The tired democracy

A discussion with Etienne Chouard and David Van Reybrouck under the title “The tired democracy – what are the solutions?” was held in Brussels in April. A video of part of the meeting is available. Unfortunately, the audio quality is rather poor.

Below is Ahmed Teleb’s English summary of the talk (Thanks!).

I. Moderator: (1:10-6:00) [Name not stated]
I see and feel the frustration of a large part of the public with the political system in Belgium, a general feeling of disgust and deceit with the political class. Citizens are allowed (even required) to voice their opinions only at the time of elections through a vote, then they are to fall back into silence. They are supposed to trust their future to a different class by whom they feel more and more betrayed. Anyone who criticizes EU policy or single currency is labeled a “populist” and more and more of the workings of the EU (even treaty modification) are done without popular consent. The presenters today will conduct a kind of autopsy of our democracy and make recommendations on how to take back our sovereignty.

II. Étienne Chouard: (6:10-24:00)
I prepared questions about David’s work. I’ve been thinking about democracy and the place of sortition within it, for about 10 years, and I can only conclude that, “There is no democracy without sortition.” Elections are by nature and history aristocratic, not just because Aristotle said so. This was a banality for centuries, especially at the time of the founding fathers. The essential of all my work can be summarized, “We do not live in a democracy; it is a representative regime conceived 200 years ago as aristocratic not democratic. In particular, it is a plutocracy, directly by and for the rich.”

It is also not quite correct to call our economic system “capitalism,” rather it is a form of banditry because when you give the rich ALL political power, you distort the economy. So, an important question is, “Why did we start calling it ‘democracy’ in the 19th century?” The answer is that people could not imagine an alternative. But we need to use the word democracy properly if we are to critique the current regime well.

A constitution is the best way to protect us from the abuse of power, by limiting power. But in order to have effective limits it CANNOT be the persons in power who write the rules limiting their powers! This is essential! Everything’s here in this point. To be a constitution it must be written by US.

I see three uses of the sortition; you can be for some of them and not others. But I will explain later that I think one of them is the most essential. Why sortition? Sortition prevents the possibility of fraud, because is based on betraying someone’s will. With sortition there’s no volition, so there is no possibility of deception. Here are the three uses:

1) This is fundamental: control (oversight) chambers. All authority must be afraid; every power must be subject to an oversight body selected by lot. I see five political powers: Montesquieu’s 3 plus the media and the banks. The Administration, the Courts, the Parliament, the Media, and the Banks, each must be watched over, controlled, possibly punished by an allotted chamber. On this first use of sortition, everyone understands me quickly and everyone tends to agree.

2) The Legislative body, large enough representative sample. For France this would be about 1000. Yes, this has never happened before; here’s why it should: The power of sortition is this. The selected by lot have no reason to feel superior to those not selected. They remain our servants; power is never given away.

I say this and I know people are afraid of an allotted legislature; so splitting the uses of sortition allows us to go step by step.

3) Allotted Constitutional Assembly.

In fact, it is the mechanism of election itself that goes to politicians’ heads. Secondly, we have learned from history not to give power to those who seek it. An elected assembly would never change the constitution to give power to allotted bodies. The Senate would never dissolve itself!

So why just an allotted assembly and not crowd-sourcing, perhaps by stages or the use of technology? Because we know that we would essentially write the same thing: separation of powers, etc… Tunisians weren’t satisfied with their new Constitution because they elected the Constitutional Assembly. What did those people do? They tripled their own salaries and debated the Constitution in secret!

III. David Van Reybrouk: (24:00-1:23:00) [with various comments by E.C.]
I feel lucky that I”m before a public to whom I don’t have to explain what real democracy is, an advanced course if you will. Étienne and I have virtually co-presented before, just a few weeks ago on France-Inter, he was in Marseille I was in Paris. I thought it was a good (if short) exchange and I’ve posted it on my FB page.

So, I think we’re now at the second stage; we’re no longer defending sortition in principle. In fact, the last 20 years have seen so many works on the subject, beginning with Bernard Manin—now the latest from Depuis-Déry in Québec, “Democratie: Histoire politique d’un mot.” It’s an exceptional work on the American and French Revolutions and the use of the word “democracy” at the time. He concludes that the word was either AVOIDED or used in the PEJORATIVE sense. He showed without a doubt that the French Revolution did not replace an aristocracy with a democracy, but rather replaced a hereditary aristocracy with an elective one.

