Congress Report: Reclaim Democracy

One and half years ago, the Swiss independent think tank  Denknetz asked the Seminar of Sociology of the University Basel to cooperate in the organisation of the congress Reclaim Democracy. The Seminar of Sociology willingly agreed to this cooperation because as Denknetz, they had perceived that western democracies were contested by right wing populism.

During the last one and half year, this perception became even more evident. We have witnessed right-wing populists usurping more and more western representative democracies. Whether it was the Brexit, Donald Trump’s inauguration, or the election of the AFD (Alternative for Germany) into several German Federal parliaments, like in 1933 in Germany or currently in Turkey, right-wing populists have used the power of democracy to transform representative democracies step by step into racist and authoritarian systems. Consequently, the imperative Reclaim Democracy raised the question of how we could reclaim democracy.

Firstly, the congress itself, held between 2 and 4 February 2017 at the University of Basel, is an answer. With 1800 participants, there were much more than the organisers had expected. For instance, the teach-in, Crisis in Turkey: From a Safe Third Country to Dictatorship? had to change rooms to the bigger, but still too small, auditorium of the University of Basel. Beside this huge public interest, the organisers and speakers acted in the spirit of democracy and took democracy seriously and the teach-in, the four panels and 50 workshops were held in a participatory way. These workshops dealt with:

  1.    Democracy, Fundamental Questions, Ecology, Populism, Complexity;
  2.    Neoliberal Globalisation and Democracy;
  3.    Democracy, Gender, Care;
  4.    Democracy, Economy, Capitalism;
  5.    Democracy, Migration, Racism, Social Exclusion;
  6.    Democracy, Media, Education and;
  7.    Contested Democracy, Democratic Everyday Life.

However, due to the amount of different workshops, this report cannot go into further details, instead it concentrates on the situation in Turkey, presented at the teach-in and on the solutions, presented at the four panels.

Participants workshop: “Doing Democracy?!”

The teach-in was a reaction to the Turkish constitutional referendum on the replacement of the current parliamentary system by an executive presidency, which will be held on 16. April 2017. This executive presidency would give the president controls over the executive, legislative and judiciary, while the parliament would become effectively powerless. In the teach-in, Crisis in Turkey: From a Safe Third Country to Dictatorship? Assistant Professor of Political Sociology at the University of Basel, Bilgin Ayata talked via Skype to Eyüp Burc, Editor in Chief of IMC TV and Eren Keskin, lawyer and co-chairwoman of the human rights association IHD. These two people have suffered oppression by the Turkish government. Eren Keskin has 156 trials waiting for her because of her engagements in human rights. These trials threaten her freedom. Eyüp Burcs has not suffered such personal threats, but as the Editor in Chief of IMC TV, he has witnessed how the pressure of the Turkish government on IMC TV to report uncritically has constantly increased. Finally, IMC TV, and several other Turkish media outlets, were shut down shortly after the Turkish coup d’état attempt on 15 July 2016.       


In the initial panel, Substantial Democracy and Buen Vivir, Alberto Acosta, economist and former Ecuadorian Minister of Energy, presented the notion of Buen Vivir. As Buen Vivir is a notion from the global south, grounded in Latin American indigenous culture, it differs a lot from western logic of endless growth and unlimited consumption. Acosta described it as a practice without theory, as an alternative to our concept of development, which forces the global south to follow the western logic of endless economic growth. Instead of the exploitation of nature, Buen Vivir is based on the principle of harmony between individuals, community and nature. In order to transfer this notion to Europe, Acosta proposes we should:

– Treat nature not as an object, but as a subject,

– Live in connection with nature,

– Develop a Universal Declaration of Natural Rights, equivalent to our Universal Declaration of Human Rights,

– Shift form anthropocentrism to biocentrism,

– Perceive machines as servants, not humans,

– Initiate a common dialog from the bottom.

All of this, as Acosta insists, “does not work without democracy”.

Another impulse at this panel came from Bilgin Ayata. For her, social science should not hide in the ‘ivory tower’ of neutral objectivity and should engage in politics.

