruling and being ruled in turn. Two things seem clear to me about this. One, Aristotle believed this was what Athens did. Two, it’s a very funny claim. The mere fact that I serve on a political decision-making body does not mean I “rule” in any meaningful sense. How does serving on the board that inspects Athens’ docks make me a “ruler” of Athens? (Note that if service on such a board did count as “ruling,” then Keith would be clearly wrong. I see no reason why a sortition-
    based system could not be devised for the U.S. such that every American would get to serve in some office, even if it’s just dogcatcher.) For this argument to work, you’d have to designate a decision-making body as the “ruling” body, and then show that everyone gets a turn on it.

    I doubt Athens was capable of satisfying either criteria. The only bodies in Athens that might conceivably be considered the “ruling” bodies are the Ekklesia and the Boule. Now, it’s possible that the Athenians regarded the Boule as the “ruling” body. If so, the evidence that perhaps half of all citizens served on it in their lifetimes would count as evidence that the Athenians thought they were taking turns ruling and being ruled. (They might have noticed that some people got unlucky and never served, but since they lacked our understanding of probability and statistics perhaps they could not understand just how pervasive the shortfall really was.)

    But for this argument to work, of course, the Athenians would have had to regard some randomly-selected body such as the Boule as “the” ruling authority. This contradicts those like Headlam who thought the Ekklesia was the “supreme” ruling body in Athens. I guess that if the Athenians really did see sortition as an essential part of ruling and being ruled in turn, then I don’t see how they could have regarded the Ekklesia as the all-important sovereign institution.

    That raises the subject of the Ekklesia. I don’t see any reason to dump on the assembly so much. I see no evidence that it was simply a pawn of anything else. It’s just wrong to act like the Boule had some kind of veto over what the assembly did. It had no power to prevent people from offering proposals; all it could do is make sure that the proposal was properly phrased before it was submitted. (If anyone has contrary evidence, I’d love to see it.) Yoram is right that other city-states had assemblies, but surely none of them had the egalitarian features of the Athenian Ekklesia. (The right of any citizen to speak, the right of any citizen to submit a proposal, etc.)

    One final point on this subject. I think it’s important not to be a one-trick pony when it comes to institutions. The Athenians certainly were not–they used direct democracy, sortition, and elections, along with various other institutional features. I think that there are advantages and disadvantages of direct assembly, ACs, and elections, and each of them might be appropriate under the right circumstances and with the right institutional form. I’m all for the dramatic expansion of the role of sortition in the modern world. But there’s no reason for advocates of sortition to act like it’s the only political institution we’ll ever need.

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  39. Hard to disagree with any of Peter’s comments here. Regarding rule-and-be-ruled-in-turn, the numbers involved in individual magistracies (including the Boule) were small compared to the allotment pool for the legislative courts (around 1/3 of all eligible citizens). If Aristotle were referring to the latter then his claim for rotation as the basis of democracy would be true, especially as the legislative role of the Ekklesia was in decline at the time he was writing. Given that the allotment pool was mostly constituted by the poor and the aged, this might also explain his view of democracy as rule by the poor.

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  40. Peter Stone’s final paragraph is bang on, but I should ask out of curiosity if he has read anything on the political and social measures passed by the Paris Commune.

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  41. Just Marx’s THE CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE, and I haven’t looked at that book in years. Must get back to it–probably the next time I teach Marx. (I gather that Christopher Hitchens, in his younger full-throttle Marxist phase, edited an edition of that book. Must check it out.)

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  42. > since they lacked our understanding of probability and statistics perhaps they could not understand just how pervasive the shortfall really was

    This seems unlikely to me. It takes very little mathematical sophistication to note that half of all the people you know don’t “get their turn”.

    > This contradicts those like Headlam who thought the Ekklesia was the “supreme” ruling body in Athens.

    Headlam and his likes do not really offer much evidence for their claims, as far as I can remember, and their claims may be simply reflecting their own prejudices. It is interesting to remember in this context that before pay was instituted, it was difficult to reach a quorum for Assembly meetings.

