Category Archives: Democracy

Models of Participatory Budgeting


The following was written as a research document for Rebecca K.W. Keelwho is running for 2nd District City Council of Richmond, Virginia. Please support all soldiers for democracy!

Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which the general public is organized and mobilized to enact its own collective priorities regarding public funds. While governments retain the right to levy taxes and produce a fixed operating budget for each year, participatory budgeting empower citizens to allocate public resources according to their needs.

The Network on Participatory Budgeting and Municipal Governance divides the history of participatory budgeting into three stages. First are the years from its inception in 1989 until 1997, during which participatory budgeting was confined to a few, adventurous Brazilian cities. This was the ‘experimentation’ stage, during which the model was exported from its origin city of Porto Alegre and tweaked according to local conditions. This was followed by the ‘Brazilian spread’ to 130 of Brazil’s municipalities through to 2003. After that year, participatory budgeting leapt to the world stage (‘expansion’) in a diversity of forms (‘diversification’) (Cabannes, 2015). For simplicity, let us confine our historical discussion to its origin in Porto Alegre and the transformational effects the process had on that city. Then we will jump to the past five years, during the third stage of global expansion and diversification, particularly as participatory budgeting entered the United States.

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The Foundation of All Ills

Bertrand Russell wrote, in chapter two of his Political Ideals (1917):

Even in times of peace, most men live lives of monotonous labor, most women are condemned to a drudgery which almost kills the possibility of happiness before youth is past, most children are allowed to grow up in ignorance of all that would enlarge their thoughts or stimulate their imagination. The few who are more fortunate are rendered illiberal by their unjust privileges, and oppressive through fear of the awakening indignation of the masses. From the highest to the lowest, almost all men are absorbed in the economic struggle: the struggle to acquire what is their due or to retain what is not their due. Material possessions, in fact or in desire, dominate our outlook, usually to the exclusion of all generous and creative impulses. Possessiveness—the passion to have and to hold—is the ultimate source of war, and the foundation of all the ills from which the political world is suffering. Only by diminishing the strength of this passion and its hold upon our daily lives can new institutions bring permanent benefit to mankind.

Institutions which will diminish the sway of greed are possible, but only through a complete reconstruction of our whole economic system. Capitalism and the wage system must be abolished; they are twin monsters which are eating up the life of the world. In place of them we need a system which will hold in cheek men’s predatory impulses, and will diminish the economic injustice that allows some to be rich in idleness while others are poor in spite of unremitting labor; but above all we need a system which will destroy the tyranny of the employer, by making men at the same time secure against destitution and able to find scope for individual initiative in the control of the industry by which they live. A better system can do all these things, and can be established by the democracy whenever it grows weary of enduring evils which there is no reason to endure.

Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Councils

The Petrograd Soviet
The Petrograd Soviet, 1917

Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Councils, also known as soviets in Russian, were the democratic ideal of 20th century socialism. During this century, when the traditional social order breaks down, people organize popular assemblies in the place where they spend their time. In the 20th century, at least, that place would be their place of work, where most people were consigned for over 8 hours a day. Thus, when social institutions crumbled, workers turned to their co-workers in the factory. From their assemblies, deputies were elected to a council, to provide direction and order amid social chaos.

Origin and History

The first workers’ councils appeared during the first Russian Revolution, in 1905. They evolved from traditions of Russian labor disputes, wherein capitalists preferred “councils of factory elders” to dealing with trade unions and strike committees. During the 1905 revolution, workers’ councils in urban areas and peasants’ councils in the countryside first appeared as means of self-government alternative to traditional local government, and for advancing the interests of the represented class. Among all the many Russian social revolutionaries, only Lenin predicted at the time that the soviets would become the principal form of socialist democracy.

When the Russian Revolution destroyed the tsarist autocracy in 1917, workers’ councils were again the dominant mode of popular governance. The Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) Soviet was the effective authority of the Revolution. While a traditional (bourgeois) “Provisional Government” existed, the Soviet was the assembly that workers looked to. When military units began sending delegates to the Soviet (making it a Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies), the Revolution was entirely in the hands of the Soviet. The Provisional Government could do nothing without the authority of the Petrograd Soviet.

Across Russia, soviets of a single class (either workers or soldiers or peasants) or mixed soviets (workers’ and soldiers’ councils, or workers’ and peasants’ councils, etc.) effectively governed their own patch of land. The Bolsheviks were the only party that advocated peace and Russia’s withdrawal from the First World War. Thus, they dominated the weary Russian soldiers and sailors, who in turn recognized only their own soviets, not their officers, as an authority. Meanwhile, the Social Revolutionary Party was by far the most popular of the revolutionary political parties. It was the support of the soldiers’ soviets, and not their democratic victory, that propelled Lenin and the Bolsheviks to power. The Bolsheviks dissolved the constituent assembly, and instead turned to the All-Russian Congress of Soviets to write the new socialist constitution. This constitution made Russia a “soviet republic”, and its later inclusion of other, conquered soviet republic created a “Union of Socialist Soviet Republics”.

The soviet phenomenon spread across Europe, as far west as a creamery in Ireland. Germany was another hotbed of workers’ self-organization. The German Revolution began when the sailors at Kiel refused to reenter the slaughterhouse of the First World War. The soldiers and sailors at Kiel established a workers’ and soldiers’ council and took the city under their control. In time, soldiers’ and workers’ councils would take many cities. In Munich, the workers’ and soldiers’ council abolished the Bavarian monarchy and created a Bavarian Soviet Republic. German “free militias” – the seeds of German fascism – responded and successfully crushed the German soviets. The Social Democratic Party, Germany’s principal socialist party, stepped aside and allowed the private militias destroy the workers’ councils. The German soviets threatened their own domination of the new German Republic, now remembered as the ineffectual Weimar Republic. A neutered form of workers’ councils remains, though. The Weimar Republic established the German tradition of co-determination in their corporations, in which employees elect “works councils” to represent them to the corporation, and to share power on the corporate board.

Workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ councils appeared in other times and places throughout the 20th century. Wherever there was industry and social dissolution, workers’ councils appeared. Sometimes this was the result of socialist ideology, but mostly it was the organic result of people organizing where they spent their time. Workers’ councils appeared during the various revolutions of the 20th century, including in China, Spain, France, Chile, Portugal, Iran, and even Hungary in 1956, when soviets were formed in rebellion against the Soviet Union.


Workers’, soldiers’, or peasants’ councils are formed when the social order breaks down and a new order is needed. The dissolution of authority means that capitalists no longer have the means to command their workers, because the police or private security are unwilling to help compel employees to obey. Soldiers refuse to obey their officers, and so obedient soldiers no longer quash the rebellious soldiers. Instead, responding to the ancient democratic that lies dormant in the minds of human beings, they gather into assemblies. Those assemblies unite across a common area by a council of elected deputies. Because the workers and soldiers formed these councils spontaneously, there was rarely any consistent standard of constituency. Some deputies were elected by a single factory, some by a number of small factories. Soldiers often elected deputies by unit. This could result in enormous councils. The Petrograd Soviet was composed of 3000 deputies in its final form. And because of the inconsistent representation between workers and soldiers, two-thirds of the council were soldiers’ deputies. As much as its perceived legitimacy, its control by the disaffected military was a source of its power over the city in revolution.

The soviets gradually developed a standard form for dealing with the issues that came before it. All business went before a smaller Executive Committee, elected by the soviet. The Executive Committee in turn submitted its decisions back to the whole soviet for acceptance or denial. Executive Committees would subdivide into subcommittees to handle more specific matters.

At first, the soviets governed their own little piece of Russia, but soon they convoked an “All-Russian Congress of Soviets” to reunite revolutionary Russia. The Congress of Soviets was a body of deputies elected by local soviets or provincial congresses of soviets. Russian workers, soldiers, and peasants were thus represented “indirectly” in the Congress, because they did not vote for their deputies to the Congress. Rather, they elected their soviet, and the soviet elected deputies to other congresses. Again, the Congresses of Soviets tended to be huge, with the important Third Congress having 2400 deputies. The Congress turned deliberation of legislation over to a Central Executive Committee (CEC) of 500 of its members. Originally, the CEC would draft legislation and deliver it to the Congress’ three annual sessions for their approval. Eventually, though, the Bolshevik dictatorship dispensed with the democratic fiction and the CEC passed legislation on its own. The CEC turned administration over to a Council of People’s Commissars (ministers of state), periodically elected.

Stalin eventually effaced most of these unique features of the soviet system in his 1936 constitution. A directly elected “Supreme Soviet” replaced the indirectly elected Congress of Soviets, and traditional ministers of state replaced the people’s commissars. Stalin intended that the Soviet Union resemble European parliaments as much as possible, while at the same time resurrecting czarist and nationalist Russian traditions.


Workers’ councils have been the democratic hope of heterodox socialists and communists throughout the 20th century. Mainstream Communists towed the line dictated from Moscow or Beijing, in which workers’ democracy was whatever Dear Leader said it was. But sidelined socialists, communists, and anarchists delved into the workers’ councils concept, and what this spontaneous creation of the working class meant.

The first notable element of workers’ councils is their class basis. Because deputies are elected from the places of work in capitalist societies, the councils exclude the capitalist class (who typically is not at the scene of work). Territorial constituencies would include any person in that territory, but factory-, farm-, and barracks-based constituencies only capture the classes that inhabit those spaces. Thus, Lenin thought that soviets alone would be the organ of proletarian (and peasant) revolution. This is also their weakness as a governing organ, however. Unless the industry was considered “women’s work” (as textiles were and are), the workers’ councils would be dominated by men. Many Russian working women were housewives, or worked in trades that were not socialized, such as domestic labor. Thus, women would be excluded from the soviets. The same would be true for the unemployed. Only the working class may have composed the workers’ councils, but not all the working class.

The socialist tradition envisions precisely the indirect representation that the soviets adopted in the form of Congress of Soviets. Instead of what we are used to today, in which we vote directly for representatives to our national assembly, Russians would elect their soviets, and those soviets would send delegates to a district or provincial congress of soviets, and those congresses would send delegates to an “All-Russian” Congress of Soviets. After more soviet republics were added (conquered), their congresses of soviets would send delegates to the All-Union Congress of Soviets. The benefit of this structure was that each constituency is organized. Each soviet is capable of debating and deciding national policy and directly instructing their deputy with their decision, and likewise in each congress of soviets up the ladder. The diffuse electorates that elect representatives do not have that ability to confer with one another. However, in contemporary research, indirectly elected representatives are found not to be as representative as directly elected representatives. In most nations, the trend has always been away from indirect election. In the United States, the 17th Amendment transferred the election of Senators from state legislatures to the people of the state. For several decades at least, this prevented the corruption of the state legislatures from infecting the federal government. Likewise, the indirect election of the president has created a host of electoral problems – namely, that the president does not have the support of the majority.

However, in the revolutionary socialist vision, the government is not meant to satisfy the same purpose as is conceived in liberal capitalism. In liberal capitalism, the government wields the coercive power of the sovereign state as a means of maintaining the rights of the individual. In a socialist democracy, the purpose of the government is to progressively take the means of production into the democratic control of the working class. Coercion “withers away”, because the purpose is to organize all economic activity as a public service, and not to enforce law against individual persons. This is the classical socialist aim of replacing the bureaucratic “government of man” with the democratic “administration of things”.