In the second panel, Europe and the Democracy of Everyday Life, Srećko Horvat, co-founder of DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025), talked about the crisis of the European Union. For him, the former crisis of the European periphery, the refugee crisis, terrorism and right wing populism, have returned to the centre of Europe. The backlash to the nation state is no possible solution for him. His notion is to transform the fluidity of protest into a more stable form of organisation, such it is, besides others, DiEM25 for him. For him, the key to the success of such an organisation lies in a dialectics of horizontal and vertical organisation in combination with radical internationalism and a commons based economy. In order to realise the dialectics between a horizontal and vertical organisation, DiEM25s internal processes, such as the Progressive Agenda for Europe process, involves ordinary DiEM25 members as well an Expert Committee. A vote of all DiEM25 members on the acceptance or refusal of the outcome of any process marks the end of each process.

In the third panel, Racism, Colonialism, Democracy, keynote spokeswoman Gurminder K. Bhambra, Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, presented her approach of connected sociologies. She grounded her approach of an ‘Always-Already’ Global Age in a postcolonial criticism of eurocentrism in western educational systems. This eurocentrism became apparent, when she asked if anybody was familiar with the Haitian Revolution and only round about five people in the overcrowded auditorium raised their hands.

For her, the Haitian Revolution, which took place in the former French colony of Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1804, had a big influence on the French Revolution and thus on the development of European democracies. It is obvious that any influence of such an uncharted Revolution is almost never discussed here.

The same counts for the Industrial Revolution. While in western schools and universities the success of British cotton manufacturing is connected to the inventive genius and labour of British people, the globalised cheap labour on the cotton plantations in India and the United States, is seldom mentioned.

What seem to be at first glance interesting historical facts turn out to be crucial for our understanding of current situations, such as the refugee crisis. From her perspective, the current economic disparities, which force people to leave their country, are grounded in this long and uncharted tradition of exploitation.

In the fourth and last panel, Democracy, Movement, Party, Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science at the Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, argued for the creation of a new communist party. Because right-wing populists also use the concept of democracy to realise their vison of a racist and authoritarian society, Dean argued that the Left should not use this concept and should revitalise the notion of the communist party instead. For her, such a party should emerge from the crowds of protests. In her theory, these crowds are de-individualised and ambiguous. She argues that de-individualisation emerges from a group dynamics that lets the individuals feel and act like one unit. This group dynamics is her reason why crowds are ambiguous. On the one hand, crowds, or if you like, mass protests could develop an enormous political power. On the other hand, such a de-individualised crowd automatically represses individual reflection and crowds could easily be manipulated. Therefore, crowds could also be an instrument for right-wing populists to establish their dictatorship as well as an instrument for leftist emancipatory politics. The job of a communist party, in the sense of Jodi Dean, is to re-individualise these crowds, enabling democratic discussion and decision making of their members as well as responsible leadership from their leaders.

To sum up, at the congress Reclaim Democracy democracy was not only taken seriously by the organisers and speakers heading into democratic organisation of workshops and vital discussions during the panels, it also provided some ideas how it could be done. For sure, these ideas are as diverse as democracy is, ranging from Bilgin Ayatas’ political engaged social science, Alberto Acosta’s philosophy of Buen Vivir, Srećko Horvats DiEM25 movement, Gurminder K. Bhambra’s connected sociologies, Jodi Dean’s communist party, as well lots of other concepts presented at the workshops.

Further, the following 25 institutes, movements, NGOs, think tanks, labour unions and newspapers shows how a left emancipatory democracy is possible. It is only possible by cooperation.

The congress was enabled by the cooperation of: Denknetz, the  Seminar of Sociology of the University of Basel, the Department of Political Science of the University Luzern, the Department of Political Science of the University Vienna, the Faculté des sciences de la société de l‘Université de genève, the Institute of Latin American Studies of the Free University of Berlin,, the Research Group on Post-Growth Societies of the Universities of Jena and Basel, Widerspruch, Neue Wege, Multiwatch, Décroissance Basel, Attac, Planet 13¦Liste 13 Basel, Solifonds, InitiantInnen DemokratieInitiativen Baselland, Autonome Schule Zürich, Woman in Development Europe (WIDE) Switzerland, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung FES, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Institut Solidarische Moderne, Gewerkschaft syndicom, Verband des Personals Öffentlicher Dienste VPOD, Gewerkschaft Unia and Labournet.

Further reports about Reclaim Democracy (German):

WOZ Die Wochenzeitung (media partner),

Journal B,

ZS Züricher Studierendenzeitung,

Radio Bern RaBe,


Text and pictures CC-BY-SA 4.0 Philipp Adamik 2017

This article was also published here in the commmunity of Der Freitag.

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