Reforming Democracy: participatory democracy and political activism - An interview with Marco Cappato

In April 2021 the Italian project SAPIENS interviewed Marco Cappato, founder and President of EUMANS. Read it along to learn more about EUMANS and the vision of Marco Cappato and the EUMANS activists . 

original version "Tra democrazia partecipativa e attivismo politico: parla Marco Cappato" by Andrea Aufieri - Translation by Adam Oliver, Networking Officer at EUMANS. 

Marco Cappato has the great regret of not being able to hold the spirit of the Radical Party together when its historic leader, Marco Pannella, died. Since then, his political commitment has taken on a different dimension, dealing with issues that are often not at the centre of public debate in Italy. He has a degree in economics and commerce from the Bocconi University in Milan and now fights full-time for individual rights with the Luca Coscioni Association.

How would you define the quality of your private life compared to your many work commitments? Do you ever feel the need to take a break or think about something else?

My work as a political activist is happily all-encompassing. I am lucky enough to be able to work on a wide spectrum of issues. I have to do a lot of research; the line between what I do for work and what I like is very blurred. I am very fortunate to be able to see that the world around me is more in tune with my own principles and to be able to work towards greater freedom and individual rights. The downside is that the absence of a clear work-life balance is not always easy to reconcile with the important moments of a family.

In your career, what have been your biggest failure and your biggest success, and how have you dealt with these?

-Marco is visibly emotional- For many years Marco Pannella and I were very close: we shared a house in Rome and Brussels, we fought together for almost a quarter of a century. When he died, there were controversies, clashes and splits. I won't go into it, but what could have been the transition from Marco's very strong personal leadership to the collective leadership of the party's spirit did not go well, and for me it was a failure.

In terms of success, which for those who look at politics also as activists is measured by the ability to make an impact on regulation, on government, on society, that was undoubtedly the process that led first to the law on living wills and then to the Constitutional Court ruling. The process is still incomplete, but with the Coscioni Association (the Italian organisations led by Marco Cappato and Filomena Gallo), we have been very satisfied with the end-of-life issue.

Will you still be involved in electoral politics?

I don't rule out running again, but I'm not interested in that at present, because I consider it a priority to contribute to strengthening the instruments of civic participation that go beyond the mere element of elections.

“Electoral democracy is in a deep crisis, which is not due - as is often believed - to the inadequacy of the relevant political actors, but is rather the consequence of structural problems they encounter.”

First of all, the fact that it no longer solves the needs and problems of citizens as everything now has a transnational dynamic. The pandemic is the most obvious example, but also climate change, migration and financial crises. And then there are the enormous questions posed by artificial intelligence and the genetic revolution.

Should democracy itself be reformed?

Electoral democracy now only looks at short-term interests. There are however innovative instruments out there, in addition to those of direct democracy, referendums and popular initiative laws. For example, assemblies of citizens drawn at random, as Macron did in France for climate change, without the pressure of short-term interests, can work in the public’s interest.

“Unless representative democracy is accompanied by a substantial dose of participatory democracy, the crisis of democracy will become deeper and deeper.”

You have a degree in Economics from Bocconi and have always had a radical and therefore liberal background. What do you hope for from Italian and European liberals nowadays? It is not worth inserting "Marco Pannella" in the answer!

Today, the greatest challenge is to use the market economy to strengthen the health of the ecosystem: being liberal does not mean renouncing the role of the State in the economy; on the contrary, it means giving it, like the law and the rules, the specific task of guaranteeing that the market functions without monopolistic distortions, without creating social exploitation, and without destroying environmental resources. In order to take this step, a huge fiscal revolution must be triggered, shifting taxation from individual income to the consumption of environmental resources.

Taking this view, are reforms that could have a major impact on the quality of life always linked to the concept of financial coverage? How then for instance do we respond from a European perspective to the idea of Italy being absorbed into different contexts, from European sovereignty to Russia or China?

There are certainly many reforms to be made, including a better quality of public spending, which leaves much to be desired. I am thinking of our current investment in the future, in scientific research, in education.

“The state is playing the role of entrepreneur, but instead of managing services, it should ensure that they are provided within certain parameters. In short, there are measures to be taken, not least in terms of expenditure, in order to move towards a knowledge-based society and to adapt to the scientific and technological revolution that lies ahead.”

The pandemic has accelerated these reflections, making it clear that the only chance of saving a liberal democratic system is linked to the evolution of Europe and the Transatlantic Alliance, as, despite all their limitations, they remain within the perimeter of liberal democracies and the rule of law. Liberal democracy will have a future if Europe succeeds in investing in the mechanisms of democratic participation and if the other democracies succeed in consolidating strategic alliances.

Can you be clearer on this last point? Can it be an answer to the Euro-pessimists who believe that the European Union is unreformable?

