Testart on democracy, democratic debate and citizen power, Part 2/2

This is the second part of a translation of a 2017 interview in Le Comptoir with Jacques Testart, a prominent French biologist, and long-time advocate for citizen power. The first part is here.

Le Comptoir: Citizen juries have so far been employed in a consultative role. Can you explain what those procedures are and within which frameworks they do they work?

Testart: The democratic procedures for citizen juries or assemblies are very vague. The principle is always to ask a group of allotted people to express their opinion on a certain problem. Citizen conferences, which are the most well-formed model, were invented by the Danish parliament in the 1980’s, perhaps because the Danish MPs are less conceited than ours. They noted that they were unqualified to politically manage technological and medical problems.

At the French parliament there is a former natural sciences professor and several doctors. But the idea that because one was a doctor or a professor means that one understands today’s molecular biology is an illusion. And yet these people serve in a parliamentary office where they find themselves evaluating scientific and technological choices. These are about 40 senators and deputies who volunteer for this role. They handle all subject connected to technology and their opinions are followed by the “uninitiated”, the elected who recognize themselves as not being knowledgeable. This office is a dream target for lobbies.

The Danish parliament invented a system akin to that of the consensus committees of the American medicine. The principle is that of allotting people in order to avoid having lobbies infiltrate into political decision making. They are given training so they are able to form an opinion. Starting from the Danish experience, several thousands of applications have followed this principle: citizen conferences, citizen juries or citizen assemblies.

The training [of the allotted members of the citizen jury] can completely guide the opinions of the citizens. In order for the training to be objective, [in the procedure proposed by Sciences citoyennes] the organizer designates an expert group that defines the training. This group is made of people who are recognized as experts in the problem in question and who have diverging opinions. It also includes two academics who are experts in this type of procedure. This group must agree on the training and training materials, on the topics of the discussion and the time devoted to each topic. This group never meets the citizens themselves. A distance is maintained in order to avoid manipulation and pressure.

After two week-ends of training the citizens meet in public the experts that they themselves select. Then we see those people who usually say nonsense to the journalists who understand nothing go in front of people who have spent the time to learn a subject. They get slaughtered. It is moving seeing how the citizens acquire competence that they themselves didn’t believe they could.

The citizens then retire to a backroom and the next day they announce their decisions in a press conference.

In my booklet “The humanness of power”, I coin the term “humanness” (“humanitude”) for the human capacity to develop, under certain conditions, a collective intelligence, but also altruism and empathy. I did not invent this notion. All the sociologists who deal with this subject have already noticed this. That is, the people who are allotted and who accept the position – this is not obligatory, unlike a trial jury – are not going to think about their own family, their own little interest. They are going to about the third world and future generations. This humanness develops because they take very seriously their role of reaching an opinion on an important matter – GMOs, nuclear power, nanotechnology. Furthermore, they are inspired by having being able to become competent.

All of that does not manifest itself in a public debate or in a referendum. In a citizen convention there people become involved as members of the human kind. This ability much exist in everybody but it become apparent only in exceptional circumstances: maybe in trial-juries, in citizen conventions, but also in big strikes where all of a sudden people who have not looked around much are working together for the same thing and have great ideas. It is rare but we can create situations where humanness is going to appear: we can lead the human species to give its best. Shouldn’t it be the goal of politics to create the conditions for this to express itself?

Le Comptoir: Maybe the aim of politics is exactly to have it remain unexpressed?

Testart: Obviously. First, maybe some of the politicians are afraid of losing their privileges. They do not believe at all that the people are as competent as they are. Yet, a the same time they are elected by the people. All of that is thus absurd.

In order for them to achieve political value it is necessary for the conventions to be institutionalized by the constitution. For the moment, the elected are not obliged to follow the opinions of the citizens because in our parliamentary system the elected are those who decide. If the procedure is written into law they would have to each take their position individually. This is what we are asking for: the conclusions of each national citizen convention should be examined in the parliament and each parliament members should have an obligation to express their opinion under their own name, taking responsibility for the future. If the member opposes the citizen’s opinion, they will be eventually opposed by the vox populi. The would focus the minds of the PMs, I believe.

I support the elimination of the Senate and its replacement with an citizen assembly allotted at regular intervals, which does not have the privileges of those currently elected. It would comprise of a few hundred citizens, as is the case now with senators. They would have the role which should be that of the Senate: a counterbalance to the choices of the MPs who would remain elected. This Senate would would play a role of the guarantor of the representation of society and of permanent democracy. For any contentious issue a citizen convention would be created, or maybe a few conventions.

Their purview would go beyond that of technology, which was so far the main area of the citizen conferences organized by Sciences citoyennes. I see them applied to all the problems of political life. I think that three should always be convened at once. If they all give the same opinion, this opinion should be become law almost immediately. It would work like the scientific method: if the same result is arrived at by several groups the result becomes established. This is not a mere detail. It should become a new way for policy making.

This is what I call “permanent democracy”. There would continuously be allotted groups that would discuss problems and which after a few months would serve their conclusions to the new Senate. The Senate would advocate for a proposal at the chamber of deputies. That would be a completely new thing in democracy. I regret that even the most engaged candidates who discuss democracy are always timid about what sortition can be used for and about the role of the elected. I believe we must be radical.

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