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Is representational democracy possible?

Reviews

The role of superdelegates in some Democratic Party caucuses is current news that has people talking about how non-representational western democracies can function. The importance that a democracy at least appear representative of its people was illustrated by Justin Trudeau’s politically wise first steps as the new Prime Minister of Canada. Gender parity in cabinet. Acknowledgement of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report.

Trudeau received rightful praise for political gestures that give perception of a Canadian government that is representative of its composition. But how far do gestures like these reach? Can a representational democracy ever claim to represent its citizens absolutely? John Asimakopoulos argues not. Social Structures of Direct Democracy: On The Political Economy of Equality is a remarkably broad offering of what a revolutionary anti-capitalist model of labour relations and political representation might look like.

Direct democracy functions under the premise that “any system based on elected representatives, as with a legislature and executive or appointed, as with the Supreme Court, will be corrupted”. As pundits reflect on the quotes and judgements of recently passed US Supreme Court Justice Antoinin Scalia, minds may be particularly open to systems alternative to election and appointment.

Imagine lottery rather than election as the hallmark of democracy. Not unlike jury selection, random lottery selection from a citizen pool of candidates would give every of-age individual an equal share in participatory democracy. Fair wages would be actualized, and a population with more time to self-educate and participate in civil activity emerges out of an economic system focused on positive labour relations, before all else. Asimakopoulos envisions a system of largely anarchosyndiclist institutions, such as works councils that balance respective executive boards comprised of a representative sample of its workers. Asimakopoulos’ vision of labour relationships sees matters of profit versus remuneration as agreed upon among democratic equals.

Admittedly revolutionary, an Asimakopoulos metropolis is an ambitious project for absolute political equality that is not without its shortcomings. For one, it assumes that every person wants or should want roughly equal political participation. Additionally, the importance of qualification is inconsistent.

What about the argument that representatives must be ‘qualified’; such as, for example, that they have a certain level of educational attainment or passing a qualifying exam? […] It is both logical and tantalizing to agree with this argument. Unfortunately, it is a fallacy. If we are all equal in a democracy we are all equal to vote and exercise authority. Establishing qualifications represents de facto disfranchisement.


Qualification as de facto disfranchisement is well-received, but does that make it wrong? Regardless of how we determine qualifications, the underlying concept is legitimate. In naivety or not, we want to be able to trust our decision makers. The slippage of the logical yet fallacious tantalization is difficult to ignore, as is the questionable equation between democratic rights and aptitudes for exercising authority. Asimakopoulos then shifts tone regarding legal discourse where he accepts that ‘utopian’ abolition of legal systems is unworkable. “Most utopians reject any legal structure, typically due to belief that there should be no compulsion of coercion. Instead, individuals should be free to enter and exit agreements at will. Unfortunately, this leads to chaos,” Asimakopoulos astutely points out. “At the state or regional level, a number of judges should be randomly selected from a qualified pool of legal professionals”.

Of particular merit is the first section of the book, “Theory, Praxis and Change” which provides a lucid and well-understood critique of current and historical political economy with clear examples and timelines. Social Structures of Direct Democracy provides fascinating theory that begins with the disavowal of representation as democracy, followed by a radical restructuring of political and labour relations systems that seeks to maximize equality and labour value. Policy wonks can look to this book for working examples of labour value realization, as well as untested frontiers of social libertarian public policy that respond to a neoliberal capitalist system that is failing most of whom it’s supposed to represent.

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