DEMOCRACY & NATURE: The International Journal of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY vol.6, no.2, (July 2000)

The limitations of Life-style strategies: The Ecovillage “Movement” is NOT the way towards a new democratic society




Abstract: This paper compares and contrasts the lifestyle strategies (like that of the Global Ecovillage movement) with the transitional strategy for systemic change proposed by the Inclusive Democracy project. The limitations of life-style strategies, as well as those of direct action, the main example today being the anti-globalisation movement, are discussed. It is argued that the differences in strategies reflect paradigmatic differences, i.e. differences related to the respective analyses of the present situation, as well as differences in goals and means.



Two paradigms

Ted Trainer’s paper provides a strong case for the ecovillage movement, which seems to have a certain following, particularly in the North (Europe, USA, Australia) as well as some limited influence in the South. In fact, the geographical distribution of the movement simply reflects its class structure and the concerns of most people taking part in it, which are not dissimilar to those of their predecessors in the Green communes of the 1970s and the 1980s.[1] In this sense, one may argue that the ecovillage movement is actually the continuation of the goals and means of the old green communes, which, this time with the significant help of the internet takes the form of a world-wide ‘movement’.

Trainer raises some important points related to the causes of the present crisis, the vision of a future society and the way to materialise it which deserve to be examined in some detail from the Inclusive Democracy project’s (ID) viewpoint. Particularly so since the author himself thinks that the ID project ‘aligns on all major points’ with his own analysis of the situation, while the discussion of a desirable alternative society, as he puts it, is ‘at least very similar’ to his own. On the basis of this assertion, he draws the conclusion that the crucial difference between the two projects refers to the strategy alone since, as he puts it, the ID project ‘gives us very little to go on regarding strategy and what it does say is not very plausible’.[2]

However, as I will try to show below, the difference in strategy between the two projects reflects the fact that they represent different paradigms with their own analyses of present society and visions of a future one. So, the obvious similarities between the two paradigms, as regards some aspects of their respective analyses, visions and strategies, should not disguise the crucial differences between them.


Analytical differences

Starting with the analysis of the present society, the ID project is based on a significantly different theoretical framework to that adopted by Trainer, as is illustrated by the different approaches adopted by each paradigm in the analysis of the relation of values to structures, the relation of the growth economy to the consumer society (or what he calls the relation of the production to the consumption ‘modes’), and, finally, the causes of the ecological crisis and the way to a sustainable society.

Structures and values

At the outset, it should be pointed out that the ID paradigm rejects the modernist project’s belief in Progress (emanating in the Enlightenment), whether this belief takes the form of a grand theory of History which is supposed to be governed by concrete ‘laws’ of social change (dialectical materialism) or, whether, alternatively, it takes the form of a directionality’ in social change as the outcome of natural evolution (dialectical naturalism). However, the ID paradigm is in agreement with the basic tenet of the modernist project that political and economic structures condition the value systems and culture and therefore the ‘dominant social paradigm’ i.e. the system of beliefs, ideas and their corresponding values which is associated with the political, economic and social institutions. This means that the power structures and relations are at the centre of the analysis in the ID project since it is these structures and relations which crucially condition values and culture rather than the other way round, as postmodernists and the ‘new’ social movements (Greens, feminists and others) usually argue.

Therefore, the ID project rejects the view that social change will come about through changing values and developing alternative life-styles with no agreement necessary on ultimate ends. In the ID projects’ view, a new society will not be created by a plurality of groups and forces each operating within their own contexts and trying to bypass the political and economic power structures, (i.e. the existing system) rather than to confront them. Instead, a basic thesis of the ID project is that the form a new society will take will be the outcome of a self-conscious choice, conditioned by historical circumstances, but never determined, (as regards its concrete content), by them.

So, social transformation towards an inclusive democracy would never come about by ‘example and education’ alone, since the required change in values and culture can only be the outcome of a process of continuous interaction between changes in institutions and changes in values. In other words, the change in values would have to come about as part of a programmatic political movement with an overall goal for systemic change, rather than as part of the activities of some fractionalised movements to create a new relation between the sexes, identities, or society and nature. This implies the need for the creation :

  • of alternative economic institutions based on a confederal economic democracy,

  • of alternative political institutions based on direct democracy,

  • of alternative social institutions based on democracy in the household, the place of work etc,

  • of a different relationship to Nature integrating Democracy and Nature.

