DEMOCRACY & NATURE, Vol. 4, No.1 (Issue 10) (1997)

A Response to Zegers’ review of Towards an Inclusive Democracy

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I would like first to thank Peter Zegers for his very comprehensive review of my book and to state in advance that the only reason I am writing the following comments is simply to clarify some of the issues his review raises. I think this clarification is necessary in the context of the book’s ambition which is, as stated in the quote Zegers uses to open his review, “to initiate a discussion concerning the need for a new liberatory project and the strategies for implementing it.”

Zegers points out that (Fotopoulos) “At the same time that he provides a lucid analysis of the market economy, he warns us that «the knowledge of the so-called experts is doubtful (at least as far as social, economic and political phenomena is concerned)»”. Zegers then proceeds to ask the reasonable question “so, where does this place his own analysis?” to which he, rightly, gives a general answer in terms of the paradigmatic view of social reality suggested in the book. I would only add here, as a direct response to his question, that my analysis is, also, another paradigmatic view of social reality. As such, it is based on a specific way of seeing social reality (from the autonomy/heteronomy or democracy/oligarchy point of view). It does not therefore claim to be an objective” analysis of economic, or generally social, reality because such an objective analysis is simply impossible in the analysis of socio-economic phenomena, as I tried to explain in the book. However, I suppose the question also includes the issue as to whether there is any “objective” validity in the recommendations of various experts on policy issues. My point in the book is that so-called experts recommend policy measures on the basis of theories which in no way can be described as providing an “objective” description of reality. Their policy recommendations are based on specific economic paradigms, that is, specific ways of seeing economic reality. Still, in this narrow context, their recommendations may have a certain degree of validity. For example, Keynesian policy prescriptions may have an impact on unemployment (as they did in the past), under specific economic conditions, and the same applies to the other paradigmatic views of economic reality.

Peter Zegers then defends those parts of Bookchin’s social ecology that I criticised in my book and in particular, though not mentioned by name, dialectical naturalism. His defence develops along the following lines:

First, Zegers argues that my criticism of social ecology is rather unfounded because he does not think that there is an intrinsic relation between “objectivism” and “heteronomy”. Here, I would like to clarify that the thesis I supported in the book was that autonomy, and democracy itself, cannot be based on any kind of “objective” truths concerning social and economic phenomena, that is, that democracy and autonomy crucially depend on the principle that we create our own truths and that therefore there is no “objective” meaning of the world, in fact no meaning assigned to it at all, but the meaning WE assign to it. This implies that if we assume, instead, that there are objective truths, given by God, or some kind of spiritualism, or even by some interpretation of social reality that claims to have discovered certain “objective” laws of social movement (Marx) or, alternatively, by an interpretation of natural reality that claims to have discovered an objective ethics or a “directiveness” in social evolution based on natural laws (Bookchin), then we deny the fundamental precondition of the autonomy project: that autonomy in action depends on autonomy in thought. People believing in objective truths, given by God or any other exogenous force, can never establish a true democracy —provided, of course, that we see the latter not simply as a set of procedures but as a different way of living and thinking. It is in this sense that I see an intrinsic relationship between “objectivism” and “heteronomy” (the intrinsic relation between the “objective” science of socialism, that is Marxism, and the heteronomous regimes of “existing socialism”, which were ideologically based on this “science”, is a case in point), and it is in the same sense that I see a fundamental incompatibility between the “objective” ethics derived from dialectical naturalism and the project for an inclusive democracy.

Second, Zegers argues that my kind of autonomy inevitably leads to relativism, although he does acknowledge the crucial distinction I am drawing between philosophical relativism, according to which all traditions, theories and ideas have equal truth value —which I reject— and democratic relativism, which I endorse. But what is democratic relativism? It is simply that all traditions are debated and decided upon by all citizens. In other words, in an inclusive democracy, people should decide for themselves which paradigm better corresponds to reality on the basis of their knowledge, experience and so on. Does this mean that, for instance, nature is a social construction? Of course not, but the way we see nature is a social construction. The very fact that we have so much changed our views about the basic natural processes over the years is a confirmation of that. Still, this does not mean that our interpretations about natural phenomena do not have their roots in reality. In fact, as I point out in my book (pp. 315-16), the reason why the degree of intersubjectivity in the natural sciences is much higher than in the social “sciences” is the crucial difference in their object of study (nature versus society). Also, as I argue on p. 314, it is this difference in the object of study which makes the natural sciences much more successful in explaining their object of study than the social sciences. This implies that as regards natural phenomena we can indeed speak of a gradual approximation, through the development of knowledge, to an objective natural reality. However, and this is a crucial point on which I criticise social ecology, there is no way of making out a strong case that natural reality demonstrates any “directiveness” towards a free society, or that it can provide us with any “objective” ethics. Ethics, as well as any form of social organisation, are always a matter of our creation. Does this mean that people are not conditioned by history, tradition and culture? Of course not, and it is through the socialisation process that this conditioning is effected. But, the socialisation process can be broken. It has always been broken at the individual level, and in revolutionary periods it has also been broken at the collective level as well (pp. 181 on). The very hope for a democratic society rests on the possibility of breaking the socialisation process and CREATING a new society.

In the last chapter of my book I tried to show that the project for a free and rational society cannot be based on any “objective” laws or tendencies of natural or social evolution, not even on an arbitrary christening of the possibility for autonomy as an unfolding —and therefore rational— “potentiality”, assuming away the possibility for heteronomy as just a “capacity” for irrationality, despite the undeniable fact that the heteronomous forms of society historically constituted the dominant forms of social organisation —something that can hardly be characterised as “fortuitous events”. As I stated in the very last sentence of the book, “taking for granted that autonomy and democracy cannot be «proved» but only postulated, then WE value autonomy and democracy more than heteronomy, because, although both traditions are true, still, it is autonomy and democracy which WE identify with freedom and WE ASSESS FREEDOM AS THE HIGHEST HUMAN OBJECTIVE.”