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Beasts and Gods: How Democracy Changed Its Meaning and Lost Its Purpose (Inglês) Capa Comum – 15 nov 2015
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Not a good news book. A frightening look at the future.
Although written before the 2016 US Presidential election or the Brexit vote, the book gives a coherent explanation of why the outcomes of elections don’t reflect the will of most members of a polity. Instead, the outcomes of elections tend to favor the interests of the wealthy — a fact recognized since at least the time of Aristotle (who is also the source, a bit out of context, for the book’s title).
What’s especially new in this book is that RF shows how this advantage operates not only at the national level, when she discusses various election systems, but also gets replicated at the levels of international trade diplomacy, the United Nations, international financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, and even the so-called “civil society” of NGOs. I’ve not seen an argument before that takes in so many levels and that is presented convincingly and entirely reasonably (other than the considerably more paranoid rantings about the Rockefellers and the Trilateral Commission for which I was often a captive audience when I rode the New York subways to work many years ago). RF puts her background in public international law to good use, and explains in a very clear and easy-to-understand voice the kinds of subtleties that are usually buried within specialist scholarship about trade, finance and political science. Before reading this book I, for one, had never given much thought to why countries are eager to get non-permanent seats on the UN Security Council: the answer, which seems obvious once one hears it, is to trade favors with the more powerful permanent members, usually in the form of money or investment in exchange for compliant votes. RF provides some illustrative cases to support her point here, as with the other topics she discusses. Of course the favors these less powerful countries ask for usually benefit the ruling elites in each.
RF also makes an interesting case for why our system has gone so wrong: because it deliberately copied certain institutions of the system of the Roman Republic, which became dominated by the wealthy even before it degenerated into an empire headed by absolute rulers. The Roman Republic inspired the US Founding Fathers and the French revolutionaries, among others, to rely on representative democracy rather than the direct sort. RF’s hostility to the republican idea is a bit counter to the thesis proposed by Niccolò Machiavelli in his Discourses on the First Ten Books of Livy, that the greatness of the Roman Republic lay in its having institutions that set the interests of the rich few and the poor multitude against each other in a constructive way (e.g. the Senate vs. the Tribune of the Plebs). Recent adaptations of this idea have included not only the civic republican movement based on the philosophy of Quentin Skinner, Phillip Pettit and Maurizio Viroli, but also the more radically confrontational notions suggested by John McCormick in his excellent Machiavellian Democracy (2011). RF doesn’t engage with Machiavelli or the recent reconsiderations of republicanism. On the other hand, maybe there was a good reason why Machiavelli limited his work to discussing the first 10 books of Livy’s history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita, when the whole work runs to 142 books, including roughly 100 about the Republic: maybe even the Republic started to go off its rails not long after Book 10 ends, in 292 BCE.
Referenda aren’t RF’s recommended remedy: she shows they’re just as easily manipulated as elections by misleading advertising and campaigning. Rather, RF advocates a return to the deliberative direct democracy of ancient Athens. The method of doing this, she proposes, is the Internet: online assemblies where there would be deliberation open to all participants (as in the Athenian tradition of “isegoria”), immediately followed by voting. There are already online platforms for this purpose (RF mentions Loomio, Democracy OS and LiquidFeedback), and such systems have been in use in Estonia, New Zealand and elsewhere. Participants aren’t anonymous, but “clearly identifiable through online profiles” (@288), and PIN codes and ID cards could also be used for security. RF’s idea is that ultimately the system would have some speakers on camera, with everyone else providing running text commentary, “nothing more complicated than an engaging symbiosis of Skype and twitter Technology” (@289).
What’s more, RF proposes that participants be paid for this service, as members of assemblies were in Athens and as participants in the jury duty system are in many jurisdictions today. Even in ancient Athens, only a fraction of those eligible actually participated in votes. Still, her calculations give one pause: assuming that all 24 million registered voters in Canada participated once every 2 weeks in a 2- to 3-hour session and got paid $30, this would come out to a bit more than $18 billion per year. RF says that this roughly equals Canada’s defense budget, which it doesn’t really need anyway, and that fewer than all those voters are likely to participate each time (@320-321). On the other hand, in a country like the US, 24 million people is already only a fraction of the voting population, and while $18 billion is of course much smaller than the US defense budget, it’s still a substantial chunk of change.
Whether this sort of expenditure is deemed in the best interests of the nation is essentially a political issue, and it’s possible that a country could decide it’s worth it. So my own skepticism about RF’s Athenian solution isn’t based on this question of compensation. Rather it’s based on a few other issues that she doesn’t engage with adequately or in some cases at all: (i) hacking, (ii) access to the online forum, (iii) the role of slavery in the ancient Athenian economy, (iii) the role of public slaves in ancient Athenian government, and experts more generally, and (v) constitutions. Some brief comments on each follow.
(i) Hacking: As one expert on the “age of computer” has put it, “I’ll tell you what: no computer is safe.” Vulnerabilities of computerized voting include not only faking of voter credentials but manipulation of the results after voting by bona fide voters. The book doesn’t address these issues in any substantial way, nor does it talk about how the actual votes could be kept from being traceable to the persons who voted. That last isn’t trivial: it’s easy to imagine a system where those in power could track down and punish people for their votes.
