A summary of Chouard’s talk, and links to some concurring posts

Below is my itemized summary of the ideas presented by Ètienne Chouard:

  1. The core of democracy is political equality
  2. Elections are anti-democratic
    • Not designed to be democratic, and no such claims made by its designers
    • History shows that elections put the rich in power
    • The powerful support elections – cannot be a threat to them
    • It is a paradox that the entire political spectrum supports elections
    • Based on a myth – being able to choose the good
    • Rule by the worst – “good people don’t care about governing”
    • Elections are appropriate for small scale – depend on knowing people and being able to follow what they do, in large systems, the voters do not know the candidates and do not know what they do

  3. Calling elections-based government “democracy” makes it difficult to remove this oligarchical form of government
  4. Athenian democracy:
    • Randomly drawn officials do not make decisions – the Assembly does
    • Athenian system assumes that power corrupts over time
    • Therefore, the Athenian system is based on amateurism and rotation of duties (6 – 12 month terms)
    • These are impossible in an elections-based-government – re-election is inevitable
    • Everyone had the right to speak in the Assembly
    • Encouraged citizen activism
  5. Various devices were used by the Athenians to control the allotted officials
    • Officials carry out only routine tasks that cannot be done by the Assembly
    • Drawn officials were honored when virtuous, punished when corrupt
    • Dokimasia, Ostracism – removing those who are perceived to be a threat
    • Revocability, accountability – corrupt officials can be removed from power, punished
  6. Elections-based government allows translation of economic power into political power by controlling media. Sortition decouples economic power from political power
  7. Sortition suitable for large scale – a pyramidal federated structure
  8. Single issue citizen juries convened by the drawn officials become, with work, more competent than any elected official could be
  9. Modern democracy should include citizen jury control of mass media
  10. Support for the Athenian system of democratic institutions can be separated from support for other parts of the Athenian system: slavery, colonialism, male-chauvinism.

I find that most of those points are valid. In a future post I would like to offer objections to the points I disagree with. For now, here are a few links to posts concurring with some of the points I agree with.

11 Responses

  1. Chouard says that Alex de Tocqueville wrote “I’m not afraid of universal suffrage; the people will vote as they are told to do.”
    Does anyone have the exact source of that citation?


  2. I haven’t come across that in “Democracy in America” itself. I suspect it was in some letter (if it is true).


  3. What does Chouard do? From his website (and my extremely limited grasp of French), I couldn’t tell whether he was an academic, a journalist, an angry citizen, etc.

    It’s a pretty good outline. As I mentioned before, I do think Chouard dances way too lightly over the centrality of direct democracy to Athens. If it’s true, and there’s no way to replicate the ekklesia in a setting like the U.S., then there will be a huge gap between the Athenian institutional solution and any solution we devise today, even if sortition has a critical role to play in both.


  4. > What does Chouard do?

    I don’t know, but I guess we can just ask. I am guessing “angry citizen” is the closest description.

    > If it’s true, and there’s no way to replicate the ekklesia in a setting like the U.S., then there will be a huge gap between the Athenian institutional solution and any solution we devise today, even if sortition has a critical role to play in both.

    Right. That is indeed a major problem with his conception. In my mind, Athens was democratic despite the power of the Assembly, not because of it. The Assembly was the ancient arena of mass politics, and should not be emulated, but disposed of.


  5. Athens was democratic on account of a) rotation and b) one man one vote in the assembly, so I would agree with Peter that anachronistic proposals to adopt the “Athenian option” will not work in large modern states. Modern proposals for sortition as a representational mechanism have nothing in common with its ancient use, so the imperative is to understand clearly the political potential of sortition and to look to either direct democracy or elections for what sortition cannot do.


  6. Keith, Given that 10% of the Athenian population (adult free males) enjoyed suffrage and that a maximum of 20% of that 10% (6,000 out of 30,000) could vote directly in the Assembly, couldn’t one make the case that there is some resonance to modern ‘representative’ legislatures? Granted, that the concept of ‘representation’ was not then extant.

    Related to this issue … Steven Pinker’s work, The Better Angels of Our Nature, leads me to think that the fear of mob rule has diminished in the past centuries … though of course the checks and balances and judicial bulwarks must remain.


  7. David, I’m not sure that Athenian mores on the franchise are of any relevance. In modern democracies everyone is entitled to choose their favourite oligarch, not so with Athenian slaves, women and other excluded categories. Steve Pinker is a first-rate psychologist, but most reviewers of his new book have advised him to stick to his day job rather than trying any more amateur history.


  8. Peter,

    Some background about Chouard is here: Etienne Chouard n’est pas mort, il soigne les orphelins du « non » (auto-translation). Apparently, he is semi-well known in France as a political activist.


  9. Keith, about Steven Pinker’s *The Better Angels of Our Nature* —

    Looking at reviews in The Guardian, New York Times, Scientific American, Financial Times and American Scholar I don’t find those negative reviews you mention.

    I do find some chiding in The American Conservative and National Review. But nothing as wholesale as you indicate.

    Seems you’ve overstated ‘most reviewers’ on Pinker’s book.


  10. Sorry, I was relying (from memory) on reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and Sunday Times. It was wrong of me to extrapolate from that. But I still don’t think there is any case for applying notions of representation to any aspect of Athenian democracy and we need to be extremely wary of the problem of anachronism. Ancient and modern proposals for sortition only have the mechanism in common, not the reason for using it. To the Athenians the reason was rotation, to moderns it is descriptive representation. Dowlen and Stone argue that there is a common concern to keep politics free from corruption, but if so it’s hard to understand why Chouard gives so much time to outlining the complex levels of scrutiny required to keep politics clean.


  11. […] Chouard (and here, here, and here), Lawrence Lessig, David Chaum, Jacques Rancière, Clive Aslet, Jim Gilliam, Loïc […]


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