Landemore: Open Democracy, part 9

Chapter 7 of Open Democracy presents Hélène Landemore’s assessment of the constitution-writing process in Iceland that took place following the 2008 financial crisis. Landemore describes this process as “the first domino of the classic electoral democracy model to fall toward a more open democracy model at a national level”. This seems to me to be a highly over-optimistic assessment of the significance of the process. First, this process was a dud, its outcomes being eventually dismissed by the Icelandic parliament. But more importantly, this was conceived from the outset as a one-off process, not a fundamental change for how things are done. Furthermore, this one-off process dealt in very abstract subjects – phrasing articles of a constitution. By construction it was clear that would not be able to serve as template for the workings of anything like a sortition-based policy making body. The idea of radical democratization (by abolishing elections or at least creating a sortition-based co-equal chamber) was never on the agenda. Thus, the entire discussion in the chapter – and below in this post – should be understood in this light. This was not a momentous occasion whose outcomes did or could have affected how politics is done. The analysis is therefore mostly a theoretical exercise. (A detailed analysis of the workings of the French CCC – which dealt with setting practical policy – could be much more instructive in this sense.)

With this diminished significance, even a radically democratic process would hardly justify the notion that it would serve as a “first domino”. However, as the analysis below indicates, the process itself is far from living up to an aspiration as serving, if not as a template or a model of a democratic process, then at least as an inspiration. Landemore’s celebratory tone is wholly unwaranted.

As Landemore describes the Icelandic process, it had three innovative “open” aspects: the National Forum – an allotted body that met for one day and “established the main viewpoints and points of emphasis of the public concerning the organization of the country’s government and its constitution”, the assembly of amateurs – a body elected from among candidates that were not incumbent professional politicians and which was to draft a proposal for the constitution, and the crowdsourcing phase – an online platform on which the assembly of amateurs would post drafts of the constitution to which the public could post feedback comments on the platform itself or on social media platforms.

Landemore spends 7 pages trying to prove that the outcome of the process was indeed of high quality. She argues that the proposed constitution was “rights heavy” because it protected individual rights and that it was “democratic” because it expressed democratic ideals and inclusive and participatory principles. Those criteria indicate, Landemore says, that the process was successful. Those criteria, however, are formal and arbitrary. Indeed, this is inevitable since the entire exercise is about abstractions so formalities are all that is available. Also inevitably, and perhaps even more problematic intellectually, is the fact that these criteria were defined by experts. If openness is about involving non-professionals in politics, it is useless to have their work evaluated by experts. If it is the praise of experts that we are after, it seems rather obvious that the amateur middlemen should be cut out and the experts should simply be put in charge of the political work to begin with. This has the air of an exercise where the children are given an assignment for the adults to later assess the quality of their work.

Having established to her satisfaction that the results of the Icelandic process were of high quality, Landemore goes on to argue that the process embodied the principles of open democracy which were laid out in Chapter 6. Her arguments, I find, are hardly convincing. Participation, Landemore says, was promoted by the lottery process used to appoint members of the National Forum. But the National Forum was a one-day event whose output was a document written by professionals. In other words, participation in this forum was ritualistic, not substantive. This cannot be considered meaningful participation in politics. Deliberation was supposedly promoted by “remarkable efforts to educate the public and disseminate information”. The public then had a chance to discuss things among themselves and to post comments on the drafts of the proposed constitution. Even Landemore seems aware, however, that such descriptions are hardly better than the genre of apologia offered for the electoralist process by Habermas and others.

Democratic representation was assured, Landemore says, by having many sites and forms of representation. This is again ritualistic. The fact that there was some diversity in the institutions that were formally part of the process in no way makes the process more democratic. In fact, by making the system more complicated, it could easily make things less democratic by offering insiders more points to exert unrepresentative power. Finally, transparency: “the public was able to witness, observe, and thereafter make up their minds about the activities of the actors engaged in the constitution writing process”. Transparency is always good, but how did it serve democracy in this particular instance? How was making up their minds about the ongoings of any use to the citizens of Iceland? Was there some sort of suspected corruption that the transparency helped remove? How could any lesson learned be put to use if this was a one time affair?

In conclusion, the argument that the Icelandic process was a useful or even a relevant precedent for democratic politics is very weak. Its purview was limited from the outset to abstractions and its actual workings were in all substantial aspects a mere reproduction of existing political power relations and institutional norms. Maybe a popular realization of the fundamental shortcomings of this process could explain the “fickleness” of the public which failed to “rally around the project of a constitutional reform” (p. 166) and the low turnout in the referendum on the adoption of the proposal. We should set our sights much higher.

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