Citizen Climate Convention: Become a Democratic Assembly!

An open letter to the members of the French Citizen Climate Convention from several mass-action environmental organizations was recently published in Reporterre – a French environmental daily newspaper. [Original in French.]

A Citizen Climate Convention has been convening since October 4 over the course of 6 sessions of three days each until the upcoming January. How to make sure this unprecedented test of collective democracy, which gives 150 allotted citizens the power to deliberate measures for reducing France’s CO2 emissions by at least 40% in 10 years, does not end up as a tool of self-promotion for a government whose real policy for the last two years has been so blatantly anti-environmental that it forces Nicolas Hulot, its very moderate minister of the environment, to resign? That is possible if the allotted rely on their popular legitimacy in order to change the nature and the objective of their upcoming deliberations. It is for this democratic usurpation that we are calling.

What is it that makes you legitimate, more legitimate in any case than the committee that is supposed to “govern” you? It is not that fact that you were allotted according to social-professional or geographic “representivity” criteria defined by the polling institute. This representativity has no democratic value. The fact that an allotted woman is a self-employed resident of Brittany like me does not in any way guarantee that she would faithfully represent my political convictions. It is therefore not the allotment according to social-professional categories which makes you close to your fellow citizens, but rather the fact that you share their situation of democratic dispossession. In these dying days of this deceptive regime of “representative democracy”, we are all reduced to being nothing more than private individuals, deprived of any meaningful political power.

It is this communal dispossession that makes you “in our image” and, in one sense, our “representatives”. Representing your fellow citizens therefore implies that you do not allow yourselves to be led by a committee lacking any democratic legitimacy. You must furthermore take advantage of your with the meetings and exchanges with your fellow citizens, with the social and environmental organizations and activists, in order to enrich and legitimize your future decisions – as did before you the delegates of the Estates General of 1789 who would go in the evening to meet the people in the citizen clubs!

Who has arrogate the right to choose in your place, with consulting with you, the themes, the procedures and the organizations of your debates? The governance committee. What is its democratic legitimacy? It is null and void: these are experts and advisors who were not allotted, who are associates of the powerful. Do not underestimate what such soft control by the governance committee may affect, almost unnoticed, in your discussions! An assembly which does not seize at the outset the power to set its agenda, to decide what it is that it wants to debate and what it is that it does not, is not a free assembly nor a democratic one: it is a managed assembly. Democratic deliberation does not consist, as the governance committee asserts, of having the honor of choosing between possible solutions that have been pre-made by “experts”. Deliberation is first of all to reflect together, freely, without fetters, about what it is that is the real problem, it is to lay out together the questions that are of general interest, eliminating the false problems, sometimes rejecting conventional wisdom!

And so, should the convention discuss what choices to make between technical and limited measures for reducing CO2 emissions, measures which are abstract, anonymous and seemingly without social origin and having not connections to the economic structures of our society? Or rather should it organize its debate by starting from the observation made by many economists – such as Thomas Piketty, Lucas Chancel and even Jean Gadrey – that there is an essential connection between the massive increase in inequalities over the last 40 years and the increase in the CO2 emissions?

These are two different problems and two very different agendas.

With the first agenda we would be satisfied with superficially handling the effects (the products or activities which emit CO2) without really addressing the causes (the inequalities and above all the economic mode of production which sustains them, such as the elimination of small scale farming and the monopolies of industrial agriculture at increasing scale and the associated increase in pollution).

With the second agenda, we pose a question which must be important because our rulers do not want to have it broached: whether the solutions to the environmental crisis are in fact to be sought along with the struggle against concentration and the hoarding of wealth by a minority.

How to counter the hold that governance committee has attained over your debates? It would suffice for you to make use of the legitimacy of the executive power that they themselves have bestowed upon you! Why have they convened you if not because they implicitly admit that the National Assembly is socially oligarchical and has long lost any capacity for democratic representation?

But then, what right could the governance committee, created in the shadows, lacking any popular legitimacy, have to control the right to speech and control the procedures of your debates? The priority of legitimacy is clear: it is up to you to set the framework and the objectives of your discussions, and the committee’s job is to assist you if you ask it to do so.

Laurence Tubiana, Thierry Pech and other organisers repeatedly said that the convention should move from a “consensus about the facts” of climate change to a “consensus about the solutions”. There would therefore be no discussion of the facts, that is, of the causes of the environmental and climatic disaster. We must concentrate (so we are ordered) on the “solutions” and on solutions which “unite us”.

But should the environment really “unite everybody”, including the global corporations which, being very well aware of the outcomes, are those responsible and those who unscrupulously profit from the plundering of the planet? Should we find common ground with Total which will continue to search the seas for new oil deposits until the Earth burns?