Trainer, on the other hand, focuses on ideology and values, as opposed to structures. This is reflected in several parts of his paper. Thus although he correctly points out the huge inequalities created by the capitalist system he seems to trace the source of this growing concentration of economic power not to the economic mechanisms built into the market economy and its dynamics but to ideology and/or the malfunctioning of the system because of the freedom ‘given’ to market forces:[3]

they (TNCs, banks etc) are rapidly increasing their ownership and control through their stunning success in promoting the free market ideology (…) The two fundamentally mistaken commitments built into the current economic system are to the market and to growth (…) a major source of the overall global problem is simply the freedom given to market forces

It is, therefore, not accidental that the market economy and what the ID project calls the growth economy are not considered as forms of social and economic organisation with their own ideologies but just as ‘mistaken commitments’. The implication is obvious. A rejection of these faulty commitments or principles might be sufficient to lead to an ecological society, even if this society still involves the separation of society from polity (through the existence of the state), the separation of society from the economy (through the existence of some sort of market economy) and the consequent separation of society from nature, (because of the concentration of political and economic power to which the dynamic of a statist market economy will inevitably lead). Therefore, an effective social control of the market forces is possible even within some form of statist market economy.

Growth, development and consumerism

Trainer’s critique of the Left, including myself, on the issue of growth and consumerism is consistent with the above conclusion. As he points out:[4]

Unfortunately what is generally not recognised, even among people on the Left, is that an even bigger mistake is to do with the taken for granted commitment to affluence and growth. Most of those who would happily get rid of capitalism, markets, competition and domination fail to acknowledge that global problems would remain just about as serious as they are now if we did not also relinquish the determination to have high "living standards" and to increase them over time, constantly and without limit. We could only do this if we continued to take far more than our fair share of world resources and therefore to deprive most people and to gear Third World economies to rich world demand etc. (…) the most important implications for change derive from the other fault, the greed syndrome, i.e., the unquestioned obsession with high level living standards and economic growth. (…) (Fotopoulos’) discussion of solutions does not give over consumption and the need for simpler ways the emphasis I have argued that they deserve.

Similarly, although Trainer correctly points out that the market system leads to the plundering of the South, he then draws the seemingly contradictory conclusion that “satisfactory development for the Third World is impossible unless the rich countries move down to consuming something like their fair share of world resources. Gandhi summed up the situation long ago when he stated that the rich must live more simply so that the poor may simply live.” The impression one gets from statements like these is that for Trainer it is not the market system itself which is the cause of the plundering of the weak by the strong, either within the North and the South, or between them, but it is rather the abuse of the system by corporations etc which is to blame. In other words, the impression is that the problem is the ‘greediness’ of the rich (individuals or countries) and it could be solved by more efficient controls on the market forces so that a better distribution of income and wealth could be achieved.

In the ID project’s view, however, growth and consumerism are not just faulty commitments of some sort that we may get rid of by changing our values and ideology. The existing institutional framework, as defined by the market economy, crucially conditions our values and ideology. The emergence of the growth ideology, (i.e. the ideology founded on the belief that the unlimited growth of production and of the productive forces is in fact the central objective of human existence), as I have attempted to show elsewhere,[5] could be explained in terms of the interaction between objective factors (the grow-or-die dynamic of the market economy which was set in motion at the time of the establishment of the market economy, about two centuries ago) and the subjective factors prevailing in Europe at the time (the Enlightenment’s identification of Progress with the development of productive forces and the influence that the Enlightenment ideas had on both the liberal and the socialist movements).

It is the development of the growth economy which has led, on the one hand, to the creation of the consumer society in the North and, on the other, to the expansion of the growth economy in the South. In other words, the continuous expansion of the market economy required the creation of new markets, new needs and the consequent support given by the economic elites towards relevant technological developments. This implies that neither the growth ideology, nor consumerism (which represents the massive internalisation of the growth values that is achieved through the socialisation process in a growth economy) would disappear unless there were a parallel dismantling of the market economy and its offspring, the growth economy.

The way to a sustainable economy

Although Trainer recognises that “a sustainable society must therefore be defined in terms that extend well beyond taking social control over the market”, he still makes it obvious that what he means is more extensive controls on the market economy in order to achieve a sustainable economy rather than the abolition of the market economy itself. As he puts it, this society “must focus on notions of simplicity, co-operation and self sufficiency and a long period of negative economic growth culminating in a steady-state economy”[6]. The fact that he does not propose an alternative economic system of allocation of resources which would secure the implementation of these principles (like the combination of democratic planning and a voucher scheme proposed by the ID project) confirms the impression that he does not aim for the abolition of the market economy itself (an impression confirmed by his explicit rejection of a marketless and moneyless economy see below). No wonder that for Trainer “the fundamental source of the environmental problem is over-consumption” and not the market economy itself and its offspring the growth economy and that ‘competition, the importance of winning, privileges for superiors and the legitimacy of inequality’ are attributed to “the cultural foundations of Western civilisation”[7] and not to the existing economic structures and the culture and values which are consistent with it.

