Oligarchical intents

A piece by Eva Talmadge in The Guardian presents its audience with idea of sortition. To what extent such an article covers new ground for the reader would be interesting to try and find out. The article itself links to a 2018 Guardian article proposing a Brexit citizen assembly.

The article quotes some of the usual sortition suspects – Claudia Chwalisz, Peter MacLeod, and Peter Stone, and presents the standard deliberative rhetoric around citizen assemblies about how people are more informed and reasonable when they deliberate and about the potential of citizen assemblies “to help fractured societies not only work on complicated problems, but learn how to live with one another”.

Sandwiched in, however, Chwalisz does contribute a quite subversive idea:

As the ancient Greeks and others recognized, elections are a way of constituting an oligarchy. When the French and American revolutions led to the establishment of the institutions that today we call democratic, the word ‘democracy’ was never used – the intent was for them to be oligarchic, concentrating power in the hands of the few.

This historical note, somehow, does not prevent the author from presenting, in the very next paragraph, the oligarchical nature of the electoral system as a recent development:

Today, when a run for Congress can come with a price tag starting at $400,000 (Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia raised a whopping $26.4m for his run in the third quarter of 2022), the notion that government is run by the elite is pretty much a given. More than half of the members of the US Congress are millionaires. The same cannot be said of the participants in an average citizens’ assembly.

The article soon returns to the wonders of deliberations (properly educated and moderated by the experts), terminating with the following indication of a bright future for citizen assemblies:

The minister of Canadian heritage, Pablo Rodriguez, found the assembly’s process so compelling that he has requested an additional assembly to consider its findings. Legislation incorporating many of its recommendations is expected to be proposed in March.

21 Responses

  1. Greetings, Yoram! Good to point out the tension, or contradiction, in which the citizen engagement industry talks about citizens’ assemblies & minipublics. Some of this is strategic. If you want to sell your idea to so called “stakeholders,” ie, the powerful, you want to make it seem innocuous. On the other hand, If you want actually address the problem at the heart of modern “representative” government, you need to point out to its “revolutionary” potential—especially if you want buy in from a public now keenly aware how their governments has been pilfering them for many decades to the benefit of the 1/10 of the 1%.
    On the other hand, given how good the military industrial complex & the national security state has become at managing narratives and at censoring / cancelling dissent—as Brexit, Trump, COVID, Ukraine have proven in the last few years alone—I honesty see VERY LITTLE HOPE in any of these reforms. Minupublics can be domesticated, tamed, or manipulated as France has show us since the so-called “grand debat.”
    TBH, we’re probably screwed. Our leaders just risked starting WW3 for the interests of their fantasy about spectrum dominance, their addiction to dollar hegemony, & their friends in the gas industry.
    We’re very likely screwed & heading towards a nuclear disaster. Maybe the next species that occupies this planet will have a chance to use minupublics as a brake against oligarchy. But we’re not gonna see anything close to people power, at least not in the west, anytime in our lifetimes or those of the next generation.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. > nuclear disaster

    The crisis situation is part of the landscape in which we are working. If everything were going smoothly, a radical reform would not be part of the discussion. It is up to us to make the best of it. Yes, success is far from certain.

    > If you want actually address the problem at the heart of modern “representative” government, you need to point out to its “revolutionary” potential—especially if you want buy in from a public now keenly aware how their governments has been pilfering them for many decades to the benefit of the 1/10 of the 1%.

    Yes – I think sticking to the truth is both morally right and is more likely to get results.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fundamental transformation almost always looks impossible to achieve (and often is), until it happens and in retrospect looks almost like it was inevitable. There are thousands of variables that we will never even be aware of that will end up making a sortition-based democracy a real thing or not. Predictions are fairly worthless and only serve to lull us into a false sense of understanding how the world works to justify working hard on an issue or slacking off and doing nothing. I suggest people keep pushing on the boulder, and one day it may move. But if most people have never seen or heard of ANY sort of random body of ordinary people doing good work, they will never consider that reform when a golden opportunity arises.

    Some analogies… It is only because earlier French kings from the 1300’s on had called assemblies of the Estates General (representatives of the clergy, nobility and commoners), that King Louis XVI thought to call the assembly into existence again (merely to deal with revenue problems), that quickly facilitated the French Revolution. If the nobility in Britain had not constituted a parliament (with no commoners), as a check on the king, that model would not have been copied by other countries, which eventually evolved into elected parliamentary and legislative systems across the globe, and the elective model would not have supplanted the monarchical system. In sum, our EARLY implementations of sortition will be weak tea. But we need that weak tea to make future radical reforms possible.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. > But we need that weak tea to make future radical reforms possible.

    These are “just so” stories – we might as well speculate that “weak tea” reforms are a hindrance to meaningful progress rather than enablers of such progress.

