Landemore: Open Democracy, part 2


Revisiting briefly the matter of the title of the book: In Part 1 I objected to Landemore’s choice of the term “open democracy” to describe her ideal for government. In short, I find that the word “open” is essentially meaningless and I suspect that the reason for using it as a modifier is that doing so allows to apply the word “democracy” (as in “closed democracy”) to the existing Western eletions-based regimes. On page 15 of the book, Landemore herself notes that the term is already used and abused in politics – as when it refers to transparency. Landemore also makes the connotation of open-source software explicit and claims that there is a likeness between “open democracy” and open source software because “in a democracy the law should be something to which all have access and on which all can make an impact. Everyone should be able to write and claim authorship over the law”. Again, this is too vague to be useful. It is certainly not true at all that open-source software is democratic in any meaningful sense. For one thing, open source is often financed and controlled de-facto by powerful interests. In fact, if anything an analogy may be drawn between open-source software and the “closed” electoral system where a superficial, formal equality is a mask for inherent systemic inequality.

Technology, direct democracy

Too often political reform advocates have a laissez faire “it’s all good” attitude and they embrace any proposal that is making the rounds. Having an “open mind” may sound like a good idea, but in fact not examining proposals critically is recipe for dissipating energy and missing rare opportunities for change. Landemore does not make this mistake. Despite the invocation of the open-source connotation, Landemore explains that her book is not about democracy through technology. This is good. The barriers to democracy are not technological and focusing on technological solutions is therefore a distraction. Another thing Landemore is explicitly not offering is the “antiquated and largely impractical ideal of direct democracy” (p. 17) – a system where mass participation is a central feature. Her reasoning will be laid out in chapter 3 of the book, so it remains to be seen how convincingly it is argued that this is not the right way forward. But argumentation aside, the conclusion is the right one in my opinion. Rejecting mass participation is therefore an important step in clearing the ground for better ideas.

What is an elite?

On page 18 Landemore has an important clarification of the term “elites”. She writes:

I use the term ‘elites’ to refer to a socioeconomic group of privileged people who would not likely be selected at random. […] There is another sense of ‘elite’ that is occasionally used and that I try to avoid: people put in a position of power, regardless of the way they are selected […] It is in this sense that one could call ‘elites’ the members of mini-publics who are able to influence policymaking in recent democratic innovations.

Democracy, Landemore asserts, is compatible with the existence of the latter type of ‘elites’ by not with the former type.

A radical implication

Landemore describes (p. 19) her method as being about “concept clarification” rather than a prescription for reform – understanding what “popular rule should mean institutionally”. This seems to me exactly right. At this point detailed proposals are premature. We should get the basic principles right. Here Landemore also makes one of those statements that make her work stand out compare to other academic work and compared to other would-be reformers:

An implication of such conceptual clarification, however, could be radical. If I am right, many of the regimes we call representative democracies are hardly democracies in the genuine sense of the term and are de facto usurping the term. Instead, these regimes should be seen for what they are, elected oligarchies of sorts[.]

Yes, the “many of” is not needed and the “hardly” should be replaced with “not”, but this is a radical statement nonetheless. This is not couched in a rhetoric of fall-from-grace – it is a statement based on principle, not circumstances. I may be mistaken, but I do not believe Van Reybrouck (to pick on him again as an archetype) would ever say something like that.

To soften the blow, Landemore writes that such a statement puts her in the same boat as Robert Dahl who calls the modern system “polyarchy” rather than “democracy” and with John Dunn “who claims that the liberals usurped the term democracy”. I disagree. Like Joseph Schumpeter, those writers share with Landemore the notion that “Western democracies” are not what what people understand when they say “democracy”. But unlike her, they do not see this as a reason for a normative condemnation of this regime. Dahl was a radical thinker in his way but (despite being an early supporter of sortition) he never doubted that elections are the fundamental tool for proper government – however we call it. (Sortition could be used as an advisory side-kick to elections.) The term “polyarchy” was coined as a technical-realist term, expressing what are supposedly the technical limits of what can be expected of government in a mass society. It was not a normative challenge since it was deliberately anti-normative and was in fact a way to resolve the normative tension and thus to avoid (or at least reduce) the need to explore alternatives.

And if Dahl’s version of Schumepter acknowledges that polyarchy leaves a lot to be desired and carries considerable added intellectual value, Dunn’s, like Schumpeter’s original, is blunt apologetics. We are supposed to grow up and understand that democracy is not what we think it is, not what it used to be. When Dunn discusses the American Founders’ abhorence of democracy – including the mention of the same quote from the Federalist #63 regarding the “total exclusion of the people from government” that Landemore uses – it is to explain that the essence of the state being controlled by “the will the majority of the citizens” is still there, and the only difference is that “immediate control” was elsewhere (Dunn, Democracy, 2005, p. 79). Yes – the liberals have usurped the term, but any idea that the new version of “democracy” is fundamentally flawed and should be challenged or replaced is suppressed. No, when the founders wrote that they want to exclude the people from government they got it exactly right and we should be grateful.

So, no, the boat is not crowded. Landemore is sailing ahead on her own.

Again, it is a shame that despite the statement above, Landemore keeps using the term “democracy” off-handedly to refer to instances of the electoralist system, as in “American democracy is in rather bad shape at the moment” (p. 21). How can this be reconciled with it not being a democracy at all? It’s hard to break old habits, I guess, even if one is aware that they are bad ones.

