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John Clark and Democracy



John Clark showed once more how economical he is with the truth when in his latest tirade on Murray Bookchin he found it appropriate to distort, yet again, the events that led to the publication of a draft of his paper in Democracy & Nature, The International Journal of Inclusive Democracy, as well as those related to the non-inclusion of his name in the International Advisory Board of the journal, after the change over from Society and Nature. As these events are directly related to Clark’s views on democracy it might be useful to discuss them in relation to these views.


The facts about Clark and D&N

Clark writes that he circulated several copies of the draft version of a paper called ‘Beyond the limits of the city’ (a revised edition of which was later published under the title ‘Municipal Dreams’ in Andrew Light’s collection, Social Ecology after Bookchin, Guilford, 1998) in 1995 for comments and that ‘one of these quickly made its way to Murray Bookchin who wrote for the journal Democracy and Nature a forty-four page attack on this unpublished manuscript’ (SA p. 25). He then goes on to describe how after trying for several years to get the editors of D&N to publish the final version of his article he finally agreed to the publication of the unrevised draft (SA p 39) in order to draw the conclusion that all this was presumably part of a victimisation campaign against him because he had not exhibited ‘a certain degree of servility and continued to gloss over the growing theoretical problems that (he) saw in Bookchin’s own work’. For the same reason he speculates he was also  ‘removed  from the International Advisory Board of Society and Nature (later Democracy and Nature: The Journal of Inclusive Democracy) without consultation or even  notification by the “inclusivists” in charge’ (ibid. p. 39). However, Clarks’ description of the facts is not only utterly economical with the truth but also completely distorted, as several people involved in these events could testify.

First,  Clark does not mention the crucial fact that the draft of his paper was also the full text on which the talk he gave in Danoon (Scotland) at the Social Ecology gathering in 1995 was based. This text was circulated for comments among the participants of this gathering (including myself). Therefore, this was definitely not the usual circulation by an author of a number of copies of a manuscript among friends and colleagues for comment prior to publication as Clark describes it. What followed and how a copy made its way to Bookchin had nothing mysterious about it either. When I read the text I saw it, for the reasons I will explain below, as an outright attack on direct democracy the political project of D&N— apart, of course, from an attack on Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism. I therefore sent a copy of this talk to Bookchin (then still a member of the IAB) in the hope that an interesting dialogue would follow between Bookchin and Clark on the issue of direct democracy and libertarian municipalism. So, when Bookchin sent us a reply to be published in the Dialogue Section of the journal, another member of the Editorial Board wrote to Clark asking him formally for a permission to publish the copy of the speech.  Unfortunately, Clark was not willing to have it published but insisted (as it was of course his right) that we should publish instead a revised version of it. However, as Bookchin's reply was based on the original text of the talk, and given that when we asked him whether he would be willing to rewrite his reply on the basis of a revised version of Clark’s paper he refused to do so, the editorial board decided to go ahead with the publication of Bookchin’s critique. This was because we did not wish to publish a final draft of Clark’s paper without Bookchin’s reply and in the hope that Clark might change his mind later and allow us to publish his original text —as indeed happened a few years later. This is why we also accompanied the publication of Bookchin’s critique with an editorial statement declaring that 'unfortunately, we are not able to also publish John Clark's talk since the author has not allowed it to be reprinted' (D&N vol. 3 no 3).

