Switzerland – The Last Democracy

YouTube is very educational. Unlike it’s brethren, Facebook, which is almost useless when it comes to learning something useful, YouTube looks as if was made to advance human knowledge by the sheer power of moving pictures.

It is rather true what they say about a picture being worthy 1,000 words. What about 26 or 60 pictures per second, multiplied with a few minutes?! Human mind soaks these puppies like there was no tomorrow.

Anyhow, one YouTube channel “Arzamas” has the trappings of a robust historical tool. The content is top notch and the commentator, Brian Cox, makes it readily acceptable and cool to millions of English speakers worldwide.

But I digress, among the videos broadcast by Arzamas, two come to mind as perfect models of brevity: Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome.

Ancient Greece in 18 minutes
Ancient Rome in 20 minutes

Today, I wanted to share with you my thoughts, which in passing, coincide with those of the creators of the video, on Athenian democracy.

Before we even begin, let’s define democracy. The word demokratia comes from Ancient Greek. It juxtaposes two concepts: demos (the people, which 2,500 years ago meant all men living in the polis or city-state, excluding women, slaves, and foreigners) and kratos (power). Put together, demokratia meant direct democracy or power as exercised by military age men, to whom the political franchise applied.

Now, it is true that looking at Athenian direct democracy using 2020 lenses, you will say that the franchise excluded some 70-80% of the inhabitants of any given polis. However, it is illogical to judge an era missing all modern technological trappings that permit the just and equal participation of all adult members of our society, for its shortcomings. In other words, we cannot pass judgment on Pericle’s Athens, where brute labor was the basis of the economy, for its crass gender inequality.

Just because we are lucky to use machines to do the heavy lifting in our day and age, doesn’t mean we can fault our predecessors for their division of society.

Coming back to democracy, the underlying assumption of the video is that we do not have democracy today. I have always agreed with this. What we have instead is oligarchy, which is another word bequeathed us by the Ancient Greek, meaning the power of the few. In other words, our representative democracy is a joke, a simulacra, a poor remnant of the one true democracy, which was, as we have observed, quite limited in scope back in Ancient Greece.

The sole exception to this just observation is the Helvetic Confederation. It is here that direct democracy blossomed and extended the franchise to women, with the last canton Appenzel Innerhoden extending the franchise to women in 1991.

https://www.ina.fr/video/CAB7500882701 – screen capture from a 1975 video where we can see Soljenitsin attending a Landsgemeinde in Appenzell.

In this image, you will note the Swiss citizen-soldiers wear their ceremonial voting daggers. This is not a bellicose or intimidating gesture. This reminds people that only those of us who are ready to defend the country with their lives, are citizens with a say in the matters of the state.

Landsgemeinde in Trogen, Aargau (1814).
Die Landsgemeinde, fresco in the Federal Palace of Switzerland by Albert Welti and Wilhelm Balmer.

Swiss direct democracy stems from an ancient Swiss institution that is particular to the rural Cantons of central Switzerland: the Landsgemeine.

But how did the Landsgemeinde develop in the forest cantons of Switzerland (Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden) before the formation of the Swiss Confederacy?

It should not seem strange when in 1291 the communities or men from Uri, Unterwald and Schwyz came together pledging themselves into a brotherly bond to defend their ancient liberties. This unquenchable thirst for freedom was first recognized and codified by the Holy Roman Emperors when they granted these communities the Imperial immediacy or limited right to self-government (see Reichsfreiheit or Imperial immediacy – Wikipedia).

The Landsgemeinde is the open-air assembly of all citizens of a certain political unit (commune), which represents the entire body politic coming out to decide the political future of their communities. These assemblies go back to the 13th and even the 12th centuries.

This is the Swiss example of direct democracy.

The Landsgemeinde represents the internal political and legal foundation of the Swiss Confederation on which the federal union was built. It is the best representation of the Swiss ethos. The Landsgemeinde would not have worked, and would not have been possible under any other political system. It is our closest “link” or intermediary to the Athenian direct democracy still in existence.

Landsgemeinde is direct democracy. How can people call representative democracy – a democracy when the people only choose between a select few people?!

Steinberg explains this democratic process in his seminal Why Switzerland book (p. 20–21). He details why and how these people who in their vast majority were valley-dwelling shepherds, managed to construct their Eidgenossenschaft (or federal union of brethren) in order to defend their imperial immediacy or self-government.

You see, when you are a mountain dweller and you have to force the earth into sustaining you, and when every day means endless toil and labor, you value the fruit of your work on a different scale than, let`s say city-dwellers or farm hands, who can be easily subdued by their lords and masters. The Swiss central cantons were made up of rough people, used to back breaking labor, and imbued with the no-nonsense spirit that permeates those people who live a hard life.