Thus, perhaps soviets would be an effective means of such administration. Housewives and the unemployed do not need to be represented on a workers’ council, because they do not operate the means of production (the offices, factories, and farms). The social organs do not exist to coerce people in their non-economic lives, so they do not need to be represented. Citizens of liberal societies demand equal and accurate representation because they expect to be equally bound by the law. However, the “comrades” of a socialist state collectively comprise an administration for organizing the economy, and so strict, numerical, and direct representation is not as important. In this case, perhaps soviets and their congresses are not suitable representative organs by liberal standards, but might be by socialist standards.


History has not provided us with an experiment in a society organized (in part or in whole) into workers’ councils. Most revolutions that feature workers’ councils are crushed either form without or within. The Russian, Chinese, and Iranian Revolutions were stifled by their revolutionary “vanguard”. The Bolsheviks swept to power in Russia through their power in the army. Even though they were the only party to advocate for soviet power, they progressively stripped new soviet institutions of their effective power. The Soviet Union that was meant to be a union of workers’ councils became a vassal to the Communist Party dictatorship. The same happened in China; when democratic institutions threatened Mao’s power, he turned on them. In Iran, the clerical government snuffed out the shoras. Most councils are shut down by outside forces. The Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian council movement in 1957; the United States destroyed the workers’ councils of Chile’s poder popular in 1973.

We might not see the return of workers’ councils either. In 21st century social collapse and revolution, popular assemblies have appeared more prominently in neighborhoods than in workplaces. In Argentina, while many workers recuperated their factories and workshops, the neighborhood assemblies were the locus of social organization. In socialist Venezuela, the government organizes communal councils in neighborhoods, but few workers’ councils, despite the demands of the working class. In Syrian Kurdistan, neighborhood communes serve as the basis for its revolutionary democracy.

This might be a trend throughout the century. The working hours of developed industrial nations have shrunk to an 8-hour day, which means that most workers do not spend all of their waking hours at the workplace. Industry contracts as capitalists move capital resources to the nation with the lowest labor costs. A new pattern in employment is emerging, in which low wages force people to take on multiple part-time jobs instead of a single full-time job. Employees can be fired at will, without recourse to effective regulatory intervention or labor unions. And now, industry is becoming completely automated, which means few workers will be required at all.

These are only possibilities, and social trends are hard to parse. An alternative proletariat emerges. While old industries fall away, previously professional occupations become “proletarianized” – turned into rote, unskilled tasks. For example, educational corporations and universities continue to force teachers into the proletarian mold, disastrously ripping away the professional autonomy and ineffectively trying to deskill education.

However, if these trends away from a traditional industrial society are not just historical outliers and do persist, we will not see workers’ councils in the future, at least of the 20th century kind. The center of popular power will return to the neighborhood as the source of popular power.

Homage to Rojava

Amidst the horrors of the civil war in Syria, the Kurds of the Syrian northeast feel the irresistible pull of democratic liberty. The Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD in the Kurdish) declared neutrality in the carnage of the battle between Assad loyalists, ISIS, and other factions. Meanwhile, the party has established an oasis of democratic society in the Middle East, where the people govern themselves directly, ethnic peace reigns, and women are empowered.

The Kurdish rebels claim inspiration from Murray Bookchin, the American anarchist who founded the concepts of social ecology and libertarian municipalism. Social ecology is a theory of social institutions that focuses on how relations of hierarchy and dominance cause environmental problems. Libertarian municipalism, a localist form of participatory democracy is the solution. Bookchin came to Kurdistan through the radical leader of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), Abdullah Ocalan. Ocalan developed his theory of “democratic confederalism” on top of Bookchin while awaiting death in solitary confinement in a Turkish prison. The PKK adapted the ideas into their own practices, and its ideals permeated Kurdish society to some extent. Thus, the Kurdish Movement for a Democratic Society created democratic communities in Syrian Kurdistan (or Rojava) when the civil war broke out. Now, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) have heroically repelled the ultraviolent forces of ISIS from their cities. The image of the militiawomen of egalitarian Rojava have become famous, despite the best efforts of the international media to ignore the area.

The Social Contract

Instead of a constitution, the Rojava revolutionaries have created a “Social Contract” between its Autonomous Regions (or cantons) of Afrin, Kobani, and Jazira. In appearance, the Social Contract establishes an unusually advanced parliamentary republic, with a Legislative Assembly of representatives elected for as many as two four-year terms, an Executive Council formed by the majority party, and a Constitutional Court with the power of judicial review.

What is interesting about the Social Contract is that it commits the Regions to achieving gender and ethnic equality. The cities are not only Kurds, but also include, according to the Preamble, “… Arabs, Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arameans, Turkmen, Armenians, and Chechens”. Article 14 of the Contract commits the Regions to “redress chauvinistic and discriminatory State policies, including the payment of reparations”.

Article 27 and 28 guarantee the equality of women in all walks of life. The Social Contract demands that women compose at least 40% of political bodies like the Legislative Assembly and the Executive Council. At the community level, gender equality is more radical; each commune has two co-presidents, one man and one woman.

Participatory Democracy in Rojava

Rojava wouldn’t be interesting if it were merely an advanced liberal polity. Despite the opinions of the Western ruling classes, Middle Easterners are perfectly capable of constructing democratic states. Tunisia’s constitution, for example, has similar provisions about the participation of women in government. While the PYD dominates the more traditional bodies, the Movement for a Democratic Society has led the development of democratic life among the people, and a real democracy parallel to the official one.

As with all past radical, revolutionary democracies, popular power is built upon assemblies that are organic to society. In Rojava, communes of 300 residents organize into popular assemblies. Elected committees and the co-presidents (as mentioned, one man and one woman) run the commune. The communal committees have been responsible for maintaining the social and economic life of their people amidst the horrors of the civil war and the ravages of ISIS.

The communal committees have also organized the cooperatives that supply their neighborhoods with food, water, fuel, and electricity. With ISIS, Assad, and the Free Syrian Army to their south, and a hostile Turkey to their north, the Rojava cantons have no choice but to rapidly develop their own local industry just to survive. Notably, each commune includes an ecology committee, as the revolutionaries are as sensitive to environmental problems as they are to gender and ethnic equality.