Second, Clark was not ‘removed’ from the IAB of the journal. In fact, he was a member of the IAB of Society & Nature up to the last issue of it (vol. 3 no. 1). However, in 1995, as the editors announced at the time, ‘ideological differences, (described in the announcement), intensified or emerged for the first time between the editorial board of the journal on the one hand and the publisher of the Greek edition, primarily, as well as some members of the advisory board on the other’. These differences, together with some irresolvable disagreements about the future direction of the journal,  led to a break with the Greek publisher, making inevitable the relaunching of the journal with a new title and different aims  both stressing the journal’s new main goal to promote a project for (inclusive) democracy. Given the disagreements with members of the IAB mentioned in the statement this also involved a restructured IAB. The editors decided at the time, as it was their right, not to include in the new IAB those members of the old IAB who were presumably hostile to the new project of the journal and Clark was an obvious candidate for this given the views he expressed earlier on direct democracy. This is the only reason his name  (together with that of another IAB member —although for different reasons) was not included in the new IAB  a fact which had nothing to do with Clark’s relation to Bookchin, as he falsely describes the events. This becomes obvious anyway by the fact that the very issue which included Bookchin’s critique of Clark’s paper also included Bookchin’s resignation letter from the IAB, principally, because of his disapproval of the journal’s new direction, as was expressed in the contents of the first issue  under its new title (see D&N vol 3 no 2).

But let us see briefly why the views expressed by Clark in his essay ‘Beyond the Limits of the City’ (BLC) were considered by the editors of D&N incompatible to its principal aim of promoting direct democracy, as well as economic, ecological and democracy in the social realm , i.e. an inclusive democracy.

Citizens, persons and citizenship

I will not expand here on the fact that Clark’s (and Bookchin’s) supposedly ‘objective’ grounding of the ecological society on the process of evolutionary unfolding and self-realisation, (which dialectical naturalism offers), is in fact alien to the democratic tradition. This is because, as I attempted to show in Towards An Inclusive Democracy (TID), democracy, as a process of social self-institution, implies a society which is open ideologically  namely, one which is not grounded on any closed system of beliefs, dogmas or ideas. “Democracy,” as Castoriadis  puts it, “is the project of breaking the closure at the collective level.” In fact, one may add here that committing oneself to a closed system of ideas, like dialectical materialism (or dialectical naturalism for that matter) is not that different from committing oneself  to a closed set of religious or irrational beliefs and dogmas. This fact alone could go a long way in explaining the present convergence of the thought of several anarchists (including John Clark) with various forms of irrationalism (Taoism, New Age etc).

Equally important is the fact that Clark, in effect, has no conception of democracy at all (if the latter is identified  as it should be with direct democracy)! This is evident by the fact that his notion of citizenship and the implied notion of community are completely irrelevant to democratic politics. Thus, Clark sees serious limitations in the notion of citizen as the ‘nuclear unit’ of a new politics stressing instead that ‘there are other important self-images with profound political implications’ (BLC) like that of personhood (which, not accidentally, is the nuclear unit of most religions!). It is therefore obvious that Clark’s notion of citizenship is not related to any particular institutional framework, but is linked, instead, to the general notion of the human being who is the inhabitant not just of a town, city or neighbourhood but ‘of our ecosystem, of our bioregion, of our georegion, and of the earth itself’ (ibid). Still, it is clear that no notion of citizenship is meaningful unless it is associated with a particular institutional framework and the corresponding social paradigm which legitimises it (i.e. the set of values, beliefs, ideas consistent with it).

The conception of citizenship, for instance, which is associated with the institutional framework of a market economy and its political complement (representative ‘democracy’) has almost nothing in common with the conception  of citizenship associated with a direct democracy, let alone an inclusive democracy. The former institutional framework implies a conception of passive citizenship, i.e. one entitling citizens with certain rights that they can exercise as means to the end of individual welfare. On the other hand,  the institutional framework of  direct democracy implies a conception of active citizenship (see e.g. the work of Hannah Arendt on the matter) which sees political activity not only as a means to an end, but also an end in itself so that citizens do not engage in political action simply to promote their welfare but also to realise the principles intrinsic to political life, such as freedom, equality, justice, solidarity, courage and excellence. However, this sense of citizenship involves a sense of political community, which can only be defined geographically and constitutes the fundamental unit of political, economic and social life. Of course, it is assumed that this community interlocks with various other communities (cultural, professional, ideological, etc.) so that the community and citizenship arrangements do not rule out cultural differences or other differences based on gender, age, ethnicity and so on but simply provide the public space where such differences can be expressed, with the help of various safety valves that will aim to rule out the marginalisation of such differences  by the majority.