We’ve seen this repeated in Egypt. The people revolted, but it was the Brotherhood that took it over.

The 2nd book that has just come out (3 weeks ago in France) is called “Vox Populi” and it’s about the use of elections at the time of the American and French Revolutions. The book, tracing centuries of the use of elections, shows that they always had an aristocratic goal and effect.

I agree that sortition can have more than one use. In both France and Belgium today, it is used at only one level: the criminal trial jury (jury d’assise). But we had (have?) another in Belgium still: the military. For centuries, we have used lotteries instead of conscription. This is perhaps why the socialists always defended the right to vote, over the right to speak or sortition. With military lotteries, the rich were always able to pay someone else to serve on their behalf; and sortition became associated with that.

But two centuries after the Revolutions, we can see we’ve failed to “democratize” an aristocratic procedure: elections. Today, fewer and fewer people vote, not because they are lazy but because they don’t see a difference in voting and abstaining. Now the time is ripe for “the right to speak” to expression. Even politicians are now considering sortition. Last week, 10 of the 12 Belgian political parties extol the idea of “participatory democracy” in their 2013-14 programs! Yes, it doesn’t cost them anything to “say” that but just 4 years ago, none of them talked about it.

EC Question: How do you see the next step coming without an allotted constitutional assembly?

DVR I’m less cynical than you Étienne. The Senate in Belgium is changing itself, starting this June, to be elected indirectly by the regions in order to change from an “aristocratic” to a geographically representative chamber, like the American. I also spoke twice with the President of the Senate: I said, if you’re changing the Senate, why didn’t you use sortition. They said, if we only knew! [Audience laughter.]

EC Q: You really think he was serious?

DVR What I noticed about France is the degree to which the system of Grandes Ecoles has created a political caste. You even see it in the work of French intellectuals, their incomprehensible language! At any rate, in Belgium we have a “partycracy”: It is the presidents of the political parties that decided to change the Senate. I’m detecting an openness to experiment within the Belgian political class; but I also see a generational gap. The number two in the Socialist Party organized a citizens’ assembly (selected by lot) in a mining town in crisis to discuss the economy!

At the CDH, I talked with a young leader [I didn’t catch the name] who is fascinated by sortition, and some inside the party are in favor of an allotted citizens’ assembly.

EC Yes, but would it be just “consultative?”

DVR Yes, I know that makes all the difference, but I have a lot of patience. I’m a pragmatic idealist! Because we can either reject everything and start fresh—but risk finding ourselves in an Egyptian context—or we can go the long route (the Maoist route) through institutions. Yes, it would me much slower but more solid and sustainable. And, if we go the slow route we can get the political parties to implement some of our ideas.

EC How about the Allotted Constitutional Assembly? Is that too “romantic” a notion for you too?

DVR It strikes me how in Europe there are countries where people never talk about re-writing their constitution while in others, like France, Spain, and Francophone Belgium, people talk about it all the time. Does anyone know, about other countries? But what a Constitutional Court does is just as important in the day to day.

And let’s not forge the case of Ireland. They recently had a constitutional amendment assembly 2/3 of which was selected by lot. They approved the gay marriage amendment by 80%! There’s no question that we can write our own constitution.

EC I am also in favor of a Constitutional Court or having a Constitutional Assembly every 10 years.

DVR Yes, perhaps, but the same changes could be implemented more quickly through lesser allotted bodies. Europe’s “development objectives” for example could be written by an allotted body.

(58:08) – EC I’m going to disagree with you about Europe. I think that democracy may not work on the large scale. To manage an empire, you need tyranny. Maybe we can scale by federation but not like Europe. How can citizens be vigilant at such a scale, 400 million people most of whom are far away from the centers of power. By construction, a scale like Europe cannot be anything but anti-democratic—that’s why the banks and large corporations love it! The people have no chance at that level.

DVR India is the largest democracy…

(1:04:00) DVR If democracy doesn’t scale, how do you see the future of France?

