David Graeber: “The democratic way of choosing officials, if you had to do it, was lottery.”

David Graeber is an

American anthropologist, political activist and author. He is currently reader in social anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, and was formerly an associate professor of anthropology at Yale University. David is a member of the labour union Industrial Workers of the World, and has played a role in events such as the 2002 New York protests against the World Economic Forum. His most recent book is Debt: The First 5,000 Years (2011)

He is also described as

a man of many talents. A longtime activist, a professor of anthropology at the University of London, and a prolific author, David also helped found the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. He even coined the phrase “We are the 99%.”

Graeber is not impressed with the electoral system:

If we were to summarize David Graeber’s new book The Democracy Project, we might say that like Gandhi, he thinks that Western democracy would be an excellent idea. Like French activist-philosopher Jacques Rancière, Graeber argues that we have never been democratic. Except in the pre-figurative spaces of social movements, which he tracks here from Shays’s Rebellion (1786-7) to Occupy Wall Street.

And an important element in his agenda is sortition:

And yes, when you get up to a larger scale, you can’t just rely on assemblies or spokescouncils. It does make sense to decentralize as much as possible. Consensus only works if you don’t have to ask for it unless you really have to. But as for scaling up: there are any number of possibilities.

One I’ve been studying up on of late is sortition. Through much of Western history, it never occurred to anyone that elections had anything to do with democracy — they were considered aristocratic. The democratic way of choosing officials, if you had to do it, was lottery. Give people basic tests for sanity and competence and then let anyone who wants to throw in their name have an equal shot. I mean, how can we do much worse than a lot of the people we have now? Sortition would be more like jury duty, except non-compulsory. But there are all sorts of other possibilities.

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8 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Tragic Farce and commented:
    One way to thoroughly clean up the corrupt election process: sortition: Election by lottery. All eligible and willing candidates would put their names in the system and, like jury duty, would be selected at random to serve for a limited time. I hope the democracy matures to the point where this becomes not just a crackpot idea but standard practice. David Graeber of OWS fame defends the position in this article the blog Equality by Lot.

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  2. […] One I’ve been studying up on of late is sortition. Through much of Western history, it never occurred to anyone that elections had anything to do with democracy — they were considered aristocratic. The democratic way of choosing officials, if you had to do it, was lottery. Give people basic tests for sanity and competence and then let anyone who wants to throw in their name have an equal shot. I mean, how can we do much worse than a lot of the people we have now? Sortition would be more like jury duty, except non-compulsory. But there are all sorts of other possibilities.  […]

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  3. In classical Athens most citizens would have taken up pubic office at some time in their life, so voluntary sortition was democratic in the Aristotelian sense of ruling and being ruled in turn. Not so in large modern states where sortition would need to be a system of descriptive representation in order to be deemed democratic. But volunteers are not representative, therefore the lot would have to be quasi-mandatory (just like trial juries) in order to be democratic. Graeber is an anarchist, so this would obviously not appeal to him. Of course if you think that empowering any individuals from within the 99% is a representative process then you will not be troubled by this distinction as your primary purpose is to (effectivley) disenfranchise the 1%.

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  4. > But volunteers are not representative, therefore the lot would have to be quasi-mandatory (just like trial juries) in order to be democratic.

    As I have explained many times before, there is every reason to believe that adequate compensation (akin to the salary and benefits of current congressmembers) and the call of duty would suffice in order to motivate the great majority of those allotted to take up active service.

    > your primary purpose is to (effectivley) disenfranchise the 1%.

    My primary purpose is to distribute political power equally (a situation known as “democracy”). This implies in particular that “the 1%” should hold 1% of the seats in parliament (no more, but also no less).

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  5. That’s why I use the word “quasi”. But it remains the case that every person who declines to take up their seat will adversely affect the representativity of the sample. Being one of the 99% is not sufficient.

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  6. […] review of David Graeber‘s book, The Democracy Project, in The Nation makes a brief mention of his offer of sortition. […]

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  7. […] Brand received, the Occupy/Indignados protest movement and features interviews with Paolo Gerbaudo, David Graeber, Michael Hardt, Peter Turchin, Daniel Pinchbeck, and a few friends of Cliffe. Gerbaudo says that […]

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