The Assembly and its Council
No political power can be right without an Assembly. As the sovereign body in a democracy, the people assembled become a collective engine for knowledge. The Assembly cements and celebrates the plural subject in the minds of individuals. It provides arbitration of decisions arrived at through other political institutions and all such institutions derive their legitimacy from the actual assent of the assembled populace. In effect, the Assembly consents to decisions its members have already made in other decision-making fora, organisations, groups and micropublics, and it pronounces, in public, on executive performance at the end of their period of service.
The Assembly is, therefore, simply a collection of such fora – here in one political and symbolic space. The power of this plural subject, at last arrayed in all its finery and excitement, is evident in its beneficial cognitive, informational, communicative and educational effects.
Largely a lost art, the ability to manage an Assembly of citizens is a central concern in a democracy. We show our lack of public experience when we gather together without organisation, when we use valuable public time to vent our own concerns, when we are bamboozled by elites pretending to ‘consult’ us, or when told that, for equality to be real, all must speak. The Assembly is not a space for the dogged bleating of private interests. To make it so is to reduce it to a bargaining hall where favors are bought and sold. It is far better conceived as a public place of argumentation.
For an Assembly to fulfill its knowledge-processing promise, it needs a Council. The Assembly is noisy, social and exciting. It is a space for the display of character and conflict. Without a Council to serve it, to organise its discussions, to filter its informational inputs and direct its agenda, the Assembly becomes a Babel of unproductivity and unacknowledged inequality, thus serving only to undermine citizen beliefs in the effectiveness of democracy. Citizen incapacity is then appealed to by ruling elites – always keen to claim their leadership as necessary.
The Council, with its informational functions of filtering, combination and alignment behind a decision, requires informed citizens that express the collective will of those they represent. If its knowledge management functions are taken over by elitist special interests, the Council serves to undermine democracy and manipulate the Assembly. By so usurping democratic power, especially when combined with the poor modes of representation common today, the Council becomes a cognitively separated executive body that blindly pursues the factional interests of powerholders. Without an Assembly to guide it, a Council is vulnerable to separation and sedimentation into a static and exclusionary political class. The Council, therefore, must be made constantly aware that it is subservient to the Assembly, and that the Assembly expects it to deliver certain kinds of information. This, indeed, is one of the main requirements of the Assembly: that it ratifies the filtering activities of the Council and ensures the Council acts legitimately in its name.
This connection between the Assembly and the Council is long gone. We have a separate political class. Elites know how important it is to deny citizens any public space in which to practice managing an Assembly. Yet politics in the ancient republics was characterised by huge Assemblies, the mere contemplation of which assists our current understanding of how to make decisions that affect us all.