When we think of democracy, we often confuse free and fair elections with a democratic culture. We can organize elections, we cannot create civil society; it is something that grows over time and not every society is hospitable to a civic culture. Public spaces to meet informally are one of the critical elements of any civil society. Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist, wrote a fascinating study of the relationship between the decline in social participation by Americans through an analysis of the decline of bowling leagues in the United States. The fact that people were bowling alone, according to Putnam, indicated a disengagement from active civic participation and an undermining of a strong democracy because of a "social capital" deficiency.
I mention all of this as an introduction to my current praise of Carouge, although I am sure other communes in Geneva could be referenced here. I am constantly impressed by the Saturday marché, not only because of the delicious fresh produce being sold which is a festival to all the senses, but also because of the public space where people meet by chance, enjoy a coffee or tea, and have different forms of personal social intercourse. A morning at the marché is a chance to listen to a book reading and question two politicians, exchange opinions about the news with a local merchant, or just run into friends and chat about children and grandchildren. All these informal gatherings are terribly important for a democratic culture. Putnam ties the decline in bowling leagues with a decline in membership in traditional civic organizations; the presence of political parties and petitions at the marché are positive signs for Geneva, as are the fact that a citizen shopping can sit down and even share a drink with a Conseiller d'Etat! This informal public space is reminiscent of the original town greens in colonial New England, the village commons and democratic processes that have also been a part of traditional Switzerland.
Without belaboring my praise for Carouge, who could not have been impressed by the recent 225 year anniversary festivities? Bands playing, people of all ages dancing in the streets to the rock and roll of Elvis, different ethnic food being served, a variety of entertainment, a true community involvement with thousands attending; a wonderful example of an excellent use of an anniversary for social interaction. Public spaces are important, their proper use crucial to functioning democracies. While many bemoan the dysfunctioning of national governments, we should not ignore the importance of local, grass-roots activities and public spaces and their influence on civic culture and input into democracy.