Being sort of new to democracy after two decades in China’s one-party system, I am appalled by its wastefulness and surprised by the system’s ability to avoid a public discourse about the topics which really matter. It’s again ballot time. Although it feels as if it was only yesterday that a new municipal government was elected in the town, I call home these days, the province which surrounds it casts votes for a new state government on January 29th.
The saying goes, that democracy is the smallest evil amongst social orders. But as I ask our ten-year-old son, when he tells us after a school exam, that most of his classmates got lower grades than him: “Why don’t you compare yourself with somebody better or strive for something better? I remind everybody that there is much space for our democracies to improve. In almost every regard. There is no point in comparing one’s own society with those which fare worse.
So, what messages do we learn from the campaign posters, which create a visual cacophony all over the country? Three out of four mainstream parties reflect as a meta theme their inability of transforming themselves. Their slogans and their wording is not dynamic but static and will prolong the operation of a system which is clearly failing us. In a situation where more of the same will not bring about any improvement, we ought to recall what smart people tell us about progress and problem solving. Albert Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Viktor Frankl said the same from a perspective of personal and collective dilemma: When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.
Its usually much easier to criticize others than to work out an alternative. So, I thought, what would I put on my billboard posters, if I were to participate in a political campaign. Here we go. I think there are three elephants in the room: Shared power, shared wealth and shared responsibility.
- SHARED POWER
Which part of society can still make productivity gains to make it more efficient and (if necessary) competitive against other systems (like Putin’s Russia)? Nobody dares to speak about a far too expensive political system which hails from the 18th and 19th century when industrialists and landowners wrested political power from aristocrats. We need another transformation of our democratic machinery which distributes power to every citizen in form of dynamic citizen councils instead of relatively static elected political assemblies and make use of modern communication technology to create widest possible participation in decision making on local, regional and if people believe that we still need nation states also on national and supranational level.
If we don’t, we jeopardize democracy itself. If we don’t, the western civilization will fail as a model in competition against the Confucian model which has been modernized by China through upgrading its system with communication technology and adaptive governance during the last decade. If we don’t, we threaten the survival of our children because the established system reacts too slow to act efficiently in the face of climate change and biodiversity collapse. If we don’t, we admit that politics doesn’t understand how to deal with ecology.
We need to talk about an overhaul of democracy which means that many politicians must sacrifice their jobs for the survival of the next generation, and financial and commercial elites must share their wealth with others in order to create spheres of justice like legal philosopher Michael Walzer once famously wrote. Since those in power are mostly not ready, a braveheart-like revolution seems to be a viable alternative to climate collapse. That’s why we witness the emergence of organizations like Extinction Rebellion or Fridays for Future.
2. SHARED WEALTH
How should we share wealth and use this shared wealth to create social cohesion which translates to environmental protection? Statistics and qualified literature show that wealth is being concentrated increasingly in the hands of a few; not only globally but also within societies which once were considered equal and fair. Social mobility declines strongly and during COVID19 tech driven corporations have made billions with the hardship and isolation of the people.
We operate our economies in vastly complex taxation systems which require armies of well-paid government officials, lawyers, tax consultants, CFOs and accountants in order to tweak numbers while genuine contribution to society’s well-being in education and health care, is not paid fairly or not at all. Those corporations which gross profits acquire climate certificates to greenwash themselves and create a general perception as if everything is ok. It’s not.
We create a labor market for the youth which is absolutely unattractive or guides them into a lifelong trap: working for profit and power instead of purpose and passion. Shouldn’t we build a civilization by rewarding the jobs which we think are meaningful rather than allowing professions which generate little or no social and environmental benefits by hauling in fortunes? Why are the products of three of the five richest Austrians detrimental to human health and social wellbeing?
Red Bull founder Dieter Mateschitz made billions with a sweet energy drink and high risk sporting events shaping a culture of mindless acceleration. Novomatic founder Johann Graf made billions by automating and spreading gambling addiction. Signa founder Rene Benko made billions carving up public and corporate real estate assets in prime locations and thereby driving housing expenses for the average population into unaffordability.
These examples can be replicated in any given democracy showing that this political system is failing us in the promotion of progress and development. What does it take for public policy to make wise and far sighted decisions, to guide entrepreneurs to add value to society, to guide youth to invest their lives into collective growth rather than destructive narcissism? When will we start to reward with a conditional basic income our individual contributions to a better society and make it impossible for ruthless capitalists to burn the fabric which connects us?
3. SHARED RESPONSIBILITY
Shared power and shared wealth translate to a third dimension which is shared responsibility. The former German chancellor Helmut Schmidt once said that “young people learn in school about their rights, but rarely they are taught about the duties and responsibilities of the citizen.” As long as duties are limited to paying taxes, it will be difficult to create social cohesion in a more and more culturally diverse society.
I am of the deepest conviction that a conditional basic income which connects shared wealth with shared responsibilities will help us to create common ground for joint action. As long as social welfare payments and services are not being used to motivate sustainable behavior, it will be difficult to create the economic incentives which support a transformation to sustainability. it will be difficult to create the economic incentives which support a transformation towards sustainability and, effectively, survival.
So, shared power, shared wealth and shared responsibility are the three subjects for an empathetic campaign. Political parties which don’t have these three issues in their program or on their posters are not a real choice – no matter in which constituency our country. They will only extend the status quo but won’t bring the transformation we dearly need.
How did Carl Sagan once write in Cosmos:
Human history can be viewed as a slowly dawning awareness that we are members of a larger group. Initially our loyalties were to ourselves and our immediate family, next, to bands of wandering hunter-gatherers, then to tribes, small settlements, city-states, nations. We have broadened the circle of those we love. We have now organized what are modestly described as super-powers, which include groups of people from divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds working in some sense together — surely a humanizing and character building experience. If we are to survive, our loyalties must be broadened further, to include the whole human community, the entire planet Earth. Many of those who run the nations will find this idea unpleasant. They will fear the loss of power. We will hear much about treason and disloyalty. Rich nation-states will have to share their wealth with poor ones. But the choice, as H. G. Wells once said in a different context, is clearly the universe or nothing.
Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century
many have written about the loopholes for the rich in the democratic fabric, Oliver Bullough has produced two excellent accounts: Moneyland (2018) and Butler to the World (2022)
as proposed by Helene Landemore in her book Open Democracy: https://politicalscience.yale.edu/publications/open-democracy-reinventing-popular-rule-twenty-first-century
Aldous Huxley, The Politics of Ecology
On the suffocating effects of outdated bureaucracy and institutions: https://www.ted.com/talks/barry_schwartz_our_loss_of_wisdom
Carl Sagan, Cosmos