14 Responses

  1. Yoram,

    Does Landemore at any point define what she means by “democracy”? I imagine it would be in line with her former mentor Jon Elster’s claim that democracy is ‘any kind of effective and formalized control by citizens over leaders or policies’ (Elster, 1998, p.98). I don’t think either of them are particularly bothered which citizens get to be in control, just so long as it’s not socioeconomic elites. If her book is an exercise in conceptual clarification, then the first question she needs to answer is “what is democracy?”


  2. And, whether or not you agree with their answers, that was always the overriding concern of Robert Dahl (and is still John Dunn’s).


  3. About the word “elite”
    *** I tried recently to give a precise definition of “elite”.
    *** Aristotle said the “dikastês” – juror – was sovereign, as the “ekklesiastês” – assemblyman; jurors could crush any decree as illegal. But he did never compare a jury to a ruling elite (oligarchs). I don’t remember any historian using the word “elite” about Athenian jurors, whatever power they had. I don’t think anybody used the name for US jurors who have some power – power to send somebody to death. Actually we had to wait until recent years to see the name “elite” used for allotted citizens. A strange and new use, occurring at the time where elitist power is under attack. Difficult not to see here a trick to obscure the debate.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. The issues are:

    1. Are the assembly members (effectively) self-selecting?

    2. Does the task of the assembly privilege skills that are unevenly distributed in the population? If so then the most influential members would belong to a cognitive elite.

    3. Is the assembly procedure dominated by an (elite) bureaucracy.

    4. How long does the sovereignty last (as there is a risk of going native)?

    To single out purely socio-economic factors strikes me as a little odd. And all the examples Andre provides are for juries, and Landemore is discussing allotted assemblies. Whatever the CCC was, it certainly wasn’t a jury.


  5. The ‘elite’, rich people with much free time to spend, where speakers in the Athenian democratic legislative bodies, functioning as advisers to the people. Joshua Ober i.a. called them political leaders, but I think that’s too much honor for them. I think that our elected ‘politicians’ do represent the demos very badly. They represent predominantly the interests of the economic ‘elite’.

    The CCC and other experiments with allotted citizens assemblies are indeed no jury’s in the way the classic Athenians used them. The Peoples Courts were like the Nomothetes fora who judged without deliberation. The citizen assemblies are both deliberating and decisionmaking bodies.


  6. The justification for continuing to call our existing party political system a ‘democracy’ is that democracy is not an absolute but a spectrum. And our system represents the ‘minimal’ definition of democracy. In a minimalist democracy the populace has only one power which is to periodically throw the existing regime out of office and give the other side a turn. For this to work there must be loser’s compliance linked to the peaceful transition of power. If we think that this is not democracy but just a stitch up we need only look to the recent US example when Trump briefly threatened to overturn the minimalist definition. We suddenly realised that although flawed, stuck and minimal it still mattered.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. David,

    Good point. But what you are referring to are operational definitions as to how the populace exercises power. My concern is the founding principle (“the people have power”), and I don’t think this is something that epistemic democrats like Landemore accept (but it is the overriding concern for both Dahl and Dunn).


  8. Keith, what do mean with ‘epistemic democrats’?


  9. Landemore’s concern has always been the epistemic potential of diversity — collective intelligence or the “wisdom of crowds” (although she dislikes the latter term). That’s what her first book was about and she told me that she has no interest in representation or democratic legitimacy. Openness can include crowdsourcing and other self selecting mechanisms (ho boulomenos in Athenian parlance), but she needs to explain what is democratic about that in large multicultural states. So the first thing we need to hear is what she means by “democracy”.


  10. The idea of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ is, in my opinion, an important argument for legitimizing an Athenian-style direct democracy.
    I juist bought Landemores book and am curious about her definition of (open) democracy.

    I agree with David that democracy is, as he formulates it so nice, is a ‘spectrum’ concept. The power of the populace to throw some members of the ruling class out of office is a extreme minimal democratic act, because it can only choose other representatives of the same class as their successors. Thus in this respect I agree fully with Marx and Kropotkin, who did not propose however a workable alternative. Perhaps they did not read so much about the Athenian Democracy?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. >The idea of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ is, in my opinion, an important argument for legitimizing an Athenian-style direct democracy.

    Two problems:

    1. There are no good reasons to believe that sortition can create a direct democracy in large modern states. It is just another form of representation.

    2. There is a need to demonstrate that the wisdom of the minipopulus corresponds with the preferences of the demos. That is a non-trivial problem that we have discussed at great length on this forum.


  12. David,

    > our system represents the ‘minimal’ definition of democracy. In a minimalist democracy the populace has only one power which is to periodically throw the existing regime out of office and give the other side a turn.

    What does “throw out the existing regime out of office and give the other side a turn” mean? How does the fact that there are organizations from which one can choose one’s rulers translate to “throwing the existing regime out of office” if the policy remains the same no matter which organization is selected? What makes a different party “the other side”? Isn’t it the same “side” under a different name?

    Besides, even if there is some meaningful difference in the policy offered by the different elite factions, why would you call this a democracy? What does having a menu of two (or a handful) of elite groups to choose from have to do with democracy? One party – bad, two parties – good? Seeing this as a flavor of democracy is the product of lifelong indoctrination.

    There are more oppressive and less oppressive oligarchical systems. It would be easy to argue that some of the electoral oligarchies are less oppressive than one might fear – others are horrible. The same can be said about monarchies. That does not make either electoralist regimes or monarchies “minimalist democracies”.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. An interview with Landemore by Ezra Klein – transcript on the New York Times website:


  14. […] the scholarly literature of democracy. Often such calls are to some extent implicit (e.g., Dunn, see part 2 of this post series). Occasionally they are unabashedly explicit. In this genre Landemore focuses her wrath on Achen […]


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