In Conversation

Leading the charge to give citizens — and workers — a real say

Hélène Landemore
Hélène Landemore

Yale political theorist Hélène Landemore advocates change.

A sharp critic of electoral democracy, she proposes a new democratic model that would empower ordinary people to define laws and set the legislative agenda on issues of national importance.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led her consider democracy’s role in the workplace as well as in politics. She argues it is unjust, for instance, that store clerks and nurses toiling on the pandemic’s frontlines have no influence on decisions that put their health at risk.

She is part of a group of female academics from institutions in the United States and Europe advocating for giving workers a more direct voice in decision-making, a movement with both the name and the hashtag #democratizingwork. An op-ed laying out the group’s arguments has been published in 40 newspapers in 36 countries, and boasted 5,500 signatories, including 11 other Yale faculty members from various disciplines, including philosophy, women’s, gender, and sexuality studies, and the School of Management.

Landemore, a tenured associate professor of political science in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, recently spoke to YaleNews about the new movement, her research, and her forthcoming book, “Open Democracy.” Interview edited and condensed.

How did the movement to democratize work originate and what drew you to participate? 

It was initiated by three women: Isabelle Ferreras of the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium; Julie Battilana of the Harvard Business School; and Dominique Méda of the Paris Dauphine University in France. I had previously co-written an article on workplace democracy with Isabelle. Questions concerning democracy are the focus of my research.

Isabelle, Julie, and Dominique penned the op-ed and then shared it with me and a small group of other women. After we all agreed on the text, we shared it with our networks. Signatures started rolling in. It really snowballed.  

Why did it catch on so quickly?

First, the message that workers are not mere resources resonates. You cannot treat human beings as material. They must be treated with dignity, and they should have a voice in decisions that profoundly affect their lives. 

Second, the timing is right. The concept of democratizing work emerged years ago, but it particularly reverberates in the context of a global crisis, in which nurses and supermarket employees are serving on the frontlines, putting their health at risk every day. Hospital administrators and supermarket executives are much more insulated from the crisis, and yet they make decisions that affect their workers’ safety. People can understand that workers should have a voice in these decisions.  

Finally, it resonates because it was presented as the joint product of a group of female academics. It felt collaborative. People probably felt they could sign without supporting somebody’s vanity project. That it was a project anyone could appropriate.

What would democratizing work require? 

It requires having democratic representatives of workers and various other stakeholders of any large organization — firms, universities, or hospitals — involved in making top-level decisions. It’s much more than simply having a consultation box where workers can submit ideas for improving the organization. They must have representation at the top levels with the power to influence decisions. It’s not about expropriating capitalists. We want the change to come from within the system. We want to change the law to incentivize companies to include representatives of workers their corporate boards. 

Are there examples of the concept in practice?

Germany is an excellent example. It has a co-determination law mandating that 50% of board members of companies with more 2,000 employees must represent workers. It’s been mandatory in some form since 1951. The German economy is the largest in Europe. Obviously, democratizing work hasn’t been an obstacle to prosperity. And in Germany it’s been a great help to social justice and the fight against COVID-19.

Mondragon, a large corporation based in the Basque region of Spain, is another example. It was founded on democratic principles. Every worker got shares in the company and with those shares came voting rights. With voting rights came the right to be represented on the company’s board. In fact, it’s only workers who are represented because they are also the corporation’s capital investors — it’s all connected in that case, but other models are available. 

There are plenty of success stories, but they’re rarely portrayed in the media. The literature on worker’s democracy goes back to the 19th century. In U.S. history, black workers created cooperatives, in some respects the continuation of the mutual-aid societies that existed under slavery, because they knew they’d be exploited in the traditional system. We really want to bring the concept back into public awareness. 

What are the stakes?

In this moment, the brutality of the system we live in has been unveiled for all to see in a very naked way. People are impatient with the current order of things. It’s an opportunity to steer the conversation toward positive reforms. We don’t want to feed the anger. The default is to return to pre-crisis models — an unrelenting focus on economic growth, greater investments in oil and brown energy, and very little concern for workers. The alternative is to open up the conversation and imagine new things, and do so in a way that is inclusive. We can’t afford to miss this opportunity. 

Your research on open democracy, which proposes incorporating ordinary citizens into legislative decision-making, was recently profiled in The New Yorker. What are the flaws of electoral democracy as practiced in the United States?

I believe electoral democracy is flawed because, as we’ve known since Aristotle, it’s an oligarchic way of selecting rulers. Democracy technically means rule of, by, and for the people, and yet, the whole premise of the U.S. government is that elected elites rule on behalf of the people. In fact, James Madison said that he wanted a government in which the people in their collective capacity were excluded from governing. He didn’t want ordinary citizens in charge.

That’s not the only problem. Elections create blind spots. When you select leaders on the basis of certain talents or characteristics, such as wealth, savvy, charisma, that are not widely distributed, you create a somewhat homogeneous group that does not capture the diversity of interests and perspectives represented in the wider population. You end up with a group of leaders that has natural blind spots due to its inherent homogeneity. That leads to bad decision-making. Not always, not on everything, but on some crucial things.

Your forthcoming book, “Open Democracy,” describes a governing model that incorporates ordinary citizens, selected randomly, into the legislative process.  What would that system look like in practice?

Open democracy, as I call it, would still be based on representation, but not electoral representation. Decision makers would be randomly selected through a civic lottery to form a central decision-making body that is statistically representative of the population. All citizens would have the same chance of being selected. Participants in this central legislature would rotate frequently to prevent the development of a professionalized elite. I envision this body as being open and receptive to the ideas of the rest of the country, so that the central legislative body doesn’t become hermetically sealed off from the population. The model could be replicated at all levels of the polity, including state and local levels, which would give people additional chances to participate and feed the deliberations at the national level. This model could also, crucially, translate and be implemented in workplaces, including firms, hospitals, and universities. If we need to start democratizing work, it does not mean we have to do it on the old, flawed electoral model we are familiar with in the context of states. We should try to do better. 

Open democracy, as I see it, is a fully inclusive and egalitarian way of including ordinary citizens, or workers, in the decision process. It seeks to maximize our collective intelligence — the idea that the more kinds of people you include in a discussion, the more diversity you have, the more likely you are to figure out the best answer to a given problem.

How do you ensure that the randomly selected people are informed enough to make good decisions?

You give participants sufficient time and space to learn about the issues. You provide them the autonomy and resources they need to become knowledgeable. This will allow them to consult experts and learn from them, while remaining in charge throughout. You let citizens process issues with the help of trained facilitators and draw conclusions from their deliberations. My model is not super specific because I think that a lot of questions about process need to be answered empirically through trial and error. 

Many countries, including Iceland, Ireland, Canada, and France, have experimented with citizens’ assemblies in recent years. They are large bodies of randomly selected citizens formed to deliberate on issues of national importance. One common feature of them is their embrace of diversity. Participants cast aside their prejudices and preconceived ideas and build relationships with colleagues who are different than them. It creates a highly productive space for deliberation. One thing I’ve experienced in working with citizens assemblies in France is that they generate a kind of love among the participants while taking on challenging and potentially divisive issues like climate change. That sort of love and shared respect is something that is crucially missing in contemporary politics.

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