I think there are two ways to see the ecological crisis. We may see it either as part of a multidimensional crisis related to the political and economic structures and the related ideologies, values and culture, or just as the result of the wrong values, which have led to some ‘faulty commitments’. If we accept the former view, the way out of the ecological as well as the general crisis is to build a massive democratic movement that will aim to replace the present structures and the related values with new structures and values. If we accept the latter view then the way out of the crisis is by building communes etc so that, by education and example, people change their values. However, although it is true that there are no historical or natural laws determining social evolution[8] this does not mean that ‘anything goes’ within the existing institutional framework. The institutional framework does set the parameters within which social action takes place. This means that both the nature and the scope of radical social action cannot transcend these parameters —unless social action explicitly aims at the institutional framework itself. Therefore, the declared goals of the communards in the past and the ecovillagers today about a sustainability involving the abandonment of affluent living standards, autarchy etc, are obviously insufficient to create an alternative consciousness for a radical transformation of society, as they do not specify any clear aims related to the institutional framework of a sustainable society.

In practical terms, the above analysis implies that a movement for a new society has to meet a number of conditions, which the ecovillage movement obviously does not meet. These conditions refer to the fact that the new movement has to be a mass political movement with a double aim: to replace the market economy and representative ‘democracy’ with institutions securing the equal distribution of political, economic and social power and to create a new ‘hegemonic’ ideology based on the values of inclusive democracy. Of course, there is no guarantee that the dismantling of the market/growth economy and the establishment of an inclusive democracy would inevitably involve the reintegration of society and nature. But, as I showed elsewhere,[9] this is the necessary (though not the sufficient) condition for it.

So, Trainer’s statement that “if we give up all intention of dominating but remain committed to affluent living standards then the ecological problem will remain as serious as it is now” is only superficially true. In fact, there is a definite relationship between domination and the ‘commitment’ to affluent living standards. First, the fact that before the rise of the market/growth economy people were not ‘committed to affluent living standards’ indicates a direct link between the market economy and living standards. Second, the fact that the market/growth economy (as well as representative ‘democracy’) inevitably leads to concentration of power, (i.e. to dominance/dependence relations) indicates an indirect link between the ‘commitment’ to affluent living standards and domination. People were not born to be committed to affluent living standards but became committed to such standards when --within the process of socialisation by family, education the mass media etc-- they internalised the values and ideology of the market economy’s ruling elites. In other words, it was the domination structures of the market/growth economy and the values associated with them which made people committed to affluent living standards and consumerism and not the other way round.


Goal differences

In view of what was said above it is not surprising that for Trainer a society that is completely stateless, moneyless and marketless is just a ‘matter of detail’ which cannot be decided at this point in time and will have to be worked out in the light of experience’ and that his ‘uncertain expectation is that we will opt to give them all (i.e. money, markets, state) a minor role, in forms which put them firmly under the control of participatory local institutions, and new values’.

State and markets in a future society and the meaning of democracy

However, a stateless, moneyless and marketless economy is at the core of the ID project since, for the reasons developed elsewhere,[10] an inclusive democracy is a form of social organisation which re-integrates society with polity, economy and nature and such reintegration is made impossible by the existence of a state and a market economy. Any form of ‘statist’ democracy (representative or parliamentary ‘democracy’ etc) implies the separation of society from polity. Similarly, any form of market economy, corporatist or not, implies the separation of society from the economy and its dynamics inevitably lead to the separation of nature from society.

Furthermore, there is no way to return, in the present conditions of internationalised markets, to forms of effective controls over the market economy in order to protect labour and the environment. As I attempted to show elsewhere,[11] social controls over the market economy (like the ones implied by Trainer) were compatible with the relatively closed economies of the early post war period but are certainly incompatible with the present internationalised market economies. However, even if it were feasible today to introduce some form of pre-market economy society, with small enterprises (privately or collectively owned and controlled) competing --under strict social controls-- with each other, such a form of society would definitely be undesirable. The competition which would develop among such enterprises would inevitably lead to many of the problems characterising the present market economies (inequality, unemployment etc) as similar social experiments in the past have shown (e.g. Yugoslavian ‘self-management). The problem, therefore, is not corporate capitalism, or the abuse of the market economy, but the market economy itself and its dynamics–a distinction that seems to be ignored in Trainer’s analysis.[12]

It seems to me that a significant part of the goal differences between the two paradigms arises from the fact that, for Trainer, democracy seems to be just a procedure for decision-taking whereas, for the ID project, democracy is a completely new way of political and economic organisation which secures the equal distribution of political and economic power an arrangement which, as I stated above, is completely incompatible with the existence of a market economy, money and a state. Furthermore, an approach which sees as ‘matters of detail’ the role of the market, money and the state does not perceive the dynamics which such institutions set in motion, once established. If we therefore reject simplistic explanations (blaming human nature or external factors) of why the market economy and the nation-states, which were created in the last few centuries, developed in the way they did, then we have to look for the built-in elements within the present institutions (state, market economy, money) which have led to the present huge concentration of power. This means that the new mass movement should make clear the significance of these institutions with respect to the present multi-dimensional crisis.

