Blok: Sortition and democracy: equality, justice and the challenge of present-day democracy

Prof. Josine Blok, a classicist from the University of Utrecht, will be giving a talk titled “Sortition and democracy: equality, justice and the challenge of present-day democracy” at the University of Dresden on Feb 5th, 2020.

It turns out that Blok has been interested in sortition for some time. In 2014 she has published a paper called “Participatory Governance: The Case for Allotment” in the journal Participation. The paper is viewable and downloadable here.

In the paper, Blok hypothesizes that sortition was legitimated in Athens by the custom of using the lottery to allocate shares of inheritances among the heirs. Other parts of her discussion are interesting and original as well.

My review of ‘Our very own Brexit’

In good bookstores everywhere – at a very reasonable price

Here’s a review of a book recently published in Australia on the ‘hollowing out’ of democracy.  Cross-posted from the Lowy Institute Blog.

Instead of munching popcorn at the political theatre, citizens’ assemblies would give the community a chance to reflect.

In what we now see in retrospect as something of a political “golden age” – say from the early 20th century through to the 1980s or so – political parties were the institution through which the political aspirations of different sections of the community were articulated and conveyed to the commanding heights of government. Millions of members joined those parties, which were embedded in the community alongside churches, unions, and business associations.

Yet as Sam Roggeveen has described in Our Very Own Brexit, “hollowing out” has now inverted that process. Senior officers of the parties now comprise a political caste, the majority of whom secured their parliamentary position within their party’s career structure with scant achievements elsewhere.

Each party manages their “brand”, and politics has become a Punch and Judy show. We barrack for our side if we have one – or our point of view in innumerable improvised or staged culture-war skirmishes. We cheer and boo, tweet and retweet.

The governance that emerges from this is an uncanny mix of stasis and instability. Stasis because, at least when seeking their votes, each party hews to a small target strategy on policy while probing for ways to misrepresent and catastrophise their opponents’ policies and purposes. Instability because “we the people” so hate it all.

We tell ourselves that the pollies are only in it for themselves. There’s truth in that. But also evasion. They’re victims too. The lead players in the show could be living much more prosperous, happy lives out of the madhouse. We fancy we deserve better than this as we sit in the stalls munching our popcorn. Indeed we do. Yet our clicks and our tweets – above all our votes – drive the whole system. Ultimately we decide who represents us and the terms on which they do.

The most significant achievement of Australian voters’ emphatic decision at the 2013 election was the abolition of carbon pricing, which had taken a decade of political struggle to be absorbed into the apparent political security of bipartisan consensus.

Whenever a political party offers a skerrick of leadership – whenever they depart, however cautiously, from their traditional “small target” or “comms” strategies of relentless manipulation and tendentious evasion, they’re easy meat for the scare campaigns and outrage machines of their party political and ideological opponents.

Roggeveen’s definition of what constitutes “a Brexit” for his purposes is situated within his own, and the Lowy Institute’s focus on Australia’s external relations. I would characterise the UK’s Brexit moment and the US’s Trump moment more generally as the point at which the electorate perpetrated some action that the overwhelming bulk of the political class regarded in their heart of hearts as crazy.

If that’s your definition, then just as Australia led the world in various aspects of economic policy – such as income-contingent loans, community strategies on AIDS, and the strengthening and targeting of welfare – our rendezvous with political crazy predates its moment elsewhere in the Anglosphere by three years.

For the most significant achievement of Australian voters’ emphatic decision at the 2013 election was the abolition of carbon pricing, which had taken a decade of political struggle to be absorbed into the apparent political security of bipartisan consensus. It’s demise has plunged our energy sector into crisis and dysfunction. And it’s rarely noted by the commentariat (why am I not surprised?), but it’s also costing our budget more than $10 billion annually and rising.  Continue reading

Fienberg: Randomization and Social Affairs: The 1970 Draft Lottery

A 1971 Science article by Stephen E. Fienberg, professor of statistics at the University of Chicago, deals with the problematic 1970 draft lottery and places it in a wider context of randomization in social affairs.

Democracy without political parties: the case of ancient Athens George Tridimas

Here’s the abstract of a recent article by George Tridimas in the Journal of Institutional Economics:

Democracy without political parties: the case of ancient Athens

Political parties, formal, durable and mass organizations that inform voters on public policy issues, nominate candidates for office and fight elections for the right to govern, are ubiquitous in modern representative democracies but were absent from the direct participatory democracy of ancient Athens. The paper investigates how the political institutions of Athens may explain their absence. The arguments explored include voter homogeneity; the conditions at the start of the democracy, characterized by single constituency configuration of the demos, simple majority voting and lack of organized groups; the irrelevance of holding public office for determining public policy; appointment to public posts through sortition; and voting on single-dimension issues. The paper then discusses how in the absence of parties voters became informed and how political leaders were held accountable by the courts.

