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Berlin Workshop: New forms of Political Participation

on Fri, 11/16/2012 - 23:22

Immediately after the Quilligan seminars this May I travelled to Berlin to connect with the European Alternatives who had been hosting the Transeuropa festival - a massive fourteen city festival across Europe. I was invited by Transeuropa Berlin to speak on behalf of the School of Commoning at the forum: “New forms of political participation and the Commons.”

The venue was at the very smart ‘Social Impact Lab’ in Erkelenzdamm, Berlin, featuring a range of young voices on the forum panel and a healthy audience of around forty people. The participants that I met included:

There was a wide ranging discussion that touched on matters of representative democracy as well as participative democracy. Friedrich Bradi vice-chair of the Committee for a Democratic United Nations highlighted that there are different ways of doing meetings, making decisions, and undertaking actions such as flash mobs, civil disobedience, protests, direct democracy etc and that these are also different forms of participation which are impacted (but not replaced) by social media. We explored the advantages and disadvantages of the internet to participation, including how much importance we give to the argument of the internet as a pollutive tool relative to other sources of pollution and free market generated externalities in the industrial capitalist system. 

The innovations of liquid feedback within the German Pirate party were particularly interesting to me. Carlo Von Lynx described how this new online tool takes democratic participation to the next level by allowing scalability, demonstrated between thirty thousand German Pirate Party members who use it, and its ability to overcome the ‘power of the extroverts’ problem seen in direct democracy to form a new kind of 'liquid democracy'. This allows us to move beyond the linear, disempowering, almost passive, consumerist model of the once every four or five year representative democracy, - towards a more interactive hybrid model that includes direct and representative participants.

One of the participants reflected on the traditional nature of these meetings being very masculine. He then gave an example of an educational initiative that engages the public to participate by going on the street asking questions such as “why hasn’t the revolution started yet?” The group as a whole, which I believe was called  El Va Vie emphasises learning to communicate with each other, learning together, collective intelligence and knowledge. They also provide workshops, trainings and advice to town councils in France on participatory democracy in which the towns elected governors are ordinary citizens who got elected to deliver participatory democracy. These initatives as well as Friedrich’s mention of participatory budgeting showed the potential for transformation of democracy within the state institutions.

Adding to this I reflected that behind these initatives it is the use of the internet that is gradually melting down the solidity or lack of access preventing us from participating in the the traditional institutions, allowing for greater levels of participation. Fresh from the May Quilligan Seminars I wanted to highlight in particular how the model of the commons allows for new forms of participation through the principles of subsidiarity, polycentricity, and horizontality that we observe in many commons based regimes. Developing on the theme of the commons Lorenzo Marsili, director of European Alternatives was skyped into the half-way stage of our two hour conversation. He emphasised that the commons is in itself an alternative form of democratic participation.  He gave examples of commons set up in various countries including Italy with the occupation of dozens of theatres across the country including the great Teatro Valle, and how this was vital in the face of an austerity strategy designed to “open up new spaces for profit and capital accumulation” Lorenzo also discussed the potential for the European Charter of the Commons: 

This is the right time to be working on a charter mainly because we are very convinced that the whole discourse on commons can provide a comprehensive response to the handling of the economic crises that is taking place today at European level. Especially a discourse on commons at the European level may have the capacity to contribute to a political convergence of different struggles, different movements, different thematic approaches, across countries and combine them in a common approach and discourse between each other.

Nearing the end of the talk I was asked whether the question: “can the commons offer a way out of the European crises?” I felt that this had been answered almost definitively by what emerged between the participants, each working on commons based initiatives in their own domains, nevertheless it was the perfect time to read to the audience a paragraph that James Quilligan founder of the Global Commons Trust wrote regarding this:

“The commons provides a new framework that teaches us how to generate new sources of value and political participation. the European crises clearly shows the degree to which government is out of touch with peoples aspirations and needs. The commons can provide a cohesive approach to a new form of political power and provide the means by which the peoples voice can be heard by government in an entirely new way. The issues of the commons are the issues of all people of Europe. The commons provides a new means of recognising or framing the concerns that all people in Europe have had during the creation and administration of the European Union.”

New forms of democratic participation are emerging all over the place and in themselves represent a growing ecosystem of commons or civic empowered structures. I took away that not only is it our technology and legal frameworks that are crucial to nurturing this emergence but it is our direct engagement with these tools and our active engagement of others by asking questions that can help us activate the democratic impulse between us.

After the event we walked to the beautiful prinzessinnengarten a haven of urban agriculture and sustainable practices, to mingle, eat and drink. Even this after workshop event was a demonstration of our interconnectivity with a live link up between artist Hiwa K and his mother in Skype connection from Iraq,  in collaboration with Occupy Berlin. Together 'Cooking with Mama' they made the Transeuropa Occupy dinner! This marked the final event of Transeuropa Berlin in what was a highly engaging weekend of committed discussions.

Note: For 'The first results of the Transeuropa Festival 2012: Opening a Common Space for European Alternatives' click here.