The reason why Clark does not offer a functional definition of citizenship and community, or of democracy itself, is that he does not really need them in his scheme. In fact, one could  reasonably argue that in Clark’s system as long as ‘citizens of our ecosystem, of our bioregion, of our georegion, and of the earth itself’ adopt the ‘correct’ attitude towards Nature (as prescribed, by the ‘objective’ ethics derived from dialectical naturalism in the form he has given to it democracy itself is superfluous! No wonder that in his later restatement of the above thesis (‘Municipal Dreams’—MD p. 137) Clark confirms that his notion of community is completely separated from any specific institutional framework and, particularly, the democratic one:

An authentic social ecology (TF: presumably, John Clarks’ one) is inspired by a vision of human communities achieving their fulfilment as an integral part of the larger, self-realising earth community (...) If social ecology is an attempt to understand the dialectical movement in society within the context of the larger dialectic of society and nature, ecocommunitarianism (T.F. his version of social ecology politics) is the project of creating a way of life consonant with that understanding’. 

In other words, given the ‘right’ understanding of the ‘larger dialectic of society and nature’, we may derive a way of life consonant with that understanding which may be applicable to all human communities in the process of achieving their fulfilment as an integral part of the larger, self-realising ‘earth community, irrespective of whether the institutional framework is one of direct democracy, or of a combination of it with various doses of representative ‘democracy’ (as Clark presumably proposes)  or, alternatively, of a market economy combined with various forms of ‘social economy’, which seems to be Clark’s idea of economic democracy.

So, the fact that a democratic institutional framework is not mentioned as a prerequisite of the way of life ‘consonant with that understanding’ is not accidental since it is obvious that democracy is inconceivable at the level of the ‘earth community’. This does not mean of course that a democratic project should not aim at a global social transformation. Today, after the internationalisation of the market economy and the development of the New World Order which is consistent with it (see my ‘New World Order and NATO’s war against Yugoslavia’, New Political Science, March 2002), no local radical social transformation is feasible in the long run unless it is accompanied by a corresponding transformation at the global level and particularly in the advanced market economies. But, although an authentic global democracy is the aim of the inclusive democracy project, the basic unit of political, economic and social life could only be a territorially defined community, the demos, with its formal democratic institutions (demotic assembly, demotic courts etc), as well its informal ones (like for example the ‘agora’ of classical Athens). It is the voluntary confederations of such communities (where decisions are taken by recallable and mandated delegates selected at random who do not take any policy decisions themselves but merely play the role of the executive in implementing  the policy decisions  of their assemblies) at the national, the continental and the global level that would form a genuine world democracy. This means that the notion of an ‘earth citizenship’ is meaningless, even in the framework of a global democracy. 

Finally, recognition of the citizen as the nuclear unit of the new politics does not imply, as Clark assumes, that the ‘territorialisation’ of the political dimension at the level of the particular municipal community’ (as in Libertarian Municipalism) or at the level of the geographically defined demos (as in Inclusive Democracy) is not desirable because it implies a tension between the general interest and the special interests of particular communities (MD, p. 148).  Such tensions are unavoidable within a free society; the question is, what is the mechanism for transcending them and direct democracy is the only such mechanism securing individual and social autonomy.

Clark and direct democracy

It is no accident that Clark throws all kinds of doubts about the feasibility of direct democracy. This is inevitable once the territorialisation of community is abandoned. Authentic democracy necessarily implies the maximum possible degree of decentralisation in decision-taking whereas the notion of ‘earth community’ implies exactly the opposite. Thus, Clark asks himself whether ‘it is even possible for sovereign municipal assemblies to be viable as the fundamental form of political decision making in the real world’ (ibid. p. 167). This is the familiar problem raised by enemies of democracy concerning the feasibility of direct democracy, given the size of modern societies. A related issue (also raised by Clark)  is how the regional and confederal councils can be prevented from developing into new power structures that will start ‘representing’ community assemblies.

