Athens as a democratic precedent

Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC is often brought up in discussions and polemics about sortition, both in support of the idea and against it. However, since this is often done in rote or knee-jerk manner rather than as reasoned argument the results provide more insight about modern conventional views than about the mechanism of sortition. It is therefore of interest to make an orderly account of the properties of the Athenian system as they are relevant to the question of using sortition in a modern political system and then use this account to evaluate the relevance of the system to the modern debate: the lessons that can be drawn from the historical record, if any, and whether in fact Athens should be a prominent part of the discussion of sortition today.

The historical facts

The institutional arrangements in Athens are pretty well known. My understanding is that the main source for the details is Aristotle’s The Athenian Constitution, but the general institutional picture and the conventional political theory behind them is clear from multiple sources. In addition some background facts about the Athenian society can be established including both facts about the demography of Athens and about the conventional ideology of the Athenians. For our purposes, the following points (“stylized facts”) are the relevant ones:

  1. Athenian citizenship was very restrictive. Of a population of about 300,000 people, only 30,000 were fully enfranchised citizens (adult males of Athenian ancestry). The rest were women, children, foreigners and slaves.
  2. Despite some vestiges of formal political stratification among the citizens, conventional Athenian ideology saw citizens as deserving equal political rights and in practice no formal distinctions were enforced.
  3. The set of Athenian citizens was largely made of two groups – small farmers and city-resident workers. There were two elite groups: landed Aristocracy, and the wealthy city bourgeoisie.
  4. The rich were taxed by the city and money was given in various ways to the poorer citizens, but significant economic inequality persisted in Athens.
  5. The day-to-day governing of the Athenian city was carried out by the Council – a body of 500 citizens allotted yearly. The council oversaw a large number of magistrate boards, each made of ten 10 citizens allotted yearly. There were also a few specialized offices (military generals and high financial officers) that were elected.
  6. An allotted Council was perceived as a central characteristic of a democratic city-state.
  7. The allotment for political offices was among volunteers, and those allotted had to pass some form of vetting for good citizenship before assuming office. The requirements for rotation (one could not serve in the same office more than twice) and the historical evidence regarding the vetting process indicate that neither the requirement for volunteering nor the vetting significantly narrowed the number of citizens who took office.
  8. One of the duties of the governing body was to set the agenda for the meetings of the Assembly. This included the topic for discussions and proposals for decisions to be made.
  9. The Assembly – a mass body of Athenian citizens, convening about 40 times a year – was perceived as being the sovereign body. It had significant up-or-down decision-making authority, although in the 4th century it only had final say over “decrees” and each of its legislative decisions had to be ratified by an ad-hoc allotted body. Proposals could be introduced in the Assembly by individuals during its meetings, but its agenda was pre-determined by the Council.
  10. Council members presented before the Assembly bill proposals prepared by the Council. These were often adopted by the Assembly. Competing proposals were often presented by individuals. These individuals were usually members of a small set of frequent speakers, who thus formed a political class. Their proposals were also often adopted.

Lessons that can be drawn from the historical facts

  1. Classical Athens was a large, complex, multi-functional organization, which was run effectively for many decades with all aspects of high level decision-making being substantially handled by average people. It therefore demonstrates that substantial political power can be shared approximately equally among a set of tens of thousands of people.
  2. That said, significant political power remained concentrated in the hands of elites. Despite having ample opportunity to do so, the Athenian citizens seem to have never tried to eliminate the disproportional influence of those elites and were content with retaining part of the power.
  3. Elite political status was correlated with wealth. The Athenians seem to have been content with the persistence of huge economic disparities and never tried to significantly reduce them despite having ample opportunity to this as well.
  4. The [partial] democratic character of the Athenian system can be attributed to two factors: (a) ideologically, acceptance of democratic principles (expressed in the [near-]formal equality of all citizens and the sovereignty of the Assembly) and (b) institutionally, the ubiquitous use of sortition for appointment of political officers.
  5. The modern understanding of Athens as essentially being a “direct democracy” is false.
  6. Obviously, the democratic aspects of the Athenian system were limited to the set of its citizens and the large majority of Athenian residents were not political equals to the citizens.