It is necessary at least for the citizens at the convention to have the right to discuss and to doubt. In reality, this supposed “consensus on the facts” is a mask: its function is to eliminate public discussion on divisive issues, i.e., on the fundamental causes of the climate crisis, which are social, political and economic, and have nothing to do neither with our private lives nor with our restricted “choices” as consumers or workers.

Before asking ourselves how to reduce CO2 emissions in France, it is necessary to ask ourselves what it is that has been causing them to continuously increase for so many years. It is this question which would have you deal with that which the governance committee wishes to eliminate from your discussions: the questioning of economic structures (growth at all costs, competitiveness and attraction as unconditional goals) and political structures (the capture of power by an unrepresentative political class, serving the interests of big business) that majority of French people have been subject to for too long.

Break out of the institutional box into which the governance committee, with its moderators and its experts, has surreptitiously thrust you! Escape your confinement in the Palais d’Iéna and the official halls and join the public spaces where citizen discussions about the climate and about justice are taking place and where you will be able to flesh out your own initiatives! Let us call for having, in parallel with the Convention, clubs of justice and of the climate throughout France which convene on the weekends in which the assembly convenes: come there in order to meet those whom you should represent, and become the truly democratic citizen assembly which the French people would be ready to recognize!

The signatories:

– Désobéissance Écolo Paris
– Extinction Rebellion PACA
– Réseau Foi et Justice Afrique-Europe
– Youth For Climate Paris/Île de France
– Youth For Climate Lozère
– Youth For Climate Saint Julien en Genevois

13 Responses

  1. You must furthermore take advantage of your with the meetings and exchanges with your fellow citizens, with the social and environmental organizations and activists, in order to enrich and legitimize your future decisions – as did before you the delegates of the Estates General of 1789 who would go in the evening to meet the people in the citizen clubs!

    Interesting to read that the signatories (XR and their allies) acknowledge their Jacobin provenance and are encouraging members of the climate convention to ignore their duty to represent the preferences of their peers in favour of those of “social and environmental organizations and activists”.

    the observation made by many economists – such as Thomas Piketty, Lucas Chancel and even Jean Gadrey – that there is an essential connection between the massive increase in inequalities over the last 40 years and the increase in the CO2 emissions

    There is a clear correlation but what would be the causality involved? Increases in CO2 emissions are generally viewed as caused by widespread affluence, given this enables more people to own motor cars, turn up the heating/AC, eat more meat and fly to holiday destinations. The biggest problem from a climate-change perspective is that the developing world is achieving greater equality with the developed world, so the argument of the “many economists” is counter-intuitive.

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  2. *** Keith Sutherland seems mixing all the 1789 Revolution heritage into a concept of « Jacobin » heritage. Without discussing here which must be defined as « Jacobin », we must see that the « long shadow » of the « Great Revolution » in France is a mental reality, but corresponding to very different contemporary political sensitivities. Two examples (there are others).
    *** The Yellow Jackets, Gilets Jaunes, are basically people of very low social power (« subalterns »). They have an understandable hostility to polyarchy, where the political power is under the sway of the social powers, including elites, organized econonomic forces and activist networks. They are supporters of direct democracy through referenda ; about sortition, they don’t know really, or they are afraid (understandably) of manipulation. For now, a fraction only is attracted by the mini-populus idea – among them, Priscillia Ludovsky, one of the main initiators of the movement, and maybe its smartest mind.
    *** The Gilets Jaunes identify easily themselves with the Sans-Culottes of the Great Revolution , urban labourers of lower class, who tried to impose their own objectives to the revolutionary elites through intimidation and violence, with an impossible dream of direct democracy (impossible if only because of the technology : France was too big a State). They can use as revolutionary the national flag and the national hymn, which come from the Great Revolution, so they don’t need specific flag or hymn.
    *** Some among the contemporary activists of the « revolutionary » kind, whose the social class is much more diverse, and including probably a rather small fraction of « subalterns », identify themselves with the revolutionary networks of the Great Revolution (without strong affinities between the ideological contents). I think a part of them are not basically hostile to the polyarchic system, but they want hegemony inside it, without dreaming neither of referendum nor of sovereign mini-populus (and without showing much affinity with the mentioned flag and hymn) . They can direct some sound criticisms to the Citizen Convention on Climate, but actually a part of them will not accept the mini-populus idea itself, because that implies the political equality of all citizens, the ordinary ones and the « conscientized » ones.
    *** If one day a dêmokratia seems a real possibility, with sortition without manipulation, the Gilets Jaunes « constituency » will be mostly supporter of it. But among the activists will appear a great divide between pro-democrats and anti-democrats. This divide may be avoided for now by criticizing the manipulation of the mini-publics.

