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The New French Revolution

New theorists and activists argue that France’s “representative democracy” is neither democratic nor representative, and they argue for a return to the Athenian model.

"What the parliament does, we can undo on the streets." October 12, 2010 protests in Lyon, France. (Photo: offal goat / Flickr)

New theorists and activists argue that our “representative democracy” is neither democratic nor representative. They argue for a return to the Athenian model. These “neo-athenians” have a strong following in French-speaking countries.

Looking back at 2013, one small, symbolic event stands out as a clear demonstration of a slow, quiet trend over the past decade that I call The New French Revolution. Meeting in Parliament’s “hémicycle” chamber, the 17th Wallonia-Brussels Youth Parliament passed an unprecedented (mock) reform decree that would, among other things, turn the Belgian Chamber of Representatives into a Citizens’ Assembly selected by lot. The second paragraph of the decree explains why these 17- to 26-year-olds believe elections should be mostly eliminated:

“After more than two hundred years of the representative parliamentary system, one thing is clear: this system which is supposed to derive its legitimacy from the consent of voters appears to create a structural, insidious monopolization of power by a class of professional politicians. … On the one hand, it is virtually impossible for most people to stand up for election and, on the other hand, it is difficult to really know the qualities and intentions of the candidates without knowing them personally.”

Other reforms these youngsters propose in their “decree” are strict term limits for the Citizens’ Assembly and the Assembly of the Wise (Senate), two two-year terms and two four-year terms, respectively. Furthermore, nominations to the Senate must first be approved by a simple majority of the randomly selected Citizens’ Assembly. Their recommendations, then, go beyond making government more representative, to breaking the separation between governors and the governed. With such short term limits, they argue, there would no longer be a class of politicians distinct from the citizenry. Original text (in French) of the decree can be found here. A partial translation here.

One might assume the impressionable youth were merely under the spell of the charismatic, immensely popular Étienne Chouard, a years-long advocate of the use of lots to select parliaments and democracy by referenda. After all, the blog of this high school teacher-turned-net-activist has attracted more than 4.2 million visitors, while his TED and YouTube videos add tens of thousands more viewers.

One would be mistaken. The New French Revolution expressed by the Belgian youths, who “call into question the very legitimacy of representative government,” was kindled accidentally many years earlier by a soft-spoken political theorist named Bernard Manin, a Frenchman teaching in New York. His 1997 Principles of Representative Government begins in part:

” … Current usage distinguished between “representative” and “direct” democracy, making them varieties of one type of government. However what today we call representative democracy has its origins in a system of institutions … in no way initially perceived as a form of democracy or of government by the people.”

He argues, based on contemporary documents (such as the Federalist Papers), that the American, French and English 18th century architects of our political institutions did not have the people in mind, except as something to be feared or controlled. Government for them should lead with the “betters” elected by the masses. According to their notions of psychology, the poor, the commoners, uneducated, non-privileged were not fit to make important decisions, because of their presumed tendency to be overcome by passions and narrow, even mean, interests.

Democracy to 18th century political thinkers meant instability. It was not until the time of Andrew Jackson in America, and later still in Europe, that the word democracy achieved positive connotations among the political class – and then no longer as “rule by the people” but “rule by elites on behalf of the people,” i.e. “representative democracy.” Manin contrasted this with the centuries-long practices in some Italian Renaissance cities, Rome and Athens. In so doing, he made public what was once only the talk of lawyers and political philosophers.

In fact, Manin was only unwittingly dissecting a corpse drawn and quartered 30 years earlier by a Berkeley political philosopher. In her 1967 The Concept of Representation, Hanna Pitkin distinguished at least four meanings of the word represent as used by laypeople and politicians alike. To represent someone could mean simply to “be like” her in characteristics, perhaps race, class, beliefs. It could mean to defend someone’s interests as a lawyer “represents” a client. Furthermore, it could mean to act as her agent on specific instructions, say, like a cab driver transporting a client. Lastly, to represent could mean to act like a parent to a child, act on the child’s behalf – but often against his wishes. Because we use the word represent to mean one or another or several of these ideas at once, the word itself is often of little use. Although she did not end the book by proscribing it, few political scientists would touch it again until the time of Manin.

But we don’t need a Berkeley “hippy” or a suave Parisian to tell us how to read our Constitution! A text search of the Federalist Papers (the closest we have to a blueprint of American government) shows exactly 14 instances of the word democracy. All 14 refer to it as something to be avoided, like mob rule. James Madison thought, like his English, American or French contemporaries, that the masses were prone to passions, narrow interests and short-sightedness. Oddly, that is what most Americans think of Congress today. A recent Harris Poll measured Congress’ approval rating at 5 percent.

No worries, the story returns to France. The scene was set in 2005 during the public debate over the European Constitution Referendum that first brought Étienne Chouard international fame. A high school economics and IT teacher, he posted an analysis of the proposed constitution (the Rome Treaty meant to further integrate the EU) showing that it was anti-democratic and “neoliberal” in tendency. He also criticized the French political class for ever putting it to a referendum then proceeded to further dismantle representative democracy itself as “not at all democracy.” His blog blew up, rendering him an overnight public figure for the “no” vote and an instant internet celebrity.

Oddly enough, Chouard became a darling of the left and the far right. His criticism of French politicians as an out-of-touch elite, unaccountable to the public, together with his call for “real” democracy also made him immensely popular with youths. Recently, his fans sparked viral Facebook groups, literally calling themselves “nice viruses” (gentils virus) after a comment he once made at the end of a talk. He urged citizens to become “nice viruses” for “true democracy.” The democracy he advocates for is one closer to the Athenian model, with a large role for selection by lot and referenda.

But all of this, no matter how interesting, would not merit the title “New French Revolution” if it were not for the work of two more French political theorists at two of America’s most well-regarded political science departments. Their two books in 2013 can be seen as the culmination of the critique of representative government inadvertently began by Bernard Manin in the mid-1990s.

My last op-ed on Truthouth mentioned Helene Landemore’s Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many, which argued that democracy is the best form of government because it is the most “intelligent.” A sub-argument of the book asserts that elections are not the best way to pick a large, diverse group. It tables the questions of legitimacy and fairness and focuses on the statistical aspects of a political system that make it more likely to make better decisions based on complete and unbiased information. It admittedly sets aside the issue of corruption and misrule.

These issues were picked up by Jon Elster’s Securities Against Misrule: Juries, Assemblies, Elections, about the mechanisms designers of political institutions have at their disposal to prevent corruption, selfishness or imprudence by rulers. Considered by many to be the living grandfather of contemporary democratic theory and also a French transplant to New York, Elster is no radical. His book is endorsed by no less a conservative than Judge Richard Posner of the Seventh Circuit. As the title suggests, it treats various topics beyond elections, and on the cover is a Kleroterion, the stone column used by Athenians to select jurors and councilors by lot.

I have left out the names of many others who have taken part in this soft revolution: political scientists such as James Fishkin, Peter Stone, Oliver Dowlen, Brian Martin, Keith Sutherland, John P. McCormick; creative activists such as John Burnheim, Ernest Callenbach, Tom Atlee, Rosa Zubizarreta; and many others from Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and elsewhere. But in honor of Bernard Manin and the bright youth in Wallonia, let’s just call it The New French Revolution.

This second French revolution, although less colorful and dramatic, could bear consequences just as significant and long-lasting as the first. But what do we know about the future?

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