The place of the Athenian democracy in the debate over sortition

Presumably no one is proposing implementing a copy of the Athenian system in modern times, in the same way that no one is proposing abandoning electrical power or using sailing ships for transport. What, then, is the relevance of the Athenian system to the modern consideration of sortition?

A first class of reasons for mentioning Athens is manipulative. The idea of Classical Athens carries emotional connotations for the modern audience and those can be harnessed to lend force to an argument. As mentioned above, this generates knee-jerk, anti-rational argumentation that can be dismissed out of hand. For example, an implication that detailed institutional arrangements can be validated as democratic because they resemble the Athenian institutional arrangements in one way or another is of course false. Similarly, claiming that a sortition-based system is inherently discriminatory because the Athenian system was is transparently mendacious.

Going beyond manipulation, Athens may be brought up as proof that a democratic state, a state run by average people, is possible. However, on the one hand, doubting the feasibility of a democratic state is not a common explicit contemporary ideological position, so such proof is not required. And on the other hand those who are willing to doubt that average citizens can manage public affairs in a modern country will find plenty of reasons to reject the relevance of the Athenian example to this question, so to the extent such an argument is necessary, Athens will not be able to carry its weight.

Finally, discussing Athens can be a way to challenge the existing electoralist ideology. A basic claim of the existing electoralist system is that it is democratic. Another claim, which is largely implicit but is fundamental nonetheless, is that democracy in a large group cannot be achieved without elections. On top of those basic claims, electoralism is often presented if not as being a revival of the ancient Athenian system then at least as a natural extension of it. All of those claims are undermined by the facts cited above. This should help a modern person to shake off their life-long indoctrination and to de-conflate democracy and electoralism. Such deconflation is indispensable if useful consideration of reform is to be attempted.

Therefore, of the various possible ways Athens may be conceived of as relevant to modern politics mentioned above, only the latter is indeed useful. Athens cannot serve as a model for imitation and not even as some sort of a proof of existence. Rather it serves as evidence that our conception of democracy is at the very least far from being obvious and therefore merits a close and skeptical examination. Athens raises questions and doubts and opens up possibilities, including specifically the possibility that sortition can be an essential tool for modern democracy.

36 Responses

  1. This is really helpful, thanks. I particularly wonder about this point — why did inequality persist? “The rich were taxed by the city and money was given in various ways to the poorer citizens, but significant economic inequality persisted in Athens.”

    I’ve read Ober’s Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, but I haven’t found a full answer as to why inequality persisted.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    Yes – this is an interesting point. CLR James mentions this briefly at the end of “Every cook can govern”:

    One notable feature of Athenian democracy was that, despite the complete power of the popular assembly, it never attempted to carry out any socialistic doctrines. The democrats taxed the rich heavily and kept them in order, but they seemed to have understood instinctively that their economy, chiefly of peasants and artisans, was unsuitable as the economic basis for a socialized society. They were not idealists or theorizers or experimenters, but somber, responsible people who have never been surpassed at the practical business of government.

    This historical fact belies an assumption that is shared by both capitalists and Marxists: that the first order of business in a democratic society would be to equalize economic conditions among all citizens. In reality, democracy seems more concerned with guaranteeing a decent living for every citizen rather than with equalization (where “decent” is of course defined by prevailing norms).

    This historical fact also belies the Marxist (or pseudo-Marxist) idea that economic disparities determine political disparities. Surely there is a connection, but it is far from simple and deterministic. It is actually more informative to see the causality as going from politics to economics rather than vice versa.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. (It may be obvious but worth mentioning that James’s emphasis on the power of the Assembly at the beginning of the paragraph I quoted is misplaced in my opinion.)


  4. Yoram:

    Athens cannot serve as a model for imitation and not even as some sort of a proof of existence [of democracy].

