«Democracy means creating an open area for debate.»

Is his documentary film Democracy Ltd Robert Schabus investigates the crisis in European democracy, focussing especially on the failure of the political elite to listen to the needs of the people. The filmmaker explored the situation in the run-up to the 2017 elections in France and Germany, analysed the aftermath of the referendums in Great Britain and Greece and looked closely at Austria, now with a right wing government, in an attempt to understand why populism has met with such powerful resonance in these democracies.
One conversation in Democracy Ltd features political scientist Ivan Krastev, who proposes two dates – 9/11 in America and the year 2015 (with the so-called wave of refugees) in Europe – as the moments when people's attitudes towards their future changed fundamentally. What were the first signals for you that the political situation in Europe, though apparently so stable, could change permanently?
ROBERT SCHABUS: In my last project, Exit? I focused on agriculture. One result of this work was that I became aware of considerable sections of our society which are not reflected in political representation and which are at the mercy of other interests, such as those of the marketplace. While I was exploring the agricultural sector I found myself identifying a great deal with country life, and in Democracy Ltd I wanted to try and make a film which raised that to a different political level. At the time it was a year before the important 2017 elections in Europe, and the rise of populism was evident everywhere. That prompted me to take a closer look at why mistrust of politics was on the increase.
You have taken the primary instrument of democracy – direct elections – as the opportunity to film in several countries. You observe the elections in France and Germany in real time, while in Great Britain and Greece you study the aftermath of the referendums. Which nuances did you perceive in the attitudes of people in these different countries?
ROBERT SCHABUS: It’s important for me in my work to talk to people at the same level. For example, I spoke to a large number of people in northern France: if you vote for Marine Le Pen there, it generally doesn't have anything to do with right-wing opinions – instead, it's a form of protest. If you wanted to find right-wing attitudes, it wouldn't be difficult to do so. But the majority of voters really don’t share those ideas, and it wasn't my aim to show people echoing Pegida's views or to find the right wing on the rise. I was interested in people who work in precarious conditions in the countryside, who have been losing out for two or three decades, and I wanted to find out how they are doing. These people essentially feel they are not taken seriously, and that's the source of their discontent about immigration. It's not just a question of refugees: it's about migrant workers and the low level of wages that results. I understand that those people are indignant. I wouldn't rush to ascribe it to a dubious political ideology – it's much more a case of discontent expressing itself. Of course this groundswell also brings dubious populist attitudes. But exploring those would be a different film.
How did you perceive the situation in Greece?
ROBERT SCHABUS: My point of departure was the question: "What is democracy? What does it mean to be a shareholder in society?" That's all finished in Greece. People don't vote anymore; they no longer feel part of Europe, which has deeply disappointed them, just as their own political class has done. Political decisions have been taken in Greece which contravene the country‘s own democratic constitution. Fundamental principles have been transgressed to an extent that is hard to imagine from a central European perspective. We tend not to think about Greece anymore, because the crisis there is supposed to have been overcome. But Greeks no longer feel they are sovereign citizens. You can sense great melancholy and sadness there, along with a huge lack of interest. For the vast majority of people, trust in society has disappeared. Pensions were cut a number of times, half the hospitals were closed down, people suddenly discovered they were no longer insured. Mental disorders, suicide rates and infant mortality have all risen significantly. We're talking about a member of the EU here, even though it seems impossible from a central European perspective.
The second main level in Democracy Ltd comprises conversations with experts: politicians, political scientists, journalists and historians. What range of positions was important to you there? Which of them did you find particularly fascinating?
ROBERT SCHABUS: From a political perspective, the Belgian Paul Magnette, who was Minister-President of Wallonia before we started filming and was very active in the CETA protests. The whole of Europe felt it had been taken hostage, because Wallonia opposed CETA. In my view, that was legitimate democratic resistance to a free-trade treaty which undermined political participation. And it also helped everybody, because as a result standards were raised, even though it still wasn't a good treaty. Today Paul Magnette is the Social Democratic Mayor of Charleroi, a fascinating person who is very critical of his own movement. For me, he represents the social democracy of the future. Ulrike Hermann has been respected for many years for his expertise in the development of capitalism and neoliberalism. In these conversations it was important for me to find ways of seeing that open up a different conceptual window, because we are all in danger of simply having our views confirmed by everything around us and therefore increasingly losing any overall perspective. Ivan Krastev is another extraordinary interview partner, because he's prepared to look at the subject of immigration in a different way. For example, he explains the rise of populism in Eastern European countries with reference to the depopulation of entire regions of those lands. As a result people coming in from outside Europe are perceived in a very different way.