One important committee in every commune is the peace and consensus committee, which acts a community court. Except for the worst crimes (i.e. murder), the peace and consensus committees resolve disputes and violations in their communes through restorative justice practices. This involves the committee mediating an agreement between the offender and the victim to produce a plan for restitution to the victim and the restoration of the offender to the community. Crimes against women are referred to the women’s committee of the commune. Failure to find agreement at the communal level pushes the decision to more traditional, city-level courts. Obviously, Rojava has abolished the death penalty, as almost the entire world has.

Along with the transformation of criminal law is the transformation of the police, or “Asayish”. According to an observer of the revolution, the anthropologist David Graeber, the “ultimate aim was to give everyone in the country six weeks of police training, so that ultimately, they could eliminate police”.

Also as with previous revolutionary democracies, the communes combine to form larger political bodies. The communal co-presidents of multiple communes form the people’s council for the district, each of which elects their own two co-presidents. These district co-presidents then attend the city council, which is supplemented by councilors elected directly by the public, until the city council has 200 members. The co-presidents of each city council then attend the cantonal people’s council. Each city then receives an additional number of seats in the cantonal council so that every city is represented according to their population.

At each level of government, a women’s council exists to make decisions that especially affect women. The women’s councils can veto any decision of the people’s council on a women’s issue.

Finally, the Rojava militia, the People’s Protection Units (sometimes People’s Defense Units), is democratically organized. Like revolutionary militias throughout history, including the American revolutionary militias and the Red Army of the Russian Revolution, the militia units elect their officers. Every ethnicity in Rojava is represented, in the militia units, except for the Assyrians, who have their own battalion. The women have their own militia, the Women’s Protection Units. And like historical revolutionary armies, the democratic militias have been enormously successful. The YPG repelled ISIS from the Rojava city of Kobani, despite being starved from the north by a Turkish embargo. The YPG alone rushed to the defense of the Yezidi when ISIS forces threatened that religious minority with slavery and destruction.

It’s not all sweetness and light in Syrian Kurdistan though. Islamic traditionalists in Rojava do not appreciate the explicit feminism of the communal organizations. Because of decades of enforced monocropping by the Syrian dictatorship, the cantons lack the agricultural diversity and soil integrity for feeding themselves. Even though they aim for economic self-sufficiency, the cantons have to look abroad for investment, lacking the resources for domestic investment. The large eastern canton, Cizire, cannot even sell its massive oil reserves because of the Turkish embargo. And now that the YPG has liberated Kobani, the Peshmerga, the regional forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, have moved in as reinforcements. However, Iraqi Kurdistan, as the closest thing the Kurds have to their own state, seems eager to subordinate their Rojava compatriots.

Despite these problems, the revolution in Rojava will remain one of the historic moments in democracy, joining with the revolutionary commonwealths of the American Revolution, the French Revolution and the later Paris Commune, and the Russian and German Revolutions. Most poignantly, Rojava is reminiscent of revolutionary Catalonia during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930’s. The Catalan anarchists, like the Kurdish feminists, established a genuine democracy that shows what a mockery our pretend-republics are. And like the Catalans, the Syrian Kurds are beset by hostile powers and allies alike. One must hope that the Rojava cantons survive their tribulation in life; but even if they do not, they will live on in memory.

5 Ways to Get More People to Vote

This past Tuesday was Election Day! Or as some people call it, “second Halloween”. Corny people call it that. I haven’t found the voter turnout for this week’s elections, but, given the tradition of political malaise in modern American politics, it was probably pretty disappointing. People have pretty good reasons for not voting: one party advocates evil, the other party is nothing, and the third party can’t win. Until we can get some people we actually want to vote for, how can we get more people to vote?

5. Universal Voter Registration

Right now, it’s your own responsibility to register to vote. But it’s a bureaucratic burden that is easy for people to lose track of – amid all the other bureaucratic burdens placed on individual citizens. There is no good reason why the burden of responsibility for registering voters cannot be placed on the state. The state has numerous records that it can cross-reference to build a reliable voter list. Anybody who fell through the cracks can just register at the polls. (Because same-day registration is just common-sense.)

In fact, removing the costs to voting, whether in terms of money, time, or filling out forms, will probably improve voter turnout. Such cost-savings include: moving Election Day to a weekend or making it a holiday; ride public transit for free on Election Day; secure online voting; or even just pay people to vote, like the ancient Athenians.

4. The Basic Right to Vote

According to the Supreme Court (Bush v. Gore), the United States constitution does not guarantee the right to vote. Thus, states can put up all the barriers to voting they want, as long as they can pretend that everyone can get over those barriers. A constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to vote would make barriers like voter ID laws illegal, or at least become the duty of the state to help citizens pass them. Congressional representatives Keith Ellison and Mark Pocan introduced such a constitutional amendment this past June 14th, to the deafening indifference of Washington, DC.

3. The Basic Duty to Vote

A right is just a permission, however, and rights can be ignored. But perhaps the least act of self-government – voting – should not be allowed to be ignored. Voting is a citizen’s duty, like jury duty, military service in wartime, and paying taxes. Because voting is literally the least we can do to participate, the penalty for failing to go to a poll can be negligible. Most people wouldn’t give up $20 just not to vote. The only people who would do so are conscientious objectors and people trying to make a point. The first can be handled the same as conscientious objectors in military conscription. They demonstrate that they have a sincere religious or philosophical belief against voting. The second do not get that consideration, but they do get the benefit of making a stronger statement than they can today. If political non-voters were penalized for their non-voting, they won’t get lumped in with the confused and the apathetic.

