Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 2

Reporting from Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center Annual Conference by Ahmed R. Teleb

The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College recently hosted a two-day in-person and live webcast conference on sortition on Oct 14-15, which I attended online. Each day of the conference also included a midday break-out small group discussions in person and online. Estimated participants came to about four hundred, who, in my estimation, demonstrated enthusiasm for participatory democracy through sortition, but also a dose of critical awareness of, among other things, organizational and economic/structural difficulties with participation via sortition and in general.

I share here my impressions of the panels I attended and my most significant take-aways. This Conference marks an important step, because the Arendtian perspective on mini-publics and citizen councils has long been missing from the discussion of sortition. As it happens, this is also my area of research. From this perspective, “The meaning of politics is freedom,” as David Van Reybrouck quoted Arendt during his intervention, and not just “better” policy or results. Of course, I see these as going hand in hand. Freedom of people to actively shape the world they live in tends also to create better results from a public perspective but it is a by-product rather than the basis. As Shmuel Lederman put it, “benevolent dictatorship” and “representative government” follow the same logic that has roots in 19th century European colonialism.

P.S. The word sortition was a non-issue for the activists, practitioners, and members of the public who attended—the exception being Peter McLeod who used “civic lottery.” As a nice surprise, the three mayors/managers of the small NY towns who participated in Van Reybrouck’s class all plan to (attempt to) implement some kind of citizen assembly or citizen jury to tackle the issue that each brought to the class as one needing an innovative solution. One, whose town has exactly one traffic light, promised on the spot that she can get a PERMANENT citizens’ assembly approved by the city council and that funding the project would be a non-issue.

Opening Address by Roger Berkowitz: Revitalizing Democracy, Sortition, and Citizen Power

The American Founders, remarked Berkowitz, were “scared of democracy,” at least those identifying themselves as Federalists. He went on to quote from Federalist papers that stressed the instability of “ancient democracies” and “petty republics of Greece,” Fed # 9, 10. They emphasized the importance designing a system in which elites run the government, via an “elective system”. Moreover, they feared “factions,” and thought that an “extended republic” would be THE preventative measure against them, Fed 10, 51, since imposing a unity of will was not practical. Madison thought, we could “replace virtue with size.”

So far, well-known territory, although a bit different than the mythologized version taught in middle and high schools in the U.S. Berkowitz replied that for Arendt, factions are the very reflection of the basic human condition of plurality. He then went on to summarize Hannah Arendt’s assessment of the American system as articulated in her book On Revolution and the “Crisis of the Republic.” But Arendt did praise, for example, the “federal principle,” because its discovery, “was partly based upon an experience, upon the intimate knowledge of political bodies whose internal structure predetermined them, as it were, and conditioned its members for a constant enlargement whose principle was neither expansion nor conquest but the further combination of powers.” This kind of local-based power from the bottom up, Arendt saw as analogous to the council system or the town-hall system, one that permitted just about anyone to appear and act in public.

Arendt, however, saw the American “experiment” as failing on three accounts. First, it failed to remember its “revolutionary spirit” of creating the new via written promises rather than simply being tied to the past. Second, as Jefferson himself later remarked, the American Constitution failed to provide a space for citizens to participate in public life. Third, it failed to incorporate the township and town hall into the Constitution. One founder, at least, Jefferson noted this and at points imagined the “ward system” that would incorporate or build on local political participation.

Representation, moreover, continued Berkowitz was no self-evident as it is assumed by today’s “common sense” and political “science.” For Arendt, quoting from On Revolution in a discussion of the American founding era, “the whole question of representation, [is] one of the crucial and most troublesome issues of modern politics ever since the revolutions, actually implies no less than a decision on the very dignity of the political realm itself” (my emphasis added). Already in 1971, Arendt noted, that “Representative government is in crisis today because… the two parties represent nobody but themselves….” (“Crisis of the Republic”).

Arendt’s solution, as far as she articulated a specific one, was a pyramidal or concentric “council system” because in her reading of Western history, revolutionary councils that sprang up spontaneously were “spaces of freedom.” Berkowitz ended his talk with a statement that citizens’ assemblies could help with the “restoration of the republican tradition” and “creation of new spaces of freedom.”

Commentary: The careful reader will note that RB here, as he does in his “intro to sortition” videos, calls this a “restoration” of something, democracy, that was never the intention of the project in the first place. If the Federal system was meant to CURB democratic tendencies and install the “rule of the best,” then it cannot be a restoration to build democratic government, something which would be entirely new—even leaving aside for the moment the dispossession of the indigenous and the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans that were preconditions of the American republic.

