Double Review: ‘Against Democracy’ and ‘Against Elections’

I recently reviewed two books ‘Against Democracy’ by Jason Brennan and ‘Against Elections’ by David van Reybrouck for the Los Angeles Review of Books. I wouldn’t say that I loved either book, but I did give Terry a shout-out in the review :-)

“Against Democracy” and “Against Elections”: Where Do We Go From Here?

AS THE UNITED STATES APPROACHES a most divisive presidential election, it is hardly surprising to see an upsurge in literature proposing to diagnose and cure the ailments of modern politics.

Against Democracy and Against Elections both fall into this category. Despite their provocative titles, they each present detailed plans regarding what they are for rather than focusing solely on what they are against. This willingness to explore alternative politics is a clear strength of both books and what sets them apart in a market clogged with tomes that tend to be heavier on rants than original thinking.

Power to the People? BBC World Radio


I was invited to speak on News Hour Extra on BBC World Radio last week, along with Baroness Helena Kennedy, William Galston of the Brookings Institution, and Kenyan journalist John Githongo. The show also interviewed Pia Mancini of DemocracyOS. Highlights include me calling the entire Anglo-American establishment a collection of oligarchs, and a brief foray into sortition in the end. There has been a huge backlash against ‘democracy’ in the wake of Brexit, which I personally find highly concerning (although simultaneously completely predictable), so I was very happy to be able to participate in this conversation.

If anyone wants to listen, the podcast is here:

Book Review: Democracy: A Life

I seem to be reviewing a lot of books lately, including this review of Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life in the Los Angeles Review of Books (cited in a previous post by Peter Stone). While the book covers what will be familiar ground for many here, the author also charts how the idea of ‘people power’ has been treated over the centuries that have elapsed since Athenian democracy. As such, I feel that he (intentionally or unintentionally) made an important contribution to challenging the negative perception that we have of citizen participation by explaining how this view developed over time. Another one to order for the library!

Cartledge goes to some effort to show how later [post-Athens] historians and statesmen were anxious to portray Greek democracy as a horrible mistake, the unworkable aspiration of starry-eyed dreamers that was preprogrammed to end in chaos. Under the onslaught of these propagandists, the vast majority of whom never experienced Athenian democracy — and indeed were often born several hundred years after it ceased to exist — the idea of political equality came to be regarded as a myth, the notion of the collective people holding power a danger to be shunned, suppressed, and preferably forgotten.

The truth was that democracy was a dangerous idea — to the kings, emperors, and high clergy who controlled information in the centuries after it ceased to be a living form of government. As the author puts it, while these autocrats held sway throughout the Middle Ages, the very idea of democracy was “on life-support.” And while things may have improved since, modern democracy is, in Cartledge’s view, not in much better shape — off the machine perhaps, but still staggering around the hospital ward, clutching at bits of furniture, and trying to remember what had happened to bring it there in the first place.

Aftermath of the Irish Election

I recently ran in the Irish general election that was held on Feb. 26th as an Independent (Non-Party) candidate, campaigning on a platform of direct digital democracy.

As some of you may know, this election did not deliver a clear winner or even a clear coalition. A month on, a government has yet to be formed. While some prefer to see this as an argument in favour of the need for stronger government and an end to Independents like me, my view is that it is but one further indictment of the party system. The major parties did badly because they refused (for years) to listen to the people who voted for them, and utterly failed during their campaigns to credibly address any of the mistakes they had made or even to present reasonable solutions for the future. Despite these failures, rather than getting on with the business of governing the country, we are left in limbo waiting to see whether any of them (Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and Sinn Fein) will condescend to form a government with each other. This is a distinct possibility for Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, who between them received nearly 60% of all seats with less than 50% of first-preference votes. The constantly trumpeted line that the public voted for the establishment parties is thus wildly over-stated, and there has definitely been a serious push towards alternative politics.

I definitely noticed this while out canvassing, with most people at least open to the idea of more participatory politics and a surprising number already fairly well-informed about participatory initiatives at home and abroad. Most surprisingly of all, I could knock on people’s doors out of the blue and they would not only answer the door, but read through my literature there and then and really engage with the issues.
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Book Review: Democracy’s Beginning

Greetings, everyone. Please excuse my long absence, due to – of all things – running in an election. I recently had the pleasure of reviewing ‘Democracy’s Beginning: The Athenian Story’ by Thomas N. Mitchell former Provost of Trinity College, Dublin for the Irish Times:

Alien and fascinating

It is common knowledge that democracy was invented in ancient Athens, but Mitchell explodes the myths of what that democracy was like. In Athens, all citizens had an equal say in public affairs (known as isegoria), staffed enormous citizen juries, were chosen for office by lottery, and were paid to participate in politics. In describing this way of life, Mitchell paints a picture of a society both alien and fascinating, underscoring the vibrancy of this long-lost civilization with a collection of maps and photos in the centre of the book.

His close scholarship shines in documenting the transition of Athens from financially and morally bankrupt oligarchy to emancipated democracy 2,500 years ago. It was not an easy or linear process, and the book tracks the many clashes of ideas and personalities with a commendable attention to detail that beautifully captures the essence of ancient Greek culture and politics.

From Solon’s economic balancing act, through the political reorganisation of Cleisthenes, the assassination of Ephialtes and, finally, Pericles, one of the most respected but sober leaders of the early democracy, Democracy’s Beginning explores this innovative and fearless experiment in “people power”.

Full review here. I would highly recommend the book to anyone interested in Athenian democracy. It is extremely comprehensive and highly readable.

Creating a Framework for Sortition

Dr. Roslyn Fuller is a lecturer in International Law based in Ireland. She is a regular contributor to Irish and international media on world trade, privacy, whistle-blowing and the War on Terror. A great fan of the classics, she has been researching democracy for over a decade and is the author of Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed its Meaning and Lost its Purpose, to be published by Zed Books in November 2015. [Welcome to Equality-by-Lot! -YG]

When I first started researching ancient, democratic Athens, I was struck by the layers of randomness built into the political system. Sure, it wasn’t a utopia, but under Athenian democracy wresting control of the decision-making process was at least a difficult and continuous task, because the thrust of the system worked against what Robert Michels would have termed ‘the Iron Law of Oligarchy’.

Lottery selection for most office-holders, as well as for Athens’ enormous juries was one aspect of that randomness. The more I read, the more I was impressed not just with the practice of sortition, but the way the Athenians went about it: dropping their pinakia (identity-tickets) into baskets, having them shaken up, the presiding official randomly drawing a ticket, that person becoming the pinakia-inserter and in turn randomly drawing tickets, dropping the kyboi, or coloured balls, randomly down the kleroterion’s funnel. The Athenians were clearly determined to bastard-proof their system. In my view, their paranoia was justified, and represented nothing more than healthy respect for the criminal (or oligarchic) mind.

But there’s not much point in creating such a fool-proof sortition system if the overarching politics doesn’t change as well. As we all know, in Athens the process of sortition didn’t run in parallel to a sophisticated and expensive electoral system; it ran in parallel to the Assembly. Whatever else one may want to say about Assembly, it was the national focal point for the issues of the day. Assembly attendance was also somewhat random (if self-selecting) in that it generally depended on who showed up of their own volition. A rhetor never looked out on the exact same Assembly twice, and while the ‘professional’, often affluent, rhetors certainly wielded a great deal of influence, they never did know when some unknown citizen would pop out of the woodwork and carry the day against them. Power was possible; power consolidation more of a challenge.

It was this Assembly that was down with sortition in its various forms. It’s hard to look at Athens and see how sortition could have existed side-by-side with the kind of entrenched and powerful electoral politics practised today.
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