Plutonomy — how the 1% has hijacked democracy

An excellent paper on the tricks the richest 1% have played to turn our political democracy of ‘one person one vote’ into financial despotism:

It’s a gripping read. So is Sortition the answer? If so, why?

12 Responses

  1. I have not read the paper yet, but I must point out that 2500 years ago Aristotle wrote (echoing apparently the conventional wisdom) that “one person one vote” is not the hallmark of democracy, but of oligarchy.

    It seems that the effect of the golden era of electoralism – a few decades, say, between the New Deal and the early 70’s – during which it appeared that the ancient Greeks were wrong – is wearing off.


  2. Aristotle was comparing rotation (rule and be ruled in turn) and election as competing ways of appointing magistrates in a small polis. Sortition in a large state, where only a tiny number of citizens are selected, would have been seen as another example of rule by the few. Citing Aristotle, Polybius and Montesquieu in favour of modern proposals for sortition is a prime example of anachronism, the cardinal sin in the study of the history of political thought (as is combining the New Deal and the ancient Greeks in the same sentence).


  3. Yes, yes, you already explained to us that Aristotle didn’t mean what he wrote, and instead meant what you say he meant.

    (And, of course, Xenophon and Herodotus didn’t mean what they wrote either, and meant instead completely different things which you will specify in future comments.)


  4. Keith, it seems to me like you’re conflating two senses of “rule by the few”. It could just mean rule by a small proportion of the population; obviously, any legislative body in a large state will do that, regardless of how it is selected. Or it could mean what Aristotle clearly meant, rule by an elite–the wealthy, the well-born, etc. He thought that election privileged such a group for the obvious reason that the wealthy and well-born would have an insurmountable advantage at getting elected over ordinary people. I take Bernard Manin to be endorsing the Aristotelian idea in his book on representation; I thought you accepted the argument there. (Incidentally, I hope you will be at the meeting with Manin in May–have details about that been posted anywhere yet?)


  5. I recommend you read Fullbrook’s paper! It shows the mechanics of how in the US/UK/Canada (but not Scandinavia/France/Germany) the 1% have systematically warped ‘democracy’. It’s not an inevitability of the OPOV form of ‘democracy’, but difficult to see how the wealth and power of the elite can be wrested back.

    So is there something in the mechanism of Sortition that can thwart the Plutonomists? How?


  6. Peter,

    Aristotle’s comparison was between rotation and election as a principle of selecting magistrates — Athenians used the latter only for magistracies that required particular skills. “One man one vote” (as Yoram, somewhat anachronistically, puts it) was the decision rule of the Assembly — are you suggesting that Aristotle viewed this as an oligarchic mechanism? Given that Aristotle was a critic of Athenian democracy this sounds like a strange interpretation.

    Nobody is disputing that election is an oligarchic mechanism, what is at issue is how best to overcome that in large modern states, where rotation is no longer possible. If sortition is the solution then we are using it in a completely different way from the Greeks (ie as a mechanism of statistical representation). Slogans from antiquity may have some rhetorical value, but the serious work requires a sharp focus on to what extent statistical representation can fulfil all the needs of modern politics.

    I’m down to debate with Manin in Paris (on his claim that election replaced sortition due to the natural right theory of consent); we’ve been discussing this over the last few days at Would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.


  7. Conall,

    I have now read the paper.

    Persistent economic inequality with significant poverty has been the standard state in electoral systems. The coupling of economic and political power is an inherent feature of electoralism. The devices that Fullbrook discusses – the use of mass media and personnel exchanges – are standard ones.

    It is true that the growth of inequality over the last few decades has not been uniform, but it has been an essentially universal phenomenon – and Scandinavia, France and Germany have not been spared. See Table 1:

    I think it is clear that sortition has the potential to change the situation. The legislators would be normal people rather than members of an elite. They would not be dependent on raising large sums of money and favorable treatment in the mass media in order to gain and retain power.

    Of course, sortition’s potential may not translate into reality – this would depend on careful design of the system. Electoralism, on the other hand, has not only failed in practice over and over in many variations, but has done so in ways that are predictable based on its inherent flaws, and therefore holds no promise for reform.


  8. Keith,

    You state here (and elsewhere) that rotation in office is not a practical possibility in a large modern society. Why not? With countless decisions needing to be made at a national, regional, and municipal and even neighborhood levels, if allotted bodies were formed for short duration to tackle single issues, every person could expect to serve on some legislative decision making body at least once or several times during their life. Since all have an equal opportunity to serve at any level, political equality is preserved.


  9. That would suggest an equivalence between choosing the neighbourhood watch rota and deciding the level of national income tax. Technically that would comply with Aristotle’s maxim (rule and be ruled in turn), but it would still mean that some would be a lot more equal than others. I think we need to accept that sortition in large modern states is a system of (descriptive) representation, a concept that was entirely alien to the ancient polis. The preservation of equality depends on the design of the allotted chamber — that the decision outcome should be the same irrespective of which individuals win the draw. I think we both agree that this would require a limited mandate, in order not to breach the equality of all citizens.


  10. Keith,
    If we all take turns making governmental decisions, and all have an equal chance to be involved at any level…that seems like rotation to me. Perhaps I “get to” make a decision at a national level, determining some aspect of a national transportation policy, which affects me no more and probably much less than if I had participated in a municipal decision about this year’s re-paving program in my neighborhood. They aren’t “equivalent” in all respects, but are in terms of political equality of opportunity and rotation.


  11. Correct me if I’m wrong, but in Athens it was quite possible, or even likely, for most citizens to serve on the boule once, or even twice, during their lifetime. What’s the likelihood of modern citizens being members of parliament or congress once or twice in their lifetime? The difference between (miniscule) chance and (likely) probability strikes me like the difference between chalk and cheese. If I wanted to serve on my parish council right now I could, because most positions are uncontested — this is because the power/effort ratio is unattractive, so I can’t see anyone getting very excited over a multitude of sortive bodies with similarly miniscule powers. It would be nice to think that the tasks of government could be chopped up into little pieces and shared out, but the big (tax and spend) decisions can’t be — unless you adopt John Burnheim’s model for voluntarist anarchism.


  12. So is there something in the mechanism of Sortition that can thwart the Plutonomists? How?

    As I understand it under full sortition, people who work for them will be writing the laws that govern their lives, finance, banking, taxes, trade, and dare I say it regular people in congress might revoke corporate charters if required.


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