alternative to electoral politics
The basic idea
The present standard system of
representative government is based on electing a small number of
officials who then make decisions on a wide range of
Demarchy, by contrast, is based on a network
of numerous decision-making groups. Each group deals with a specific
function, such as transport, land use or health services in a local
area. The membership of each body is chosen randomly from all those
who volunteer to be on it.
Random selection is also called the lot
system, the jury system or sortition. Demarchy can also be called
If the community decides that certain
categories of people should be represented, such as ethnic
minorities, then it is easy to arrange random selection of the
required fraction of group members from these categories.
The term of office of each group member is
strictly limited. Selection of new members is staggered so that
skills and experiences can be passed on to the newcomers.
The ‘demarchic bodies’ mainly
exert power through their authority as representative of the
community. The existence of these bodies gives full opportunity to
the usual processes of political debate. Every member of the
community is able to lobby, write letters and articles, circulate
leaflets, hold public meetings and promote nonviolent direct action
such as boycotts and sit-ins. Demarchy actually encourages political
activity by every section of the community.
In a system of demarchy, there would be a
need to handle some issues about the way demarchy itself should
operate, such as adjudicating claims that demarchic procedures
themselves be changed. These issues can be dealt with by
‘second-order’ groups, which could be chosen by lot from
people on the ordinary groups.
Electoral politics is built on politicians
and vast numbers of government bureaucrats. Demarchy is an
alternative to elections and to government bureaucracies. The
numerous demarchic bodies each make decisions on specific areas and
directly implement the decisions.
The advantages of
Demarchy involves a much larger fraction of
the population in making policy-type decisions. Rather than
policy-making being restricted to a small number of politicians and
bureaucrats, just about anyone who wanted to would be able to take a
turn. This has many advantages.
Professional politicians and career
bureaucrats are vulnerable to powerful pressure groups. The links
include electoral support, job opportunities and sometimes direct
Demarchic bodies would be much less
responsive to vested interests. Any given individual would have a
limited term of office, and would have less to gain from serving a
special interest. Political machines would not be able to groom loyal
candidates for office because, with random selection, no one knows
who will be chosen. Since those selected will expect to live in the
community after their relatively short term of office, there is a
strong incentive to represent the community interest in an honest
Electoral systems encourage those who are
ambitious and self-centred to seek office. Only a certain type of
personality thrives on the rigours of election campaigning, with its
requirements to avoid treading on the toes of the powerful.
Furthermore, the power of political office goes to the head of many
long-term politicians. Demarchy, on the other hand, gives an equal
chance to every type of personality. All that is required is a
willingness to participate.
Demarchic bodies are more likely to be
responsive to community desires because they deal with specific areas
or functions. For example, a body dealing with education or garbage
collection would be very different from an elected local government
body. Elected officials are not tied to specific policies; they are
elected on an overall platform. It is easy for them to claim mandates
which have no basis, and also easy for them to go back on election
"Democracy consists of choosing your
dictators, after they've told you what you think it is you want to
hear." &endash; Alan Coren
Because demarchy depends on active
participation by a large fraction of the population in important
decision-making, it demands a high level of knowledge and experience
in the community. This is surely possible in industrialised
societies, where there are numerous sources of information and where
extended formal education is the norm.
Conversely, the introduction of demarchy
provides a powerful stimulus for learning. Most people, given the
opportunity to be involved in making decisions affecting the
community, show an enormous capacity and willingness to learn about
the issues. Any group in the community that wanted to promote a
favoured policy, whether on abortion or industrial development, could
proceed by winning over and educating as many people as possible and
getting them to stand for random selection to appropriate demarchic
bodies. Controversial issues thus would encourage a massive increase
in educative activity. Demarchy seems a natural extension and
incentive for further evolution of a knowledge-intensive
"For a ruling bureaucracy, the possession
of power is the highest goal, and to keep and strengthen its power is
the paramount aim of its policy." &endash; Erich
What’s wrong with the
In short, corruption, broken promises,
popular apathy, and service to vested interests.
Representative government based on elections
was a great advance over earlier systems based on hereditary rulers.
It is also superior to present-day alternatives of bureaucratic state
socialism or military dictatorship. There is after all some popular
involvement and choice involved with elections.
But just because representative government
is better than some other systems does not mean it is the best
possible system for all time and all circumstances. It is worthwhile
to investigate and try out other approaches.
