Ferey: Populism against science: a new political cleavage?, Part 2/2

This is part 2 of a translation of an op-ed by Camille Ferey in BibliObs. Part 1 is here.

Analyzing the legitimate reasons for criticizing science

If the ideological dimension of the cleavage between rationalism and populism has been clarified, there remains a real phenomenon behind it. There exists a mass of untruths (lies and errors) whose effects on humanity are deleterious: climate-skepticism, historical denialism, anti-Darwinism and various kinds of conspiracy theories. But there is a pressing need to analyze the real causes of these untruths rather than to attribute them to the mental dysfunction of idiots: democracy cannot be defended by being anti-democrats.

The foremost of these causes is a political one: the process of scientification of politics and technicalization of democracy. Liberal capitalism largely subordinates collective decisions to mathematical economic models that are presented by a stratum of “experts” that are linked to power as eternal truths. In this way, presenting political choices as scientific ones, a rhetoric that was widely used in the management of the COVID19 pandemic (the decisions, said Edouard Phillipe, are not political, they are scientific), exposes science to skepticism from that point on whenever choices prove to have negative consequences. How can we believe, for example, the irrefutability of economic laws after the 2008 crisis? Dismissing any critical reflection of a technical-scientific vision of politics, immediately branding such reflection as mistrustful and irrational populism, and eliminating from public debate a set of subjects under the pretext that they are matters of science, thus contributes directly to putting science in doubt.

Another cause, this one sociological, can explain the lack of confidence in science. As history and sociology show clearly: no science is neutral in the sense that it may be produced by an observer with no characteristics and no purpose. Science is produced by scientists and if the scientists all belong to the same social class or to the same group, their products will necessarily be affected. And so, the fact that over the centuries scientists were men can explain the great delay in research about feminine sexual organs as well as about certain diseases such a endometriosis, which afflict only women.

If today women are slowly gaining ground in science (even if with much difficulty, for the scientific establishment is barely opening up and renewing itself), this is not happening with regards to the working class due to the length and uncertainty of the path leading to a career in research (being inversely proportional to the ridiculous sums and the small numbers of the scholarships available). Therefore, as science is going to be done by the wealthier classes, it will necessarily to some extent be done for the wealthy. Objectivity and neutrality grow from pluralism and equality. Without those, as the philosopher John Dewey wrote in 1927, “a class of experts is inevitably so removed from common interests that it becomes a class with private interests and private knowledge, which in social matters is no knowledge at all. [The Public And Its Problems, p. 207]”
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Ferey: Populism against science: a new political cleavage?, Part 1

Camille Ferey is a doctoral student at the Université de Paris-Nanterre where she is writing a thesis about theories of participative democracy and democratic social movements. She wrote the following op-ed in BibliObs back in July.

Populism against science: a new political cleavage?

Rarely does science provoke as many hopes and controversies as it has been doing over the last few months.

It is a matter of great importance: upon the progress of science depends the neutralization of a disease that has confined half of humanity, upon its instructions and warnings depend our rights to travel, to meet and to kiss. However, many commentators talk about the threat of “distrust” that undermines the authority of science, if not of the authority of Truth itself, in our democracies. Furthermore, this dominant narrative confounds this phenomenon of skepticism (which is very real) with a different phenomenon, a political one: populism. The political cleavage is then reduced to a binary opposition between reason and populism, and consequently all criticism of scientific and political institutions is ruled out.

Mistrust of science and political non-conformism: a problematic confounding

It is a widely circulated narrative, with its opinion polls, its statistical studies, its indicators and its media talking points: democracies are suffering because of the irrational acceptance by a growing number of citizens of a mass of fake news, alternative truths and conspiracy theories (vaccines are bad for your health, the theory of evolution is a lie, climate change is a hoax). Yet, this narrative never asks whether what is taking place is a rejection of scientific theories, of scientific protocols, of scientists, of institutions of research, of technical applications of science or of its political uses. This vagueness allows to systematically associate this distrust with a specific phenomenon: populism, which is designated willy-nilly as both a cause and an effect of the regime of errors and lies.

The latest CEVIPOF poll on the relations between science and society establishes a correlation between, on the one hand, “an indicator” of mistrust calculated based on questions such as “Do you think that science brings more good than bad, as much good as bad, or more bad than good?”, and, on the other hand, “and indicator of populism”, based on the following questions: “Politicians are generally corrupt? A good political system is one where citizens rather than a government decide what they think is better for the country? Democracy functions best if the representatives are allotted citizens?”. A surprising definition of “populism”, which rather resembles the definition of democracy, or maybe of common sense.
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Radio Podcast Series “Democracy in Crisis” on Democracy and Sortition

Last month, with WORT FM in Madison, Wisconsin, I helped organize a three-part radio podcast series “Democracy in Crisis,” that asked what’s wrong with elections and explored alternatives such as assemblies and juries. Thanks very much to those who took part. Additional thanks to Chris Forman, Yoram Gat, Adam Cronkright, Keith Sutherland, and Manuel Arriaga for suggestions and introductions.

