The Revolutionary Power of Ordinary Citizens: the Urgent Need for Citizens’ Assemblies

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Published
29.09.2021
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12 min read
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Democratic Utopias, Institutional Revolutions
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© Simona Bussi

1. Extinction Rebellion and the climate and ecological emergency 

Probably one of the most recurring questions activists from around the planet ask themselves is: am I making a change? Is my movement shaping history? For Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists, on November 18th 2018, the day that saw five of London’s iconic bridges blocked, the feeling must have been of revolution. The rebellions that followed that year constituted one of the biggest acts of civil disobedience in British modern history [1].

For me, XR was fundamental in placing the spotlight on the absolute urgency of the current climate and ecological crisis. This was accomplished through three demands. The movement’s first demand, asking all pillars of power to tell the truth about the empirical facts and dire predictions of the planet’s livability, has been embodied in its own strategy and as a result created the awareness necessary for people to step out and rise. In its second demand, XR implores governments to act now to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. Given the immensity and complexity of the task for our current political system, XR’s third demand offers governments’ an evidence-based democratic tool to overcome the current political deadlock by putting citizens at the center of decision making through the institutionalisation of a citizens’ assembly on climate and ecological justice.

2. What are citizens’ assemblies?

Citizens’ assemblies are a form of deliberative democracy – a process in which ordinary people, selected at random from the population, make deliberated political decisions. This process uses the same mechanisms found in the jury selection in the legal system of the UK amongst other countries. Most importantly, the selected independent sortition organisation uses demographic quotas to ensure that the sample selected is representative of the population in terms of a range of factors such as: gender, age, ethno-cultural heritage, class, education level, sexual orientation, disability and geography. 

Once members have been selected, usually between 100 and 150 people, the assembly is separated into four key phases: listening, learning, deliberating and deciding. The entire assembly process is conducted through the help of professional facilitators and can last for several months in which members, in small groups, discuss and elaborate recommendations.

The fundamental characteristic differentiating this process from a standard consultative public debate is the weight the final report of recommendations carry. Ideally acting as a counterweight to Parliament, the assembly produces recommendations that must be legally binding in some way or another. For example, in 2016, the mayor of the Polish city of Gdansk launched a series of citizens’ assemblies on disaster risk reduction in which the recommendations with over 80% of support by assembly members were directly implemented. Examples of citizens’ assemblies from around the world demonstrate the wide spectrum of shapes this weight can take [2]. A legal contract between politicians and citizens is essential or this deliberative tool will remain marginal and its effect will only be symbolic.

XR demands that the government, being the central authority governing our lives, launches this deliberative tool on a national level by assigning the task to an independent body. However, the evolution of XR has brought the movement to go beyond national borders and create transnational working groups, such as XR Europe, that also demand for a citizen assembly to counterweigh the decisions of the European Parliament. The ideal XR strives for is to create a political space whereby the people can decide for themselves with the necessary time, mechanism and recognition. It is a proposal of profound change in the metaphysics of politics.

3. Why we need a citizens’ assembly

What are the reasons that legitimize this imperative need for citizens’ assemblies? The climate emergency first entered the mainstream political agenda over forty years ago [3]; not only has no systematic action been taken since but the ecological breakdown has exponentially increased.

Today’s European democracy has proven deeply flawed and unable to recognize and address the present crisis. In terms of deliberation, the current system has confrontation at its core, it is designed for two sides to oppose each other on principle. In addition, five year cycles discourage governments from attending to long-term issues like climate breakdown. Democratic representatives are lobbied by powerful corporations, seek sympathetic media coverage and calculate their policies based on potential media and public reactions, as measured by opinion polls. As politicians need to keep consensus amongst citizens in order to secure votes, they are  unable to propose the bold changes necessary to address the emergency.

Citizens’ assemblies, on the contrary, are based on compromise and the creation of a shared vision between citizens, they can teach us a new conception of power structures and decision-making procedures. The traditional democratic decision-making in today’s politics is driven by 'majority rules' in which compromise is forced upon the minority. Alternatively, the citizens’ assembly model uses facilitation methods to not only include every point of view but to ensure an all around agreement, resulting in an agreed shared vision.

Analysing the tool from the population’s perception, the random selection of people ensures statistical diversity, and therefore leaves behind the issue of unrepresentative political participation and nepotism within our political institutions. Perceiving the rising inequalities all around and thus embodying the framework of climate justice, we must pay close attention to issues of participation quality and inclusion in order to prevent further exclusion and authoritarian tendencies in the face of rising conflict [4].

