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Is our system still capable of solving the big problems of the future?

by Timo Rieg
How high rents for residential and business premises are, how much biodiversity there is in our cultural landscape, whether there are twelve or thirteen grades up to the Abitur, are all determined by the rulers. Energy prices, construction prices, food prices are the results of politics. Desolate inner cities, new construction deserts and ugly industrial areas are made by politicians.
Is our system still capable of solving the big problems of the future?
by Timo Rieg
[This article posted on 4/9/2023 is translated from the German on the Internet, Ist unser System noch in der Lage, die großen Zukunftsprobleme zu lösen?]

Democracy does not need state and citizen as antipodes. Our democracy needs to be completely repositioned (part 2 and conclusion).

Above all, the debate in the media is limited to a few policy areas, to buzzwords, to topics that can be lambasted on talk shows and in beer tents. Yet in a democracy, we should be able to decide about many more things - namely, about everything that affects us in some way.

What a DB ticket costs and what the bread roll at the train station costs is a political decision, not in a socialist planned economy, but in a democracy. Deutsche Bahn AG is a people-owned enterprise, it belongs to all of us and we all finance it (or should be able to use the proceeds).

Part 1: Political decisions between the claim to power and the common good

But the management sets fares, discounts and conditions of carriage according to its own whim, and occasionally it complies with the wishes of politicians, who represent us shareholders in the form of the Federal Ministry of Transport - but the vast majority of matters are regulated internally, as it were, in the almost 600 companies that currently make up the DB Group with its 338,000 employees.

This also includes the rent payable for stores in stations and who is allowed to offer anything there at all. The fact that the same stores offer their (boring) goods at every major station is not inevitable, but simply the result of a lack of democratic influence.

Savings banks, theaters, citizen's money, Internet search engine

Savings banks close their branches and at the same time pay their managers salaries that are far higher than those of the head of state, without the citizens having a say in the matter. Yet savings banks are institutions under public law and should not be run solely by bankers and (former) mayors, but above all by the local population.

Where do we decide on the program of the adult education center or even the theaters, which are exorbitantly financed by the general public? Where do we consult about the handling of the "Hartz IV" or now "Bürgergeld" law locally? Where are we democratically involved in how administrations implement laws?

Have we ever voted on not operating a German or at least a European Internet search engine? Or to do without public development and provision of suitable software and instead to throw ourselves with skin and hair and all our nerves into the maw of Microsoft, Apple and Google?

What costs us nerves

What upsets us every day, limits us, costs us nerves, is only extremely rarely a topic of democratic discourse. From farmers to doctors, everyone is threatened with suffocation by bureaucratic regulations. Have we as citizens agreed, for example, that almost everyone now has to struggle with the "Elster" software when filing their tax returns (even for non-profit associations!)? What did we agree to as compensation in the process? Was there any kind of fair deal?

Anyone who wants to sell a few waffles at the village fair is subject to the arbitrariness of a dozen authorities, who act according to a collection of regulations devised by the EU, the federal government and the state and enriched with a colorful mix of personal and local customs.

Politicians proclaim daily that they are in charge (unlike, say, voters in a referendum). But please: For which of the countless wrong decisions, cruel omissions, practiced injustices has a politician ever taken responsibility?

The highest of humility is the resignation from any party or state office, but regularly for "pillepalle", for media stagings instead of real, momentous mistakes.

"No better democracy than Germany's"?

Journalists, who have the task to control the powerful and to make their research results available to the sovereign, so that he can decide whether he wants to keep his deputies or exchange them (which he can do at best in very theoretical democratic theories, but not in practice), proclaim instead that they cannot imagine any better democracy than the German one, that one should be grateful to politicians, appreciate them and refrain from the eternal criticizing!

At the same time we have in this best of all not only real existing, but allegedly even in the best of all only imaginable democracies daily for example brutal police violence, which remains completely unpunished. The power of the state, which declaratively emanates from the people (Article 20 of the Basic Law), beats, humiliates and harasses.

And thousands of articles, reports, videos and criminal charges do not change the slightest thing. It should be inconceivable to subject the police to democratic control, even democratic instructions? What we have is already a paradisiacal state? If this is the case, then there is no need for journalism or public debate.

That people in one of the richest countries on earth do not know how to make ends meet, that they become mentally ill, suffer heart attacks or take their own (and their families') lives in the face of (supposed) problems created exclusively by politics is supposed to be the best possible society?

That all technical, medical and digital progress has driven animal cruelty in industrial food production to an all-time high is not even changeable in the imagination?

That we spend a billion euros every day on health care, but people die miserably because doctors and other service providers paid by the general public are slovenly in hygiene and training, among other things; that at least a third of teachers are completely unsuitable for teaching, and make the best years of their lives in schools hell for the youth, all this is part of the best democracy you can imagine?