Representative government can be responsive
to the will of the people when electorates are very small and
representatives are mainly dependent on constituent support. But when
populations are large and powerful corporations and government
bureaucracies are involved, popular control is minimal. Political
party machines select candidates. Policies are decided mainly by
All this makes ordinary citizens cynical and
apathetic. Voting becomes a choice between remote personalities who
are sold like breakfast cereals. When governments break election
promises, as they regularly do, disillusionment increases.
One response by those fed up with the
established parties is to start a new party. Over the years many new
parties have been set up, often with hopes to create a real
responsiveness to popular concerns. But invariably the new parties
are caught up in the same old system. Either they fail to make much
of an impact in the face of the established parties, or else they
begin to behave just like them. Today's established parties were
yesterday’s innovative parties.
"Every revolution evaporates, leaving
behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy." &endash; Franz
The usual response to poor government is to
pin hopes on different politicians. But new politicians and new
parties must adapt to the existing political system. Perhaps the
solution is instead to try to change the basic way the system
If demarchy is so promising, why hasn’t
it been implemented more widely? The main reason is that the present
system is deeply entrenched.
Almost all politicians will oppose demarchy.
So will powerful bureaucrats. This is to be expected, since these
powerful people have much to lose.
"Don’t ask the barber whether you
need a haircut." &endash; Daniel S. Greenberg
Quite a few voters can feel threatened by
demarchy too. They have been taught that voting and elections are the
foundation of democracy. Every day in every newspaper the focus is on
top politicians. Voting seems to be the only connection people have
Demarchy is indeed threatening and
challenging, since it relies on the understandings and values of
ordinary people. This is very different from the present system,
where the key decisions are made by a tiny minority. Direct and
frequent participation in decision-making should be the basis of
democracy. The feeling that this is a threat shows how remote from
participation the current system has become.
Even leaders of 'alternative' groups may
oppose demarchy. After all, they are a privileged elite within their
own small constituency. It is those who have the least say in the
present system who have the most to gain from demarchy. This may be
the strongest argument in its favour.
Demarchy does not fit into the standard
boxes of left-wing or right-wing politics. It is a system based on
increasing direct involvement of people in political decision-making.
It does not guarantee that the directions favoured by current
political elites will be followed. Most of all, it differs from
standard party-political methods in that there is no privileged elite
of politicians and bureaucrats who have excessive power over other
Wouldn’t demarchy be less
No one really knows. But first, it should be
asked, efficient for what purpose? Dictatorships can be quite
efficient for ordering people around and getting things done, but
very inefficient in terms of providing justice and
If democracy turns out to be inefficient in
some ways, then most of those who believe in it accept this as one of
the costs of living in a democratic society.
But demarchy can be efficient even in narrow
terms. The system of trial by jury certainly requires more labour
than trial by a single judge. But trial by jury can create more
community confidence in the legal system, and provide protection
against abuses. Why, after all, do dictators try to get rid of trial
"Any doctrine that ... weakens personal
responsibility for judgement and for action ... helps create
attitudes that welcome and support the totalitarian state." &endash;
Wouldn’t elections produce better
qualified decision-makers than demarchy?
In one sense, yes. Demarchy allows for
volunteers to be randomly selected for a decision-making body, even
if they have little education or hold uninformed opinions. Many
people who would never be elected to office can be chosen as group
members under demarchy.
But the idea of a democracy is not to choose
the ‘most qualified person.’ Otherwise why even have
elections? Why not just let candidates put forward their
qualifications to a learned selection panel?
Democracy is based on people participating
in a direct way in decisions that affect them. A system based on
those who ‘know best’ making decisions for everyone else is
either a dictatorship or a paternal welfare system. Furthermore,
history has shown that intellectuals are just as susceptible to
systems such as fascism and Stalinism as anyone else.
When the experts make the decisions
themselves, they do things in a way that puts themselves in a
privileged position. In a demarchy, experts would be able to present
their views like everyone else in order to persuade decision-making
bodies. This way, expertise is at the service of the people, not the
other way around.
"No government has ever been, or ever can
be, wherein time-servers and blockheads will not be uppermost."
