Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is a regular contributor to Irish and international media on world trade, privacy, whistle-blowing and the War on Terror. A great fan of the classics, she has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose, to be published by Zed Books in November 2015. [Welcome to Equality-by-Lot! -YG]
When I first started researching ancient, democratic Athens, I was struck by the layers of randomness built into the political system. Sure, it wasn’t a utopia, but under Athenian democracy wresting control of the decision-making process was at least a difficult and continuous task, because the thrust of the system worked against what Robert Michels would have termed ‘the Iron Law of Oligarchy’.
Lottery selection for most office-holders, as well as for Athens’ enormous juries was one aspect of that randomness. The more I read, the more I was impressed not just with the practice of sortition, but the way the Athenians went about it: dropping their pinakia (identity-tickets) into baskets, having them shaken up, the presiding official randomly drawing a ticket, that person becoming the pinakia-inserter and in turn randomly drawing tickets, dropping the kyboi, or coloured balls, randomly down the kleroterion’s funnel. The Athenians were clearly determined to bastard-proof their system. In my view, their paranoia was justified, and represented nothing more than healthy respect for the criminal (or oligarchic) mind.
But there’s not much point in creating such a fool-proof sortition system if the overarching politics doesn’t change as well. As we all know, in Athens the process of sortition didn’t run in parallel to a sophisticated and expensive electoral system; it ran in parallel to the Assembly. Whatever else one may want to say about Assembly, it was the national focal point for the issues of the day. Assembly attendance was also somewhat random (if self-selecting) in that it generally depended on who showed up of their own volition. A rhetor never looked out on the exact same Assembly twice, and while the ‘professional’, often affluent, rhetors certainly wielded a great deal of influence, they never did know when some unknown citizen would pop out of the woodwork and carry the day against them. Power was possible; power consolidation more of a challenge.
It was this Assembly that was down with sortition in its various forms. It’s hard to look at Athens and see how sortition could have existed side-by-side with the kind of entrenched and powerful electoral politics practised today.
Elected politicians are invested with significant executive power and therefore just have too much to lose. As much as they like to talk about ‘participation’ and ‘freedom’ and whatnot, the unspoken word is often ‘controlled’. Local issues, cultural issues, social issues – those are the kind of thing where some participation might be welcome by a vested elite that learned the secrets of winning and retaining their power long ago (gerrymandering + campaign finance). It’s in their nature to try to mitigate the effects of any sort of mass or random participation.
The recent Irish Constitutional Convention is a case in point. Two-thirds of the Convention’s members were chosen randomly and they agreed a number of measures to update Ireland’s woefully outdated legal order (blasphemy, for example, is still ‘unconstitutional’ in a land that surely enjoys one of the world’s highest standards in the discipline of creative swearing). The Constitution’s members famously decided that a referendum should be held on same-sex marriage. This was a good thing. I liked it so much that I personally went out and canvassed people to vote ‘yes’. The referendum passed. The world applauded. However, it was just one point on the Constitutional Convention’s agenda. The Convention made a LOT of recommendations for change, 18 of which would require a referendum to pass in Ireland. Some of these recommendations were on central issues like social and economic rights.
But there are no further referenda on the horizon and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Ironically, one of the more popular calls of the Constitutional Convention (more popular than the Marriage Equality point) was that citizen-initiative referendums should be allowed, but there’s no sign at all that any of the major parties are remotely interested.
It’s been a similar story elsewhere. Iceland’s attempt at constitutional change followed a very similar pattern, participatory budgeting has been kept as local as possible, citizen juries are generally so small as to not even be statistically representative, calls for third citizen chambers are, of course, an interesting development, which I think would expose a lot of dissonance between elected politician and average citizen views, but they remain ‘calls’.
Of course, some activists embrace the glorious struggle, celebrating every hard-won victory. I’ve never really gotten the appeal of that approach. Yes, gay and lesbian people can now get married in Ireland instead of having to go through civil partnership and that is great, but we all continue to live in a country controlled by a dynastic politics of under-qualified people, that is over 100 billion Euro in debt, where national property is being flogged off to the likes of Deutsche Bank for a fraction of its worth, where educational opportunities are deeply unequal, where casual racial and sexual discrimination is the norm, where we continue to let the USA use our airports for whatever military fiasco they’ve embarked on now, etc., etc., etc. We’re not getting a say on any of this or on all the things that have cropped up in the meantime: TTIP; NSA surveillance; ISIS. All very serious issues with immediate ramifications for the average person. I think it’s important to keep this perspective, despite the fact that it can be a bit of a downer to do so.
I also agree with the many critics who complain of the claims that technology will magically solve all our problems. Yes, if enough people tweet about Boko Haram… then….I’m not quite sure. Boko Haram will have been much tweeted about? If you cast an electoral vote over the internet… then… you’ll have saved a bit of time? Yawn.
The only real hope I see is to use technology as a complete game-changer, to create a space where the efforts of sortition-based and/or mass participation movements do not simply result in never-ending trench warfare. That necessitates creating an overarching political framework that doesn’t depend on the fool’s errand of getting long-term agreement from the very people who stand to lose the most from it. In other words, we need something like an Assembly.
Much ink has been spilled in the service of explaining why an Athenian-style Assembly would be impossible today, but I find it hard to believe. In a world where people do as much online as offline, objections of physical presence, expertise or expense are fast becoming obsolete. In fact, most Western countries lose more money to tax evasion each year than would be required to finance an Athenian-style Assembly with similar rates of participation and pay. Compared to that, the software itself is a drop in the bucket. Online decision-making software that could facilitate such a system like Loomio, DemocracyOS and Postwaves is already in the works. It’s not something that requires permission to use. You don’t need government permission to start with it on a constituency level (this is what I am attempting to do in Ireland), which means immediate binding decisions, and it is a powerful way to de-legitimize unpopular government decisions.
Moving from an electoral-oligarchical system to a democratic system is a very chicken-and-egg scenario. The Athenians started with economic reform and some would argue that economic change needs to precede political reform. I would argue that it is more important just to start somewhere and keep going (democracy didn’t happen in Athens overnight, either). However, I don’t see how truly effective sortition mechanisms can survive for too long under an essentially electoral system and think that some kind of mass participation vehicle, however rudimentary or infrequently used, would need to replace it to prevent rollback.