DEMOCRACY & NATURE: The International Journal of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY, Vol. 5, No. 3 (November 1999)

Social Ecology, Eco-Communitarianism and Inclusive Democracy[1]

printable version



Social Ecology and Inclusive Democracy 

John Clark’s critique of the politics of social ecology has no direct bearing on the Inclusive Democracy project only to the extent that the latter constitutes a synthesis of, among other traditions, some elements of libertarian municipalism. Readers of this journal are, anyway, well aware of the fact that the project of inclusive democracy represents a synthesis as well as a transcendence of the two major historical traditions, the socialist and the democratic ones, as well as of the radical currents in the new social movements (the feminist and particularly the ecological, of which social ecology is the most important radical component). Therefore, John Clark’s exclusive reliance on Murray Bookchin’s work on democracy in order to carry out an outright attack against direct democracy, ignoring, in the process, the work of Castoriadis and of this journal on the matter, seems —superficially at least— to be bizarre. However, this significant omission could  easily be explained if one notes that what is from Clark’s viewpoint ‘one of the greatest strengths of Bookchin's politics’, is also, from a democratic perspective, the greatest weakness of this politics. Thus, according to Clark:

One of the greatest strengths of Bookchin's politics is its grounding in ethics and the philosophy of nature (...) For Bookchin, politics is ultimately grounded in the process of evolutionary unfolding and self-realisation that has been taking place over the natural and social history of this planet.  Social ecology looks at this history as a developmental process aiming at greater richness, diversity, complexity, and rationality[2]     

However, as I attempted to show elsewhere[3], the project for a democratic society cannot be grounded on an evolutionary process of social change, either a teleological one (such as Marx’ s dialectical materialism) or a non-teleological one (such as Bookchin’s dialectical naturalism[4]). Thus, although dialectical naturalism is explicitly described as a non-teleological view of natural and social evolution, still, it does assume a ‘directionality’[5] towards a democratic ecological society —a society that may never be actualised because of 'fortuitous’ events. But, although the hypothesis about a rational process of natural evolution may not be groundless, the hypothesis about the existence of a rational process of social evolution is, to my mind, both untenable and undesirable.[6]

It is untenable, because History does not justify the view of a process of Progress towards a free society, in the sense of a form of social organisation which secures the highest degree of individual and social autonomy at the political, the economic and the social levels: what we may define as an inclusive democracy. And it is undesirable, not only because it creates unintentional links with heteronomy (since it implicitly or explicitly rejects the fundamental fact that History is creation) but also because it may easily lead to inadvertent affinities with intrinsically anti-democratic eco-philosophies. Thus, the attempt to establish a directionality in society might easily create undesirable affinities with deep ecology. Although such affinities are utterly repugnant to social ecologists, they are, nevertheless, implicit in the fact that both deep ecologists and social ecologists adopt a process of evolutionary unfolding and self-realisation and ground their ethics in scientific observations about the natural world, in natural 'tendencies' or directionalities. This fact, as I pointed out elsewhere[7] could go a long way in explaining the various hybridised approaches of social/deep ecology developing at the moment among John Clark, Peter Marshall[8] and others.

I will only add here that it is ironic indeed that, although Bookchin justifiably feels the need to attack Clarks’ anti-democratic views[9], it is the very  philosophical grounding of democracy on dialectical naturalism, so cherished by both Bookchin and Clark, which creates a gap between social ecology and the democratic tradition. This is because 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.”[10] 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 with respect 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  some Marxists wiith religion, or of several anarchists (like John Clark) with various forms of irrationalism (Taoism, New Age etc).[11]  

It is, therefore, not accidental that Clark is particularly attracted by those elements in social ecology which are alien to the democratic tradition, i.e. the supposedly ‘objective’ grounding of the ecological society on the process of evolutionary unfolding and self-realisation which dialectical naturalism offers. Nor is it accidental that his attack against social ecology is centered on those of its elements which are closest to the democratic tradition, i.e. its democratic politics. In other words, there is a significant degree of consistency between Clark’s philosophical and political views. Unfortunately, the same could not be said with respect to social ecology.

