Against Elections

July 25, 2015
David van Reybrouck

When the Greek Syriza government finally capitulated to the demands of the troika in the summer of 2015, former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis stated that the entire procedure was a coup that had finally and effectively ended Greek democracy, using banks to accomplish what the former military junta tried to do with tanks. Some of the reactions to his statement was that he was being overly dramatic, since obviously nobody were going to prevent the Greeks from holding elections. This is true, but it hides an assumption: That elections and democracy are synonymous. Belgian author David van Reybrouck's Against Elections (currently available in Dutch, Norwegian and Danish) makes the case that not only are elections and democracy not synonymous, they're opposed concepts.

In So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, there's this rather wonderful passage:

"On its world, the people are people. The leaders are lizards. The people hate the lizards and the lizards rule the people".

"Odd", said Arthur, "I thought you said it was a democracy."

"I did," said Ford. "It is."

"So," said Arthur, hoping he wasn't sounding ridiculously obtuse, "why don't people get rid of the lizards?"

"It honestly doesn't occur to them," said Ford. "They've all got the vote, so they all pretty much assume that the government they've voted in more or less approximates to the government they want."

"You mean they actually vote for the lizards?"

"Oh yes," said Ford with a shrug, "of course."

"But," said Arthur, going for the big one again, "why?"

"Because if they didn't," said Ford, "the wrong lizard might get in.

This largely reflects the situation in most of the modern Western world: People vote for politicians that they mostly despise and consider corrupt, untrustworthy, self-serving careerists utterly detached from the lives of normal people. Many countries (including my home country, Denmark) have sprouted what is effectively an aristocratic political class, complete with all the usual trappings of aristocracy: Closely-guarded special privileges, a sense of separation from the commoners, family dynasties and all. Van Reybrouck's central point is that this is not only an entirely predictable consequence of the electoral system, but a deliberate one: Modern parliamentary systems were consciously designed by their founders to produce elected aristocracies (that, at least, have more legitimacy than self-appointed ones) rather than true democracies. Reybrouck gives rich references for this history — as far back as Aristotle (who was against democracy), who considered elections necessarily aristocratic and anti-democratic. Montesquieu was of the same opinion.

Reybrouck regards this situation as a sickness of democratic society, leading to a crisis of both legitimacy and effectivity. He describes four diagnoses:

  1. It's the politicians' fault.
  2. It's democracy's fault.
  3. It's representative democracy's fault.
  4. It's electoral representative democracy's fault.

The first is the populist diagnosis, and we see it applied everywhere in Europe — right-wing populist parties continue to win landslide victories across the continent. The proposed cure is to get rid of all the career politicians and elect a Man of the People (who, as it usually turns out, actually represents a caricature of the people, with predictably disastrous results). The second is the technocratic diagnosis, which has recently been applied in Italy and Greece, where unelected governments of experts had brief reigns. The third is the diagnosis of direct democracy, as practiced by antiparliamentarian groups such as the Occupy movement. The fourth is the diagnosis of demarchy (also sometimes called lottocracy, participatory democracy or deliberative democracy), which is what Van Reybrouck himself supports. At its core, the idea is to replace elections (possibly only partially) with sortition: Rather than elect representatives, randomly select them for strictly time-limited periods.

An almost immediate response from a proponent of elections (or just someone who's very used to thinking about democratic politics in terms of elections) is that this seems like a terribly irresponsible idea, that would lead to all sorts of incompetents taking office. However, that criticism applies equally well to any representative democracy, including an electoral one: Think of your least favourite politician, and then consider that this idiot was actually elected. Another criticism is that something as arbitrary as winning a lottery isn't indicative of either political skill or even having the people's best interests at heart — but, once again, neither is winning a highly ritualized, professional mass-media popularity contest that rewards its participants for making ridiculous promises they can't possibly keep. In an electoral representative democracy, expertise typically isn't elected either, it's hired, in the form of government department officials.

A demarchist system neatly solves some of the problems inherent in electoral ones: Given a working mechanism of random selection and an inclusive definition of citizenship, it is inherently fair and egalitarian. It will statistically produce fair representation (with a far larger degree of power to ordinary people, who are nominally the basis of any democracy). If many successive demarchist people's assemblies were to consist of disproportionate numbers of rich, middle-aged, straight white men with the same university degrees hailing from the same major city, that'd be a sign that either you're dealing with a massive demographic crisis, or somebody has successfully managed to hack /dev/urandom. Over time, the representative assemblies would be truly representative of the people. There might still be a place for something like political parties in a demarchy, but rather than compete for votes, they'd have to compete for mindshare instead (and making empty promises — the favoured tactic of many an electoral politician — would be utterly ineffective), and they wouldn't command the kind of loyalty they do in an electoral system, and representatives would be more likely to have fruitful discussions as opposed to engaging in the entirely predictable party-based trench warfare common to modern parliaments. In a system based on sortition, significant economic benefits to the representatives actually even seem fair compared to similar benefits in one based on election: The representatives are being asked to effectively put their personal lives and economic activities on hold; compensating them well not only seems reasonable, but also ensures that nonwealthy people from remote regions can participate.

There are some major problems with the scheme too, of course, and I think Van Reybrouck tends to gloss over them. It's possible (in fact, over large enough timespans, practically inevitable) that random selection would sometimes result in disastrous misrepresentation, installing people into power whose views are unrepresentative of the people (although, once again, I immediately think about how the Danish population is consistently roughly divided 50-50 on EU-related questions, but our elected representatives are massively, disproportionately pro-EU). The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the lack of feedback: Since nobody ever has to try to get re-elected, there'd be no built-in mechanism for people to nonviolently punish a bad representative (short of filing a lawsuit of some kind).

Van Reybrouck proposes a kind of hybrid; a bicameral system with one chamber chosen by election and one chosen by sortition — which, historically, is much like the model practiced in ancient Athens, which used a combination of randomly selected lawmakers and court officials, with elected experts (such as military strategists), with relatively rapid rotation. Furthermore, rather than having a single, monolithic parliament-style assembly, he suggests a scheme in which smaller domain-specific councils are continually formed to do some political work and dissolved upon completion.

It's a book and a subject I need to think more about. I agree with Van Reybrouck's criticism and I think his idea seems sensible, but he presents it as something of a silver bullet, and it's usually a good idea to be very skeptical of those.

NOTE: Here's a collection of excerpts translated to English.

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