It is no reason to be either optimistic or pessimistic. The European Union is an institution that is still in the hands of national governments and therefore of the blackmail between national bureaucracies and their selfishness. We need to create a reform agenda in which the veto power of national governments is increasingly marginalised and the participation of citizens is increasingly strengthened, with investments, including technological investments, to do so. For example, European Citizens' Initiatives are the only means of participation envisaged by the European Union Treaties, and they can also be activated online, something that is not yet allowed in Italy. Democracy is also a technique and therefore needs updating and modernising.

On the subject of artificial intelligence, not only for everything related to legal euthanasia but also for the legalisation of drugs, gambling, even prostitution and defection from the Church; on the website of the Coscioni Association, much information in these fields is provided by a citizenship bot, 'CitBot'. I would like to ask you for your thoughts on the best and safest way to use AI to improve the quality of life for citizens.

Artificial intelligence is revolutionising our lives, the world of business, the economy. All at an impressive speed.

“There are predictions that global employment will be reduced by almost half within ten years. Investment in this type of technology is done privately by large multinational internet corporations, with the commercial aim of learning more and more about consumer behaviour.”

Non-democratic systems use them to control and censor citizens. What is lacking in this context is public investment in the development of AI to empower citizens vis-à-vis both companies and the state, and to strengthen their ability to interact and connect with other citizens, i.e. a democratic civic artificial intelligence that enables people to assert their rights, defend themselves against abuse, interact with other citizens and organise themselves freely for any political, democratic, work or leisure purpose. The fact that not even democratic states have put this urgency on the agenda is understandable, but I do not think it is a good thing to leave all investment in this field to the private sector.

In order to ensure an acceptable quality of life, how should AI be used?

First and foremost, how exactly can citizens' choice of quality of life be strengthened? That is the main question. Again, a dialogue with innovative organisations is essential, but it is politics that must set the direction. There is a mistrust on the part of politicians to involve companies in specific public policy objectives. With the Stop Global Warming Initiative we are trying, but we are meeting a lot of resistance. It's as if there are two dimensions to business: either lobbying the legislature and government, or advocating for it as a social cause. We are trying to go a third way in-between these dimensions: civic participation, which has to implement the activity of the legislator while also seeking the engagement of private individuals. From an institutional point of view, the reference is the UN International Convention on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which sets out the right to science and which should be a beacon for democratic politics, because it establishes the fundamental human right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications. Then the subject would no longer be just AI, but also for instance, genomics.

“Can genetic modification be extended to everyone, or does it remain the exclusive domain of those who can afford it? This is a very important point of fairness, justice, and at the same time democracy.”

You mentioned the campaign and the Eumans project. What are your objectives with these?

The European Citizens' Initiative is an instrument provided for by the EU. If supported by one million citizens from at least seven countries, the proposal is submitted and the parliament has to discuss it. We had originally planned a series of initiatives to arrive at a taxation of the consumption of environmental resources, but the pandemic blocked us, so now it is a digital campaign that will end on 22 April, World Earth Day. It is still far from its objective, but it has served to consolidate partnerships and raise awareness among many people. Eumans is among the proposing parties and is a pan-European Citizens' Initiative movement, the equivalent of a political party, which unlike these types of parties, works in a European dimension with tools for civic participation.

Focusing again on civic involvement, how is the adherence to the living will going in Italy?

The law on living wills is not well known, so it has begun to increase awareness mainly in the part of the population that is already at least slightly aware and informed. There is also a lack of information and dissemination among the more mainstream sections of the population.

Why are we still having to debate about assisted suicide in Italy? Does the political will to unblock this situation exist or not?

Although they pay lip service to the issue, party leaders do not like to tackle a subject they consider divisive. Yet overall public opinion in Italy, and elsewhere, is in favour of this practice. Euthanasia today is not legal and like all illegal things it is only accessible to those who can afford it or by going abroad to those who carry it out clandestinely. And that is why we want a law that allows all those in certain conditions of suffering and irreversible illnesses and diseases to end their lives without suffering.

Is this a state assisted death? No, I think it is state assisted torture to impose on someone a condition they do not want to live in.

We are simply talking about allowing people to have self-determination. It is the opposite of state assisted death, it is the affirmation of individual freedom.

Is the concept of opposing futile medical care not accepted either?

In our country, a person suffering from an irreversible disease and kept alive by life support treatment has the right to be helped to die within the national health service. This result, which has not yet been implemented, has been achieved through court rulings and civil disobedience rather than through legislation. The situation is evolving and I am confident that we can continue along this path.

Fifteen years ago Luca Coscioni died; the fourth anniversary of the death of Fabiano Antoniani (Dj Fabo) has just passed: what is the state of the play regarding the battle for legal euthanasia and what drives you to continue?

With Mina Welby we are still on trial for the death of Davide Trentini. We were acquitted in the first instance, but the prosecutor's office appealed and so there will be an appeal trial in Genoa, although we have not yet been summoned - after the interview the date of 28 April was announced -. In the meantime, we are moving forward, also with actions of civil disobedience. We are in contact with several people who are asking us for assistance to die and one of these people would meet the requirements of the Constitutional Court ruling: the ASL refused him help and she has decided to file a judicial appeal.

“If parliament does not intervene, we will not stop, and we will also consider imprisonment.”