Elevate Democracy

This is the ninth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!


In his opening speech to the very first Elevate Festival, John Holloway declared, “I hope that it will be a moment of rebellion, a fracture in capitalist domination.” A typically optimistic call to democratic revolution, but what has changed since then?

“2005 was not the most interesting year for democracy,” Graz-based activist and researcher Leo Kühberger says. “The autumn that started in 2005, ended in 2008. Now we are living in the winter. No one knows how long this winter will be and how harsh it will be. And we don’t know when spring will come and what it will feel like.” Despite this gloomy forecast, Leo does see shoots of optimism. “Fifteen years ago,” he says, “it was not possible to use the C-word: Capitalism. But the crisis and the protests made that possible – and even the other C-word: Communism.” Despite the freedom to consider alternatives, Leo notes that there has also been a rise in state authoritarianism and aggression.

“I remember the first time I read ‘anti-capitalist movement’ in the newspapers,” political scientist Friederike Habermann says. “I was really excited.” According to her, the reason why the C-words are being used again is because, as Vandana Shiva suggested last night, “there are no more tools left to boost the economy”. The only option left is to reconsider our commitment to capitalism. “Many people are saying that we have to reverse. People are talking about Crisis 2.0,” she adds. “People are starting to feel their lives being affected by the crisis. More than a third of Europeans have a psychological disorder every year.”

The 2009 festival, appropriately enough, took the motto “Elevate the Crisis”. In a video flashback from that festival, we watch Gabriele Michalitsch as he says that the economic crisis was presaged by a social crisis, in which the combination of poverty and social deprivation encompassed a significant proportion of the population. From that same festival, we watch Joachim Hirsch argue that existing government structures are losing their clout and that there is a distinct lack of social alternatives. He says that Herbert Marcuse’s idea of the one-dimensional society has never been more applicable than today: critical thought and opposition to the dominant paradigm have withered away.2 Already in 2009, Joachim was calling upon us to change, not the political party in government, but what we consider to be a worthy life. “It’s about making politics one’s self,” he said and I’m sure John Holloway would agree.

In 2007, Elevate welcomed Cynthia McKinney, former Democrat US Congresswoman and 2008 Green Party presidential candidate, to discuss the theme of that year’s festival: “Elevate Democracy”. “The government,” she said, “if it is to regain its relevance to our lives and reflect our values, must truly become of us, by us and for us. That means citizens must actually do something about our current predicament.” Her suggestion was that citizens should run for office: “This is resistance.”

However, Cynthia lamented the dismal participation rates in the US. “We’re lucky if we get 50% of those eligible to vote to actually cast their vote,” she said, “especially in what we call off-year elections, in which the president is not on the ballot.” Cynthia contrasted this figure with the turn out in Europe, frequently above 70%, and in Venezuela, which in recent years has seen turn out in presidential elections closer to 80%. “Obviously, people in Europe and Venezuela feel that their vote is important,” she declared, “that their party or candidate actually can win, that it is good to vote and that not voting is costly.”

In fact, Austrian election turn out has been falling, from over 90% in the eighties and over 80% in the nineties to around 77% in the last decade. Voter turn out in the UK has also fallen, to just 65% at the last General Election in 2010, having been consistently, and sometimes considerably, over 70% from the Second World War until the new millennium. In the US, voter turn out since the Second World War has averaged just 51% and the world’s foremost democracy has never had an election that has represented as many as two thirds of its registered voters, let alone its total population.

Although I can’t find any evidence to substantiate Cynthia’s figures for Venezuelan participation (she claimed that the last seven elections had seen voter turn out averaging 90%), there has been a marked increase in voter turn out in Venezuelan presidential elections since the turn of the century, from 56% in 2000, to almost 80% last year. But what is more striking is that, in that same time period, over seven million citizens have been added to the electoral roll, taking the percentage of the whole population voting from less than 50% to 80%. That is a remarkable stride forward for democracy.
How did Venezuela manage this? As Cynthia suggested, by making politics relevant to people.

During the nineties, there was a crisis of representation in Venezuela. No one trusted the government and many people experienced the state as racist. So when Hugo Chavez was elected president in 1998, he didn’t really have a political programme. He promised instead to inaugurate a constitutional assembly to redraft the constitution. All of society were able to submit their proposals, which were then reviewed by experts and put to a public referendum. Were people still politically apathetic? Well, actually, yes; voter turnout was only 44% for the referendum. Apparently, it takes time to build participation. But the new constitution was adopted in 1999 and included such articles as the human right to free healthcare, with a clause prohibiting privatisation. Chavez was re-elected in 2000 with almost 60% of the popular vote, winning all but one state in the country.

