A Deepened Democracy

Closing Keynote at Innocracy 2021

In October 2021, I held the closing keynote at Innocracy 2021, the 5th Innocracy since its start in 2017. This keynote was my last as Policy Fellow at Das Progressive Zentrum. I used this talk as an opportunity to summarise the core ideas and lines of thinking since kicking off Innocracy and its awesome network. In this talk, I heavily relied on some of the thoughts I spelled out in the third part of my recent book Unlearn. A Compass for Radical Transformation.

Last week, I travelled through time, in an experiment that happened at this year’s Emerge Gathering here in Berlin.

The question we asked – facilitated by Phoebe Tickell of Moral Imaginations – was this: How would we describe the times we live in to our descendants? And what would humans living in the year 2200 say to us if they could?

I had the privilege to look through the eyes of a human being living seven generations in the future. From my 22nd century perspective, I urged my ancestors to be more radical, more decisive and bold in their attempts to master the great transformation.

To my surprise, these words were fueled not so much by anger or impatience, by an intense empathy. I felt compassion and warmth towards these humans from 2021.

Looking at 2021 from the future, I understood: “These humans faced the challenge to fundamentally undo the world they had built in the decades before. They had to rewrite many of the ground rules their societies and economies rested upon.”

What moved me most was how humans in the 21st century cultivated a new quality of relating in this process: to other humans, to other species, to the planet and its web of life as a whole.

Indeed, looking back 180 years, I realised: the human civilisation of the 21st century humans mastered a fundamental reconfiguration of how they related to life itself. A paradigmatic shift: in the 21st century, humans had given up the mistaken notion that they were superior to other life on earth.

In this moment, the Great Transformation of the 21st century showed itself as something that was far bigger than the mere realisation of radical political reforms. To me as future citizen, it presented itself as a new paradigm, even more fundamental than the so-called Enlightenment from early modern times. The 21st century changed how humans saw the world, and themselves in it.

Now, obviously I cannot know how humans in 180 years will be looking back on us today. But it might be that, if things go well, the history books of the 22nd century will describe the 21st century as an era of reconciliation. An era when human society re-integrated itself into the boundaries of the eco-system. An era when, for the first time since the beginning of modernity, humanity successfully balanced its immediate needs with those of non-human life and future generations.

Looking from this perspective, democracy has a historic moment to seize. In the coming years, it can become a driving force in reconciling our societies with the overall needs of humanity and non-human life.

For the first time in the history of modern democracy, we could create a balance between short-term interest and long-term needs, nations and human civilisation, human- and non-human life.

Grand words, I know. But I do indeed believe that, ultimately, this is what is at stake. When we discuss the ecological and social transformation we are currently facing, we discuss the fundamental rebalancing of short-term material and long-term systemic interest. A fundamental shift, not only in structure, but also in culture and worldview: how we as humans see us, our context, and how we relate to it.

Over the past decades, democracy (very successfully) focused on the individual, geared to facilitate individual liberty and happiness. It becomes increasingly clear that it must transcend this focus. What our time asks for is to give equal value to the collective and the systemic perspective: to ensure the long-term wellbeing not only of individuals, but also of mankind as a whole, as well as other life on earth.

The question democracy faces is this: How can democratic societies foster a culture of liberty that does not systemically violate the greater whole? What does a democracy look like that understands itself as part of the ecosystem’s life web, not external or superior to other life on earth?

If we take the 22nd century perspective, three strategic imperatives for 21st century democracy seem of special importance.

First, democratic societies must enable and catalyse the integration of democratic societies within the boundaries of the ecosystem. The question how we do this will bring with it heavy political battles — but the fact that this re-integration is needed is non-negotiable.

Second, democracy must establish ground rules that enable society to thrive in the long term. We must govern from a long-term perspective that considers the well-being of future generations while respecting the needs of citizens today.

As we all know, this brings with it considerable tension with some of the core principles of democracy. After all, sustainable long-term governance must still gain democratic majorities in the short-term.

Third, a central challenge for democracy today lies in systematically cultivating a collective consciousness that respects, honours and legitimizes a systemic, long-term approach to politics. The task at hand is to catalyse a political culture that includes the well-being of others into everyday thinking: the well-being of other citizens, of people in other countries, species that are not human, and so on.

Now, what does these three imperatives mean for the political agenda of the coming years?

Firstly, we must ensure that the principles and structures of democratic societies are systematically geared towards long-term systemic well-being. We must alter many of the fundamental logics of how we organise politics and the government, as well as the market.

The good news is that the means for doing so already exist. Over the past years, around the globe, many viable transformative ideas have been created that can help readjusting democracy and the market towards a more systemic, long-term perspective.

To name but a few: The reconfiguration of the GDP; the strategic implementation of the Donut Economy Model; the systematic implementation of Future Councils and Citizens Assemblies. I am happy to say that many of this and last years’ speakers at this conference embody these ideas in their work, people like Maja Göpel, Otto Scharmer, Indra Adnan, Patrizia Nanz, Amitav Ghosh, Uffe Elbaek, Roman Krznaric, to name just a few from the past years, or, to pick out some names from this year, visionary practitioners like Caroline Paulick-Thiel and Indy Johar.

