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democracy

Center for Democracy

Democracy is about more than just the constitution of states and other organisations (whether written or not). It is only real and living in its core when citizens are able to be actively involved in and take responsibility for the issues which affect everyone - including being part of the agenda-setting and decision-making processes, and even having “the last word”.

The Kids Globe “Center for Democracy” sees itself as a platform and workshop for democracy, in which young people can develop and launch all kinds of different projects. Any project with a social-political context can potentially be supported and co-organised by the Center for Democracy, especially if the project concerns issues of democracy.

In its wider modern sense, democracy is  not about a crude “tyranny of the majority” - it implies having respect for, and integrating where possible, the political and social views and wishes of minorities in society. Democracy is never a finished concept, or even process: if it is not to become rigid and inflexible, it must be constantly evolving, questioning its own history and presumptions - and that means that politicians and public alike must be constantly reflecting on it, discussing and debating it, pushing the boundaries, and finding new ways of making it live in a practical way in society (for instance, in the home and in the school classroom, where the principles of democracy can be first learned). In essence, it is about the relationship - the balance - between the individual and society, and in particular between the representatives and those they represent.  It is also essentially about power and its just distribution and exercise - so it is always watchful to prevent power being monopolized by sectional interests, whether they be political, economic, corporate, religious or other.

Democracy depends crucially on active citizenship - practical engagement in the political issues of the day. To get people interested in becoming active citizens it’s necessary to constantly pursue the answer to the question: what does a living democracy need in practice. As already noted, democracy can or should never be a state or condition which is defined or given at some time and which then simply persists as an institution. It has to be a permanent challenge to human thinking and acting, and so a living democracy has to constantly reinvent itself. The German poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller wrote that: “Only by being daily forced to win them for oneself does someone earn the right to freedom and life”. His words apply just as fully to democracy.

A living democracy places high demands on both individual and society. The individual has to be prepared to develop solutions which are viable not just for him-or herself or the interest group they support, but for the whole of society. In turn, society must be prepared to look with unprejudiced eyes at unconventional and uncomfortable views and proposed solutions and give them a chance of being more widely accepted and/or tested in practice. Without this dual and complementary readiness democracy will die - we see it happening before our very eyes in many places in the world, even in those places which claim to be the most ‘democratic’.

Democracy is under threat from a host of directions. On the one hand we have rigid ideological positions based on prejudice, assumptions of the right to rule by political parties (where there is often little to choose between supposedly opposite sides of the political spectrum), abuses of power, corruption and the deliberate undermining of citizens’ rights by lobby groups, unelected officials, the media and powerful elites; in addition there is the growing distancing of political decision-making from ‘ordinary’ life through the globalisation of politics and the privatisation and monetisation/commercialisation of what were previously public goods and services. On the other hand, the threats have more to do with the apathy and alienation of the individual citizen - often especially the young - from politics in general, a phenomenon visible in many ‘democracies’ today. Today especially, the individual citizen has to find considerable strength of conviction and will to resist the danger of being brought - by our corporate-controlled mainstream media - to think like everyone else and to have the courage to make up his/her own mind on what is really happening in the world. This is one of the challenges which the Center for Democracy wants to take up: to see democracy as an educational issue and to meet the challenges of our time through project-oriented, political education - especially with young people. In this context, all projects - whether they come from theoretical or primarily practical approaches - can be seen as the building bricks of the work of political education.

Planned projects on the theme of democracy:

Folketing High Schools

›Folketing High Schools‹ – this special form of educational offering has been well-established in some Scandinavian countries since the 19th century. A rough translation would be “Folk High School”, but the Folketing schools differ somewhat from the standard model of state high schools common in many countries. The “Folketing High Schools” are places where school pupils - including adults - work for a day, or even several months, on a topic which they themselves have chosen, researching, discussing and producing written and other materials on it until they are satisfied that they have covered it adequately. Experts and representatives of related special interests - bringing a wide spectrum of views - are invited to contribute. The Center for Democracy sees itself as a platform for such shared elaboration of an issue - in particular issues which relate both directly and indirectly to the theme of democracy.

School newspaper/magazine editors’ seminars

We plan to invite 20-30 school newspaper/magazine editors and one professional newspaper editor, who will talk about his job and explain how to produce quality, interesting articles. An overall theme is chosen beforehand - for example, Germany and its neighbour Poland. As part of the seminar, the school editors will be sent to Oranienburg, where they will have the opportunity of interviewing local people about the chosen topic. The recorded interviews can then be integrated into their articles. The overall aim is for the seminar to cooperatively produce an issue of a newspaper. The seminars can perhaps be organised in cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and/or other organisations - such as the local (Berlin-Brandenburg) branch of the Young European Movement. 

