Global governance and deliberative designs

A conversation between George Monbiot and Lyn Carson

George Monbiot’s recent book, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order, tackles the problem of ‘democratic deficit’ in a world where democracy seems to be the only political system worth considering. Monbiot is one of many theorists and practitioners who want to retain the best that democracy offers while tackling democracy’s weaknesses. He is interested in understanding “power and how it might be captured from those unfit to retain it”. In Chapter 4, “We the Peoples: Building a World Parliament”, Monbiot moves beyond the nation state to address global governance and Monbiot challenges democrats everywhere to accept his controversial idea of a world parliament based on proportional representation, consistent with the population of each country. To encourage debate, Monbiot called for alternative propositions, not unhelpful opposition. Lyn Carson’s research with random selection in small-scale deliberative governance was the starting point for their recent conversation. In the spirit of Monbiot’s challenge, she suggests an alternative approach to global democratisation.

CARSON (LC): George, I note your statement that there are two super powers: there is (a) government, but then there is also (b) global public opinion. I’d like to start there: to distinguish between public opinion and public judgement. Like Matthew Taylor (from centre left think tank IPPR in the United Kingdom) I reckon one should never overestimate the public’s knowledge and therefore the value of their opinions. The public often knows very little because some topics are of no interest. However, I reckon one should never underestimate the public’s capacity for judgment. In my experience, the public has an enormous capacity for judgment and that seems to be underestimated amongst political thinkers who become terribly anxious when they think about popular control over public decision-making. They want to give influence to interest groups or stakeholders, but not to typical citizens.

I noted that when you spoke about increasing membership through a world parliament that is proportionate to population, you speculated that ‘this many residents of India will have this much influence and that may make us fearful’. It makes me fearful, not because it would give Indians inordinate influence, but because I do not believe those residents are going to have much influence at all. I think it will replicate the same problems of centralised power that we have now. How do you incorporate typical citizens in decision-making processes in the model you are advocating?

MONBIOT (GM): Could you explain what you mean by replicating the same problems of power?

One should never underestimate the public’s capacity for judgment.

LC: You say that India is entitled to, say, 52 votes and Australia is entitled to 1 because of their respective population size. But those votes will still be in the hands of a representative, very powerful representatives, and that is the problem we have now with representative government. Our current Western system is a sad reflection of the democratic principles that you advocate and I am concerned that we could end up replicating the same problem in a World Parliament, albeit one with more representatives than we have now. When we rely on proportional representation that is based on voting and aggregation rather than deliberation, we risk ending up with the same problem. How might deliberative designs be incorporated into the sort of system you are talking about?

GM: I will start by saying first of all as a sort of disclaimer: don’t credit me with the idea of there being two global super powers. The first person I came across who wrote about it was Jonathan Schell (2003) in the United States, so I do not want to take credit for that.

On this issue of the dangers of replicating the problems of power, I am just as concerned as you are. What I see happening world wide is what I call the ‘neutron bomb effect’. All the structures of democracy remain intact, but the democratic life within them has died. We have our parliaments, we have our judiciaries which are supposed to be independent of those parliaments, we have all our parliamentary committees and we have our democratic processes. However, the outcome is foretold by both global decision-making, which reduces parliamentary parties to the implementers of decisions made elsewhere, and by the corruption of the political process at the domestic level.

One of the principal means of corruption is, of course, the media. In Italy, we see the definitive form of media control of politics, which permits no genuine change to take place within the democratic structures and effectively dictates the outcomes of political decision-making.

The power of the corporations is also corrupting, and is greatly reinforced by the use of the whip. I see the whipping system as one of the most undemocratic forces within any parliamentary system. What it does is prevent MPs from voting according to the wish of their constituents and according to their own consciences. It forces them instead to vote according to the desires of the party structure, and the party structure is always corrupted and infiltrated.

LC: That is a problem in two-party systems, perhaps: what you are talking about is evident in the United Kingdom and the United States and even Australia. But it is a very different situation, for example, in Scandinavian parliaments or some European parliaments where you don’t have the same two-party system. Where you do have two parties, there is very little difference now between the parties because they are fighting each other for the same ground.

GM: I think that is the wrong way of looking at it. Parties are fighting for the so-called middle ground, which is actually the far-right-fundamentalist-neo-liberal ground. It is not the middle ground at all. They are fighting over the same patch of ground because they have no choice. They have both been forced into the same political and economic space by the media, by the corporations and particularly by the forces of globalisation, which ensure that decisions are not made at the national level. They are made at the global level.

