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Democratic Wisdom from the 1930s

June 16, 2022 Leave a comment

It’s wonderful when an old book speaks clearly to what’s happening around us today.

I had sought out Pour le Tirage au Sort de la Chambre des Députés (For the Random Selection of the Chamber of Deputies), published by an anonymous French ex-parliamentarian in 1936, because it seems to be the first (in the past century or so) to argue that choosing our representatives by lot, or sortition, would be a better and truer form of democracy than elections.

I’ve become fascinated by sortition-based democracy as I help prepare my late father’s typescript on the subject for posthumous publication. For sure, Pour le Tirage au Sort was WAY ahead of its time. The next books to argue for sortition came decades later. The earliest comprehensive work actually only appeared in 2013 (Against Elections by David van Reybrouck, to whom many thanks for alerting me to the French deputy’s old book).

It wasn’t just the ex-deputy’s proposals that struck me as noteworthy: it was how he described the angst of the 1930s, an age when significant numbers of people thought dictatorship was the best answer to dysfunctional democracy. For some, Adolf Hitler in Germany was a shining example, for others Joseph Stalin in Russia or Benito Mussolini in Italy. Normally, I don’t see much connection between 1930s authoritarianism and today, or worry much about threats to the freedoms we enjoy in Europe and Western countries. But something in the old French politician’s warnings struck home.

Humanity doesn’t govern itself – alas! – by reason. The disquiet that is working on all peoples, in the New World just as in the Old, is pushing them to look to authoritarian regimes for the security and peace that an improvidently and badly run freedom has dissipated in the wind of chimaeras and illusions.

That sounds familiar! The dictators in power in the 1930s were no doubt more bloody than today, the economic situation worse and the sense of impending world war more palpable. Yet today’s range of leaders – Vladimir Putin, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orban and many others – are ever-more worryingly unreliable and/or authoritarian. The conflict in Ukraine is bringing war ever closer to west Europeans. And there is a whole new range of threats to Western countries from densely populated, unstable, climate-change threatened countries in their neighbourhoods.

Paris by night (1935). Frank Hellsten’s clever new colouring of Dutch photographer Willem van de Poll‘s Champs-Elysées scene highlights how close we are to the past.

The old French parliamentarian echoes the kind of criticism we direct at the likes of Johnson or Trump today, but not against individual politicians. He blames the whole system of elections for producing a political class whose members “have all more or less gone bankrupt, and who, in the disorder of our society, demonstrate the most lamentable egotism or the most culpable profligacy.” His long administrative experience had made him sick of blatant corruption and foreign meddling, but he saw the cure in more democracy, not more elite rule. While ready to see experts in an advisory role, he believed that in terms of moral judgment, educated people “do not always represent the social class with the best grip on reality … the representatives of the masses are less educated [than those with instruction and beautiful diplomas] but more endowed with good sense.”

One cannot chase out the plague with cholera

As he plots a way out of France’s 1930s mess, the author surveys proposed solutions to the country’s problems being discussed at the time. (One book he cites is La France veut un chef, or France wants a chief). But he sees a weak link running through all of them: the idea that there should be politicians chosen through the ballot box. “Because all [these proposals] depend without reserve on elections – considered as a kind of incontrovertible dogma – and because every election, whatever measures one takes to make it just, is based on the corruption of conscience and its consequence, the waste of public funds, the evils one wants to suppress cannot be avoided. One cannot chase out the plague with cholera.”

This all leads him to propose a radical idea: a new constitution based on democracy by lot, because “random selection [is] the simplest and most legitimate way to ensure that deputies have moral independence, without which no government has a serious foundation.” The same is true today: selfish politicians like Trump or Johnson keep proving their contempt for the idea that leadership involves noblesse oblige or any moral compass. And from Putin to Erdoğan, all the problematic modern leaders took and maintain power through elections.

The ex-deputy next outlines a new constitution for France, which in 1936 had about forty million inhabitants. It’s an interesting exercise. He suggests a three hundred-seat parliament: two hundred and forty members would be randomly selected from forty constituencies of one million people (using a system similar to the national lottery); the remaining sixty people would be nominated from the expert class by the head of state from among people in pre-determined top posts (eg heads of unions, industrialists’ associations, administrative bodies, parliament and the like). This head of state would be chosen for life by four-five hundred holders of such top posts during a deep, rapid deliberation that would avoid bribery and lobbying. He compares this to the way the College of Cardinals selects a new Pope. That system that has worked pretty well, for much longer than most.

“Elections have a less rational and logical basis than [random selection],” the French politician wrote. “By making those elected the slaves of parties and obligated to financial interests, [elections] suffocate their conscience and kill their personality …. Sincerity, rather than an often perverted intelligence, will be the guide of our institutions …. In all things, conscience and sincerity are worth more than knowledge and cunning.”