    > It’s just wrong to act like the Boule had some kind of veto over what the assembly did.

    That depends on what you mean by veto – it certainly had significant power in setting the agenda. The Athenian Constitution, part 45 states:

    It [the Council] takes, however, preliminary cognizance of all matters brought before the Assembly, and the Assembly cannot vote on any question unless it has first been considered by the Council and placed on the programme by the Prytanes; since a person who carries a motion in the Assembly is liable to an action for illegal proposal on these grounds.

    But in any case, the Assembly, like any mass political body, must have been, by its very nature, a pawn, just like the modern day electorate. If the Assembly wasn’t a pawn of the Boule, it was a pawn of the Rhetors, or it was an arena for a power struggle between the Boule (the democratic element) and the Rhetors (the oligarchical element). Of the three options, being a pawn of the Boule would have been the most democratic.

    > other city-states had assemblies, but surely none of them had the egalitarian features of the Athenian Ekklesia.

    I am not sure this is true. For one thing, I believe the Athenians exported their system to other cities in their empire. In any case, as I wrote, I believe those features to be formal, rather than substantial. They are reflection of an official ideology of political equality rather than create a reality of political equality. Such formal rights correspond to our modern day free-speech rights. Yes, we can speak our minds for the most part without fear of retaliation, but most of us get heard only by very small groups, while the elite gets its message heard by everybody.

    > there’s no reason for advocates of sortition to act like it’s the only political institution we’ll ever need.

    The reason to reject elections and assemblies (“direct democracy”) is substantive, not ideological. I have yet to find a coherent argument for the incorporation of any mass political institution into a democratic system. As for other devices: sure – but again, on a substantive case by case basis, not in the name of some arbitrary “diversity of institutions” principle.

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  43. The reason not to reject elections and/or direct democracy is also substantive and your continuing dismissal of arguments in their favour as “incoherent” would appear to be ideological in nature, depending as it does on a highly-politicised conceptual distinction between the many and the few. Or at least that’s what Hansen would have us believe.

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  44. @ Peterstone: Also check out the newest translation of Kautsky’s Republic and Social Democracy in France. Just a recap: Engels thought that the two pillars of class rule for the working class were average skilled workers’ wages and recallability, both applied to all public offices.

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  45. > recallability

    How would the recall process work? Would it be essentially a referendum? Would it be different from the recall process of the Oregon System (such as the one used to recall Californian governor Gray Davis)?

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  46. Any more info on the Kautsky book? I can find it mentioned online but I cannot find any details about a recent version of the book being published.

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  47. Yoram wrote:
    “For one thing, I believe the Athenians exported their system to other cities in their empire.”

    I have also read that Athens was not the first Greek polis to develop democracy. It is merely the one we know the most about because it is the most documented and written about. Democracy, similar in form to that of Athens, may have existed in other cities more than a generation before Athens. I wish I cold remember where I read that.

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  48. @ Peterstone: http://www.historicalmaterialism.org/conferences/8annual/submit/the-book-that-didn2019t-bark-karl-kautsky2019s-2018social-democracy-and-republic-and-france2019-as-defence-of-marxist-republicanism-ben-lewis

    The first three chapters were published in the Weekly Worker:

    http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004372
    http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004398
    http://www.cpgb.org.uk/article.php?article_id=1004409

    @ Yoram: I already explained in past posts about how recallability could work under a sortition system – through popular recall, through randomly selected bodies sanctioning reps who violate popular legislation, through lower representative bodies (read: small-s soviet-style), through political parties (especially if the random sortition takes the form of Probability Proportion To Size, and is then combined with Closed Lists), etc.

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  49. >I have also read that Athens was not the first Greek polis to develop democracy.

