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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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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Ranciere: What times are we living in?, part 1

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. [My translation, corrections welcome. -YG]

01. There is always this confusion between democracy as the power of all and a representative system.

Aude Lancelin: Jacques Rancière, welcome. I thank you, a great political philosopher, for coming to help us understand what is happening in a democratic country where full power is obtained with the support of less than 11% of the electorate. One of the very cruel lessons of your new book “In what times are we living?”, which is a dialog with the editor Eric Hazan, is that despite the mass abstention, despite the dysfunction of the representative system, someone holds power. Moreover, power becomes more and more oligarchical in our societies, without meeting any serious obstacle. It is not enough to turn our backs on the electoral system for it to collapse by itself. It continues to function without the popular classes, without the left… until when?

Jacques Ranciere: As I see things, the representative system is made to function with the support of a minority. There is always this confusion between democracy as the power of all and a representative system. The electoral system is made as a conflation of the two but fundamentally the representative system is in its essence an oligarchical system. In the 17th century the representative system was therefore made for a small part of the population that was supposed to be “enlightened”, representative and conscious of the general interests of society, to be able to govern with as few obstacles as possible. At the time of the revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries a belief in the power of people emerged, which could express itself through the electoral system and representation. Today we realize again that in different ways power is always with a small minority. In the past it was a social class, now it is difficult to say what social class can really govern the country, even if we know what interests the system serves. In consequence, we professionalization occurred which produced an interaction between a left and a right which fundamentally thought and did the same thing. And at the same time, they saw themselves as representatives and called for a non-establishment system or an “anti-system”. That is, the system itself produced its anti-system. What we see with Macron, with En Marche [Macron’s party], is a new and unexpected way in which the system produces its “anti-system”. I mean that the representative system carries within it the potential for several possibilities. There is the Le Pen style alternative, that is the people of the depths who are going to sweep away all the people of the system, and then there is of course the Macron alternative, which is a more subtle form because it replaces the system by the system itself. Fundamentally, what is the great novelty about under the banner of En Marche? These are alliances which are already known in other European countries (Germany, for example), with the difference that the parties keep their autonomy, while keeping the same politics, sometimes as adversaries and sometimes as allies.
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Voting, sortition and power

Behind debates about forms and procedures of representation in political decision-making are the more fundamental questions about collective power, for what purposes ought coercive power be exercised and by what means. That in turn raises the question: who should have a say in what decisions, and about what constitutes having a say. A lot of discussion of the relative merits of representation by sortition or by voting ignores these questions with unfortunate results.

Historically in our Western traditions of democracies arose from struggles against monarchies and aristocracies in which the vast majority were subjects of the sovereign. Even as late as the First World War, that notion lingered on. Even in Australia the standard form of praise for those killed in the war was that they died “For King and Country”. We were Australian citizens, but subjects of the King of England, our sovereign lord.

One strand of various democratic traditions has seen democracy as the transfer of sovereignty from the monarch to the people. The old sovereign achieved and sustained power by force of arms. Of course wise monarchs tried to win the loyalty of their subjects by adorning their power in various ways and taking good care of their subjects. In return, grateful subjects sang God Save the King with joy and enthusiasm. The central activity of the monarchy remained war, and success in war was so glorious a thing as to override all other considerations. One sort of democracy saw the nation, the people, as the new incarnation of sovereignty and its power. That conception is alive and kicking in Donald Trump and his admirers. Emotionally it is very powerful. It is easily rejuvenated in new trappings to meet the needs of each age and culture.
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Lysander Spooner, trial juries, and legislative juries

Lysander Spooner (1808-1887) was a prominent 19th century American legal theorist, abolitionist (abolition of slavery), and competitor with the U.S. Postal Service until they shut him down. A biography and collection of his work are here.

Spooner continues to be cited in the U.S., including for example by Justice Scalia writing for the Supreme Court majority in 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller.

Spooner was a strong advocate of “jury nullification.” He argued that trial juries have the right and duty “to judge of the justice of the law, and to hold all laws invalid, that are, in their opinion, unjust or oppressive, and all persons guiltless in violating, or resisting the execution of, such laws.” (An Essay on the Trial by Jury, published in 1852, page 5.)

In the following passages Spooner is talking about trial juries. Although he never mentions the possibility of legislative juries, his line of reasoning is to a large extent strikingly applicable to them. By “legislative juries” I mean juries that can veto and repeal the laws the government passes, and pass laws the government does not support.[i]

Lysander Spooner (italics and bold are as in the original, block quote function not used because it may change everything quoted to italics):

“By such trials [where juries do not judge the law] the government will determine its own powers over the people, instead of the people’s determining their own liberties against the government; and it will be an entire delusion to talk, as for centuries we have done, of the trial by jury, as a ‘palladium of liberty,’ or as any protection to the people against the oppression and tyranny of the government.” (Ibid., 10.)

“The authority to judge what are the powers of the government, and what the liberties of the people, must necessarily be vested in one or the other of the parties themselves—the government, or the people; because there is no third party to whom it can be entrusted. If the authority be vested in the government, the government is absolute, and the people have no liberties except such as the government sees fit to indulge them with. If, on the other hand, that authority be vested in the people, then the people have all liberties, (as against the government,) except such as substantially the whole people (through a jury) choose to disclaim; and the government can exercise no power except such as substantially the whole people (through a jury) consent that it may exercise.” (Ibid., 10.)
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The Paradox of Democratic Selection: Is Sortition Better than Voting?

Book chapter just uploaded to academia.edu by Anthoula Malkopoulou

Sortition, or the selection of political officers by lot, has its antecedent in the direct democratic tradition of ancient Athens. Its transfer into a modern context of representative democracy poses rightful scepticism not only about the practical difficulties, but more so about the theoretical inconsistencies that arise. Modern systems of political representation are based on the aristocratic idea of ‘government by the best’, who are to be selected through a competitive call for candidates (Manin 1997). Sortition, on the other hand, replaces this aristocratic criterion of competition and evaluative election with the democratic mechanics of direct and equal distribution of political office by chance. Hence, the very expression ‘democratic (s)election’ includes a paradoxical contradiction in terms, between the democratic concept of equal access to public office and the aristocratic idea of government by the (s)elected best. My aim in this chapter is to shed some light on this contradiction by critically discussing the benefits and pitfalls of using sortition today, comparing it throughout the chapter with voting and the general effects of electoral representation.

Full text

Hartz-Karp: Unlike the Athenians, we don’t believe that every citizen is capable of participating in important decision-making

Janette Hartz-Karp, a professor at the Sustainability Policy Institute at Curtin University, has a sortition advocacy piece in The Conversation. It covers well known ground: history, diversity, deliberation, applications in Australia, etc.

The opening of the “What’s the obstacle to reform?” section is interesting:

So why isn’t deliberative democracy happening more often? Simple. Those in power are wary about sharing their power.

Unlike the Athenians, we don’t believe that every citizen is capable of participating in important decision-making. We assume most people are too self-interested to make decisions for the common good.

This seems to conflate two different ideas:

  1. Resistance by the elite,
  2. Anti-democratic sentiments in the population.

The first idea is clear and presents a general phenomenon. Power concedes nothing without a demand.

The second idea, however, is more intriguing. How resistant are the people themselves to democratic rule? If they are, why? An empirical study of this question could be useful.

The article also generated a lively conversation in the comments.