Last, but not least, the fact that Trainer’s focus is on the sustainable character of the new society whereas mine is on its democratic character summarises the paradigmatic differences between us. For the ID project, the future society is not just an ecological or sustainable society in which participatory procedures have been introduced, but a democratic society, whose ecological dimension is only one of its dimensions. An ecological society which does not secure self-determination at every level, or one which imposes 'rules' about our behaviour towards Nature on the basis of some kind of irrational belief system, is undesirable. In other words, an ecological democracy, as a component of the inclusive democracy, should be founded on democratic rationalism,[13] i.e. the self-reflective choice of its citizens and not on any kind of natural ‘laws’ or intuitions and mystical beliefs, like the ones shared by most ecovillagers.

Irrationalism and democracy

This brings us to the critical relationship between democracy and irrationalism. It is the same emphasis on the sustainable versus the democratic character of the new society which may explain why Trainer does not find crucial the fact that the ecovillage movement contains irrational elements. As he puts it, ‘what matters is that it also contains groups that are working for the right way’.[14]

However, it seems that irrationalism in the form of ‘spirituality’ is not just something characterising some groups within the ecovillage movement but that, in fact, it is one of the main components of the entire movement. A visit to the global ecovillage website[15] makes obvious this fact. Thus, the ecovillage is defined as:

an urban or rural community whose members try to provide a high quality lifestyle without taking more from the earth than they give back. Ecovillages attempt to integrate a supportive social environment with a low-impact way of life. To achieve these aims, ecovillages typically build on various combinations of three dimensions:

  • Community

  • Ecology

  • Spirituality

In a more ‘radical’ variation of the same theme,[16] the above elements are even combined with business development!:

The Ecovillage Network represents ecovillages at different stages of development; the oldest were established more than 70 years ago and the most recent are just beginning. Common to all is the focus on education and the desire to integrate ecology, spirituality, community and business development.

However, as I attempted to show elsewhere,[17] any kind of irrationalism[18] is incompatible with a democratic society, although not necessarily with a sustainable society Trainer is, thus, justified in not seeing the crucial significance of this matter. A democratic society presupposes people deciding, after rational discussion, the way to organise society. This means that irrational intuitions and beliefs coming from religions, spiritualistic movements etc cannot be the basis of such a process of rational self-determination since no rational discussion is possible around them. Yet many of these beliefs have a direct impact on how we see society and its organisation (try, for instance, to persuade a ‘reborn Christian’ that abortion is a woman’s right). The fact, therefore, that many of those involved in the eco-village movement do not give a damn about democracy (in fact, about any kind of politics in general) is not accidental, nor is the a-political nature of the ‘movement’ as a whole. The acceptance of democratic procedures in their decision-taking mechanisms and of some kind of ‘anti-authoritarianism’ in their practices does not deny this fact. As David Pepper put it, many of the communards ‘may reject state authority but cheerfully accept that of Gods like Shiva or Gaia’.[19]

Furthermore, the present dominance of the irrational element in the ecovillage (and generally the Green) movement, particularly in the USA/UK/Australia, could play a dangerous role in case of a future crisis. Thus, if we accept Trainer’s prediction that the present boom may be followed ‘by a fairly sudden shift to a long era of chaotic and terminal breakdown’, then, in the absence of a strong mass movement for systemic change, the most likely outcome of such a crisis would be a new kind of totalitarianism. Given the possibility that such an economic crisis would be accompanied by an even more serious ecological crisis than the present one, it would be no surprise if this crisis took the form of ‘eco-fascism’, with many of the irrational spiritualists now involved in the ecovillage movement taking an active part in the establishment of this new totalitarianism. It is no accident, anyway, that Rudolf Bahro, one of the main proponents of Green communes and New Age mysticism,[20] (who may well have functioned as the guru for many of today’s ecovillagers), starting from what he perceived as a fact, i.e. that many people in the depth of their hearts are already calling for a “Green Hitler”, argued for an antidote in terms of a self-transformation with a transpersonal, spiritual or religious dimension. No wonder that Bahro concluded that “we must think of the (ecological) movement as an ellipse whose axis has two poles, Brown and Green” and ended up with an appeal to reject the dichotomy between them![21]

To sum up, if our main aim in building an alternative society is to restrict greediness, materialism etc in order to achieve a sustainable society then, indeed, irrationalism is not crucial, as Trainer claims. But then, there is no reason why one should not also include in the ecovillage movement the hordes of Christian or Buddhist etc monks and nuns who implemented many of the same values of sustainability and anti-materialism, long before the middle class ecovillagers discovered them!


Strategic differences

As I mentioned above, the ecovillage ‘strategy’ is perfectly compatible with Trainer’s analysis of the present situation as well as his description of the future society. Likewise, analysis, goals and means are consistent with each other in the ID project. So, let us consider the strategy adopted by Trainer first, and then compare and contrast it with the ID strategy, in relation to the criticisms raised against it by him.

