Switzerland provides a unique example to study the functions and effects of direct democracy. Swiss citizens have the right to shape their constitution/society as they wish and their realism and political imagination are the only limits. Having well-designed direct-democratic tools is necessary, but not sufficient: their use is determined by consciousness. Examining a number of citizens’ initiatives and referendums in Switzerland provides information about the transformative potential of direct democracy. Two grassroots initiatives stand out as radical: the initiative for an unconditional basic income and the initiative for monetary reform.

Water, basic income and money can be seen as commons, and so can (direct) democracy, which is a special commons insofar as it is a necessary ingredient of commoning in general and a creator of commons. The concept of commoning gives theoretical unity to a broad spectrum of socio-political struggles that prefigures the making of a free society. The crisis of humanity means: “Man(kind) has entered into another law” (Friedrich Dürrenmatt). We must learn to see the world with new eyes. We must choose which way to go. Will it be joy, will it be doom?

Transformation of the “System”

Direct democracy provides tools for system transformation. It empowers individuals, the so-called ordinary people, and enables them, and not only “elites”, to participate in the daily business of creating something new. Likewise it empowers them to resist and dissent. Referendums and citizens’ initiatives are instruments of political decision-making, but the quality and content of the decisions is not predetermined by them. They can be used to make “good” or “bad”, “conservative” or ”progressive” decisions, as well as decisions that benefit the common good or not. Citizen-initiated referendums are instruments of control and opposition, intended to prevent change that parliament/government wants but a majority of the citizens does not want. Citizens’ initiatives are primarily instruments for law-making: citizens can make reforms, introduce innovations and change the institutional setup through new laws (changing statutes and/or the constitution).1 Direct democracy is a process and activity that permits people to later correct their decisions in the light of experience. It facilitates constitutional (structural) change without the need of crisis or violence. Combined with federalism it opens spaces for experimentation in discourse and in practice.2 Direct democracy always takes place in a particular context, characterized by a conflictive and often complex reality; a collective, divided consciousness; different expectations and mentalities.

Our world is rich in opportunities for transformative actions and direct democracy helps to overcome the belief that there is no alternative. It operates as an early warning system, sending alerts to the government and society, so that changes could be made before a catastrophy happens. By empowering every individual citizen, (direct) democracy strengthens their self-value and contributes to liberate their political imagination and creativity. Liberating political imagination, making it easier to imagine different futures, diminishes the dependence of change on crisis and loosens the grip of the past over the future. Direct democracy means that men and women have the power to re-imagine and to remake the existing social and political order and to redirect the human-Earth relationship from domination/exploitation to mutual benefit.

Direct Democracy in Practice

Switzerland provides a concrete example of how direct democracy is and has been used in practice. The Swiss direct democracy is institutionalized and routinely used on all political levels (federal, cantonal, local), and it coexists with a capitalist market economy, a pro-capitalist monetary system and hierarchic social relations. Although the Swiss citizens have the political means to democratize the economy, they have not done so.3 What is missing is a consciousness that economic democracy is needed, desirable and achievable.4 An important factor that contributes to limit the formation of a comprehensive democratic consciousness in Switzerland is the influence of money on politics and society.5 Another important factor is a lack of paideia and civic education. To this we might add the part played by the mass media and perception management, that is, the difficulty to become a well-informed citizen. All three, the corrupting influence of money power, the lack of education for democracy and the difficulty to find truthful information are relevant phenomena not only in Switzerland but worldwide.6 Another grave limitation of the Swiss democracy is that a considerable part of the population, people permanently resident but without the Swiss nationality, is still excluded from the demos.

Before describing some examples of current and upcoming citizens’ initiatives, the following rudimentary table about the party political landscape in Switzerland might be helpful:

CH political landscape table
NC National Council (200 members),
CS Council of States (46 memebers)
BDP Bürgerlich-Demokratische Partei (Conservative Democratic Party)
CVP Christlichdemokratische Volkspartei (Christian Democratic People’s Party)
EVP Evangelische Volkspartei (Evangelical People’s Party)
FDP FDP. Die Liberalen (FDP, The Liberals)
GPL Grünliberale Partei der Schweiz (Green Liberal Party)
GPS Grüne Partei der Schweiz (Green Party)
SPS Sozialdemokratische Partei der Schweiz (Social Democratic Party)
SVP Schweizerische Volkspartei (Swiss People’s Party)