You devote the last section of the film to Austria, and you film in a symbol of the rise of Austrian social democracy, the Karl Marx Hof communal housing project; you also go to a compulsory state school, which just a few decades ago was still a symbol for us of a society which saw equality of opportunity as one of its core tenets. How illuminating were the statements of people you talked to in these places, in light of the current political situation?
ROBERT SCHABUS: The individual sections of Democracy Ltd address different subjects, such as the free market or precarious working conditions. In Austria I wanted to give the subject of immigration more space, because when we were filming that seemed more or less crucial to elections throughout Europe. The Karl Marx Hof is very significant historically, and between the wars it was a symbol of the powerful socialist movement in Vienna. It was a time when the social democratic ideal could be successful, because there was a great deal of identification with it, and a huge amount was happening in society. These days the development of society can also be seen clearly at a place like the Karl Marx Hof. The old lady I talk to in the film was born in 1929 and has spent virtually her whole life there, experiencing all the changes. She was politically active with the Communist Party and later with the Austrian Socialist Party, she worked all her life, and she's seen a transformation in the communal housing project. The thing that strikes her particularly is that today people's identification with the project, the feeling of having something in common with the other residents there, has declined. There isn't a feeling of solidarity anymore, and she feels alone there. 20 years ago there was still a Party treasurer there, so there was direct contact with the Socialist Party. Now that connection between the party and its base has disappeared.
What prompted you to visit a school for this film?
ROBERT SCHABUS: The school interested me because compulsory education means it's a place where everybody comes together. I picked a school in Vienna because the situation is more difficult today in urban areas, with a higher proportion of children from an immigrant background who don't have good German language skills. That means greater educational support is required: more staff, more money. School is a place where a lot of problems accumulate. The school principal told me she is herself from a working class family and managed to climb up the social ladder – but she doesn't think that’s possible today in urban areas. In cities at present it's rare for people to advance socially by means of education.
Ivan Krastev suggests that the perfect symbol of democracy is a person who is prepared to change his opinion as a result of arguments. Is that a concept of democracy you share?
ROBERT SCHABUS: I regard it as the crucial point. We have to talk to each other a great deal more. People who are at the bottom of society are not taken seriously. The point of a democracy is not only that you can vote every five or six years. Democracy means creating an open area for debate where everybody can contribute, everybody is taken seriously and all opinions are represented. That's where things have to be negotiated. Unfortunately, these days that only happens to a restricted extent, in comparison with the past. However, there are encouraging signs. In Ireland, where I filmed – although in the end I didn't use the material – there are what's known as Citizen Assemblies, which were founded after the financial crisis when nobody trusted the political class anymore and even politicians realised they had to come up with something. 100 citizens, chosen at random from right across the social spectrum, come together to discuss socially relevant subjects, and in order to do so they obtain comprehensive information from experts. It was this system which made it possible to legalise abortion in Ireland, for example. And this Irish model involves a very meaningful analysis of the subject. It is actually what democracy should fundamentally be about: taking an objective look at something and then discussing it together.
So your title, Democracy Ltd, is a powerful evocation of the limitations in an established form of government. Do you have the feeling that democracy based on a party system is in the process of disintegrating? Do you perceive a sense of unease that could topple a political stability which has been taken for granted for decades?
ROBERT SCHABUS: I certainly do sense that unease. That's what prompted me to make this film. I can see that political views are becoming narrower. Democracy per se is becoming a restricted sphere. People are prompted to ask the question: "Am I allowed to say something or aren't I?" I think that's extremely problematic. There are societies which describe themselves as "democratic" but have never actually been so. That one point. But it's also the case that a functioning democracy doesn't necessarily remain that way. We know from history that the situation can change. And that's why it's crucial to consider adopting a different or an expanded form of political representation, possibly a different way of involving the citizens of a country.

Interview: Karin Schiefer
March 2019

Translation: Charles Osborne