    This is the sort of argument that we generally hear about communism, as indicated by your exchange with Jonathan. It’s significant that you define a democratic state as “a state run by average people”, as this would certainly not be true in the Athenian example. Democratic ideology in classical-era Athens was a combination of numerical and proportionate equality — all citizens had an equal voice in deciding political outcomes (isonomia), and most magistracies were open to “average” persons. However, on the evidence of Pericles’ funeral oration, the Athenians also rewarded merit disproportionally. Everyone had the right to assume the mantle of the statesperson (isegoria) but the masses never chose such persons from their own ranks. Although you may not believe this to be democratic, 5th and 4th century Athenians — both advocates and opponents of democracy — certainly believed it to be true and would have had no time for a state run by average people.

    As for the modern example, your argument begs the question of whether complete political equality is a) possible and b) epistemically desirable. Equality is an abstract mathematical concept that has no foundation in nature — there are substantial differences between people in terms of ability and inclination (most people have no particular interest in politics or statesmanship) and it’s unclear why you insist these differences should be ironed out (or how it would be possible), especially as you clearly don’t believe in the abolition of economic differentials. So what is it that is so appealing about a state run by average people and why do you appropriate the term “democracy” to define such a state, given that those who coined the term would have had no time for what is, effectively, political communism. (Needless to say the pursuit of the economic variant has not had a very good track record).


  5. Oops, I should have said proportionately, not disproportionately. Interestingly the classicist David Harvey (protege of Marxist historian GEM de St Croix) defines proportionate equality as inequality dressed up in sheep’s clothing


  6. Keith,
    How can you justify your statement that democrats in Athens “would have had no time for a state run by average people.” The mere fact that rhetors existed and could offer the people advice, did not mean that they RAN the state. The Council of 500, the courts, the assembly, the nomothetai were all populated by average male adult citizens of all economic classes, but primarily NOT the elites.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. What’s average about the following?

    When it comes to esteem in public affairs, a man is preferred according to his own reputation of something, not, on the whole, just turn and turn about [rotation], but for excellence, and even in poverty no man is debarred by obscurity of reputation. (Thuc. 2.37.1-3)

    Note, of course, that Yoram is claiming (pace every historian who has written on the topic) that Athens was not a democracy. I disagree — Athens was a democratic diarchy, that afforded a key role to the principal of distinction, and that his argument that democracy is the rule of average people is wrong, both historically and conceptually.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks, Yorum, for this summation.

    An additional detail worth mentioning is the size of the Pynx. I’ve read that not more than 6,000 could gather there for the Assembly. Thus, a maximum of 20% of the citizens could vote on the proposals. And thus presumably a proposal could carry with only 10+% of the citizenry. (And only 1+% of the population.)
    Note that ‘people per elector’ (meaning Representatives plus 2 Senators) in the U.S. ranges from 678,945 for California down to 189, 433 in Wyoming. Those are vanishingly small proportions compared to ancient Athens.

    Also of interest is the contention about the competence an ‘average citizen’. This is usually the first thing today that is spoken against sortition.
    I assume I am correct that those 30,000 male citizens were among the most educated of the polity of 300,000? Therefore there was a built-in meritocratic competence in the system, was there not?
    I have argued that implementing a sortitioned legislature would greatly increase the demand for an equitable education for all … since anyone (even your neighbor!) might be called.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Thanks, Yoram [my spelling error, sorry]


  10. Yes – it is quite remarkable how the oration of Pericles/Thucydides could have been written by a modern political scientist, politician or historian. Some things never change.


  11. David,

    Yes, the Pnyx did not permit to assemble the entire Athenian citizenship, but the Assembly would not be the democratic element in the Athenian system anyway. In the same way low turnout rates are not the reason that an electoralist system is oligarchical.


  12. David (Common Lot),
    It would be interesting to find out if you are correct or incorrect regarding your guess … “I assume I am correct that those 30,000 male citizens were among the most educated of the polity of 300,000? Therefore there was a built-in meritocratic competence in the system, was there not?” This is not a safe assumption. Most of these citizens were unpropertied working class laborers and soldiers. Also many of the non-citizens were foreigners and well to do merchants, etc. who simply hadn’t been born to an Athenian mother. Even the slaves were not as we think of them from American history. They were typically captured residents from vanquished cities, who might be from all classes, who were made slaves. Many were highly educated, and could even grow rich while being nominally enslaved. I recall reading that one of the richest men in Athens at one point was a slave, who later in life was granted (purchased?) his freedom. Many women were also literate and perhaps well educated. I simply do not know enough about the demographics of Ancient Athens to state categorically. But I CAN state that your assumption needs research rather than standing as an assumption.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Terry (to David):> I CAN state that your assumption needs research rather than standing as an assumption.

