Ranciere: What times are we living in?, part 3 of 3

What to save from the drifting French political system? The philosopher Jacques Ranciere was the guest of Aude Lancelin in “The war of ideas” of June 20th, 2017. Here is the transcript of this interview. Parts 1 and 2 of the translation are here and here. [My translation, corrections welcome. -YG]

05. The question today is that of rethinking forms of organization, ways of being together for the long term, outside of the electoral forces.

Aude Lancelin: Your book is also a severe blow to those who today are pinning their hopes on the famous cortège de tête: the group of young people who clash with the police after the demonstrations. You have some ironic words on this subject. For you it is primarily a varnish of radicality which is applied to quite traditional demonstrations. The political meaning of all that and its future are not at all assured in your eyes. Do I misinterpret your thinking?

Jacques Ranciere: First thing: the cortège de tête is not simply the professional revolutionaries who think that it is necessary to radicalize the struggle and who radicalize the struggle by breaking shop windows. There are also people who think that breaking windows is the time of assembly of people who come from different horizons, who come from the political struggle or who come from delinquency in the suburbs, and who suddenly discover themselves. That is a way of gathering people that is classic anarchist or revolutionary politics, and suddenly the people that the movement appeals to and who are involved, who arrive with their own actions, their own revolt or their own ways, are coming first from the world of delinquency rather than from the world of politics. The cortège de tête are not simply people with a specific strategy. Another thing that I am trying to say is that the violent actions of the cortège de tête are also symbolic and not any more strategic in fact than the assemblies of the Nuit debout. Because, in fact, what is it that they are really doing? They take aim at symbolic targets; an ATM, a shop window, a nice car… But that is not at all a strategic action. There is this idea that it is necessary to radicalize, to create an irreversible situation. In my experience, that is not irreversible. It is not that some actions create an irreversible situation. I don’t think that existing conditions create a great realignment. Basically, the question is knowing how to manage this interaction between gathering the greatest number and striking the enemy. But what does “striking the enemy” mean? I don’t really know. I think that in the so-called “radical” thinking, there is always a double logic. On the one hand, the logic of confrontation (“we are going to confront them and it is through the confrontation that we rattle the enemy”) and at the same time a logic of desertion (“if we secede the system will collapse”). In the texts of the Comité invisible there is always this double logic. I think that neither of those two logics is really proven. But I am not trying to give lessons, I am just responding to the questions.
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Threlkeld’s reply to Paul Lucardie

This is my reply to Paul Lucardie’s 2014 book Democratic Extremism in Theory and Practice: All Power to the People, regarding his questions, objections and comments about my 1998 proposal for democratic lawmaking.

In my reply I explain why Lucardie’s alleged category of “democratic extremism” is illogical and should be rejected.

I do not find the book’s objections to what I propose to be convincing, but I do find them and Lucardie’s questions interesting and worth replying to. For example, he suggests that compared to popular election, citizen juries waste political talent. I explain, in response, why popular election massively wastes political talent compared to the citizen jury proposals I have made.

In the course of replying, I outline much of my position on citizen juries, including details I have not published before, such as some further details about why the final say in lawmaking needs to be transferred to legislative juries, and about juries deciding how public decision-makers are chosen.


Lucardie observes that: “Obviously, it is rather inconvenient if one wants to write about a phenomenon [democratic extremism] that by definition cannot exist [because it is a contradiction in terms].” (14.) Lucardie then tries to define “democratic extremism” in a way that is not a contradiction in terms, but he does not succeed.
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Kofi Annan endorses sortition

In a speech titled “The Crisis of Democracy” given to the 2017 Athens Democracy Forum, former Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan has endorsed the use of sortition as a tool for “mak[ing] our democracies more inclusive”. Tucked between two other pieces of advice, to harness new technologies and management techniques in order to make our democracies more effective and to champion democracy against its enemies who are spending billions to undermine it, both in practice and through misinformation, Annan says:

[W]e need to tackle inequality, both economic and political. As I have said, increasing inequality is one of the drivers of resentment, especially since economic equality leads to political inequalities as well, as several studies have confirmed. There is a growing perception that the priorities of the extremely wealthy take precedence over the well-being of the middle class thanks to campaign contributions and lobbying. At the other end of the spectrum, the poor and minorities are, or at least feel, excluded from the political system. Governments must respond by redistributing fairly the benefits of globalisation by restricting tax avoidance and evasion schemes, and most importantly, discouraging tax havens. Fortunately, democracy is one of the only systems in which the concerns of the majority can overturn the interests of the wealthy if the majority harnesses the mechanisms at their disposal. But this demands more participation, not less.

This means that we need to make our democracies more inclusive. This requires bold and innovative reforms to bring in the young, the poor and minorities into the political system. An interesting idea put forward by one of your speakers this week, Mr. Reybrouk, would be to reintroduce the ancient Greek practice of selecting parliaments by lot instead of election. In other words, parliamentarians would no longer be nominated by political parties, but chosen at random for a limited term, in the way many jury systems work. This would prevent the formation of self-serving and self-perpetuating political classes disconnected from their electorates.