Is the ecovillage ‘movement’ a political movement?

As defined by Trainer, the ecovillage movement includes not only the ecovillage communes, some of which originated in the intentional communities and alternative lifestyle movements of the 1960s, but also activities such as ethical finance, community supported agriculture, rural economic renewal, town banks, land trusts, LETS, permaculture, as well as Third World alternative development projects. This broad definition obviously goes much beyond the aims of the ecovillage movement itself, as described above, since in effect it includes any kind of activity to protect the sustainability of the environment (ranging from permaculture to ethical finance) and/or labour and human life in general (from LETS schemes to town banks and land trusts). On the basis of this definition 0ne may notice two main characteristics of these ‘ecovillage’ activities which are relevant to the discussion about their potential as agents for systemic change:

  • The ecovillage activities could hardly be called a movement. A movement presupposes, at least, common goals and, at best, common strategies to achieve the shared goals, as well as a common analysis of the present situation. The activists involved in these activities, however, hardly share a similar analysis of the present situation; particularly so when many of them do not even blame the system itself (market economy and representative democracy) for the present crisis but just its malfunctioning. Also, not only are the means used by these activists greatly diverse, ranging from building ecovillages to ethical finance, but even the goals themselves do not seem to be shared. Thus, ecological concerns are usually at the bottom of the priorities of the unemployed and marginalised people who are involved in LETS schemes, while the problems of the unemployed and the marginalised are surely not at the top of the priorities of many of the middle class activists who live in the ecovillages of the North.

  • As Trainer himself admits,[22] the ecovillage activities usually do not have any relation to what may be called a political movement towards radical social change and a new world order:

(T)he Eco-village Movement includes a wide diversity of initiatives, many of which are not consciously intending to pioneer a new world order. Many eco-villages simply involve people in trying to build better circumstances for themselves, often within the rich world in quite self-indulgent ways. It is a remarkably theory-less and a-political movement’

Empirical research on the ‘green communes’ also confirms Trainer’s impression and stresses the overwhelming individualism which characterises many communes something hardly surprising when one recalls the middle class liberal backgrounds and upbringing of so many communards.[23] The same applies to many of the other activities included by Trainer in the eco-village definition (LETS schemes, ethical finance etc). Usually, these schemes are in no way related to radical politics (in the sense of promoting an alternative society), if indeed they are related to politics at all! In fact, such schemes are often so politically harmless that the political elites frequently use them for their own ends. In Britain, for instance, Tony Blair’s social-liberal government openly endorses schemes like LETS with the obvious aim to alleviate the pressures created on the budget as a result of the running down of the welfare state a process which was initiated by Thatcher’s neoliberalism and continued by Blair’s social-liberalism.[24]

However, Trainer stresses that he is not endorsing the Global Ecovillage Movement as a whole and that he is rather urging radical theoreticians and activists to think carefully about how best to help a strand within it ‘to sharpen its focus and to flourish’. As he stresses, ‘what matters is that (the ecovillage movement) also contains groups that are working for the right way’. However, similar groups, also working ‘for the right way‘, may be found elsewhere in society, for instance, within the various groups engaged in direct action. Therefore, the real issue is whether ‘the right way’ to bring about systemic change, (i.e. a change in the entire socio-economic system of the market economy, representative democracy and hierarchical structures), is to be found within a life-style activity like the ecovillage movement, or, alternatively, within the various forms of direct action or, whether, instead, the limitations of both these strategies imply the need to build a massive programmatic political movement for systemic change, as proposed by the ID approach.

The limitations of Life-style strategies and direct action

Trainer is right when, in criticising the Marxist strategy of taking over state power in order to create an alternative society, he stresses that the required habits, values and skills can only be built through the long experience of living in self sufficient, self governing communities and not ‘by decree’. It is along similar lines that I criticised elsewhere[25] what I called a ‘revolution from above’, i.e. the strategy which aims at systemic change through the conquest of state power. As I pointed out there, the major problem of any revolutionary strategy, (either aiming at a revolution from above or from below), is the uneven development of consciousness among the population, in other words, the fact that a revolution, which presupposes a rupture with the past both at the subjective level of consciousness and at the institutional level, takes place in an environment in which only a minority of the population has broken with the dominant social paradigm. My conclusion was that the still unresolved problem with systemic change is how such a change could be brought about by a majority of the population, from below, so that a democratic abolition of power structures could become feasible.

