The idea of a random group selected to become temporary experts convened as
a stage in some momentous state action is hardly new. Exhibit A: the
jury. In that sense CAs seem a bit sketchy, somehow old and yet...not
old. They're like a wolpertinger made up of bits of juries, focus
groups, and reality TV shows.
It's a sharp critique and probably right in the case of a Citizens' Assembly over Brexit. The pressure would be too much, accusations would fly in every direction, and any possibility of developing the form would be crushed in statu nascendi.
However, if the current problem with democracy is the ability to manipulate citizens' thoughts and emotions like digital putty, then even the prospect of a Citizens Assembly reality show is positive. A focus group acting like a jury in a televised court of political economy where expert witnesses distilling normative facts could be challenged by philosophers elaborating divergent value regimes would be obviously be a total flop in less turbulent times - but as the Irish example shows, it could fly today, if attached to serious current issues. And I think the results would have knock-on effects in journalism, in universities, and most crucially, in elections and referenda.
The thing is, digital media have disrupted the previous routines of so-called "public opinion formation," where the contours of any major debate were shaped in advance by a relatively identifiable group of intermediaries, not just politicians and pundits but also wonks and experts based in state bureaucracies, universities and private-sector think-tanks. Journalism carried the results of this process to the people and the imperial order lumbered on. Starting in the late 1990s and proceeding apace, most of us "tactical media" types on nettime approved and participated, at our micro-scales, in the process of destabilizing these mechanisms of public opinion formation, which we thought were rigged by elites. Now our minority opinion has become majority as the technological sector has matured, and the result is a vast crisis of governance.
Some people writing here have framed the results as a savage contest between the corporate capacities of digital mind-manipulation and the individual's autonomous capacity to self-educate. If that's the case, the results are totally predictable: your mind is wiped. Thus the impressive cynicism on display in recent threads. But that kind of framing is totally inadequate, because although autonomy is instantiated at the level of the individual, it has never been formed there. Instead, the relative autonomy of any given person's thought about a particular matter has always been enabled by the complex institutional mix making up what Carlo calls "that thing our ancestors fought for," namely democracy. In the past that thing has been about literature as much as law, and extraparliamentary protest as much as electoral politics. The dialectic of civil society and the state was founded on the complex interplay of heterogeneous institutional and counter-institutional forces, between
which individuals used to set their relatively autonomous courses. Without some fresh institutional invention I'd suggest that the cynics' vision is going to be realized in a way that will wipe them out along with everyone else, because you can't just self-educate in the middle of a collective nightmare. Instead you become insane in an echoing hall of mirrors, which is soon shattered by violence.
So the question is: What kinds of social forms can be used to re-mediate the formation of public opinion? In the recent past we tried forums, not just online ones, but big online/offline experiments like the global social forum process. These actually gave tremendous results for the relatively small number of people who plugged into them, and that's why we're still able to carry on significant discussions here and in many other places. But all those micropolitical fora have been too small and too disconnected from decision-making power. In the present, nation-states and supra-national formations are threatened with political breakdown, leaving no replacement strategies except authoritarianism or Hobbesian civil war. Televised, streaming and web-archived Citizens Assemblies sound like a great option under these circumstances.
OK, the keep-hope-alive department is signing off for the moment,