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[liberationtech] Stability in truly "Democratic" decision systems

Sean Alexandre sean at
Sun Jul 7 16:25:27 PDT 2013

On Sun, Jul 07, 2013 at 12:47:52PM -0700, Peter Lindener wrote:
>    Watching Egypt iteratively attempt to find something that resembles a
> democratic form government feels quite uncomfortable for me. Not only that
> in the senseless confusion many lives will be lost, but also, closer to
> home, here at Stanford, deeper reflections of the human condition seem
> still to be leaving our institution's interest in promoting forms of
> democracy that are more likely to function in a state of disarray..
>   While not all seem ready for the rigor of formal methods in information
> and Game theory towards building our society's better understanding of what
> it truly means to achieve a more genuine sense of democracy (i.e. a
> government for the people, by the people)... It would see that to just sit
> by and watch, as we preach to others that democracy is good, and then fail
> in any truly meaningful way to show how to achieve it, feels discouraging,
> at least for me.

Here's an article that speaks to this, fwiw...

System Failure; Christopher Hayes; 2010-01-14

>From the article:

[T]he corporatism on display in Washington is itself a symptom of a broader social 
illness that I noted above, a democracy that is pitched precariously on the tipping 
point of oligarchy. In an oligarchy, the only way to get change is to convince the 
oligarchs that it is in their interest--and increasingly, that's the only kind of 
change we can get.

In 1911 the German democratic socialist Robert Michels faced a similar problem, and 
it was the impetus for his classic book Political Parties. He was motivated by a 
simple question: why were parties of the left, those most ideologically committed to 
democracy and participation, as oligarchical in their functioning as the 
self-consciously elitist and aristocratic parties of the right?

Michels's answer was what he called "The Iron Law of Oligarchy." In order for any 
kind of party or, indeed, any institution with a democratic base to exist, it must 
have an organization that delegates tasks. As this bureaucratic structure develops, 
it invests a small group of people with enough power that they can then subvert the 
very mechanisms by which they can be held to account: the party press, party 
conventions and delegate votes. "It is organization which gives birth to the 
domination of the elected over the electors," he wrote, "of the mandataries over the 
mandators, of the delegates over the delegators. Who says organization, says 

Michels recognized the challenge his work presented to his comrades on the left and 
viewed the task of democratic socialists as a kind of noble, endless, Sisyphean 
endeavor, which he described by invoking a German fable. In it, a dying peasant tells 
his sons that he has buried a treasure in their fields. "After the old man's death 
the sons dig everywhere in order to discover the treasure. They do not find it. But 
their indefatigable labor improves the soil and secures for them a comparative 

"The treasure in the fable may well symbolize democracy," Michels wrote. "Democracy 
is a treasure which no one will ever discover by deliberate search. But in continuing 
our search, in laboring indefatigably to discover the undiscoverable, we shall 
perform a work which will have fertile results in the democratic sense." 

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