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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.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. Siobhan Siobhan 16 September 2010

    Professor Fishkin’s approach to democratic self-governance reflects the central issues of competence and accountability. Random selection also means that everyone has ‘buy in’ because next time around it be you.

    Fishkin’s model starts with seeking information about the issues upon which decisions must be taken. Functional literacy and access to information are essential in this democratised process. One cannot simply rely on one’s own, uninformed opinion or populist stances. Competence to decide demands proof of understanding the issues.

    The Fishkin process takes advantage of expert knowledge without surrendering responsibility to the experts. The responsibility rests where it belongs: on those who will make the decisions.

    This is NOT a ‘collective’ model (á la ANC) which spreads responsibility so thinly that no one is held accountable. This is an open, public process with accountability built in. The public have the agenda in view and will judge whether the ‘deciders/actors’ have fulfilled their mandate. It removes political posturing and ‘grandstanding’ from the scene and substitutes seriousness of purpose instead.

    Direct participation is the best way ensure ‘buy in’ on the part of ordinary citizens–especially when they know that random selection next year could involve them. What better way to make sycophantic ‘politicking’ irrelevant?

  2. Maria Maria 16 September 2010

    Bert, if the political elites of the world would read Arendt on matters political, and take her seriously, we would have democracies that are more truly democratic. It is good to see someone like Klein resurrecting the issue of what it means to let the people decide, though…

  3. shaman sans frontieres shaman sans frontieres 16 September 2010

    Very interesting, Bert Olivier.

    The dominant issue to my mind is value, and what common ground there is about this.

    If there is wide diversity of values, and by this I mean deep cultural diversity, which runs to the linguistic imagination among many other things, then I suspect that the kleroterion would find it very hard going to achieve decisions.

    Ancient Athens, given its population size and the limited social caste from which the kleroterion was chosen, would have enjoyed a strong sense of common ground. So, I suspect, would a provincial community in China.

    I wonder if a city such as Johannesburg, or Cape Town, or Port Elizabeth would be able to muster such a concilium populi with sufficient common ground and yet sufficient representative diversity of caste and interest.

    And yet the point remains – how truly democratic is the parliamentary system of representation? Even in England where it originates, in its present form, there were ‘rotten boroughs’, and now there is debate over proportional versus constituency representation.

    Thanks for the article.

  4. HD HD 16 September 2010

    Good post. There are many problems inherent in modern democracy and due to sheer size we are basically either ruled by an elite or the mob.

    Sortition, is an interesting proposal but it of course also has its own set of problems. The briefing by experts parts removes many of the quality problems, but you still sit with legitimacy issues.


    Another option is that suggested by the public choice guru Bryan Caplan. He basically argues that the average voter is irrational when it comes to most economic decisions (and political decisions).

    His solution is a Supreme Court of Economics that can overrule stupid economic policies. Caplan is of course deliberate, but plays with some interesting concepts in order to drive home the point that most voters are irrational and that democracy leads mostly to bad policies.


    Another option of course would be the libertarian night watchman state or anarchism (voluntary socialism or ancap). In such a setup you would be mostly/entirely left alone to make your own decisions regarding everything that affects you.

    But it is all pie in the sky in a world of statist lefties than want to enforce all sort of positive rights on everyone and/or corporatist plutocratic elites selling us so called “liberal democracy”.

  5. Atlas Reader Atlas Reader 16 September 2010

    Switzerland is the exemplar of direct democracy. But, for all its progressiveness, Switzerland was the last of the developed nations to extend a universal national adult franchise to women. One canton had men-only voters as recently as 1971. But the voters in some cantons would literally gather in the town square and vote on cantonal matters by show of hands or by acclaim. That’s just as up-front direct as Ancient Athens.

    The Athenians had a splendid democratic tradition in the annual “ostrakon”. Everyone gathered in the square was given a piece of broken pot-shard on which they scrawled the name of the citizen they detested most of all. The winner of the annual “hate-parade” was then banished from the city for ten full years! This ostrakon ceremony gave us the word “ostracise”. Fear of ostracism kept everyone more decent, honest and polite than they’d naturally tend to be, whether in business, in social life or in politics.

  6. brigs brigs 17 September 2010

    Well put. It would be interesting to conduct an experiment, at local government level in south africa to see if this might produce better results.
    People are often better at coming up with broader and better solutions than their representatives, merely because they have different life experience and skills. there is much to be said for a broader base of representation for communities.

  7. Vic Vic 17 September 2010

    The Tea Party is coming to a democracy near you. Career politicians beware!

  8. Trevor Gothan Trevor Gothan 17 September 2010

    This is an interesting concept with several merits. It would go a long way towards unblocking the impasse between the ruling elite and those they supposedly represent. Dangers still exist, however, as depicted in the film “Runaway Jury”, where members of the panel are equally susceptible to external manipulation. I can foresee members dying mysteriously after a kleroterion decision negatively impacts certain power groups. Anonymity would be difficult to maintain and may also reduce “accountable responsibilty”. Any ideas?

