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Be Careful What You Wish For

by John Spritzler

December 2, 2012


Today's Boston Globe features an article titled, "The case for governing by lottery: America really would be better off picking its leaders at random, says a group of political scientists."

Five years ago (2007) I placed Question 5 on the ballot in the 27th State Representative district of Massachusetts. Question 5 read:

"Shall the state representative from this district be instructed to vote in favor of a proposal to amend the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to replace the state Legislature with 100 randomly selected adult residents of the Commonwealth, each serving a one year term, to be called the Commonwealth Jury and to have all the legislative and other powers of the current Legislature?"

I point this out not to say that I had this good idea first, but rather the contrary: I had this bad idea first. Let me explain.

Back in 2007 I, along with my friends in the Somerville Divestment Project (SDP, now the Mass. Residents for International Human Rights or MRIHR), were using the tactic of ballot questions to educate the public. Initially in 2004-2006 our focus was entirely on Palestinian human rights but then we decided that we needed to include an additional focus on the lack of democracy in the United States (which was responsible for so many bad things, including our government supporting Israel's denial of human rights to Palestinians) and the need for a democratic revolution.

We came up with the idea of Question 5. This was the most revolutionary message that we could get past the Attorney General, who decides what can and cannot be a ballot question. At the time we felt that the question was useful for drawing attention to how undemocratic our current system is. Our literature contrasted how a randomly selected legislature would act versus our current one whose politicians are beholden to Big Money because they cannot win an election without lots of money and the support of the corporate-owned media.

We did not, however, think about how a randomly selected state legislature would be constrained by the reality of capitalism--the fact that a small number of very wealthy people owned everything important including the mass media and would be able to use that wealth and power to limit the choices available to the randomly selected legislators, the way small towns' "town hall" assemblies are constrained by capitalist reality from doing anything that seriously challenges capitalist inequality. We did not think about how a randomly selected legislature could be used to provide legitimacy to what would still be in practice a dictatorship of the rich. And we (at least I) never dreamed that one day the Boston Globe, a thoroughly pro-Israel and pro-capitalist newspaper that wouldn't even print our letters to the editor opposing Israel's ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, would ever feature an article supporting our call for a randomly selected legislature!

I think there is a lesson to be learned from this. In general it is, of course, "Be careful what you wish for--it might come true." More specifically, the lesson I believe is that if our goal is an egalitarian society based on mutual aid, then wishing for (i.e. defining one's goal as) anything different from that (no matter how much better it may seem at the time) is a mistake. Furthermore, it is a mistake that the ruling class will probably sooner or later learn to take advantage of, as the Boston Globe seems to have learned about the wish for a randomly selected legislature (for which 3,468 people voted Yes, versus 11,415 who voted No.) The owners of the Boston Globe (the NYT owns it) are surely aware that the U.S. Congress is held in utter contempt by most Americans. The legitimacy of the American government in the eyes of the American public is at an all time low and sinking lower every day. The rulers are probably thinking about various "Plan B"s to re-establish legitimacy for their dictatorship of the rich. A randomly selected Congress is probably one of the ideas they're considering and so they are hoisting it up the flag pole to see if anybody will salute it--a preliminary field test of the idea.

Ruling elites have several times in the past consolidated their power in dangerous (for them) revolutionary times by using the inadequacy of the people's statement of their goal. South Africans wanted equality and a society based on mutual aid but their ANC leaders said the goal was simply to abolish apartheid. The result was that apartheid is abolished but the corporate elite remain in power and conditions of life for South Africans are even worse than before. The people of Russia in 1917 wanted an egalitarian society based on mutual aid but the Bolsheviks said the goal was increasing economic productivity and Communist Party rule. The result was the people got what the Bolsheviks wanted, not what they wanted; and the people who continued to try to get what most people wanted were killed by the Bolsheviks.

I believe that as the illegitimacy and immorality of our dictatorship of the rich becomes more and more evident to more and more people, as is happening, there will be increasingly radical-seeming proposals for change that will be, by design, inadequate to create an egalitarian society based on mutual aid. There will be not only the randomly selected legislature idea, but things like the Harvard professor's "radical fix" that I discuss here. This underscores the need to be explicit about what we really want, as Dave Stratman and I try to be in Thinking about Revolution.

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