Learning from Switzerland: the democratic braid

Democracy in Switzerland is fascinating. As a casual visitor to Switzerland — even if you stay for several weeks — you will doubtless find the country both charming and alarmingly close to the chocolate box cliché: the pastures are green, the cows do indeed all have bells, and the villages are as immaculate as they are pretty. The people are friendly, if a little reserved. However, if you stay longer, and especially if you get to know some Swiss people, you can start to see that the country has some intriguing characteristics. The following are reflections on the country that occurred to me during my four month residency at Atelier Mondial, Basel.

One characteristic that will be apparent to you even during a short stay is that Swiss people seem to be very fond of rules. In walking around Basel, for example, I noticed early on that pedestrians almost never cross at intersections until the walk sign lights up, even when there’s no traffic. I think I crossed once, and the unhappy stares from my fellow pedestrians was enough to tell me that I had transgressed. There are rules for seemingly everything: your rubbish must be in the correct bag size and it must have the appropriate label. You purchase these labels and there are penalties for not using them. Your recycling has to be carefully sorted: paper must not be mixed with cardboard, and the paper must be neatly wrapped in string. Again, I saw very little non-compliance, and I strongly suspect that the non-compliance I did see was not from the locals.

You might imagine that all this rule-following would be oppressive, and doubtless it would be, if you’re opposed to rules in general. I found the rules to generally be well considered, sensible and easy to follow, so for me it was not a problem (even if I sometimes became impatient waiting to cross an empty road). 

A question of trust

A less obvious characteristic than the love of rules is that Switzerland has very high levels of trust. With time, you'll find both an extraordinarily high degree of personal trust and a high degree of trust in political institutions — notably, far higher than in other European countries. I found that this trust is both very apparent at a personal level, disarmingly so. My subjective experience is consistent with empirical studies: Switzerland has particularly high levels of trust, both in terms of interpersonal trust, and in terms of trust in political institutions. I find it interesting to note that Switzerland’s levels of political trust are higher than those of its neighbours: higher than northern Europe and far higher than southern Europe and France. There are good reasons to think that this is because of the distinctive qualities of Switzerland’s political processes and institutions.

The role of participatory democracy

In practice I found that Swiss people take a lot of pride in their democratic systems. I heard many complaints about particular political parties, or about political attitudes in other regions, but few, if any, negative remarks about the system per se.1 You’re perhaps aware that Switzerland makes good use of direct democracy in the form of referenda; I hadn’t realised just how deep this process runs in the country’s systems. As in Australia, constitutional changes require a referendum; unlike Australia, these changes can be popularly initiated. Referenda can also be requested for any change in a law. I won’t describe the systems further, but suffice it to say that Switzerland is profoundly democratic.

I think these three aspects — rule-following, high levels of trust, and deep democracy — are almost certainly interlinked and inter-dependent. In fact, my impression is they form a sort of braid. Rule-following enhances trust (you can rely on others to behave well); the rules are generally sensible, and both democratically established and modified (if a rule is stupid you can probably change it) so it makes sense to follow the rules; and so on. If levels of trust (say) were to decline, or if Switzerland were to somehow become less democratic, perhaps this would change. 

With levels of trust in political institutions and democracy in decline throughout the world, I can’t help but feel strongly that we can learn from Switzerland and see that the cure to democracy’s ills is more democracy. Much more.

  1. You hear a lot of stories and jokes about the unfortunate consequences of being so democratic, such as the recent referendum on whether farmers should be prohibited from dehorning cows. (This was rejected.) But I heard no one suggest that the system itself was at fault.

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Another sketchbook study from yesterday’s alpine adventure. This is a section of the mighty 300m cliff walls of the Lauterbrunnental. The valley is very young, having been carved by glaciers during the last ice age (24,000 to 10,000 years ago).

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Yesterday I went on my first proper alpine adventure, wandering up the Lauterbrunnental, a valley carved out by glaciers in the last ice age. I stopped to do this view of the peaks of Mönch and Jungfrau. (Eiger is concealed by the cliff walls on the left.)

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The worlds of Sie and du

I only learnt German at high school for three years; I enjoyed it, but it was far from my strongest subject. My father spoke German like a native speaker and my parents (who were both from Melbourne, by the way) would sing us lullabies in German when my brothers and I were small. So I’ve always been in the curious position of having an emotional attachment to a language I never spoke well, a slight sense of shame at disappointing my father by not mastering it, and the additional irritation at having since forgotten a great deal.

As if to confirm my theory that almost everything you learn becomes useful at some point, I’m now in Basel, Switzerland on a four month residency at Atelier Mondial, supported by Artsource. It’s a German-speaking region. While it is true that most people speak English, and sometimes to a very high standard, it’s certainly not true of everyone you meet. So it’s useful — occasionally very useful — to know some German. However, that wasn’t my primary motivation in trying to pull my rudimentary German into something more usable. For one, I’ve always felt that there’s something a little shameful, even rude, in relying on the global dominance of English as a lingua franca.* For another, I’ve long suspected that speaking a language with its native speakers — especially on their home turf — can give you a perspective on their culture and mentality that is otherwise unavailable to you. I had a remarkable experience a few days ago that seems to bear out this hypothesis.

To give a little background: you might know that in German, as in French and (I imagine) most other European languages, there are two different ways of saying “you”. Which one you use depends on your relationship with the other person. To someone you don’t know, or with whom you have an otherwise formal relationship, you use the formal mode of address: to say “you”, you say Sie. It’s only with friends and family that you use the informal “you”, which is “du”. My perception of this arrangement was always that Sie — the formal “you” — was essentially a distancing measure, a way of keeping other people at arm’s length. We don’t have this arrangement in English; surely saying “you” to everyone is friendlier, more egalitarian?

Fellow Perth artist Rina Franz and I were having dinner with some lovely Baslers we had met a few days earlier. (Rina is also doing a residency at Atelier Mondial.) The conversation was in a mix of German and English. Obviously, when I met these people I had been careful to address them as Sie. During the course of the meal, however, I noticed that at some point we had all switched to the informal du. Perhaps it was just the wine, but at that point I experienced a new feeling: a sense of warmth and inclusiveness, a sense of being part of “us” — this group of people now on friendly terms. It was a bit like finding that I was a member of a new family, but without any awareness of the transition.

So my perspective on this feature of German — which I had always disliked — was changed. I have no doubt that using Sie is a way of keeping others at arms length. But there’s a lot more to the picture. You can transition from the hard-edged world of Sie to the soft and cosy world of du. Having made this transition, I no longer see the world of Sie as simply icy and unfriendly: I think the better perspective is that it’s a way of showing respect to strangers. To address them as du without having made the proper transition wouldn’t only be presumptuous — it could suggest an infantilising contempt. Because the only strangers you can address as du are children.

* As an aside: I do think it’s a good thing that there is a global language. It’s just that I would prefer it were one that didn’t have the horrible colonial history of English.

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