There have since been similar constitutional movements in Ecuador (2008), famous for being the first in the world to recognise legally enforceable Rights of Nature, including a prohibition on the extraction of non-renewable resources in protected areas, and in Bolivia (2009), where the natural resources of the country were nationalised and a restriction put on the amount of land that could be held under private ownership. Both popular constitutions were supported in referendums by an overwhelming majority, with participation rates of 75% and 90% respectively. If you make politics relevant, people will become participating citizens.

At last year’s Elevate Festival, we heard from Birgitta Jónsdóttir and Katrín Oddsdóttir about the “Iceland Experiment” in constitutional reform. Although it was not ultimately successful – the constitution was collaboratively written and approved by public referendum, but not implemented by the government – the process was hugely popular and engaged hundreds of thousands of citizens in their democracy, which, in Iceland, is almost everybody. This year, we catch up with Birgitta via videolink from her home in Reykjavík. She is Iceland’s first Pirate Party member of parliament and chief sponsor of IMMI, a parliamentary resolution to turn Iceland into the world’s first “international transparency haven”, including protections for whistleblowers, protection for internet service providers and protection from “libel tourism”.

“I’m very pleased with developments in the international arena, not as pleased with the situation in Iceland,” she says, once she’s turned the music off in her living room. “We have probably the worst government in the history of Iceland currently. It looks like the minister that is supposed to be making sure that the IMMI laws get written is not doing jack shit.” But she hasn’t totally given up on the project. “We’re going to have to be innovative and creative about getting these laws changed,” she says. “I’m optimistic that we can make the main changes go through.”

As for Iceland’s new constitution, Birgitta says that it’s “in sort of a coma”. But again, she is optimistic. “We have to remember,” she says, “the beauty of crisis is that it will allow you to push things through that you would normally not get through. There will be another crisis and we’re ready with lots of good stuff.” Despite her frustrations, she still loves crisis. “Crisis,” she says fondly, “is the only time in our societies – and even in our personal lives – that can be used for radical change.” It seems that one thing radical political thinkers have in common is a love of crisis.

In between feeding her cat – “She has an eating disorder, she’s always hungry!” – Birgitta is currently working on getting rid of data retention in Iceland. Then she will turn her attentions to intermediary protections, to protect internet service providers from prosecution for the traffic that happens on their servers. “I think that is really critical,” she says. “Also it’s very important that we get some changes in the copyright laws,” she adds. “Copyright laws will often over-ride intermediary protections and it requires that the intermediaries are made into police.” And nobody wants that. “There is lots of tough work to do that requires international collaboration, but I am optimistic.” She laughs nervously. “I have to be optimistic otherwise I might just as well give up.”

From the United States, Venezuela and Iceland, back to Austria and Graz. “Over the past ten years a lot has happened,” local activist Leo Kühberger says. “The pace is increasing in small towns like Graz.” Leo describes how, compared to the nineties, there are many more protests and student movements in the town today. Thousands of citizens successfully marched in protest against the budget of Styria, which would have paved the way to greater privatisation. There are ongoing protests against the use of hydroelectric power, as well as many smaller initiatives and Occupy Stadtpark.
However, according to Leo Kühberger, Graz is almost exceptional in Austria for its small political victories. Even here, protesters “haven’t quite managed to structure the protests to really change the power relations in the town,” he says. “But this is true across the world,” Leo adds, before giving an honourable mention to the popular and apparently democratic and inclusive resistance of the Kurds in Syria against Islamic State and the ruling Assad regime.

Friederike Habermann picks up on Leo Kühberger’s positive example of Kurdish resistance in Kobane – because she doesn’t see an awful lot of optimism elsewhere. “If we look at Greece and the solidarity economy there,” she says, “there is a lot of disappointment.” Nevertheless, she does sense inklings of hope. “Maybe the leftist movement is going somewhere,” she says. “There are more women participating, there is free entrance to events like Elevate.” She is inspired to this optimism by her memories of the Occupy movement. “We made no claims, made no demands. We simply said that we wanted something different,” she says. “We were living in a different time and sphere. We can take many different ideas for how to proceed in the future.”

One such idea comes from Jeremy Rifkin, an economic and social theorist who has the ear of governments around the world. In a book called The Zero Marginal Cost Society, he outlines the emancipatory possibilities of a radical future in which self-replicating robots and the emerging “Internet of Things” deliver almost entirely free goods and services, shifting us onto a new economic paradigm. If current trends continue, Rifkin predicts, capitalism will innovate itself out of existence.

An optimist might hear the echo of a world not yet born, burgeoning with the global collaborative commons; capitalism long forgotten.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.


Elevate Democracy >> Elevate Festival 2014 from Elevate Festival on Vimeo.

Header image © Jakob Isselstein

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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