(1) Representatives of other parties (NC: 4) and without party (CS: 1) are not included
(2) SPS and GPS are anti-capitalist according to their latest party program (SPS: Parteiprogramm 2010. Für eine sozial-ökologische Wirtschaftsdemokratie) respectively manifesto (GPS: Manifest der Grünen Schweiz. Eine andere Welt ist möglich). Anti-capitalism still carries a heavy stigma and the social democrats came under heavy fire, also from their own ranks, because in their party program they adopted as a long-term target the overcoming of capitalism. For most political analysts the anti-capitalism of the social democrats is only words, whereas in practice the party is aiming at reforms, “but certainly not at overcoming capitalism” (Claude Longchamp). However, the aim of replacing capitalism with an economic democracy is more than just an old hat, it is also the result of an analysis of “the time in which we live” and of programmatic thought, which distinguishes the SPS from other political parties in Switzerland and also, for example, from the Social Democratic Party of Germany (In Germany it is The Left which provides a similar analysis to the one of the Swiss Social Democrats).

The table tells us that the bourgeois parties have a clear majority in both chambers of parliament, the National Council and the Council of States. While all bourgeois parties are pro-capitalist, they are divided over the issue of Europe: the conservative Swiss People’s Party on the right advocates unilateralism wheras the parties of the center prefer bilateralism. The political split in the bourgeois camp is a consequence of the ideological breakdown of Swiss “official nationalism” (Benedict Anderson) that occurred at the end of the Cold War in the context of increasing global/European integration and diminishing national sovereignty. Swiss official nationalism, which before had united all the political parties from left to right, became a party ideology and political instrument of the conservative right. The center parties understood that nationalism in its traditional form and unilateralism are no more viable in today’s “One World” (Hanna Arendt). While acknowledging the need for reorientation, the center parties had no answers to the new situation and for lack of direction their nationalism and sense of democracy fell into disarray. The left developed a strategy that aims at Switzerland becoming a member of the European Union. While the center tries to cope with diminishing national sovereignty by muddling through (bilateralism), the right tries to reclaim sovereignty by a policy of “going it alone“ (unilateralism) and the left by sharing sovereignty with other states (EU membership).

On the left, both the Social Democrats and the Green Party – at least programmatically7 – aim at overcoming capitalism. Unlike their reformist sister parties in countries like Germany, France, Britain and Finland, Swiss social democrats and greens call for system change. At this point it should be remembered that the Swiss political system is qualitatively different from the usual parliamentarian democracies.8

Citizens’ Initiatives and Referendums – Examples

Let us see whether the transformative potential of direct democracy in Switzerland becomes manifest in the form of citizens initiatives. For that purpose I have listed a number of recent and upcoming citizens initiatives (PCI) and referendums (PCR, LOR): Title, Instrument, Initiator (for more information see Appendix (opens PDF in new tab))

Europe and Switzerland

  • Enforcement Initiative, PCI, SVP
  • Stop overpopulation!, PCI, Ecopop Vereinigung “Umwelt und Bevölkerung”
  • Stopping Mass Immigration, PCI, SVP, 9.2.2014, adopted
  • Deportation initiative, PCI, SVP, 28.11.2010, adopted
  • Ban on minarets initiative, PCI, SVP, EDU, 29.11.2009, adopted
  • Continuation/Extension of the free movement of persons, PCR, 8.2.2009, adopted
  • Federal Act on Cooperation with Eastern Europe, PCR, 26.11.2006, adopted
  • Extension of the free movement of persons, PCR, 25.9.2005, adopted
  • Schengen/Dublin, PCR, 5.6.2005, adopted
  • Yes to Europe!, PCI, NEBS, 4.3.2001, rejected
  • Bilateral agreements I, PCR, 21.5.2000, adopted
  • EC membership negociations before the people!, PCI, Swiss Democrats, Lega dei Ticinesi, 8.6.1997, rejected
  • European Economic Area, LOR, 6.12.1992, rejected


  • Green Economy (1), PCI, GPS
  • Nuclear phase-out, PCI, GPS
  • Food produced by gmo-free agriculture, PCI, Grassroots initiative, 27.11.2005, adopted
  • Gene Protection Initiative, PCI, Grassroots initiative, 7.6.1998, rejected
  • Alpine Initiative, PCI, Grassroots initiative, 20.4.1994, adopted

Reform of Capitalism

  • No speculation with food, PCI, Juso
  • Minimum wate, PCI, SGB, 18.5.2014 rejected
  • Inheritance tax, PCI, SPS, GPS, EVP, SGB
  • Lump-sum taxation, PCI, AL Switzerland
  • AHVplus, PCI, SGB
  • 1:12 – For just wages, PCI, Juso, 24.11.2014, rejected

