A Marxist Analysis of Sortition

Welcome to Equality-by-Lot, Cody Hipskind! -Yoram

In this post, I’ll be taking a Marxist approach to the question of sortition. That is to say, I’ll be working from a framework that understands society as being composed of several classes with conflicting material interests, and which understands the state as an instrument by which one class rules over others.

I would also note that though classic Marxists have historically centered location within the system of production as central to the reproduction of class society, for my part I hold with the host of theorists who have shown in the decades since Marx wrote how questions of race, gender, migratory status, etc. are likewise integral to the ways in which the ruling class has reproduced its hegemonic status.

Let me begin by recognizing the benefits which rule by lot has from a Marxist perspective. Within my country of the United States and around the world, it is indisputable that electoral systems produce legislatures which, when taken as a whole, are disproportionately wealthy, white, cis-male, and otherwise more representative of the members of the ruling class than of society as a whole. A lottery system would certainly correct such an imbalance by increasing the likelihood of that members of historically disenfranchised communities would receive an equal voice in the legislature. This would obviously be a desirable outcome.

However, it is my position is that elections provide two social goods which would likely be undercut through a system which chooses officers exclusively through sortition. Specifically:

1. Elections create competition between parties over control of which is to say, over the control of the government.

In this way, elections implicitly recognize the sort of divisions in society I outlined above. If a party does something unpopular–say, decide to lower taxes on the rich, voters can punish that party by throwing them out and choosing a replacement. In practice, this means that the subgroups which compose the working class can play kingmaker between the bourgeoisie parties and, ideally, organize themselves into their own parties in order to take power as a class themselves.

In contrast, under sortition, there’s no way to hold people accountable for their decisions: popular or not, you leave office when your term expires. This has the upswing of producing less competitive and divisive politics. And that’s nice and all, but as a Marxist my goal is not to create a politics without division: its to highlight the material divisions and contradictions under capitalism and to exploit the competition among the bourgeoisie parties in order that the working class can get a foot in the door and eventually seize power.

2. Elections provide a site for political organizing.

Don’t get me wrong: I find it depressing that elections and personality contests so thoroughly dominate the political discourse, at least in my home in the US. (Where are you from, by the way? Is is a similar situation there?) Obviously I would like to see political activism expand into other areas. However, I’m not convinced that replacing elections with government by lot would prompt such a shift.

Let’s take an example. Say you have a particular problem in your community, such as the presence of ICE. Under electoralism, you can go to your local community of organizers (in my case, it would be the DSA) and say, we should do something about this. You have a number of options, ranging from writing letters to the editor, to working with your community to help people avoid ICE agents (something my own chapter of the DSA is looking into) to engaging in guerrilla warfare against the state.

But the most effective action within the realm of ordinary (as opposed to revolutionary) politics would be to contest the position of those in power through elections. Ideally, you find someone with direct lived experience of the issues most central to your campaign (i.e., someone from the migrant community) who has the expertise, passion, and connections to bring to bear both during the campaign and once your in government. By running the campaign, you give people something concrete to organize around, be it through voting or canvassing. Of course, winning a single seat will not allow you to dismantle ICE, but it will provide your candidate a platform from which they can further organize.

Under Sorition

In contrast, rather than implicitly recognizing the class conflicts which under gird politics and which are forged into coherent ideologies through organizing, sortition seems to assume a ready made political consensus laying dormant in the public which merely needs to be drawn out through sortition.

This is not to say that one can’t organize to change the government under sortition: obviously you’re still free to organize on particular policy issues, but the details are going to look quite different. If you’re poor, for example, your options for effecting the government are basically limited to canvasing with the hope of influencing the people selected in the next few years to support a given policy. But because most people know that they are unlikely to ever be chosen for a term in government, this sort of campaigning is rather abstract. Absent something concrete like voting for a given party, they’re likely to treat you like a Mormon missionary or JW, politely take your literature, and turn you away.