Nobody should of course underestimate the huge problems involved in moving towards a genuine democracy today. But it is one thing to explore the problems and possible limitations involved in order to find ways to improve the institutional framework of direct democracy and quite another to discuss such problems and limitations in order to doubt the viability of direct democracy itself, as Clark does. The anti-democratic nature of Clarks’ eco-communitarianism becomes evident when, after comparing the present representative ‘democracy’ to direct democracy, he concludes that ‘elected representatives or delegates can be chastised for betraying the people when they seem to act contrary to the will or interest of the community’ something that presumably is impossible in direct democracy since ‘those who emerge as leaders of a democratic assembly…can be accused of nothing, since they are acting as equal members of a popular democratic body’ (BLC, D&N). This celebration of representation makes it obvious that what is important for Clark is not that the assembly process is the only form of decision-taking which secures equal distribution of political power, i.e. autonomy at the political level. What is more important for him, (‘forgetting’ that even in ancient Athens a safety valve was introduced to get rid of those who attempted to take power by default ostracism) is the theoretical possibility of apportioning responsibility. This, for him, is supposedly easier in a representative than in a direct democracy system. The fact that a representative system leads to unequal distribution of political power in favour of representatives, who, in turn, possess enough power  to undermine any effective control from below, does not seem to bother Clark. Still, he does not hesitate to protest when he is accused of having  no conception of democracy at all!

Furthermore, various ways have been suggested today to deal with several of the issues raised by Clark. Thus, as regards first the question of feasibility of democracy in general, as Mogens Herman Hansen points out, summarising the results of recent research on the topic, “modern technology has made a return to direct democracy quite feasible-whether desirable or not is another matter”  (The Athenian Democracy in the age of Demosthenes,  Blackwell, 1991, p. 1). Also, as regards the related issue of how the degeneration of confederal councils into new power structures might be avoided, modern  technology could, again, play a significant role. An electronic network could connect the community face-to-face assemblies at various levels (neighbourhoods etc), to form huge ‘demotic’ assemblies. In other words, modern technology could help to restrict  the members of the regional or confederal councils to purely administrative duties of co-ordination and execution of the policies adopted by community assemblies. Finally,  at the institutional level, various safety valves may be introduced into the system which will secure the effective functioning of democracy. Of course, all these institutional arrangements constitute the necessary condition for a genuine democracy whereas the sufficient condition is Paedeia (i.e. the character development and  well-rounded education in knowledge and skills which amounts to the education of the individual as citizen)  that may effectively condition democratic practice.

Clark and economic democracy

But, let us come now to the issue of economic democracy which is the only economic basis on which a genuine political democracy may be built. Clearly, Clark’s eco-communitarianism shows a lack of understanding of what an economic democracy, which would be consistent with a direct political democracy, is all about. Although Clark seems to agree with the notion of a ‘moral economy’ as a precondition for a just ecological society he then proceeds to undermine even the type of the mythical post-scarcity economy described by Bookchin. Thus, he not only rejects the municipalisation (or demotisation) of the economy but he also adopts a long term vision of a mixed system of private and social ownership, as the following extract from BLC (D&N) shows :

However, for the present at least the municipalized economic sector might be looked upon not as the primary realm  but as one area among many in which economic transformation might begin.  It is possible to imagine a broad spectrum of self-managed enterprises, individual producers and small partnerships that would enter into a growing co-operative economic sector that would incorporate social ecological values. (...) Bookchin suggests that in a transitional phase, its policies would "not infringe on the proprietary rights of small retail outlets, service establishments, artisan shops, small farms, local manufacturing enterprises, and the like." The question arises, though, of why this sector should not to continue to exist in the long term, alongside more co-operative forms of production. 