One way to achieve the aim of systemic change may be the type of ‘life-style’ approach adopted by Trainer. However, this approach and generally any form of life-style approach is, by itself, utterly ineffective in bringing about such a change. Although helpful in creating an alternative culture among small sections of the population and, at the same time, boosting morale 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 — to create the democratic majority needed for systemic social change. The projects suggested by this strategy may be too easily marginalised, or absorbed into the existing power structure (as has happened many times in the past) while their effect on the socialisation process is minimal--if not nil. Furthermore, life-style strategies, by usually concentrating on single issues, which are not part of a comprehensive political program for social transformation, do not help in creating the ‘anti-systemic’ consciousness required for a systemic change. Finally, 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. However, the only way in which an approach aiming at a power base could be consistent with the aims of the democratic project would be, to my mind, through the development of a comprehensive program for the radical transformation of local political and economic structures.

Similar arguments could be used to criticise the various forms of direct action with respect to their capability of creating an alternative consciousness. Let us take the example of the anti-globalisation movement which is the main form of direct action today. Although this ‘movement’ is much more politicised and radicalised than the ecovillage ‘movement’ it still suffers from similar deficiencies. First, the heterogeneous nature of the various groups participating in it makes it doubtful-to say the least- whether it may be classified as a ‘movement’. As is well known, the globalisation movement consists of heterogeneous elements with a huge diversity of goals ranging from reformist demands (NGOs, mainstream Greens, trade unions and others) to revolutionary demands of a systemic nature. Second, the fact that most of the activists involved in this movement do not have any clear anti-systemic goals makes it hard to classify it as an anti-systemic movement. It is obvious that the aim of most participants is not to advance a systemic change but rather to ‘resist’ globalisation in the (vain) hope of forcing the introduction of effective social controls over the internationalised market economy for the protection of the environment and labour.

The conclusion is that the activities of the anti-globalisation movement, like those of the ecovillage movement, have no chance of functioning as transitional strategies for systemic change, unless they become an integral part of a programmatic political mass movement for such a change. At most, the anti-globalisation movement can function as a kind of ‘resistance movement’ to globalisation and bring about some sort of reforms — but never systemic change. However, a resistance movement can never create the anti-systemic consciousness required for systemic change since, by its nature, it has to work on a consensus platform, which would necessarily express the lowest common denominator of the demands of the various activists taking part in it. This means that it is more than likely, given the present structure of this movement, that its political platform will be a reformist one.

Finally, one should not forget the parameters set by the institutional framework. Given that the neoliberal consensus is not just a policy change, as social democrats assume, but a structural change imposed by the internationalisation of the market economy, the basic elements of the neoliberal consensus and particularly the elements of flexible markets and minimum social controls on markets will never go away within an internationalised market economy. A market economy today can only be an internationalised one, given that the growth (and therefore profitability) of the TNCs, which control the world market economy, depends on their enlarging their markets worldwide. However, as long as the market economy has to be an internationalised one, markets have to be as open and as flexible as possible. This means that, as long as the system of the market economy and representative democracy reproduces itself, all that reforms (‘from above’, or ‘from below’) can achieve today is temporary victories and reversible social conquests like, for instance, those made during the period of the social democratic consensus which are now being systematically dismantled by the neoliberal consensus.[26]

The issue of confronting the system

Trainer, after rightly pointing out that the required habits, values and skills for a new society can only be built through the long experience of living in self sufficient, self governing communities etc, draws the wrong conclusion. Although he is right in rejecting the one extreme, a structuralist Marxist approach according to which structures have to be changed first to be followed by a change in ideas and values, he ends up by adopting the opposite extreme, i.e. an idealist approach that there must be widespread change in ideas and values before any general change in structures and institutions is achieved. In contrast, the ID’s strategy is based on the principle that a change in values and ideas could not be effected without a simultaneous change in social structures at large (rather than at the level of ‘ecovillages’ isolated from society ) and that this change in structures and values has to start well before the final stage in the transition to the new society has been reached.

In more detail, the ‘implicit’ Ecovillage Movement strategy, as described by Trainer, consists of steps to build the new post-capitalist society here and now, by ‘gradually increasing the number of people who come over from consumer society to live in the new settlements, (and increasing the number of those who practise various elements of The Simpler Way e.g., those in LETS schemes or practising Permaculture.)’.[27] Thus, starting from the argument that direct struggle against capitalism has brought little more than catastrophic rout on all fronts in the last thirty years or so, he concludes that it now makes much more sense to hold the establishment of the new way as one's top priority rather than the struggle against the old. The implicit assumption is that the two processes could be separated so that confrontation might be avoided at this stage. This assumption is explicitly denied by the ID project’s strategy which sees a simultaneous struggle to abolish the old and establish the new way.

However, before we proceed to assess Trainer’s stand on the matter we have to clarify the meaning of confrontation with the system. In a broad sense, this confrontation means any kind of activity which aims to confront rather than to bypass the system, at any stage of the transition to a new society. Such activities could include both direct action and life-style activities, as well as other forms of action aiming at creating alternative institutions at a significant social scale through, for instance, the taking over of local authorities. The condition for such activities to be characterised as confronting the system is that they are an integral part of a mass political movement for systemic change. This type of confrontation does not involve in principle any physical violence, apart from self-defence in the case, for instance, of direct action, although it should be expected that the elites will extensively use any form of violence particularly economic violence to crush such a movement. On the other hand, in a narrow sense, confrontation means the physical confrontation with the mechanisms of physical violence which the elites may use against a movement for systemic change and refers exclusively to the final stage of the transition towards an alternative society.