For better or worse, nobody heard the former parliamentarian’s call in his own time. Four years after the publication of Le Tirage au Sort, Germany’s army made short work of defeating an unreformed France. I can find no suggestion of the author’s name in online searches or link to the work beyond the facsimile of his book offered by the Bibliothèque Nationale Française.

Fortunately, though, the ideas of sortition and deliberative democracy are now taking off. After David van Reybrouck‘s book Against Elections came Brett Hennig‘s An End to Politicians and his Sortition Foundation, Hélène Landemore‘s Open Democracy and a raft of publications by Claudia Chwalisz at the OECD. There’s much more great research elsewhere. And in the past decade, nearly 600 randomly selected Citizens’ Assemblies have shown that sortition and deliberation work well together to produce practical, credible solutions to knotty political problems.

The 1930s French author would doubtless have been pleased to learn that France has been a trail-blazer of this “deliberative wave”. President Emmanuel Macron used random selection in his grand national debates and successful climate convention, and in 2021 the city of Paris decided to create a Citizens’ Assembly chosen by lot that will from now on be a permanent part of its administration.

On becoming Belgian after Brexit

May 27, 2022 Leave a comment

As a person of English culture and British nationality but living in Brussels and feeling European (with South African and Turkish elements too), I struggled to express what it felt like when Britain withdrew from the European Union.

After the Brexit vote on 23 June 2015, I sometimes wondered if I was on board the Titanic or whether I was on one of the lifeboats. Or I felt like I was a child again on one of the ocean liners at the moment it set sail from Cape Town and Europe in the 1960s (the normal way to travel then). One by one, the streamers held by passengers at one end and their friends and family on the quayside would snap until the separation was complete.

Politico gave me a chance to write up my feelings ahead of the sixth anniversary of this messy British-EU divorce. Luckily, for me at least, they have now begun to heal thanks to the blessing of a grant of Belgian nationality.

LETTER FROM BRUSSELS

On becoming Belgian after Brexit

BY HUGH POPE May 22, 2022

In April, the postman pushed a letter through my door in Brussels, creasing it from the strong spring behind the old brass letter flap. It still didn’t spoil the clear and formal message. 

“A change of nationality has been written into the registers of the state,” the stamped and signed letter informed me. “Please make an appointment with the commune to pick up your Belgian identity card.” 

I felt a surge of relief, a sense of safe haven in my current home. And just as importantly, I felt I could now be British and European again. 

On June 24, 2016, I had woken up a citizen of the United Kingdom, entitled to live and work in Belgium and 26 other European Union countries. But when I switched on the television, BBC presenters were stumbling over the news that more than half of Britons had voted for Brexit. For years after, people in my position could never be quite sure what rights the bruising negotiations would leave us with. What would happen if we lost our jobs? 

I had arrived in Belgium just a year earlier in 2015 and had been overjoyed when my Brussels commune quickly, and automatically, gave me a five-year work and residence permit. It felt like my British identity had at last given me full membership to a real international club. 

Living and working in Turkey and several Middle Eastern countries during the three previous decades, I had struggled to win or renew my residence papers, which could sometimes be valid for as little as three months. A treasured Syrian permit took me a year to get, by which time it had nearly expired. And Britain’s imperial forays in the region meant officials’ reactions to my passport ranged from skeptical to downright hostile.  

By comparison, Belgium just wanted me to be patient. It has no U.K.-style citizenship test on medieval battle dates, prime ministers’ names or 200-year-old poems. I didn’t have to dig up a list of English relatives who had fought on Belgium’s side in European wars to boost my case. All I had to do was work for five straight years, pay my taxes, supply a birth certificate, state that I wanted citizenship and pledge to submit to the Belgian constitution, the country’s laws and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms…

For the full article in Politico.EU, please follow the link here.

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Waking Up to the Brussels Bombs

March 23, 2016 2 comments

The bombs in my new hometown of Brussels didn’t go off close to me. But they did kind of wake me up.

In Brussels airport’s modest departure hall, the explosions were at places I’ve passed through a hundred times over the years. Many of my acquaintances have done so too. The boyfriend of the online editor who works at the desk beside me was on his way to check in, and a colleague was parking her car nearby.

Shortly afterward, a mile away from us, another bomb exploded on a crowded metro train between Schumann and Maalbeek stations, killing 20 people, ripping the carriage into twisted metal and filling the underground with screams and choking smoke. My 12-year-old daughter had taken a nearby metro to school just an hour earlier.

 

Soldiers

Soldiers have become an everyday sight on the boulevards of Brussels since the November 2015 Paris attacks were traced back to the suburb of Molenbeek.

