Switzerland at No:1 in the World Happiness Report = extreme (or direct) democracy = tools for hands-on political egalitarianism

 

The Swiss excel at colourful and imaginative political demonstrations -- as in this objection to anti-immigrant  sentiment in Bern - postgutenberg@gmail.com

The Swiss excel at colourful, irreverent political demonstrations. This one in Bern was related to the debate about immigrants in 2011
– photograph by postgutenberg@gmail.com

oranges 6

Comparing oranges with oranges (see below) – photographs by MIL22

CH Bern protest 12 march 2011 Chryll Barron

 

 

Switzerland is reckoned as top country in this year’s World Happiness Report, the third in a series begun in 2012, and the work of United Nations economists. Most striking about the news of Swiss supremacy in contentment — making headlines worldwide, over the last few days — has been the paucity of explanations, or certainly any exegesis offering or even pretending to depth. This is further proof of the bizarre, almost wilful, ignorance about the little Alpine champion, to which this blog has been drawing attention for a while. (See ‘Seven reasons why indie publishing is the right choice for a travel book on Switzerland and its curious culture of extreme equality‘)

At post-Gutenberg.com — unusually harried and pressed for time, lately — we are waiting for a chance to study the methods behind the WHR calculations, to understand exactly what is being measured and how. In the meanwhile, we will record just these reactions to other observers’ reactions: no one appears, so far, to have noticed — or pointed out anywhere discoverable by search engine crawlers — that with Iceland ranking second on the 2015 WHR list, the top two positions are occupied by rivals for the distinction of being the world’s oldest democracy.

These also happen to be countries that come to mind in connection with extreme or direct democracy, which leans heavily on referendums to make government policy. That has long been a defining feature of modern Switzerland and in the case of Iceland, is the aspiration guiding the reshaping of its government since its humiliation in the financial crash of 2008.

People apparently are happiest in countries with political systems that do not simply enshrine social equality as the highest ideal — in, for example, their constitution — but have buttons and levers its citizens can use to make the idea of government by the people everyday reality.

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 02.56.12

Screen shot from The Great European Disaster Movie, Annalisa Piras and Bill Emmott, Springshot Productions, 2015

After Switzerland and Iceland, the famously egalitarian Scandinavian countries — and New Zealand and Australia, ranking 9th and 10th , with anti-elitist ‘tall poppy syndrome’ embedded deep in their cultures — occupy most of the other slots in the top ten.

Oranges-with-oranges comparisons within this group would be more instructive than any apples-and-oranges exercise across the globe.

Unlike the Scandinavian nations, Switzerland was until recently a so-called ‘lean welfare state’ — comparatively stingy with social benefits.

So, can we surmise tentatively that feeling that you can make a real difference in the way your country is governed outranks a social super-safety net — cradle-to-grave cossetting by the state — as a fount of joy? It is an interesting possibility. Ten years of World Happiness Reports for inspection and reflection would be helpful, but we have had only three, so far.

- photograph by MIL22

Testimonial of an ink-stained scribbler at the digital crossroads, 3: Seven reasons why indie publishing is the right choice for a travel book on Switzerland and its curious culture of extreme equality

On Olten’s covered bridge, the Holzbrücke, a costumed girl-Viking recalled by a brilliant encapsulation of old-fashioned publishing by Holly Ward (see below) - HAPPY NEW YEAR from postgutenberg@gmail.com

On Olten’s covered bridge, the Holzbrücke, a costumed girl-Viking recalled by a brilliant encapsulation of old-fashioned publishing by Holly Ward (see below)
HAPPY NEW YEAR from postgutenberg@gmail.com

[ In earlier entries here: part 1 and part 2 of this Testimonial series ]

7 reasons why indie publishing is the right choice for a travel book on Switzerland and its curious culture of extreme equality

  1. Ignorance

Practically no one knows that the Swiss are the world champions at working collaboratively – in ways that go far beyond the ‘extreme democracy’ by which they rule themselves. This matters because so many of us would like to see the egalitarian feeling of this internet translated into workplaces restructured to flatten hierarchies, and because inequality is the supreme flashpoint in public debate, today.

  1. Publishers can’t help being as ignorant as everyone else on this and many other subjects

Like most educated – and even over-educated – people, book publishers in the English-speaking world share a clichéd, hopelessly mistaken view of Switzerland as no more than an abettor of tax-dodgers and holiday destination for fat-cats on skis. Practically no one outside the German-speaking sphere learns any Swiss history in school. Switzerland is effectively awarded only non-speaking walk-on parts in history textbooks. Institutions such as the Centre for Swiss Politics at the University of Kent have had to be created in attempts to fill the void in higher education and research.

