Extinction Rebellion, Marble Arch. Photo: Shabbir Lakha Extinction Rebellion, Marble Arch. Photo: Shabbir Lakha

As a citizens’ assembly to deal with climate change is announced, Elaine Graham-Leigh looks at the idea’s limitations

The recent move by various House of Commons select committees to call a citizens’ assembly on climate change confirms that the citizens’ assembly is having a moment. Its recent prominence seems largely to be because a citizens’ assembly on climate change is one of the three core demands of Extinction Rebellion, but the idea isn’t limited to a single issue. The SNP, for example, recently announced a citizens’ assembly to address the issues facing Scotland post-Brexit, where the main topic will presumably be independence.

Citizens assemblies are not entirely new, not even in the UK, where in 2018, a citizens’ assembly considered the issue of social care for the Health and Social Care Select Committee. Ireland convened one in 2016 on various issues, including abortion, and British Columbia held one in 2004 to look at changes to the electoral system. Building on these examples, 2019 seems to be the moment in which the idea has moved from being a fringe suggestion to part of the standard toolkit for repairing, or for some replacing, representative democracy (see for example a recent list by George Monbiot). Support for citizens’ assemblies obviously comes from a sense that our democratic system isn’t working. Whether they are a genuine solution to the real problems of bourgeois democracy is, however, much less clear.

Called ‘exercises in deliberative democracy’, citizens’ assemblies involve groups of citizens (the various models do not set a fixed number; in Ireland it was 100) selected, importantly, not by election or by volunteering, but by sortition. In other words, the participants are randomly selected as for jury service, with the random selection being corrected for age, sex, ethnic origin and membership of disadvantaged groups, so that the final membership of the assembly is as representative as possible of the makeup of the population. This group then meets several times to consider the questions put to it, advised by ‘experts’. In the Irish example, this was very much under the auspices of government, which set the questions, appointed the chair and decided how to act on the results. Other models envisage the citizens’ assembly as a body with actual power; Extinction Rebellion’s call, for example, is for an assembly to make binding decisions.

Proponents of citizens’ assemblies cite their ability to bring consensus and resolve intractable differences, often citing the abortion issue in Ireland as an example of the sorts of difficult issues which they can resolve (ignoring of course the hard-fought campaign to win the abortion referendum). The case for citizens’ assemblies is broadly that politicians are distrusted by the public and that political campaigns are divisive and damaging. Rather than politicising issues, allowing small groups of citizens to be advised by ‘experts’ would apparently enable them to make sensible, well-informed decisions. Thus, in the words of Willie Sullivan of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, they would ‘return legitimacy to our broken politics.’ Sullivan was talking about a citizens’ assembly as an addition to representative democracy, but there are proposals for sortition to replace representation altogether. The Sortition Foundation, for example, argues that a body chosen by sortition could replace politicians and ‘partisan politicking’, and would therefore represent ‘real democracy.’

The claim that a citizens’ assembly selected by sortition would be the ultimate in democracy may seem odd, given that it would deprive those not chosen for it of any say at all. Such objections are answered by the citizens’ assembly’s fans with reference to sortition’s considerable pedigree as a means of selecting governing bodies. It has, the Sortition Foundation is careful to point out, ‘a long history going back to ancient Athens.’ We all know, of course, that Athens is the original, purest democracy possible (except for the women, slaves and foreigners who didn’t get to participate), so that must be all right. Well, not quite. The trick with historical analogies is to be sure that they actually do support the desired point. The political situation of ancient Athens is much less of an argument in favour of the democratic nature of sortition than its proponents would like to admit.

The Athenian democracy was created by the reforming ruler Solon in the early sixth century BC as part of his great reforms, what he called the ‘shaking off of burdens’, and was modified by a subsequent ruler, Kleisthenes, at the end of the century. It survived, with further modifications and a break for oligarchy, into the fourth century BC. The sovereign body was the assembly, open to all citizens (so excluding those women, slaves and foreigners) and meeting the equivalent of about once a month. Citizens could participate or not as they chose, although there is some evidence that both obsessive attendance and non-attendance were frowned upon. The likely venue would have held about 6,000 people, out of a citizen body of about 40,000 by the mid-fifth century, so that gives some idea of the numbers who tended to turn out. The agenda for the assembly and issues arising between assembly sessions were handled by the council, a body of 500 members chosen by sortition.

Classical Athenian authors were often impressed by their system and at pains to point out its superiority to those of their rivals. Some modern historians echo this. The reputation of sortition as the ultimate in democracy presumably has its origins in historians’ verdicts on the Athenian system. It has been described, for example, as ‘the most democratic type of government ever devised’, because it was a form of direct democracy that avoided politics and politicians.[1] It is apparent, however, that the practical functioning of the system was rather different from its ideological presentation.

The meaning of Solon’s reforms was opaque to classical Athenian writers, as were the changes made by Kleisthenes, so there is no modern consensus about precisely what either were intended to achieve. It is probable however that both sets of reforms were aimed at breaking up the power of the old landed aristocracy. In Solon’s case, this was by creating new class bands based on wealth, and thus empowering the middlingly wealthy. For Kleisthenes, it was by introducing structures to prevent aristocrats from assembling power bases in particular areas of Attica (the region around Athens). Kleisthenes’ reforms divided the citizen body into ten tribes and assigned each deme (village or small town) to a tribe. A deme would not usually be in the same tribe as its neighbours, and the membership of each tribe was balanced across demes from the interior, the coast and the city. The effect was presumably supposed to be that rather than regional loyalties, which could be used by the old aristocratic families, the demes would have tribal loyalties with their fellow tribe members from all over Attica.

