Participation, Sharing, Exchanging

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    Fikrun wa Fann was a cultural magazine published by the Goethe Institute from 1963 to 2016 that supported and shaped the cultural exchange between Germany and Islamic countries. Together with the publishing of the last issue, “Flight and Displacement” (issue 105), in autumn of 2016 the maintenance and updating of this online portal was ceased.

    The Warmth Character of Thought
    Joseph Beuys’ Idea of an Omnibus for All, by All, with All

    For many years now, the OMNIBUS FOR DIRECT DEMOCRACY has been travelling around Germany and Europe, encouraging people to wrest back democracy from the politicians and play a greater role in shaping it by taking the initiative. The roots of this initiative – the only one of its kind in the world – can be traced back to the German artist Joseph Beuys and his concept of how we can shape the way we live together (‘social sculpture’ – society as a work of art).

    This article is intended to be a manifesto: a manifesto on the dignity of humans, on the beauty of the world, and of a joint future filled with meaning. It is not intended to be yet another movement in the symphony of catastrophes haunting our world, nor is it a description of the angst-ridden paralysis felt by overwhelmed humans at the mercy of an incessant wave of unchangeable events. After all, we have created the situation we are in and we have the power to change it.

    ‘It is all about the warmth character of thought. That is the new quality of will’ – Joseph Beuys

    We are witnessing an incredible moment in the development of humanity. We are living at a time when humans are, for the first time ever, experiencing themselves as humanity. It is called ‘globalisation’. Our vision is no longer restricted to our immediate environment alone; instead, we are supplied with comprehensive information from all four corners of the globe. Even if there are those who say that, because of new technology, this information is saturated with a high dose of targeted disinformation, this does not change the actual experience itself. We know that we humans are responsible for the state the world is in; we know that Nature is out of kilter because of our actions, and we also know that we are responsible for the way we live together. Even if not everyone is consciously aware of this fact, we can at least feel it. Humans are now responsible for the way the Earth will develop from here on in. I am responsible for my own biography.

    Yes, I am a natural being, a creation that does not know its origins. Yet at the same time, I – unlike the plants and animals that are tormented by us – am a mature being that is responsible for our current state and future development. From this moment on, anyone and everyone is responsible for the way our world is shaped.

    Social sculpture

    This experience in thinking, feeling, and wanting was the life discovery of the world-renowned artist Joseph Beuys, who passed away in Germany in 1986. He envisioned a Gesamtkunstwerk that can be created by humans, and called this joint work of art ‘social sculpture’. The social sculpture is a living work of art that is constantly changing, that only exists and decays in the presentness of humankind as a result of the immediate, intuitive registering and generation of ordered proportions with and among each other – with Nature and with humans.

    With this idea in mind, every human can immediately begin artistically shaping his or her own biography and can, in the same spirit, also dare to begin this total artwork of social sculpture together with everyone else. ‘Every human being is an artist’ is probably the most famous sentence uttered by Joseph Beuys. Perhaps it is also the most misunderstood. Beuys never meant this sentence to mean that every human being is an artist in the classic sense, i.e. that everyone is a sculptor, a painter, or a musician. He always meant it to mean that, from this point on, every human bears responsibility for shaping his or her life and the world, even if he or she does nothing at all.

    Communication by omnibus

    In order to move from the shaping of our personal and private lives to the joint shaping of the way all people coexist, we need a communication element, which is where the not-for-profit organisation OMNIBUS FOR DIRECT DEMOCRACY and the idea of the Volksabstimmung come in. A Volksabstimmung is a kind of plebiscite in Germany. The word literally means ‘people’s vote’.

    Have you ever encountered a mobile school staffed by teachers who come to you, speak to you, listen to your ideas, thoughts, and desires, take them on board and pass them on? Whose teaching staff always consider themselves to be pupils too? Who are utterly convinced that we all have the same rights, which is why it is absolutely indispensable that we all agree together on the form our community takes in a manner that is based on equal rights? People who see this process of shaping society as art and are serious about Joseph Beuys’ statement that ‘every human being is an artist’? If so, you have probably encountered the unusual OMNIBUS FOR DIRECT DEMOCRACY that has been crisscrossing Germany and Europe for twenty-seven years, always reminding people to develop themselves as free beings.