Brussels is not a big town. My former home of Istanbul has as many people as the whole of Belgium, and it probably takes more time to drive across. As my neighbour said as I met her walking her dog that morning, when something bad happens you always know somebody connected to it. I’m new here, so luckily for me, I knew nobody who was hurt. But my daughter’s schoolfriends did.

After 33 years living in the Middle East, I’d have thought I was immune to shock. I’ve seen plenty of bombs. My reporting job took me to warfronts, and once trapped me for ten weeks in a Sudanese town under rebel siege. The 2003 car bomb at Istanbul’s British Consulate-General sent its gatehouse up in smoke before my eyes. In 1983 I even witnessed one of the Middle East’s first suicide car bombs, when, as I describe in my book Dining with al-Qaeda, “a shockwave of explosive force whomped through the office … a column of evil, yellowish smoke and debris was spiraling up into the sky … ” (I’ve reproduced the page below).

But somehow these Brussels bombings shook me up, even though I didn’t go near them.

Perhaps it’s because just three days before, an apparently Islamist suicide bomber attacked the Istanbul street where until recently I had lived for 15 years, the latest of several such attacks in Turkey. We could pass the spot several times a day. At the moment of the blast, our caretaker’s son was taking an exam opposite. He sent pictures of what he saw, gruesome, guts-spilling-over-the-pavement images of the four crumpled dead and the stunned gaze of the injured .

Perhaps it was because I thought that by moving to Europe, I was coming somewhere safe. Perhaps I underestimated the angry sentiments of the pro-Islamic State element in the Brussels inner city districts; a journalist friend told me of residents stoning and harassing him as police arrested the organiser of the Paris attacks in the Moroccan district, telling him: “What are you doing? Belgians shouldn’t come here”.

Perhaps it was because I’ve started to identify with one charming Belgium, and have now learned that there is another, less predictable country inside it.

Perhaps my anxiety was also because of the throw-away comments I’ve been hearing in meetings with Western political leaders, or listening to those who mix with them. They are a steady drumbeat of defeatism: “the situation is catastrophic”, “things are out of control”, “my generation was spoiled, and has failed”, or “the crises are piling on top of each other like we’ve never seen before”. After a meeting with the German chancellor during the euro crisis, one German party leader confided that the worst part of it was a sense that nobody knew what to do.

In Brussels on Tuesday 22 March, though, my unease was definitely because I knew I was watching conflict spread. Pale-faced people around me were going through the painful initiation into what what the denizens of war zones have to get used to: calling family and friends as news of real attacks mix with false rumours; discovering the narrow escapes of partners and colleagues; sharing shaken feelings as old certainties crumble; and staying anxious until you learn that everyone connected to you is safe.

Normally, too, my work has long been to pronounce on what’s best for far-away countries. Even Istanbul often felt like a spaceship hovering alongside the rest of Turkey. But on the day of the Brussels bombs, it was reporters from Africa, China, Lebanon and, yes, Turkey, who called up to seek comment on the twin attacks that had paralysed Brussels for much of the day. Perhaps I was still in partial denial about the meaning of the 9 September 2001 attacks on the U.S., and the ones in London, Paris, and Madrid. Now I live here, I get it. The angry Middle East’s conflicts really have gone global.

It’s not only the new reach of the so-called Islamic State that make Belgium feel inter-connected. The country is a famously close neighbour to France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. On top of that, my new house in Brussels feels as though it is in the midst of a neo-Ottoman empire, within short walking distance of a Bulgarian cafe, a Macedonian Turkish bar, a Moroccan furniture shop, a Greek corner store, and streets of Turkish butchers, tile merchants and grocers. Beyond them is a veritable casbah of Egyptian, Tunisian, Algerian and other shops spilling their cheap clothing, bedding and wedding finery onto the street.

The languages spoken around me on Brussels trams make the city feel like every nation within a radius of one thousand miles is represented. Forty nationalities were represented among the bombing casualties. Indeed, the refugee influx of the past year is no great conceptual shock. The city is not just the geographic heart of Europe, but in terms of its population, it has Russia, the Middle East and north Africa coursing through its veins.

For me, in short, Europe and the Middle East overlap in Brussels, and indeed in many other European cities. I like Brussels all the more for that diversity and energy, and feel I should understand both sides. As an adopted Middle Easterner, I know the role the West, actively or negligently, has played over the past century in stoking up the mayhem that is now biting it back. And as a convinced European, I wish more could be done to integrate communities that could contribute much in the long term, and in any event, cannot be wished away.

I hope my new European neighbours can learn to feel that way too, and to tell the truth, many of the ones I know do. But for now, violent conflicts, bombings and wailing sirens in the streets are an increasing part of both sides of the Europe-Middle East equation.

The page in Dining with al-Qaeda describing the first bombing I witnessed, with my then colleague David Zenian, as a news agency reporter in Lebanon in April 1983:

DWAQ 4