  1. Courting rejection from publishers who know nothing about a subject makes no sense

Preliminary conversations with publishers and literary agents made it clear that writing and submitting a book proposal to them would be pointless. The book I envisioned would have to be written without their help to show them exactly why Switzerland deserved it.

  1. Other writers on Switzerland confirmed the soundness of the indie route

I compared my impressions of publishers’ prejudices about Switzerland as a subject with the experiences of other writers – most helpfully, in a conversation with Diccon Bewes, whose elegant Swiss Watching, de-mystifying his second home for fellow-expatriates, deserves its huge success (for reasons explained in an earlier entry on post-Gutenberg.com). In looking for a publisher, he had the advantage of being a graduate of the London School of Economics working at the time as the manager of Stauffacher’s, the most popular English-language bookshop in Bern. But even he had to put up with the lazy response, over and over again, that I got from a literary agent in Oxford – that Switzerland is ‘too small and boring’ to merit attention. Anyone intellectually curious could have read Jonathan Steinberg’s riveting Why Switzerland? (1996) to be cured of that delusion. But many publishers are suffering – too lost and confused in this transition to digital media to have the mental energy to challenge their preconceptions.

  1. It is impossible to justify waiting for publishers to make decisions at their traditional pace when your subject is red hot

There is a huge appetite, now, for exploring practical egalitarianism. The German head of a small, respected literary publisher of English books referred me to her editor-in-chief, when I asked if she would be interested in a look at my work-in-progress. The reply from this colleague was friendly and encouraging, but warned that months could go by before she got to any manuscript pages sent to her for vetting, when I was ready. This is still a typical editor’s sense of time, in print publishing.

  1. Even commercial publishers who claim to be eager to cross over to e-publishing are terrified of experimenting – with, say, e-serialisation

That same editor-in-chief told me that if I were to experiment with publishing the first section of my book as Part 1 of an e-serial, I’d be ruling it out for consideration by her firm. That convinced me that serialisation was the right route for me – and, lo! … last Sunday’s New York Times quoted several writers with proven money-making instincts who are also switching over to publishing their books in parts.

  1. The most practical writers are, increasingly, most apt to choose the indie option

Also in that New York Times article is the wittiest, most incisive explanation of why writers should resist ceding control of our work to publishers in the old-fashioned way (barring exceptional circumstances — and publishers). It is in a quotation of Holly Ward – whose words instantly conjured an image of a fellow-pedestrian playing girl-Viking whom I met, fleetingly, in Olten, in my research on Enemies: a cash-strapped traveller’s search for the secret of Switzerland’s extreme equality:

“The only person I truly trust with my career is me,” she said. “If you hand over your work, it’s like dropping your baby in a box and kicking him to the curb. Maybe he’ll grow up and be awesome — or maybe he’ll get sucked into the sewers and be raised by rats.”

Published here and on Medium.com by Cheryll Barron, 1 January 2015

Testimonial of an ink-stained scribbler at the digital crossroads, 2: Decisions, decisions! Should I add pictures to my text in a travel book?

Can an illustrated story-within-a-story be a way into a new book? ‘Snobs vs. Anti-Snobs, Part I’, a companion at Exposure.co for ‘Enemies: a cash-strapped traveller’s search for the secret of Switzerland’s extreme equality’

Can an illustrated story-within-a-story be a way into a new book? ‘Snobs vs. Anti-Snobs, Part I’, a companion at Exposure.co for Enemies: a cash-strapped traveller’s search for the secret of Switzerland’s extreme equality

‘Snobs vs. Anti-Snobs Part II’, a political protest in architecture in a photo-narrative at Exposure.co

Snobs vs. Anti-Snobs Part II’, a political protest in architecture in a photo-narrative at Exposure.co

A writer who isn’t personally negotiating the transition from print to digital publishing has no idea of the dimensions of its strangeness. Nor does almost anyone else. Last week, I described the experience — to expensively educated non-writers — as travelling in a car you have had to design yourself, from guesswork. But that isn’t all. It is a car that you must keep re-building on your journey — from glitchy, off-the-shelf components.

Nothing in the set of tools you use is stable. Already, some digital tools that print people still think of as new are being spoken of as nearly obsolete. Cognoscenti of the likes of the financial journalist Felix Salmon are saying, in online conversations: ‘[Y]ou and I still spend … time clicking links on computers. But a whole new generation is growing up which doesn’t use computers and web browsers nearly as much.’

In this screaming blizzard of change and experimentation, for those of us working online, a travel writer is apt to wonder — what would the genre’s legendary practitioners have done? Would Wilfred Thesiger, Freya Stark, Rebecca West, Jan Morris, Colin Thubron, V.S. Naipaul or Paul Theroux have interwoven paragraphs and pictures – using photographs they took on their journeys – if this had been easy to do?