  9. Havelock Vetinari Havelock Vetinari 17 September 2010

    What I admire most about the American democracy is in its origins rather than current practice; the feeling I get that political office was originally intended to be reluctantly undertaken as a form of service to the people by one considered best qualified – an interruption of his regular life – rather than actively sought as a power base by career politicians as it is today.

    This kleroterion strikes me as an excellent idea to escape from the vested interests of party politics and get closer to policy being made for the public good. I would be extremely supportive of any such endeavour here.

  10. Quinn Quinn 17 September 2010

    Thank you — another interesting and thought-provoking piece!

  11. Scott Scott 17 September 2010

    I can’t help but wonder whether this couldn’t turn into a more orderly mob rule if political or social questions were tackled. At least in the American case, representative democracy was conceived largely to stem the tyranny of the majority. Can you imagine deliberative democracy deciding questions on gay rights?

    For a more light-hearted view on the subject from Time Mag:,9171,2010191,00.html

  12. Thandinkosi Sibisi Thandinkosi Sibisi 17 September 2010

    interesting article Bert.

    Ancient Greece indeed had ‘limited democracy’ as you put it. However if you were neither a slave nor a female you saw ‘democracy at work’

    what can we say about ‘Apartheid SA’? Is it true that ‘whites saw democracy at work’?(I am not white hence even if I wanted to vote for say Verwoerd or Vorster , I could not)

    What about SA under the ANC? Who sees ‘Democracy at work? (I certainly do not!)

    Does ‘democracy’ ever work except in a very limited sense?

  13. X Cepting X Cepting 17 September 2010

    The Kleraterion is an interesting idea that could work with some modifications to suit our more diverse populace. This movement to a more representative pluralistic democracy instead of an elitist democracy seems to be global trend and, I think, just a sign of the ongoing evolution of human social interaction. As “ordinary” people acquire a more general education they start to realise that the “elites” are not always superior but more often just privileged.  This has been so since the “lie of nobility” was uncovered.  Silly notions like creating a committee of “experts” to find out what people need instead of just asking the people themselves will obviously also create more resentment. Perhaps the concept could be broadened into full conscription style community service (unpaid) where every adult would be called up for a few days a year to do government service.  This will definitely mean a huge savings in tax expenditure, etc. and obviously if it all goes wrong, one will only have oneself to blame. Now to sell it to those who think the term “comrade president” is equivalent to “chief”.

  14. Aragorn Eloff Aragorn Eloff 17 September 2010

    @HD: Not all lefties are statists, mind you ;-)

  15. Benzol Benzol 17 September 2010

    Very interesting stuff indeed.

    @Trevor Gothan: you do make a good point by introducing the consequences of a democratic decision with adverse results for certain individuals or groups. The ultimate penalty for the decision maker being death.

    A larger threat to any democratic system as described in this article is the growing conglomerate of autocratic and solely profit oriented globalised businesses.

    If the problem in traditional democracies is that not all voices in a community are being heard and responded to, the threat of the “global business conglomerate” is more serious. This has the power to undermine any attempt to democratic decision making in a totally non transparent way.

    Corporate globalisation creates power beyond the defined borders and jurisdictions of nations. It represents a layer of “global governance” without the checks and balances of a traditional democracy.

    It leads to economics “sans frontieres”.

  16. Phumelani Phumelani 17 September 2010


    Thank you, SA got a long way to go with regards to democracy. To some of us democracy means BLACK dominance

  17. Yoram Gat Yoram Gat 17 September 2010

    Prof. Olivier and commenters,

    If you find this idea interesting, please join the conversation at the Equality-by-Lot blog ( This is a blog devoted to informing and promoting the use of sortition (appointment of political officers by lot) as democratic tool.

  18. Arelle Whitey Arelle Whitey 17 September 2010

    Interesting …What would happen if corporates bribed the counselors? What would happen if the ‘experts’ were paid by corporates?

    @ Havelock: American Demockracy is a sham.

  19. Gail Gail 17 September 2010

    Thank you for a most thought-provoking article and also to all those who contributed to it by staying with the subject matter. I have certainly learned something from it. As a woman I would have to say that I do not believe one can have any kind of government for the people by the people when one excludes half, and more than half, in some cases of the people affected by the law. No civilisation, regardless of its initial strengths in government of its people has endured indefinitely because mankind is flawed by accumulated knowledge and greed and I wonder if there is any place on earth where man holds sway that has perfect governance. At the end of the day it is about survival of the fittest.

  20. Andrew Andrew 18 September 2010

    Excellent piece & extremely thought provoking.
    One key “support” mechanism for politicos in SA may be the undoing of a Kleraterion system working here & I would really like to get a discussion going on this. That is the uncritical support for “senior” party figures, justified in cultural terms on the grounds of natural “respect” for tribal elders. It is not that I think that there should not be respect for one’s elders in any civilised society, but that this “position” is routinely abused to ensure that real criticism is ignored and degraded. I think this alone would hold back any real moves to an open democracy here, as it tends to already, and that really open, grass roots, political discussion would be subsumed by the “collective” thinking so exhaustingly exploited by the ANC, the SACP & COSATU.