    In any case, if we are talking about processes taking hundreds of years, then they are useless for all practical purposes as far as the living are concerned. You might as well be talking about having “pie in the sky when you die”. For me, at least, the notion that shorter term radical change is too much to ask for is unacceptable defeatism.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You both raise good points. The crisis situation both encourages reforms, and these reforms could DESPITE THE INTENTIONS of the powerful lead to racial change.
    But my concern is that the material relations are not there. When real power DOES NOT EVEN lie in the hands of corrupted / self-interested representatives, genuine centers of power—capital & the national security state—will do everything possible to make assemblies & mini-publics serve their interests. Do any of us have any idea how an assembly of lay persons managed by professional “civil” engagement practitioners could even BEGIN to cut through the STATE SPONSORED sophisticated disinformation machines such as we’ve seen in the past few years?
    Parts of this apparatus of control have their own black budgets; parts of it are out in the open. But ordinary people are no match for either.

    Radical change hits at the root but this tree is enormous, deeply, and widely rooted.


  6. *radical change. All other typos will have to stand.


  7. Ahmed,

    Could you be more explicit about the mechanism by which established powers would control allotted bodies? Would the allotted members be themselves unaware of being controlled? Or would they be aware of being controlled but unable to resist?


  8. Yes, just to name a few: 1) by prefiguring the options of the allotted body, 2) predetermining which “experts” are allowed to participate, 3) smearing dissident voices as “Russian agents,” “conspiracy theorists,” “extremists,” etc…..
    However hidden or transparent, the manipulation might be enough to sway the votes, put pressure on panelists to act in a certain way, or make the public go against the panelists’ recommendation.

    Most people believe what their government tells them, because that is a much more comforting approach to life in bourgeois society. Work, keep your head down, take care of your family. Don’t think too much.


  9. So it seems that you are implying that the allotted themselves would not be aware that they are being manipulated by exterior forces. As I wrote in another thread, to me this seems an anti-democratic position. This implies that people are too stupid, naive, or easily manipulated to understand their own situation so that when they have practical choices they can be made they consistently choose the options that do themselves harm. Not only is this a morally problematic option – embodying a demeaning conception of human beings, but it is also epistemically problematic, since it implies that “we” as observers of the political situation have a privileged epistemic position allowing us to know what is better for others even when those same others think otherwise.

    To me it seems that the only way in which we can meaningfully argue that someone is mistaken about their own interests and values is if we can get them to change their position and regret previous decisions or actions (presumably after having provided them with information and arguments against their previous positions). For that, it is necessary that under some conditions people can be made to “see sense”. If such conditions exist, then there is no reason that the institutional structure could not be designed to allow such conditions to be part of the setup of the allotted body, so that the decision taken by the allotted body already reflect the more informed and considered situation that is required for generating “correct” decisions.


  10. Not at all. What I said is that under current conditions, the NATIONAL Security STATE and/or the ultra billionaires will make the decisions of any mini public, no matter how ideally constituted, MOOT either by discrediting the entire body or by not giving it any power to choose anything interesting to begin with.

    Let allotted assemblies & panels proliferate! But I think their use is in their potential for raising consciousness—even “radicalizing” political consciousness, not in their direct effect on policy.

    Another reason to not despair, made by a practitioner in the citizen engagement industry, during the recording of a podcast with me recently, is that the very fact that the powerful ARE trying to manipulate these assemblies means that they are increasingly seen as relevant and as a possible threat to oligarchy.


  11. Ahmed and Yoram – There is an interesting paper of Pierre Etienne Vandamme about the attitude and knowledge of participating citizens towards their own situation (only in French as far as I know) https://dial.uclouvain.be/pr/boreal/object/boreal:270054 Cet article examine dans quelle mesure le tirage au sort de représentants politiques pourrait être un vecteur de justice sociale. En raison de sa capacité à amener à des postes de pouvoir des représentants de groupes désavantagés, la réponse semble a priori positive. Elle présuppose toutefois la capacité des représentants tirés au sort issus de ces groupes à agir dans le meilleur intérêt du groupe – et donc qu’ils aient conscience des injustices subies et des moyens efficaces d’y remédier. Or, tant la pensée marxiste que la psychologie sociale contemporaine ont mis en évidence le fait qu’une telle conscience des injustices n’allait pas de soi pour des personnes éduquées et socialisées dans des contextes où dominent des idéologies anti-égalitaires. Une telle conscience des injustices n’est parfois acquise qu’au terme d’un processus assez lent de politisation collective, dans une dynamique d’antagonisme. Loin de condamner le tirage au sort, la prise en compte de cette réalité amène d’une part à mesurer l’avantage d’assemblées citoyennes s’inscrivant dans la durée, et d’autre part à ne pas perdre de vue certains bénéfices de la démocratie électorale comme la capacité de mobilisation et de conscientisation des partis politiques et le rôle essentiel joué par la société civile

