August 12, 2023, 8:43 Aug

On Democracy - David Van Reybrouck

I'm embarrassed to say that it took me to 2 years after joining XR to finally read up on Citizen's Assemblies, but it's never too late to learn! David Van Reybrouck's book on deliberative democracy is excellent for this and I highly recommend it. If you're not bothered to read it, here are my takeaways.

Our democracy is being wrecked by being limited to elections, even though elections weren't invented as a democratic instrument.

Van Reybrouck starts off the conclusion with this sentence, but this is essentially 2/3 of the book summed up in one sentence. He gives a historical account of how the French and American revolutions weren't actually "democratic" but "republican" and the point of elections was actually to ensure rule by 'une aristocratie élective' (Rousseau). Some of the quotes below to back this up (though there's more than these quotes, and some are more pertinent, these are just the ones I found most succinct and interesting).

On Abbé Sieyès:

even he believed that France was not a democracy and must not become one. He wrote: 'In a country that is not a democracy, and France cannot be one - the people, I repeat, can speak or act only through its representatives.

Edmund Burke on elites:

I do not hesitate to say that the road to eminence and power, from obscure condition, ought not to be made easy, nor a thing too much of course ... The temple of honour ought not to be seated on an eminence.'

And Edmund Burke on letting people rule:

Such descriptions of men [commoners] ought not to suffer the oppression of the state, but the state suffers oppression if such as they, either individually or collectively, are permitted to rule.

Van Reybrouck shows how sortition or drawing lots (random selection of people to hold office) used to be perceived as democratic while elections were not. He argues further on that sortition creates more legitimacy, if it's given half a chance.

He devotes most of the opening to discussing Democratic Fatigue Syndrome (DFS). Again some quotes:

every political system has to achieve a balance between two fundamental criteria, efficiency and legitimacy

These two elements reinforce each other:

The efficiency crisis only exacerbates the crisis of legitimacy.

Interestingly (and in my view, correctly) Van Reybrouck believes the problem now is not apathy (as evidenced by lower voter turnout) but distrust:

Then (in the 60s) there was apathy and trust and now there is passion and distrust

He also mentions a study on politicians distrusting their own citizens - it goes both ways! (More on that later).

A summary of DFS:

Anyone who puts together low voter turnout, high voter turnover, declining party membership, governmental impotence, political paralysis, electoral fear of failure, lack of recruitment, compulsive self-promotion, chronic electoral fever, exhausting media stress, distrust, indifference and other persistent paroxysms sees the outlines of a syndrome emerging.

Regarding media stress, I thought this quote was amazing (from Colin Crouch):

Under this model, while elections certainly exist and can change governments, public electoral debate is a tightly controlled spectacle, managed by rival teams of professionals expert in the techniques of persuasion, and considering a small range of issues selected by those teams. The mass of citizens plays a passive, quiescent, even apathetic part, responding only to the signals given them. Behind the spectacle of the electoral game, politics is really shaped in private by interaction between elected governments and elites that overwhelmingly represent business interests.

He talks of some of the other "solutions" to DFS, namely populism, technocracy, anti-parliamentarianism (Occupy Wall Street) before moving on to deliberative democracy. Interestingly, regarding Occupy he writes:

the movement became devoted to the cult of participation, of 'direct democracy', and how the means became an end in itself.

Related quote regarding the Indignados:

indignation without engagement is not enough and that real attempts to influence governments are needed: 'We must not become engaged at the margins but at the heart of power.'

Some more quotes before I move onto deliberative democracy:

That elections can have all kinds of outcomes in states which are fragile, including violence, ethnic tensions, criminality and corruption, seems of secondary importance, and that elections do not automatically foster democracy but may instead prevent or destroy it is conveniently forgotten."

Fundamentalists [here, electoral fundamentalists] generally have little historical insight, assuming their own dogmas always held good

Regarding deliberative democracy, I actually did not save many quotes. He's quite light on details regarding how deliberative democracy yields nuanced and thoughtful responses to problems and suggests to read reports, which is fair enough. I personally plan to read up on the Convention pour le climat which took place in France and leave my thoughts here at a later date, and in fact I did so (see below).

Van Reybrouck is nonetheless refreshingly specific (and concise!) with his proposal for deliberative democracy. I won't replicate it here, just know that it's there. There are also a number of helpful figures and pictures to understand this as well as the history of democracy.

Final ramble: he has quite an interesting historical overview of how sortition has been used in Europe, for example in Florence and in Venice. The description of sortition in Venice is particularly amusing (I can't believe I wrote that, trying to withhold the vomit creeping up my throat) as it involved someone going out of the palazzo ducale and finding a boy between 8 and 10 to draw lots (and that's only step 1 in a process that lasted 5 days if I remember correctly).

Thoughts on the Convention citoyenne pour le climat

I'm basing this list of noteworthy recommendations on a skim read of this article. Before I do, it's also worth mentioning two stories I've heard (and which I assume to be true). The first is that a climate skeptic changed their mind after the process. The second is that someone working in advertising eventually relented and accepted many propositions which curbed advertising.

  • Promote "transports doux" (bikes?) and (e.g. car) sharing
  • More funds for bikes
  • Reduce the maximum speed on highways
  • Reduce VAT on train tickets
  • Make subscriptions for public transport more attractive
  • Progressively reduce subsidies for petrol (for heavy transport)
  • Make heavy polluting vehicles more expensive
  • Ban intra-France flights by 2025
  • Ban the building of new and extension of existing airports
  • Ban advertising of highly polluting products
  • Regulate (i.e. reduce) adverts
  • Generalise bulk buying (vrac)
  • Introduce environmental education in schools
  • Force owners to renovate
  • Reinforce public aid for insulation
  • Reduce energy consumption of tertiary sector and public buildings
  • Max temperature of 19 degrees in buildings and min of 25 (in summer)
  • Stop building commercial centres
  • Better protect forests
  • Facilitate and promote the use of brownfield land
  • Facilitate squatting (essentially)
  • Create a culture of "collective" living
  • Diminish planned obsolescence and reduce pollution (??)
  • Make the law on planned obsolescence be respected
  • Right to repair style law
  • "Réglementer l'utilisation de l'épargne réglementée gérée par la CDC et les banques pour financer des investissements verts" (sounds nice, don't quite get what it means or how)
  • Tax on company dividends
  • Enforce greater restrictions on finance sector (I guess to crack down on evasion?)
  • Protect ecosystems and biodiversity
  • Reduce the impact of digital infrastructure on the environment (how???)
  • Propose vegetarian options in "restauration collective publique" (whatever that is)
  • General reinforcement / application of the loi Egalim (no idea what that is)
  • 50% of agriculture to be "eco-agriculture" (again, specifics really lacking here, but I'm just trying to get an idea)
  • Something about nitrate fertilisers, I think taxing them.
  • Ban the most harmful pesticides by 2025
  • Something (I assume promote / enforce?) regarding ecocide

I was kind of hoping for or expecting more radical changes. Then again, it's perhaps reassuring to see that most of these are actually just quite sensible? I am nonetheless reminded that of course, citizens assemblies may make proposals that I'm not in favour of, for example I read that a CA somewhere (Stockholm?) proposed to facilitate the use of electric vehicles. I can only hope that this was within a wider effort to reduce transport by car.

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