The world is in a state of upheaval which is shaking our routines, our institutions and our modes of production to the core. To take one example: the current model of fossil fuel-based mobility and urban living will be radically changed, not only because of dwindling oil reserves but also because of rising demand from developing countries. European society is therefore faced with the alternatives of either managing the coming changes today or of suffering the consequences of this upheaval in the near future.
The State as the Intersection Point of All Political Action
Fortunately, for some years now there has been an increasing awareness that we are at an historical turning point comparable in significance to the transition from an agricultural to an industrial society. The Great Transformation of the 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of capitalist market societies which led to an historically unprecedented growth in productivity based on fossil fuels. This also involved a great transformation of the political system. The state became the point of intersection of all political action, while the economy and the society were subject to other kinds of internal logic, like the entrepreneurial search for profit or the principle of reciprocity. Parliaments and large centralised national state administrative structures – two political institutions that gradually established themselves throughout the world – created their own powerful sphere of politics. Political power was concentrated in the machinery of the state, principally through tax revenues and the monopoly on force, while economic power, represented above all by the power to decide on investments, was controlled by private companies.
In liberal market societies, it was the responsibility of the elected representatives of the people to ensure that social movements and interest groups could make themselves heard in parliament and the administration. It was parliamentary deputies who voiced within Parliament the extra-parliamentary opposition to the building of nuclear power stations; when miscarriages of justice occurred, citizens engaged in the issues could use the help of elected representatives in order to draw attention to them. But at the same time, it was precisely this development that led to the delegation of politics. The crisis of democracy we are currently experiencing is a crisis of this form of politics – a self-contained sphere operated by specialists. This is sometimes experienced as disenfranchisement; over the long term it often leads to a feeling of political powerlessness.
Politics has then become something alien, distanced from people’s daily lives, only occasionally impinging on them, perhaps helpfully or perhaps as a nuisance.
Politics has then become something alien, distanced from people’s daily lives, only occasionally impinging on them, perhaps helpfully or perhaps as a nuisance. But delegation does not even work when all that is at stake is the perpetuation of the status quo. Our needs change, and they then require new rules and a new infrastructure, as is the case just now with regard to the care of children and the elderly. In such cases, efficient and effective administration of the existing arrangements is not sufficient to master the coming changes to our ways of working and living. That can only be achieved through public participation in decision-making and implementation. The roll-out of the Energiewende (the German energy transition) is as much a question of values as of systemic agenda-setting or of concrete context: how much attention should be paid to nature conservation when wind farms are being built in order to reduce our dependence on oil?
Political decision-makers do not possess the diverse range of perspectives, of technical specialists and of the people affected, which are an essential component of systematic and context-specific knowledge. If this knowledge is properly utilised, different interests and points of view can be taken into account and better outcomes achieved. In this way, the political system can be made more responsive to popular movements and social innovations. This is what I call a public and open state. Such an opening-up of the political system is the first pre-condition for the management of the transformation.
More and more people are starting to participate in the search for alternative ways of living and working. In transition towns, new forms of human settlement are being created and urban living is being redefined.
A New Ecological Way of Life
A second pre-condition for the collective management of the transformation is that those groups and individuals experimenting with alternative forms of enterprise and finance, with ecological consumption, fair trade and ‘soft’ (or sustainable) mobility, must re-think the relationship between politics, society and the economy. There can be no doubt that the emergence – within an ecologically attuned and morally aware avant-garde of a new way of living based on a duty of care for humanity and nature – is a positive development. More and more people are starting to participate in the search for alternative ways of living and working. In transition towns, new forms of human settlement are being created and urban living is being redefined. The commons movement is reactivating traditional economic models and experimenting with new rules and new forms of ownership. In Austria, ecological agriculture is demonstrating how it could potentially provide good food for all.
Yet many civil society activists lack a shared vision of all-encompassing social change. Their unspoken hope is that an invisible hand will order the individual fragments of a sustainable society into a new and beautiful mosaic. But that is not how society works. Laissez-faire is an economic doctrine, not a realistic worldview. To cite another example, campaigns to raise awareness of Peak Oil are not enough by themselves to make commuters switch from the car to the train. Information about climate change and campaigns for new car-free forms of mobility are also necessary; but more important are new cycle paths, cheaper public transport, true cost pricing and an innovative youth culture with a new approach to mobility – using a borrowed car today, a ‘city bike’ tomorrow, or staying in contact with friends and colleagues simply by surfing the net.
