Timo Rieg is skeptical about citizens’ councils

Below is an extended excerpt from a translation of a piece by Timo Rieg (originally in German).

Everything speaks for the drawing of lots – called “aleatoric democracy” as a method of social control, after the Latin word for dice “alea” and known, among other things, from Asterix: “Alea iacta est,” “the die is cast,” or in the classic German phrase “die Würfel sind gefallen.”

But precisely because everything speaks for the democratic drawing of lots, the current hype about citizens’ councils must make one skeptical. For the strengths of aleatory democracy are a frontal assault on the real ruling aristocracy.

In its egalitarianism, the drawing of lots takes no account whatsoever of party careers; it knows no hierarchy, no compulsory factions, no empty election promises. Parties and lobbyists may exist even in an aleatory democracy, but they would forfeit most of their current influence on public life as a whole.

Of course, it is not impossible that professional politicians in particular, some of whom have known for many decades about the insane autonomy of parties, might long for a change of system and therefore be open to experimentation (some politicians and ex-politicians have written entire books about this).

Good lobbyists could be trusted to convince drawn citizens of their positions; good lobbyists do not rely on political backrooms, on covert influence, on strong-arming. But there will be only a very small minority willing to give up their special role for the sake of a fair democracy.

It is therefore to be feared that some advocates of aleatory democratic citizen participation are wolves in sheep’s clothing. After all, hardly any of the protagonists of this new civil rights movement would like to make their own influence or their own (economic) advantages dependent on a lottery, which means: giving up special rights in favor of the general public.

In any case, the lottery can be quickly discredited if it is used unprofessionally or even deliberately inappropriately – in order to disappear again into oblivion, where it has already lain dormant for the last two thousand years, apart from minor exceptions.


Two problems stand in the way of realization

But we can easily recognize that ultimately strict democracy would be best for most of us, and we can just as easily give ourselves rules that keep our anti-democratic genome in check in such a way that, as far as possible, everyone comes into their own. But two problems stand in the way of realization.

First, democracy requires nothing less than the disempowerment of the powerful. And these are not just political and business leaders; they are ultimately all those who set the tone and shape the debates today, including all those who campaign for more civil rights. They are the lobbyists of large associations and small organizations, the members of expert committees, participation commissions, and neighborhood initiatives, the journalists who explain the world, and the actors, musicians, and bestselling authors of the talk shows.

Research into the elite estimates that a maximum of 4,000 people in Germany belong to the elite, that is, to those who are actually influential. But many more people see themselves as influential and actually set the tone in smaller areas. They all profit from undemocratic structures, from inequality, from hierarchy, from the focus on this so-called elite, from the fact that they are more significant than their audience, the customers, users, the “common people”.

Second, even most of those who criticize our social system shy away from thoughts of fundamental change – even if they are not among those who would personally lose significant influence. Too familiar and too omnipresent is the procedure of electing parties and thus relinquishing not only decision-making possibilities but also all responsibility.

Also out of respectable humility before the tasks of politics, many angry citizens shy away from thinking about a truly different system of checks and balances.

Therefore, it is by no means sufficient to delegate a few non-binding consultations to citizens’ assemblies drawn by lot, as is becoming standard. (We already have such “citizens’ councils” in Germany, France, Great Britain, Belgium, Poland, the U.S. and Japan, among others – and there is much to suggest that their use will increase significantly, at least temporarily). It’s all about the big picture. It is about overcoming domination.

Democracy is always translated as “rule by the people,” but if you think democracy through to the end, there is no room in it for rule by one over the other, there is only room for “self-rule.” Democracy does not need state and citizen as antipodes.

It is one of the great (but of course expedient) misunderstandings that in a democracy the majority decides to which the minority must submit. This is how party rule can be shaped, but not the future. Whether it’s climate change or the next pandemic, whether it’s world nutrition or animal welfare-friendly agriculture, de-bureaucratization or digitization – we need to develop democracy significantly. And that means recognizing the structural flaws and trying something new.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for bringing this to my attention. Rieg is an important voice in this space in Germany. He wrote a book “Aleatorische Demokratie” about sortition the same year as Van Reybrouk (2013), but it has not gotten the international attention it deserves.
    But Yoram, you begin your translation half way through the article and you skip the class struggle opening to the article. He begins by lamenting that the current system is NOT in the position to deliver anything like what we need, because so many important questions are DISPLACED outside of political debate or bureaucratically handled. He highlights the growing inequality, precarity, & lack of services in “one of the richest countries in the world.”
    I’ll have more to say when I read the original and Part 1 of his post more closely.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. […] + Mein kleiner Oster-Essay zur Lage der Demokratie (und der Notwendigkeit grundlegender Reformen) ist in der aleatorischen Szene aufgegriffen und ins Englische übersetzt worden bei Equality by lot. […]


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