    Unfortunately we are informed by the convenor of this blog that modern political scientists and historians (the people who would normally do the research) are just a bunch of patsies for the political elites. Although the Athenians believed their system to be democratic, our convenor (the author of this post) informs us that they were mistaken, as one of the two forms of equal freedom (proportional equality) that they respected does not fit with his modern ideology. Although the Greeks coined the term demokratia, the insights of an obscure software developer inform us that their understanding of such matters was mistaken. Yoram takes pride in acknowledging that

    Despite playing one on this blog, I am not a classical scholar. All the information regarding these matters is based on some incidental reading of the sources and reading some scholarship.

    Yoram’s “incidental reading” (and deep intuitive insight) is all that is required to enlighten us to the fact that the Athenians were wrong to believe their political arrangements were in fact democratic. This would be hilarious, were it not for the fact that this is a public forum, and we are all going to be tarred with the same lunatic brush.


  14. …a public forum that sadly seems to exist as a vehicle for Keith to establish his sovereignty over the Athenians.

    The only potentially useful thing I have taken from it is that the Athenians had a method for creating equal opportunity of political participation that might be a viable basis for democratic practice in a highly complex globalised world that is rapidly running out of control as a result of climate change, overpopulation, mass migration, conflict, inequality, economic collapse, environmental degradation, mass extinction of species and the adverse impact of disruptive technologies.

    Humanity is arguably at a fork in the road between a utopian and a (more likely) dystopian future and you are arguing about what exactly?

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Heh. Yes – I do have the regrettable tendency to form judgement based on the facts I gather and what I see at the logical conclusions that follow (a.k.a. “incidental reading and deep intuitive insight”), rather than blindly bow to established views. Sheer lunacy.


  16. Martin,

    Utopia and dystopia have been two sides of the same coin ever since Thomas More coined the term (Utopia, being “nowhere” and More’s book a satire). More level heads might prefer incremental improvement to our existing political arrangements based on whatever has a proven track record of working.

    >the Athenians had a method for creating equal opportunity of political participation

    That is certainly true, as sortition (according to Aristotle) functioned as a way of ruling and being ruled in turn. But rotation is impossible in large modern states.

    Yoram:> I do have the regrettable tendency to form judgement based on the facts I gather . . . rather than blindly bow to established views

    Well, a little learning is certainly a dangerous thing. But it strikes me that your method is anything but inductive, as your starting point is a mathematical abstraction (equality) and the Marxian notion of “real democracy”. In this respect your approach is similar to that of Oliver Dowlen who decided (from his armchair) what the unique property of all lotteries is and then raided the historical record for data to back up his philosophical thesis.


  17. > a little learning is certainly a dangerous thing

    True. Ignorance is so much safer, even if somewhat demeaning.


  18. On the contrary, it’s better to accept the guidance of experts — in this case historians and political scientists — who have devoted their professional lives to studying the topic in question. I’m currently awaiting final feedback from my second supervisor, Lynette Mitchell (Professor in Greek History and Politics at the University of Exeter) before submitting my thesis. Lynette studied under P.J. Rhodes, who is probably the greatest living authority on the Athenian Council (not that it would count for anything in your eyes.) I asked him a couple of years ago to comment on the view that the Council was an administrative magistracy, rather than a deliberative policymaking body, and he agreed.


  19. Your obsequiousness toward formal authority never fails to amuse.

    (BTW, if Prof. Mitchell could be troubled to provide evidence for his view, I’d be quite interested.)


  20. Why is it obsequious for an amateur like me to accept the guidance of someone who has devoted her professional life to the study of a topic, especially considering I am paying the university a lot of money for her supervisory skills? As for the issue of the Athenian council I got this straight from the horse’s mouth (Rhodes); suggest you take a look at his monograph on the topic. The view that the boule was a policymaking body is a myth beloved of deliberative democrats but has no foundation in the historical record. Most historians argue that it was an administrative magistracy, selected at random in order to preserve the sovereignty of the assembly. Anyway why do you care, given that your post is dedicated to destroying the provenance of Athenian “democracy”?


