Article on how the liberal establishment sees the future of democracy at the Athens Democracy Forum 2017

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Only last year the rich and powerful of the Athens Democracy Forum of the New York Times were shivering from fear. They needed to prioritise listening to the losers of globalisation and quickly, before it would all go to ruin. But hardly a year later they lull each other to sleep again during the ‘Davos for democracy’. Wilders and Le Pen lost, so the idea of listening to the ordinary man has suddenly vanished into thin air. Do we still find a shimmer of hope during this congress, though?


It’s 30°C and the breeze between the open colonnade of Attalus’ old Stoa is welcome. Here at the foot of the Acropolis the great ancient philosophers already discussed their ideas on how to steer our democracy. Today, more than 2000 years later, an elite of government leaders, foreign ministers and the ultra rich have come together to chitchat about the state of democracy. The Art of Organising Hope attended, curious to see which hopeful projects acquired enough attention to reach even the Mount Olympus of the international establishment.


The New York Times organises the Athens Democracy Forum on a yearly basis and this spectacularly quickly grew to become the heart of the international democratic debate. When the forum started in 2012 it occupied only one small room in Athens and was meant as a small celebration for the state of democracy all over world. But last year the atmosphere changed for the worse. Everyone was in a panic. “Mass migration and growing inequality, “terror and extremism”, “the end of the world as we know it”: the fear was palpable. The language was apocalyptic. Roger Cohen, the influential columnist of the New York Times and herald of the liberal world order, proclaimed to know what the problem was: “We’ve become out of touch with the biggest layers of the population. More and more people feel deceived by a system over which they have no influence anymore.” Mario Monti and Nobel Prize for Economy winner Paul Krugman nod in agreement.


A year later, in September 2017, we’re back again and the difference with the previous edition couldn’t be bigger. It seems like all the losers of globalisation, about whom Cohen held an ardent oration the year before, suddenly didn’t feel cheated anymore. In the Netherlands Geert Wilders lost the election, Mark Rutte won, and in France Marine Le Pen got slain by Emanuel Macron. Apparently that is enough to recklessly abandon the critical system analyses. Even He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, Donald Trump, can’t dampen the tempers. “Ah, our rule of law proves it can weather the storm. Trump fails in a lot of his plans because the sturdy pillars of democracy stop him in his tracks”, so says Cohen.


Momentarily it seemed this congress was heading to become a boring event. Transitions, citizens’ committees, and ‘organising hope’ were not discussed. Almost not, because halfway during the second day Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck made a jolt go through the conference. With a lot of spunk he reminds everyone of the real world that is happening right outside of the hall. The ominous percentages light up on the projection screen: in most countries around the world the believe in the sincerity of politicians is almost non-existent. In Greece 80 percent of the population thinks politics is corrupt beyond saving.


That’s a big chunk to swallow. These Gentlemen and Ladies walk from their room in the extravagantly expensive Hotel de Bretagne looking out on the Greek Parliament to the colonnade and exclusive opera concerts. But along the way they pass tens of dozens homeless people in the streets. They walk in the footsteps of a million Greek protesters who fought for a different system on the Syntagma Square. Their idealist dreams were expertly undressed by the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF), but the frustration has stuck. Talk to three Greek persons in Athens, and their impotence and anger is palpable. The victory on Wilders and Le Pen hasn’t changed these feelings one bit.


“We need to abolish elections”, shouts Van Reybrouck in the audience. Before the awkward giggles die out he already continues. “The citizen needs to be involved in the democratic process again. Elections are aristocratic. Democracy can’t be restricted to choosing a politician’s name every four years. That why I propose a new system… a draft!” During his well-prepared presentation, even with a short and fancy movie and all, Van Reybrouck manages to make even the powers that be dream. Giving the population a voice, yes, that is indeed a worthy cause. But isn’t that a tad bit naïve? Do the people know what’s good for them? The attendees scare themselves. These are the same arguments a totalitarian dictator would use. Van Reybrouck continues by giving examples from Australia, Ireland and the G1000 in Belgium that show how dialogue with the population can lead to more inclusive decisions. Citizens, chosen by draft, talk to each other about the future that concerns them. “That’s the way the ancient Greeks did it,” Van Reybrouck argues. “Our democracy also needs innovation.”


The Belgian writer steals the shows and receives a standing ovation. Only after a long queue of admirers has swarmed off to the lunch tables we get the chance to talk to him. He’s delighted. “I’m speechless.” Only the day before, former Secretary General of the United Nations, Kofi Anna, loudly praised Van Reybrouck’s ideas. During a reception in the Greek presidential palace the former said we need ideas like those of Van Reybrouck. “His speech was magisterial and made me think of Obama’s and Mandela’s”, Van Reybrouck ends.


Article by The Caravan’s Journal
Translation by Victoria Deluxe
Photos by The New York Times – Athens Democracy Forum