    Hansen devotes a section of The Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and its Importance to Modern Democracy (2005) to “Greek Democracy versus Athenian Democracy”. In it he claims that “In the early Hellenistic period most of the other city-states in the Greek world were democracies” but “gradually became more oligarchical and in the course of the later Hellenistic period democracy disappeared from the the political scene” (p.7). Plato, Aristotle and Polybios “discuss [Greek] democracy in general and there are very few references to Athenian democracy.” “In the age of Plato and Aristotle, democracy was the most common form of constitution, probably to be found in one form or another in hundreds of Greek city states” (p.8). Then (most importantly):

    “Plato’s and Aristotle’s critical account of democracy is, in my opinion, what it purports to be: an evaluation of democracy in general combining elements from many different poleis (including Athens) but at the same time disregarding many of the the typical Athenian institutions. On the one hand, it is idiosyncratic in no far as it reflects Plato’s and Aristotle’s hostile view of popular rule. Democracy is seen as the rule of the poor or the mob (demos in the social sense) and not as the rule of the whole of the people, which was the Athenian democrats’ understanding of demos and demokratia. So much for Plato and Aristotle. Polybios took no interest in Athenian democracy and dismissed it in one sentence. But it is the Plato — Aristotle — Polybios view of democracy as one of the three basic types of constitution that is reflected in political philosophy and in political thought from the recovery of Aristotle’s Politics about 1250 to the rise of history in its modern sense in the beginning of the 19th century.” (pp.8-9)

    By then, of course, the damage was done, as representative government had been designed on the back of the Roman republican model. According to Hansen it was the ignorance of Athenian democracy that caused this, not the natural right theory of consent. It’s a great little book, highly recommended. Unfortunately I can’t find it on Amazon (he gave me a copy at one of his lectures), though I think there is a French translation available:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/D%C3%A9mocratie-ath%C3%A9nienne-moderne-tradition-influences/dp/2600007563/ref=sr_1_14?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1336460918&sr=1-14

    I’ll ask him if we can republish the English version to make it more widely available.

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  50. Regarding Aristotle’s maxim that democracy is rule-and-be-ruled-in-turn, Manin claims (p.24) that this was more of a reference to dikastai than to archai as he equated ruling with the power of judgment rather than command. This is why members of the courts, like members of the Assembly, had “the most decisive power [kyriotatoi]”. Remember that the jury pool constituted around 1/3 of eligible citizens and that in the 4th century, all new laws were made by juries of nomothetai. This might also explain Aristotle’s equation of democracy with rule by the poor, as they (along with the old) constituted the majority of the allotment pool for the courts, whereas the Assembly was more under the influence of charismatic orators, qualities usually associated with the rich and powerful. If jurors had not been paid volunteers, he might have concluded otherwise as I’m no aware of any criticisms that modern trial juries constitute judgment by the poor.

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  51. Just a quick update. I’ve read the three chapters of Kautsky posted online, and I must confess, I didn’t see anything useful there re: democratic institutions. There’s almost no details on the Paris Commune at all, and most of what is in there on the Commune consists of quotations from Marx. Can’t say I recommend the book to Kleroterians.

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  52. @ Peterstone: FYI, that was meant explicitly as a preview to the Historical Materialism book, courtesy of Ben Lewis. The end of the third chapter was indeed quoting Marx on the Paris Commune, because subsequent chapters contrasted the Paris Commune experience with non-revolutionary regimes in France.

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  53. > I already explained in past posts about how recallability could work under a sortition system – through popular recall, through randomly selected bodies sanctioning reps who violate popular legislation, through lower representative bodies (read: small-s soviet-style), through political parties (especially if the random sortition takes the form of Probability Proportion To Size, and is then combined with Closed Lists), etc.

    I don’t remember having a detailed discussion of recall before, but maybe I forget. In any case, the popular recall is rather obviously as open to elite control as popular elections are and a hierarchical delegation scheme (whether for elections or recall) is opaque and creates no more responsiveness to the citizenry than popular elections and recall.

    Recall by allotted bodies is worth discussing in more detail. Similar ideas were raised by Chouard in his talk. I intend to write up my opinion on this matter in a future post.