However, as I will attempt to show below, the differences between the project of inclusive democracy and that of social ecology concerning the  philosophical grounding of democracy, have important repercussions on the respective conceptions of democracy itself.

Thus, Bookchin is right when he states that Clark is going ‘beyond’ the political realm when he attempts to make cooperative institutions —what Bookchin considers parts of the social realm, not the political—into central parts of his approach to social change. As Bookchin puts it, Clark includes in the public sphere producer and consumer coops, land trusts etc, ‘even the workplace—replete with “bosses, co-workers and technologies”—thereby scattering the concept of a public sphere as a politics like chaff in a wind’.[12] However, Clark is right in attempting to expand the narrow political realm, although, as I will try to show in the next section, he is absolutely wrong in the way he attempts to do so, i.e. by ‘personalising’ the political realm and discarding the Bookchinist notion of the citizen as the "nuclear unit" of a new politics.

The narrow conception of the public realm envisaged by Bookchin could and should be expanded, if our aim is to transcend the limited conception of democracy which first flourished in classical Athens. Thus, to develop a new conception of inclusive democracy we may start by distinguishing between the two main societal realms, the public and the private, to which we may add an "ecological realm", defined as the sphere of the relations between the natural and the social worlds. The public realm, contrary to the practice of many supporters of the republican or democratic project (Arendt, Castoriadis, Bookchin et al) includes in this conception  not just the political realm, but also the economic realm, as well as a ‘social’ realm, in other words, any area of human activity where decisions can be taken collectively and democratically. The political realm is defined as  the sphere of political decision-taking, the area where political power is exercised. The economic realm is defined as the sphere of economic decision-taking, the area where economic power is exercised with respect to the broad economic choices that any scarcity society has to make. Finally, the social realm is defined as the sphere of decision-taking in  the workplace, the education place and any other economic or cultural institution which is a constituent element of a democratic society.

I think that the extension of the traditional public realm to include the economic, ecological  and ‘social’ realms is an indispensable element of the inclusive democracy conception and offers significant assistance in defining its constituent elements: political, economic, ecological and ‘democracy in the social realm’. Thus, political, economic and democracy in the social realm may be defined, briefly, as the institutional framework that aims at the equal distribution of political, economic and social power respectively, in other words, as the  system which aims at  the effective elimination of the domination of human being over human being. Correspondingly, we may define ecological democracy as the institutional framework that aims at the elimination of any human attempt to dominate the natural world, in other words, as the system which aims to reintegrate humans and nature.[13]

It is therefore obvious that in a real democracy any type of decision (political, economic, social, relating to the environment) which can be taken collectively, should be part of the democratic decision-taking process. This is not obvious in the case of social ecology, which centres its conception of democracy on the political realm, at the exclusion of the other realms. No wonder that economic democracy is not part of the socio-ecological conception of democracy. Instead, social ecology adopts the communistic fiction of a post-scarcity society in which no economic-decision taking about the allocation of resources is, in effect, required. All that is required in this vision is, basically, a set of moral principles guiding sharing.[14] This is why Bookchin never bothered to provide a mechanism for the allocation of resources[15] and insists instead that in a communistic post-scarcity society ‘the very idea of an economy has been replaced by ethical (instead of productive) relationships; labour units, Proudhonian contracts, Rawlsian justice, and the like would not even be relevant’.[16]

However, there is a crucial negative implication of this conception of a democratic society: it presupposes the existence of material preconditions for freedom. The entrance to the realm of freedom depends on ‘objective’ factors, like the arrival of the mythical state of affairs of material abundance. But, the level of development of productive forces that is required so that material abundance for the entire population on Earth can be achieved, makes it at least doubtful that such a stage could ever be achieved without serious repercussions on the environment—unless, of course, ‘material abundance’ is defined democratically (and not ‘objectively’) in a way which is consistent with ecological balance.

