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Kirk Houghton

Author of The Dividing Lines and Bad Things to Good People

Kirk's Book Reviews

Kirk's Book Reviews

Review of The End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy by Brett Hennig

Posted on March 28, 2017 at 4:45 PM

The End of Politicians: Time for a Real DemocracyThe End of Politicians: Time for a Real Democracy by Brett Hennig

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The last twelve months have been tough for neo-liberalism. The election of a protectionist in the United States and the shock decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union have dealt major blows to the Anglo-Saxon world and shook the foundations of the Washington Consensus.

A survey of Europe is just as worrying. ‘Illiberal Democracy’ in Hungary and Poland is on the rise; Greece, the birthplace of western civilisation, hovers on the verge of third world oblivion; and France and Italy remain the biggest threat to the old world’s political and economic stability. For the first time, people are asking if the multi-party democratic state is the problem. But what improvements can we make beyond the existing political system to ensure our societies are fair and responsive to the needs of everyone?

Astrophysicist, Brett Hennig, has a solution that is more radical than anything proposed by the socialist left or capitalist right. How about we abolish general elections, render political parties obsolete and ban the influence of high finance and wealth on our political system? Even more important, let’s have real government by the people for the people with the introduction of an annual lottery where our legislators are chosen from a random and stratified sample of society.

Hennig’s alternative system is called Sortition, a word that has yet to acquire wider currency in the political lexicon of the town hall, focus group or university campus. Nonetheless, in the author’s view, the idea is advanced enough to merit nearly 200 pages of study, including an excellent analysis of the way representative democracy as practised at the ballot box has always been captured by oligarchs and wealthy capitalists.

He may have a point about the exhaustion and inertia in today’s parliaments. The current system of representative democracy appears incapable of addressing the concerns and economic plight of the poorest and least mobile in society. Our conservative leaders promote ‘aspiration’ as a tool for advancement and cling to ‘trickle down’ theories of wealth distribution as the panacea for rising income equality. The left focus on ending austerity, re-nationalising industry and giving the state more clout in economic affairs. Political parties in the centre ground struggle to dismiss the perception that they are the cosmopolitan, internationalist elite that conspired to bring globalisation to our doorstep. But to the author, this is just a cover for the sham spectacle of a system played out between plutocrats: ‘An election is an essentially elitist construction that delivers power into the hands of an unrepresentative assembly dominated by people of wealth and privilege.’ (p. 175)

Is this hyperbole or a disturbing truth? First, let’s assess what our forefathers meant by democracy in the post-enlightenment era. Hennig, starts with ancient Greece, where Athenians had a different concept of democracy to the one we associate with today. Here, the executive decision-makers were chosen by lot rather than at the ballot box. These Hellenic citizens were under no illusion that a system of popular voting would lead to rule by oligarchs, a belief that the founding fathers of the USA appear to have shared over two thousand years later. It begs the question why the masses have never taken over the political system in the age of universal suffrage.

This leads us to one of the critical conclusions in this book: it’s a fallacy to assume the current system of representative democracy as practiced by the USA, India, Japan and the EU countries has been captured by elites. This has always been the case. To back this up, Hennig treats us to a chapter on how politicians in the US and UK are more responsive to the propertied and moneyed classes than the poorest in our society. The case studies and academic citations are impressive, but perhaps not as extensive as they should be for such a contentious statement. Does any historian in Britain believe Clement Atlee’s Labour Government of 1945-51 had an unhealthy preoccupation with protecting plutocrats at the expense of the working class?

So what are the positives of the Sortition alternative?

We’ll see a definite end to money as the biggest influence on politics and the competing interests groups vying for a slice of the pie will find it harder to dictate the distribution of resources. Politicians and parties will no longer be forced to promise all things to all people to win votes and people from all walks of life can make executive decisions that will affect their own particular circumstances. (E.g. disabled people having a say in how public funding is allocated, lower-income people choosing how to close the income inequality gap, etc.)

And how many will be relieved if politics is no longer an arena for ego-driven, power-hungry individuals from elite institutions? Sortititon will solve the problem of elections failing to represent the true diversity of society; the experts advising the chosen executive bodies will be more visible and no longer able to pull the strings behind the scenes. Even the rational-choice theorists might find positives: it should be easier to end rent-seeking distortions once the new legislators are made aware of restrictive economic practices. After all, those making decisions are not in danger of being de-selected by a political party; nor can they be stripped of funding from lobbyists or live in fear of losing their seat at the next election.

This may sound good in principle, but the discerning reader should not forget their scepticism. Brett Henning claims to be neither from the left or right of the spectrum, but there’s no doubt he is from the former. Sortition is unapologetic social engineering. In his view, ‘If half of parliament were composed of women, had many young adults and was dominated by people from working-class backgrounds, it would produce very different legislation.’ (p.164) This sounds similar to the crusading attitude of the social justice movement that sweeps through civil life and infects our schools and everyday discourse with its desire to eliminate rule by middle-aged white men. Where will this end?

Sortition could also be a threat to national unity when rolled out at a more decentralised level; this is also why the author envisages more of a ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ revolution. No consideration is given to the idea that the strongest societies have a national character or collective identity that brings them together. Sortition could undermine the type of governing ideology that unites us and lead to yet more moral relativism and an obsession with diversity. One can imagine how difficult it would be for a deliberative government to engage in foreign affairs with other nations, never mind earn their respect.

The way we arrange our public affairs will always invite fears that government by the masses equals chaos. Monetary policy may take an even more populist approach than under representative democracy. And how can the apathy of ordinary people be reversed in our shallow, consumer-driven society where material abundance dominates? Towns and cities with large Islamic populations may even pass legislation that runs contrary to democratic ideals of tolerance, human rights and the sovereignty of the individual. Though the new citizen legislators can be removed by a vote of no confidence, this may result in political paralysis. Especially if a strong civil society and independent media are constantly defenestrating lawmakers chosen by lot. Will the masses lose faith and become cynical?

And what about more abstract philosophical concerns? Where will restless and ambitious people turn their attention if denied the opportunity to gain recognition at the ballot box? The human need for ‘thymos’ is the reason why Francis Fukuyama identified liberal democracy, for all its flaws and obsessions with empowering obscure minority causes, as the one most able to satisfy both the master and the slave in their need for recognition. Those denied access to public recognition in political office will need an outlet for their ambition; but not everyone can be an investment banker or corporate lawyer. Who’s to say we don’t end up with a shadow state in the military and security services where powerful individuals come together to rule by stealth?

These are just a few of the issues that Sortition raises, but herein lies the beauty of this book. A good piece of political theory should have your brain working in overdrive and lead you to ask questions that concern the whole of humanity. The potential to organise our daily affairs in the most just and equitable manner affects us all and will continue to define our evolution as a civilised species. Brett Hennig dares to ask the impossible and invites us to have faith in our imagination as rational and highly-developed human beings.

You may not agree with his optimism for a painless transition from ballot box to government by lot and it may prove impossible and unworkable. But a new word has entered the political vocabulary and you should be hearing more of it in the future.

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