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  3. Thanks for the clarification Andre. Which tradition would you characterise the authors of this article as belonging to? If I’m not mistaken the Gilets Jaunes revolt was prompted by the decision of the Macron government to increase the price of road fuel on account of environmental concerns. The Macron government is perceived as in hock to capitalism, but I can’t imagine many businesses wanting to increase the tax on fuel. So this would suggest the group is more Jacobin than Sans-Coulottes?

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  4. Andre,

    > This divide may be avoided for now by criticizing the manipulation of the mini-publics.

    The thrust of this article is quite clearly pro-democratic. The elite manipulation of the Convention which is being criticized is not presented as an inevitability but as a deliberately designed flaw. Furthermore, it is, the authors claim, a flaw that can be overcome, not only if the design is better but even in the current case. There is no hint here of an attempt to bias the sample toward a specific group ( « conscientized » ones). Quite the contrary: the assertion that “the fact that you share [the people’s] situation of democratic dispossession” is what makes you representative, indicates that the vast majority of citizens would in the authors’ view be representative of the people.

    Those who oppose sortition (openly or manipulatively) because of their oligarchical worldview tend to claim that sortition is inherently problematic and thus is unacceptable in any realistic situation – or at least in any situation which is not in fact completely elite dominated. Prof. Salvador Juan serves as an illustrative example of this latter kind of critics.

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  5. Yoram:> the vast majority of citizens would in the authors’ view be representative of the people.

    The converse being that a minority of citizens would not be representative of the people. So who exactly are “the people”? Presumably your referent, in Aristotelian parlance, is to plethos rather than demos.

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  6. Yoram:> the vast majority of citizens would in the authors’ view be representative of the people.

    If plethos, rather than demos is your referent, and you believe this to be a homogenous entity, that would explain why you imply only a small sample is required and accept the voluntary principle. All that matters is to outnumber the tiny part of the sample that would not be representative of “the people”. I imagine this refers to the “rich ‘n powerful”, especially given the bizarre claim that climate change is a product of the economic inequalities caused by the capitalist system of production. This is a very strange claim, and certainly supports the quip that while you can take the man out of Marx, but you’ll never take Marx out of the man (with apologies to the Bronx).

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  7. *** Yoram Gat says : « The thrust of this article is quite clearly pro-democratic. ». I think the article is ambiguous.
    *** « Who has arrogate the right to choose in your place, without consulting with you, the themes, the procedures and the organizations of your debates? The governance committee. What is its democratic legitimacy? It is null and void ». OK, pure democratic criticism.
    *** But what about the legitimacy of democracy-through-minipopulus ? Nowhere clearly accepted.
    *** Only a third of allotted citizens accepted to convene (a strong proportion, I think, compared to other examples). The minipublic was completed using a stratification along many parameters, including geographic and education-level ones. Yes, it is not perfect, but we cannot get more mirror representativity without mandatory allotment, which the article does not consider.
    *** Actually the article, although mentioning the representativity question, does not seriously consider it. Let’s look to the sentence « It is therefore not the allotment according to social-professional categories which makes you close to your fellow citizens, but rather the fact that you share their situation of democratic dispossession.». No: actually a panel of citizens sharing the situation of democratic dispossession is not democratically legitimate if it doesn’t mirror the civic body. Or « Let us call for having, in parallel with the Convention, clubs of justice and of the climate throughout France which convene on the weekends in which the assembly convenes: come there in order to meet those whom you should represent ». No : the Convention members should represent all the citizens, not only the activist club members.
    *** The author is clearly articulate and clever. He is ambiguous because he wants to be ambiguous.

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  8. To Keith Sutherland.
    *** Neither the Gilets Jaunes nor the main activist groups belong to a specific ideological tradition coming from the Great Revolution. When they refer to it, it is because the Revolution memory is common heritage and source of potent images.
    *** The Gilets Jaunes movement initiated from a increase on oil tax. This tax was seen as an attack against people of low income outside the big towns who need their car when going to work. Most rich people use less their cars as they live in big towns with public transportation, and anyway as any consumer tax it is actually regressive – and at the same time Macron had cancelled taxes specifically aimed to rich people. Quickly the economic claims extended to a wide set , « heterogeneous » it was said, but actually mostly of interest for low income people. Note the presence of ecological proposals : tax on the plane kerosene (not on the oil car !), financial help for thermal insulation of houses. It seems everybody has his ecological proposals, but not with the same socio-economic class content.

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  9. Thanks for the clarification Andre. What do you make of the authors’ claims (backed by “many economists”) that the increase in CO2 emissions is caused by a “massive increase in inequality over the last 40 years”?

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  10. Keith,
    While your last question is interesting and important, it is rather outside the domain for posting in THIS particular Blog, don’t you think? Whether income inequality is causal, or irrelevant to CO2 doesn’t matter to our discussion of how to use sortition for democracy. Let’s not get off track.