I’ve not yet read it. If you want to email me on ngruen at gmail, I might be able to help you out with access to the article.

Citizen Climate Convention: Become a Democratic Assembly!

An open letter to the members of the French Citizen Climate Convention from several mass-action environmental organizations was recently published in Reporterre – a French environmental daily newspaper. [Original in French.]

A Citizen Climate Convention has been convening since October 4 over the course of 6 sessions of three days each until the upcoming January. How to make sure this unprecedented test of collective democracy, which gives 150 allotted citizens the power to deliberate measures for reducing France’s CO2 emissions by at least 40% in 10 years, does not end up as a tool of self-promotion for a government whose real policy for the last two years has been so blatantly anti-environmental that it forces Nicolas Hulot, its very moderate minister of the environment, to resign? That is possible if the allotted rely on their popular legitimacy in order to change the nature and the objective of their upcoming deliberations. It is for this democratic usurpation that we are calling.

What is it that makes you legitimate, more legitimate in any case than the committee that is supposed to “govern” you? It is not that fact that you were allotted according to social-professional or geographic “representivity” criteria defined by the polling institute. This representativity has no democratic value. The fact that an allotted woman is a self-employed resident of Brittany like me does not in any way guarantee that she would faithfully represent my political convictions. It is therefore not the allotment according to social-professional categories which makes you close to your fellow citizens, but rather the fact that you share their situation of democratic dispossession. In these dying days of this deceptive regime of “representative democracy”, we are all reduced to being nothing more than private individuals, deprived of any meaningful political power.
Continue reading

The Climate Convention: Technocratic illusions and pseudo-direct democracy

An article in Liberation by Salvador Juan, professor of sociology at the university of Caen and researcher at the Center for Study of Risks and Vulnerabilities. Original in French.

The Climate Convention: Technocratic illusions and pseudo-direct democracy

How are the 150 citizens who are supposed to embody the people as they face the climatic challenge supposed to reach reasoned conclusions after a few weekends of work whereas expert researchers spend years in order to understand the complexities of energetic and ecological issues?

If there is a useful concept for defining what the government is doing, it is that of technocracy. Being neither right-wing nor left-wing but promoting progress and growth, technocracy is defined by the identification of the general interest with that of the powerful organizations which manage it – the electronuclear generators, the petrochemical conglomerates, the high speed trains or the industrial agriculture of the 1970’s.

Another characteristic of this new (at the historical scale) power, in which the great state bodies are surpassed by private ones, is the requirement for legitimization by the creation of social demand and of popular support for its products. As opposed to classical economic theories, according to which supply adapts to demand, this power implies the fashioning of daily life according to the products of an industry which is unconcerned with the ecological or health consequences of its activities as long as it can make a profit, either economic or symbolic, related to its image.

Finally the last important characteristic of this new power is contempt for intermediary bodies – associations or unions. It is a quasi-royalist and popular fantasy of a direct relation between a central authority and a mass of atomised citizens, a notion whose dangers for democracy were already described by Tocqueville.[1]
Continue reading

Poole: Sorting Brexit

Steven Poole writes in The Guardian:

Jeremy Corbyn will ‘sort’ Brexit – does that mean solve it or stop it?

This week Jeremy Corbyn promised that, if elected, he would “sort Brexit”, which came as welcome variation from the twin poles of “get it done” versus “make it stop”. Sadly for many Labour voters, though, he didn’t mean he would carefully “sort” Brexit into a fire-pit of things destined for oblivion.

The verb “to sort” comes from the Latin sortīrī, to distribute by lottery, which is why “sortition” is the name for a system of democratic government, arguably superior to the one we currently enjoy, where leaders are made up of randomly chosen citizens.

But Corbyn used the demotic sense of “sort” to mean “sort out”, to solve or clear up, as in the exclamation “Sorted!”. Commuters on London’s public transport have long been irritated by its “See It. Say It. Sorted” slogan, though even “to sort out” – in the sense of to resolve rather than literally to divide – is relatively newfangled, recorded only since 1948.

Yet the sense of “to sort” as to accomplish is of much more antique vintage. As the Third Citizen in Shakespeare’s Richard III remarks: “All may be well: but if God sort it so / Tis more than we deserve or I expect.” So might we feel about the election.