Society and Nature: The International Journal of Political Ecology, Vol. 3, No. 1 (1995), pp. 154-157

* This dialogue ( "Notes on Fotopoulos and O'Connorby Shaun Huston  pp. 148-153 & "Notes on Fotopoulos and O'Connor: A Reply"  by Takis Fotopoulos  pp. 154-157 ) continues the debate that was published in issue 6, Socialism and Ecology," between James O'Connor and Takis Fotopoulos.


Notes on Fotopoulos and O'Connor: A Reply

Takis Fotopoulos


Shaun Huston's very useful comments on my exchange with James O'Connor, although aimed to provide "a satisfactory critical supplement" to my remarks on existing social movements, in fact, highlighted some aspects of the issues involved, which as far as I am concerned, were deliberately left out of the debate.

Huston's argument about the adequacy of my challenge to O'Connor's position on social movements depends on a crucial assumption: that O'Connor challenged me about the lack of "political projects directed at fostering practices of self-management" an assumption that gives him the opportunity to go on and describe examples of several projects that I could have mentioned to save myself from the risk of being "beaten over the head with the stick of empiricism". But, in fact, O'Connor challenged me to show "plausible movements and struggles, with POLITICAL GOALS (his emphasis) of direct democracy" (p. 201), which is an altogether different proposition. It is clear that, however important the examples of movements mentioned by Huston, they certainly do not belong to the type of movement meant by O'Connor. Thus, it is obvious that these projects aim, as rightly Huston points out explicitly, or more often implicitly at what he describes as a process of "carving out areas of social life where people can exercise self-management over their lives instead of relying on state and corporate authority for social and material survival". However, it is equally obvious to anyone familiar with these projects that they surely do not aim at a new political goal, that is. a new social project that involves the replacement of the present institutional framework, founded on state power and the market economy, with a new institutional framework based on direct democratic (political and economic) structures, Unlike the New Left movement and the radical currents within the student movement in the 1960s, and the radical trends within the Green movement in the 1970s and the 1980s, which explicitly aimed at a new social project, the projects mentioned by Huston take for granted the state and market structures and not infrequently, as O'Connor mentions, rely on them. By this, I do not just mean that they "use official channels for sanction out of administrative necessity" as Huston describes these projects but that none of them is an integral part of a coherent political project to change the political and economic structure of present society along democratic lines. Still,, unless such projects are integrated within a coherent project of social change, like the Confederal Municipalism project, I seriously doubt whether they can be characterised as movements aiming (even implicitly) at a new form of social organisation based on direct and economic democracy. It is on these grounds, therefore, that I deliberately did not refer to such projects and instead I preferred to refer to the New Left and the radical Green movements something that Huston does not mention at all.

Having said that, it would be a serious misunderstanding, as Huston correctly stresses, to describe these projects as just aiming at the democratization of the state-a description O'Connor would be more than happy to adopt. To my mind, one could perhaps better categorise them as projects that, potentially, represent a transitional phase in the development of new democratic social movements, or movements aiming at social and individual autonomy. It is precisely their potential to create alternative and more radical forms of consciousness, especially among the participants that makes these projects significant.

O'Connor's charge about the "lack of imminence" is, of course, a serious charge when raised against any social project that aims to be something more than just a noble, utopian ideal. Although I think that in my reply to O'Connor I did respond to this charge, at least implicitly, I would like here to make my response more explicit. For me, the issue is how we define "imminence". If we define it in a narrow short-termist way, as O'Connor does, in terms of the number of examples of struggles for direct and economic democracy versus the number of movements aiming at democratising the state, then he is obviously right that the latter involve a much greater number of actual movements than the former. This is so, however, provided as I pointed out in my exchange with him that we include in the movements to democratise the state every statist movement around, from the "civil-societarians", the communitarians, the green "realos" etc. up to the reformed social-democrats (or, better, social-liberals). If on the other hand we define imminence in a broad historical sense, i.e. in terms of long-term historical trends, there is no doubt as I mentioned in my response to O'Connor that the most important structural trend today is the historical shift away from statism. This shift is expressed at the political level by the collapse of the social democratic consensus and the rise of the neoliberal consensus and at the economic level by the internationalisation of the economy, which deprives the nation-state of most of its economic power (see my articles in S&N nos 5-6). In this sense, O'Connor's strategy to "democratise the state" is both a-historical and utopian and, therefore, completely lacking in any imminence. In other words, the real political issue today is not the pseudo-dilemma "democratic" vs non-democratic statism, but how the current historical shift away from statism which at present is channelled into new forms of concentration of power based on a network of city-regional governments and transnational companies will be directed instead into new democratic political and economic structures, which presuppose no power structures and relations. 

Finally, Huston asserts that I did not challenge O'Connor's claim to the non-sectarian high ground and that both O'Connor and I were "so concerned with avoiding even the appearance of dogmatism ...that there is no attempt to accept closure even as a transitory, yet necessary move". Although I would agree that I could perhaps challenge O'Connor more about his supposed non-sectarianism, I think that the second part of the criticism does not stand up to the facts. In fact, it is rather contradictory that whereas I am credited with an effective defending of the statement "Our Aims", which is characterised by Huston as a "necessary moment of definition", I am then criticised for not attempting to accept closure. Furthermore, the fact that my response did accept closure becomes obvious by such statements as the following one (p. 193) : "it is only within the context of the abolition of all types of hierarchical structures (including the State) and the creation of conditions of individual and collective autonomy that we can meaningfully talk about a liberatory project. OUR AIMS exactly sets this ultimate objective in order to define the liberatory project. For us, therefore, this does not represent a "tendency" among others but the very content of this project".

Still, despite my serious reservations about Huston's response, I do believe it is a significant contribution to the dialogue, not least because it highlights some mute points from the original exchange that obviously needed clarification.