Political parties are forced into the same space by the media, corporations, and forces of globalisation.

The parties that survive are the parties which can adapt to those constraints. Parties that fall by the wayside are the ones which cannot, or will not, force themselves to become the neo-liberal servants of global capital and global decision-making.

LC: Has this led you to forego political parties in your manifesto? Are you suggesting avoiding this system of political parties because of situation you’ve just described?

GM: I have deliberately not specified what it will look like. All I have specified is what it should not look like. The reason I have deliberately not specified what it will look like is that I believe the process of constructing such a thing itself should be a deliberative one. It should not be designed by those who promote and promulgate the model. It has to be designed as a result of massive public consultation and debate. There are certain constraints which we should apply to the system which prevent its immediate corruption. In other words, one should lay down what it should not be, in order to permit its freedom to be.

LC: When I think about what it should not be, I immediately want to examine this idea of elections as an empty ritual with a handful of carefully pre-selected candidates: millionaires or celebrities who then claim inordinate power. In Jon Elster’s terms we could consider three options: (1) aggregating or voting, (2) bargaining, and (3) arguing or deliberating (Elster 1998). I’m always drawn to the latter because the experiences I have had to date with deliberative designs have demonstrated that as soon as you move to the vote something fairly negative happens—it’s premature judgment that dulls the debate. While ever you are moving toward consensus (and it isn’t essential to reach consensus, but to move toward it), something magical happens with groups of randomly selected people. They have an incredible capacity to step aside from their own self interest and to think in terms of the common good. I am wondering how you respond to my negativity about voting (or ‘getting the numbers’), and also how you respond to the idea of a World Parliament that is not dependent on elections. That corrupting influence you talk about is going to be as evident there, is it not?

Before you answer that, let me just throw in another thing and that is that I notice you have mentioned in your book ‘the power of the plebs’ (elected tribunes, the ancient Roman model). I wonder whether you purposely ignored the Greek model of the ‘agora’ and ‘selection by lot’—a very different way of selecting citizens for decision making.

GM: There are several questions there. In response to the first question: in fact I was going to ask you precisely that question myself. I am not opposed in principle to the idea of deliberative processes leading to decision-making at the global level but I was going to ask you to explain how that might happen.

LC: There are a few ways you could do it. There has been some interesting work done at the nation state level. I don’t know of anyone who has written about it at a global level but there are people like Michael Phillips and Ernest Callenbach who wrote a book in the 1980s called Citizen Legislature, which proposed a way to convert the US Congress into a randomly-selected assembly. There is an Australian philosopher, formerly at the University of Sydney, John Burnheim, who wrote a book called Is Democracy Possible? Burnheim put forward the idea of functional committees that were randomly selected that would come together to discuss education, transport and so on. He proposed two levels of functional committee: one taking care of the process, the other taking care of the content. Burnheim called this: demarchy.

People have an incredible capacity to step outside their self interest and think of the common good.

Another Australian, Leigh Gollop has also done some interesting work recently. Gollop suggested a model for reforming the South Australian Upper House by integrating people’s assemblies (randomly selected) with the elected parliament, when a vexatious issue reaches a stalemate and parliament cannot resolve it. Like small-scale deliberative designs, they are based on two principles. One is a very high level of representativeness, achieved through random selection and the second principle is a very deep level of deliberation, achieved by bringing people together in a respectful setting where they learn the facts about an issue (thereby getting over this problem of limited knowledge). They discuss the issue in depth and draw conclusions.

I continue to be surprised by the quality of the recommendations that emerge from people who are typical citizens with no education or experience in the topic that is under discussion. After days of deliberation, including time spent questioning experts, they end up being much more knowledgeable than the policy makers that we elect. These people are focused on one topic over a period of days and arrive at thoughtful conclusions that are not based on self interest. It is quite remarkable. I’m left wondering how to incorporate the strength of those methods into your global system.

GM: I agree. Are you talking about incorporation or are you talking about replacements?

LC: Both. However, after 30 years of showing how robust these methods are, it’s obvious that elected representatives are indifferent to their use. I’m also reluctant to suggest ‘replacement’ because already you are regarding what you have done as ‘wildly ambitious’ and no doubt it is. It’s good fun to speculate on an ideal! How to give power back to the people? Deliberative designs enable a series of mini social contracts using Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ to shift individualism to public interest and avoid the excesses of power that accompany our current electoral system. Power corrupts. I know this from the narrow corridors of local government, where I spent time as an elected representative. I know how easy it is to be sucked into the system and to start identifying with the government, instead of speaking from your role as citizen. Because deliberative designs are one-off events, they interrupt the centralisation of power. Participants analyse an issue in depth, then move on.

