Is Democracy Possible? The alternative to electoral politics

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Is Democracy Possible? is a book by the Australian philosopher John Burnheim which outlines an alternative to electoral democracy.[1] Originally published in 1985, the work was subsequently published with a new introduction in 2006, and again as a kindle e-book in 2014.


There are three central components to the position elaborated in the book, each of which marks a radical departure from traditional and contemporary analyses of the problems that confront us[who?].[2]

The first two components comprise the anti-state and the anti-communalist nature of the position to be developed. Burnheim is against giving sovereignty to any geographically or ethnically circumscribed group, a position which runs against the major tradition of political philosophy and the course of political history. Individuals in Burnheim's polity would see themselves as part of many diverse social activities and functional communities rather than any simple inclusive community. In this sense, despite the turn away from communalist understandings of the political sphere, collective identities remain centrally important to Burnheim. The third component concerns the introduction of Burnheim's notion of demarchy, most notably his rejection of electoral democracy in favour of statistical representation.

Against the state[edit]

First, Burnheim rejects the centrality of the state, both to political thought and to the practical overcoming of our[who?] current situation.[3] Centrally controlled multi-function agencies provide the current model for the exercise of political and administrative power, from the nation state down to municipal local government. This model undermines the ability of decision makers to grapple with the solution of problems at the level at which they may be resolved effectively. Decisions currently made within such multifunction agencies could be taken instead by autonomous, specialised agencies coordinated by negotiation amongst themselves. In the modern world many of these authorities would need to have global scope.

Against communitarian alternatives[edit]

Second, democratic practice does not require participation by the people as a whole. What is required is that all those individuals materially affected by decisions in a given functional area should be represented and that they have the opportunity to participate in those decisions. This raises the problem of what interests in any given case are to be accepted as legitimate. Burnheim notes that this problem is hardly ever addressed by democratic theorists. That each person should have the opportunity to influence decisions on any matter affecting their legitimate interests seems straightforward, but Burnheim insists that the converse thesis also holds and is generally ignored in discussions of democratic practice: nobody should have input into decisions where they have no legitimate material interest. If this requirement is shelved the result simply is tyranny, "in the strict sense". Burnheim adds that all present forms of democracy, as well as all proposed forms, not only permit but encourage such tyranny. The practice of vote trading by political operatives is the result - trading my vote on an issue upon which I have no interest for another vote on an issue that concerns me deeply.

Demarchy: statistical representation[edit]

The third component contains the perhaps startling separation of democracy from electoral representation. The history of modern democracies has been the spread of competitive elections and the ever-widening electoral base. Universal adult suffrage is now taken as a given but the history of its achievement was a history of struggle. For Burnheim the very process of electoral representation leads to poor decisions determined by power-trading rather than the needs of those most affected. Democracy is possible only if decision makers are a representative sample of the people concerned. This would mean abandoning elections in favour of the ancient principle of choosing by lot so that decision making bodies would statistically representative of those affected by their decisions.[4] Coordination between diverse authorities would be by negotiation, or, if necessary, arbitration, rather than by centrally imposed decisions. What is hoped is that just as the market supplies our needs for private consumption goods by decentralised processes, our needs for public goods could also be supplied in highly flexible and responsive decentralised ways.

Initially such a polity might begin to emerge from the well-established practice of setting up citizen juries to advise on policy in specific matters. In the longer term the structuring of committees and their procedures would be open to challenge from those who thought their interests under-represented, and such disputes would be decided by tribunals chosen by lot from a pool of people nominated by their peers on operating committees as having the requisite qualities to carry out a judicial role.

Table of Contents 2014 Edition[edit]

  • Preface to the 3rd Edition
  • Introduction
    • a. A first approach to the issues
    • b. Functional autonomy
    • c. Statistical representation
    • d. Assumptions
    • e. The argument
  • 1. Democracy and the State
    • a. The state is unnecessary
    • b. Why we should get rid of the state
    • c. Democracy versus the state
  • 2. Democracy and bureaucracy
    • a. Can we do without bureaucracies?
    • b. Private bureaucracies
    • c. Control, command and service
  • 3. Democracy and representation
    • a. Voting
    • b. Electoral politics
    • c. The alternative to electoral democracy
  • 4. Democracy and markets
    • a. Public and private goods and evils
    • b. Markets in land, money, labour and commodities
  • 5. Is democracy possible?
    • a. The conditions of demarchy
    • b. Strategies of change
    • c. Demarchy outside government
    • d. Objections to demarchy
    • e. The promise of demarchy
  • Appendices
    • a. Preface to the 2nd edition 2006
    • b. Preface to the 1st edition 1985


  1. ^ John Burnheim (2014). Is Democracy Possible? The alternative to electoral politics. (Full view)
  2. ^ Is Democracy Possible?. Introduction
  3. ^ Is Democracy Possible?. Chapter 1, Democracy and the state.
  4. ^ Is Democracy Possible?. Chapter 3, Democracy and representation.

External references[edit]