Back to the Future for a Real Democracy – London sortition talk

20180311-Democracy-SortitionHow can we fix our broken democracies? What lessons can we learn from the past and what bold new democratic experiments are happening right now? At Thinking on Sunday on March 11 at Conway Hall, and together with London Futurists and GlobalNet21, Brett Hennig, author of The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy, will take you back in time through history before jumping back to the future to show how a real democracy of, by and for the people could work. Tickets are now available at

Sortition in the Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics

The Bulletin of the Institute of Mathematical Statistics has published a column of mine that deals with the historical and theoretical connections between democracy and statistical sampling:

Democracy and statistical sampling

For about 2,500 years, statistical sampling was closely linked with democracy. “Selection by lot is natural to democracy, as that by choice [i.e., elections] is to aristocracy,” asserted Aristotle in the 4th century BC, following his own first-hand experience at Athens and the conventional wisdom of his time. Montesquieu concurred in the first half of the 18th century. It was only in the last 200 years, as democracy displaced aristocracy as the legitimate organizing principle of politics, that sortition—the delegation of power by statistical sampling—had to be air-brushed out of history and political science. […]

As part of the attempt to dismiss sampling as a political device it is sometimes claimed today that its use in Athens was motivated by the superstition that randomization allowed the gods to make the selection. However, the historical record indicates that the main motivation behind the practice was the law of large numbers. It was expected that sortition would produce a group that would mirror the population in important respects. This was often stated as an expectation of resemblance between the population and the sample in terms of wealth and social status (i.e., that most members would be poor commoners) but it was taken for granted that these characteristics would be correlated with certain interests and beliefs.

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Words, words…

A pretty informative (and visually attractive) short video in French about how the word “democracy” came to refer to an oligarchical system.

The French and American revolutions overthrew monarchical and absolutist regimes in order to give power to the people to institute “democratic” regimes. The story was beautiful… But digging a little into the subject, we find that the historical reality is very different. While the French and American revolutions rejected monarchy, they rejected democracy at the same time. They are not the point of departure for the power of the people, by the people, for the people but rather for the constitutionalization of a representative regime. “Democracy”, which our representatives like so very much to talk about today, was not part of the design.

The transcript is here.

Arturo Íñiguez: On the meaning of the word ‘democracy’

Arturo Íñiguez, an occasional contributor to Equality-by-Lot, recently published a rather beautiful essay touching upon sortition which weaves together history, linguistics and political philosophy (English, French, Spanish). Well worth reading in its entirety even for people familiar with the idea of sortition, here is an excerpt from the essay:

[R]epresentative regimes can be either aristocratic, if they rely on election, or democratic if they rely on sortition.

According to my experience, a lot of people, when exposed to these truths, will react in complete denial. But the fact is that this has been completely trivial knowledge for political scientists for most or recorded history: from Plato and Aristotle to Montesquieu and Rousseau, in the mid XVIIIth century, all of them wrote the same: elections are aristocratic and sortition is democratic. How come, then, that we have been so thoroughly indoctrinated as to believe the exact opposite of something that was crystal-clear for the greatest human thinkers?

Well, the change began in the late XVIIIth century, when the rich bourgeois in France and North America decided that they would be better off in the future by breaking free from the existing monarchic regime (which after all had not been so bad with them, or they wouldn’t had got so rich in the first place). Needless to say that sharing any power with the poor masses was always completely out the question. The masses would be used to fight the royal armies and then abused into thinking the the victory was also theirs. Both the Founding Fathers and the French revolutionaries were adamant in opposing democracy. Suffice to read what they said and wrote to understand that democracy was for them a very bad and ugly word.

But calling their elective system aristocracy, which would have been the logical thing to do following the philosophical tradition we have just mentioned, was also a no-go. Was not the aristocracy the despised enemy recently destroyed? And at the end they had to settle for a word like ‘republic’, an empty signifier which can mean anything you want it to mean.

A lively discussion followed the essay in the comments and Arturo exhibited the proper democratic mindset and engaged in conversation with some of the commenters. Here, for exmaple, is one comment by a reader and Arturo’s reply:
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Why Executive Power Matters

It’s a bit surprising that this sortition blog hasn’t ventured much into executive power.  Most of the time it’s focused on either legislative power or some other non-executive power.

Not for nothing did one example from Paul Lucardie’s book on radical democratic theory (Democratic Extremism), the Second All-Russian Congress of Soviets, decide a century ago to appoint a truly revolutionary provisional government to “get things done”: the Council of People’s Commissars (Sovnarkom).