&endash; John Dryden
Would people obey decisions made by
Even in present-day society, most people do
most of the things they do because they agree to, not because they
are forced to. Most people treat public parks and libraries with
respect because they support these services, not because of penalties
for violations. On the other hand, it is nearly impossible to enforce
a law with little public support, such as laws against certain drugs
or cheating on income tax.
Demarchy would not be vastly different from
present society in this respect. Most people would abide by sensible
decisions made by official bodies. If they opposed them, they would
be able to campaign for changes, and even to organise nonviolent
resistance. If enough people conscientiously opposed a decision, it
would lapse by nonobservance.
Isn’t demarchy utopian?
A full-fledged system of demarchy would be a
massive change from present society. Many would see this as unlikely
to happen, given that the power of centralised governments,
bureaucracies and militaries seems to be ever-increasing.
But this does not mean that demarchy is
impossible or impractical. Thinking in the long term, small steps
towards demarchy can gradually be made, building on what is already
Few lasting and fundamental social changes
happen suddenly. It took centuries of struggle to abolish slavery and
to bring about representative government. Demarchy will not happen
overnight, but that does not mean it is ‘utopian’ to try to
make steps towards it. Indeed, as in the case of all freedoms,
continual effort is required.
A range of democratic
Besides demarchy and electoral politics,
there are also some other methods which deserve consideration for
decision-making in a democracy. One is consensus, a powerful method
which can work well for small groups, from two to a hundred or even
larger. Consensus requires the search for a proposal that can be
accepted by everyone, or nearly everyone, with no strong objections.
There is increasing experience in how to use consensus methods,
developed especially in recent decades in a range of collectives and
Consensus is the real method at work in many
committees and meetings where voting is used when it is obvious that
everyone agrees anyway. But consensus methods do have difficulties in
many cases, especially with large groups and where fundamental
differences divide the group.
Election of delegates (rather than
representatives) is another method. Delegates are instructed to
express the views of their constituents, and can be recalled at any
time. Delegate systems allow for political decision-making in a
federation of smaller self-governing units. The problem with
delegates is that they can easily solidify into formal
representatives, who become less and less accountable to
Another solution to the problem of political
decision-making is local autonomy. By having small units -- 1000 to
100,000 people rather than one million to 100 million -- large
administrative bureaucracies and powerful politicians are not
required. With a diversity of autonomous communities with different
political and economic arrangements, people would be able to choose
to live under a political system that is to their liking.
Demarchy is basically a democratic political
alternative to elections. It is compatible with a range of economic
systems, from competitive capitalism to communal ownership. But it
rules out a dominant role for large corporate or government
For example, if a demarchic body makes a
decision to build a rapid transit system, it might choose between
tenders from private firms, or it might rely on agreement from a
collective of builders.
The principles of demarchy can be applied to
the economic sphere. For example, a network of trust bodies, whose
members are chosen randomly from volunteers, can take responsibility
for different types and regions of land, including agricultural land,
forest and coasts. Each trust body considers applications to use the
land and makes decisions taking into account a range of factors
including productivity, social welfare and environment. Depending on
the use and any likely negative consequences, a larger or smaller
rent is charged for each use. The rents are used to pay for general
social services (such as roads and child care). With a comprehensive
system of this sort, income and excise taxes can be abolished, along
with the massive apparatus for collecting them.
The advantage of random selection in this
case is that the people making crucial economic decisions are
unlikely to be the ones with special personal interests via windfall
profits or insider dealings. This is further ensured by publishing
all deliberations of the trust bodies. The trust bodies are able to
make their judgements much more on the basis of the general interest
than happens with capitalist or socialist economic systems, in which
private profit or bureaucratic interests are the driving
Other applications of demarchy to economics
are possible, but much more investigation and experimentation remains
to be done to see how they would work. Suffice it to say that
demarchy opens up the possibility of alternatives which avoid many of
the problems of present economic systems which result in poverty,
massive inequality, and alienation.
Random selection in
The most widespread use of random selection
in social decision-making today is for juries for trials. The jury
has several advantages over a judge. One is relative independence
from vested interests: juries are less susceptible to the lures of
status, money and power. They are not employees of the state, and can
make independent judgements. Juries on many occasions have refused to
convict people when they consider the law is unjust. Finally, members
of juries can test each other's views in a way no judge
In recent years there have been quite a few
experiments with random selection for other sorts of decision-making.