Surely no one can be serious! It can only mean: Whoever speaks of Germany as the greatest of all democracies or, more generally, as one of the most livable places in the world, has not understood that almost all the evils of this world are the result of domination.

How high rents for residential and business premises are, how much biodiversity there is in our cultural landscape, whether there are twelve or thirteen grades up to the Abitur, are all determined by the rulers. Energy prices, construction prices, food prices are the results of politics.

Desolate inner cities, new construction deserts and ugly industrial areas are made by politicians. Educational injustice and the ever-widening wealth gap between rich and poor: handmade by politicians.

Apart from natural phenomena and events, man himself creates all the problems he has. But while we are still allowed to regulate most things ourselves within the family, outside the private sphere we almost always act according to rules set by politics, administration and the judiciary, i.e. "the state".

A new model is needed

Our contribution to all these decisions, specifications, bureaucratic acts was and is to behave every four years in a federal election, somehow. To give a vote to one person from our constituency and one party each, or to vote for no one. More democracy was not.

One or the other may still have been politically involved somewhere, in a club, at a town meeting, as a signer of a petition or by letter to the editor.

We don't even have to argue about whether all this is bad - or whether the world isn't getting better after all, as an intellectual current propagates. In any case, the fact is that we do not have democratic control.

And this essentially means that we have refrained from finding the "best solution" in each case, i.e., in the democratic sense, the state action that leaves the individual alone as far as possible and otherwise works for the greatest possible satisfaction of all citizens in the balancing of interests. From a purely statistical point of view, it is completely out of the question that all the topics mentioned as examples are optimally regulated.

The defenders of the status quo say: "We can't vote on every single detail," "Things are too complex," or "I don't want my stupid neighbor to decide on the Infection Protection Act.

That everyone talks about everything and then decides is, of course, completely impossible. Those who like may therefore see parliaments with professional politicians as an attempt to bring division of labor and thus professionalization into the organization of our societies. (The reasons were in fact quite different, as David Van Reybrouck, among others, has historically explained).

Undeniably, however, this system is not capable of solving the major problems of the future. And the well-being of the individual has never been of much interest to rulers.

What we have may be, in Winston Churchill's sense, the best form of government of those that have been tried to any significant extent in the time horizon he surveyed. But it is certainly not the best system for the coexistence of large groups of people, if we are interested in the welfare of the living and possibly also in the welfare options of future generations.

Our parliamentary-representative democracy is rather conceivably bad, because nothing allows us to expect that either the best possible decisions will come out of it (however one wants to determine them) or that the greatest possible satisfaction will be achieved, which Plato already proclaimed in his Politeia as the goal of all political action. Or looked at the other way round:

If we made tabula rasa today and thought up a new model for living together, we would never end up again with the previous system! With elections that strongly distort the will of the voters. With deputies who voluntarily submit to factional coercion and turn themselves into voting computers.

With functionaries who hop at will through the three branches of government - legislative, executive and judicial - only to switch to the economy afterwards or in between with all the social capital they have acquired there. With laws and a constitution that can be changed on the spur of the moment at whim. With a sovereign whose sovereignty is limited to occasional ballot ticks with which he disenfranchises himself.

We would not, after all, end up again with the pre-hundred-year-old idea of parties to which we grant irrevocable general power of attorney. We would never come up with this system - unless we profited precisely from this system, from its intransparency, its "elite formation," its social stratification, its circles of power. But these profiteers are just in the minority, and even if they were in the majority, they would have no democratic right to suppress the minority.

Yet it is not at all difficult to create a decision-making system that is maximally democratic, in which any detail can be discussed at length, and which nevertheless only occasionally bothers us with the civic duty of participation.

Such a system relies on drawing representatives by lot, as the inventors of democracy in ancient Athens did. But it also, of course, draws on all the helpful insights of the past 2,000 years.

Maximum democracy: drawing lots

Until recently, drawing lots for decision-makers in a statistically representative manner instead of electing and appointing them was considered a crackpot idea.

But that has changed fundamentally in the last four years. Based on very emotional stories of how Catholic-conservative Ireland used drawn citizens' assemblies to get a modern abortion law and same-sex marriage into its constitution, calls were soon made to have certain citizens in Germany prepare political decisions by chance as well.

And in the fall of 2019, civil society groups in Germany convened a lot-based citizens' council on their own initiative, the results of whose deliberations were received with great thanks by none other than then Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble.

In neighboring France, hundreds of citizens' councils had been discussed shortly before in response to the yellow vest protests.

Together with an appropriate deliberation and decision-making process, the drawing of proxies is superior to an election in all respects: it is maximally democratic, it provides equal opportunities for all, it is completely robust against bribery and other forms of anti-democratic influence, it minimizes vested interests, and it allows problems to be solved rather than staged for election campaigns.