Just as public institutions need to open themselves up, civil society organisations also need to undertake a critical self-analysis of their relationship to the individualistic contemporary philosophy of Laissez-faire. The coming revolutionary changes in our ways of living and working will require us to lead an ecological way of life based on solidarity and forward planning. This in turn requires – and this is the third pre-condition for the collective management of the coming transformation – a new form of democratic politics.
A Bridge Between State and Civil Society
So the big push for more democracy that is needed for the Great Transformation is certainly not limited to the narrowly defined sphere of politics, but is rather about creating new forms of participation in order to shape the social and material infrastructure required for a socio-ecological form of development. This includes the establishment of cooperative enterprises, whether banks or food cooperatives, as well as a mobility infrastructure that enables comprehensive mobility without car ownership. This socio-economic democratisation push cannot be created by political decree but has to take place predominantly outside the realm of conventional politics. Only when the understanding of democratisation has been severed from its links with established political institutions and themes will it be possible for the involvement of the people in the structure and organisation of community life allowing it to develop to its full creative potential.
A two-fold opening up is therefore required: that of state towards society and that of the people towards the community. In order for this opening up to work, dialogue and exchange are needed and certain institutions can provide a bridging function to enable this to take place. For example, neither the energy transition nor the mobility transition can be achieved with our current narrow and fragmented understanding of politics and society. Engaged and committed individuals need to recognise that small steps towards local sourcing and local recreation within a region are dependent on larger structural conditions and power relations: the economy is political, and the path to sustainability will involve overcoming the opposition of powerful lobbies and established and hitherto privileged interest groups. A regulatory framework that supports local markets and increases the price of fossil fuel-based mobility has to be fought for, and conflicts have to be fought out. Hearts and minds have to be won. All of this – rather than the simple faith that right will triumph – is a prerequisite for Transition Towns to be able to escape their niche status and become the norm for human settlements in the 21st century.
The party political foundations are well qualified to perform such a bridging function between state and civil society. At their best – that is, when they are adequately funded, as in Germany – they are in equal measure think tanks and instruments of political education. This gives them a dual role: on the one hand, they serve to enlighten and inform the citizens about their complex political systems; on the other, they raise awareness among political decision-makers that a transformation will only be possible with the help of an engaged citizenry and of many diverse local initiatives. Political foundations can thus create a new and positive vision of politics as the common management of the community, and can then demonstrate this vision in practice.
Austrian Green Foundation and All-Encompassing Democratisation
In Austria, the Grüne Bildungswerkstatt (Austrian Green Foundation) tries to act in this way, as a bridge between the political system and an engaged civil society. It is constituted not as a foundation but as a voluntary association and sees itself as part of civil society. Nevertheless, it receives the bulk of its funds due to its status as the organ for political education of the Austrian Green Party. This places it in close proximity to the political system and entails a legal responsibility for civic education of a kind that is above party politics. It tries to make the best possible use of this dual role.
This requires a clear and transparent self-conception, one that cannot be reduced either to the civil society dimension or to the party political dimension. At the core of this self-conception lies the practical utopia of a good life for all. This non-partisan goal enables it to conceive of its educational work as a contribution to the achievement of a sustainable civilisation. With the aid of a highly-developed feel for the processes of democratic negotiation, it transmits knowledge about the functioning of politics, society and the economy into the sphere of civil society.
The Austrian Green Foundation demonstrates to civil society organisations the continuing significance of state institutions.
Its bridging function enables it to prompt and stimulate its partner organisations in different directions. The Austrian Green Foundation demonstrates to civil society organisations the continuing significance of state institutions. The public financial resources available through central state taxation could make a very substantial contribution to funding the socio-ecological transformation. Therefore, the foundation collaborates in the civil society campaign against the TTIP and for a “Budget for the Future”, designed by civil society organisations. Transparency and democratic control over funding are core demands of the foundation.
In its dealings with state or government bodies, but also with the Green Party, the Grüne Bildungswerkstatt aims to encourage increasing experimentation with innovative participatory models and a systematic utilisation of the knowledge resources of civil society, of science and research, and of those directly affected by specific policies. It is precisely social movements, NGOs and NPOs which are important mediating factors within society and which politicise everyday problems with the aim of producing benefits for the common good. Good examples of such dual educational and political processes are the many growing networking initiatives such as ‘Another Europe is Possible!’ or the post-growth and commons movements. With proper respect for diversity and with a commitment to utilising different respective strengths in the pursuit of a common goal, it is indeed possible for a beautiful new mosaic to be created out of the fragments that are already there: one that is multifaceted, sustainable, fair – and democratic.