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‘People are tired of the elites telling them what to do’

In a recent issue of TIME magazine, Joe Klein makes an interesting suggestion. Harking back to an ancient Greek selection process or practice in BCE Athens, called the kleroterion, by which several hundred citizens (“free” males only; Athens had a limited democracy) were randomly chosen by drawing identity tokens every day, and tasked to make important decisions for the city — or polis, as it was known — he points out that this practice has experienced a kind of revival in some quarters today, and is worth emulating more widely.

In the district of Zeguo, in China, for example — ironically, if one recalls that China is not exactly a democracy — such a “kleroterion” functions, adapted from the original Greek format, and led by an American professor (James Fishkin). It annually selects the people responsible for all budget decisions in the district, and consists of 175 individuals, chosen relatively randomly (but so that they reflect the composition of the general population) for a year. These members selected by the kleroterion are questioned or polled on the major issues they will have to decide on, then they are briefed on them by “experts” who hold divergent views. Next, they gather in small groups for discussion, and prepare questions, aimed at further clarification, for the “experts”. Then they have a plenary meeting to listen to the response by the experts, and further discuss matters. This process is repeated once again in full, and a final survey on the budget priorities is taken, announced, and formally adopted by the local government. This happens in the course of three days.

The process described here developed over five years, under the leadership of Fishkin, and has proved to be so successful that the Chinese government is considering expanding it to other districts. (It is noticeable that the kleroterion functions here in relation to economic matters; one wonders how long it will be before the Chinese broaden it to political decision-making.)

At any rate, Klein informs one that Professor Fishkin has been conducting such “experiments” in what he terms “deliberative democracy” for about 20 years, and in light of his experience believes that “the public is very smart if you give it a chance” — that is, if they believe that their voices and decisions actually make a difference, members of the public selected by kleroterion will do the necessary work, study the relevant documents, grill the experts with penetrating questions, and make the difficult decisions required of them. It is especially their experience of “experts” disagreeing about issues that is important here, it seems, because it forces such selected people, tasked with certain decision-making responsibilities, to “think for themselves”.

In light of all the evidence that Fishkin has adduced in favour of such “deliberative democracy” exercises, Klein suggests expanding it to American national level. His suggestion comes in the face of the “blue ribbon” commission, appointed by President Barack Obama, to “study” the federal deficit. Instead, Klein argues, Obama should use the 18 appointed commissioners to formulate a briefing for 500 or so Americans selected by Fishkin’s kleroterion, tasked, in turn, with grilling the commissioners about the most complex budget decisions and options faced by the US, as laid out by them in the document.

In addition, Klein suggests, the whole process of deliberative democracy at this level should be televised. Moreover, he is betting that the kleroterion would “produce results bolder and more credible than anything Obama’s commission will recommend”. He ends the article with a quote from Fishkin: “People are tired of the elites telling them what to do”. I could not agree more.

This reminds me of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s account, in Multitude, of what they called the “crisis of representation” in countries all over the world, including democracies. What they mean by such a “crisis”, has to do with the fact that democracies in today’s world are so populous that any kind of “direct” democracy, where people “represent themselves”, seems to be out of the question, and hence it is taken for granted that “representative democracy” is the only viable option. Such representation, they argue, falls woefully short of the democratic ideal of “government of the people, by the people”, or “government from the bottom up”, as it were. Instead one finds that, at every level of “representation” — local, regional, national and international — the “people” are never truly represented.

Think of a number of councillors “representing” all the inhabitants of a city the size of Cape Town or Durban, or members of a provincial government “representing” the people living in that province, or the members of a parliament (or house of representatives) “representing” all the citizens of a country. In practice these “representatives” are likely to be loyal to party interests or policy, or worse, milk the system for their own material benefit, with scant thought of the poor constituents that they supposedly “represent”. As Hardt and Negri point out, the kind of national “representation” at the United Nations’ National Assembly is perhaps the most ludicrous of all, with ONE ambassador “representing” all the citizens of a single country, regardless of the many divergent, if not downright conflicting, interests on the part of these millions of people.

In her magnificent study, The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt has some relevant things to say in this regard. She distinguishes among three domains of activity in human society — as evidenced in ancient Athens — namely, “labour”, “work” and “action”, of which the last is the highest mode of social activity of which humans are capable, according to her. While the first two, labour and work, respectively, denote the kind of manual labour associated with unskilled workers (such as digging, for example) and the work requiring a certain techné or skill for the fabrication of enduring objects (such as the things produced via craftsmanship, art and architecture), “action” is very different. It is in action and speech (which is inseparable from action, for Arendt) that the true humanity of humans first manifests itself, and moreover, the uniqueness or distinctness of every person too. In The Human Condition she says (p 176):

“Speech and action reveal this unique distinctness. Through them, men distinguish themselves instead of being merely distinct;
they are the modes in which human beings appear to each other, not indeed as physical objects, but qua men. This appearance,
as distinguished from mere bodily existence, rests on initiative, but it is an initiative from which no human being can refrain and still be human. This is true of no other activity in the vita activa. Men can very well live without labouring, they can force others to labour for them, and they can very well decide merely to use and enjoy the world of things without themselves adding a single useful object to it; the life of an exploiter or slaveholder and the life of a parasite may be unjust, but they certainly are human. A life without speech and without action, on the other hand — and this is the only way of life that in earnest has renounced all appearance and all vanity in the biblical sense of the word — is literally dead to the world; it has ceased to be a human life because it is no longer lived among men.”

In democracies where the opportunity to engage in (political) action by means of speech is not available to people — men AND women — it is small wonder that they sometimes become dissatisfied with their so-called “representatives”, who often turn out not to “represent” their constituents’ interests at all, but only their own. And even if they do fulfil this representational function “properly” — as a few individuals in the SA Parliament seem to do — in the light of what Arendt says, the vast majority of people, who never get a chance to speak on their own behalf, lack an important element of their human make-up. Following up on Klein’s suggestion regarding the kleroterion, that opportunities for “deliberative democracy” be created on a larger scale along this avenue, could lead in the direction of greater democratic participation in the Arendtian sense of “action”. Such a process could only be salutary for democracy, as long as it is not restricted to matters economical, but expanded to include really tough political issues as well — starting at a local level, and then slowly broadening it to regional and national levels. Perhaps this way the meaning of “democracy” could be recuperated.