Socialist Lessons from the Serene Republic of Venice

Joey Jones on 2020-02-17

The political virtues of randomness

The Grand Council — Francisco Guardi

“Like all the men in Babylon, I have been proconsul; like all I have been a slave… I owe that almost monstrous variety to an institution called the Lottery — which is unknown in other nations, or at work in them imperfectly or secretly.” — Jorge Luis Borges in The Lottery of Babylon.

How should we choose representatives, delegates, and functionaries?

The normal answer is some kind of election, and there are dozens of voting systems out there to choose from. But there is an older method that has some surprising benefits: sortition.

Sortition is when you select someone for a position randomly.

If you’ve ever been put forward for a jury, that’s sortition. Sortition was the main way the Ancient Athenians filled political posts: everyone eligible for the position could be drawn for the position. This was considered by them the core feature of democracy. In Ancient Athens this was just free property-holding men over a certain age, but the process works with a larger, more representative selection pool.

Ancient Greeks drawing pebbles

One way it is fairer than most contemporary elections is that every eligible member of the electorate gets a chance to hold a political position, regardless of party affiliation or personal background. It acts as a break against factionalism and electioneering and it’s more likely to draw representative candidates.

Whether your ideal political structure is the parliament, the workers' council, the canton, or the assembly, sortition offers a way of choosing people for positions with political power when you want to make it fair.

The two biggest problems people believe raw sortition has are incompetence and reluctance: if anyone can be selected for a position they may be poorly suited for the job and they may be reluctant to perform it. These problems might be greater in perception than reality. There is research to show that random promotion to office has much better outcomes than attempts to promote based on merit or seniority.

Even if we take incompetence and reluctance to be serious objections, the solution to these problems can be seen in the way the Venetian Doges were elected.

Doge of Venice — Super Furet

Venice used various forms of democratic selection from 742 until they were conquered by Napoleon in 1797. Existing continuously for 1055 years is longer than any currently existing democratic body. The Isle of Man’s parliament claims to be the oldest current parliament, but for most of that history House of Keys members were selected by the existing oligarchs of the House, rather than from external electorate. The Icelandic Althing may be even older — over a thousand years — but its continued existence has been patchy, with monarchy ruling for most of the period after it was formed.

Similar to the limitations of the Athenian parliament, the electorate for the Doge was limited to one person from each of the merchant families that formed the city. This Grand Council amounted to between 200 and 2000 men, the amount steadily growing in the early decades before plateauing. After state capture by oligarchs and struggles against nepotism while using a simpler electoral system, the Venetians eventually developed a complex system that would select leaders with minimal corruption.

The Election of a Doge, Venice — J. Costello

All the electors of the Grand Council would have their name on a ball put into a huge urn. The first boy that the youngest member of the inner council of state happened to see after leaving church on the day of the election was roped into being the ball-boy, or balotino (the Italian word for ball is where we get the English word ‘ballot’). The balotino would randomly pick the balls from the urn. Thirty of them were golden, the rest silver. The 30 who were given golden balls would stand aside and then be given another round of randomly selected balls: 9 golden, 21 silver.

Those with the 9 golden balls would become the first college of electors.

The ten rounds of the Doge election, cycling between lot and election.

These 9 electors would then select a new college of electors to randomly draw from, consisting of 40 people. Each person had to be approved by seven out of nine of the electors. The balotino would draw 12 balls from this forty at random, creating 12 new electors.

These 12 electors would elect a new college of 25, with 9 out of 12 approval needed. Then a random draw from these 25 would select 9 new electors. These 9 would pick a new college of 45, which would be randomly drawn down to 11, and these 11 would pick the final 41 electors.

After the election, the young balotino would take part in the grand procession next to the Doge.

Each of these final 41 would put a name on a piece of paper and put it into an urn. Then a name would be pulled out at random and the electors would discuss whether they wanted that person as their Doge. If at least 25 agreed, that would be their next leader. If not, a new name was pulled out. Any of these 41 voters could lodge an objection against a selection, and call the person to be elected into the room to answer the objections. In none of the rounds could any of the electors vote for anyone that was a member of their current electoral college.

Crucially, the people selecting the Doge are both randomized and selected. There are no political parties, but there may be factions within the electors. The randomization process helps break up the power of factions to co-ordinate and gives minority electors a chance to influence selection. The selection process requires reaching a high majority of agreement when members of a college pick the new set of people to draw from. This means outright unsuitable members are unlikely to be picked. People who are reluctant to take a position or incompetent are unlikely to gain majority selection.

The audience allowed by the Doge of Venice in the hall of the Collegio in Palazzo Ducale — Francensco Guardi

It would be a mistake to emulate Doge-style elections in all respects. Like most states, the Venetian city-state was marked by the rule of one class over another. When the grand council of electors was at its largest, it still only comprised around 5–7% of the population of the city.

What is remarkable about it was the internal democratization within the oligarchic merchant class which governed the city. Intra-class conflict was fairly managed through sortition-elections throughout the entirety of the state’s administration. There were dozens of boards, committees, and governmental posts that were filled through combinations of randomized ballot and selection. This avoided the nepotism and factional splits which were the common downfall of Venice’s feudal neighbors.

As well as electing the Doge, the Grand Council also elected a board of oligarchs, the Council of Ten. Each of the Ten would sit non-consecutive one-year terms. The board increasingly came to act as a government. This way of forming a government is more internally democratic than almost all currently existing parliamentary democracies. Nevertheless, it was still a state run for the class interest of the oligarchs, and in that capacity it developed a range of police powers and a network of informants.

“The Ten” in Francesco Hayez’s The Death of the Doge Marin Faliero

Imagine if a grand council was made up of every resident of a polity in want of an administration. That you as a resident might not be selected as an elector for an election would be no great blow if every administrative position were up for individual sortition-selection. The limit of how many people can fit into a big hall is no longer pressing in the age of the internet.

We don’t need to imagine, as this was nominally the law in Venice between 742 and 1423. There was a council, the Concio, of all Venetian citizens. They originally chose the Doge by popular election, the system evolving into a form of sortition-selection. Like most democracies, it regularly devolved into hereditary rule as Doges nominated their children or brothers as co-regents who took their place after they died.

The final nail in the coffin for medieval Venetian suffrage came when the Concio was stripped of its electoral power. This lockout was instigated by a Doge who was the leader of a party representing the aristocrats. This temporary secession became permanent. The aristocratic merchant class had seized the power by tightly controlling who was allowed to be a member of the grand council.

By the 1290s the Concio existed only a vestigial organ that ritually rubber-stamped each new Doge selection before finally being formally abolished in 1423. There were some revolts throughout the 1300s as the citizenry tried to regain their former power, but these were crushed and their leaders executed.

Ultimately, no matter what benefits an electoral system has, it cannot in itself resolve the tensions of class society. While there are landlords and bosses who rely on the labor of tenants and workers, the powerful will always seek to maintain their power by whatever means they have to hand.

The system that gave Venice its Doges was more stable and internally democratic for its oligarchic class than perhaps any other society in history. Lessons can be drawn from the genius in its mix of sortition and election. But we can all hope for a better society than one governed on behalf of the aristocracy.