Book Review from the February 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
'Against Elections: The Case for Democracy', by David Van Reybrouck. (Bodley Head. 2016. £9.99)
Genuinely fascinating and thought-provoking new books seem hard to find, though Van Reybrouck seems to have produced one. In the current climate of political cynicism and apathy, the main title of ‘Against Elections’ could be interpreted as something beyond populism and even a call for fascism, but this is very far from being the case. His main argument is that it is not democracy itself that is the problem, but the way it is practised – almost exclusively through the form of competitive elections that produce self-reinforcing political elites.
Van Reybrouck diagnoses the malaise at the heart of the crisis engulfing representative democracies across many parts of the globe and voter dissatisfaction with elected politicians and parties. He points out that political parties in most Western democracies are now regarded as being the most corrupt organizations legally existing and that contempt for conventional party politicians appears to be at an all-time high too. He also discusses some of the alternatives mentioned to systems of representative democracy, such as direct democracy, which has influenced movements like Occupy and the Indignados. The Five Star movement in Italy, despite its populist flavour, has also grappled with these issues and argued strongly for other forms of democratic consultation and for limits on political terms served by elected representatives.
But few have questioned the usefulness of elections themselves as a ubiquitous part of the democratic process. One of the most fascinating parts of the book is where Van Reybrouck traces the way in which ‘democracy’ and ‘elections’ have now become synonymous. In reality, throughout the history of the last 3,000 years or so, elections have just been one way in which democratic will has been expressed. Another method has largely fallen by the wayside – democracy through sortition, or the drawing of lots. In most countries this is regarded as acceptable for choosing juries making decisions about legal cases, but isn’t typically used otherwise. Van Reybrouck discusses how this situation came about, as the democracy practiced in ancient city states like Athens, or even many of the Renaissance city states such as Venice and Aragon, included very pronounced elements of sortition alongside elements of elections.
Furthermore, it is clear that many of the philosophers of the Enlightenment were strong advocates of sortition too. Montesquieu, one of the most significant influences on modern constitutional theory and nation states claimed that ‘Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy . . . the casting of lots is a way of election that distresses no one; it leaves to each citizen a reasonable expectation of serving his country’. Similar views were advanced by Rousseau in his Social Contract.
However, to ruling elites (both aristocratic and in the rising capitalist class) sortition was dangerous and random and could not guarantee that those entrusted with power and responsibility would be suitable for the role. Hence the emphasis on elections, initially with very limited electorates of those who could be ‘trusted’ – most typically men of property. But of course the granting and widening of democratic rights was a protracted process that was not merely something handed down by the ruling elites free and gratis – in most instances it had to be struggled for, eventually by the majority class of wage and salary earners, and it would be interesting research to see how and why sortition (as opposed to election) was relegated in importance by workers’ movements struggling for democracy.
Van Reybrouck contends that the reintroduction of sortition within Western democracies currently in poor health would be a way of reinvigorating the democratic process and, in doing so, also potentially undermine the anti-democratic movements currently coming out of the shadows. He may have a limited point here, but the hierarchical and competitive nature of capitalist society mitigates against this working in all but a few selected areas – recently sortition has been used as part of consultative processes on constitutional issues in Ireland, Iceland and the Netherlands, though with mixed success.
As in ancient Athens, sortition works best when combined with forms of elections that can produce a range of competent candidates for given roles, with sortition and fixed terms of office providing the genuinely wide representation (and randomness) that stifles the emergence of elites. The Socialist Party of Great Britain already uses sortition in a limited way as part of its internal democratic practice and it seems likely that socialist society would be the most obvious type of democratic social system that would enable sortition and elections to work hand-in-hand effectively. This is because socialism – as a system of common ownership and democratic control – would be a society without classes and elites, without leaders and the led. More work is no doubt needed on this element of socialist democracy, and that can be developed and refined by the wider socialist movement as it grows over time.
Van Reybrouck has produced an important work, but not one that will necessarily save capitalism’s rather limited and somewhat spurious democracy from itself. It is, however, of clear use and interest to socialists as principled believers in the most scrupulous of democratic practices as the cornerstone of a genuinely egalitarian society.