  21. If you pay good money for the “guidance” (which you seem to interpret as meaning “following blindly”) then it must be of great value.

    As for the Boule: since you find Rhodes so authoritative, surely you can relay some of his evidence from primary sources substantiating your view (which you attribute to him, but then you regularly attribute your views to others). Or at least explain what kind of evidence he offers that could even in theory substantiate your view.

    Specifically, I am wondering, if the Boule was merely “an administrative magistracy”, whence came the many “concrete” probouleumata which the Boule regularly presented before the Assembly and were often adopted by the Assembly as law?


  22. My relationship with both my supervisors is based on a critical exchange (from both sides). Lynette has thanked me for educating her on some aspects of 4th century nomothesia (her principal research focus is the 5th century). And I have ignored much of the advice from my principal supervisor (Dr. Dario Castiglione). Although I give due regard to their scholarly expertise, I certainly don’t follow their guidance “blindly”.

    As the role of the council is peripheral to my thesis, I’m happy to rely on secondary sources (Headlam; Rhodes; Hansen; Manin, Urbinati and Landemore). Chapter 10 of Hansen 1999, is quite useful. Nobody is disputing the role that the boule played in “preparing the business of legislation” (p. 257), including proboulemata — the issue is whether the agenda emerged from the internal deliberations of the council (difficult to imagine in a group of 500) or whether its role was more that of an administrative intermediary (secretariat to the assembly). The fact that all motions were proposed by a councillor in his own name often concealed the fact that the originator, or even the speaker, was somebody else (p. 253). The principal role of council members appeared to be voting on motions.

    I’m unsure as to whether there is much recorded evidence of speeches in the council — if so then the lack of documentary evidence would support the view that it was primarily an administrative body. Similarly there is little primary literature regarding the 4th century changes to the nomothesia process (and precious little regarding exactly why the Athenians used sortition — over and above Aristotle’s argument for rotation and Plato’s claim that it revealed the will of the gods).


  23. So, to sum up, you offer no evidence and in fact believe there is not “much recorded evidence” on the matter. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that your claim to have been informed by scholarly work was, to put it politely, inaccurate bluster. Also, unsurprisingly, you interpret your admitted ignorance of evidence one way or another as supporting your position. This is a typical example for both your methodology and your reliability. I am sure Prof. Mitchell benefited greatly from her critical exchange with you.


  24. At the risk of repeating myself, I have no interest in the Athenian council or any of the other magistracies as the rotation principle has no relevance for large modern states. If you want to overturn the scholarly consensus on the role of the council then the burden of proof is on you. Oh sorry, I forgot, you have no respect for historical scholarship or, for that matter, the so-called Athenian “democracy”.


  25. So you feel it is your duty to enforce conformity to what you feel is conventional wisdom on topics on which you admit to have no knowledge and in which you claim to have no interest. Sort of a self-appointed commissar. And then you wonder why you are judged to be obsequious to power.


  26. I have no wish to enforce conformity to anything or anybody. You have frequently claimed that historians and political scientists are self-serving lackeys of the ruling class and now you argue that the Athenian “democracy” was no such thing. These are strong claims and the burden of proof lies with you.


  27. Because, as you exemplify, conforming to conventional wisdom, and indeed demanding that others do so as well, requires no proof or even any evidence.


  28. In any field of study where I have no expertise, then I’m happy to rely on the scholarly consensus, particularly if a) the issue is uncontroversial and b) I have no particular interest in the issue at hand. This strikes me as a reasonable position. It is beholden on anyone who wishes to overturn the scholarly consensus to come up with the necessary evidence to support their case. I don’t demand that anyone else should adhere to the conventional wisdom, only that they should supply the necessary evidence to support their argument (in this case the role of the Athenian council). Given that this would appear to be the only significant Athenian institution that you believe to be democratic, it would merit a doctoral research project and that’s a course you might want to consider if you want anyone to take your views seriously.