EC The answer is federation.

DVR I think our views are reflections of our experiences, you in centralized France, me in decentralized Belgium.

EC Yes, we can have another talk about the problems of federation. But we can use technology to be vigilant and other means. When you start with democracy at the base, “federation” will not mean the same thing as it does today. People will keep watch over power. And once we’ve done this, perhaps it can be done on even a global level.
About the “G1000 report,” I just have to say it struck me how very, very well done it was. Some talk about apathy. There is only “apparent apathy.” People, as soon as they see they can make a difference, they wake up! They turn off their tv’s and video games. Although G1000 did not change that much in law..

DVR I learned form the G1000 that we should include the media and politicians in our next participatory democracy experiments. There is an incredible amount of energy in these things (like G1000) that I am certain the media and others will see it and feel.

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14 Responses

  1. >”Unfortunately, the audio quality is rather poor.”
    So much so that it’s painful to listen to.

    Like

  2. That’s a shame. Maybe only those couple of minutes about the uses of sortition?

    Like

  3. Thanks for posting Yoram. The audio quality is fine for me in the places I sampled. If nobody beats me to it, I’ll write up a summary this weekend.

    Preview: an important point Etienne makes re sortition, there are at least three justifications for it. You don’t have to buy into each one to be a sortitionist / sortinista.

    Like

  4. Ahmed, I’m very keen to hear of the three justifications — might even stop Yoram and myself continually beating each other up — so eagerly await your summary.

    Like

  5. Here is my rough summary in English. [Admin you may want to include it in the post to make it easier to find.] I’ll post my own comments on the talk separately.

    The summary (not transcript) of the discussion is divided by speaker. I left out most of the final 20 minutes, about EU-level politics not sortition per se.

    I. Moderator: (1:10-6:00) [Name not stated.]
    I see and feel the frustration of a large part of the public with the political system in Belgium, a general feeling of disgust and deceit with the political class. Citizens are allowed (even required) to voice their opinions only at the time of elections through a vote, then they are to fall back into silence. They are supposed to trust their future to a different class by whom they feel more and more betrayed. Anyone who criticizes EU policy or single currency is labeled a “populist” and more and more of the workings of the EU (even treaty modification) are done without popular consent. The presenters today will conduct a kind of autopsy of our democracy and make recommendations on how to take back our sovereignty.

    ———————————————
    II. Étienne Chouard: (6:10-24:00)
    I prepared questions about David’s work. I’ve been thinking about democracy and the place of sortition within it, for about 10 years, and I can only conclude that, “There is no democracy without sortition.” Elections are by nature and history aristocratic, not just because Aristotle said so. This was a banality for centuries, especially at the time of the founding fathers. The essential of all my work can be summarized, “We do not live in a democracy; it is a representative regime conceived 200 years ago as aristocratic not democratic. In particular, it is a plutocracy, directly by and for the rich.”

    It is also not quite correct to call our economic system “capitalism,” rather it is a form of banditry because when you give the rich ALL political power, you distort the economy. So, an important question is, “Why did we start calling it ‘democracy’ in the 19th century?” The answer is that people could not imagine an alternative. But we need to use the word democracy properly if we are to critique the current regime well.

    A constitution is the best way to protect us from the abuse of power, by limiting power. But in order to have effective limits it CANNOT be the persons in power who write the rules limiting their powers! This is essential! Everything’s here in this point. To be a constitution it must be written by US.

    I see three uses of the sortition; you can be for some of them and not others. But I will explain later that I think one of them is the most essential. Why sortition? Sortition prevents the possibility of fraud, because is based on betraying someone’s will. With sortition there’s no volition, so there is no possibility of deception. Here are the three uses:

    1) This is fundamental: control (oversight) chambers.
    All authority must be afraid; every power must be subject to an oversight body selected by lot.

    The Administration must be watched over, controlled, possibly punished by an allotted chamber.
    The Courts must be watched over, controlled, possibly punished by an allotted chamber.
    The Parliament must be watched over, controlled, possibly punished by an allotted chamber.
    The Media must be watched over, controlled, possibly punished by an allotted chamber.
    The Banks must be watched over, controlled, possibly punished by an allotted chamber.