    automatic translation (deepl) : This article examines the extent to which the drawing of lots for political representatives could be a vehicle for social justice. Because of its ability to bring representatives of disadvantaged groups into positions of power, the answer seems a priori positive. It presupposes, however, that the representatives drawn from these groups are capable of acting in the best interests of the group – and thus that they are aware of the injustices suffered and of effective ways to remedy them. However, both Marxist thought and contemporary social psychology have shown that such an awareness of injustices is not self-evident for people educated and socialised in contexts dominated by anti-egalitarian ideologies. Such an awareness of injustice is sometimes acquired only after a rather slow process of collective politicisation, in a dynamic of antagonism. Far from condemning the drawing of lots, taking this reality into account leads us on the one hand to measure the advantage of citizens’ assemblies over time, and on the other hand not to lose sight of certain benefits of electoral democracy, such as the capacity of political parties to mobilise and raise awareness, and the essential role played by civil society

    Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)

    An other problem is the poor design of many “mini publics” who are in fact “manually selected volunteers with an element of sortition” and without any motivated representativeness that plays in the cards of those who are against any evolution towards more democracy. Instead of “representativeness” they claim “diversity” which allows them to do what they want.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Ahmed,

    I don’t doubt that the powerful will try to undermine the democratic power of allotted bodies. My point is that members of those bodies would be aware of these attempts and would be able to try to resist and to inform the public about this struggle. Thus, I don’t think that we would be in a situation where the public is deluded, thinking that it is in control while in fact being essentially controlled by elite powers.


  13. Yoram and Ahmed. If you take some time to read the testimony of Roslyn Fuller (ref 30 page 18 https://www.academia.edu/93471825/The_Psychology_of_Direct_Democracy_Edition_17_12_2022 ) then you know how easy it is to influence a poorly designed citizens panel. It is not because sortition is used in some form that manipulation, corruption and coercion disappear. I know from my own personal experience how easy it is to manipulate and influence people who are not used of living or working in such circumstances and how manipulation and corruption sneaks in.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Paul,

    It is an obvious point, that I have emphasized many times, that the design of a body could be used to influence its outcome. The question is whether citizens expecting to have decision-making powers could be deluded into thinking they have such powers, while in fact having no such powers. To me it seems that such a claim is equivalent to the claim that normal people do not understand their own situation.


  15. Yoram, I agree in this with Pierre Etienne Vandamme that most people have a clear understanding of their own situation, and certainly don’t know how to change that, and we can observe today that many people still think they are living in a democracy where they have the political power to decide. At least that is what vested powers are telling them.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. typo: don’t have a clear understanding of their own situation


  17. This discussion reinforces my view that the design of the information gathering of a citizen assembly must be worked out by a randomly selected body free to hear from all sorts of people about optimal designs, and NOT by government officials, nor by professional facilitation organizations. A jury of ordinary people has an overwhelming incentive to make sure that future assemblies will have impartial, diverse, and accurate information in order to make the best possible decisions. It may also be necessary citizen assemblies to shield themselves from uninvited lobbying of all sorts, able to hire and fire staff, etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Paul, I wasn’t able to access the Pierre Etienne Vandamm piece but the argument seems familiar to me. Already in 1998, there was a paper called “Against Deliberation” in Political Theory, to the same effect from a structural and cultural inequality argument. Lynn Sanders argued that the minipublic would just reflect the same power relations from the wider society, the same interests would be disproportionately powerful within the allotted body as outside of it.
    My point is slightly different. My point is that the underlying political structure is so corrupted and oligarchic to the core that there is little hope that anything would ever come of ANY decision or recommendation from a minipublic or assembly no matter how ideally constituted. The last few years of collective hysteria in the West has demonstrated this.
    The concept of the “national security state,” is not one that Sanders of Vandamm address. My critique is more basic and direct than theirs. Our governments are simply to autocratic and oligarchic for anything resembling democracy, and, beyond this, there is a palpable “political agoraphobia” in the professional classes, especially the professoriate, that encourages the vast majority of intellectuals side with oligarchy and against the people. The people are racist, ignorant, xenophobic, patrirarchal, etc… and the enlightened need to rule of them in order to prevent…fascism, right-wing populism, extremism, etc…


  19. Forgive again all kinds of typos. I don’t know how to edit posts.


  20. Elite demophobia is nothing new – it is the traditional attitude of the elites. I don’t see why that should deter the people from organizing and attempting to exert democratic political power. Naturally, the elites can be expected to resist in any way they can.


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