David Van Reybrouck: Is it too late to revitalize democracy?

Van Reybrouck began by reporting on sortition in the news. Two thousand people in Amsterdam were just sent initial invitations to take part in a climate assembly that will begin in November with 100 of them. Fifty citizens have just been allotted in Belgium as part of the Council on the Future of Europe. The longest sitting German MP, Wolfgang Schaeuble, has repeatedly made statements to the effect that citizens’ assemblies could reinforce democracy by counterbalancing the weaknesses of the parliamentary system. Lastly, Van Reybrouck mentioned that in Paris, in the wake of two years of Grand Debat and Conventions Climat, the city council was about to approve a PERMANENT citizens assembly of 100 allotted Parisians serving one year terms. By the end of his talk, he had received a text message that the measure was passed becoming the second jurisdiction, after Ostbelgien, to establish permanent sortition based political institutions.

After noting that Arendt could NOT have had a detailed understanding of the use of sortition in ancient Athens, because Mogens Hansen’s and other books had not yet come out, Van Reybrouck suggested that her concern for cultivation of political spaces and broad-based political action, she would have very likely approved of lot-based institutions as she did for workers’ and revolutionary councils. In fact, one of Arendt’s leitmotifs in her major works was the “degradation of politics by philosophy” which was based on a “separation of the many from the few,” continued Van Reybrouck citing “Einfuerung in die Politik,” an essay of Arendt’s which was published posthumously in 1993.

He continued that for Arendt, “Politics itself is freedom, not a means to freedom; because for Hannah Arendt, the meaning of politics is freedom,” in the sense of shaping the future, acting together. Van Reybrouck added that if we follow this logic, we should not be asking about citizens’ “controlling government,” we should be asking about citizens “becoming the government.”

Today (Oct 14) would have been her 115 birthday, we should remember that it was Hannah Arendt, not John Rawls or Juergen Habermas, who founded modern deliberative democracy. Van Reybrouck continued that the remedy for the “nightmare of party politics”–infighting, performative stunts, insanity of electoral fever or never ending campaigning—can be partly found in citizens’ councils and assemblies. But it does not end in merely holding an assembly, as the French Citizens’ Climate Assembly demonstrates.

As Claude Lefort once said, in democracy “the seat of government should always be empty.” Citizen participation via sortition is a crucial way to make that happen.

Kali Akuno: Jackson Rising (Jackson People’s Assembly, in Mississippi)

Kali Akuno added a different dimension to “citizen power.” From an African American perspective, especially in a state like Mississippi, “to exercise citizen power” means first and foremost ABOLISHING the power “over us” of white supremacy and capitalism. It involves recognizing that we attach the label “democratic” to institutions that have never been so, not only in the US, but in Western Imperialism in general. Beware of calling the last 200 years “democracy!” warned Akuno.

We could call those 200 years a “Herrenvolk democracy” at best. The common narrative that Trump was an “aberration” is a comforting fantasy. In Mississippi, no one even briefly entertained that fantasy. Before we can talk about democracy, we must recognize it is “a practice that has never been born.” Democracy cannot then come from “traditional” institutions, unless we put this in context, a context of FAILURE, continued Akuno.

The Jackson People’s Assembly, although more recently formally organized as such, has roots in the 1960s organizing and struggles lead by SNIC, SCLC, NAACP, COFO and others, not to mention the Mississippi Democratic Freedom Party.

[NB: The MDFP was established in 1964 to challenge the whites only MS Democratic Party; among its direct actions was holding its OWN State Convention and sending its OWN delegates to the Democratic National Convention, petitioning the National Convention to ban the segregationist MS Dems because of their illegal election practices. The MDFP gave speeches (considered historic) on the Convention floor, televised nationally, that outlining the fraudulent practices fo the MS Dems. Although Democratic Party elites and President Johnson STILL allowed the segregationists to represent Mississippi and STILL excluded the MDFP, subsequent national outrage was instrumental in PUSHING Congress and Johnson to pass and sign the 1965 Voting Rights Act. By the way, conservative Supreme Court majority in 2013 effectively gutted the VRA, opening the way for newest forms of disenfranchisement via voter ID laws and super-charged gerrymandering.]

