Sortition in The Nation, fleetingly

A review of David Graeber‘s book, The Democracy Project, in The Nation makes a brief mention of his offer of sortition. The Nation‘s verdict: “That sounds nice, but it’s far easier said than done.”

For many who were attracted by slogans like “banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” the fetishization of process seemed like bait and switch. Horizontal decision making at general assemblies and small groups could go on for hours. Far from being democratic, the time-consuming process discriminated against people with jobs, those who had to take care of children or sick people, those with health problems of their own and those unfamiliar with anarchist culture and jargon, among others. Just as is the case with liberal structures, horizontalism encourages democracy in some contexts and dampens it in others.

Then there is the “no leaders” concept, which is not without its virtues. Without designated leaders, there are no individuals who can be targeted for arrest, smear campaigns or even assassination. The lack of leaders also forestalls the creation of overnight movement celebrities who, corrupted by publicity and power, may develop agendas at odds with the people they are supposed to represent. But an absence of leaders also causes an opacity that is confusing and needlessly off-putting to those outside of the in-group. If no one has any authority, then no one has any responsibility. As Jo Freeman’s feminist essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” pointed out long ago, a lack of structure can disguise cliques or individuals who have de facto control without any accountability.

Graeber anticipates these critiques, and he describes various ways to ameliorate the flaws and excesses of consensus decision-making for larger social groups such as “lottery systems…something vaguely like jury duty except non-compulsory, with some way of screening obsessives, cranks, and hollow earthers, but nonetheless allowing an equal chance of participation in great decisions to all who actually do wish to participate.” That sounds nice, but it’s far easier said than done. Graeber declares “it’s hard to imagine” that the abuses of such a system “could actually be worse than the mode of selection we use now.” One would think that anyone who’d studied even a little history would have little trouble imagining societies much worse.

And Graeber doesn’t address the many areas of organized life in which expertise is indispensable. A series of public events in New York—including on Veterans Day 2011, Martin Luther King Day 2012 and a much-hyped May Day 2012—squandered the enormous hopes that had been raised for a new vision and made depressingly minor impact in large part because unwieldy committees bound by horizontal process made decisions that failed to inspire anyone other than those who felt therapeutic reward from the process.

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3 Responses

  1. This strikes me as a pretty fair review. As an anarchist Graeber is not interested in representativity, the principal merit of sortition for the few of us who still believe in democratic governance. This rules out voluntarism and full-mandate sortition, for the reasons that the reviewer states — the empowering of “cliques or individuals who have de facto control without any accountability” and (paradoxically) discriminates against Joe Average. Whilst flaws can be ameliorated, full-mandate voluntarist sortition can never constitute a truly representative process and would also be epistemically dubious, due to the type of person that it privileges.

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  2. The critique of the anarchist ideological stance and the associated proposals for democratic decision making along the lines presented in the article is well known. “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” presents the case pretty well as far as I can remember, but even without reading this essay the problems with the anarchist ideas and proposals are pretty obvious, the protestations of the anarchists notwithstanding.

    Apparently, the author of the article found it safer to reiterate those well known objections to those well known ideas than to address sortiton – an unfamiliar idea.

    One could hope that such treatment would encourage Graeber to rearrange the tools in his anarchist tool belt and give sortition a more prominent role in his proposals. (According to the index of The Democracy Project, sortition gets only one mention in the entire book.)

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  3. Given that most political theorists (ditto for anthropologists) don’t even know what sortition is, any mention in the index is a welcome start! Graeber has a big following, so it’s good that he’s introducing sortition in his books.

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