Furthermore, the communist stage of post-scarcity is, in fact,  a mythical state of affairs, (if needs and scarcity are defined ‘objectively’) and reference to it could simply be used (and has been used) to justify the indefinite maintenance of state power and power relations and structures. It is therefore obvious that, within the problematique of the democracy project, the link between post-scarcity and freedom should be broken. The abolition of scarcity and, consequently, of the division of labour is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for democracy. Therefore, the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom should be de-linked from the economic process. Still, from Aristotle, through Locke and Marx, to Arendt and Bookchin, the distinction between the ‘realm of necessity’ (where nature belongs) and the ‘realm of freedom’ always has been considered to be fundamental. However, although this distinction may be useful as a conceptual tool in classifying human activities, there is no reason why the two realms must be seen as mutually exclusive in social reality. Historically, anyway, there have been several occasions when various degrees of freedom survived under conditions that could be characterised as belonging to the ‘realm of necessity’. Furthermore, once we cease treating the two realms as mutually exclusive, there is no justification for any attempt to dominate Nature—an important element of Marxist growth ideology—in order to enter the realm of freedom.

By the same token, the entrance to the realm of freedom does not depend on a massive change of consciousness through the adoption of some form of spiritualistic dogma, as some deep ecologists and other spiritualistic movements propose. Therefore, neither capitalism and socialism, on the ‘objective’ side, nor the adoption of some kind of spiritualistic dogma, on the ‘subjective’ side, constitute historical preconditions to enter the realm of freedom. In other words, the democratic principle  is not grounded on any divine, natural or social ‘laws’ or tendencies, but on 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. This conclusion is the direct outcome of a view of History which sees the democratic society as  a rupture, a break  in the historical continuity that  the heteronomous society has historically established. In contrast, the view adopted by social ecologists (including Clark) sees History as a process of Progress, the unfolding of reason – a view which assumes that there is an evolution going on towards autonomous, or democratic, forms of political, economic and social organisation. 

However, such a view of History is hardly supported by History itself! Thus, it is not possible to derive any sort of evolutionary process towards a free society, what we called an inclusive democracy. Although the historical attempts to establish autonomous forms of political, social and economic democracy did not, of course, appear ab novo, they cannot, nevertheless, be fitted into any grand evolutionary process. This is clearly indicated by the fact that such attempts took place in specific times and places and as a break with past development, rather than in several societies at the same stage of development and as a continuation of it.  Therefore, although the ideals of freedom may have expanded over time, the last 25 years or so notwithstanding, this expansion has not been matched by a corresponding  evolution towards an autonomous society, in the sense of greater participation of citizens in decision taking. In fact, the undermining of communities, which was intensified by the emergence of the market economy 200 years ago and has been accelerated by the development of the present internationalised market economy, as well as the growing privacy and self-interest of individuals encouraged by the consumer society, are clear indications of a trend towards more heteronomous forms of society rather than the other way round.

Still, the fact that no grand evolutionary schemes of Progress are supported by History does not mean that we should overemphasise the significance of the ‘social imaginary’ (in the Castoriadian terminology) at the expense of the ‘systemic’ elements. As I tried to show elsewhere[17], this type of approach could easily lead to serious errors: for instance, blaming the "imaginary significations" that had developed in the South rather than the spread of the growth economy (which had destroyed its traditional self-reliant communities) for the widening gulf between itself and the North. Therefore, if we set aside the grand evolutionary schemes, which depend on specific (supposedly ‘objective’) interpretations of natural or social change, History should be interpreted as the continuous interaction between creative human action and the existing institutional framework , i.e. as the interaction between the ‘imaginary’ and the ‘systemic’ elements, the outcome of which is always unpredictable.

Eco-Communitarianism and Inclusive Democracy 

I mentioned in the previous section a number of significant differences between the social ecology and the inclusive democracy projects concerning the philosophical foundation and the conception of democracy used by the respective projects. However, these differences are not comparable in significance to the huge gap separating eco-communitarianism from inclusive democracy.

