Arturo Íñiguez: On the meaning of the word ‘democracy’

Arturo Íñiguez, an occasional contributor to Equality-by-Lot, recently published a rather beautiful essay touching upon sortition which weaves together history, linguistics and political philosophy (English, French, Spanish). Well worth reading in its entirety even for people familiar with the idea of sortition, here is an excerpt from the essay:

[R]epresentative regimes can be either aristocratic, if they rely on election, or democratic if they rely on sortition.

According to my experience, a lot of people, when exposed to these truths, will react in complete denial. But the fact is that this has been completely trivial knowledge for political scientists for most or recorded history: from Plato and Aristotle to Montesquieu and Rousseau, in the mid XVIIIth century, all of them wrote the same: elections are aristocratic and sortition is democratic. How come, then, that we have been so thoroughly indoctrinated as to believe the exact opposite of something that was crystal-clear for the greatest human thinkers?

Well, the change began in the late XVIIIth century, when the rich bourgeois in France and North America decided that they would be better off in the future by breaking free from the existing monarchic regime (which after all had not been so bad with them, or they wouldn’t had got so rich in the first place). Needless to say that sharing any power with the poor masses was always completely out the question. The masses would be used to fight the royal armies and then abused into thinking the the victory was also theirs. Both the Founding Fathers and the French revolutionaries were adamant in opposing democracy. Suffice to read what they said and wrote to understand that democracy was for them a very bad and ugly word.

But calling their elective system aristocracy, which would have been the logical thing to do following the philosophical tradition we have just mentioned, was also a no-go. Was not the aristocracy the despised enemy recently destroyed? And at the end they had to settle for a word like ‘republic’, an empty signifier which can mean anything you want it to mean.

A lively discussion followed the essay in the comments and Arturo exhibited the proper democratic mindset and engaged in conversation with some of the commenters. Here, for exmaple, is one comment by a reader and Arturo’s reply:
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Interview with John Gastil on Legislature by Lot

3.3 Legislature by Lot with Professor John Gastil

Above is the link to a podcast interview by Real Democracy Now! John Gastil is a Professor in the Communication Arts and Sciences and Political Science at the Pennsylvania State University as well as a Senior Scholar in the McCourtney Institute for Democracy. He studies political deliberation and group decision making across a range of contexts.

In September 2017 John and Erik Olin Wright, as part of the Real Utopias project, held a three-day workshop called Legislature by Lot. Participants included several contributors to this  site, Equality by Lot.  John was interviewed shortly after this workshop to learn more about what was discussed.

John described this workshop as ‘a deliberation about deliberation’.

John spoke about

  • the origins of the Legislature by Lot workshop [1:32]
  • the different ways to implement sortition (random selection) [3:54]
  • some of the arguments in favour of a legislature selected by lot [5:44]
  • different models of sortition [7:40]
  • responding to criticisms of legislature by lot [10:11]
  • how to design an oversight body to support a legislature selected by lot [14:10]
  • the prospect of institutional change and transition strategies [18:34]
  • moving the agenda of using sortition forward [23:43]
  • how much work is happening around the world to test and promote the use of sortition [28:35]
  • what representation and accountability means for bodies selected by sortition [30:29]
  • deliberation, consensus, contention and voting [34:35 and 38:50]
  • what the workshop agreed on [43:18]
  • what might happen after the workshop: building links between researchers and practitioners [45:34]
  • responses to critiques of empowered mini-publics [49:35]
  • when the book arising from the workshop will be published [53:07]

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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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]

legislature

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.

Can reason be democratic?

What is the point of raising the question in the context of this website?

I suspect that there is a difference of a fundamental sort between me and some of my critics that can be characterised very roughly as this: they are committed to democracy as the will of the people. Not because they think that will is infallible, but because any effort to make it less fallible is going to put too much power in the hands of self-appointed elites that are worse in many ways, even at getting things right. We cannot risk giving power to the elites who claim to be the voice of reason. No more Lenins!

On the other hand, I want to emphasise the supreme importance of getting it right in dealing with the dangerous world we have created. I postulate that this goal can only be achieved by a rational process in which any citizen who wishes to do so may take an active part. One takes an active part in a rational process by putting forward considerations for or against a proposal that others can be expected to recognise as having a certain amount of validity. Mere will or gratuitous assertion do not count.

An obvious objection to this view is that it makes people unequal. Almost anybody can cast a vote, but taking part in a rational discussion of a serious political problem demands a degree of skill in thinking and expressing one’s thoughts that many people do not have. Many also lack the time and energy that the task demands. There is certainly inequality of participation here. But is that any worse than the inequalities that voting almost inevitably inflicts on many people in any situation where the decision is determined by majority voting?
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Correction: sortition and caution

In my last post, emphasising the importance of giving mavericks a say and of changing general assumptions, I may have given the impression of advocating permanent revolution. I should have been more precise. You need very solid evidence to challenge established assumptions, even though it is sometimes very fruitful to do so. It is a matter of taking the unusual seriously.

Take the instances I referred to from the history of science, Newton first, challenging the old mechanists’ rejection of action at a distance. He set out to look at a very precise and limited problem: how to explain the stability of the planetary orbits. No grandiose questions about the nature of the universe. He found that they could be explained very precisely if one postulated the existence of a particular predictable force that could also explain many other phenomena. It was no open day for any old suggestion about other forms of attraction.

Nevertheless, it subsequently turned out that there were other forms of attraction at a distance, electricity and magnetism. And eventually the sub-atomic forces, all of which were more powerful and fundamental than gravity. They could not have been discovered without Newton’s breakthrough. Nor was it the case that Newton dismissed mechanist explanations. On the contrary, he was he first to formulate precisely the general laws of mechanical interactions. Similarly, when Einstein rejected Newton’s assumption of the invariance of space and time, he did not invalidate Newtonian physics within certain very broad limits. If you want to go to Mars, Newton is your guide, but to go to Alpha Centauri you need Einstein.
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