    I see five political powers: Montesquieu’s 3 plus the media and the banks. On this first use of sortition, everyone understands me quickly and everyone tends to agree.

    2) The Legislative body, large enough representative sample.
    For France this would be about 1000.
    Yes, this has never happened before; here’s why it should: The power of sortition is this. The selected by lot have no reason to feel superior to those not selected. They remain our servants; power is never given away.

    I say this and I know people are afraid of an allotted legislature; so splitting the uses of sortition allows us to go step by step.

    3) Allotted Constitutional Assembly. In

    In fact, it is the mechanism of election itself that goes to politicians’ heads. Secondly, we have learned from history not to give power to those who seek it. An elected assembly would never change the constitution to give power to allotted bodies. The Senate would never dissolve itself!

    So why just an allotted assembly and not an immense writing by everyone together, perhaps by stages or the use of technology? Because we know that we would essentially write the same thing: separation of powers, etc…Tunisians weren’t satisfied with their new Constitution because they elected the Constitutional Assembly. What did those people do, they tripled their own salaries and debated the Constitution in secret!

    ——————————————————
    III. David Van Reybrouk: (24:00-1:23:00) various interruptions by E.C.
    I feel lucky that I”m before a public to whom I don’t have to explain what real democracy is, an advanced course if you will. Étienne and I have virtually co-presented before, just a few weeks ago on France-Inter, he was in Marseille I was in Paris. I thought it was a good (if short) exchange and I’ve posted it on my FB page.

    So, I think we’re now at the second stage; we’re no longer defending sortition in principle. In fact, the last 20 years have seen so many works on the subject, beginning with Bernard Manin—now the latest from Depuis-Déry in Québec, “Democratie: Histoire politique d’un mot.” It’s an exceptional work on the American and French Revolutions and the use of the word “democracy” at the time. He concludes that the word was either AVOIDED or used in the PEJORATIVE sense. He showed without a doubt that the French Revolution did not replace an aristocracy with a democracy, but rather replaced a hereditary aristocracy with an elective one.

    We’ve seen this repeated in Egypt. The people revolted, but it was the Brotherhood that took it over.

    The 2nd book that has just come out (3 weeks ago in France) is called “Vox Populi” and it’s about the use of elections at the time of the American and French Revolutions. The book, tracing centuries of the use of elections, shows that they always had an aristocratic goal and effect.

    I agree that sortition can have more than one use. In both France and Belgium today, it is used at only one level: the criminal trial jury (jury d’assise). But we had (have?) another in Belgium still: the military. For centuries, we have used lotteries instead of conscription. This is perhaps why the socialists always defended the right to vote, over the right to speak or sortition. With military lotteries, the rich were always able to pay someone else to serve on their behalf; and sortition became associated with that.

    But two centuries after the Revolutions, we can see we’ve failed to “democratize” an aristocratic procedure: elections. Today, fewer and fewer people vote, not because they are lazy but because they don’t see a difference in voting and abstaining. Now the time is ripe for “the right to speak” to expression. Even politicians are now considering sortition. Last week, 10 of the 12 Belgian political parties extol the idea of “participatory democracy” in their 2013-14 programs! Yes, it doesn’t cost them anything to “say” that but just 4 years ago, none of them talked about it.

    E.C. Question: How do you see the next step coming without an allotted constitutional assembly?

    D.V.R. I’m less cynical than you Étienne. The Senate in Belgium is changing itself, starting this June, to be elected indirectly by the regions in order to change from an “aristocratic” to a geographically representative chamber, like the American. I also spoke twice with the President of the Senate: I said, if you’re changing the Senate, why didn’t you use sortition. They said, if we only knew! [Audience laughter.]

    E.C. Q: You really think he was serious?

    D.V.R. What I noticed about France is the degree to which the system of Grandes Ecoles has created a political caste. You even see it in the work of French intellectuals, their incomprehensible language! At any rate, in Belgium we have a “partycracy”: It is the presidents of the political parties that decided to change the Senate. I’m detecting an openness to experiment within the Belgian political class; but I also see a generational gap. The number two in the Socialist Party organized a citizens’ assembly (selected by lot) in a mining town in crisis to discuss the economy!

