During the days around 1st of August, we often reflect on what is special about our country: And without thinking a long time, we realise that Switzerland would not be what it is without our direct democracy. Many other characteristics are linked to, result from or are related to it – from federalism, communal autonomy, foreign policy of neutrality, humanitarian tradition up to a rather high level of social balance and the Swiss quest for a good federal compromise.
Many people in our country – not merely the persons entitled to vote – are feeling intuitively: Despite all the mistakes we have made, we still enjoy a degree of freedom that others do not know, and due to direct democracy, we have a means of participating in our affairs and even on shaping them. Needless to say, lobbyism and exertion of influence by PR, even by authorities, take effect here, too. But as long as we do not subject ourselves to other legislative mechanisms, but maintain our legal system, which not only talks about equality and self-determination, but has also developed constitutional rights, there is still the possibility of correction.
But no matter how you look at it: despite all shortcomings, problems and unsolved issues even in this country, direct democracy, as realised here and enshrined in the constitution, remains in every respect the most humane, most reasonable, most social and thus also the most successful, most modern and most sustainable model of state that has existed to this day. Quite a lot of superlatives considering traditional Swiss modesty …
We do not have to pride ourselves on it, since just a little historical awareness quickly makes clear: It is not due to a specific nature of the people who live here. A bit of luck came into play as well.
Nevertheless, we can be grateful that historical opportunities and developments have enabled the people in this region to realise justice and freedom in an unparalleled extent within the framework of an entity that once called and still calls itself Swiss Confederation.
Even though there also existed authoritarian structures, it was a system that had grown from the bottom. A system in which, in the end, law repeatedly took precedence over pure arbitrariness of power, because after all everyone involved had to realise that his freedom depended on granting the same freedom to others. This was the only possible way to keep the principles of self-responsibility, self-determination and self-administration of medieval cooperatives on exerting their influence on a confederation of states of most different shapes – from the peasant valley community to cities organised in guilds and patrician structures up to a semi-monarchical structure such as Neuchâtel – in a joint attempt to preserve and achieve as much freedom as possible. All this did not happen isolated and detached from the cultural, political and intellectual developments during the centuries in the countries around the Swiss Confederation – though in the awareness not to adopt other ideas without further questioning but to adapt them to our own way of life.
This was and still is accompanied by the awareness that it’s the task of the entire community of people living in this country to back this, not just of individuals or of an elite. After all, direct democracy means to enshrine the idea of all humans being equal – regardless of the personal attitude of the individual – in constitutional rights. It’s due to the understanding of human weaknesses that direct democracy doesn’t make trees growing on their own. It rather trusts in the possibility to correct the whole. It is no coincidence that this is accompanied by a greater degree of satisfaction in human coexistence. As mentioned before, there is much that could be improved in our state system. However, without being aware of the dimension and the significance of direct democracy in its social, cultural, historical and global context, without understanding its human dimension, we run the risk of getting carried away by the uproar of current developments and of locating “improvements” in the wrong place.
And often the uproar is quite loud: Globalisation, digitalisation, “reform backlog”, “being left by the wayside” and other things have been roaring for some time now – all underpinned by intellectual theories that seem to be very clever. However, people and the real meaning of our lives are forgotten. The psychological dimension of human life, the development of which includes individual experiences of life within the immediate human environment and, furthermore, the historical prerequisites and experiences of social coexistence, is in danger of being lost in this roar. Including all experiences and insights on the human dimension that have been made for millennia, on what really corresponds or what would correspond with the natural needs of man. At all times, these insights have had a hard time: All too often, they have been repressed by domination and power in favour of a few.
Nowadays, repression does not work alone by the use of brute violence – even though this may be still the case when we think of wars, “humanitarian” interventions, starvation and impoverishment of entire peoples by means of sanctions, financial manipulations and “regime changes”.
But it also works by the use of intimidation through disparagement – as it is the case, when persons are labelled as “somehow outdated”, or as hampering “necessary” reforms, and the like. Domination has always maintained its power with socio-psychological means and interference. It is no coincidence that today expensive consulting offices and PR agencies are commissioned to “sell” political issues in a “catchy” way. In order to recognise that this implies a betrayal of the foundations of human coexistence it is necessary to reflect on these foundations
Good faith as a reasonable foundation for human cooperation requires sincerity and clarity. Social techniques of manipulation, “control” or “governance” have no place here.
Without this foundation direct democracy will be ruined. To visualise these correlations as a historical experience and a prerequisite of human life and thus, to reflect on the significance of this state model for a real, perhaps not spectacular, but all the more sustainable real progress, and not to lose oneself in the “torrential stream of obsession and delusion”1 of time: These are the constant tasks of being human beyond every 1st August. The contributions in this issue are intended to be components for this.

Erika Vögeli

1    Carl J. Burckhardt, zitiert in Von Salis, Jean-Rudolf, Geschichte und Politik, Zürich 1971

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