On the basis of the above definition of confrontation it is obvious that the two paradigms do not differ significantly as regards the possibility of confrontation in a narrow sense. Thus, for the ID project, whether the transition towards an ID will be marked by a physical confrontation with the elites will depend entirely on their attitude at the final stage of transformation of society, i.e. on whether they will accept peacefully such a transition, or whether they will prefer instead to use physical violence to crush it, as is most likely given that the transition will deprive them of all their privileges. Trainer also accepts the possibility of such a conflict: ‘If someday we do find ourselves in mortal conflict with capitalism then so be it, but the strategic situation will then be quite different to what it is now’.[28] Still, it seems that Trainer, in consistence with the focus on values rather than on institutions which characterises his paradigm, attempts to support the hypothesis that the system could be bypassed and a physical confrontation might be avoided, even at the very final stage of transition. However, the examples of the Eastern block regimes and of South Africa that he uses to justify his hypothesis are hardly convincing.

A brief digression on the collapse of these regimes might be useful in understanding the unrealistic nature of this hypothesis. It is clear that to understand the reasons for the collapse of a regime one has to consider the nature and the causes of it. Thus, on the basis of the first criterion, the South Africa example is not relevant to the systemic change that we have been discussing here. What happened there was not a replacement of one type of social and economic system by another but a restructuring of the ruling political and economic elites to include members of the black majority. Although the average black individual, as a result of this change, gained more civil rights and liberties than before, s/he is still not going to be less heteronomous than the average citizen in the North —the topic of discussion here. On the basis of the second criterion, the collapse of the Eastern European blocks is also not relevant to the kind of systemic change that we are considering.

As I attempted to show elsewhere,[29] it was the internal contradictions of these regimes which led to their collapse, as a result of the lack of any effective popular base to support them. This is because what reproduces a social system in the long term is not just the threat of physical violence but, mainly, the provision of adequate incentives which will gain the support, or at least the tolerance, of the majority of the population. It was therefore the failure of these regimes to provide such incentives, like the ones provided by Western regimes, which led to their collapse. Thus, first, the failure of ideological incentives was inevitable in a system characterised by a fundamental contradiction between the official ideology of economic equality and the reality of concentration of power. Second, the lack of effective material incentives, (positive or negative), similar to the ones provided in the West, made the long-term survival of the system impossible. Consumerism, a powerful positive incentive, was impossible in the East, given the relatively low level of economic development and the drainage on resources, as a result of the military competition with the West, imposed by the latter in its effort to choke any threat against the market economy. Also, the threat of unemployment, a basic negative material incentive used to undermine any effective social action against a system, was ruled out by an official ideology which even imposed a constitutional guarantee of full employment. On the other hand, the system of the market economy and representative democracy provides enough ideological and material incentives to create a ‘contented’ majority in the North (or a similar minority in the South), and at the same time achieve the tolerance of most of the rest of the population. It is these incentives which, together with the occasional use of physical violence, especially in the South, enable the ruling elites to keep power , rather than the use of physical power. However, when such incentives do not work and a serious threat to the market system develops (as for instance it happened in Germany during the Great Deppression or frequently happened in the post-war period in the South), the ruling elites will have no hesitation to use physical violence. The examples, therefore, given by Trainer to justify his hypothesis about the possibility of radical systemic change without confrontation are not representative at all. Had he wanted to be convincing he should have provided evidence of capitalist regimes which fell without confrontation and, as far as I know, History is not exactly full of such examples!

Coming back to the strategic differences between the two paradigms on confrontation, it seems that there is some confusion in Trainer’s analysis of the matter. Thus, whereas he also recognises the possibility of confrontation in the narrow sense, he seems to confuse it with confrontation in the broad sense (which is explicitly adopted by the ID project and rejected by his own) and claims that the ID project ‘anticipates open confrontation of some kind, regarding it as inevitable in the transition’. To back his claim he refers to a quote from Bookchin’s confederal municipalism strategy, ignoring the ID’s position on the matter (which in fact was one of the reasons for Bookchin’s resignation from the Advisory Board). According to this position, whether there will be confrontation in the narrow sense or not would be entirely determined by the elites’ stand vis-à-vis the changes effected by the ID movement:[30]

