Book Review: Democracy: A Life

I seem to be reviewing a lot of books lately, including this review of Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life in the Los Angeles Review of Books (cited in a previous post by Peter Stone). While the book covers what will be familiar ground for many here, the author also charts how the idea of ‘people power’ has been treated over the centuries that have elapsed since Athenian democracy. As such, I feel that he (intentionally or unintentionally) made an important contribution to challenging the negative perception that we have of citizen participation by explaining how this view developed over time. Another one to order for the library!

Cartledge goes to some effort to show how later [post-Athens] historians and statesmen were anxious to portray Greek democracy as a horrible mistake, the unworkable aspiration of starry-eyed dreamers that was preprogrammed to end in chaos. Under the onslaught of these propagandists, the vast majority of whom never experienced Athenian democracy — and indeed were often born several hundred years after it ceased to exist — the idea of political equality came to be regarded as a myth, the notion of the collective people holding power a danger to be shunned, suppressed, and preferably forgotten.

The truth was that democracy was a dangerous idea — to the kings, emperors, and high clergy who controlled information in the centuries after it ceased to be a living form of government. As the author puts it, while these autocrats held sway throughout the Middle Ages, the very idea of democracy was “on life-support.” And while things may have improved since, modern democracy is, in Cartledge’s view, not in much better shape — off the machine perhaps, but still staggering around the hospital ward, clutching at bits of furniture, and trying to remember what had happened to bring it there in the first place.

Rousseau’s Mistake

A recent article by Hélène Landemore:

Rousseau’s Mistake: Representation and the Myth of Direct Democracy

Abstract: For Rousseau, democracy was direct or it wasn’t. As he famously put it, “the moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists. The day you elect representatives is the day you lose your freedom” (Social Contract, III, 15). In other words, representative democracy is no democracy at all. Rousseau isn’t alone in this belief, and today the disappointed of representative government have turned to celebrating anew the virtues of direct democracy as more true to the ideal of popular sovereignty, self-rule, and genuine political equality. This paper defends the thesis that Rousseau was, in fact, mistaken and that there is no salvation to be found in the ideal of direct democracy. If democracy as a political regime is always, in fact, representative, then the interesting question is not: direct or representative democracy? But instead: What kind of representation should we aim for? The paper argues that beyond the familiar electoral model there are at least two other models of representation that present attractive features: the first is based on sortition and the other on self-selection.

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The Demarchy Manifesto


Many kleroterians are bound to be disappointed in my new book The Demarchy Manifesto, due to be release from Imprint Academic on March 1, because it makes no proposals for replacing voting in favour of sortition in existing institutions, but only in the new voluntary institutions I propose. I believe it is necessary to start this way, since it is extremely difficult to persuade people to give up their vote, but they are prepared to consider sortition where it gives them access to a chance of participating that they do not at present have. This is just an instance of a general pattern in the way that the presentation of options makes a great difference to the evaluations people make of alternatives. You might like to look at this article in the US edition of The Conversation for February 6.

The book suggests that we can snatch the initiative in discussing and formulating public policy from the political parties and produce proposals that they have to accept on pain of voter backlash. I think that there is just a chance that my proposals would consolidate the middle ground whereas the existing procedures encourage the extremes. More fundamentally I aim to move attention from “who gets what” to the sort of public goods that we all can take pride in.

An excerpt from the Introduction to the book:

What I call ‘demarchy’ is primarily a process of transferring the initiative in formulating policy options from political parties to councils representative of the people most directly affected by those policies. The task of those councils would be to distil from public discussion the most acceptable policy in a particular matter. It would be up to voters to insist that the politicians heed them. There is no question of constitutional change, no new parties or new laws, no call for a mass conversion of opinion, but a suggestion about how to initiate a change in accepted practice, starting with actions that may seem of little significance in the big picture, but are still justified by their specific purposes. My focus is on how policy is produced and adopted. I am not concerned with questions about the philosophical basis of state power, or human rights, or crime and punishment. The precise forms these things take in practice are a matter of conventions, which I do not propose to challenge. There is already much debate about these matters. I am concerned about what I see as a more important, but neglected, question.

I begin by concentrating on how to establish some new practices and initiatives in policy formation, empowering those most affected to take the initiative in formulating what they want. It is no advantage to have a choice of products if none of those on offer meets your requirements. The best situation is to be able to say exactly what you want and commission specialists to supply it. Or is that analogy anachronistic and inappropriate in the era of mass production and distribution? I try to analyse our unique problems. My ultimate aim is to transform our political culture. I intend to show how different practices of policy formation are appropriate to different problems at every level from the local to the global and how they might come to be accepted.
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#LordsReform – Let the People Decide

From the Sortition Foundation blog:

Sortition certainly sounds good to us – but how do we get from here to there?

#LordsReform Let the People Decide

The Sortition Foundation has released a Draft Strategy Document outlining some ideas. The first campaign proposal is a call for a Citizens’ Parliament on House of Lords Reform ( The campaign, to be officially launched later this year, will call on the UK government to constitute and empower a 650-member, random though representative sample of ordinary citizens to consider, research, deliberate on, and then make a House of Lords Reform proposal, to then be put to a national referendum. You can already sign the open letter calling for a Citizens’ Parliament on Lords Reform.

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A TEDx Intro to Minipublics by Tom Atlee

I believe this belongs on the Kleroterian blog, the various types of minipublics recently attempted. Atlee ties them to his ideas re “collective intelligence” and “collective wisdom.”

‘Lottery’ system would improve access

A lottery system would help poorer children access better education

Collaborative research by the University of Cambridge, the University of Bristol and the Institute of Fiscal Studies has suggested that a lottery system of admissions could make the intake of Britain’s leading schools and universities fairer.

The research was based on the Millennium Cohort Study, which follows the lives of 19,000 children born in the United Kingdom in between 2000 and 2001.

You can read the whole article here:


Boyd Tonkin: We should fill at least some public offices by lottery

Commenter ee notes an article by Boyd Tonkin in The Independent in which Tonkin, after warming up to the issue of popular displeasure with the electoral system, writes:

Most of the sounder proposals to refresh faith in democracy invoke some kind of “deliberative” process. Informed citizens should, in this model, have the opportunity to take part in every link of the decision-making chain rather than simply issue a yes/no verdict at its finale. In practice, how might this noble notion work? Well, here’s one idea that has even less chance of rapid realisation than an 11 per cent pay hike for MPs. We should fill at least some public offices by lottery.

“Sortition”, or the allocation of civic duties by lot, has a distinguished history. If ancient Athens practised it to supply most rotating city offices, then everyone in modern Britain understands it – and almost all respect it. The jury system still commands near-universal consent. People know that jury service modifies the risks of pure “sortition”. It makes provision for reasonable refusal or deferment, for challenges on the grounds of competence or conduct, and above all for guidance from a corps of impartial professionals – in this case, judges. If qualified random selection allows us to send someone down (or not) for life, then why not to decide on speed bumps and swimming pools?
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