    At the CDH, I talked with a young leader [I didn’t catch the name] who is fascinated by sortition, and some inside the party are in favor of an allotted citizens’ assembly.

    E.C. Yes, but would it be just “consultative?”

    D.V.R. Yes, I know that makes all the difference, but I have a lot of patience. I’m a pragmatic idealist! Because we can either reject everything and start fresh—but risk finding ourselves in an Egyptian context—or we can go the long route (the Maoist route) through institutions. Yes, it would me much slower but more solid and sustainable. And, if we go the slow route we can get the political parties to implement some of our ideas.

    E.C. How about the Allotted Constitutional Assembly? Is that too “romantic” a notion for you too?

    D.V.R. It strikes me how in Europe there are countries where people never talk about re-writing their constitution while in others, like France, Spain, and Francophone Belgium, people talk about it all the time. Does anyone know, about other countries? But what a Constitutional Court does is just as important in the day to day.

    And let’s not forge the case of Ireland. They recently had a constitutional amendment assembly 2/3 of which was selected by lot. They approved the gay marriage amendment by 80%! There’s no question that we can write our own constitution.

    E.C. I am also in favor of a Constitutional Court or having a Constitutional Assembly every 10 years.

    D.V.R. Yes, perhaps, but the same changes could be implemented more quickly through lesser allotted bodies. Europe’s “development objectives” for example could be written by an allotted body.

    (58:08) – E.C. I’m going to disagree with you about Europe. I think that democracy may not work on the large scale. To manage an empire, you need tyranny. Maybe we can scale by federation but not like Europe. How can citizens be vigilant at such a scale, 400 million people most of whom are far away from the centers of power. By construction, a scale like Europe cannot be anything but anti-democratic—that’s why the banks and large corporations love it! The people have no chance at that level.

    D.V.R. India is the largest democracy….


    (1:04:00) D.V.R. If democracy doesn’t scale, how do you see the future of France?

    E.C. The answer is federation.

    D.V.R. I think our views are reflections of our experiences, you in centralized France, me in decentralized Belgium.

    E.C. Yes, we can have another talk about the problems of federation. But we can use technology to be vigilant and other means. When you start with democracy at the base, “federation” will not mean the same thing as it does today. People will keep watch over power. And once we’ve done this, perhaps it can be done on even a global level.
    About the “G1000 report,” I just have to say it struck me how very, very well done it was. Some talk about apathy. There is only “apparent apathy.” People, as soon as they see they can make a difference, they wake up! They turn off their tv’s and video games. Although G1000 did not change that much in law..

    D.V.R. I learned form the G1000 that we should include the media and politicians in our next participatory democracy experiments. There is an incredible amount of energy in these things (like G1000) that I am certain the media and others will see it and feel.

    Like

  6. In addition to Chouard’s three uses, we need to add

    4) the epistemic argument for sortition.

    The Grandes Ecoles system in France does produce a separate political class and Belgium is pretty much a failed state. Neither of the above apply to the UK, where the case for sortition has more to do with better informing the judgment of a representative sample of the demos than écrasez l’infâme (why are the French still so excitable?). I was disappointed that there was no mention of this in the context of function 2), where the discourse was entirely in terms of power rather than informed judgment. Yet another call to the barricades.

    >They [allotted representatives] remain our servants; power is never given away.

    This is an odd statement — in fact it would be more true of elected representatives, who are paid by the public purse. The tenure on power of elected politicians is always a temporary leasehold, and if they perform badly then they will not be re-elected (the servants will be dismissed). Allotted representatives have the same power, but without the above constraint, so there is no reason at all to believe that they would see themselves as our servants — although they are also paid by the public purse, they cannot be dismissed by those who pay them.

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  7. Keith, re Etienne’s comment that with sortition, “power is never given away.”

    Thanks for asking, because I inadvertently left out a sentence that now seems important. Chouard thinks, “It is the election mechanism itself that gets to politicians heads, that makes them feel superior.”