That said, sortition today could be applied to traditional cabinets. It could be applied to multiple cabinets in some proposals (state, social, economic, industrial). It could even be applied to the topmost consultative bodies headed by individual ministers, collegia.

Ranciere: What times are we living in?, part 3 of 3

What to save from the drifting French political system? The philosopher Jacques Ranciere was the guest of Aude Lancelin in “The war of ideas” of June 20th, 2017. Here is the transcript of this interview. Parts 1 and 2 of the translation are here and here. [My translation, corrections welcome. -YG]

05. The question today is that of rethinking forms of organization, ways of being together for the long term, outside of the electoral forces.

Aude Lancelin: Your book is also a severe blow to those who today are pinning their hopes on the famous cortège de tête: the group of young people who clash with the police after the demonstrations. You have some ironic words on this subject. For you it is primarily a varnish of radicality which is applied to quite traditional demonstrations. The political meaning of all that and its future are not at all assured in your eyes. Do I misinterpret your thinking?

Jacques Ranciere: First thing: the cortège de tête is not simply the professional revolutionaries who think that it is necessary to radicalize the struggle and who radicalize the struggle by breaking shop windows. There are also people who think that breaking windows is the time of assembly of people who come from different horizons, who come from the political struggle or who come from delinquency in the suburbs, and who suddenly discover themselves. That is a way of gathering people that is classic anarchist or revolutionary politics, and suddenly the people that the movement appeals to and who are involved, who arrive with their own actions, their own revolt or their own ways, are coming first from the world of delinquency rather than from the world of politics. The cortège de tête are not simply people with a specific strategy. Another thing that I am trying to say is that the violent actions of the cortège de tête are also symbolic and not any more strategic in fact than the assemblies of the Nuit debout. Because, in fact, what is it that they are really doing? They take aim at symbolic targets; an ATM, a shop window, a nice car… But that is not at all a strategic action. There is this idea that it is necessary to radicalize, to create an irreversible situation. In my experience, that is not irreversible. It is not that some actions create an irreversible situation. I don’t think that existing conditions create a great realignment. Basically, the question is knowing how to manage this interaction between gathering the greatest number and striking the enemy. But what does “striking the enemy” mean? I don’t really know. I think that in the so-called “radical” thinking, there is always a double logic. On the one hand, the logic of confrontation (“we are going to confront them and it is through the confrontation that we rattle the enemy”) and at the same time a logic of desertion (“if we secede the system will collapse”). In the texts of the Comité invisible there is always this double logic. I think that neither of those two logics is really proven. But I am not trying to give lessons, I am just responding to the questions.
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Athens as a democratic precedent

Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC is often brought up in discussions and polemics about sortition, both in support of the idea and against it. However, since this is often done in rote or knee-jerk manner rather than as reasoned argument the results provide more insight about modern conventional views than about the mechanism of sortition. It is therefore of interest to make an orderly account of the properties of the Athenian system as they are relevant to the question of using sortition in a modern political system and then use this account to evaluate the relevance of the system to the modern debate: the lessons that can be drawn from the historical record, if any, and whether in fact Athens should be a prominent part of the discussion of sortition today.

The historical facts

The institutional arrangements in Athens are pretty well known. My understanding is that the main source for the details is Aristotle’s The Athenian Constitution, but the general institutional picture and the conventional political theory behind them is clear from multiple sources. In addition some background facts about the Athenian society can be established including both facts about the demography of Athens and about the conventional ideology of the Athenians. For our purposes, the following points (“stylized facts”) are the relevant ones:

  1. Athenian citizenship was very restrictive. Of a population of about 300,000 people, only 30,000 were fully enfranchised citizens (adult males of Athenian ancestry). The rest were women, children, foreigners and slaves.
  2. Despite some vestiges of formal political stratification among the citizens, conventional Athenian ideology saw citizens as deserving equal political rights and in practice no formal distinctions were enforced.
  3. The set of Athenian citizens was largely made of two groups – small farmers and city-resident workers. There were two elite groups: landed Aristocracy, and the wealthy city bourgeoisie.
  4. The rich were taxed by the city and money was given in various ways to the poorer citizens, but significant economic inequality persisted in Athens.
  5. The day-to-day governing of the Athenian city was carried out by the Council – a body of 500 citizens allotted yearly. The council oversaw a large number of magistrate boards, each made of ten 10 citizens allotted yearly. There were also a few specialized offices (military generals and high financial officers) that were elected.
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