(ii) Access: There are at least two distinct access issues that are pertinent: access to the Internet, and access to an audience. (1) In most countries Internet access isn’t free to all voters. Generally, you need to invest in some Internet-capable device, plus a subscription to a service provider. Even in public libraries, seats are limited. Some of the most vulnerable populations, such as the physically handicapped or elderly, may have mobility issues, so public libraries aren’t an option and expendable income may be tight. Unless there is some sort of minimum guaranteed access available to all voters, something like the Minitel system in France, voting will remain more available to the haves than to the have-nots. While RF does acknowledge that her proposal “is not a perfect solution” because “even in wealthy countries not everyone has access to high-speed internet” (@324), that’s the entirety of what she says about the issue. (2) The other access issue arises when millions are participating online in debate about an issue: who then decides on whom the camera falls, or even whose text feeds get presented to everyone? Would this be left to some algorithm, for example? And if so, who controls the algorithm? After discussing how online mechanisms are being used for “participatory budgeting” in cities like Paris (albeit for only 5% of the city’s investment budget, according to the article RF cites), Köln Germany, and Cambridge MA, RF says “the potential for scaling up participatory budgeting for national use is already obvious” (@284). Maybe, if the nation is like Ireland (pop. ca. 5 million) or even Sweden (pop. ca. 9.6 million), but quite a bit different if the national population is several dozens or hundreds of millions.
(iii) Slavery-based economy: RF mentions slavery only in the context of how Athenians were nicer to their slaves than most other Greeks, including “slave-protection” legislation (@327ff). What she doesn’t address, though is that Athens had the largest slave population among the Greek city-states, and this was an important factor in allowing citizens free time to participate both in wars and in civic affairs. Slaves ran much of the day-to-day economy. Now that we don’t have slaves, it’s hard to see how most working people would have adequate time to participate politically, or that those groups who do have time would be representative of the society at large. (E.g., if voting were dominated by retired and/or unemployed white males, what would America look like?) RF doesn’t address this issue. One might be tempted to speculate that robots, AI and other forms of automation will liberate most people from the drudgery of work, and allow them more time for civic participation. But in Athens, citizens owned slaves and kept the economic fruits of their labors; whereas today, it’s capitalists who own the bots. The benefits of automation won’t accrue to the voting population at large, absent something like a guaranteed minimum revenue — a topic way beyond the scope of the present book.
(iv) Slaves, experts and governing: A little-known feature of Athenian democracy was that slaves were a necessary element of government as well. RF makes a passing reference to “public slaves” as the subject of Athenian assembly deliberations (@40), but never touches on their real significance. Public slaves weren’t owned by any individual or family, but by the polity. In a society where citizens rotated through city offices at least annually, the public slaves were “public servants” both literally and in the sense we today speak of career bureaucrats: they provided continuity and knew how everything worked. Often they would stay in their jobs for years, and thereby amass tremendous power and sometimes wealth. They were the first experts. (At the same time, their status as slaves meant that, notwithstanding all RF’s attempts to downplay violence in Athenian slavery, they could receive punishment in their bodies, whereas freemen were liable only to fines or exile. For more on public slaves, see Paulin Ismard’s excellent « La démocratie contre les experts : Les esclaves publics en Grèce ancienne » (Seuil 2015).) RF generally takes a dim view of “experts” in this book, but the fact is that on issues of great complexity it will be difficult for sufficient numbers of citizens to become adequately informed on their own to make good judgments all the time, or even most of it. Who then chooses which experts to listen to? As the title of Ismard’s book suggests, there is a tension between democracy and expertise, but as the Athenians themselves found, it is difficult to have the former without the latter. I hope a future edition of this book will grapple with this very serious issue.
(v) Constitutions: RF discusses ancient Greek and Roman constitutions, as well as the drafting of the American one in the 18th Century. But even though modern constitutions seem to pose serious obstacles to the sorts of reforms she is advocating, they don’t get any attention in this book. In many countries, this is not so much of an issue if the what you’re seeking to change is the manner of holding elections, because the mechanics of elections are often governed by ordinary legislation or organic laws (important laws that may require supermajorities to pass or to be amended) that are of lesser status than the constitution per se. But if the issue is whether to have elections at all, or how to organize the other organs of government, then constitutional change will be needed. You then run into a chicken-and-egg problem about how to effect those amendments. The book’s presumption is that parliamentarians are the tools of the wealthy elites, but since most constitutional amendments start in national parliaments: will they or their patrons be so willing to surrender their power?
As mentioned at the beginning of this review, though, any shakiness in RF’s proposed solution doesn’t mean that she’s also wrong about the problem she’s identified. Rather it means we just have to keep working to find creative approaches to the problem.
The book has neither footnotes/endnotes nor a conventional list of references. Instead, there is something like a bibliographical essay at the end, which lists key references for each main topic discussed within each chapter. While I’d have preferred more detailed annotation and a traditional reference list, the book’s system was adequate for at least a few things I was curious about. Overall, despite my not being convinced by RF’s prescription, I think her diagnosis is right and the whole is presented with outstanding clarity, so I give it five stars. This would also be a good book for discussion groups and undergraduate teaching, especially if presented with some differing points of view.
Fuller also shows how even the better electoral systems like MMP in New Zealand still ensure that the already wealthy and powerful will retain and expand their exalted places in the polity. She shows how electoral systems are even worse at the international level, including how corrupt NGOs are (I am changing my will to exclude Amnesty and other such organization that kowtow to US plutocracy). Her Athenian remedy is a lottery system based on what we currently have with juries: use the internet to select a pool of people to control the legislative process by being paid to spend time acquainting themselves with issues in detail and then coming to a verdict about what policies are in the best interests of the people, not the wealthy and powerful. Similarly with office holders; where specialist knowledge is required, limit the pool but not so much that it is not large enough to make it impracticable to use bribery and access to media to control the outcome. Brilliant ideas, brilliantly written, a book for the ages. Which no doubt is while we shall never hear of it or her again.