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Not the answer we asked for

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Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin is reputed to have said, “Those who vote decide nothing. Those who count the vote decide everything.”  Something similar could be said of the Citizen’s Assemblies that Extinction Rebellion propose as the ideal form of government to shepherd us to the bright green promised land.

Although the name is new, the proposed Citizen’s Assembly is just the latest iteration of an older form of deliberative democracy; itself designed to overcome the fundamental flaw in democracy itself.  This is simply that the people – the demos – are largely ignorant.  That is, while each of us – by hobby or occupation – may be extremely well-versed about a specific narrow portion of the grand sweep of human knowledge and experience, on any given subject the majority will contain far more clueless people than those who can shed light on the issue being considered.  Various forms of dictatorship offered as a potential alternative failed because the combination of sycophancy and psychopathy that accompanies dictatorship renders this form of government more imbecilic than the democracy it seeks to usurp.  The modern neoliberal technocracy fails for the opposite reason; although packed full of technical experts, technocracy is so divided into epistemological silos that the broad truth is never observed.

Deliberative democracy goes back to the people as the font of legitimacy for decision making.  It argues though, that since the demos is largely ignorant it must first be educated before it can be trusted to vote.  And so some version of jury selection is employed to gather together a group which is representative of the population at large.  This group then interrogates the experts in the field under consideration before arriving at its decisions.  It can be a very effective approach.  People who arrive with no more than the simplistic narratives provided to them by tabloid newspapers and populist politicians very quickly discover that the issues are far more complicated and, all too often, that the populist “solutions” cannot work.  The result is often a more rounded and comprehensive policy prescription than would be arrived at in a first-past-the-post election.

Although the wider population cannot participate directly in this form of democracy, observing how a representative sample of people “just like us” changes its collective mind when presented with the facts (so far as they are known) by the experts can be persuasive.  For example, an Irish Citizen’s Assembly set up to consider abortion seems to have helped break decades of political deadlock; paving the way for a referendum result in favour of reform.

The main drawback with citizen’s assemblies ought to be obvious enough.  However, even secondary problems render them unrealistic as a form of government.  They are time-consuming.  Just having 100 people to give up their weekends for the duration is a big commitment.  The various experts must also give up time; not only to answer questions but to prepare presentations and handout materials.  And this is to consider just one issue; governments are bombarded with hundreds of issues every day.  This brings us to another reason why citizen’s assemblies are inappropriate; governments often do not have time to consider issues in depth.  Imagine how we would have reacted if our government’s response to the current pandemic had been to establish a citizen’s assembly (a selection process which itself takes months) in order to hear from the experts before recommending a response.  For better or (most often) worse, we expect our governments to react immediately on the basis of the best evidence available.

This brings us to that fundamental flaw in deliberative democracy, and back to the thoughts of comrade Stalin.  There is no settled knowledge.  Nor do “the facts” change the received wisdom.  As German physicist Max Planck pointed out, the facts change one funeral at a time:

“A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

This is particularly true of a neoclassical economics pseudo-science which, despite being exposed in 2008, continues to hold sway in the upper reaches of the technocracy.  With neither a theory of money nor a theory of energy, even the most eloquent exponent of mainstream economics will only ever be correct in the way that a stopped clock is occasionally right.

In the world of citizen’s assemblies it is the shadowy figure behind the curtain that gets to choose “the experts” who holds the power of decision.  And if, in the case of the Climate Assembly UK (established by six parliamentary committees in part in response to the demands of Extinction Rebellion) the experts turn out to broadly support the line taken by the UK government, you should not be surprised by the outcome.

The final report – The path to net zero – shows the value of deliberative democracy in moving a representative sample of the UK population from the complacent narrative that “clever people somewhere else are dealing with it,” to a more realistic “something must be done!” Had its recommendations been made – and adopted – in the late 1970s or early 1980s, they might have had some relevance to the predicament that global industrial civilisation now finds itself in.  In 2020 though, it all feels like too little, too late.

The broad principles that the Climate Assembly UK take as a starting point are hard to disagree with:

  • Education and information
  • Fairness
  • Freedom and choice
  • Co-benefits
  • Protecting nature.