2. Proportional Representation

At the moment, the United States uses an electoral system called “plurality” or “first-past-the-post”. That just means that whomever receives the most votes wins. It’s intuitive, but has bad results if we want the legislature to represent the voters. In electoral races with more than two candidates, the winner may represent only a minority of the population. Even if there are only two candidates, only the majority is represented in the legislature. The losing minority has “wasted” its votes. If you know that your district has gone to a Republican for the past ten elections, then Democrats might as well stay home.

Many nations have used proportional representation (PR) methods to make sure that everyone’s vote counts. In most PR systems, political parties create party lists of candidates for the electoral district, and voters choose a political party. This is a pretty good reflection of how most people think about modern politics anyway. Other systems, like Germany or New Zealand, are mixed between voting for individual candidates and political parties. The result is a legislature where the proportion of political parties resembles the proportion of political parties among the voters. If the Democrats received 45% of the vote, the Republicans received 45%, and the Green Party received 10%, then those percentages would be present in the legislature. This often does not happen in our current plurality voting system. With PR, everyone’s vote would count, third parties would have a voice, and so people would be more likely to vote.

Of course, PR assumes that political parties are themselves “representative” of the population, and that representation of political party preference is what should be represented. The genuine common will of the people might in fact be obscured by political parties. This makes a different sort of representation attractive.

1. Participatory Representation (or, let the people set the agenda)

What if we could set the agenda for our representatives? If the public had the power to establish policy priorities for their representatives, rather than having policy handed to us from a party elite, then voting would be much more attractive. I’ve been thinking about an electoral system that creates just such a popular power; I’ve called it “participatory representation“. In participatory representation, citizens are not confined to approving one branch of the ruling class or the other. Instead, popular assemblies gather locally to decide the needs of their communities and to nominate candidates from their own ranks that understand these needs. The assemblies send to delegates to policy assemblies for the whole electoral district, which both reduces the slate of candidates and establishes general policy goals and priorities for the district and their future representative. The voters choose their final representatives at the polls.

A version of this process took place in Cartagena des Indias, in Colombia, for the mayoral elections of 2011. It was the initiative of one of its candidates, Dionisio Velez, whose respect for the electorate won him the mayor’s office in 2013.

Of course, the process was dependent on the whim of a single politician. Likewise, political parties may create empowered deliberative spaces for their partisans, as the Chavistas do in Venezuela. But again, that may change. When a party’s political fortunes wane, its popular aspect will vanish as partisans are told to follow the word of those who knew better all along. While participatory representation may work with political parties, a constructive, deliberative process of popular power must eventually replace competitive elections. The biggest obstacle to voter turnout may be the politics in the political system.

These solutions assume that increasing voter turnout is an actual goal of the political system. However, one political party is downright hostile to voting rights, and the other party is apathetic to protecting the voting rights that exist. As long as voting is weighted against the public, the people may have to resort to more forceful methods of getting what they want.

Pennsylvania 1776: What Democracy Could Have Looked Like

It’s no secret that the United States was not founded to be a democracy. Not only was the vote originally restricted to propertied white men, the Founders created a Senate to house the aristocracy, a President to serve as monarch, and the Supreme Court to find the laws to maintain the system. Over 200 years later, we’ve made some progress on expanding the vote – a little. Regardless, the United States has become a model for democratic government. Political science has spilled oceans of ink to fit the United States into the democratic mold. Had the American Revolution gone a different way, political scientists would have an easier time of it. In 1776, the year of the Declaration of Independence, constitutional conventions in every American colony set out to devise more deeply democratic constitutions than the United States would ever see again. The constitution of Pennsylvania was the most radical of them all. Its drafters included a mathematician named James Cannon, the scientist, Thomas Young, and the man himself, Thomas Paine. The original Pennsylvanian constitution contained a number of democratic innovations.

First, the Pennsylvanian legislature would be a single house of representatives whose members were elected every year. While it seems obvious to us that assemblies should have two legislative chambers, this was a significant debate among American revolutionaries. The democrats had no desire for a second house or senate to quash the people’s will. The Pennsylvanian drafters had an even more democratic ambition. Instead of a second house to review bills, the people themselves would review and judge legislation. This was the drafters’ solution:

SECT. 15. To the end that laws before they are enacted may be more maturely considered, and the inconvenience of hasty determinations as much as possible prevented, all bills of public nature shall be printed for the consideration of the people, before they are read in general assembly the last time for debate and amendment; and, except on occasions of sudden necessity, shall not be passed into laws until the next session of assembly; and for the more perfect satisfaction of the public, the reasons and motives for making such laws shall be fully and clearly expressed in the preambles.

Since the legislature was elected every year, it was possible for any bill proposed one year to be held over for its final vote to the next year. In the meantime, the bill would be posted in public places for the consideration of the people. Candidates would have to speak to the bills that people cared about, and voters could choose representatives on the basis of very specific information about the sorts of laws that those representatives would have the power to pass.

Second, Pennsylvanians would elect, every seven years, a “Council of Censors”. The drafters’ reference here is to the censors of the ancient Roman republic, not to the silencing of expression. The censors of ancient Rome were elected every five years to review the actions of public officials and ensure they conformed to the law. The Council of Censors had a similar purpose:

SECT. 47. In order that the freedom of the commonwealth may be preserved inviolate forever… the COUNCIL OF CENSORS… whose duty it shall be to enquire whether the constitution has been preserved inviolate in every part; and whether the legislative and executive branches of government have performed their duty as guardians of the people, or assumed to themselves, or exercised other or greater powers than they are intitled to by the constitution: They are also to enquire whether the public taxes have been justly laid and collected in all parts of this commonwealth, in what manner the public monies have been disposed of, and whether the laws have been duly executed. For these purposes they shall have power to send for persons, papers, and records; they shall have authority to pass public censures, to order impeachments, and to recommend to the legislature the repealing such laws as appear to them to have been enacted contrary to the principles of the constitution. These powers they shall continue to have, for and during the space of one year from the day of their election and no longer…

The Council of Censors would sit for one year and review the actions of the Pennsylvanian government, to audit public finances, review the constitutionality of laws, recommend revisions to the law code, and order impeachments of public officials. A real spring cleaning for the government. Today, we have “public advocates”, public auditors, inspectors general, and other sorts of toothless ombudsmen. But the Council of Censors had democratic legitimacy as an elected assembly, and consequently, the authority to shake things up. This extended to the Pennsylvanian constitution itself:

The said council of censors shall also have power to call a convention, to meet within too years after their sitting, if there appear to them an absolute necessity of amending any article of the constitution….