Beyond Capitalism: Radical Reform

  • Unconditional basic income, PCI, Grassroots initiative
  • Monetary reform (Vollgeldinitiative), PCI, Grassroots initiative

(1) The government decided to make an indirect counter-proposal (for more click here)

AL Alternative Left
Juso Young Socialists Switzerland
SGB Swiss Federation of Trade Unions

LOR Obligatory referendum
PCI Citizens’ initiative
PCR Citizen-initiated referendum

I classified the citizens’ initiatives of the left/trade unions under the label of “Reform of capitalism”. They mostly aim at increasing social justice and strengthening workers/people against capital (for more, see appendix 1). These measures are compatible with capital accumulation. Consequently they can be seen as merely putting band-aid on a system that is leading to a worldwide ecological and social disaster that has already begun. Seen from a programmatic perspective these initiatives might contribute to create better conditions for social movements that are seeking to develop alternative ways of life and political self-organization. But they are certainly not radical reforms. Neither are the initiatives classified under the label “Ecology”. They, too, could be characterized as countermeasures against negative effects of the dominant economic practice; they, too, do not call into question the present dominant form of capitalism.

The citizens’ initiatives of the right (SVP), labelled under “Europe and Switzerland”, follow a different train of thought from those of the left. The right does not adress the causes of migration, instead it accuses migrants, foreigners and refugees to cause all sorts of economic and social problems, thereby justifying measures to limit the free movement of workers/persons.9 The right is a convinced supporter of a capitalist market economy, which produces growing inequality. The right has therefore no interest in fighting against inequality, rather it profits from it and defends nationalist, discriminatory and divisive policies that give priority to the Swiss citizens over foreigners.

In 1992 a tiny majority of 50.3 percent voted against Switzerland’s access to the European Economic Area. After 1992 bilateralism became the official policy of the government and to this day there has always been a clear majority of the Swiss against membership in the EU.10 Between 2000 and 2009 the bilateral treaties between Switzerland and the EU were legitimized by a series of referendums. But then the tide turned. On 9 February 2014 again a tiny majority of 50.3 percent voted for a citizens’ initiative, requiring that Switzerland regulates immigration independently. The initiative was initiated by the Swiss People’s Party, which aims at terminating the Agreement with the EU on the Free Movement of Persons and, in a future step, also the Schengen and Dublin agreements. It remains to be seen how this popular vote will affect domestic politics and the quality of Switzerland’s relationshp with the EU.11 Policies towards foreigners and Europe became a litmus test of the prevailing concept of democracy and national self-understanding in 21st century Switzerland.

Transformation Begins with Outsiders

From all the examples presented in the table above we are left with two proposals for radical reform, both raising the question of the entire system: the initiative for an unconditional basic income (UBI) that should enable every individual to live a decent life and to participate in politics and society and the initiative for monetary reform promising safe money for all.

In Switzerland the political system was revolutionized in the second half of the 19th century by introducing direct democracy to the liberal regime and federal state constituted in 1848. In political terms Swiss citizens became adults and share political power with the elected representatives. In most other countries, politically citizens, like children, still remain under guardianship of their representatives.

The citizens’ initiative gives “ordinary citizens” the right to make, for example, a proposal for radical reform in the form of an amendment to the constitution.This proposal is put on the political agenda for public debate (including parliament and government) and then the issue is decided by the voters at the ballot box. This is what Enno Schmidt and Daniel Häni decided to do: they formed an initiative committee, formulated a proposal for an unconditional basic income, collected 126’000 signatures (minimum required:100’000) of eligible voters, and in the near future their proposal will be decided at the ballot box.12 During all this time, from the time when this initiative was born and organized, during signature collection and now being in the pipeline of upcoming votes, there are countless debates and activities about the UBI initiative and the nearer the date of the vote the more intense these debates will become.13 They are more important than the actual result of the vote, and they will continue also afterwards, as part of a bigger, international debate on UBI, be it that the initiative is adopted and has to be put into practice, which would raise many questions, be it, more likely, that the initiative is not adopted and a second citizens’ initiative will be needed to make the UBI progress in one form or another.

There are different models of basic income, with different aims and different philosophical foundations. The basic income can be conceived, for example, as an instrument for the realization of a neoliberal agenda (example: Thomas Straubhaar) or it can be designed as an element in an emancipatory strategy of system change (example: Joachim Hirsch).

