What’s it all coming to? Schools burning in France, Swabians in revolt against train stations [i.e. mega-project Stuttgart 21, which involves felling nearly 300 old-growth trees to make way for an underground station], rubbish riots in Naples. Not to mention the trouble brewing over the upcoming Castor shipments of nuclear waste. Now all we need is for the unflappable Britons to take to the barricades over their austerity package or for the Greeks to set their feta factories on fire.

Has democracy, as many a commentator is already murmuring again, reached the end of the line? Can’t we say ENOUGH! when “great growth-geared projects” are at stake? Or to put it more plainly: shouldn’t we learn a little from the Chinese model, which my friend and fellow futurist John Naisbitt cleverly calls "vertical democracy" in his book Megatrends Asia?

We forget fast. In my youth, in the wild ’70s, things got down to the nitty-gritty in Europe. Demonstrating under the Greek, Portuguese and Spanish dictatorships was dangerous to life and limb. In France people got killed at anti-nuclear protests.

In Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, not a week went by without windows rattling and shattering. Society was in many respects far more divided than it is today. In my home town, Frankfurt, there were 8,000 homeless back then camped out on every corner. Anyone who lived through the "German Autumn” [Red Army Faction terrorism in 1977] knows what a consensus culture we live in now.

For the democratic future, look at Switzerland

Political culture ultimately learns from conflict. That is something that my “rebellious” generation found out – and that will be borne out again this time around. In the 1980s, environmental activism spawned an environmentally-aware society. The women’s lib movement recast relations between men and women. When the Wall came down, many in the West were afraid our new, astoundingly civil and tolerant society would fall victim to crude revisionism. But besides a bunch of problems, Germans also discovered a new lightness.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme, Mark Twain once said. Those who revoke a public consensus like the decision to abandon nuclear energy shouldn’t be surprised if that opens up old wounds again. Political majorities shift: a sign that democracy is working. German society is not infiltrated by an angry, gloomy mob, as dyed-in-the-wool Spengler fans ("Decline of the West") claim. In Stuttgart the powers that be simply got the handiwork of democracy wrong. The elites of the old version of Germany took up the contemptuous tone of the 1960s again, when anyone who raised objections was immediately branded a workshy freeloader.

If you want to see the democratic future, look at Switzerland for example. Decisions often take a little longer there. Sometimes the people have, well, a pretty hard time deciding on a grass-roots basis. But the Swiss are building the longest tunnel in the world, with widespread consensus and a pre-established objective. The tunnel was planned 12 years ago. The actual cost turns out to be exactly what was forecast in the planning. That is the handiwork of a real democracy of the people. It requires reliability, patience and humility – which apparently can only be learned the hard way.

Translated from the German by Eric Rosencrantz