Is Demarchy Missing the Point?

20 Mar 2013

I’m very sympathetic to John Burnheim’s work on political theory. A single paragraph in the introduction to Is Democracy Possible? was the basis of my Master’s thesis and the starting point for my PhD. But it’s hard not to conclude that his solution to the problems of modern electoral democracy, demarchy, misses the point completely.

The claim that modern electoral politics has become increasingly detached from the will of those it governs is largely uncontroversial. The problem seems to arise not so much from the increasing technical competence required to make sufficiently competent decisions in our highly interconnected world, but more from the detachment of risk and responsibility, between the impact on the rulers and the impact on the ruled, that erodes the exercise of popular sovereignty that lies at the very heart of the democratic project.

Demarchy, Burnheim argues, is the solution to this problem of detachment that is so often manifested in the assent of special interest and lobby groups over the public interest, or the inability of any elected official to properly represent the diverse interests and values of a particular population. If we were to replace democratic control of central authorities based on a system of one vote one value, with one based on statistically representative committees randomly selected from volunteer citizens, then these problems would be largely eliminated.

As a tool for solving the epistemic problem of ‘what policy best meets the need of all affected communities and individuals’, then demarchic citizen committees are a plausible, appealing alternatives to the status quo. They have the right structure of deliberation, incentives and controls to ensure that in general, decisions they reach respect the needs and concerns of all parties.

But as a tool for enhancing popular sovereignty, then they are little better current versions of representative government. When dealing with local issues, demarchic authorities have sufficient skin in the game. The general calculus of special interest, where the individual gain of the few dwarfs the the individual, but not collective, loss of the many, is such that lobbying would simply not be worth it. At the national or global level however, there is ample scope for lobby groups to woo, undermine and corrupt the process in the same way that current supranational bodies and agreements are.

The problem then, is that demarchy frames politics primarily as tool of knowledge, an instrumental epistemic account, there to determine the best policy or right path forward. But it’s not. Politics at its core, is about authority. It’s about the justification of making others conform to one’s own will.

Democracy, even our failing, non-ideal version of it, has succeeded largely due to the fact that it recognises the primacy of popular sovereignty, a notion intrinsically linked to human dignity. Demarchy misses the point because it misses this point. It fails to recognise the fundamental importance of individual autonomy by imposing itself on those who may disagree and sets it self up for abuse and manipulation just like our current system of government does. What we need is more popular sovereignty, not less.