James Kierstead on sortition as a Western idea

James Kierstead is a Senior Lecturer in Classics at the Victoria University of Wellington with an interest in sortition, ancient and modern. He has written a review of the 2020 book Sortition and Democracy: History, Tools, Theories edited by Lilian Lopez-Rabatel and Yves Sintomer soon to be published in Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought.

Kierstead also wrote some related points in a post on his blog. The post is largely a discussion of a claim made by Lopez-Rabatel and Sintomer in their introduction to the book:

While the practice of divinatory sortition was used in a wide variety of civilizations, the political use of random selection was largely (though not exclusively) developed in the West, where it became particularly widespread and increasingly rationalized. (p. 6)

Kierstead examines the historical evidence in the book – looking at both Western and non-Western history – and tries to assess the validity of the claim.

6 Responses

  1. James,

    You conclude:

    In the meantime, it would seem that political allotment belongs with democratic ideology and majority decision-making as components of democracy that have been more common in Western than non-Western history; and that were probably given a helpful nudge by a Western cultural tradition with roots in the overlapping Greco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian cultural spheres.

    Although tentative, I think this gives the “Western cultural tradition” undeserved credit. With the sole exception being 5th and 4th c. Greece, the dominant powers within the Western tradition have been anti-democratic. While it is true that democratic notions have been a persistent counter-force within Western history there is no reason to attribute this to a Western intellectual tradition rather than to an innate egalitarian tendency of humans.

    The same is true regarding the use of sortition as a democratic mechanism. There is essentially no “tradition” of using sortition as a democratic mechanism at the large-scale political level and there is almost no intellectual development around sortition. What we have (outside of classical Greece) are fragments – both of practice and of theory – which are not particularly impressive and not particularly useful.

    I am not sure why we need to try to piece together a tradition out of those fragments of democratic or of sortition-related practice and theory. In terms of history, it is more interesting and fruitful, I think, to explore the rich and varied anti-democratic Western tradition. While there is an avalanche of scholarship about democracy, the anti-democratic tradition (which is still dominant today) seems to be getting much too little attention (for what may be rather obvious reasons).

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  2. Thanks Yoram. My hesitation about relying too much on an ‘innate egalitarian tendency of humans’ (the way David Graeber looked at democratic history, for example) is that, though I think it does exist, it can’t seem to explain why democracy developed more in some places and times than in others. For that we need to look also at economic conditions, institutions, and ideology. And all of these things have some staying power – democratic institutions and practices seem to have some amount of resilience, and to that extent I think it can make sense to speak of traditions.

    At the same time, I agree that the evidence for a Western tradition of thought or practice to do with sortition is sketchy at best. It’s clearly not the case that the Italian city-states or Swiss cantons simply inherited sortitive institutions from the Greeks or Romans. I do wonder, though, whether the broader Western cultural tradition helped convey democratic ideas (including democratic allotment) into contexts where they would eventually be taken up with some enthusiasm. To be clear, I don’t think that the fact that European intellectuals were reading the Hebrew Old Testament or Greek texts was the decisive factor in the (re-)emergence of sortition in later Western history. But I think once the economic and political conditions were in place, these texts may have given those with republican/democratic tendencies a helpful nudge.

    As for the need to discuss a possible tradition, I can see that it won’t be the first priority of people (as many on this site) whose primary interest is in thinking about how to apply sortitive ideas in the modern world. There may be (and I think there are) good arguments for sortition that don’t rely on the history of the practice. I should also say that even if democratic sortition does turn out to have more of a historical presence in the West, that doesn’t mean that only modern Westerners can or should have recourse to it! Still, I think the history of sortition does have an intrinsic interest of its own, and so may be worth engaging in just for its own sake.

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  3. > My hesitation about relying too much on an ‘innate egalitarian tendency of humans’ (the way David Graeber looked at democratic history, for example) is that, though I think it does exist, it can’t seem to explain why democracy developed more in some places and times than in others. For that we need to look also at economic conditions, institutions, and ideology. And all of these things have some staying power – democratic institutions and practices seem to have some amount of resilience, and to that extent I think it can make sense to speak of traditions.

    I completely agree. In theory there could have been democratic institutions and ideology as part of the Western tradition that would have given democracy a strong presence in that tradition. The historical evidence just does not seem to bear this out. The fragments of democracy that exist in Western history are brief and local and are more appropriately attributed to a generic tendency than to what may be called a tradition. Moreover, the opposite is true: the institutions and ideology that do persist in Western history are explicitly anti-democratic. It is therefore rather tendentious IMO to try to read democracy into Western history or tradition.

    > There may be (and I think there are) good arguments for sortition that don’t rely on the history of the practice.

    Again, I completely agree. If sortition is to be adopted, it is not because of any role it played in past, but because of the role it can be expected to play in future. In case it may interest you, my theoretical argument for sortition is here and here. I’d be interested in your comments.

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  4. I think there is a bit more evidence of democratic ideas being given a nudge by classical learning than you let on. Marsilius of Padua, for example, was someone who was deeply interested in ancient texts, and who also had democratic tendencies that were quite radical for his time. When we do find more arguments for majority rule in the West, these often reflect Greek ideas. Scaevola’s idea that that the majority can be taken as speaking for all, for example, can be traced back to the notion that ‘in the many is the all’ found in Herodotus (3.80.6).

    Thanks for your prospectus on the prospects for sortition, I am half-way though and am enjoying it very much.

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  5. Sure. My point is not that there are no democratic voices at all in the long and rich history of the West or that there are no links at all between those voices. My point is that those voices are few and far between and that they are very far from being the dominant voice or even a well-developed minor voice. It seems that such voices are being overplayed into “a Western democratic tradition” as a way for ethnocentricly bolstering Western “democratic credentials”. (Of course, leaving history alone, the anti-democratic Western present is enough to dispel any notions about Western commitment to democracy.)

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  6. *** The Western civilization with its own heritage (Christianity, Enlightenment, feudal past, etc …) is a specific historical reality, which must be distinguished from the ancient Greek civilization. The Western civilization gave birth to the Modern civilization, where it is only a mega-ethnic subset (the mark of which is the roman script, at least excepting countries without previous script or some countries which did change their script, as Turkey). I don’t think many Chinese consider seriously the European people as “barbarians” (= outside the Civilization – our civilization), or many Europeans the Chinese people as barbarians. When the Other is not a barbarian, he belongs to the same civilization, the same “world” (the world language being for now English). The Taiwan polyarchy lives in the same world as the German polyarchy.
    *** The Western civilization was culturally heir to the Greek civilization in a more complete way than the Eastern-Islamic civilization. The Politics of Aristotle was early translated into Latin (13th century), whereas it was never translated into Arabic (or, maybe, some pieces of restricted diffusion we don’t have). Therefore the Western political thought did know the Greek model of dêmokratia. But usually it did not look to it with benevolence – at least until the time where it undertook to see polyarchy as a “modern democracy”. Sortition was likewise known from Greek literature, but put aside from serious political thinking (with some exceptions).
    *** Now the serious political thought includes considering sortition, and that is somewhat helped by the Greek heritage. But this heritage is not the property of any ethnic subset. When professor Shaoguang Wang is thinking about completing what he describes as “representational democracy’” (the autocratic Chinese system) by some amount of sortition (as others think about completing the “representative democracy”), he knows the Greek precedent.

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