The selection for membership of the council was based on the demes and the tribes. Each tribe sent fifty members to the council, made up of a set number from each deme according to size. In this sense, it is clear that the council members chosen by lot represented those who were not chosen in a direct way that members of a modern citizens’ assembly would not. A member of the council selected to represent the deme of Acharnai, for example, was not simply standing in for all other citizens from Acharnai, but was representing people whom he would have known personally, and whose views and interests he would have been expected to promote. In modern terms, if a trades-union branch or constituency party decided to select delegates for conference by lot, that would probably be closer to the feel of the Athenian system than a population-wide sortition exercise would be.

The supposedly apolitical system did in fact see a number of influential professional politicians, and powerful figures like the mid-fifth-century Pericles, under whom Athens was effectively under one-man rule. It is also notable that the membership of the council, when assessed from membership lists, is markedly more dominated by figures from wealthy families, and by those professional politicians, than it should have been if the selection was really random. Since individuals had to allow their names to be put forward for the lot drawing, it is possible that this was routinely manipulated at a local level to allow specific individuals to get through.[2]

Such subversion of how the system was supposed to work provided a way for the council to express the interests of the wealthier citizens to the detriment of the poorest. The class character of the council meant that, far from being the apogee of democracy, it acted in fact as a brake on the poorest citizens in the assembly. For Athenian writers, the assembly was ‘the people’; in theory sovereign, but in practice often side-lined or controlled by the council. The Athenian system was less an example of perfect democracy than a moment in the class struggle, an attempt by wealthy citizens to hold a line between threats from the old aristocracy on one side and the poorer citizens on the other. As a model for sortition, it does not mean what proponents of citizens’ assemblies say it means.

The role of the council in controlling the people in the assembly may however give a clue as to the meaning of the current enthusiasm for sortition. Since the 2016 Brexit vote, liberals have discovered a new flaw in representative democracy. It is not so much that people are uninterested or unengaged, but that when they are engaged, they might ignore liberal commentators and vote the wrong way. The calls for a second Brexit referendum on the basis that the first vote was uninformed is part of this reaction to people apparently not listening to the right opinions.

That the Brexit referendum is the context in which we should evaluate the current popularity of citizens’ assemblies and sortition is made fairly explicit by some. The Involve Foundation, for example, said in 2018 that problems with democracy in the UK ‘have reached a tipping point in the last couple of years. Our democracy has become defined by disillusionment, polarisation and disconnection, and dominated by a toxic and symbiotic mix of elitism and populism.’ In contrast to this divided political situation, the citizens’ assembly offers consensus; a way to ‘negotiate our differences’ in a way that isn’t really political at all.

Neoliberal ideology holds that politics can somehow be separated from questions about how society is run and for whose benefit. This was the argument behind Blairite claims for example that they could choose between public or private models for public services on the basis of pragmatism rather than ideology: ‘whatever works’. The pretence of pragmatism masked the Blairites’ service of the needs of capital. The ideas of the ruling class can appear unpolitical when they are the ruling ideas in society, but it doesn’t mean that such ideas should be exempt from political challenge. The citizens’ assemblies’ claims to be a way of moving beyond politics are an indication of whose interests they would really be serving.

Proponents of citizens’ assemblies are keen to stress how, when corralled in a room and addressed by all those experts, ordinary people can be brought to make responsible decisions. This is presented as an exercise in trusting people, but in reality, represents a profound distrust of the working class when it gets out of the control of elites. Brett Henning of the Sortition Foundation argues unconvincingly that the prospect of having no say at all in decisions made by a government selected by sortition would not breed apathy among those not chosen, as they would have empathy for the ordinary people who had been.[3] This is a formulation which could only satisfy those who, in their heart of hearts, assume that they would be among those setting the questions and steering the assembly, rather than one out of the interchangeable mass who remain at home unpicked.

Working people in Britain fought for the vote from the seventeenth century on because ‘government of one human being over another was indefensible unless the government was chosen by the governed.’[4] Empathy on the part of the governed for the governors does not constitute a defence of unrepresentative government, any more than popular empathy for a king would make absolute monarchy unoppressive. It is for this reason that the structures set up in revolutionary situations, from the Paris Commune to the Petersburg Soviet, were democratic, with representatives being elected directly by those whom they represented.

There was no naivety in these examples about in whose interests existing democratic structures worked, but a recognition that a system of representative assemblies was necessary to give the working class political power. It was only a genuinely representative democracy, with elected representatives being revocable and therefore truly accountable to those who elect them, that would allow ordinary people to remain in control. As Marx described in The Civil War in France, in the Paris Commune, ‘the general suffrage, till now abused either for the parliamentary sanction of the Holy State Power, or a play in the hands of the ruling classes, only employed by the people to sanction (choose the instruments of) parliamentary class rule once in many years, [was] adapted to its real purposes, to choose by the communes their own functionaries of administration and initiation.’[5]

In these revolutionary situations, the problem was how to ensure that the people were able to challenge the power of the state. Citizens’ assemblies selected by sortition are ultimately an answer to a different problem; how to prevent another unfortunate incident where people use their limited power in an imperfect system to deliver a result that liberals do not want.


[1] Oswyn Murray, Early Greece, (London 1980), p.257

[2] Simon Hornblower, The Greek World 479-323BC, (London 1991), pp.116-20

[3] See for example Brett Henning, The End of Politicians. Time for a real democracy, (London 2017)

[4] Paul Foot, The Vote. How it was won and how it was undermined, (London 2012), pp.6-7

[5]Karl Marx, ‘The Civil War in France’, The First International and After. Political Writings Vol.3, ed. David Fernbach, (London and New York 2010), pp.187-268, p.251

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.