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

Book Review

Takis Fotopoulos, Towards an Inclusive Democracy: The Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need for a New Liberatory Project (Cassell: London & New York, 1997), pp. 401.

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Democracy or Barbarism!

“This book has one aim and one ambition. The aim is to show that the way out of the present multidimensional crisis can only be found from without rather than from within the present institutional framework” (p. 359). Few people will deny that we face a crisis of enormous proportions. Many on the Left, however, have abandoned the vision of a different society and embraced the market economy and the state. In a time when libertarian voices are becoming very rare, it’s a relief to read a book like Towards an Inclusive Democracy. Many libertarian thinkers and activists are abandoning the political arena and taking refuge in individualist and sometimes mystical positions. Fotopoulos challenges these visions. The new liberatory project he envisions is a synthesis of two historical traditions, the democratic and socialist, along with the radical green, feminist and libertarian traditions. However, he excludes socialist statism, which has been dominant in the socialist tradition. He writes: “what the dismantling of «actually existing socialism» and the parallel disintegration of social democracy have shown is the final disintegration of socialist statism, that is, the historical tradition that aimed at the conquest of state power, by legal or revolutionary means, as the necessary condition to bring about radical social transformation” (p. IX). The author, rightly, emphasises that statism is an enemy of freedom (in both its positive and negative conceptions).

Towards an Inclusive Democracy consists of three parts. In the first part Fotopoulos traces the history of the market/growth economy. Since the collapse of actually existing socialism”, the market economy has become universal. And the nation–state, usually accompanied by some form of liberal “democracy” continues its omnipresence. As the author demonstrates, they are not eternal systems; both the market economy and the nation state are historically quite recent phenomena. Growth and marketization are the fundamental pillars of the present system; furthermore, to the extent that socialist statism was a growth economy, it also had the same pillars as the market economy.

The state has always played a very important role with regard to the market economy. In the book, statism is defined as “the period of active state control of the economy and extensive interference with the self–regulating mechanism of the market aimed at directly determining the level of economic activity” (p. 3). This period was only a brief interlude in the process of marketization, which started two centuries ago, and it is characterised as the “social–democratic consensus”. Essential was the commitment to full employment.

This “social–democratic consensus” is nowadays being replaced by the “neoliberal consensus”, which entails a rolling back of the interference of the state in economic activities. The marketization process is reaching its fulfilment. “The crucial question today is whether the protection of human life as well as the environment are compatible with the marketization process or whether, instead, the whole market system has to be put away” (p. 164). Fotopoulos clearly chooses the second option. “[T]he need for a new vision, which will transcend both the neoliberal market economy and socialist statism, is ... more pressing than ever” (p. 140). He criticises “civil societarians” like Michael Walzer who think that the market and the state are compatible with a real democracy. “[T]he development of civil society institutions has no chance whatsoever either of putting an end to the concentration of power, or of transcending the present multidimensional crisis” (p. 163).

In the second part of the book, Fotopoulos attacks the current devaluation of the concept of “democracy”. He goes back to the Athenian origins of the concept and argues that the present system bears no resemblance to the classical concept. He argues that the current usage of the word is mistaken. “There is only one form of democracy at the political level, that is, the direct exercise of sovereignty by the people themselves” (p. 175). So the word “democratic” has no meaning when applied to designate the existing systems of rule in the United States and Western Europe. He proposes to enlarge the concept to include the economic and social realms. “[T]o denote the extension of the classical concept of democracy to the social, economic and ecological realms, the adjective «inclusive» precedes the word democracy” (p. 176). The failure of the Athenian democracy was precisely due to the lack of democracy in these realms. The author emphasises that democracy is incompatible with any form of concentration of power. Growth and marketization are incompatible with democracy because they lead to a concentration of power in the hands of economic elites. “The combined historical effect of growth and marketization on politics is that in the capitalist growth economy, politics is converted into statecraft” (p. 172). People are excluded from real decision making in the Western world.

Fotopoulos states that “any conception of democracy crucially depends on the meaning assigned to freedom and autonomy” (p. 176). He explains, “To my mind, the best way to define freedom is to express it in terms of individual and collective autonomy” (p. 179). He rightfully criticises the individualist trend in contemporary Anglo–Saxon– anarchism in the shape of such writers as L. Susan Brown, Peter Marshall and John Clark. He opposes their views with the remark that “human values are socially determined, and social rules and regulations to uphold them do not represent a restriction on some pre–existing freedom but part of the conditions of a satisfactory life” (p. 177). According to Fotopoulos, “there is no intrinsic relationship between the positive concept of freedom and the «statist» form of democracy. In fact, the opposite is true” (p. 178).

The philosophical underpinning of the liberatory project forms the third part of the book. For the author, “the democratic principle is not grounded on any divine, natural or social «laws» or tendencies, but in our own conscious and self–reflective choice between the two main historical traditions: the tradition of heteronomy which has been historically dominant, and the tradition of autonomy” (p. 344). He explains that “the fundamental element of autonomy is the creation of our own truth, something that social individuals can only achieve through direct democracy, that is, the process through which they continually question any institution, tradition or «truth». In a democracy, there are simply no given ‘truths’“(p. 344).

With regard to the question about the “objectivity” of the liberatory project, Fotopoulos writes, “The question that arises ... is whether there is in fact a genuine dilemma in attempting to justify the democratic project, a dilemma that forces us to choose between either a modernist ‘objectivist’ approach or a post–modernist subjectivist approach” (p. 305). He makes it very clear that “it is possible to define a liberatory project for an inclusive democracy without recourse to controversial objective grounds or to post–modern neo–conservatism” (p. 306). Accordingly, “[d]emocracy is incompatible with «objectivist» types of rationalism, similar to the ones we inherited from the Enlightenment. Furthermore, democracy is even less compatible with irrational systems claiming esoteric knowledge, whether from mystical experience, intuition or revelation. Democracy is only compatible with a democratic rationalism, namely, a rationalism founded in democracy as a structure and a process of social self–institution” (p. 350). Fotopoulos criticises social ecology because “social ecology’s attempt to develop an objective ethics not only undermines its democratic credentials but also gives an easy target to statists and irrationalists of various sorts” (p. 340).

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)” (p. 207). So where does this place his own analysis? According to him, it all depends on the paradigm” you choose, and “paradigms” are incommensurable. He states, “People sharing different paradigms «live in different worlds», see different things or things in a different relation to one another and can only shift from one paradigm to another in a gestalt–switch that converts them from adherents of one way of seeing things to another” (p. 314).

Takis Fotopoulos has written an important book. The section on neoliberalism is compelling, and the criticisms of other approaches are very instructive. I think, however, that his criticism of social ecology is rather unfounded. I don’t think that there’s an intrinsic relation between objectivism” and “heteronomy”. The kind of autonomy Fotopoulos endorses leads inevitably to relativism. He himself makes a distinction between a “democratic” relativism and a philosophical relativism. He rejects the latter kind of relativism, but is a strong supporter of the former. A discussion concerning the philosophical foundation of a liberatory project would transgress the limits of this review, so I hope I can come back to it in another issue.