Landemore: Open Democracy, part 13/13

Landemore concludes her book in chapter 9. Looking at this chapter and looking back at the entire book’s narrative, it is hard to avoid the feeling that the book’s promise was not lived up to. By this point it seems that not much remains of the book’s original radical spirit. Gone in this conclusion is the most subversive part of Landemore’s narrative – the hints that the status quo, the elections-based system produces terrible outcomes. Also gone is the radical insistence on political equality. Other than some non-committal language about “an open door” connecting representatives and society at large, in the conclusion “open democracy” seems to boil down to three institutions – allotted bodies, popular initiative processes and delegative voting. Landemore writes that “open democracy” means that ordinary citizens “have access to power”. But of course it may be argued – and conventionally it is argued – that voting is also a form of “access to power”. Why is voting in the initiative process or though vote delegation a better form of “access” than conventional voting?

The concluding chapter is mostly concerned with issues that are only tangentially related to the topics discussed in the book. A concluding chapter can be expected to contain some “future directions” – ideas that were not explored in the book but which are somehow relevant to the topics that were discussed. These future directions, however, should stem from a concise summary of the conclusions that were drawn from the preceding discussion. The conclusions should position the reader at a new vantage point from which the future directions can be pursued. Unfortunately, such a new vantage point is missing. In particular, Landemore devotes a fair amount of space in the chapter to a discussion of the role of nation-states in governance, the inclusivity of the demos, and other sites of power such as corporate power. This discussion, however, does not build on previously discussed topics and does not go beyond the standard claims and arguments made. The claim, for example, that “there seems to be a logic to democracy that is conducive to universal inclusion” and that “[t]his logic eats away at the closed borders of a nationally defined demos and cracks them open” (p. 210) is a questionable commonplace, rather than an idea that builds on the main arguments of the book.

An additional point made – that “political and participation rights” need to be supplemented by “substantive rights” such as economic rights and workplace rights – seems to be largely contradictory to the main ideas in the book. Why is the entire book devoted to mechanisms of governance at the level of the state if substantive rights are essential? What is the relationship between the question of demos-level mechanisms and the question of “substantive rights”? Are substantive rights expected to naturally develop once the right governance mechanisms are put in place?

The most useful part of Landemore’s “open democracy” message is the centrality of allotted bodies in such a system. It is those bodies that are the main decision makers in an “open democracy”, mostly, or even completely, replacing elected bodies. While Landemore could have certainly made this idea clearer and easier to latch onto, it may still be hoped that this part of her message would be kept by her readers and would come to be perceived as the main idea of the book. For sortition to fulfill its promise in democratizing society, its advocates must stop seeing allotted bodies as a tool for supporting decision-making by elected officials and start seeing those bodies as being independent centers of political power. Landemore’s book is pointing in this way.

One Response

  1. […] an issue to “Just Lotteries”. Hélène Landemore, Yale political science professor and author of the book Open Democracy, has promoted sortition in an interview in The Nation magazine and in an article in […]


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