“The historical knowledge of the meaning of direct democracy is essential.”

Interview with Dr. René Roca, Director of the Research Institute for Direct Democracy FidD

cc. Following this year‘s conference in Escholzmatt Current Concerns spoke with René Roca. The historian with a doctorate is the founder and director of the Research Institute Direct Democracy (www.fidd.ch).

Current Concerns: Mr. Roca, the event in Escholzmatt was very well attended. Apparently, the topic does not only appeal to experts. Do you see a relation between the cooperative system and direct
democracy?

René Roca: I was very pleased that so many people participated. There are many who come again and again, and also new faces, people who have heard about the conferences. In the meantime, a network of contacts has been established throughout Switzerland, which I like to cultivate and which inspires me to tackle further research projects.
Regarding your question: I see a clear relation between the cooperative system and direct democracy in Switzerland. In Switzerland the idea of cooperatives was yielding fruit as early as the nthe Middle Ages. The people of a certain region - later the political communities – were confronted with specific tasks that they took in hand on their own. For example, they had to pay for building paths and bridges and for organising the water supply as well. From the 13th century onwards, the Swiss Confederation was structured on a small-scale. Usually, people did not wait for instructions from above, but rather dealt with their tasks and completed them together. This led to the emergence of cooperatives everywhere, which laid a democratic foundation with the help of the three selves – self-help, self-responsibility and self-determination – and regular meetings. This foundation at communal level was decisive for the introduction of direct democracy by the cantons and the Confederation in the 19th century.

The conferences of your institute trace the roots of direct democracy in Swiss history. In Schwyz (2014) the focus was on Catholic conservative influence, in Zurich (2015) on liberalism. In Liestal (2016) the influence of early socialism was discussed, in Neuchâtel (2017) the influence of natural law and now in Escholzmatt (2018) the cooperative system. Why does direct democracy have its roots in Switzerland, and what is so special about this democracy?

The first three conferences are a kind of „trilogy“, now also available in printed form (“Beiträge zur Erforschung der Demokratie”, Volumes 1 to 3). I try to show the influence of political movements in Switzerland on direct democracy. With last year’s conference on natural law and now on the cooperative principle, I trace the theoretical foundations of direct democracy in Switzerland. I am glad that I have repeatedly been able to attract renowned experts to the scientific conferences and thus to present the state of research in Switzerland.
The conferences have made it increasingly clear that Switzerland is a case apart concerning direct democracy. From its beginnings in the 13th century, Switzerland was a kind of confederation of states that could develop relatively autonomously. From 1648 the Confederation was a sovereign state, but only 200 years later a federal state. The cooperative principle was very decisive for the founding of the state. As shown, democratic forms developed on this foundation at an early stage, for example the Landsgemeinde (cantonal assembly). Unfortunately, all these early democratic forms have not been researched specifically and therefore are not really appreciated. But now I am trying to provide remedy with my research institute. I will dedicate the following conferences to the individual cantons – I have already published research results on the cantons of Lucerne and Baselland – all of which have fought for and introduced direct democracy in a variety of impressive ways on the basis of their own political culture and in exchange with each other.

Direct democracy is regarded as something Swiss and at the same time as something very generally human, as a state model by citizens for citizens. Unfortunately, it is still neglected in the academic debate in Switzerland. Can we afford that? What could we gain?

Of course, we can’t afford it. On the contrary, based on the historical knowledge of the emergence and development of direct democracy, today we must defend and further direct democracy in Switzerland. We have the good fortune that we were born into this system, so to speak, and that we can now use it. We must not forfeit it under any circumstances. The historical knowledge of the importance of direct democracy is essential. The Swiss could certainly be more proud of their country, pass this on to future generations and increasingly maintain the exchange on democratic issues with other countries. Switzerland is not yet very interested in these questions, I mainly receive inquiries from abroad. I recently visited Salzburg and Bolzano (South Tyrol) and presented and discussed the model of Swiss democracy.

If I have understood you correctly, Switzerland is an important laboratory for direct democracy. There are manifold and different developments in a very small space. Can direct democracy be exported? Can larger political entities such as the EU learn from it?

I think other countries can benefit enormously from the “Swiss model”. Even larger countries can certainly learn from Switzerland. What is important is the elaborate democratic structure from bottom up and the introduction of federal-subsidiary structures. We see an incredible democratic deficit everywhere in Europe and in the world. Citizens are not taken seriously and are not involved in decision-making. If a state is regarded as a constitutional democratic state, the elected politicians would have to develop successively a political culture that gives room to people’s co-determination. In direct dialogue with the citizens, direct democratic structures can be developed in a country-specific way, taking into account history and tradition.
The EU as a political project has failed. It is politicising without considering the people and cementing its centralist structures. In many EU countries, people no longer want to be patronised and vote out the established parties, and EU-critical voices are becoming more and more popular. A good alternative to the EU is still EFTA, who confines itself to economic issues. At last the citizens have to be taken more seriously in their democratic concerns.

Thank you very much for the interview.     •

Research Institute Direct Democracy

cc. Founded in 2012, the Research Institute Direct Democracy has set itself the goal of systematically and scientifically processing the issue of direct democracy. In addition, it is active in the field of consulting and organises events and lectures.
“Direct democracy is a central component of political culture in Switzerland, as in no other country. Therefore, it is astonishing that its origin and development has not yet been a central research topic in science of history. In order to close these research gaps, the scientific ‘Research Institute Direct Democracy’ was founded.” (cf. www.fidd.ch)
Since 2014, the Institute, headed by Dr René Roca, has organised a series of conferences on the study of direct democracy. So far, five conferences have taken place. The content of the first three conferences has been published as conference proceedings by the publisher Schwabe Verlag.

René Roca (ed.). Katholizismus und moderne Schweiz. Beiträge zur Erforschung der Demokratie 1 (Catholicism and modern Switzerland. Contributions to the study of democracy 1). 2016. ISBN 978-3-7965-3498-0

René Roca (ed.). Liberalismus und moderne Schweiz. Beiträge zur Erforschung der Demokratie 2 (Liberalism and modern Switzerland. Contributions to the study of democracy 2). 2017. ISBN 978-3-7965- 3639-7

René Roca (ed.). Frühsozialismus und moderne Schweiz. Beiträge zur Erforschung der Demokratie 3 (Early socialism and modern Switzerland. Contributions to the study of democracy 3). 2018. ISBN 978-3-7965-3819-3