If only the neoliberal system of the past four decades had operated according to these, we might be well placed to make the transition to a zero-carbon economy by 2050.  But since neoliberalism is based on creating an uneducated precariat which is treated unfairly, has little freedom of choice and enjoyed none of the co-benefits of global financialisation, we have Brexit, Boris Johnson and Donald Trump instead.

This helps to explain why the Climate Assembly UK recommendations are incredibly weak compared to the radical de-carbonisation required both for environmental and resource depletion reasons.  Like the population at large, the majority of the Assembly members did not regard climate change as a dire emergency. As one of the members explains:

“I was a bit worried that it would just be the people who were most passionate about the crisis – that you’d get an influx of people so it would be very one-sided and biased. So to come in and find it is a complete representation: I’ve spoken to people for who it’s a complete crisis – to complete denial or don’t believe it’s a real thing, that end of the spectrum. So to see that representation was quite a surprise and really refreshing for someone like myself.”

Climate Assembly UK did its job insofar as it shifted the narrative from complacency to a need for government action.  But it also indicated some of the barriers beyond which governments may struggle to go.  For example, while they favoured investment in public transport and in cycling infrastructure, they were not so keen on giving up their cars without a scrappage scheme to compensate them for the loss and new grants to subsidise the purchase of new low-carbon cars.  It was the same with air travel.  Everyone should be granted their holiday flight; only frequent fliers should be penalised.  The laws of physics-defying battery-powered commercial airliner was proposed as the best solution for future travel.

Future electricity generation was to come from wind turbines and solar panels, with a majority opposing even nuclear to provide baseload.  And – apparently with no sense of self-awareness – the UK should, “Get to net zero without pushing our emissions to elsewhere in the world.”  Good luck with that!

Inevitably, Extinction Rebellion have criticised the Climate Assembly UK organisers for picking the wrong experts:

“Assembly members were given no control over the scale and scope of the Assembly meaning they were not able to question the framing of the government net-zero target or to request more time…

“Now what we need is to do it again, but with a much more realistic sense of urgency, without the creative accounting of ‘Net-Zero’, and addressing all the glaring omissions, such as freight, biodiversity loss, supply chain emissions, our global impact world-wide and the need for global justice.”

That’s the thing though.  Allow the folks at the Global Warming Policy Foundation to choose the experts and you end up with recommendations against over-reacting to climate change and favouring fracking as the solution to our energy problems.  Alternatively, let me choose the experts and you get both the ice-cold terror of an impending environmental disaster together with the realisation that – for energy and economic reasons – we are long past the point where we can avoid collapse.  In Climate Assembly UK, the parliamentary committees have in fact, done a good job at reaching a balanced position which – on more trivial matters – provides the best means of carrying the population with them.  It will never be enough for activist groups, but the lessons learned from the French attempt to raise taxes on diesel indicate the public response that would surely follow if only the climate catastrophists (some will call them realists) are allowed to have their way.

Too often, the growing majority who have come to realise that economists are mistaken about almost everything, draw the erroneous conclusion that “the economy” doesn’t matter.  In reality, the economy is the limiting factor on everything we try to achieve.  No matter how much you might wish it, in a democracy you cannot simply end the flights which take people on holiday – still less be rid of pollution-causing employment – without first levelling the playing field between rich and poor…  This is why Climate Assembly UK did not recommend it.  Either you compensate the mass of the population for their loss or you begin the trek toward a zero carbon economy by getting the rich to level-down their lifestyles first.  And that’s the problem.  Because the same elite that has accumulated all of the wealth, also owns the media through which the public is educated about issues like climate change.

That’s democracy for you.  It is messy.  It seldom produces the results you might want.  And when it comes to our current predicament, it barely perceives the issues, still less the means of dealing with them.  But if you imagine that your version of dictatorship or technocracy is going to do any better, then history is against you.  You may, indeed, get to have your Citizen’s Assembly and even have it replace the current version of democratic government.  But – like Stalin counting the votes – so long as the ruling elites get to decide who the experts are, then the outcome will always disappoint.

As you made it to the end…

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