Democracy in the global context

Substantive issues are increasingly being decided in international organisations. The Office of Statistics of the German Parliament recently calculated that on average over the last decade or so, 80% of all federal German laws had actually been passed in the various institutions of the European Union. One consequence is that the Parliament - which used to be seen as the heart of the representative democratic system - has steadily lost many of its powers. Given this trend, we need to ask how such international processes can be democratised i.e. how citizens (in this case the citizens of the whole EU) can take part in the agenda-setting and decision-making. At the same time, it is also important for people to gain an understanding of the global dimensions of many of today’s problems. One way of addressing both these aspects is to foster international exchanges, especially of young people, and to provide meeting-places where young people of many different countries can come together to study global issues and develop practical global solutions. Fostering an awareness of global contexts is one of the primary goals of the Kids Globe Academy and its Center for Democracy.

Democracy in Germany over the last century

There are probably more people researching recent German history in the region of Berlin-Brandenburg than in any other part of Germany.

Democracy as a form of political organisation of the state, and as a way of life for individual citizens, has so far developed very slowly. In the first fourteen years of the experience of German democracy - during the Weimar Republic - there was still a dominant mood of submissiveness to authority, which made it difficult for individual citizens to form their own, free opinions. This explains to some extent how and why Germany became subject to a Nazi dictatorship, which was responsible to a large extent for the outbreak of the Second World War and for many of the horrendous crimes against humanity which were perpetrated in Europe. The Kids Globe estate at Grabowsee is not far from Sachsenhausen, which served as a prison camp both under the Nazi regime and later under the Russian occupation, with many thousands of its occupants dying within its walls. Sachsenhausen has a special relationship to the theme of democracy because many, perhaps even most, of its prisoners were political prisoners - people labelled “enemies of the state” because they opposed the state system. Democracy must surely find ways of guarding against such abuses of state power. After the end of WWII, two very different political systems developed in Germany - both of them claiming to be democratic. The similarities and differences between the two systems make it possible to approach some important questions, such as: what is democracy? how do we recognise it? how do we distinguish between genuine and pseudo-democracy? what can West Germans learn from the East German experience - and vice versa?

Representative and Direct Democracy

If people are to be motivated to become active citizens, practically involved in politics, it will be necessary to pay much greater attention to how the political system is shaped and how it operates. Understanding how it works may reveal opportunities for effective self-organisation. This is precisely what has happened with the theory and practice of direct democracy (as a complement to representative democracy): many more people have become aware of it as a political option and there has been a great increase in its use, for example in the practice of citizen-initiated referendums. In 2000, there was the first non-aligned (i.e. above party affiliation) initiative in Brandenburg for more (direct) democracy, which sought to lower the constitutionally fixed quorums for citizen-initiated legislation, so that initiatives would no longer be defeated by the high quorums before a proposal could come to a referendum. The Center for Democracy would aim to shed further light on these issues and be a focus and inspiration for new initiatives for more democracy in Brandenburg.

Cooperation with Potsdam University

It is intended that the Center for Democracy and the entire Kids Globe project should be scientifically and academically supported and accompanied. The Faculty of Economic and Social Sciences at the University of Potsdam would be an ideal academic partner for the Center for Democracy, offering both a global perspective and a local perspective in terms of development issues specifically relating to the State of Brandenburg.          

Democracy and Art

Democracy should ideally be an extremely creative and artistic element in society - but it remains an abstract idea as long as it is not experienced personally. If art is capable of making abstract political ideas and processes available to the general public, then it should be able to bring living and lived democracy closer to people. It is in this sense that Joseph Beuys understood society as ‘social sculpture‘ - where everyone who gets involved through direct communication and debate becomes a co-sculptor working on a common grand artistic project. Beuys created an Office for Direct Democracy at a time when the subject was completely unfashionable. In terms of how Kids Globe could be practically involved with the world of the arts outside of the Grabowsee Estate, we can imagine a collaboration with the Academy of Dramatic Art in Berlin, for example, on ways of representing and promoting real democracy through drama.

Democracy and the media

Only around 1 in 20 German citizens now list newspapers as their primary source of information. TV is now the major source, with the Internet rapidly gaining ground. At the same time, many young people feel overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of information now available. What the Center for Democracy can offer is expertise and practice in the critical evaluation of this surfeit of information, of the ways in which it is presented, and of its frequently suspect accuracy and objectivity, so that instead of being a problem and a source of exploitation and manipulation, the media can become a useful tool for our project work.

Children’s and Young Persons’ Council at Kids Globe

The Center for Democracy at the Grabowsee Estate will be housed in the Town Hall - the former sanatorium director’s villa - along with the Children’s and Young People’s Council. No other location would be as well-suited to also handling questions about the internal organisation of the whole “Kids Globe Grabowsee” project. When discussion and decision-making processes need to be organised, the Center for Democracy should be available to give advice and to moderate - but also simply to provide the meeting-space for deliberations. Our two political scientists, Carsten Berg and Nils Ehlers, are centrally involved in the creation of the Center for Democracy at Grabowsee and are committed to its aim of making young people aware of democratic processes, deepening their knowledge of them and guiding them through their practical application as tools for improving the quality of decision-making in society.

Carsten Berg
(English translation Paul Carline)


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