Wariboko: Election by lottery: A new approach to Nigerian democracy

Nimi Wariboko, Walter G. Muelder Professor of Social Ethics at the School of Theology at Boston University, writes:

Electioneering is warfare in Nigeria. Billions of naira are invested in campaigns and conducting elections. War and money have not yielded wise leaders for the country. Is it not time for us to generate creative ideas on how we can peacefully and cheaply select citizens for offices? I suggest that we complement our system of election with lottery. We reserve one-third of all seats in the state Houses of Assembly, House of Representatives, and the Senate for delegates to be filled by lot. Every four years, we put the names of all eligible citizens in a given constituency in a computerised urn or other mechanism and pick out a winner to represent his or her constituency at one level.
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Ranciere: What times are we living in?, part 2

What to save from the drifting French political system? The philosopher Jacques Ranciere was the guest of Aude Lancelin in “The war of ideas” of June 20th, 2017. Here is the transcript of this interview. Part 1 of the translation is here. [My translation, corrections welcome. -YG]

03. It is paradoxical to work through institutions in order to demolish them.

Aude Lancelin: Let’s remain with France insoumise and the phenomenon of Mélenchon during the presidential elections. You are very sceptical regarding the figure of a tribune (Mélenchon) who is going to speak in the name of the suffering of the people and champion their cause. This posture is suspect in your view. What is the basis of your criticism?

Jacques Ranciere: There are several things. First, adopting this posture means also adopting the posture that the system imposes, namely the posture that there is an official political game and that there are the people of the depths who are not represented, or are represented by the extreme right from which they must be separated. It is this idea that the people exist, that there are those who represent the people, that is what de Gaulle pretended to do. I don’t think that this is a democratic idea that makes it possible to mobilize and advance. That is the first point. The second point is that I find it paradoxical to become a candidate of the supreme office of the system saying: if you elect me, here is my program. And at the same time to say: but pay attention, this system is bad and therefore everything is going change. I think there is a fundamental contradiction. You are saying to me that my anti-presidential stance is somewhat paradoxical or difficult to follow. But I think it is still more difficult to follow a stance which on the one hand asks to be vested with the powers of the president of the 5th republic and at the same time says I want to 6th republic and i am going to throw all of this up in the air. It is either one or the other. If we say: it is necessary to throw the 5th republic up in the air, we say: I am here to throw the 5th republic up in the air. Period.
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Legislature by Lot

[Note: this has been adapted from an orginial blog post here: http://www.bretthennig.com/legislature_by_lot]


From Friday to Sunday this weekend (September 15-17) the co-founder and director of the Sortition Foundation, Brett Hennig, will be joining a group of academics, researchers and activists gathering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to discuss the pros and cons of a “Legislature by Lot” – a parliament, senate or congress selected by sortition.

The workshop is being organised by Professor John Gastil (Penn State) and Professor Erik Olin Wright (University of Wisconsin-Madison) who have drafted the principal proposal that attendees are responding to. Their proposal is for a bicameral legislature where one chamber is elected and one is selected using sortition.

Deepening Democracy CoverThe intended outcome of the workshop will be a book whose prospective title is “Legislature by Lot: An Alternative Design for Deliberative Governance”, to be published by Verso as part of of the Real Utopias series.

The workshop will be attended by many well know academics and practitioners in the field of deliberative and participatory democracy, including Lyn CarsonNed CrosbyJim FishkinArchon FungJane MansbridgeYves SintomerGraham Smith and many others.

Workshop session titles include “Legislatures by lot in the context of major democratic reforms”, “From deliberative to radical democracy? Sortition and politics in the 21st century”, “On democratic representation and accountability” and “Random assemblies for law-making? Prospects and limits”.

It promises to be an interesting and stimulating weekend of discussion about if and how sortition should be introduced into the legislative branch of government – and the resulting book (probably appearing in late 2018) should make a major contribution to the debate about radical but achievable changes that could be made to better our democracies.

Athens as a democratic precedent

Athens of the fifth and fourth centuries BC is often brought up in discussions and polemics about sortition, both in support of the idea and against it. However, since this is often done in rote or knee-jerk manner rather than as reasoned argument the results provide more insight about modern conventional views than about the mechanism of sortition. It is therefore of interest to make an orderly account of the properties of the Athenian system as they are relevant to the question of using sortition in a modern political system and then use this account to evaluate the relevance of the system to the modern debate: the lessons that can be drawn from the historical record, if any, and whether in fact Athens should be a prominent part of the discussion of sortition today.

The historical facts

The institutional arrangements in Athens are pretty well known. My understanding is that the main source for the details is Aristotle’s The Athenian Constitution, but the general institutional picture and the conventional political theory behind them is clear from multiple sources. In addition some background facts about the Athenian society can be established including both facts about the demography of Athens and about the conventional ideology of the Athenians. For our purposes, the following points (“stylized facts”) are the relevant ones:

  1. Athenian citizenship was very restrictive. Of a population of about 300,000 people, only 30,000 were fully enfranchised citizens (adult males of Athenian ancestry). The rest were women, children, foreigners and slaves.
  2. Despite some vestiges of formal political stratification among the citizens, conventional Athenian ideology saw citizens as deserving equal political rights and in practice no formal distinctions were enforced.
  3. The set of Athenian citizens was largely made of two groups – small farmers and city-resident workers. There were two elite groups: landed Aristocracy, and the wealthy city bourgeoisie.
  4. The rich were taxed by the city and money was given in various ways to the poorer citizens, but significant economic inequality persisted in Athens.
  5. The day-to-day governing of the Athenian city was carried out by the Council – a body of 500 citizens allotted yearly. The council oversaw a large number of magistrate boards, each made of ten 10 citizens allotted yearly. There were also a few specialized offices (military generals and high financial officers) that were elected.
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