We aimed to include differing approaches and points of views in each round-table discussion, and largely succeeded, imho. My own view—that in modern mass politics, characterized by polarization and geographical and intellectual self-sorting, minipublics function as exceptional, pluralistic spaces for the formation of citizenship—was nowhere represented; so, that gives me at least one motive for a follow-up program.

Below are links to the episodes, also found in most podcast applications under the program “8 O’clock Buzz,” published on Aug 27, 28, 29.

Democracy In Crisis, Part 1: What’s Wrong With Elections?
Across the globe, electoral fraud, corruption, disenfranchisement of minorities and the specter of fascism now seem the rule rather than the exception. In 2017, the London-based Economist Democracy Index hit its lowest score ever, including the downgrading of the United States from a “Full Democracy” to a “Flawed Democracy.” Today, we start a three-part series, Democracy in Crisis, which will explore the failures of our current electoral system and perhaps, provide some hope for an alternative model.
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Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 3/3

Part one, part two.

Wang’s skeptical evaluation of the Western conception of democracy and of the arguments for elections as a democratic tool are in fact merely a segue to his main topic which is the “Mass Line”. According to Wang, the Mass Line is the basis for decision making by the Chinese system of government. Wang describes the Mass Line as an ongoing process by which decision makers interact with the population in order to become informed and shape public policy. Wang quotes Mao Zedong as follows:

In every aspect of my party’s practical work, if leadership is to be correct it must come from the masses and go to the masses. This is to say, we must collect the views of the masses (disparate and un-systematic views) and, through study, turn them into collective and systematic views, and then we must go back to the masses to disseminate and explain them, turning them into the masses’ own views, enabling the masses to persevere, and to see these views implemented in practice. From the practice of the masses we must conduct examinations to determine whether these views are correct. We then must once again collect the views of the masses, and once again go back to the masses and persevere. This endless cycle will each time be more correct than the last, richer and more vivid than the last. This is the epistemology of Marxism.

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Leydet: Which conception of political equality do deliberative mini-publics promote?

A 2016 paper by Dominique Leydet from the department of philosophy at the University of Québec at Montréal:

Which conception of political equality do deliberative mini-publics promote?

My objective in this article is to achieve a clearer understanding of the conception of political equality that informs at least some of these democratic designs in relation to equality of opportunity, but also in relation to agency, both individual and collective.

To do so, I will focus, in the first section, on the methods of participant selection advocated to secure equal presence. According to what principle is participation distributed? If it is according to the equal chance or equal probability principle, rather than equal opportunity, what difference does this make in terms of the underlying conception of political equality? Is ‘equal presence’ conceived strictly in individualist terms or is it related to groups? And, if so, how?

In the second section, I consider the issue of voice. Achieving equality in this context is conceived in terms of equalizing opportunities for influence among participants (Smith 2009: 21-22; Fishkin 2009: 100-101; Fung 2003: 348). I intend to clarify the conditions the designs establish to achieve this objective despite the existence of background inequalities. How is the political agency of participants understood and facilitated in this respect? And what does this say about the underlying conception of political equality?

The benevolent dictator

The concept of the “benevolent dictator” occasionally plays a role in political discussion of democracy. The general thrust of the “benevolent dictator” argument is that democracy cannot be defined in terms of its outcomes because “a benevolent dictatorship” can produce any given outcomes, while still, by assumption, being anti-democratic.

Ober (2006), for example, says this:

Democracy is shown to be a non-instrumental good-in-itself (as well as an instrument in securing other goods) by extrapolation from the Aristotelian premise that humans are political animals. Because humans are by nature language-using, as well as sociable and common-end-seeking beings, the capacity to associate in public decisions is constitutive of the human being-kind. Association in decision is necessary (although insufficient) for happiness in the sense of eudaimonia. A benevolent dictator who satisfied all other conditions of justice, harms her subjects by denying them opportunity to associate in the decisions by which their community is governed.

This line of argument – the participative conception of democracy, or Schumpeter’s “classical doctrine” – sounds very high minded. Beyond the policy objective, political participation enriches the participators and ennobles them. As an argument against sortition, or against an outcomes-based conception of democracy it is, however, less than convincing.
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Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 2

Part one is here.

A useful part of Wang Shaoguang’s article “Representative and Representational Democracy” (2014) is his critique of the arguments for elections as a democratic mechanism (and in fact as the most fundamental component of democracy). The whole matter of the justification for elections in terms of their expected outcomes is usually avoided by electoralist dogma. Instead the discussion is framed using formalisms: elections are judged as being “legitimate” because they follow some supposed principles of “representativity”. The issue of how those principles themselves can be justified other than in terms of system outcomes is not addressed.