Things look very different if you’re rich. It should come as no surprise that being rich doesn’t just help under electoralism, but rather translates into political power under practically every possible regime. After all, capital itself is merely political power in its material state.

Say you own a magazine or TV channel: without having to get people to think about how they would vote on X issue if they happen to be sorted next year, you can shape public consensus through the way you frame given issues, from tax policy to immigration policing to whether to support a war. And luckily for media moguls, under sortition you don’t have to compete with people who have dedicated themselves full time to advocating for their communities from elected positions: you’re the only game in town!

Sortition, then, attempts to address problems of representation without addressing other obstacles around issues of redistribution and system-change. In order to tackle these problems, we need a political system which centers a mobilized approach to politics, one in which organizers and self-chosen representatives of the working class can directly march up the avenues of power, revolutionary banners waving, in order to seize and reconfigure the workings of the state. While non-electoral systems of democracy will certainly have a place of importance under such a regime, I am not currently persuaded that we have yet invented a method for utterly rendering elections as such obsolete.

15 Responses

  1. I think this piece raises some important points that sortitionists need to address. In particular, that sortition needs an ecosystem in order to flourish: in particular democratic education and media, and restrictions on business lobbying. It is indeed questionable that these can be provided without a huge shift in wealth, and therefore, power. Nevertheless, in the context of a breakdown in credibility of existing “democratic” institutions, I believe sortition can be a credible (therefore, voteworthy, under the present system) alternative in the decades ahead, if it is piloted at various levels first. It has the electoral advantage (over Marxist solutions) of saying that we don’t want to seize power for the working classes (whoever they are these days – don’t we need the squeezed middle-classes too?) but we just want to equalize the distribution of power and redress the current imbalance. We can only imagine a Corbyn-style Govt introducing such changes, and it would not be perfect, but once in place could introduce further changes in the democratic ecosystem, such as regarding media ownership, education, lobbying etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I will not be arguing for sortition on the basis that it will help ‘the working class seize power’ or anyone else for that matter. Sortition is an alternative to elected bodies’ short-termism but also to one-party dictatorships.

    I was insulted by the use of cis too.


  3. Cody:> sortition seems to assume a ready made political consensus laying dormant in the public which merely needs to be drawn out through sortition.

    Yes, I think that’s true for those seeking a sortition-only polity. Several commentators on this forum have argued that political disagreements are manufactured by politicians to further their electoral interests (rather than reflecting existing cleavages in society).


  4. “to exploit the competition among the bourgeoisie parties in order that the working class can get a foot in the door and eventually seize power”.

    How’s that going then?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. .@lisbonlives, you point about the need to create democratic ecosystems in order that sortition (or any model of government, for that matter) might be effective is a good one. Indeed, sortition could serve an important role in creating a more democratic politics, especially in large cities where New England style town meetings are not feasible.

    With respect to the point about the middle class, I’d cite this short video by Means TV, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Yhsgv-vu8E .

    Liked by 1 person

  6. >> the State as an instrument by which one class rules over others
    This is obviously true in an electoral system based on political parties, where there is an arithmetic winner, but not so in an (at least partially) allotted chamber in which the majority winning the vote may change on each different issue under discussion.
    The way this works is by duly representing the conflicting material interests that exist in any given society (some of these interests are now under-represented, while others are over-represented) and watching how they compose and result – not along artificial and imposed party lines but as an answer to self-perceived interests.
    I personally do not want a working class party to “seize power”, as you put it; I want the interests of working class people being favoured because enough of them have been raised to decision-making positions.