  21. Laban Laban 18 September 2010

    Very much interesting words we have here… Unfortunately, any system that would be implemented will show funny flaws a while later. As matter of fact, there is a sort of dynamic, a social dynamic, which suggests that the system to be implemented should fit the local (geographic, cultural, historic, power structure…) and time bound needs of a given community.

  22. Yoram Gat Yoram Gat 19 September 2010

    > What would happen if corporates bribed the counselors?

    Then briber and bribed would both be prosecuted in the same way it is supposed to be done now. Only there wouldn’t be the issue of campaign contributions that function effectively as legal bribery.

  23. Maria Maria 19 September 2010

    Wow, Bert, you have really touched a chord (or a nerve?) here…the responses indicate, as far as I can judge – if I may – a pervasive feeling of attunement on the part of those people who commented. Could one not perhaps broaden this kind of thing into some democratising exercise? If I had the funds, I would organize a symposium or conference where you, Siobhan, and virtually everyone else who responded, could get together to flesh out this wonderful idea…I hope our so-called democratic ruling party is reading your blog…

  24. Master Bates Master Bates 19 September 2010

    Extending the jury allotment system (kleroterion) to a broader set of ‘decision terrains’ makes complete sense. Many of the flaws within representative political processes are directly addressed via this relatively simple, procedural enhancement. As you intimate, deliberative democracy tackles some of the more intractable bugbears of ‘de jure’ democracy i.e. widespread lack of political responsibility, the disengagement that arises from delegating decision-making powers to an aggregate figurehead, de-localisation, cynicism etc.

    Achieving a balance between periodic elections and more frequent, random selections provides a healthy hybrid consisting of specialist political representation, deliberative group participation and technocratic bureaucracy. On many critical social issues, deliberative processes will trump the prevailing representative system, so long as selected ‘jurors’ are protected (i.e. anonymous), are randomly selected and given access to as wide a range of options, viewpoints and supporting information as is available – & sufficient time to deliberate. Yet this small, procedural modification is anathema to technocrats whose livelihoods depend upon the myth that, ‘the less people know about how laws and sausages are made, the better they will sleep at night”.

    If nominally democratic states, such as South Africa, were to incorporate deliberative procedures in determining everything from policy through to legislation; the next big question would be, what are the limits to which kleroterion could be applied? We may then have a true yardstick of democracy – states that make it their continuous, systematic & procedural responsibility to engage its citizens in its functioning and direction-setting, compared with those that only pretend…

  25. blogroid blogroid 20 September 2010

    Along with others i salute a rare Blog of the Month.

    Six years ago James Surowieki, staff writer and financial columnist at the New Yorker published an insightful investigation into just this process you have described. Called: The Wisdom of Crowds, it was targeted into the financial/business market and achieved some fame.

    His key insight is to demonstrate how we can trust the ‘many’ to come up with the right solution. Wikipedia for instance, decried by academics as un “‘unreliable” source benefits from “the wisdom of crowds’ to rectify error and remedy bias, which is what makes it so popular and useful for ordinary people [albeit as a back up].

    I adapted Surowiekis insights into my classroom management strategies after reading his book, and use this idea of ‘deliberative democracy’ now almost routinely: most frequently [but by no means exclusively] in peer assessment opportunities. One of the points that emerges is the inherent honesty of the ‘class’ in the application of the principles, and the acceptance of outcome is rarely unhappy [and if so clarified].

    Professor Fishkin has undoubtedly tapped into this honesty [reinforced by at least three thousand years of organised behaviour] and has found the outcome as efficacious as i have over the past six years.

    Additionally many traditional societies use ‘deliberative democracy to deliberate on ‘policy’.

    Perhaps Prof Fishkin’s addition of “Action” and a three day time limit for results are the real key factors in the success of his idea.

    Thank you Bert.

  26. brent brent 20 September 2010

    Another suggestion i heard from the US ± 2 years ago was that the Senate should be ‘elected/choosen’ yearly in the same way as a US jury is, by ballet and is mandatory to participate. Thus every year the Senate will be filled by a cross section of the voting public totally devoid of any lobby interests and will thus deliberate on the issues (presented by opposing ‘experts’) and not by monied lobbysts.

    Brings decision making down to grass routes level and miles away from the self appointed elite decision makers.


  27. Bert Bert 24 September 2010

    Thank you for all the interesting and constructive comments. Judging by them, and by the elaborations on what Klein has written on Fishkin’s practice of deliberative democracy – for instance blogroid’s account of his own implementation of such democractic practices – there is a groundswell of feeling that current representational practices can and should be improved on.

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