John Burnheim: To Reason Why

The recent publication of John Burnheim’s autobiography by Sidney University Press (Burnheim, 2011) coincides with improved availability of his 1985 work, Is Democracy Possible? (Burnheim, 2006). Although SUP republished the book in 2006 they have only recently made it available on John very kindly sent me copies of both books, even though he knew that I would not be the most sympathetic reviewer, as we have always disagreed fundamentally on the potential of sortition in our offline exchanges.

John divides his adult life into three two-decade periods during which he moved from the priesthood through philosophy to retirement, pausing en route only to (assist in) blowing up the Sydney University philosophy department (1973) and publishing an attempt to torpedo democracy in its modern incarnation (1985).
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Comment on CJs in Ireland

Interesting observations by a randomly selected barrister (lawyer) on Citizens’ Assembly experiment in Ireland. The organisation behind it,  ‘Wethecitizens’, is non-governmental, and looks excellent. For non-Irish: Oireachtas is Government, Seanad is the Upper House, like the House of Lords. It is sad to see that this exercise did not recommend Sortition for the Seanad.

Need to work out what a citizens’ assembly is before deciding to have one

Thu, Jun 30, 2011

OPINION: I was selected to take part in the citizens’ assembly – but what exactly is the aim of the experiment?

LAST WEEK, I was selected randomly to participate in an experimental citizens’ assembly. It met over a day and a half last weekend at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (originally to be the seat of the Oireachtas in 1922).

I met lots of people who were engaged and pleased to be selected. The event was run by the “We the Citizens” project, funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, the organisation founded by Chuck Feeney.
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Karatani on sortition

Kojin Karatani writes in his book, Transcritique (2001, translated by Sabu Kohso, p. 182ff):

There is one crucial thing we can learn from Athenian democracy in this respect. The ancient democracy was established by overthrowing tyranny and equipped itself with a meticulous device for preventing tyranny for reviving. The salient characteristic of Athenian democracy is not a direct participation of everyone in the assembly, as always claimed, but a systematic control of the administrative power. The crux was the system of lottery: to elect public servants by lottery and to surveil the deeds of public servants by means of a group of jurors who are also elected by lottery. […] My point is that the core of the system invented to stop the fixation of power in Athenian Democracy lay not in the election itself, but in the lottery. Lottery functions to introduce contingency into the magnetic power center. The point is to shake up the positions where power tends to be concentrated; entrenchment of power in administrative positions can be avoided by a sudden attack of contingency. It is only the lottery that actualizes the separation of the three powers. If universal suffrage by secret ballot, namely, parliamentary democracy, is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the introduction of a lottery should be deemed the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Disappointingly, Karatani steps away from sortition, without providing a real reason – off-handedly blaming “the people” for not being ready for a radical solution:

Can we choose all representative by lottery in all elections? That is not realistic; the system itself would be too arbitrary to gain the trust of the people.

Instead, he offers a lottery among top vote getters, claiming it will reduce factionalism, and making a vague unexplained promise that such a mechanism will “free the power center from fixation in the long run”:

[W]hat is preferable to us would be to choose the most crucial post by lottery: namely choosing three candidates by secret vote (three in one choice) and then finally electing one by lottery. Because the last and most crucial stage is determined by contingency, factional disputes or conflicts over successors would not make sense.