    >> Elections create competition between parties & provide a site for political organizing
    All these questions boil down to the following ones:
    – Are “self-chosen representatives of the working class” a safer bet than random representatives of the working class? Or would they soon receive “an offer they can’t refuse” and betray their social base, like Tsipras did in Greece?
    – In order to get people to listen about where their true interest lie and how it can be best promoted (let’s call this “political activism”), is it helpful to ask them to vote for you too so that you can win a seat on election day?
    Getting rid of elections sets everyone free from the agonistic conception of politics in which I side with my team, no matter what, against the other team. The reason why a sizeable chunk of the working class votes for right-wing parties is because they gain some sort of recognition, of achievement: I feel that I belong to the team of the winners, of those who made it, even if objectively my income says I’m poor. But when faced with concrete questions affecting their lives, AND WITHOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF ASKING “WHERE DO THE REPUBLICANS (OR THE DEMOCRATS) SIDE ON THIS” so that they can automatically and irreflexively follow the party line, you can trust them to make the right choices (those that are good for them).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. […] you Cody for your post. I believe it can serve as a starting point for a fruitful discussion – a discussion that has […]


  8. […] Hispkind’s post is here. The first part of my response is […]


  9. […] Hispkind’s post is here. The previous parts of my response are here and […]


  10. The primary issue I take with your piece is the assumption that a government-by-sortition might come about with very little material difference from our current society. While it might be true that implementing such a system within our existing social conditions would result in somewhat more democratic outcomes in political decision making, as you correctly note, the economic inequality that pervades capitalist society, along with capitalist social relations and working conditions would nullify much of that potential.

    However, the bourgeois class, and those who serve them in the apparatuses of the bourgeois state (government, media, and business, in this case) will take all steps available to them to prevent any democratization without first laying the groundwork for their capacity as a class to limit its actually democratic outcomes, as evidenced by the history of the very gradual expansion of the franchise (even though voting was never as democratic as some believed – or in the case of the bourgeoisie, feared – it might be). That is, they will never enact measures to hinder their own power to preserve their wealth (or their power itself).

    The error in Frederick Douglass’s quote: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both” is in the idealism that “demand” might be sufficient, or that “words” might ever be the primary field of struggle.

    A structure of substantively democratic governance employing sortition exclusively is unlikely to ever be allowed to implemented within bourgeois society.

    It will ONLY come about after a socialist revolution, and only then if the advocates of sortition are able to persuade socialists and communists, and maybe even anarchists, that it should be incorporated into their revolutionary theory, which of course will mean learning the relevant existing theory and history, and making the case that it is imperative to the sustainability of future socialist projects.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I’m grateful to Realdemocracy for confirming my suspicion that all the calls for “robust sortition” (aka “real democracy”), that can only be forced on the ruling elite via a popular uprising is just reconstituted Marxism, albeit couched in euphemistic terms. As I said to Terry yesterday, you can take the boy out of Brooklyn but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the boy. Given that Alex Kovner and I are only seeking to modify the existing system of governance by altering the decision threshold in the elected legislature and leaving the final decision to a jury, this makes us bourgeois lickspittles, hence the venomous attacks on us by Yoram and his cadre.


  12. It’s depressing how much gratuitous agro there is on this site.

    It could lead a person to imagine that people interested in political questions are serving their own psychological needs rather than doing their best to solve an age old problem of our species.


  13. Nick,

    If you’re referring to my comment, it was not intended to be either aggressive or gratuitous. I think there is a genuine divide between those of us who are seeking to use sortition to improve democracy and those who are seeking to overthrow the system with a “socialist revolution” (realdemocracy’s term).


  14. I was referring to your comment, though not imagining I’m in any position to have a view on who’s wrong and who’s right.

    Your comment is up in black and white now Keith. If you’re happy with it as a non-aggressive comment, good luck to you.


  15. I don’t know why you found it aggressive (unlike some of the ad hominem swipes that have been aimed at me). This thread is on a Marxist approach to sortition, and I was simply congratulating the commentators for speaking frankly, rather than euphemistically. Some of the commentators on this blog have referenced their own Marxist hinterland and I was simply pointing out that it has a very long tail (as does Catholicism), so our mutual friend John Burnheim has a double dose.


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