Thomas Straubhaar (2008) summarizes the four basic pillars of his UBI-design as follows. (1) The state provides a basic income at subsistence level financed by taxes. (2) The basic income is payed to every national, without conditions, from the cradle to the grave. (3) In return all social benefits, financed by taxation and fees, are abolished. Statutory pension, health, unemployment and long-term care insurance, unemployment benefits, social assistance, housing and child benefit are abolished. (4) All socio-politically motivated regulations of the labour market are abolished. There are no more protections against dismissal, no minimum wages, no collective labour contracts, no social insurances; instead wages are negotiated at the level of the individual enterprise.

Dismantling the social infrastructure of the welfare state means to open it up to extensive privatization (enclosures), dividing the population into those who can afford to buy social security and those who cannot. Deregulation of the labour market dissolves solidarity among workers/employees, weakens trade unions and hinders collective action. The intention is to reduce wages and to provide stronger incentives for coercive wage labour. The basic income conceived in such a manner serves as an element in a strategy aimed at empowering market forces and big corporations. In terms of power to the people this is hardly an emancipatory strategy, quite the opposite, it diminishes democracy and is in line with neoliberal globalization.

As an emancipatory concept the UBI should not only liberate people from existential insecurity and poverty but also empower them to participate in the construction of a free and sustainable society. In this view the UBI constitutes a commons and as such it is intimately linked to democracy in two ways. First, commons are self-governed. Second, the UBI is about making time and energy available for active citizenship, not about boosting consumption and economic growth. Obviously, the UBI cannot stand alone: having time is not enough – to become active people need also their own tools and infrastructure.

And this exactly is the starting point for the proposal of radical reform of Joachim Hirsch and co-authors (2013). They promote the idea to build a social infrastructure of free and affordable public goods and services, which ensures that all people can meet their basic needs (health, housing, education, culture, mobility …). This infrastructure would be tax-financed and democratically governed. We can think of it as a commoning infrastructure that is built, modified, expanded and protected according to the will of the people. Only within such a supportive framework, so the argument goes, could the UBI unfold its emancipatory potential and contribute to liberate people from coercive wage labour and to reverse the increasing marketization/commodification of social relations and nature.

UBI table

Water, Basic Income, Money and Direct Democracy as Commons

The concept of commoning gives theoretical unity to a great variety of socio-political struggles.14 It ties together the struggles against the privatization of natural resources (like water, land, energy, food, minerals, airwaves et cetera) with struggles against the privatization of culture, knowledge and money, and the struggles for real democracy.

A basic income as such is not yet a common good. In a neoliberal design the basic income becomes a support for further enclosures and for the presently dominant way of life that subordinates everything to the rules of a global capitalist market economy. Only in the process of commoning the basic income becomes a commons and an expression of an alternative way of life that is incompatible with capitalism and oligarchy (plutocracy). Between the two uses of basic income lies a shift of perspective, they are based on different views of humanity and work, and of the human-Earth relationship, they are expressions of contrasting value practices and antithetical power relations (heteronomy vs autonomy). These metaphysical differences, which normally lie beneath the surface of public debates, are brought to daylight in the deliberations about the UBI. Therein lies a most important aspect of the UBI-initiative, by making visible hidden assumptions with regard to the nature and meaning of work, labour and income; it prepares the ground for a change of consciousness, which is a necessary condition for the stepwise implementation of radical reforms.

Similar considerations apply for water and money which are the subjects of citizens’ initiatives aiming at preventing or reversing their enclosure through a process of commoning. As we have seen, struggles against the commodification of water use a rights approach, explaining that access to clean water and sanitation is a human right. According to the sovereign money initiative (Vollgeldinitiative) commercial banks would no longer have the right to create money through lending; money creation would be a prerogative of the Swiss National Bank, while the government would be responsible for deciding how money is introduced debt free into the economy.15 For example, a part of this sovereign money could be distributed to every resident individual in the form of a basic income.16 This monetary reform is equivalent to a reversal of the “enclosure of money” by private banks, and it is part of a larger reform movement that is active all over the world.17

Enclosure vs Commoning table
Direct democracy, as the two citizens’ initiatives for an UBI and for monetary reform show, can be used by citizens for instituting new commons. Direct democracy is an institution that empowers citizens to create, regulate and protect processes of commoning from the bottom up, whereas representative governments, under the present circumstances, normally promote enclosures by supporting corporations in their zeal to privatize everything.

Direct democracy can also be seen as a commons itself, that is, as a process which is functional to the exercise of fundamental rights and to a free development of human beings.18 All the characteristics of a commons apply to direct democracy in Switzerland: it is an institution that creates a community of citizens and a process of commoning; it has been created by the citizens themselves in the 19th century; it is a resource that is used collectively, durably and in a non-exclusive way (this is true only for citizens); the community takes good care of the resource, according to democratic and transparent rules; the use of the resource is self-organized; the benefits are diffused, not concentrating.19 Direct democracy is a commons of special importance insofar as it gives people the legal power to decide a framework or rules for the creation, regulation, protection and preservation of commons in general.