    Like

  8. Re a fourth use of sortition,

    I think you are adding both another justification and another use (in the sense of method) of sortition. The justification would be that a diverse, representative body would make better decisions, however defined. Chouard does NOT name or hint at that in this debate, and he doesn’t seem to do so elsewhere, as far as I know. But I have only started exploring what he’s said and written about it.

    Like

  9. Thanks Ahmed, it’s interesting that Chouard’s approach is largely in terms of psychological stereotypes — although the cause is structural (election, sortition etc) the effect is psychological. Election makes politicians feel superior — “it goes to their heads”, and there must be some corresponding psychological effect from sortition (unspecified in this piece). Many politicians in fact speak about how “humbled” they feel by being chosen to represent their fellow citizens; no doubt Chouard would view that as a disingenuous rhetorical charade (DVR upbraids him for his cynicism). However, given the religious origin of the lot, it’s a lot more dangerous for people to think they were chosen by God (think Blair/Bush) than elected by their fellow citizens.

    But the missing perspective is still the epistemic one, not mentioned anywhere in this piece. It’s almost as if all agents have perfect knowledge — all that’s left to argue about is which group’s interests predominate.

    >It is also not quite correct to call our economic system “capitalism,” rather it is a form of banditry because when you give the rich ALL political power, you distort the economy.

    Hmm, Gilens and his fellow conspirators have a lot to answer for. Do we really want sortition to be tarnished by association with this sort of post-Marxist claptrap? I agree that giving the rich “all political power” would be banditry, it’s just that the dataset doesn’t support Gilens’s claim (echoed here by Chouard).

    Like

  10. >The justification would be that a diverse, representative body would make better decisions, however defined. Chouard does NOT name or hint at that in this debate, and he doesn’t seem to do so elsewhere, as far as I know.

    Yes, I think that’s right. He was one of the speakers at the Dublin sortition session (organised by Peter Stone and Oliver Dowlen) and these sessions have been dominated by the blind breakers (model 1 in Chouard’s typology). Stone and Dowlen are dismissive of model 2 (descriptive representation), whereas most of the talk on this blog is in terms of interests (rather than epistemic factors). So I guess it’s our collective fault for not educating him properly!

    Like

  11. Chouard seems to promote a more radical approach, while van Reybrouck offers a conservative approach relying on a the cooperation of existing institutions and power centers. Reybrouck “patient” attitude reflects the fact that he still sees the electoral system as an essentially good system that needs some mending. It is interesting to note for example how he offhandedly states that India is “a democracy”. This can be contrasted with Chouard’s “There is no democracy without sortition.”

    Of course, I believe Chouard is presenting the more realistic position. I am happy to see that he seems to de-emphasize the role of a one-off Constitutional Assembly as compared to a previous talk, making a specific proposal for an allotted legislature and talking about an ongoing, recurring constitutional assembly.

    I disagree with his “democracy doesn’t scale” sentiment. Democracy should work at various scales, including the largest. Sortition is exactly a tool for projecting the large scale (whole populations) into the small scale (allotted chamber) while preserving representation. I am also not sure how he arrived at the number of 1000 delegates – this seems too large to allow the delegation to represent itself democratically. (He also hints that the size of the chamber depends on the size of the population, which seems wrong to me.)

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  12. 1,000 is a suspiciously round number. Clearly there’s a trade-off between representative accuracy and deliberative effectiveness — Fishkin’s experiments put the compromise figure for a citizen jury at nearer to 300. This figure is lower than one that opinion pollsters would come up with for a representative sample, but the top limit is dictated by the onset of rational ignorance, so less than optimal descriptive accuracy is the price that one has to pay for deliberative effectiveness. Of course this is using the word “deliberation” in the weighing/judging sense, the maximum size for an assembly with active functions is 12-24 (Coote and Lenaghan, 1997), and this is clearly unrepresentative. I agree that the size of the target population is of little relevance.

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  13. […] The idea of sortition continued to be actively discussed in French. A new French movie – J’ai pas voté – featured a string of critics of electoralism and sortition advocates. Etienne Chouard and David Van Reybrouck joined forces in April for a conference called “The Tired Democracy”. […]

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  14. […] the wake of the Brexit referendum David Van Reybrouck takes his “tired democracy” message to the readers of the […]

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