13 June, 2006

The asocial Swiss

I've been reading that zeitgeisty book Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam. You probably know of it already, if not it's about how people these days are much less likely to get involved in things than people in the past were, and how this is bad.

Anyway, there is a bit near the beginning where he talks about how low the participation rates in US elections are. The Americans have the lowest rate of voting in the developed world, with the exception of... The Swiss. It surprised me that the Swiss have such a low rate of voting, as I think of them as being very civic minded and being into doing things in the socially approved way. So I have started thinking about why they vote so little, and come up with some possible theories which I will now share with you.

1. They don't vote because they participate so much in public life through other means that the act of voting seems like an irrelevance. I'm thinking of all those military manoeuvres the blokes go on, but also all the checking on their neighbours' alcohol consumption and so on. Maybe if you are very civically engaged, marking a ballot paper seems a bit trivial.

2. They don't vote because Switzerland's weird power sharing system means that the same guys are always in power. That is, if elections change nothing, not even the faces at the top, then why vote?

3. They don't vote in national elections because the central government is relatively weak, and real power lies at the local level where people can take part in direct democratic activities. In other countries, local elections see lower turn-outs, but given Switzerland's strongly cantonal identity, maybe this is reversed there.

I don't know, can anyone come up with a better solution for this mystery?

3 comments:

Dave Hughes said...

I have been living for six months now in Nidwald, one of the oldest Cantons in Switzerland. It is absolutely fascinating.

The notion that Switzerland is governed by strong local democracy is appealing and true to some extent. What people say to me here points to where the real power is.

I can't count the times that people here try to brag about powerful industrialists and landowners whom they know and claim as good friends. It is almost the first thing they will say to you, "Who are you, who do you know in power, I know these people". As a foreigner this hits you like a hammer, then you learn to join in the game.

In Switzerland's case this has lead to a few centuries of peace and prosperity. That is why people go along with it.

It does, I believe come with social costs, the darker side of this feudal arrangement are manifest in numerous small signs - if you know what to look for. I believe the following questions point some way to begin understanding Switzerland:

Why are Women's Rights here so far behind the rest of Europe?

What are the real tensions between Christianity and Paganism here?

Is the "Big Money" in Zurich trying to dominate the rest of the world or protect itself from it?

Why do I see so many people scything and raking grass in highland meadows? It is all very labour intensive and does not seem to be economically viable in a modern western country. Is there another economy at work here?

Are the Swiss all quite nice to each other not because they like each other but because they ALL have semi-automatic weapons at home? The men that is, not the women......

ian said...

Interesting post, Dave. I am fascinated by this Paganism v. Christianity cleavage you mention.

I think the guns might be linked to the poor women's rights. Swiss democracy does seem to be partly based on the idea of the populace being an armed citizenry, with people's political rights coming from their bearing arms. Women have traditionally been excluded from military service, so they similarly are excluded from politics. Or maybe that is a circular argument.

I have also heard that they are mad for the social control in Switzerland, with people's neighbours knocking at your door if they reckon there are too many alcohol bottles in your green bin.

Dave Hughes said...

Hi Ian, glad I could give some information. I hit your link by the way from Andrew Sherman's Blog in SF. I play games with him sometimes. Regarding the Christianity vs Paganism thing:

Switzerland is, on the face of it, a very Christian counry - part of people's income tax goes to the churches, mine included although it is not more than about £200/year which is small enough that I prefer not to mess with it as a foreigner, even though you can opt out if you want to. There are many good things about Western Christianity as well as bad. Mostly bad though in most European countries, I reserve judgement on this country.

The whole alpine region is thick with quite alarming woodland spirit carvings and fabricated stuffed animals (search Wolperdinger) . It is uncommon but not rare to see an old tree root, which looks like a face, nailed to a barn wall with human teeth (presumably the old artist's) placed around the 'mouth'.

There is a festival in Switzerland which is very popular in the Luzern area called Fasnacht. It is, so they say, the largest carnival outside Brazil. It also seems to last, on and off, all winter - culminating in a Mega-Blow-out in March which leaves all normally tidy towns in the area looking like Trafalgar Square after New Year's Eve. It is, officially, a Lent celabration and strongly anchored in Catholic Mythology. The truth on the ground is much stranger, in fact really, really strange.

The tradition, on fasnacht, is to dress in fancy dress, join a roving Umpah and Drums Band, and walk the streets making a din until the wee small hours. The musical choice is to deliberately "murder" popular pop songs - it is truly painful, far worse than James Last! The most interesting part, however, is what they are wearing:

Last Fasnacht I saw both individuals and entire bands dressed as: Orcs, Elvis Impersonators, Drow, Woodland Demons, Vikings, Bears.... Not a sparkling bikini or feather headress to be seen. This combined with the enormous mess and noise is highly unusual in Switzerland.

I read this as both a public celebration of Lent and a private warning by the populace to the Church. Another friend summed it up well, they are saying "We'll go along with what you say mostly but don't push your luck".

On guns. I don't think there is a link with Women's Rights, it is more to do with the Swiss Neutral/Mercenary tradition going back hundreds of years. If you know Andrew, you might know Conor, he is quite well informed about these things. I hazard a guess that most "country women" here are trained to use guns like shot-guns along with the boys, just like in rural England. The use of a gun here is normal, it is "Country" and probably implies less about citizenship than town dwellers might suppose. I may be wrong, I'll find out in the end.

On your last point, I see limited evidence of "Nosey Neigbours", but this is a rural southern Canton. Here, the motto seems to be "Be as funky as you like as long as it is behind closed doors and doesn't make a lot of noise or mess". I live opposite the only brothel in miles and have no problems at all.

Except, of course, on Fasnacht.

Gutten Acht!