First, the philosophical differences between inclusive democracy and eco-communitarianism are even more significant than those between the former and social ecology. To the extent that eco-communitarianism is a mix not only of a rational theory (dialectical naturalism) but also of elements of irrationalism (Taoism, spiritualism etc), it is utterly alien to the democratic tradition. As I attempted to show elsewhere[18], we cannot lump rational and irrational ideologies together, even if we disagree with rational ‘objectivity’. Although there are superficial similarities between an irrational belief system like Christianity and a rational ideology like Marxism (church/party, priests/avant guard etc), still, the crucial differences between them cannot be ignored. A fundamental characteristic of every irrational belief system is the existence of a set of core beliefs which are derived by non-rational methods (intuition, instinct, feeling etc). The fact that in many irrational belief systems there are also peripheral beliefs which may have been derived through the use of rational methods does not change their fundamentally irrational character. An irrational belief system is therefore irrefutable, since it is based on core beliefs, which are not expressed as rational hypotheses about reality, but as dogmas, intuitions etc, which are outside rational discourse. On the other hand, a rational ideology is refutable by an appeal to reason and/or the ‘facts’ because not only its peripheral ideas, but also its core ones, have been derived through a rational process. By ‘refutability’ I do not of course mean strict ‘falsifiability’ in the Popperian sense. When I talk about the refutability of a rational ideology vs. the irrefutability of irrational belief systems what I mean is that the former contains refutable hypotheses, (i.e. hypotheses which although cannot be ‘proven’ or ‘disproven’ by ‘facts’ still are amenable to rational discussion, namely, to discussion which can be informed by reason and evidence) whereas the latter contains a core of irrefutable hypotheses. The Marxist hypothesis, for instance, that as capitalism spreads all over the world it “creates a world after its own image”[19] is refutable and can be discussed rationally; in fact, it has been successfully challenged by radical development theory in the 1960s and the 1970s. On the other hand, there is no way to discuss rationally, for instance, the Christian belief in the Second Coming, or the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, the deep ecology’s intuition on biocentric equality, or the New Age’s belief in the ‘inner dynamic’ since all these beliefs are not refutable hypotheses derived through rational methods but irrational beliefs derived through intuition etc.

Second, even more important are the differences between eco-communitarianism and inclusive democracy on the conception of democracy itself. This is because, whereas social ecology can be criticised as adopting a conception of partial democracy, eco-communitarianism has, in effect, no conception of democracy at all! This is evident by the fact that Clark’s notion of citizenship and the implied notion of community are completely irrelevant to democratic politics. Thus, Clark, in criticising Bookchin for suggesting the citizen as the ‘nuclear unit’ of democratic politics, states:[20]

It seems unwise to define any single role as such a "nuclear unit," or to see any as the privileged form of self-identity.  There are other important self-images with profound political implications.  A notable example is that of personhood.  While civic virtue requires diverse obligations to one’s fellow-citizens, respect, love and compassion are feelings appropriately directed at all persons.  If (as Bookchin has himself at times agreed) we should accept the principle that "the personal is political," we must explore the political dimension of personhood and its universal recognition.  Furthermore, the political significance of our identity as members of the earth community can hardly be overemphasised.  We might also conceive of this quality as an expression of citizenship if we think of ourselves not only as citizens of a town, city or neighbourhood, but also as citizens of our ecosystem, of our bioregion, of our georegion, and of the earth itself. 

The above extract makes it clear that Clark’s notion of citizenship is not related to any particular institutional framework, but it is linked, instead, to the general notion of the human being (the ‘person’) 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’. It is obvious however 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). For instance, the concept of citizenship which is associated with the institutional framework of a market economy has almost nothing in common with the conception of citizenship associated with an inclusive democracy.

Thus, as far the market economy is concerned we may distinguish between the conceptions of citizenship held by liberals and social democrats. For the liberals, the citizen is simply the individual bearer of certain freedoms and political rights recognised by law which, supposedly, secure equal distribution of political power. Similarly, for social democrats, the citizen is the bearer not only of political rights and freedoms but, also, of some social and economic rights. It is therefore obvious that the liberal and social-democratic conceptions adopt an ‘instrumentalist’ view of citizenship, i.e. a view which implies that citizenship entitles citizens with certain rights that they can exercise as means to the end of individual welfare.

