Society featured

Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Can Sortition Save Us From the Zombies of Extinction?

March 22, 2024

If, like me, you live in the brain consuming fog of American culture, you might never have heard of sortition. Randomly selected citizens rather than ruling class proxies will make the important decisions in a future society that chooses to employ sortition as its fundamental political philosophy. Sortition has such a microscopic presence in the filing cabinets of American political thought that I once believed that I had invented it. But it wasn’t me – give credit to the ancient Greeks. The Greeks did not conceptualize sortition to be the cornerstone of degrowth – they simply recognized that a political class impeded Democracy. We, however, must understand that degrowth and sortition cannot exist independently – they must join together, become a single force.

We need sortition to replace the poisonous, deformed contraption that we bizarrely call democracy. Let me try to explain.

Any available elective office summons demons, fiends and gargoyles from the burning sewage pits of hell – things with eyes pulsating, greedy and murderous. We want to keep these monsters calmly interred beneath the soil, and that can only occur if voting is treated like small pox.

May we all be safely delivered from the voting booth, from the ballot box, from corporate punditry – please protect us from the rot oozing up from the the political depths. If the mutant powers of the ballot box can be stilled, those hourly speeches about border security will fade and evaporate as if we all awoke at once from the same nightmare. George Carlin told us decades ago that he doesn’t vote – but George made it into a personal decision. Maybe I should call myself a radical Carlinist – nobody should be certified to vote in my view. Look at the wreckage surrounding us. We voted for it.

You should not be allowed to vote for the lesser of two evils or for the prince of peace. No one should have the right to vote green, blue or red. No libertarians, five star movements, center right coalitions, National Socialists, and – sure as hell – no Democrats or Republicans! Most people who seek power in any political system are mentally deformed and broken – these are the people we try not to marry or even sit near at the pub, but we elect them with barely a thought.

We can’t have anarchy – we need a way to gather benign bureaucrats and harmless functionaries. We have seats in congress, seats in the senate, chairpersons and committee seats, and there has to be a method, other than voting for batshit, flaming, spirits of death – chosen by corporate goons. We need to simply match chairs with rumps. Give us body snatchers – blind ones with big nets.

Here is an empty congressional seat and there is someone sleeping rough on the street – that’s a match. We have an empty senate seat and a woman buying groceries with a baby perched in a shopping cart – yes? Why, in the interval between the kingdom of Pharaoh and the Biden administration, have we failed to tap into the inherent goodness of ordinary people? Well, yes, the Athenians understood – the only exception.

Random selection can be a beautiful thing. The NBA lottery allowed the San Antonio Spurs to sign Victor Wembanyama. Sometimes random chance goes wrong – like when one embryo becomes a tortured factory farmed chicken, and another becomes Elon Musk. Still, the laws of probability give us a fighting chance to muddle through the sixth extinction.

We should procure our leaders in the manner of stray dogs being ushered to the pound. One day you are as free as the wind, and the next day you are bound, cuffed and mandated to serve a two year term in the house of representatives. You don’t want this fate, but maybe you love democracy and your country – or maybe you don’t. It doesn’t really matter.

You were chosen to keep a sociopathic criminal from seeking election on a party ticket – successful candidates get voted in and destroy the world just as sure as the Chicxulub meteor smacked down the non avian dinosaurs. We have giant space rocks and we have petroleum lobbyists and narcissistic candidates running for office. Take your pick. Mass extinction involves a multiple choice answer, and the electoral system and the cosmic meteor can safely be chosen together – all of the above.

This method of snatching random strangers and dumping the victims into decision making institutions is, as I have already explained, called sortition – a rather uninspiring label for the most revolutionary idea ever conceived. Sortition is currently employed as an occasional adjunct to electoral systems, a way to create an interface between the members of the public and the ruling class, but it could easily fill the void in a system that sent the ruling class packing. Citizens’ assemblies resolved the abortion issue in IrelandExtinction Rebellion has demanded that sortition be utilized to determine climate policy.