Jackson, MS has only recently (1990s) become a Black majority city, now 80% Black, as its population shrank to 190,000. The People’s Assembly, formerly known as the People’s Convention, was founded in reaction to increased Ku Klux Klan activity beginning in the late 1970s. In the 1980s, the CHIEF OF POLICE was OPENLY a Klan member. In 1987, 88 after the killings of several Black residents went “unsolved” by the police, the community organized to get rid of the Chief of Police and to change city government. The People’s Convention helped a slate of candidates to local offices in the early 1990s, but the city did not elect a Black mayor until 1997. Akuno recognized a weakness already present in the Convention that he attributes to its representative nature, with individuals standing in for entire groups or organizations.

The decisions of the Convention around community matters would often be ignored by community members. In response, the Convention became a People’s Assembly based on the idea of one person one vote, but without representation of organizations, so that socially powerful individuals could not claim to represent entire groups. But this eventually lead to a new weakness: the continual changing composition of the body made it difficult to sustain long-term action or strategy, he added. Another weakness, suggested Akuno, arises from the nature of its activity in a hostile State environment in MS. The Assembly almost always convenes in reaction to a particular issue, usually a new harmful or egregious State policy. “What we are for” has been a cause of factionalization rather than unity, he continued. Moreover, the most engaged represent only a small fraction of the community—often entrepreneurs, who perhaps because of this are able to attend the assemblies.

Akuno added, “we read Hannah; we sent down to visit the Zapatistas to see how they organize.” The People’s Assembly has intentionally remained “properly outside the government,” because most of its work is resisting State action, he explained. This might seem paradoxical, since 25% of ALL elected African American officials in the United States are found in the State of Mississippi; yet white Republicans have a virtual monopoly over State-wide offices. Since 2017, Republicans have hyper gerrymandered themselves into a super-majority, so that NOT A SINGLE State office holder is a Democrat. This has enabled white Republicans to PREEMPT any progressive action at the regional or local level. [NB: See the note above about the 2013 Shelby v. Holder Supreme Court case. It made gerrymandering in Southern states much easier and more effective, by removing Federal oversight of changes to voting and election policy.]

“We’ve learned that representational power does not equal economic power.” It has “not opened up liberated spaces” to change the economic dynamic that keeps 50% of Mississippi residents below the Federal poverty line. “We do not get to deliberate about deep economic questions” like private ownership. The power of the state has been “geared toward repression,” explained Akuno. “We do not expect the State of Mississippi to protect us any time soon.”

Akuno summarized emphatically, “none of us have ever experienced democracy, so we do not really know how to be democratic subjects.” Solidarity, or economically enabling conditions generally, are prerequisites for citizenship. When people have to work two or three jobs plus additional jobs in the informal economy, they “do not have the time” to participate. Akuno ended with a note on how the organization came to the use of sortition. Before 2017, before they were compelled to shift to the state-wide level strategy, they drafted an alternative City Charter that included a Human Rights Charter and would have created a permanent Oversight Jury to control all city institutions including the police. They came to this conclusion after traveling and looking at different models adopted in different places. [Unfortunately he did not mention which models and what might have suggested the use of sortition.]

Michael Mackenzie: Democratic Myopia

Mackenzie begin with a diagram of the four part “Democratic Myopia Thesis”

1) Myopic voter: voters do not see long-term effects of policies. 2) Short election cycles: no incentive to invest in the future. 3) Absence of future generations. 4) Democratic capture (by interest groups esp. powerful economic actors)

The first two problems can occur “even when the institutions in question work the way they were intended. The second two problems occur when institutions work poorly. While the second set of issues, claimed Mackenzie, could be mitigated with reforms, the first two require more significant changes.

This is where sortition-based institutions could make a major difference. Deliberation, in assemblies or councils, is “cognitively demanding.” Research has shown, suggested Mackenzie, that cognitively demanding tasks COMPEL US to get past intuitions and automatic reactions to think more deeply about the issue. This disruption of intuition, claims Mackenzie, would help us get over our bias against the future. “Independence” is the second place where the mechanism of sortition proves useful for Mackenzie. The fact that participants are not just a small number of the same individuals, they are much less likely to be systematically captured by wealthy interests or powerful individuals. [In this forum, we’ve often called this anti-corruption mechanism of lotteries.]

One Response

  1. So, representative government is a form of benevolent dictatorship, but sortition will enable a few volunteers to decide where to put traffic lights, leaving the important decisions like federal budgets and climate policy in the hands of political, economic, and cultural elites. Sortition is in danger of becoming the new opiate of the people.

    Liked by 1 person

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