Aleatory democracy

Everything speaks for the drawing of lots - called "aleatoric democracy" as a method of social control, after the Latin word for dice "alea" and known, among other things, from Asterix: "Alea iacta est," "the die is cast," or in the classic German phrase "die Würfel sind gefallen."

But precisely because everything speaks for the democratic drawing of lots, the current hype about citizens' councils must make one skeptical. For the strengths of aleatory democracy are a frontal assault on the real ruling aristocracy.

In its egalitarianism, the drawing of lots takes no account whatsoever of party careers; it knows no hierarchy, no compulsory factions, no empty election promises. Parties and lobbyists may exist even in an aleatory democracy, but they would forfeit most of their current influence on public life as a whole.

Of course, it is not impossible that professional politicians in particular, some of whom have known for many decades about the insane autonomy of parties, might long for a change of system and therefore be open to experimentation (some politicians and ex-politicians have written entire books about this).

Good lobbyists could be trusted to convince drawn citizens of their positions; good lobbyists do not rely on political backrooms, on covert influence, on strong-arming. But there will be only a very small minority willing to give up their special role for the sake of a fair democracy.

It is therefore to be feared that some advocates of aleatory democratic citizen participation are wolves in sheep's clothing. After all, hardly any of the protagonists of this new civil rights movement would like to make their own influence or their own (economic) advantages dependent on a lottery, which means: giving up special rights in favor of the general public.

In any case, the lottery can be quickly discredited if it is used unprofessionally or even deliberately inappropriately - in order to disappear again into oblivion, where it has already lain dormant for the last two thousand years, apart from minor exceptions.

Evolution is very much in favor of the leader principle, but with one condition that none of the would-be philosopher kings is willing to fulfill: One leads only one's own clan, and one's personal success is completely linked to the success of this clan.

Leaders of social associations do what politicians always only claim to do: they bear the responsibility. Those who are lacking in this function in the animal kingdom are usually dead a short time later - or at least on the siding instead of on a supervisory board.

Two problems stand in the way of realization

But we can easily recognize that ultimately strict democracy would be best for most of us, and we can just as easily give ourselves rules that keep our anti-democratic genome in check in such a way that, as far as possible, everyone comes into their own. But two problems stand in the way of realization.

First, democracy requires nothing less than the disempowerment of the powerful. And these are not just political and business leaders; they are ultimately all those who set the tone and shape the debates today, including all those who campaign for more civil rights. They are the lobbyists of large associations and small organizations, the members of expert committees, participation commissions, and neighborhood initiatives, the journalists who explain the world, and the actors, musicians, and bestselling authors of the talk shows.

Research into the elite estimates that a maximum of 4,000 people in Germany belong to the elite, that is, to those who are actually influential. But many more people see themselves as influential and actually set the tone in smaller areas. They all profit from undemocratic structures, from inequality, from hierarchy, from the focus on this so-called elite, from the fact that they are more significant than their audience, the customers, users, the "common people.

Second, even most of those who criticize our social system shy away from thoughts of fundamental change - even if they are not among those who would personally lose significant influence. Too familiar and too omnipresent is the procedure of electing parties and thus relinquishing not only decision-making possibilities but also all responsibility.

Also out of respectable humility before the tasks of politics, many angry citizens shy away from thinking about a truly different system of checks and balances.

Therefore, it is by no means sufficient to delegate a few non-binding consultations to citizens' assemblies drawn by lot, as is becoming standard. (We already have such "citizens' councils" in Germany, France, Great Britain, Belgium, Poland, the U.S. and Japan, among others - and there is much to suggest that their use will increase significantly, at least temporarily). It's all about the big picture. It is about overcoming domination.

Democracy is always translated as "rule by the people," but if you think democracy through to the end, there is no room in it for rule by one over the other, there is only room for "self-rule." Democracy does not need state and citizen as antipodes.

It is one of the great (but of course expedient) misunderstandings that in a democracy the majority decides to which the minority must submit. This is how party rule can be shaped, but not the future. Whether it's climate change or the next pandemic, whether it's world nutrition or animal welfare-friendly agriculture, de-bureaucratization or digitization - we need to develop democracy significantly. And that means recognizing the structural flaws and trying something new.

For more in-depth information and discussion, please refer to the extensive Telepolis offering, including:

On the concept of "freedom" in a "liberal democracy": freedom is never vulgar.

On the basic problems of social debates, the three-part book: Hürden der Aufklärung.

On the necessity and limits of citizen participation in political decision-making: Dictatorship or democracy in times of crisis?

On the model of citizens' councils in urban districts: Politics and citizens have a communication crisis.

On the discussion of aleatory versus representative democracy: Should professional politicians be replaced by randomly drawn citizens?

On the focus of democracy on elections: Voting is not a synonym for democracy

On the fundamental reform of democracy, Timo Rieg has written two books: "Democracy for Germany" (2013) and - with a stronger satirical twist - "Banishment to Helgoland" (2004).
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