  29. So, again, despite your (belatedly) admitted ignorance of any supporting evidence (and even despite your belief that no such evidence exists), you so strongly conform to what you perceive as the scholarly consensus, that you feel it is your right and duty to call a dissenting opinion “lunacy”.


  30. The “lunacy” referred to your insistence that the Athenians were wrong to view their political arrangements as democratic, even though you admit: “I am not a classical scholar. All the information regarding these matters is based on some incidental reading of the sources and reading some scholarship.”


  31. Heh. Really? The people of the middle ages must have lived then in a geocentric universe. Claiming otherwise would be lunacy.

    As I have commented before, your ability to express large amounts of nonsense with a given number of words is quite awesome.


  32. Keith,

    I think you may be incorrect with your notion of a “scholarly consensus” that the Council of 500 was essentially administrative in function. Its function certainly changed over the centuries, and cannot be categorized in any single way. Starting from the time of Solon the randomly selected Council of 400 deliberated on all matters and voted on them BEFORE they were allowed to come before the Assembly. This DELIBERATIVE function almost certainly carried over into the Council of 500.

    Christopher Blackwell cites Aristotle in stating that
    “Aristotle says that the Council originally had sovereign power over many aspects of the democracy (Aristot. Ath. Pol. 45.1-3), but after the Council condemned a man named Lysimachus to death, without the benefit of a trial by jury, and the Athenian people rescued the man and limited most of the powers of the Council.” (which further indicates that the Council had substantial powers before that point.)
    Later, when the Assembly transferred all of ITS law-making authority to randomly selected Nomothetai, clearly these randomly selected juries (similar to the Council, but of short duration) were deeply deliberative.


  33. Terry,

    I agree that the council, like all Athenian political institutions, changed over time. However the randomly-selected nomothetai were only “deeply deliberative” in the sense that the proponent and the five people elected by the assembly to defend the existing laws argued their case in front of the jury who listened in silence and then determined the outcome by voting. It’s interesting that you draw a parallel between this and the council, as I’ve always been puzzled as to how a group of 500 randomly-selected persons can deliberate in the fully participative sense of the word. Perhaps it was more like the nomothetai in that only a small number of citizens chose to speak? This may well be why decision-making bodies (acting as a proxy for the whole demos) would have required elected speakers and strict rules on balanced advocacy (the speeches for and against the motion were timed on water clocks). This was clearly not the case with the council, hence the accepted view within the scholarly community that it was an administrative body. I do think deliberative and epistemic democrats are grasping at straws when they use the council as a template for their modern projects.


  34. Yoram:> The people of the middle ages must have lived then in a geocentric universe

    That’s an interesting parallel. Some historians take the extreme nominalist position that Athens became democratic at the point that they started using the word demokratia to describe their political arrangements. I wouldn’t go that far, but I think you do have to take some account of how people view their own society, otherwise you are aspiring to some sort of god’s eye view. My preference is the via media — to take the meaning of the word (the demos has kratos) and then examine both what it means and how the existing institutions might have operationalised the meaning.

    In your view (shared I believe by Aristotle and Marx), the demos refers to the poor, or the “average person” as you put it in the light of the 99/1% analysis of power and wealth that you appear to subscribe to. Hansen, however, views the demos as the people as a whole. This has important entailments for institutional design, as an assembly of “average” persons would suffice in the former case and it would matter little which ones chose to speak and which ones remained silent as they would all share the same interests. The latter sense of the word demos has very different entailments as this suggests a plurality of interests that require very careful mirroring in a descriptively-representative microcosm.

    How to achieve kratos (for the demos or any other group) is a deeply non-trivial problem, but the first thing is to define what is meant by the demos. In your model so long as average citizens rule that’s all that matters, whereas in my pluralistic model it requires a careful balancing of representative isegoria and isonomia which is well beyond the limitations of a blog post comment.