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  11. Andre,

    > *** But what about the legitimacy of democracy-through-minipopulus ? Nowhere clearly accepted.

    I disagree. If the authors were unsympathetic to sortition, and even if they wanted to hide this fact, it would have been easy to claim that because of elite manipulation the whole Convention is illegitimate. (Again, Prof. Juan’s article serves as a good example of how this standard maneuver is done.) The authors explicitly choose not to do so. They insist that despite the problematic circumstances, the Convention is legitimate and representative, and that it is up to its members to use their position to apply democratic power.

    > « It is therefore not the allotment according to social-professional categories which makes you close to your fellow citizens, but rather the fact that you share their situation of democratic dispossession.». No: actually a panel of citizens sharing the situation of democratic dispossession is not democratically legitimate if it doesn’t mirror the civic body.

    It seems to me you are misinterpreting the authors’ intention. They are actually very much in agreement with you. The authors assert, very rightly, that “representation” according to certain social-geographic strata is useless. It would be easy to obtain such “mirroring” (according to those pre-set starta) within an oligarchical body, e.g., by combining quotas with elections. This is in fact the same point that you raise when you talk about bias which is generated by low acceptance rates.

    The authors’ emphasis that it is the allotment, as opposed to the quota system, that makes the body legitimate, is exactly right, and reflects a strongly democratic mindset.

    > « Let us call for having, in parallel with the Convention, clubs of justice and of the climate throughout France which convene on the weekends in which the assembly convenes: come there in order to meet those whom you should represent ». No : the Convention members should represent all the citizens, not only the activist club members.

    Again, I think you are misinterpreting the article. The authors do not claim that the Convention should “represent the activist club members”. They see the clubs as an opportunity to have a public discussion which is as inclusive as possible and which can to some extent counter-act the elite influence which (they rightly assert) is part of the design. After having this public discussion, the Convention members are encouraged by the authors to “flesh out their own initiatives” – not to blindly adopt the positions of others (neither the establishment’s nor the activists’).

    In general, I very much agree with you that a faction, possibly the dominant faction, among the counter elites is anti-democratic. This faction is not offering to replace the existing oligarchy with a democracy, but with its own alternative oligarchy. Again, Prof. Juan’s article is a clear representative of such a mindset. However, I don’t think this article represents such thinking. I see its message as being consistently democratic.

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  12. Terry,

    I agree that the connection between income inequality and CO2 is not relevant to EbL, but the authors of this piece (and Yoram, who reposted it) clearly think it is. The piece illustrates the view that the function of sortition is to seize power from the “elite” and give it to “the people” by the simple principle that the 99% will outnumber the 1%. I note that Yoram has not responded to my observation that his goal is to empower the plethos rather than the demos and this explains why he is relaxed about sample size and voluntarism — as the 99% are defined as sharing a common interest. If this is true then the common enemy is the rich ‘n powerful, elites, capitalism, electoralism, global corporations, oil companies etc, that’s why I referenced the long tail of Marxism (Extinction Rebellion are explicit that capitalism is their principal enemy).

    I’m particularly interested in hearing what Yoram means by “the vast majority of citizens would in the authors’ view be representative of the people.” This reminds me of Jon Elster’s claim that democracy is “any kind of effective and formalized control by citizens over leaders and policies” (1998, p. 98). Elster doesn’t seem to care which citizens are involved, or whether a representative relationship is involved, suggesting that the majority of ordinary citizens share the same beliefs and preferences. This was probably true in 1867, less so in large, modern multicultural polities, where beliefs and preferences are shaped more by (multiple) social and cultural identities than economic class. This being the case it is essential that sortition-based democracy should mirror these multiple identities in a statistically-reliable way.

    Yoram:> The authors assert, very rightly, that “representation” according to certain social-geographic strata is useless.

    A more charitable interpretation is that stratification is an attempt to make a small voluntary sample more representative. Andre, Terry and myself (along with Prof. Juan) would argue that a large, quasi-mandatory sample would make stratification unnecessary. But allotment of a small sample is not representative in any sense that would be understood by the polling industry — otherwise why would they waste so much money on obtaining large samples? We have yet to hear why you consider Prof. Juan’s observations on this “gobbledegook”.

    Ref
    ===
    Jon Elster (1998) ed., Deliberative Democracy, CUP.

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  13. Terry,

    The other point is that if there is no causal connection between the growth of income inequality and CO2, then the whole thrust of the article is undermined. Assuming that the preferred way to reduce inequality is by increasing the income and improving the living standards of the “democratically dispossessed” (as opposed to impoverishing the elite) common sense would suggest that this would lead to an increase in CO2 emissions. Or have I missed something?

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