As Clark makes obvious in the above extract, in consistency with his rejection of the ‘territorialisation’ of the political dimension at the municipality level, he rejects the municipalisation (or demotisation) of the economy on principle not just for the transitional period. No wonder he also explicitly rejects the assembly decision-taking process on economic matters: ‘The ability of a "citizens' assembly" to make all policy decisions for all economic enterprises and "economic areas" in a community of any significant size is not something that seems easily comprehensible’ (BLC-D&N). He then goes on to raise a series of questions which indirectly challenge the viability of economic democracy: ‘For Bookchin, "a municipalist politics" requires "municipalism of the economy." But how are the two to be combined practically and democratically?  Should decisions about production in the entire municipality be made in each neighbourhood or block committee?  How are disagreements to be reconciled?… how are the abilities and needs determined?’ Still, as I attempted to show elsewhere (TID ch 6) it is indeed possible to develop a model of economic democracy, which shows the feasibility of democratic decision taking, not in the framework of a mythical post scarcity economy but in that of a real scarcity society. Such a model is capable of giving answers to most of the questions raised by Clark.

However, the problem with eco-communitarianism is not just that it lacks any conception of political or economic democracy, as we have seen above. Much more serious is the problem that it not only accepts a privately-owned sector of the economy but that it also takes for granted the market mechanism in the allocation of resources! Thus, in the final version of his D&N essay, Clark makes clear his stand on the market economy (MD, p.172):

Yet Bookchin has himself noted that historically the existence of a market has not been equivalent to the existence of a market-dominated society. He has not explained why such a distinction cannot hold in the future…(but) we may distinguish between the mere existence of market exchanges and capitalism —the system of economic domination that results from the concentration of economic power in large corporate enterprises. 

The above extract makes it clear that Clark repeats the same error committed by Noam Chomsky (see TF ‘Mass Media, Culture and Democracy, Democracy & Nature, vol. 5 no. 1 March 1999 pp.38-39) and assumes that a system of market exchanges (like the one prevailing before the system of the market economy was established) plus a mixed ownership system could safely be installed without necessarily leading to capitalism. However, as I attempted to show in TID (ch. 1) pre-capitalist markets had very little in common with the system  of market economy which was established about two hundred years ago when the industrial revolution, taking place in conditions of private ownership of the means of production, led to a fundamental transformation of the role of the markets. Both orthodox and Marxist theory, and of course History itself, can be used to show that, starting from an initial condition of simple market exchanges in a system of private ownership of productive resources, competition will inevitably lead to various forms of concentration of market power (oligopolies etc). In other words, the logic and dynamic of the private sector, through competition, will lead to all the evils of the market economy: concentration of economic power, inequality etc. It is therefore obvious that Clark has, at best,  not thought through the implications of his scheme or, at worst, implicitly accepts these implications in exchange for the pseudo-pluralism and the spiritual revolution that eco-communitarianism is supposed to ensure.

Democracy as a procedure?

Finally, Clark’s conclusions make it clear that he does not have any grasp, like many Anglo-Saxon anarchists, of the crucial difference, emphasised by Castoriadis, between democracy as a ‘regime’ and democracy as a procedure. As the late author stressed, the individual cannot exist outside society and therefore the democratic procedures themselves cannot be reproduced in the absence of the democratic institutions, i.e. in the absence of democracy as a regime moulding democratic citizens. But as the following extract, which is not  accompanied by any proposals about how a democratic society would be built from below, makes clear, for Clark, democracy is a set of procedures which do not require the creation of a new social and economic order but could develop in our own ‘backyard’ and then could somehow lead to the creation of a new democratic culture! Thus, as Clark puts it in BLC (D&N):

Advocates of radical democracy can do no greater service to their cause than to demonstrate the value of democratic processes in their own self-organisation. Without imaginative and inspiring examples of the practice of mutualistic democracy by the radical democrats themselves, calls for "municipalism," "demarchy" or any other form of participatory democracy will have a hollow ring.