On the other hand, an inclusive democracy presupposes a ‘participatory’ conception of active citizenship, like the one implied by the work of Hannah Arendt.[21] In this conception, “political activity is not a means to an end, but an end in itself; one does not engage in political action simply to promote one’s welfare but to realise the principles intrinsic to political life, such as freedom, equality, justice, solidarity, courage and excellence”.[22] The definition of citizenship which would be consistent with inclusive democracy[23] involves a political, economic, social and cultural element. Thus, political citizenship involves new political structures and the return to the classical conception of politics (direct democracy). Economic citizenship involves new economic structures of community ownership and control of economic resources (economic democracy). Social citizenship involves self-management structures at the workplace, democracy in the household and new welfare structures where all basic needs (to be democratically determined) are covered by community resources, whether they are satisfied in the household or at the community level. Finally, cultural citizenship involves new democratic structures of dissemination and control of information and culture (mass media, art, etc.), which allow every member of the community to take part in the process and at the same time develop his/her intellectual and cultural potential.

It is obvious that this sense of citizenship implies a sense of community, which can only be defined geographically and constitutes the fundamental unit of political, economic and social life. Still, the community is assumed that it interlocks with various other communities (cultural, professional, ideological, etc.). Therefore, 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. Furthermore, these arrangements institutionalise various safety valves that aim to rule out the marginalisation of such differences by the majority.[24] 

What therefore unites people in a political community, or a confederation of communities, is not some set of common values, imposed by a nationalist ideology, a religious dogma, a mystical belief, or an ‘objective’ interpretation of natural or social ‘evolution’, but the democratic institutions and practices, which have been set up by citizens themselves. This means that an inclusive democracy cannot guarantee a better relationship of society to nature than the alternative systems of the market economy, or socialist statism. If we see democracy as a process of social self-institution where there is no divinely or ‘objectively’ defined code of human conduct, such guarantees are by definition ruled out. Therefore, the replacement of the market economy by a new institutional framework of inclusive democracy constitutes only the necessary condition for a harmonious relation between the natural and social worlds. The sufficient condition refers to the citizens’ level of ecological consciousness. Still, the radical change in the dominant social paradigm that will follow the institution of an inclusive democracy, combined with the decisive role that Paedeia will play in an environmentally-friendly institutional framework, could reasonably be expected to lead to a radical change in the human attitude towards Nature. In other words, a democratic ecological problematique cannot go beyond the institutional preconditions that offer the best hope for a better human relationship to Nature. However, there are strong grounds[25] to believe that the relationship between an inclusive democracy and Nature would be much more harmonious than could ever be achieved in a market economy, or one based on socialist statism.

It is, therefore, obvious that the reason why eco-communitarianism does not offer a functional definition of citizenship and community, or, in fact, of democracy itself, is that it does not really need them. 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) democracy itself is superfluous! In fact, in a later restatement of the eco-communitarian thesis 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. Eco-communitarian politics, which I would counterpoise to Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, is the project of realising such a vision in social practice. 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 is the project of creating a way of life consonant with that understanding.[26] 

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’.

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. It is obvious that democracy is inconceivable at the level of the ‘earth community’. This does not mean 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 Order which is consistent with it,[27] 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 with its formal democratic institutions (demotic assembly, demotic courts etc) as well its informal ones (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) 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. 

However, this 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 creates a tension between the general interest and the special interests of particular communities.[28]  Such tensions are unavoidable within a free society; the question is, what is the mechanism of transcending them. It is no accident that Clark throws all kinds of doubts about the feasibility of direct democracy and proposes instead a combination of various forms of indirect or representative ‘democracy’ with elements of direct democracy. This is inevitable once the territorialisation of community is abandoned; authentic democracy necessarily implies the maximum degree of decentralisation possible in decision-taking whereas the notion of ‘earth community’ implies exactly the opposite.

Thus, Clark as far as political democracy is concerned, 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’.[29] 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.

However, as regards first the question of feasibility 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”.[30] Also, as regards the related issue of how the degeneration of confederal councils into new power structures might be