Saturday, 1 October 2016

Book Review: Against Elections by David Van Reybrouck

"It would appear that the fundamental cause of Democratic Fatigue Syndrome lies in the fact that we have all become electoral fundamentalists, despising those elected but venerating elections. Electoral fundamentalism is an unshakeable belief in the idea that democracy is inconcievable without elections and elections are a necessarily and fundamental precondition when speaking of democracy. Electoral fundamentalists refuse to elections as a means of taking part in democracy, seeing them instead as an end in themselves, as a holy doctrine with an intrinsic inalienable value."

- Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, p.39.

The statistics on electoral participation in the first world make for a puzzling read. At a time where more people than ever live and vote in democracies, satisfaction is steadily dropping. What has gone wrong, and what is to be done? David Van Reybrouch, a radical democrat, thinks the problem lies in our reliance on elections and that the most feasible and effective fix is to be found in sortitive democracy. 

Sortitive democracy, for the uninitiated, is where positions of power and responsibility are assigned via random chance or "lottery". This lottery can take place among self-selected candidates or work by pooling from among a curated register. It can field qualifications such as "no children" or "must have experience or education relevant to the post" but it generally ensures an equal chance at power for all participants.

What are the advantages of such a system? Well, without elections, parliamentary members can focus on making decisions to the best of their ability. Curating an electable persona while in power is futile if your re-election chances are based, literally, on chance rather than public image and effective canvasing. The sortitive process also reduces the likelihood of demagogues acquiring power and the possibility of media savvy politicians outwitting more competent but less charismatic rivals. The disadvantages are surprisingly limited. While sortitive democracy limits the ability to veto characters who would otherwise never be elected, Reybrouck provides plenty of examples of how checks and balances can be implemented to limit the influence of unrepresentative winners- multiple chambers etc with veto powers and other tempering measures at their disposal.

The most obvious comparison for Reybroucks Against Elections is with David Graeber's The Democracy Project. Both aim(ed) to expand their readers understanding of what democracy could be and suggested alternate forms - although Reybrouck's book is the more detailed and moderate of the two. Reybrouck is clearly a parliamentarian. one who is best summarised as a liberal with some unorthodox ideas; although a radical democrat he is quite at odds with Graeber.

Notably, Reybrouck's treatment of other forms of radical democracy, namely anti-parliamentarianism, is curt and disappointingly vague.  For him the overly heterogenous processes of Occupy were its downfall and resulted in a movement unable to articulate a cohesive set of demands. This is in contrast to Graeber who takes Occupy's decentralised and democratic process to be the very thing that weathered the movement so long against the NYPD. But Reybrouck's critique feels unfinished, almost unattempted. The decentralised participation and consensus systems of Occupy are brushed off before they are even properly articulated and it would help his argument greatly if he provided a more comprehensive breakdown of why he suspects such systems are destined to fail.

Part of Reybrouck's critique of Occupy, and indeed his defence of parlimentarianism, is bundled up in the broadly asserted truism that anything of a revolutionary or anti-parlimentarian nature will necessitate brutality: the hard-core participatory democrats of Occupy are misguided and destined to become proto-stalinists in love with themselves and revolutionary terror. The difference between rejecting parlimentarianism in favour of revolutionary despotism and rejecting parlimentarianism because you are trying to articulate a kinder, less corruptible form of democracy is never acknowledged.

What is proposed towards the end of the book is a sortitive democracy that could temper the electoral system in the hope of one day replacing it. His rhetoric towards the end is hopeful. Although he thinks the current democratic systems are failing Reybrouck is confindent that Sortitive Democracy is a solid solution that has been proven work before, all it needs is a public and political class to believe in it enough to really commit.

Perhaps what is left unaccounted for is that a democracy with low participation and public trust, while dysfunctional, is not necessarily unstable. Academics often over-estimate the importance and timeliness of their solutions to macro-political problems of post-modernity. This is particularly true of radical democrats and other popular authors of the libertarian left.  But while Sortitive Democracy is one way of ameliorating the failures of electoral liberalism, that does not mean that the failures of electoral liberalism are bad enough to propel change. In a society where wealth plays a large role in determining political outcomes we must, cynically, ask whether its failures are serious enough to threaten the affluence of its most powerful members and force the status quo to reconsider itself.

Against Elections is an accessible book that contributes to the broadening of popular debate around the question of democracy, for that it should be thanked. It provides a fairly well-paced and considered critique of elections that help us ask whether our democratic ideals could mean something more than gritting out teeth whenever a demagogue finds themselves on the precipice of electoral ascension. Whether Sortitive Democracy itself is a salve for the paradoxical democratic deficit in the land/s of the free remains to be seen.

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