    Every spring, the OMNIBUS FOR DIRECT DEMOCRACY sets out on a new journey and spends eight months on the road. It travels from city to city, stopping at events, universities, and schools; it parks in pedestrian zones, marketplaces, school playgrounds, and university campuses – always in search of discussion and interaction.

    Werner Küppers has been the captain of the OMNIBUS for fifteen years. He himself says that his work with the OMNIBUS has become his purpose in life. He is the fixed point, the one constant in the ever-changing team of everyday heroes. He and three other OMNIBUS passengers see themselves as gardeners, the people who are generating the humus for the future, creating the substance that gives people the opportunity to create a co-existence that is filled with meaning, interacting with Nature in a way that fits their character. These four people live and work in and on the OMNIBUS. Schoolchildren and students often join the OMNIBUS as interns, travelling around with the team of four and experiencing themselves as meaningful co-shapers of a jointly-held idea.

    At the heart of everything they do is the concept of the tool of a three-tiered Volksabstimmung. But what does that actually mean in practical terms? First and foremost, it means that the people involved in the OMNIBUS enterprise are really serious about the fact that every human has the same rights. They are not saying that everyone has the same abilities, opportunities, education etc., but that in the overall symphony of deciding how we will co-exist in the future, everyone has dignity, which is why, at the moment of decision-making, everyone has a voice, a vote, like everyone else. We give each other this dignity of being human. And anyone who falls silent and listens intently to his or her inner voice knows that this is the case.

    In other words, shaping the community in a democracy not only happens when we elect the men and women who represent us and introduce legislation as a parliament or a government; it also happens when everyone takes part in a vote on individual issues. These Volksabstimmungen should comprise three successive stages, in this order: popular initiative (Volksinitiative), popular petition (Volksbegehren), and referendum (Volksentscheid). This system exists in all German federal states, albeit in different ways, some of which are more user-friendly than others. In those states where the system has been set up in a meaningful way, it is the citizens themselves who determined its form, in a Volksabstimmung.

    However, the major questions relating to co-existence have thus far been excluded from this form of direct democracy because there are still no statutory regulations in Germany for Volksabstimmungen at national level (or even at European level).

    What is a Volksabstimmung?

    Unlike a conventional referendum, where a question formulated by the government is put to the electorate for a vote, a Volksabstimmung is based on the right of legislative initiative. The first stage of the Volksabstimmung process is the popular initiative, which gives every citizen the opportunity to make a proposal for change. Once a proposal is made, the proposal must obtain the support of a specified number of people in order for a legal procedure to be initiated. Once the proposal has been examined to determine whether it is in line with the constitution, the parliament has the option of turning the proposal into law. If it decides not to, the second stage of the Volksabstimmung procedure comes into effect: the popular petition. At this stage, a much larger number of people must declare its support for the initiative as evidence that the people really want to vote on this new proposal. Here too, the parliament can approve the proposal after this second step. If it does not do so, the process moves on to stage three of the Volksabstimmung procedure: the referendum. At this point, the parliament is entitled to make an alternative proposal. Voters then cast their vote in favour of one of the two proposals. In other words, the majority decides whether a new regulation for co-existence comes into force or not.

    With this system, everyone is involved in shaping the community, both through the opportunity to propose new ideas and throughout the entire Volksabstimmung procedure right up to the point of participating in the final decision, where every person has just one vote. It is only through a Volksabstimmung that democracy arises; before that, it doesn’t exist at all. Moreover, the procedure for the Volksabstimmung has to be specified by the citizens themselves, not by their political representatives. The sovereign people itself, the community of people living in the same country, creates the rules that shape its community. In this context, it is appropriate to mention an event that took place in the federal city-state of Hamburg in Germany with the help of the OMNIBUS, an event that is unique in the world.