It is more difficult for a medieval lord to break such sturdy people than it is to lord it over other sorts of people. To quote Benjamin Barber “To control Raetia (the Roman name for Switzerland) would mean to control through military occupation every valley and village ‘fraction’ in the land.” For instance in Graubunden alone, 188 out of 221 communes are above the 700 m high line.

The Swiss founding cantons escaped almost completely the manorial system imposed upon Western Europe by feudalism. The result is visible today: a free society where each member enjoys the same degree of sovereignty, equal rights and responsibilities.

2013 Landsgemeinde in Glarus.

Adding to this socio-political paradigm, comes the nutritional factor. Namely, Swiss peasant’s diet was high in protein, which allowed for very powerful individuals, with a marked aptitude for war and hunting. If we again included here a propensity for creating and constantly improving upon the design of their chief-weapons and tactics, i.e. Langspiessen, long pikes, then it does not take a genius to realize their potential by creating history. Morgarten, Sempach, Old Zurich War, Burgundian Wars or battles of Nancy, Morat, Grandson, the Swabian War and the War of the League of Cambrai were a culmination of the Swiss men to wage war successfully, ruthlessly (no quarter asked or given), and smartly (see how the Old Confederacy grew in the 14th-16th centuries).

Many people do not know this, but in the 14th-17th centuries, Swiss was not necessarily the name of a people but of a certain kind of people. Europeans would calls Swiss any people who would rebel against the ancient order of things, or go against their lords and kings. Basically, Swiss meant “dompteur de rois” or “king breaker” before it starting to designate the inhabitants of Switzerland.

To answer the central question, the Swiss central cantons declared their will to unite in defense of their ancient freedoms, recognized by the Emperor. When the Habsburgs disputed their pact, the Swiss pikes destroyed the Hapsburg armies sent to remind the insolent Swiss of their station in life. In 1315, at Morgarten, the three central cantons (Uri, Unterwald and Schwyz) made history by demonstrating to the world that free people can live free if they are willing to fight for their freedom.

1291 … that’s when it all started. This is the year when liberty awoke from 18 centuries of slumber.

Vidéo: Nos ancêtres les Schwytzois

Short answer: Si vis pacem para bellum! If you want peace, prepare for war!

In the middle to late 15th century, the fame and renown of the Swiss soldiers was such that the simple mention of a warring party hiring “Switzers” would sow confusion in the enemy ranks.


“Les Confédérés vont encore sortir renforcés des Guerres de Bourgogne (1474-1477), où les habitants des forêts, épaulés par de nombreux bourgeois depuis Sempach, ont continué à massacrer des nobles sur les champs de bataille pour devenir «les dompteurs des princes». La seule promesse de leur présence dans un conflit fait désormais réfléchir les belligérants. «J’ai étudié une bataille entre le duc de Savoie Amédée VIII et Francesco Sforza de Milan, où le simple fait d’annoncer dans sa correspondance de guerre qu’on a recruté des Suisses inquiète l’ennemi», raconte Roberto Biolzi.”

Quand les Suisses effrayaient les princes et les enfants

Landsknecht in red. Fernand Hodler (1895). Winterthur, Stiftung Oskar Reinhart. The painter dedicated multiple paintings to the Battle of Marignano. These were considered scandalous in 1897: the Marignano ensemble was considered «too brutal».

In any event, the Swiss fought for centuries for recognition of their liberties from the Empire, and their neighbors. Eventually, the independence and neutrality of the country became enshrined in European public law after the Peace of Westphalia (1648) and especially after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. During the 19th century, after going through a short and very humane civil war in 1847, Switzerland became a truly federal state under the Constitution of 1848, which was renewed in 1874.

Today, Swiss direct democracy expresses itself in three ways. The People can initiate a referendum, by building a quorum, and propose changes to the constitution (popular initiative). The People can also call into question an existing law already voted by the federal, cantonal and municipal legislative bodies.

And in two cantons, Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus, direct democracy lives on in its purest and undiluted form as the Landsgemeinde.

People have the final say. Not the Parliament. Not the Government. Not the Courts. Only the People.

The Swiss people are blessed to live in a political system that is fine tuned to listen to the will of an educated people who have so far avoided the traps of populism, which have plagued all forms of democracy since its introduction in Greece 2,600-2,700 years ago.

All other countries claiming to be democracies are mere imitators but in truth they are all oligarchies. Popular power cannot be diluted or transferred to a body of elected officials. By doing so, it loses its popular grassroots connection and becomes corrupt and tarnished. This is what is currently going on in the West, in the East, in Europe, and everywhere else. The people are slowly being dispossessed of their innate rights and responsibilities by the State or other corporate agents and entitites.

Democracy is dead every where else in the world. Perhaps the time has come to recognize this fact and look to history for guidance on how to rekindle its flame.

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