I have a hunch that the last four authors on that list, who are still alive, would strongly advise against doing so. In writing an account of a journey for anything but go-see tourist guides, you are creating a sequence of images that has to come alive in a reader’s head. This happens as your reader interprets your words, combining her or his own imaginative visualisations and personal memories. With concentration, these become more vivid. When a text is visually rich, images add colour and feeling to acquiring information, and being amused, intrigued, saddened, and so on, by language. Surely, adding photographs would mean not merely distraction from — but derailing — deepening engagement?

We know that we use different parts of our brains to look at pictures and read. Would forcing more frequent switching between them be desirable?

I typed questions from this stream of dilemmas into Google. Almost the first page to come up was on a meditative, beautiful site — Vertigo, whose special interest is in the works of W.G. Sebald, an intriguing, idiosyncratic German novelist – emphatically modernist and experimental, who died in 2001. He made a habit of inserting black-and-white photographs – many of them mysterious and blurry – into work that was ‘part hybrid fiction, part memoir and part travelogue.’ The Vertigo blogger, Terry Pitts, posted this excerpt from a commentary on Sebald by Ivan Vladislavić (The Loss Library and Other Unfinished Stories, Seagull Books, 2012):

The most compelling motive for including a photograph in a fiction is to discount it. … In Sebald, the images are cut down to size and drained of authority. … Their purpose is less to define than to disrupt, to create ripples and falls in the beguiling flow of the prose. They are pebbles and weirs.

But then, haven’t we all got used to unreliable, nonlinear narratives that undermine themselves – storytelling conditioned by the cinema’s jump cuts, splicing and scrambling of time and space? Borrowing these techniques has become unremarkable in prose, both fiction and nonfiction.

The only answer I could think of, in the end, was to yield to instinct. I decided that it would be best to publish my book as just a text, and the pictures separately, online. I chose a site that turned one, on its birthday earlier this month, to display them – Exposure.co, part of the Elepath group in San Francisco – almost on my first visit there. Its bold minimalist layout and other design choices, including generous expanses of white space, were instantly addictive. After days of witlessly typing variations of search terms like ‘blogging plus photography’ or ‘text plus pictures site,’ into search engines, there was suddenly a mention in The Verge of this gathering place for people with a special interest in photography.

One of Exposure’s two co-founders, Kyle Bragger, has explained that it grew out of the obsession of the other, Luke Beard: ‘A talented amateur photographer, he’s been wanting a way to build beautiful photo narratives for literally years.’

Though this venture has a social media dimension, I have – so far, in about six weeks – picked up no hint of cliquishness or coercion. It feels like a sandbox, genuinely open to all. Its subscription fees – for publishing on the site, not looking — start at less than I pay for a barista coffee and will, with luck, mean that its founders can keep their promise not to use hawking information about their users as their economic survival plan.

So I’m trying out a graphic story-within-a-story, illustrated with images from journeys in Switzerland, as a sort of trailer for a book. (Here are part I and part II).

Do have a look – and buy the book at its throwaway price. Then — and this is most important of all — please improve on what I’ve tried to do with your own multimedia experiment. That shouldn’t be too hard.

Published here and on Medium.com,18 December 2014, Cheryll Barron

 

 

A triumph for cooperatives: customer-owned Swiss banks are thriving while their shareholder-owned rivals lick their wounds in disgrace

Though the Swiss seem to have a special knack for running cooperatives, there is new interest in this form of organisation in communities all over the world. Photograph by Amita Chatterjee

Everyone writing off cooperatives as impractical — or as artefacts of misguided ‘hippie’ idealism — will please read the article below, re-published with the permission of Swissinfo.ch, a section of Switzerland’s equivalent of the BBC.

The Swiss see cooperatives as building blocks of democracy. They are rightly proud of their own ‘extreme’ or ‘direct’ democracy — the subject of an earlier post here – based on the rigorous implementation of proportional representation, and are apt to shake their heads despairingly about the ‘winner-takes-all’ version of the system of government in other western democracies.

The Economist — which has a habit of sniffily referring to cooperative banks as ‘dull but safe’ – has cited two authorities confirming the wisdom of coops:

A 2009 study by the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, into the connection between financial stability and bank ownership also found that co-operative banks were much less likely to fail than those owned by private shareholders. That fits with earlier work done by staff at the IMF in 2007, who argued in a working paper that co-operative banks were more stable than their commercial counterparts.

23 March 2012 

Crisis gives new life to cooperative banks

 by Armando Mombelli, swissinfo.ch 

——————————————————————————–

Sometimes seen as an old-fashioned business model, cooperative banks have succeeded in strengthening their position since the crisis in the financial sector.