GM: How does one sustain continuity in that system?

LC: The professional and non-professional experts can provide continuity on the issues. Is that what you mean? Participants are exposed to a diversity of expertise so the history of an issue is maintained. Experts (corporate, scientific, academic, activist, political) try to persuade the representative sample of citizens.

GM: How are the decisions implemented and how are they sustained and how is a body of decision making developed?

Because deliberative designs are one-off events, they interrupt centralised power.

LC: Ideally? I love it that you are being what you advocate others to be, propositional and not oppositional! Thanks. You are putting forward some ideas that we could dream about and you have me dreaming, too. At the moment the closest that we come to real integration with the system is in Denmark, where the Danish Board of Technology routinely conducts consensus conferences that are based on the model we have been speaking about. The recommendations are then fed into the parliamentary system.

GM: But you are talking there about integration, not replacement.

LC: Exactly, and that is the closest we’ve got at the moment.

GM: But to make a deliberative process viable as a replacement process, we do have to suggest some mechanisms by which continuity and the implementation of decisions and the development of policy can take place.

LC: In Burnheim’s model the same bureaucracy exists to support the policies or services that are being determined by these randomly selected citizens.

GM: But isn’t there a danger in having a continuous bureaucracy, with people being brought in and out of deliberative processes on a temporary basis, that the bureaucrats come to run the entire show?

LC: In Burnheim’s ‘demarchy’ model deliberative processes are not ‘one-offs’, they have a longer life. In the Citizen Legislature model people are there for a term, which is no different to the current term of elected representatives. At the moment elected representatives move in and out in the same way.

GM: So this is slightly different to the initial model you were talking about.

LC: A Citizen Legislature is randomly selected. Phillips and Callenbach devised an alternative form of selecting lawmakers because of the corruption they saw, especially from million-dollar campaigns, and the political favours that they can buy. A politician’s eye is always on re-election and this makes them very vulnerable to corruption. Demarchy and Citizen Legislature are two very different models.

GM: Within the permanent legislature, the permanent Citizens Legislature—don’t you then encounter the equal and opposite problem that you have greatly empowered people whom no one has chosen other than the bureaucracy through its randomised process? People who might make some very good decisions as part of a one-off jury because they have just been brought off the street, but who once they become semi-permanent representatives of the people could start to discover a taste for power. There would be no direct democratic control over them because they are not subject to election.

LC: Burnheim, Phillips and Callenbach reckon that randomly-selected people are less corruptible because these people are not seeking re-election and must return to face their own communities. They are also fairly immune to corruption because they are not there long enough to become corrupted.

In representative systems, if people don’t do what their constituents want, they can be unelected.

GM: By what means do they have to face their own community?

LC: By returning to it …

GM: That is not good enough. Just living in the community does not actually alter the behaviour of our MPs. What alters their behaviour is the lobbying to which they are subject by citizens or corporations or others. Just returning to the community does not sound like a safeguard at all to me. Especially if we are talking about global communities, where most of the people affected by their decisions are never going to come into contact with them.

LC: There is so little accountability now for elected representatives.

GM: What I have shown in the book is how we could introduce the accountability that should be there in practice in representative democratic systems. A lot of that accountability rests on the notion that if people don’t do what their constituents want them to do, they can be unelected. They can lose their jobs, lose their positions as representatives. What is the mechanism in your system which concentrates the minds of the representatives by similar means?

LC: Couldn’t the safeguards you have mentioned be applied: recall, criminal court and public vigilance? There’s also the influence of the other 599 parliamentarians.

GM: The problem is that people in your system have very little at stake. If they are randomly selected just like juries, they might be very happy to be recalled. They might want more than anything else for their time to be terminated. The hold we have over the professional politician is that it is his or her profession and we have the ability to terminate their profession and terminate their career if that politician does not do what we want.

LC: Are you saying that people would not want to engage in a process whereby they took care of their own decision-making, that they would be reluctant to serve because they need ambition? The opposite has been my experience on a small scale. People are reluctant to serve on criminal juries, for reasons that we could explore. However, when you invite people to be part of a group of people who are going to deliberate on a public policy issue, it is quite extraordinary the reaction you get. People are quite enthusiastic, contrary to the popular perception that citizens are apathetic. Apathy might result from the empty ritual of voting or referenda.

