Against Elections

Issue section: 
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The heart of the problem, according to David Van Reybrouck, is very simple: “Our democracy is being wrecked by being limited to elections, even though elections were not invented as a democratic instrument.”

His analysis starts by examining the paradox that everyone wants democracy but no one believes in it any more. Across Europe rates of voting have declined from around 85 percent in the 1960s to 77 percent in the 2000s, while politicians are among the most derided professions, with an approval rating of 3.9 out of ten, according to Eurobarometer.

At the same time there is a huge thirst for political participation as evidenced by the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. Van Reybrouck quotes an LSE study: “What is shared across different types of protests, actions, campaigns and initiatives is extensive frustration with formal politics as it is currently practised.”

This frustration stems from the fact that national governments are powerless: “They are bound hand and foot by national debt, European legislation, American rating bureaux, multinational companies and international treaties” — this he defines as “democratic fatigue syndrome”.

Van Reybrouck’s solution is to resurrect Sortition, the method at the heart of Athenian democracy and our jury system. A panel of citizens is chosen randomly to deliberate on an issue and make recommendations, which the electorate is then called upon to endorse. He cites the example of the referendum on gay marriage in Ireland which was accepted by 79 percent in May 2015, after a panel of 66 citizens and 33 politicians had spent a year in consultation.

Marx makes just one appearance in this work: “The oppressed are allowed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament.”

Van Reybrouck mentions the democracy practised in the Paris Commune, but gives no details about its democratic structures — such as the neighbourhood committees and the ability to instantly recall representatives.

While the analysis of the political crisis is sound, the solutions are limited to tinkering with the system. Van Reybrouck’s conception of democracy does not include workplace democracy; he accepts that what he calls civil society (including the trade unions) is finished.

He also states that mass political parties are history, and that society is now “horizontal” as we are living in an “era of articulacy, of hyper-fast, decentralised communication, which has created new forms of political involvement”. This ignores the fact that in the UK the Greens, Liberal Democrats, and above all the Labour Party, have seen huge rises in membership.

If there was a serious movement for Sortition, it would be worthy of support, but it would not repair the bankruptcy of our system, as it would leave the unelected in power.