The three main cooperative banks in Switzerland – the Raiffeisen, Migros and Coop banks – have been enjoying strong growth in the past few years. 

“Until recent times, the banks had a stabilising effect on the economy. But in the past few years they have turned out to be a destabilising factor,” said Florian Wettstein, who teaches business ethics at St Gallen University. 

“Growing international competition and pressure from shareholders have led to a logic of short-term profit with very negative consequences,” said Wettstein. 

“We no longer talk about growth. What we want is bigger growth than last year’s or last quarter’s. At a certain point, this attempt defeats itself and we get speculative bubbles which burst sooner or later.” 

The last such speculative bubble that burst in 2008 threw the financial sector into crisis and forced many countries to exert huge efforts to save banks in difficulty. 

Even Switzerland was not spared: UBS, the number one Swiss bank, just missed going under thanks to massive intervention by the federal government and the country’s central bank. 

“It is interesting to note that Swiss banks, in particular UBS, were not just caught up in this trend. They played a very active role on the international scene, throwing their traditional culture of caution to the winds,” noted Wettstein. 

New management models 

The crisis in the financial sector spread to the “real” economy and it is still negatively impacting on growth around the world. Governments have been studying new models of management and regulation of banking to avoid another major financial crisis. 

Forbidding high-risk speculative ventures, separating investment banking from deposit management, limiting bonuses and various other measures have been examined by the Swiss government as well as others. 

Government and parliament here have approved an increase in equity capital requirements for banks, higher than those enforced by other European countries. This measure has still been regarded as insufficient by many experts. 

On the other hand, a business model that is sustainable and crisis-proof has existed for quite some time: it is the model of cooperative banks securely anchored in the local economy. 

Since 2008, Raiffeisen, Migros and Coop bank have attracted thousands of customers and billions of francs away from the “big two”, UBS and Credit Suisse, whose credibility nosedived after the losses they took on the American market. 

Last January, Raiffeisen almost completely took over Wegelin Bank, which had to shut down its activities when it found itself under investigation in the United States along with ten other Swiss banks accused of having helped thousands of American customers to evade taxes. 

In February, Raiffeisen became the first bank to guarantee transparent financing of political parties and indicate it was in favour of the introduction of automatic exchange of information on bank deposits with European countries. 

Several advantages 

In difficult times for the financial services industry, this cooperative bank is showing itself particularly dynamic and willing to break with taboos like banking secrecy which no longer seem to have much of a future. 

In the International Year of Cooperatives proclaimed by the UN, this fact may serve to renew interest in a business model often dismissed as old-fashioned – almost all the big cooperatives were founded more than half a century ago. 

“Cooperative banks actually offer several advantages,” said the economist Hans Kissling. 

 “The main one is that they are not exposed to pressure from owners or shareholders, and so they do not go for big risks and excesses. Rather they pursue a long-term strategy in the interest of their members, who are also their customers.” 

“Once shares are not involved, there is no danger of things like insider trading. Nor is there a danger of public takeover bids at their expense: attempted takeovers by other companies have to be approved by the members,” added Kissling, who is a former board member of a cooperative. 

“And last but not least, capital does not drain from the company through payments of  exorbitant dividends or salaries. It stays in the cooperative and gets used for new investments or to strengthen its equity.” 

Democracy and solidarity 

Tending as they do to democracy and solidarity, cooperatives almost always come out on top of the rankings for companies that enjoy the trust of the ordinary public. 

This has not in itself been enough to stimulate growth in the sector: every year thousands of limited companies are founded in Switzerland, but only a handful of cooperatives are set up. 

“The government should introduce tax breaks or create a special fund to promote the conversion of family businesses into cooperatives, for example on the death of the owner. Another option might be to introduce share certificates without the right to vote, which would encourage the capitalisation of cooperatives,” said Kissling. 

In the Swiss banking sector, most of the potential for this kind of development would come from the cantonal banks, which several cantons hope to privatise eventually. Conversion of these into cooperatives instead of limited companies would help safeguard their original mandate. 

In this way, almost half of the 20 principal Swiss banks could one day become cooperatives. 

“Promotion of cooperatives should above all be anchored in the constitution, as it is in Italy,” maintained Kissling. 

“This would not only serve to acknowledge the economic and social importance of cooperatives, but also to emphasise the long Swiss tradition of solidarity, which goes right back to the country’s roots.” 

He recalls that the Swiss Confederation is called in German “Eidgenossenschaft”, which literally means “a cooperative of sworn allies”. 

Armando Mombelli, swissinfo.ch

(Translated from Italian by Terence MacNamee)

[ Of course cooperatives — being creations of imperfect human beings — also have their flaws, and these are considered in a swissinfo.ch briefing on the topic. ]