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  54. Like I said, multiple avenues are and should be on offer. The general population may find that, despite the availability of popular recall, there’ll be too much time and effort dedicated to this as opposed to the other options. My big emphasis was on the third avenue, through political parties (especially if the random sortition takes the form of Probability Proportion To Size, and is then combined with Closed Lists).

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  55. @ Keith: Sorry for this belated additional response, but after other discussions to clear up things, I do believe it’s possible to achieve political equality, deliberation, and mass participation all at the same time, without going into Occupy fetishes.

    Term limits in a random sampling regime inherently encourage greater participation, unlike token term limits today.

    There can be representative deliberation and mass decision-making, but there are can also be mass participation in a deliberation process combined with a decision-making process under a random sampling regime.

    The other half of Burnheim’s demarchy model, separation of powers based on public policy issues, also seems to encourage both deliberation and participation.

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  56. The key issue, from a democratic perspective, is the ratio of participants to non-participants — in large modern states it will always be a tiny minority, that’s why issues of representativity are at stake. Term limits certainly increases participation but not anywhere near the level that everyone takes it in turns. If you read John Burnheim’s autobiography he makes clear that his model of volunteer committees came out of his aversion to the mass participatory model of student politics in Sydney University in the 1970s. Demarchy has nothing to do with participation or representativity, it’s government by busybodies and activists.

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  57. “It will always be a tiny minority” is a patronizing liberal assertion that seeks to perpetuate a so-called “political class” of professional “politicians,” lobbyists, and “busybodies and activists” while most others have to work day in and out for a living and not have time to truly engage in the political process.

    A key goal is to increase the ratio of participants (from the workforce, from the pensioners, and from everyone else dependent on the wage fund) to non-participants, but of course this has to be done on a principled basis (i.e., decrease the workweek but not the wage fund, mass membership recruitment campaigns, encouraging party-based closed lists, keeping party-movement voting memberships to those who support it “both financially and by personal participation” and not expanding it to include those who merely “render […] personal assistance,” and so on).

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  58. I’m glad that we agree that the goal must be to increase the ratio of participants, but my concern is less with absolute numbers than with descriptive accuracy. Activists and volunteers, whether or not you include them as part of the political class are, by definition, not typical of the silent majority, and this is why I’m so uneasy about both demarchy and participative democracy. The great thing about sortition is that it is not victim to this criticism (so long as the powers of allotted chambers are limited to aggregate functions). It strikes me that participative democrats seem to believe that anyone who isn’t a member of the political elite can automatically serve a representative function and this would appear to be a product of the crude 1% — 99% political sociology that is the default assumption of many who contribute to this blog. According to this view the silent majority are just activists suffering from false consciousness, who have been indoctrinated into believing that their class interests are what the 1% tell them they are. All the reform measures that you mention would certainly increase the number of active members of political parties but true representation requires sortition.

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  59. The “silent majority” don’t suffer from either “false consciousness” or “ideology.” They simply need behavioural political economy (not behavioural finance or behavioural economics), as I indicated in my political and economic policies above.

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  60. I’m not aware of any research demonstrating that shortening the working week and reforming the governance of political parties would lead to a signifiant increase in political participation. Even if it did bring about a marginal increase, you would still have to demonstrate that the participants accurately reflected the views and interests of their peers. Sortition achieves that automatically (given the usual caveats). The days of political parties providing mass political representation are long over.

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  61. Naturally, I will have to respectfully disagree with your last sentence.

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  62. […] is a typical reformist treatment of the Athenian system. Sortition is discussed in the context of juries, but its application to political offices is given […]

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  63. […] also considers the popular initiative mechanism as a major democratic component (mistakenly, in my opinion): What is a popular initiative […]

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  64. […] with the current system, the first being the difficulty of mass scale agenda setting. More details here. The emphasis on ignorance rather than agenda setting is typical of the “rational […]

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