Yves Sintomer: Blow the dust off of democracy with an allotted third chamber. Part 1

This is an English version of an interview with Yves Sintomer in the journal Socialter (original in French).

The Gilets Jaunes, who are looking for new democratic experiences, have called for an “assembly of assemblies”. Would it be necessary, in order to resolve the impasse, to radicalize our democracy? Why not re-institutionalize one of the its original components: sortition. A conversation with Yves Sintomer, a political scientist and an expert in democratic procedures.

Philippe Vion-Dury, 17/04/2019
Photos: Cyrille Choupas

The Gilet Jaunes have been first presented at an anti-tax movement and then as a social justice movement. Isn’t it, however, fundamentally, the question of institutions and democracy question which predominates?

What unites the Gilets Jaunes, it seems to me, is not so much the question of institutions in the strict sense as much as denial of recognition to which they respond by protesting against social injustice and against the democratic gap, a sentiment of non-representation. These two components appear to me to be tied together: society does not recognize them both because its fruits are distributed too unequally and because their voice is not being heard.

Popular distrust can be observed in most western democracies, in different forms. Isn’t there a generalized crisis of “representative government” itself?

There is a French particularity: a President with disproportionately concentrated power, little countervailing power, unusually weak political parties… and the revolt of the Gilet Jaunes is a social mobilization to which there is no equivalent in neighboring countries. This particularity has to be put in context, because it works within a much more general crisis of representation which affects not only European democracies but is also the young democracies of Latin America and in the formally democratic countries of Africa and Asia.

Representative governments were created during the English, French and American revolutions as a compromise solution. It involved giving effective decision power to a self-proclaimed elite – from this point of view, there is an aristocratic dimension to representative government. This ruling aristocracy, however, would not longer be one of “blue blood”, of nobility, but an aristocracy determined by the voters.

This institutionalization of representative government has long been opposed to the feudal society of the Ancien Regime, but also against democracy, understood as “government of the people, for the people, by the people” – to quote Abraham Lincoln. The is to limit the power of the people by giving decision making power to an elected aristocracy. That allows us to distance ourselves from the classical liberal conception asserting that “democracy means elections”.

In parallel, there is a critique of representative government which generally comes from libertarian circles and which claims that this system is anti-democratic by its essence. Therefore it seems to me that it is necessary to take stock of all the changes experienced by representative government. Starting from the moment when, at the end of the 19th century, mass parties mobilized and organized the population, and in particular working class, to such a point where they gave rise to the social state of the 20th century, making talk of representative democracy no longer a complete pretense.

All that was shattered by the bureaucratization of the parties, the evolution of social structures, the increasing level of education, the internet and the social networks, the competition of emerging countries for the appropriation of resources and wealth… Representative government lost its dynamism and this crisis appears to me to be structural and very deep.

At the time of the French Revolution, the democrats opposed those advocating representative government, who have finally had the upper hand and who have openly self-identified, like Abbé Sieyès, as anti-democrats. What democracy are we talking about then?

The aspiration to self-govern, to take direct part in decision-making which we are discussing, goes back to Athens, where the word democracy is created and where the first democratic theories and institutions were formed. This refers to a radical democracy but at the same time an exclusive one: slaves, metics (free, non-citizen residents) and women could not participate. It is worth noting that, as Paulin Ismard showed, among the slaves there were some who had had expertise in public affairs: the Athenians chose to allow slaves to play the role of “experts” so that no citizen would have a privileged point of view compared to the others.

This ideal of self-government has reappeared in certain medieval and renaissance communities, then during the revolutions, notably the French revolution, again involving exclusivity, and finally in popular uprisings occurring sporadically during the 19th and 20th centuries. But when we move from societies that are geographically and demographically constrained to the large scale, where there are no more slaves in whom expertise can be vested, and where women finally win inclusion in the public and political sphere, the libertarian attitude is faced with significant challenges.

How to organize this pure democracy at the scale of a state? How to avoid the very noticeable differences between places that are more privileged and less privileged? How to enact laws that allow different behaviors and have them respected at this scale?

Montesquieu said: “Sortition is natural to democracy. Elections are natural to aristocracy.” So democracy is not the same as elections?

Indeed. We have largely forgotten that in the republican and democratic history, sortition was one of the great instruments that was used to appoint public officials. In Athens, sortition was fundamental because it was used to appoint the large majority of magistrates, the members of the city council who prepared the general assemblies, the tribunals – the ancestors of our trial juries – and the body that was the constitutional council of that time. The allotted would serve relatively brief terms, allowing volunteer citizens to participate directly, taking turns in the exercise of power.

It was a school of citizenship. The consensus on elections, on the other hand, was that they are aristocratic. Through elections, those who control networks of influence and those who are the best speakers get to power. It is necessary, however, to qualify this contrast by noting that very often those two systems were combined. Sortiton was used widely: in Rome it played a pacifying role in the conflicts within the dominant classes, in China provinces were allotted to the mandarins…

The popular juries selected in this way also embodied the idea that it is better to be judged by peers than by a body of professionals who are distanced from the social experience of the population. This method has almost completely disappeared in favor of representative government, but drawing an equivalence between democracy and elections would have seemed absurd to the Athenians, the Florentins, the Venetians…

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