Facilitated discussions between the members of this representative sample allow us to tap into society’s collective intelligence. Equally important is the propaedeutic journey the members take part in, the ‘learning’ phase is a game-changer in how we understand political issues as often, opinion polls gather knee-jerk reactions to loaded questions, and they do not inform citizens or enable them to explore the implications of different options with other people. According to a comparative study of citizens’ assemblies, the learning phase is often the most appreciated aspect of the process [5].

Analysing the tool from policymakers’ perspective, citizen assemblies are an optimal instrument able to break political deadlock and address controversial large scale issues (As explained in the Irish example above). By institutionalizing deliberative processes, governments can take harder decisions and at a lower cost. By assigning power to ordinary citizens, governments are free of any blame or accusation that usually connects them to their vested interests. They can fight off the mistrust.

Most importantly, binding deliberation of ordinary citizens, against a collapse of trust in traditional politics, can directly improve community cohesion and reinvigorate democracy both locally and nationally. What conventions do is they represent all citizens and they re-legitimise the process of decision-making.

4. Strategy driving the movement

We are at a crossroads for the world as we know it today. It is precisely this sense of urgency that defines XR’s strategy. The most powerful and immediate action we have at our disposal is nonviolent mass civil disobedience. According to Chenowth’s analysis of the last 100 years of political revolutions, all movements that brought together over 3.5% of the population succeeded in overthrowing their political regime. The inability of our modern institutions to reverse this dire course of action has left little other option than rebellion.

It is very difficult however, to unite the wide range of entities present in the activism world behind a single manifesto or reform. Alternatively, agreeing on the need to change our political approach and offering a solution, such as citizen assemblies, can be the bridging one cause between movements. XR does not pressure for any specific policy to be implemented, rather it offers a decision-making tool able to bring about an inclusive, democratic and just change. Especially at transnational level, this is precisely the big advantage: unitying under a method for change rather than a specific policy. Citizens’ assemblies allow movements to unite under a political instrument that will allow citizens to choose between the wide range of solutions already available. We must create a movement of movements that, with different strategies, unites behind the biggest issue of our time. 

Such a radical change in our way of doing politics, however, must be met with a massive European-wide campaign that infuses and permeates this new methodology, spreading citizens’ assemblies at all levels of society. Without the understanding and trust in the process by the general public, the implementation of citizens’ assemblies will be impossible. It is through the spread and incorporation of practices elaborated within citizen assemblies, that we can demonstrate its effectiveness.

XR’s diligence in emphasizing and respecting processes of participation inside the movement is unique. It creates the change it wants to see from within. Furthermore, it is the very methodology we use to internally organize ourselves and bring about change that determines whether we will be successful. For example, before joining XR, I had never heard nor taken part in a facilitated assembly in any of the various movements that I have taken part in. The feeling of inclusion and care for my opinion, along with a profound self-analysis was eye-opening. XR opened up a space for democratic experiments, in which we think as a group rather than a mere sum of individuals, allowing us to conceive another way to structure our society. As movements, it is of crucial importance that we are the first to assimilate this new way of relating to each other and to politics.

  • 1.Taylor, M. (2020)“The Evolution of Extinction Rebellion.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media. www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/aug/04/evolution-of-extinction-rebellion-climate-emergency-protest-coronavirus-pandemic.
  • 2.Smith, G. (2009). Democratic Innovations: Designing Institutions for Citizen Participation (Theories of Institutional Design). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511609848
  • 3.Latour, B. (2018) Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Polity Press.
  • 4.Dryzek, J., and J. Pickering. (2019) The Politics of the Anthropocene. Oxford University Press.
  • 5.Dryzek, J., and J. Pickering. (2019) The Politics of the Anthropocene. Oxford University Press.
  • About the contributor

    Simona Bussi
    External Coordinator of the Citizen Assemblies Local Group of Extinction Rebellion Milano

    Italian by origin, Simona Bussi grew up in New Delhi, India. Educated in French and American systems, she undertook a bachelor’s degree in International Development at King’s College London in 2015. Simona first discovered activism in high school where she was part of asylum seeker and refugee support groups and continued to be throughout her university years. With the birth of Extinction Rebellion in the UK, her academics were colored with environmental and public participation classes and essays. After graduation, she decided to move to Italy for the first time where she immediately joined the newly born XR local group. Simona focuses on training and information sessions on citizen assemblies, as well as outreach initiatives with the Milan municipality.