Direct democracy as a commons is created though the commoning of a psychical (or spiritual or conceptual) resource: the idea of democracy/popular sovereignty. This idea is embodied in the institutions and practices of direct democracy. Representative democracy, however, which in mainstream political thinking is also considered as an embodyment of the idea of democracy, is not a commons. It is the result of the enclosure of popular sovereignty, a kind of privatization of the idea of democracy. As a result, “democracy” becomes the prerogative of the few elected “representatives of the people” (parliamentary oligarchy). Hence, representative democracy is a form of government from which the very ideal of democracy, its core principle: popular sovereignty, has been expelled.

1 In principle, it is possible to use citizens’ initiatives and referendums in opposite ways, to institute more democracy and increase autonomy, but also to restrict democracy and strengthen heteronomy. However, it is very unlikely that democratic citizens would want to curtail their democratic rights. Or, to put it otherwise, one would have to ask under what circumstances people would agree to limit or loose their own freedom and autonomy.
2 For more on the functions and effects of direct-democratic tools see Buechi 2012 and (
3 The popular initiative empowers the citizens to change the constitution regardless of the political will of the government and the parliament, and every change of the constitution is subject to a referendum (obligatory constitutional referendum).
4 The question arises whether or to what degree the economy in one country can be democratized under the present global market conditions.
5 For example, see Parma and Sigg 2011. According to Transparency International (2012, 22), in Switzerland “political finance remains a black box, devoid of transparency”.
6 Oscar Negt and Cornelius Castoriadis insist on the importance of education for democracy. Democracy (autonomy) must be learned and to stay alive democratic institutions and practices must be taken good care of all the time. Under capitalism community ties are weakened, commodification encourages consumerism and undermines the formation of democratic citizens. Negt refers to this using the term “res publica amissa” and Castoriadis speaks of the depoliticization and privatisation of individuals. Such neglect of democratic institutions and practices may lead to a complete loss of democracy.
7 SP Parteiprogramm, Manifesto der Grünen
8 Buechi 2007
9 SVP Argumentarium (, Gregor Rutz (MP, SVP) cites David Cameron to support his argument against immigration.
10 Main reason: democratic deficit of the EU, people fear that they would lose their political sovereignty, the development of the EU into mainly an instrument of corporate-driven globalization undermines those forces which promote the idea that Switzerland should become a member of the EU and gives additional support to the SVP’s policy of national independence.
11 Michael Hermann blog ( “Stimmen die Umfragewerte zur Masseneinwanderung, dann wird am 9. Februar die Volksinitiative als blosses Marketinginstrument für Parteien zu Grabe getragen. Im Rückblick wird die «Initiativflut» der frühen Zehnerjahre nur eine Welle gewesen sein.
Stimmen die Umfragen nicht, dann ist am 9. Februar der Teufel los. Weit grösser als die Wirkung auf die konkreten Zuwanderungszahlen wird auch in diesem Fall die indirekte Wirkung sein. Dazu zählt nicht nur das Verhältnis zur EU, das sich zumindest verkomplizieren dürfte, und das Vertrauen in Umfragen, das endgültig im Eimer wäre. Der grösste Einfluss hätte ein Ja wohl auf die innenpolitische Dynamik. Statt Normalität und Entzauberung herrschte wieder Ausnahmezustand für ein paar Jahre.”
12 The initiative has its origin in the foundation of the Initiative Basic Income in Switzerland in 2006 by Enno Schmidt and Daniel Hänni; see: Enno Schmidt 2006.
13 The Federal Constitution of 18 April 1999 is amended as follows:
Article 110a (new) Unconditional Basic Income
1 The federal government provides for the introduction of an unconditional basic income.
2 The basic income shall enable the whole population to live in dignity and to participate in public life.
3 The law shall regulate in particular the financing and the amount of basic income.
14 See Ugo Mattei. First Thoughts for a Phenomenology of the Commons.
15 Text of the initiative: (
Campaign website: (
16 With a sovereign money system an UBI could easily be financed; this shows that the implementation of an UBI is not a financial problem, but a question of creating the political will to distribute the existing resources more equally.
17 For more, see: American Monetary Institute (AMI) (, International Movement for Monetary Reform (, MoMo (, Monetative (, Positive Money (, Sovereign money (, Vollgeld de (
18 See Commissione Rodotà.
19 For the characteristics of a commons, see Helfrich et al. 2009

References (click to open)

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