If the constitution itself was going wrong, the Censors could call a constitutional convention to consider amendments, by two-thirds of the membership.

This is a much more democratic method of handling conflicts between the constitution and ordinary laws than the judicial review of an appointed supreme court.

Sadly, the Council of Censors amended itself out of existence. As Madison noted in the Federalist Papers, the same people who composed the executive and the legislature would go on to be elected to the Council of Censors. This had two consequences. First, old competitions would continue in the Council of Censors and its members would fail to be impartial. Second, the Council was reviewing the past work of its own members in previous offices, and so would judge themselves very lightly indeed. The solution would have been simple: bar former office-holders from being elected to the Council of Censors. Instead, the Council was simply abolished by a new, conservative constitution before its the second Council could ever be called.

The drafters of Vermont’s constitution copied much of the Pennsylvanian constitution. Vermont had 13 sessions of its Council of Censors, with the last Council sitting in 1869.

The conservative and anti-democratic constitutions that followed the American revolution, including the Constitution of the United States, gave us the gridlocked government that we recognize today. Executive councils were replaced by governors with veto power over laws. Popularly elected general assemblies were hemmed in by senates. Elected councils of censors were replaced with the judicial review of unelected courts. The revolution was over and the long reaction had begun. We still feel its effects.

We could benefit from a revival of the censorial assembly. Such an assembly could be elected every five years. Previous office-holders would be barred from standing for election. The assembly would hold hearings, impeach delinquent public officials, and draft corrective laws to be submitted to Congress or the public ballot. The assembly would have its own officers – inspectors and auditors – to gather information in between sessions. If such a body existed, the federal government might be in better order. War criminals and torturers might be tried, wars ended, and corruption investigated. The Pentagon might be able to pass an audit for the first time in decades. The national security state might be stopped in its tracks, and police militarization put to an end. At the very least, a censorial assembly would be a much-needed critical eye into the insular federal government.

Is Democracy the “Collective Capacity”?

Stanford classicist and democratic theorist, Josiah Ober, looks to ancient Greek etymology to redefine our idea of democracy. The ancient Greeks invented the word, after all, so the root might illuminate some of our problems getting a good, theoretical grasp on it.

Twentieth century political science and philosophy seemed to settle the meaning of democracy as “aggregating preferences”. That just means that we vote for the choice of law, candidate for office, or party platform, and the choice that receives the most votes wins. And political scientists have tinkered with the formula for counting votes, so that more voters can get what they want out of voting. This aggregative model stems from our understanding of the word “democracy” as meaning the “rule of the many”.

This account of democracy is the result of importing the assumptions and methodologies of economics into political science. The assumptions of 20th century economics are that human beings seek to maximize their own best interest and will accurately make the trade-offs that get them the best deal. The assumptions are as mistaken in politics as they are in economics. Preferences are not simple entities, but psychologically complex constructions that react counterintuitively to all sorts of little triggers. In any case, the aggregative model of democracy results in several logical puzzles (such as Arrow’s impossibility theorem, a story for another time).

This vote-counting notion of democracy is a very thin account of its theoretically richer potentials, though. Ober has been developing a new and comprehensive theory of democracy based on the ancient democracy of Athens. In “The Original Meaning of Democracy”, he explores the root suffixes of political terms in ancient Greek. In particular, he compares the suffix, -kratos, from which we get the word “democracy”, and –arche­, from which we get words like “monarchy” and “oligarchy”. Why are some forms of government “-cratic” and some “-archic”?

Ober suggests that the ancient Greeks used –arche to denote a “monopoly of office” and used –kratos­ to denote the form of power. So a monarchy describes a government in which one man controls the public offices of the city, while anarchy tells us that no one holds any public office. The suffix –arche describes the number of people who hold offices.

What we do not have is an ancient Greek term for “rule of the many”, which would be something like “polyarchy” (polyarchia). Robert Dahl actually coined the term in the mid-twentieth century as a description for the government of the United States. In his view, the “many” that ruled were the many, organized special interests that competed for advantage. (In those days, believe it or not, organized special interests weren’t just corporations, but civic organizations, labor unions, and other organizations of the popular classes.)

Meanwhile, the suffix –kratos means “power”. But “power” alone is ambiguous. Looking at some modern terms is not helpful. For example, we take the term “aristocracy” to be a class of landed wealth, when in the literal Greek the term would mean “power of the excellent”.

Instead, by analogy with other terms, Ober suggests we should understand –kratos­ as a “capacity to do”. For example, isokratia (or “isocracy”) meant to the ancients an “equal capacity to public action”. The Athenians were fond of the prefix iso-. They referred to their government as an isonomia (“law of equals”) and guaranteed the right of isegoria (“equal access to speak in public fora”). The founder of Athens’ democracy, Solon, even referred to the new order as isomoiria, or the “equality of shares”.

In any case, let’s return to democracy. Given that the demos were the people as one body, democracy would instead mean “the power of the people”. The people as a whole have the capacity to act in the world.

Thus, democracy does not mean “rule of the many”, but “the capacity of the people to act”. Ober’s suggested definition does relax the focus of contemporary political science on counting up votes. What this definition does not answer is, how do a people become a people? Granted that, once united, they have the capacity to act, how do they unite in the first place?

