A Magritte view on democracy

Two days ago Wilfried Martens (1936-2013) died, a remarkable Belgian politician, who started as a rather radical flamingant who longed for Flemish independence, became Belgian Prime Minister (1981-1992) where he created the current federal structure of Belgium, and who worked at the EU parliament towards some form of EU confederation. Very special.

In Belgium too, historian David Engels (1979) points to the parallels between the EU and the final days of the Roman Republic that resulted into the dictatorship under the Roman emperors. Engels warns that a new Augustus may abolish our democracy. Engels’s name translates as “English” but he is from the German speaking part, and his book is available only in French: Le Déclin. La crise de l’Union européenne et la chute de la République romaine. Let us hope that it can be translated into English before the dictatorship actually starts.

The Belgian whom I want to focus on is David van Reybrouck (1971) who indeed has started to suggest to abolish many elements in our democracy as we know it. He wants to replace these with lotteries like in ancient Greece. The ballot box of deliberate volition thus is replaced by some external force, the dictatorship of chance. Perhaps the road towards human dictatorship is paved with such lotteries indeed. Van Reybrouck’s book Against elections is now available in Dutch but he announces that it will be available soon in French, Danish and Finnish, perhaps his priority countries or aptly selected by lot too.

Van Reybrouck’s proposal reminds me of René Magritte’s painting La Trahison des Images (“The Treachery of Images”) (1928-9) or “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). Here is my collage that I baptise The Treachery of Mixing Up Things

Collage with Magritte's Trahison des Images

Collage with Magritte’s Trahison des Images (Source: Wikipedia)

Van Reybrouck confirms that the use of lotteries has deep roots in democratic thought. The ancient Greeks were not the first ones to employ it, though perhaps the first ones to do it so systematically. The term “ballot” and the picking of jury members by lot still refer to it. Van Reybrouck’s point is that the notion has always been known to experts but been lost to the general public. His book intends to raise general awareness and application of it. 

The proposal reminds me of Howard DeLong’s Courts of Common Reason in America  while for Holland I must draw attention to Wim Klever‘s studies of Greek democracy, Van den Enden (another Belgian, Antwerp 1602), Spinoza and potential implications of those for our own democracy. The following Dutch PDF discusses Athens’s lotteries, and this announcement and English PDF is useful but mentions a lottery only on p115.

My problem with Van Reybrouck’s analysis is that he does not take into account my analysis on the Economic Supreme Court and my book Voting Theory for Democracy. Since Van Reybrouck reads and writes Dutch he could also look at De ontketende kiezer. Van Reybrouck was trained as an archeologist and philosopher, switched from the academia to independent writing, and found a combination of philosophy, history and fiction that he is at ease with and that apparently sells well. One might say that he knows too much and has ample academic training to prevent that he becomes a dilettante. Yet the problem is that he has no academic training in democracy and voting theory so that he may well be that dilettante in this area. Where serious scholars of democracy already can run astray, this quickly happens when the lay person tries at it: and David van Reybrouck is a lay person here.

There are two sad Dutch connections.

Firstly, Van Reybrouck had a guest position as Cleveringa professor at Leiden 2011-2012. Since my analysis on democracy and the economy is being censored in Holland, he missed out on hearing much about it here in Holland. Also the French, Danes and Fins who will read his book will suffer from the lack of freedom of thought in Holland.

Secondly, in this newspaper Trouw interview David van Reybrouck tells that two months ago he was at a festival in Switzerland and after breakfast sat in a bubble bath with Connie Palmen (1955), the widow of the Dutch secretary of state & minister of foreign affairs Hans van Mierlo (1931-2010) who was in charge during the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Van Mierlo was founder of the political party Democrats 1966 (D66), that targets a particular change in Dutch democracy. Van Reybrouck tells that he had a long discussion with Palmen about Van Mierlo’s ideas and actual lack of success since 1966 to change Holland on this. Van Reybrouck: “I hope that democratic innovation comes before the crisis and not after it. Because it might really go very wrong.” Perhaps he thinks about David Engels’s dictatorship for the EU. However, Van Mierlo’s ideas on democracy have always been unscientific and quite rosy and romantic so that Holland has been fortunate not to accept them. In 1966 Van Mierlo looked at the America of J.F. Kennedy and selected these topics as “democratic improvements”: (1) direct election of prime minister and mayors, (2) districts instead of proportional representation, (3) referenda. Van Mierlo’s choice was not based upon scientific research but upon mere impression and fashion. It is an outrage that D66 has been misleading Dutch voters with those irresponsible ideas. It is an outrage that they have given no reply or rebuttal against my criticism. See this paper for a comparison between districts (United Kingdom) and proportional representation (Holland). See my book Voting Theory for Democracy why direct elections and referenda suffer from Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and what can be done about that. Dutch readers may look at my pamphlet in protest against D66 (presented as an interview with Van Mierlo from purgatory). My analysis on democracy is part and parcel of the papers that have been hit by censorship of science by the directorate of the Dutch Central Planning Bureau since 1990. Had the analysis on democracy been published in 1991, perhaps D66 would have been stopped in 1991, and Van Mierlo would not have been in the position to wreak havoc in Srebrenica in 1995. The director who started the censorship was Gerrit Zalm (1952), who was minister of finance in the same government cabinet with Van Mierlo in 1995, and who now is the CEO of the ABN AMRO bank. As Van Reybrouck claims to be interested in democracy, let us hope that he studies my analysis on democracy, and let us hope also that he protests loudly against the censorship of science in Holland.

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