  35. Yoram,

    a democratic state, a state run by average people, is possible

    From the stochationist perspective this is entirely misconceived, as the average is the aggregate product of the statistical sampling process, rather than sortition being a method to select “average” persons. If the goal is to recruit “average” persons from a pluralistic and multicultural society this would require stratified sampling excluding, inter alia:

    Those on high and low income levels
    The poorly educated and those with PhDs
    Ethnic, religious and sexual-orientation minorities
    Voters for fringe parties
    Political scientists, historians, and other professional “experts”
    Citizens with a background in political administration
    Celebrities and others benefiting form the principle of distinction
    etc etc

    From an epistemic perspective this would be disastrous as it would rule out the rich cognitive diversity which results from stochation, and it would contravene liberal and egalitarian norms.

    Stochationists, by contrast, seek to convene a microcosm that (in aggregate) reflects the diversity of a large multicultural society. But (assuming basic majoritarian norms) if the microcosm had decision-making powers then the deliberative style of the microcosm would need to ensure that accurate descriptive representation was preserved, “going forward”. Given that the microcosm is not made up of “average” persons, this would suggest serious restraints on speech acts (as they would not be subject to the LLN), and exogenous advocacy based on the need for representative isegoria.

    I think, at the end, our disagreement is grounded in different perspectives on social and economic stratification. For those who believe that modern societies can still be described by the archaic 1% — 99% distinction between the “elite” and the “masses” then sortition would recruit primarily “average” persons as the elite would only comprise 1% of the minipublic. But for those of us (particularly those with a background in modern political sociology) who accept the sheer pluralism of modern multicultural states, the concept of the “average” person is a historical anachronism.


  36. PS although you might well argue that there would be no need to exclude non-average persons as they would be statistically outnumbered, the argument does not pertain if speech acts are part of the deliberative mandate as it’s perfectly possible for the proceedings to be unduly influenced by persons who are statistical outliers (e.g. celebrities and high-status individuals). Take, for example, the following participant statements from one of the popular deliberative assemblies established in the wake of Argentina’s political crisis of 2001:

    although there were no ‘titles’ or ‘hierarchies’ in the assemblies, there were indeed ‘people with different interests’, with different ‘histories’, ‘careers’, ‘training’ or ‘personalities’, all of which established clear differences among them. These were not expressed in terms of the right to speak (which was in principle accessible to all), but in terms of the extent to which each one’s words were taken into account. ‘Proposals’, states a member of the Asamblea 20 de Diciembre de Flores, ‘had a different weight according to who said them’ (Male, 34, with previous political experience).

    Few consider that the sprouting of this kind of differences could have been avoided; the majority considers it instead as a natural process as they acknowledge the presence of ‘natural hierarchies’, ‘spontaneous leaderships’ and ‘natural-born leaders’. ‘All processes yield leaders’, says a politically experienced member of the Asamblea Popular de Liniers. ‘Who is the one who says “let’s do this”? There are always leaders, natural commanders’ (Male, 47).

    Since what is at stake is the differential of attention given to the word of some above that of others within a space characterized, above all, by the production of discourse, it is only natural that those who are considered to be ‘points of reference’ are in the first place those who ‘know how to speak’, have ‘rhetorical abilities’, show ‘a high cultural level’ or bring in some useful knowledge on a relevant field. Those who fit that description were usually professionals and intellectuals who ‘could easily occupy all the space with their ideas’. (Pousadela, 2008, pp. 111-112)

    ‘One [Person] One Vote’ as a clearly-defined principle of democracy can easily be undermined by the unequal distribution of the persuasive powers to influence how the votes are cast. Formal isonomia and isegoria are easily undermined by the kind of imbalances revealed by the Argentinian experiment in deliberative democracy. In the words of one assembly participant, this quickly led to disillusion:

    [At the beginning we thought] ‘fine, we have people who did not finish elementary school and who join because they want security, they want their children to be able to safely go through the park, and at the same time we have a psychologist, an economist, people with previous political participation. Our discussions are going to oscillate and we are going to grow up together. The lady who is worried that their children can walk through the park is going to learn from the other one, and the latter is going to learn from her’. I thought that was going to yield a change. But no, the neighbor simply left (…) People who came as plain neighbors, without much of an intellect, had to give way to those who knew, because those who knew were the visionaries (Female, 55, ex- Asamblea de Monserrat, with previous political experience). (ibid., p. 112)


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