Last fall, we held a workshop at Trinity College Dublin on “The Lottery as a Democratic Institution.” The workshop was organized by me, Gil Delannoi (Sciences Po), and Oliver Dowlen (Queen Mary, University of London), and sponsored by Sciences Po, the Policy Institute, and Trinity’s Arts and Social Sciences Benefactions Fund. Our report from the workshop has now been published by the Policy Institute. It can be found online here:
Jeffrey Edward Green’s book of the above title (OUP, 2010) is a tightly-argued, highly-readable and courageous attempt to defend the indefensible – a normative theory of passive spectator democracy. The book swims against the current of democratic theory by claiming that all other normative theories (including the deliberative and participatory variants) are doomed and misguided attempts to establish democracy as the voice of the people (vox populi, vox dei). Green is agnostic as to whether this was possible in classical Athens, but it’s entirely impossible in large modern states. However as well as being impossible, it’s undesirable, as most citizens have no settled political views; besides which, electoral democracy, as Dahl famously put it, establishes rule by minorities. So much for the general will.
Green’s alternative is the ‘ocular’ tradition whereby the people don’t speak, they hold a watching brief over the political elite. The theory has its origins in the writings of Max Weber and was developed (and distorted) by Carl Schmidt and Joseph Schumpeter. Unlike with Bernard Manin’s ‘audience democracy’, Green makes no attempt to argue that the current ‘metamorphosis’ of representative government maintains any of the putative virtues of the classical theory of democracy (partial autonomy of representatives, trial by discussion etc), it is simply a way of identifying political charisma (a Weberian sociological term). Green denies that elections are an indirect way for citizens to influence public policy and agrees with Schumpeter that they are simply a way of selecting political leaders, although it is hard to understand Winston Churchill’s 1945 defeat by the decidedly uncharismatic Clement Attlee in any way other than the aggregation of policy preferences.
A message I sent to Paul Jay and Chris Hedges:
Dear Paul and Chris,
I am writing to you after watching the Reality Asserts Itself interview. I share the abhorrence you express toward the ruling elites and their oppressive policies. I share the rejection of the electoral system as a means for achieving the political ends of the 99%, and I support the call for creating a mass movement to effect change – to overthrow the system.
I would like, however, to point out that an important piece is missing from this agenda. Overthrowing the system would just be the beginning. Something needs to replace the system once it is overthrown. Until the Left articulates a credible alternative to the existing system it would be difficult to mobilize support for the revolutionary movement. Why would the people risk overthrowing the system (with all of its oppression and criminality) if there is no expectation that the outcome would be different.
“Occupy”, with its vaguely anarchist ideology, tended to avoid the matter of proposing such an alternative system. It hardly ever went beyond the standard anarchist slogans about consensus-building mechanisms, popular assemblies and horizontal power structures. This, I believe, was the main reason “occupy” failed to galvanize the bulk of the public, leading to its fizzling.
Michael Donovan has written his Master’s thesis about sortition:
Our Western political systems are straining to prove their legitimacy partly because the internet generation demands both open information and a role in the decision making. Yet, electoral democracy may be incapable of evolving to meet those requirements. This paper looks at sortition, or the selection of decision makers by lottery, to supplement or to replace current representative democracy. Empowering a cross-section of society to make policy decisions would more directly address the interests and concerns of the populace, and would result in an egalitarian and inclusive body, more transparent and resistant to corruption than are current policy makers. Furthermore, diverse assemblies possess greater ability in solving difficult problems and in making accurate forecasts than do the more homogeneous groups that currently comprise governing parties. Consensus building increases this innovative potential. With the proper application of sortition and deliberation, therefore, advancement in the common good can be accelerated.
Keywords: Sortition; consensus building; deliberative democracy; open source software; activism
Here is a draft that I’ve put together to help explain the work we are doing here in Bolivia, and hopefully in other places in Latin America with time. Would love to get input/feedback from readers of the EqualityByLot blog.
In particular, I would love help with the citations in the section on ancient Athens. I’ve been a long ways from home for the last half a year, so I have no access to my personal computer, my personal library, nor any English public/academic library. So in putting this Overview together, I regularly cited a second/third-hand source (Arthur Robbins Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained: The True Meaning of Democracy), since it was one of the few .pdf’s I could access. But Robbins did not rigorously cite his Athenian history, and I would much prefer to sight primary sources when possible. So any help making that section more academically rigorous would be appreciated.