This is consistent with a strategy, suggested by many Anglo-Saxon anarchists, to build communes, co-operatives, collectives etc and then, ‘by setting an example’ to create the conditions for a new liberatory society —a strategy which to my mind is, by itself, utterly ineffective in bringing about a systemic social change. As I attempted to show elsewhere (see ‘Transitional strategies and the Inclusive Democracy project’, D&N vol. 8 no. 1, March 2002), although such a strategy may be helpful in creating an alternative culture among small sections of the population and, at the same time, morale-boosting for activists who wish to see an immediate change in their lives, this approach does not have any chance of success —in the context of today’s huge concentration of power— in building the democratic majority needed for systemic social change. The projects suggested by this strategy may too easily be marginalized, or absorbed into the existing power structure (as has happened many times in the past)with minimal effect  effect on the socialisation process —unless they are an integral part of the comprehesnive program of a new antisystemic mass movement, like the one proposed by the Inclusive Democracy project.

In other words, one could propose a strategy in which an inclusive democracy may be built ‘from below’ in today’s society. Briefly, the Inclusive Democracy political strategy comprises the gradual involvement of increasing numbers of people in a new kind of politics and the parallel shifting of economic resources (labour, capital, land) away from the market economy. The aim of such a transitional strategy should be to create changes in the institutional framework, as well as to value systems, which, after a period of tension between the new institutions and the state, would, at some stage, lead to the development of a new ‘hegemonic’ social paradigm. The creation of such a paradigm is the fundamental condition for the replacement of the market economy, statist democracy, and the social paradigm “justifying” them, with an inclusive democracy and a new democratic paradigm respectively. The immediate objective of such a strategy should be the creation, from below, of ‘popular bases of political and economic power’, that is, the establishment of local public realms of direct and economic democracy, which will confederate in order to create the conditions for the establishment of a new society.

The rationale behind  this strategy is that systemic social change can never be achieved outside the main political and social arena. The elimination of the present power structures and relations can neither be achieved “by setting an example”, nor through education and persuasion. A power base is needed to destroy power. But, the only way that an approach aiming at a power base would be consistent with the aims of the democratic project is, to my mind, through the development of a comprehensive program for the radical transformation of local political and economic structures. This is because systemic change requires a rupture with the past, which extends to both the institutional and the subjective level. Such a rupture is only possible through the development of a new political organisation and a new comprehensive political program for systemic change that will create a clear anti-systemic consciousness at a massive social scale. This is in contrast to the statist socialist strategy, which ends up with the creation of a clear anti-systemic consciousness only with respect to an avant-garde, which is then imposed as an ideology to the rest of society ‘from above, or to the life-style activities of many anarchists today that could at most lead to the creation of an antisystemic consciousness among the few members of various libertarian ‘groupuscules’. However, the creation of a new culture, which has to become hegemonic before the transition to an inclusive democracy could be effected, is only possible through the parallel building of new political and economic institutions at a significant social scale. In other words, it is only through action to build such institutions that a mass political movement with a democratic consciousness can be built. Such a strategy creates the conditions for the transition to democracy: both the ‘subjective’ ones, in terms of helping the development of a new democratic consciousness and the ‘objective’ ones, in terms of creating the new institutions which will form the basis of an inclusive democracy. At the same time, the establishment of these new institutions will crucially assist here and now the victims of  the concentration of power that is associated with the present institutional framework and particularly the victims of neoliberal globalisation  to deal with the problems created by it.

Therefore, if by ‘liberatory transformation’ we mean a transformation towards individual and social autonomy, which can only be ensured in a democratic regime like the one described by the proposal for an inclusive democracy, then, the ‘communes, co-operatives and collectives’, by themselves, have minimal, if any, potential for liberatory transformation. If on the other hand, by liberatory transformation we mean a kind of ‘spiritual transformation’ which would create a new ecological sensitiveness for significant parts of the population (particularly the middle classes who can better afford the luxury of worrying about the environment than the lower social strata which still worry about the means of survival) then the strategy suggested by Clark and others may have a degree of success. Ideally, it could even lead to an ‘ecological’ society. But, an ‘ecological’ society does not necessarily mean a democratic society. It could well be a totalitarian society based on various dogmas, intuitions, mystical beliefs and so on. On these grounds, one may support the thesis that a liberatory project today can only be a project for an inclusive democracy (an important component of which is an ecological democracy) and not just for an ecological society.