What would the members of a political body look like if we chose them via sortition?

Women and men would fill seats according to their numbers. About seven senators would belong to the LGBTQ community, some fourteen would be  Black, about nineteen would be Hispanic, five Asians – identity politics would be superfluous. Rather, all politics would die and rot like a horseshoe crab at low tide. Paradoxically, sortition is both utterly apolitical and the ultimate means of empowering the working class.

Now get this: about half of our body-snatched representatives would be making under forty K annually – people who are an illness away from destitution and homelessness. Twelve senators would have no health coverage just like the 12% of Americans who are uninsured and have no protection against illness. Can you say, “health care is a human right?” Those 12 hypothetical sortition selected senators sure as hell can.

A sortition based society would create a vast feedback loop with cascading consequences that can scarcely be imagined. Political parties would decay and their dust would be blown away like tumbleweeds. Why would we need parties and billion dollar campaigns if we can kidnap our rulers for free?

Think tanks would have no purpose and neither would cable news conglomerates. You can’t brainwash voters if they don’t exist. Sortition is derived from a very simple assumption – the vast majority of ordinary people are not psychopathic predators, whereas most people seeking office run along a continuum between the Boston Strangler and Donald Trump. Voting has lead us to a swamp of pure quicksand.

Once sortition becomes the law of the land Harvard could be leveled and the grounds used to grow soy beans and alfalfa. If we imagine that the future governor of Massachusetts might have first been a clerk working in a cannabis shop, who then needs to shell out a half a million for a Harvard diploma? You could then use Harvard buildings for public housing and even for storage. Having worked for decades with unhoused people I can vouch that most can’t afford storage for their few possessions. One of my clients lost a baseball card collection (that may have been worth thousands) on the day that he was evicted.

Ivy league storage can remedy some of the horrible aspects of America’s antipathy for affordable housing.

Perhaps if our leaders gained positions of authority via random selection, affordable housing might be an essential priority. After all, some randomly selected representatives would be couch surfers or living in tent cities. We can’t end homelessness until the unhoused hold down their just portion of congressional seats.

One thing is for sure – under sortition, the Ivy League would be done educating tomorrow’s leaders. Fifty six of our hypothetical, randomly chosen senate members would have no college degree, and nine of them would have no high school diploma. Karl Marx, if you are reading this shoot me a text. Would sortition indirectly create “the dictatorship of the proletariat?”

In any case, a Harvard storage facility or sweet potato farm would not be creating more Henry Kissingers to make genocide into an academic science.

I find it odd that there is almost no discussion about sortition on progressive platforms, at least not serious discourse. Even as I write my own praise for sortition, I gravitate, like the writers at Current Affairs, toward satire. There is something so fundamentally outrageous about sortition that we are inclined to adopt a comic air. No I am not joking. Sortition is a deadly serious matter.

I have always been highly skeptical of those who talk about a rapprochement between the left and the populist right, but if such a fantasy needs to look for a unifying principle it ought to be sortition. For sortition to have a chance, hundreds of millions of people would need to be passionately on board. The fight for climate and equity is a battle for sortition. Right now there are probably a thousand people who can tell you who played nose tackle for the 1971 Oakland Raiders for every person who can define sortition.

That is a tragedy that will likely have terrible consequences. We are watching an entire planet being strangled under the jackboot of capitalism, and the solution is right in front of our snouts. Obviously, the CEO’s of Chevron, Google and Cargill would most likely prefer to have Stalin and Chairman Mao running the US government rather than allow a system of sortition. That is why we need it. But first comes the organizing.

Phil Wilson

Phil Wilson is a retired mental health worker who has written for Common Dreams, Counterpunch, Resilience, Current Affairs, The Future Fire and The Hampshire Gazette. Phil's writings are posted regularly at Nobody's Voice.