In some sense, a group of individuals becomes one people through shared goals and established practices that add up to their social institutions. We want, or should want, those institutions to be democratic. But if the only criteria is that the institutions give that group the ability to act in concert, then we still don’t know what those institutions should be like. Any set of institutions will give a group the power to act collectively, whether a republic or a dictatorship.

Our difficulties with democracy might have been avoided if, instead of picking up “democracy” from Aristotle, we took the term “isonomy”. The “law of equals” leaves little ambiguity as to how we should understand “isonomic” social institutions.


Josiah Ober, “The Original Meaning of Democracy

Picking Legislators at Random Would Improve Congress (Part II)

Previously on Democracy in Principle…

Earlier this week, we looked at why elected legislatures pass so much legislation that only serve the personal interests of the legislators. The Italian researchers PluchinoGarofaloRapisardaSpagano, and Caserta showed in a mathematical model that an elected legislature is likely to pass a great quantity of legislation, because its members are bound by party affiliations. But that legislation will be unlikely to serve the public interest.

Perhaps the solution is to select legislators by lottery, as was the ancient Athenians did with their officials. The Pluchino et al. model though shows us that a legislature whose members are selected by lot will only be a little more efficient.

Instead, the researchers find that mixing legislators selected by lot with elected legislators can greatly improve the likelihood that the legislature will produce legislation in the public interest. For the purposes of discussion, we will call this mixed system the lottery-added system.

How Does This Work in Practice?

To implement such a system, we must have a method of election and a method of random selection.

If our legislature has a fixed size (suppose 500 members), then we have a problem with traditional electoral systems. Our current electoral system has a fixed number of districts from which voters choose legislators, one for each district. But under the lottery-added system, the proportion of elected legislators varies with the size of the majority. Thus, we could not even redraw the electoral districts before the next election, because we would not know ahead of time how many districts we would need.

Instead, we should adopt a system that elects a legislature “at large”. That is, we can treat the whole country as an electoral district. Voters would not vote for individual legislators, but would vote for political parties. Each party then receives the number of seats in the legislature proportional to the number of votes received. For example, if the Democratic Party receives 51% of the vote, then they receive 51% of the seats in the assembly. Each party then fills seats with legislators from a party list. This is a system of proportional representation called the “party list” system. In fact, the party list system is the most widely used system of proportional representation.

Then we alter the party-list method by the addition of some number of independent legislators. To optimize the efficiency of the legislature, we add a number of legislators selected by lot according to how large the majority is. The larger the majority, the greater the proportion of legislators selected by lot. (Mathematically minded readers can find the formula in Pluchino et al.)

Thus, if the Democratic Party has 51% of the vote, then the national election commission selects 20 people at random to serve in the legislature. If the assembly is composed of 500 members, then 20 would be selected by lot, 249 (or 51% of 480) would be Democrats and 245 would be Republicans. If the Democrats have 80% of the vote, then 280 of the seats will be filled by lottery, 176 by Democrats, and 44 by Republicans.

Pluchino et al. recommends that legislators selected by lot be limited to one term. This prevents them from forming a new party and eliminating the efficiency of the legislature.

Where do we get the independent legislators? In experimental public decision-making by randomly selected citizens, those chosen to participate have the right to refuse. This reduces the randomness of the selection process. Disadvantaged segments of the population – the working poor, the disabled, women, and others who bear significant social burdens – may be less likely to choose to serve.

We would have to make legislative service easier and enticing. The election commission will have to assure randomly selected citizens that their job or their business will be there at the end of their legislative service. Lottery-added legislators will require guaranteed benefits, such as free housing and good pay, for their term of service.

We also may reduce the term of service of each independent legislator to half or a quarter of that of elected members. In the United States, that means that while an elected Congressperson would serve two years, a randomly selected representative would serve only one year, and replaced for the remainder of the congressional term.

Questions about the Lottery-Added System

We elect our legislature because we believe that this will make our legislatures representative of the public. (We’re wrong about that though, but that’s for another post.) Since the development of political parties, we call a legislature representative when the distribution of parties in the legislature reflects the distribution of parties in the voting population. In most countries, this means the adoption of some form of proportional representation. The traditional plurality elections that we have in the United States, where the candidate with the most votes wins, does not produce such representation.

The lottery-added system, however, dilutes this representativeness by including legislators who do not represent any party. In fact, that is their virtue. Our traditional idea of representation assumes that election, with the incentive for reelection, is enough to get legislators to represent the public. But elected legislators can hide their motivations from their voters, and pursue their personal interests behind the closed doors of the backroom.

Randomly selected legislators each have diverse and specific personal interests. Theoretically, they do not have personal interests in common the way party-bound elected legislators do. This is why they produce better legislation than elected legislators do. Randomly selected legislators are collectively incorruptible. Thus, their presence may make the legislature more representative. They force the elected legislators to pursue the public interest voters elected them to represent.

More recently, we also want legislatures to represent the public in various demographic ways. We want legislatures to look more like the population. If 50% of the US population is women, then 50% of the House of Representatives should also be women. If 13% of the US is African-American, then 13% of the House should be African-American. We can’t rely on the party bosses to put forward more women and minorities in elections. But the random selection of legislators would provide opportunities to increase the demographic diversity and representativeness of legislatures.

I will leave aside whether the Pluchino et al. model of a legislature is accurate. There are some questions about it. For example, randomly selected legislators may be partisans; they pass over the definition of “public interest”, leaving it vague. The model is plausible, and the resulting solution of a lottery-added system is interesting.

The idea of using lotteries to elect public officials (often called sortition) continues to be regarded with surprise or even horror by elite and public alike. However, philosophers identified the method with democracy until the eighteenth century, because lotteries provided every citizen the opportunity to govern. If we are to achieve democracy in the 21st century, we should resurrect the idea that every citizen can govern.