On the rare occasions when the expected outcomes of elections are addressed, two mechanisms are offered as connecting elections with desirable outcomes – Wang refers to these as the “authorization theory” and the “accountability theory”. These arguments go at least as far back as the Federalist papers. Wang first presents and critiques the authorization theory:

According to authorization theory, during elections each political party puts forth its policy positions and promotes its candidates, while the people have the right to choose to support whichever party or candidate they want, and they will vote for the party and candidates of their choice. In the sense that those who are elected start governing only after they have been invested with the authority of the people, this system is of course democratic.
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Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 1

As a powerful state which is not electoralist, it is not surprising that China produces political theory which rejects the equation of democracy with elections. It is characteristic of the weakness of Western political science that it makes no serious attempt to explore and engage with this theory.

Wang Shaoguang is a prominent Chinese political scientist. His article “Representative and Representational Democracy” was originally published in the Chinese language social science journal “Open Times” in 2014. A translation to English of the article appears on the website “Reading the China Dream” which regularly translates articles by Chinese establishment intellectuals. The article makes several intertwined arguments regarding democracy and elections. While focusing, naturally, on the Chinese system as an alternative to the Western electoralist system, Wang does make a mention of sortition as well.

In the following excerpts Wang first notes the crisis of the Western government system and makes the straightforward observation, often avoided in the West, that the Chinese system enjoys more popular support than most Western governments. Rather surprisingly, it seems to me, instead of translating this fact to a frontal attack on the Western system, Wang then makes the apologetic (and fairly familiar) multi-culturalist argument that democracy is perceived differently in different cultures. Wang asserts that while the formality of elections is a main feature of the Western or American conception of democracy, in the East “substantive” aspects are considered essential.

Today, even though Thatcher’s “There is No Alternative” and Fukuyama’s “End of History” have already become standing jokes in academic and intellectual circles, their variants proliferate and circulate constantly. Though most people no longer use these particular expressions, many still firmly believe that the “today” of Western capitalist countries is the “tomorrow” of other countries (including China).
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Rotation; The Stabilizer of Random Selection

This is the 4th post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Previous posts in the series: 1, 2, 3.

Barbara Goodwin’s main concern in Justice by Lottery is to examine how a purely sortition-dominated economy, in the form of what she calls a “total social lottery”, might aid in establishing greater justice and equality. However, she does introduce another technique that grew up at the same time as sortition did in Ancient Athens, that of rotation. Rotation of positions there was assured by default, it seems, simply by establishing term limits and stipulating that a given post can be only held once by any given citizen in their lifetime. Goodwin treats sortition and rotation as so closely compatible that she sometimes treats them as a single process, sortition-rotation. Whereas sortition, run by the cleroterion device, assigns posts at random, rotation assures that all the necessary bases are covered. She explains,

Rotation is not the same as pure chance: it pays some attention to people’s desire for a guaranteed supply of certain things. By contrast, the lottery is based on the idea that surprise and risk are themselves a major part of what people desire. But there could be room in a transformed society for both principles, and they could operate in harmony – unlike, say, rotation and the principle of entitlement. If we could ensure that people’s basic needs were securely satisfied and that highly specialized jobs (which carry their own rewards in terms of work satisfaction) were appropriately filled, there would be sound reasons for distributing non-specialized jobs and scarce goods above a guaranteed minimum via a modified lottery system or by rotation, especially in the case of scarce luxuries. This would add to the spice of life. Such a system would mitigate the two major kinds of social injustice which the ineradicable inequalities in the structure of advanced capitalist societies, combined with the inelasticity of supply of some goods, produce – for example:
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Advantages and Disadvantages of Sortition

This is the second post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. The first post is here.

At the start of Justice by Lottery, Barbara Goodwin gives an overview of the history of sortition, which in the beginning was bound up with war and religion. Victory in war meant division of the spoils and since most warriors were full time farmers in their day job (professional soldiers were an innovation of Phillip of Macedon), land grants (hence “lots” of land) to veterans for their service served as a sort of pension.

Tangibles as well as intangibles like power have been distributed by lot since early times. God instructed Moses to order the Jews to divide up tracts of land by lots, and this method of distribution is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament. Land in Athenian colonies was distributed by lot to cleruchs (veterans), and the Romans also parcelled out landholdings for veteran soldiers by lot, to ensure that the most fertile land was impartially distributed: this too, presumably, was God’s reasoning in the case of the Jews.

The Greek word for veteran, “cleruch,” was bound up with clerisy or random distribution. It is also the root of a common word for Christian leaders, clergy. In Christianity, the practice of electing officers at every meeting by lot may have been common in early centuries, but later the clergy disapproved and the practice was restricted to heretical outliers, such as the Gnostics. In Hellas, random choice was not primarily religious, as Goodwin points out. “Despite the Greek predilection for giving political rituals a religious gloss, it appears that no divine weight was accorded.” It was also a Roman tradition, though in different form.

In Rome, the augurs had special responsibility for supervising lots as well as for reading entrails, and they adopted as their symbol the urn, from which lots were drawn. But the reasoning behind their usage of the lot also seems to be common-sense and secular: the lot was chiefly used as a convenient means of determining which of various necessary tasks would be performed by officers of equal rank, such as the two consuls.

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