The Jefferson Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, has introduced
the ‘policy jury.’ This is a group of typically 12 people,
randomly selected from local residents, who make suggestions on
difficult policy issues. One policy jury project dealt with the
problem of agricultural chemicals entering water supplies. Other
projects dealt with organ transplants and with school-based clinics.
In each case, the policy juries heard testimony from a range of
witnesses and were backed up by ample administrative support. These
projects showed that policy jury members took their voluntarily
assumed duties extremely seriously, resulting in recommendations that
were widely respected.
A similar use of random selection for policy
advice has been independently developed and studied in Germany for
many years. Numerous ‘planning cells,’ consisting of
randomly selected groups of about 25 people, have been formed to
spend a week dealing with policy issues in areas such as energy, town
planning and information technology. Much of the time of the planning
cell members is spent in small groups of about 5 people each, whose
membership is rotated to prevent group hierarchies emerging. It is
found that participants learn quickly, are sensitive to long-term
problems, and focus on the common good. Both the US and German
projects have used several groups simultaneously studying the same
issue, to broaden participation and obtain more reliable
In Australia, random selection has been used
in processes to develop new organisational structures in trade
unions. The possibilities are endless, but enormous commitment and
effort is required to carry a single project to completion. So far
just the surface has been touched.
Demarchy is still at an early stage of
development. It has many aspects which have hardly been thought
about, much less tried out. There is a great need for discussion and
experimentation to deal with questions such as these:
- How can people be encouraged to offer
themselves for selection to demarchic bodies? What are the
barriers to participation?
- How vital is economic structure to the
effectiveness of demarchy?
- How can the ‘second-order
bodies,’ which adjudicate on how demarchy is to work, be
protected against manipulation?
- Can demarchy be undermined by new
techniques deployed by experts, elites and
What you can
The best way to develop and promote demarchy
is to try out the lot system in a variety of situations, in a small
way at first. This could be in a sporting club, a national
environmental group, a trade union or a local government
instrumentality. The opportunity might arise when faction fights
paralyse action, or when existing leaders are discredited due to
inefficiency or corruption. Alternatively, a well-functioning
organisation might decide to try the lot system in order to extend
and protect democratic participation.
One thing is sure. There is little point in
trying to persuade governments to step down and set up demarchy
instead. Demarchy has to be promoted at the grassroots. In this way
its potential and limitations can be tested in the most flexible
Demarchy by itself is not the solution to
all the world's problems. Demarchic bodies can make bad decisions;
there can still be serious community conflicts and crises; poverty
and injustice are not automatically eliminated. But although demarchy
does not guarantee a golden age, the effort to develop and promote it
can be a useful part of other struggles for a better
John Burnheim, Is Democracy
The Alternative to Electoral
definitive argument for demarchy.
Lyn Carson and Brian Martin, Random
Selection in Politics (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1999).
Fred Emery, Toward Real Democracy
Ministry of Labour Occasional Paper, 1989).
Jane Mansbridge, Beyond Adversary
Democracy (New York:
perceptive account of the strengths and weaknesses of both
representative (adversary) democracy and consensus (unitary
Social Alternatives, Vol. 8, No. 4,
January 1990. A special issue on alternative politics in the
Ancient Athens is looked to as the
forerunner of modern democracy, even though Athens was not democratic
by many of today's standards. Only free men were accepted as
citizens; women and slaves were excluded. While acknowledging these
shortcomings, there is still much to learn from classical
The Athenians used the lot system
extensively as a democratic means of selection. They were committed
to equality, and selection by lot ensured equality of results rather
than only equality of opportunity. Members of the assembly were
chosen by lot. This reduced factionalism, since factions could not
guarantee that their candidates would be chosen. Furthermore, the
authority of the assembly was increased, since it was recognised as
representative rather than as the result of manipulation by
At meetings of the assembly, the chairman
was chosen by lot at the beginning of the meeting. In this way,
factions could not organise the agenda beforehand.
The Athenians also relied on elections, for
example for leaders of the military. They used a variety of
techniques, each chosen for its own political benefits.
Many defenders of elections argue that the
conditions of classical Greece do not apply today, and that the lot
system will not work. But surely it is worth trying out alternatives.
The ancient Greeks did not rest with one system simply because that
was the way it had always been done.
For more information
Brian Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org
Please send your comments and suggestions
for developing and applying the ideas outlined here.
August 1989; revised January 2001
Martin's publications on demarchy and democracy