    In 2004, the citizens of Hamburg gave themselves an electoral law that they had drawn up themselves and voted for in a Volksabstimmung. This was the first time that the people who want to elect representatives – and not the politicians who want to be elected – created the necessary regulations for this process. To this day, the politicians, with their vested interest in power, have not come to terms with this state of affairs, and try to grasp every available opportunity to amend the regulations again in such a way that their interests are served. Not once, but twice, these attempts have had to be stopped by the citizens of Hamburg in costly and time-consuming new plebiscites that eventually resulted in a change in the constitution of the city-state of Hamburg. Now, it is the voters who determine the regulations that govern the election and not those who want to be elected.

    The themes addressed by the OMNIBUS

    In addition to the daily attempts of the OMNIBUS crew to engage the willpower of the people and awaken its interest in Volksabstimmungen at national level, the OMNIBUS enterprise also undertakes a wide variety of other activities. Across the country, a team organises at least ten events every year. The themes of these events always relate to the next steps on the journey towards a society that is shaped by the members of society themselves. This year, for example, these themes are the free trade agreement known as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the introduction of an unconditional basic income, the abolition of intensive livestock rearing, the discussion of a new monetary order, the liberation of schools and universities from state control, and the refugee movements around the world.

    On all of these issues, Johannes Stüttgen, one of Joseph Beuys’ most talented and devoted students, is always on board as a speaker. He and Brigitte Krenkers are also the initiators and associates of the OMNIBUS. They experienced first-hand how, in the 1960s and 70s, Joseph Beuys gradually developed and moved towards the idea that shaping society is an artistic task. Johannes Stüttgen has described this development in great detail in his standard work, Der ganze Riemen [The whole story].

    In 2009, the Goethe-Institut invited the OMNIBUS to undertake a spectacular trip through twelve countries in south-eastern Europe, to the cradle of democracy in Athens and on to Istanbul. It became clear throughout the course of this journey just how much hope people invest in the German model. They admire our structured approach and ability to implement things, and consider us to be largely free from corruption. Moreover, most are convinced that these characteristics have helped us develop a well-functioning democracy. However, they also feel very clearly that a purely parliamentary democracy can become a pawn in the game of specific interests because political parties pander to the hopes of the electorate before the election, but do not feel bound to keep their promises afterwards. Against this backdrop, the fruits of direct democratic plebiscites in Germany are directly comprehensible and are viewed as a breath of fresh air. During these journeys with the OMNIBUS, we saw what people expect of us and how important it is that we lead the way by good example and show and prove ourselves to be the carriers and cradle of political sovereignty, in other words of rule that is legitimised by grass-roots democracy. If we are honest, people already know the right form of political participation; we just have to remind each other of it and mutually strengthen our will in this respect.

    The individual and society

    The yearning and search for ourselves leads to the breaking up of traditions and calls for a reorientation of all concepts that is rooted in ourselves. This is only possible by means of a temporary separation from the societal whole. Me on the one side, the world on the other. This is also the origin of a necessary egotism that must not, however, be allowed permanently to overshadow the discovery of commonality. People’s sense of powerlessness in the face of the hidden, symbiotic collaboration between representatives of politics and business, who seek to further their own egocentric individual interests, is now increasingly generating a desire for clear rules. However, given this desire to free oneself from self-serving human needs in favour of such clear rules, it should not come as a surprise that some people believe that the rules governing co-existence should come from a divinity. Nevertheless, the conflict between people that arises as a result of the necessity to interpret divine commandments is unsolvable, and brings with it similar problems to those that arise from laws of an entirely secular nature. What is missing is the discovery of a level that is common to all: ‘the God in me’. The rules must come from our common inside, from the level inside us that is shared by all people.

    That brings us neatly back to the notion that every human being is an artist, not least in the joint and equal act of shaping that springs from our freedom, and in the form of a democracy where we formulate the rules ourselves. Every person has a voice. This is the sign of the times, and it is for this goal that the people in the OMNIBUS FOR DIRECT DEMOCRACY live and work.
    Michael von der Lohe was born in 1953 and is a photographer and author. He has been the executive secretary of the OMNIBUS FOR DIRECT DEMOCRACY since 2004 and is the initiator of the campaign ‘Der Aufrechte Gang’ [Walking upright].

    Translated by Aingeal Flanagan

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2015
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