GM: I don’t disagree with that, but you are talking about one-off processes and short processes. You are not talking about people having to abandon their jobs, the ordinary course of their lives, in order to do something completely different for a few years. You are talking about a process of a few days and certainly what we see in jury service is that many, many people will do everything they can to avoid sitting on a jury in a long lasting trial.

By the time we cast a vote, we are voting for those who survived pre-selection.

LC: Of course, and they do that for some good reasons. They are not adequately recompensed. They have to sit in judgment of someone. It is an unexpected interruption to their life with no guarantee whether it will be for five days or three years. There are all sorts of ways in which you could get around the problem you are talking about. The first is to simply allow people to ‘opt out’ of random selection. If they do not want to be part of that process then they are able to avoid it. So you would start with a huge pool of interested people from which you randomly select. This would considerably increase the diversity of representatives.

At the moment the people attracted to election are people who are interested in exercising power or have an ambition for leadership with, sometimes, questionable motives. We know this is true because we can see the quality of candidature that exists in politics throughout the world. Is it possible that we are simply attracting narcissists, those with personality disorders who enjoying fighting their way through a ruthless system? Even the term ‘election’ is a bit of a misnomer, because we know that the pre-selection process weeds out so many enthusiastic people. By the time we have an opportunity to cast a vote, we are not actually voting for those who are willing to serve but for those who survived the pre-selection processes.

GM: I still ask the question, how do we hold randomly selected people to account? I do not believe it is good enough to say they will be held to account by going back to their own communities. For a start, they don’t have to go back to their own communities. They could clear off and go into hiding if they really got into trouble. There has to be some means of holding them to account while they are serving. This applies of course to representative systems as well. I have suggested how that could be done in a representative system. I would like you to tell me how it could be done in a randomised system.

LC: Elections will give us homogeneity, not the diversity you wish for. I also note that you see the World Parliament as a house of review, a mediator, an initiator of ideas, a moral authority and you want to avoid ‘delegates of government’. Isn’t this a way of achieving that? You’ve also said that ‘it sustains this power by showing that it continues to command the support of the people’. You’ve suggested random selection for your lottery to fund the World Parliament. Why is your system of safeguards not workable for non-elite citizens of the world?

GM: The means that I suggest are pretty coercive and I feel comfortable about introducing them in a system in which people have put themselves forward for power, because they are in a situation where they feel they have something to gain, so we can also threaten them with loss. However, if people who have been randomly elected have to abide by extremely rigorous and fiercely formulated laws of the kind that I suggested in the book—if we can threaten these people with gaol for a whole host of new corruption offences even though they did not put themselves forward to serve—then that seems extremely onerous and oppressive. It seems a massive burden for citizens to take on when they have not dedicated themselves to pursuing a political career. So saying, while I feel there are many questions which need to be considered, I am not hostile to any of the ideas you have raised. I too have seen some very positive examples of deliberative democracy over here, especially what we call the ‘action planning’ process, in which citizens make the key decisions about development planning, before the developers and planners can muscle in. I intend to read more widely on these subjects and look at whether or how the possibilities you raise could be applied at the global level. I would be grateful if you could keep me abreast of any new material you come across. Thank you for opening up this discussion.


Burnheim, J. 1985, Is Democracy Possible? The Alternative to Electoral Politics, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Elster, J. (ed.) 1998, Deliberative Democracy, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Gollop, L. ‘South Australian Constitutional Convention: Submission on Question 1, “Should South Australia have a system of initiative and referendum (Citizen Initiated Referenda) and, if so, in what form and how should it operate?”’ [Online], Available:

Phillips, C. & Callenbach, E. 1985, Citizen Legislature, Banyan Tree Books, Berkeley, California, also [Online], Available:

Schell, J. 2003, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, Metropolitan Books, New York.

Lyn Carson is Senior Lecturer in Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. She became interested in public participation in decision making when she was elected to local government in 1991. Currently she is Project Manager for Australia’s first youth jury and she is undertaking, collaboratively, an inventory of Australian deliberative designs. She is co-author with Brian Martin of Random Selection in Politics (1999). George Monbiot is a columnist for The Guardian and author of Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain (2001) among others. He has held visiting professorships or fellowships at the universities of Oxford, Bristol, Keele and East London, in subjects ranging from philosophy to environmental science. This is an edited transcript of conversation between Carson and Monbiot in 2003.