In other words, viable pathways for restructuring democratic governance towards a sustainable, long-term focus exist. Not enough, maybe, but there is a solid fundament we can build on. What we need now are democratic leaders who organise parliamentary majorities for these ideas and establish them as part of the permanent democratic architecture.

The second task is harder, because there is less awareness for it, and there are less ideas ready for realisation. I would call this task the inner dimension of democratic transformation. The question is: how can we systematically incentivise and catalyse a mainstream culture that accepts and embraces a wider systemic perspective?

This is a crucial question. After all, for the majority of voters to accept and legitimise a kind of politics that is geared towards a systemic, long-term strategy, we need citizens who buy into the assumptions that lie behind this political approach.

Only if this is the case, will democracy be able to act in a way that takes into account the well-being of people who are not voters, of life that is not people, and the planetary fundament that nourishes and sustains life on earth itself.

The System we need, from Unlearn. A Compass for Radical Transformation, Perspectiva Press 2021

The challenge thus lies in not only transforming our ground-rules, structures and institutions. We must also transform ourselves: our identity, the way we relate, the way we live.

In many ways, what I describe is a process of deepening democracy. In modern history, democratisation meant including voices into democratic discourse and decision-making that had not been heard and included before. The challenge we face now lies in including perspectives that cannot easily be represented in national parliaments: the interests of humans from other ends of the world, or the interests of species that are not human.

But how do we get there? Today, we lack awareness in the political sector that the cultivation of a deepened democratic mindset is a task of vital importance. Adding to that, compared to reforming institutions and changing structures, changing consciousness is a lot more non-linear, far less tangible, and radically decentral.

In other words, the evolution of our democratic mindset and culture cannot be planned and executed. It is a development that is necessarily highly decentral because it requires individual reflection and growth.

And yet, there are things that can be done politically to foster this inner development of society. If we take the insights from adult development psychology seriously, the task at hand is to systematically provide impulses and nudges for and towards the inner development of all citizens.

Be aware: This means more than life-long learning. Learning, of course, is important. But I speak about addressing the human ability to change how we see the world, and how we relate to it.

We know that, as humans, we have the capacity to grow, and develop the capability to handle higher complexity in our perception, thought, and action.

We also know that there are certain environments that help humans to evolve in such a way. Put very simply, to develop people need spaces where they can safely go beyond the boundaries of their inner comfort zones. Spaces where they get the opportunity to reflect themselves, their context, and their position within that context. This creates new perspectives, on ourself and the world we live in.

Some of you may remember the example from Sweden Tomas Björkman shared with us at Innocracy 2018. He spoke about how, around a 150 years ago, Sweden opened state-funded centres for adult development, open for all members of society. Spaces where people could reflect themselves, grow and develop as human beings. These centres were a major booster for the rapid development of Scandinavian societies in the late 19th century. The development of individuals helped society to evolve towards a new level of complexity.

Tomas Björkman at Innocracy 2018

This example shows: it is possible to systematically provide spaces for inner development. If 19th and early 20th century Scandinavia could do it — why shouldn’t we be able to do something similar? I think it is important to explore this question very seriously, and to invest political and financial capital into creating such spaces.

What I learned over the past 15 years on the political playfield is this: we do not lack information regarding the situation we are in. We do not lack ideas that help us tackle the challenges of our times. We also do not lack the economical means to implement these ideas.

What we lack is both the individual and collective consciousness that helps us realise a different kind of politics. Our inner worlds are the blind spot that limit our capacity to effectively respond to the metacrisis we face. Only if we change this inner world will we be able to successfully reconfigure the human-made world we have built over the past decades.

This is why we should invest more to catalyse the inner development of democratic society. The expansion of our inner capacity to transform, individually and collectively, deserves as much attention as the reform of our external systems and structures.

As some of you know, one of my intentions when we started the Innocracy conference was to gain attention for the inner dimension of democratic transformation.

Arguing for this perspective, and translating it for the political playing field, is an ongoing inquiry for me. It will stay with me over the years to come. At the same time, today is my last day as Policy Fellow, and thus also as co-host of this conference. This is why I want to close my keynote with gratitude.

This conference and its network enabled me to meet many new allies from all over the world. People who are at the forefront of democratic reform and a deepened democratic practice.

I am very grateful for these encounters and connections. They enriched my heart and my mind. And I believe that this network we built together bears precious fractals. Small examples for a different kind of democratic practice that carry a potential for a better societal future.

So I want to say thank you.

This also goes to my colleagues at Das Progressive Zentrum, many of whom became friends over the past years. I treasure many of the moments we shared over the last 8 years, and am happy our ways crossed. And I am happy about the long time we worked together, especially because I know that my perspective and interest at many points expanded — and sometimes transgressed — the circle of interest you guys were willing to cover.

I must admit that I experienced a growing schasm over the past years. On the one hand, there is an intensifying need for decisive, radical political reform. On the other, this need was met by political institutions that all too often did their best to ignore or delay meaningful reform.

I hope that this situation will change, and that the established political space cultivates more honest curiosity for new perspectives, ideas, and people. It certainly would benefit from them.

I am sure our ways will continue to cross, and I am looking forward to what is to come.

I thank you and wish you all the best.

Berlin, October 15, 2021

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