Pluchino,C. Garofalo,A. RapisardaS. SpaganoM. Caserta. “Accidental Politicians: How Randomly Selected Legislators Can Improve Parliament Efficiency.” Physics A 390 (2011): 3944-3954. Web. 7 March 2011.

Picking Legislators at Random Would Improve Congress (Part I)

Nobody would call Congress efficient. It can’t pass anything. The government shut down just last year because Congress wouldn’t exceed an artificial borrowing limit. The legislation Congress does pass is rarely beneficial to the public. We all know this: Gallup polls show that only 14% of us approve of Congress’ ability. Unfortunately, people identify this with who is in Congress. The real problem is how people get into Congress: private campaign contributions, party approval, manipulative advertising. Is this how democracy is supposed to work? There must be a better way.

Unlike modern democracies, classical and medieval republics used lotteries to select officers. The archetype is classical Athens, whose lottery-based democracy flourished until its military destruction at the hands of Macedon. In fact, until the eighteenth century, political philosophers followed Aristotle in considering lotteries a defining feature of democracy. By contrast, Aristotle and his successors considered elections oligarchical, encouraging only the wealthy few to rule.

Contemporary lottery advocates, including John Burnheim, Brian Martin, Josiah Ober, and the Kleroterians at Equality by Lot, claim that we should revive this concept of democracy. I am sympathetic to this viewpoint. But is there any evidence that such a body would give the people more of what we want?

Italian researchers from the University of Catania (Pluchino, Garofalo, Rapisarda, Spagano, and Caserta, 2011) constructed a computational model to see how randomly selected legislators would perform compared to elected, partisan legislators. read more »

Reactions to Dylan Matthews’ Monarchism

Dylan Matthews wrote a piece at Vox this past Tuesday hailing New Zealand as having “the best-designed government in the world”.

“New Zealand’s parliament”, Matthews writes, “is better designed than just about any other developed country government”. According to Matthews, this is due to three factors: the electoral system, the unicameral parliament, and the monarchy. (I will add that New Zealand is a world leader in applying restorative justice practices.)

New Zealand uses a form of proportional representation as its electoral system. This would be a big step up over the system used in the US. However, I only want to address his second and third points.

A Unicameral Parliament

The second factor that puts New Zealand’s parliament above others is its unicameralism, or single chamber parliament. I agree with Matthews on this point. Matthews’ view is noteworthy because it such sentiments are unusual in the Anglo-American press, as far as I can tell.

Most secondary chambers have pretensions to representing different constituencies. In the United States, the Senate represents the states. In France, the Senate represents localities. In reality, second chambers carry on the tradition of the Roman Senate and the British House of Lords. It’s the place where old politicians go to prolong their careers and privileges.

A Constitutional Monarchy

It’s Matthews third point that got me to write this post. In a shocking twist, New Zealand’s monarchy is his third reason for its political superiority. Not only is Matthews not trolling us, his argument is fascinating.

After the election of a new parliament, the leader of the majority party (or coalition) forms a cabinet to govern. The head of state, acting as an impartial agent, appoints the prime minister to lead the government. In monarchies, the head of state is the monarch. In republics, the head of state is an elected president. The fact that the people elect the president imbues that office with democratic legitimacy. This, in turn, encourages presidential meddling in party politics. This can include changing cabinets. In parliamentary tradition, if a prime minister loses the confidence of parliament, then a general election follows. The election is what gives the ministers their democratic legitimacy. In constitutional monarchies, forming a government only after an election is most often the case. After all, the monarch has no democratic legitimacy to alter the government that has the support of the parliament and (theoretically) the people.

An elected president does have that legitimacy. Yet if the president reshuffles the cabinet, then the prime minister loses democratic legitimacy. The new government may not have the support of the parliament. Comparisons from Schleiter and Morgan-Jones at Oxford University bear out Matthews’ argument.


We at Democracy in Principle detest parasitical monarchy in all its forms! Vive la guillotine! But that’s pretty compelling evidence. However, Matthews is missing out on some crucial features of monarchies. It is true that monarchs lack democratic legitimacy, and that should keep them from interfering in parliamentary affairs. As the Guardian reported in 2013, the Queen and company force amendments to legislation:

Whitehall papers prepared by Cabinet Office lawyers show that overall at least 39 bills have been subject to the most senior royals’ little-known power to consent to or block new laws. They also reveal the power has been used to torpedo proposed legislation relating to decisions about the country going to war.

The new laws that were required to receive the seal of approval from the Queen or Prince Charles cover issues from higher education and paternity pay to identity cards and child maintenance.

In one instance the Queen completely vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, a private member’s bill that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament.

Also, not all parliaments work the same way. In Sweden, for instance, parliament has deprived the monarchy of even the formal power to appoint a government. Instead, the parliamentary Speaker fills that role.

Parliaments all over the world have aped the Westminster tradition and its republican variants. And indeed, parliamentary government has proven more successful than the US presidential system. What we want are the benefits of a parliamentary system without its monarchical artifacts.

Switzerland provides such a model of executive power. The Swiss legislature is the bicameral Federal Assembly, which is elected every four years. Afterwards, the combined houses of the Assembly elect the Federal Council of Switzerland. The united Assembly elects each Councilor to head one of the seven executive departments. The elections proceed by rounds until one person has a majority of votes. Any citizen, not only members of the Assembly, can stand for election to the Council. The united Assembly elects a President of the Council from among sitting Councilors every year. By convention, the Council has members from each party and each linguistic region of Switzerland.

The only reservation I have about the Swiss model is the lack of recall of a Councilor. Most parliaments are able to take a vote of no confidence in its cabinet. As mentioned, this forces new elections, and the people can express their opinion of the government.

Matthews may be writing in support of monarchy in jest. Yet he highlights important points in the failure of existing democratic systems. The government of the United States fails the test of democratic legitimacy. Yet parliamentary systems have their limitations as well. A democracy of the 21st century will experiment with even the most successful forms of government.