Once the institutions of inclusive democracy begin to be installed, and people, for the first time in their lives, start obtaining real power to determine their own fate, then the gradual erosion of the dominant social paradigm and of the present institutional framework will be set in motion. A new popular power base will be created. Town by town, city by city, region by region will be taken away from the effective control of the market economy and the nation-state, their political and economic structures being replaced by the confederations of democratically run communities. A dual power in tension with the state will be created. Of course, at some stage, the ruling elites and their supporters (who will surely object to the idea of their privileges being gradually eroded) after they have exhausted subtler means of control (mass media, economic violence etc.), may be tempted to use physical violence to protect their privileges, as they have always done in the past. But, by then, an alternative social paradigm will have become hegemonic and the break in the socialisation process the precondition for a change in the institution of society will have occurred. The legitimacy of today’s ‘democracy’ will have been lost. At that stage, the majority of the people will be prepared to counter state violence in order to defend the new political and economic structures. Once citizens have tasted a real democracy, no amount of physical or economic violence will be enough to persuade them to return to pseudo-democratic forms of organisation.

It is therefore clear that the crucial difference between the two strategies refers not to confrontation in the narrow sense but to confrontation in the broad sense that is explicitly adopted by the ID paradigm and rejected by Trainer and the ecovillage movement, which adopt a strategy of bypassing the system. Thus, the ecovillage approach consists of building ‘impressive examples of ecovillages’ which will lead to the creation of new values and culture and at some point in the distant future will lead to the creation of a mass political movement that will change structures. As Trainer puts it, “building eco-villages, rather than fighting against capitalism, is the most sensible thing to do here and now in order to maximise our long term contribution to the transition from consumer society to a sustainable society.”[31]

In contrast, the approach suggested by the ID project is to start building a massive programmatic political movement, like the old socialist movement, here and now. Such a movement should explicitly aim at systemic change and should include activities like the ones described in the Simpler Way but, also, many other activities which are not: e.g. taking part in local elections; participating in direct action activities against concentration of economic power (the struggle against globalisation is an instance of it); participating in struggles for worker’s democracy, household democracy, democracy in the educational institutions, ecological democracy etc. Therefore, such a movement could incorporate both the activities involved in the present forms of direct action (principally the anti-globalisation movement), as well as the various activities classified by Trainer in the ecovillage ‘movement’. But, the fundamental precondition for this is that these activities — and this is the crucial difference between the two strategies should be part of a political movement with clear goals about systemic change. The rationale behind this strategy is that, as systemic change requires a rupture with the past which extends to both the institutional and the cultural level, such a rupture is only possible through the development of a new political organisation and a new comprehensive political program for systemic change.

But, let us consider in more detail the ID approach and the criticisms raised against it by Trainer.

The Inclusive Democracy strategy and Trainer’s criticisms against it

As I described it elsewhere,[32] the ID 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, replace the market economy, statist democracy, and the social paradigm “justifying” them, with an inclusive democracy and a new democratic paradigm respectively.

The immediate objective 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. Contesting local elections (the only form of elections which is compatible with the aims of the ID project) could provide the chance to put into effect such a program on a massive social scale, although other forms of establishing new types of social organisation should not be neglected, as long as they are part of a program which explicitly aims at systemic change.

The implementation of a strategy like the one outlined above requires a new type of political organisation, which will mirror the desired structure of society.[33] This would not be the usual political party, but a form of ‘democracy in action’, which would undertake various forms of intervention at:

  • the political level (creation of ‘shadow’ political institutions based on direct democracy, neighbourhood assemblies, etc.),

  • the economic level (establishment of ‘demotic’ production and consumption units, i.e. economic units owned and controlled by the assemblies of the citizens and those working in them),

  •  the social level (democracy in the workplace, the household, the university etc.), and 

  • the cultural level (creation of community-controlled art and media activities)

After this brief description of the ID strategy, let us now turn to the criticisms raised by Trainer against it. He starts first with a curious statement in which he presents the ID strategy through a quote from Bookchin’s work on the matter, which I used in order to contrast life-style strategies with confederal municipalism. On the basis of this quote he draws the unfounded conclusion that:

Remarkably this statement is almost all we are told about strategy. The full discussion occupies only about 5 pages in a 400 page book. Other space that might seem to detail strategy is really about goals. Even the foregoing statement is hardly about strategy. It is more to do with a situation to be achieved in the far distant future. It gives us no clue about what to do now and for at least the next 15 years or more, in order to then be in the position Takis’ statement describes[34]

However, any careful reader of the book is aware of the fact that confederal municipalism is only the starting point in the ID project’s transitional strategy. This is why the book on ID (from which he quotes), after contrasting the life-style strategy with that of confederal municipalism, proceeds to discuss the ID strategy in a separate section entitled ‘A strategy for the transition to a confederal inclusive democracy’ with sub-sections under the titles, ‘a new type of political organisation’, (a discussion of the type of organisation required for the implementation of the transitional program), followed by a section entitled ‘a comprehensive programme for social transformation’ and sub-sections discussing the transition to economic democracy (a description of detailed steps leading to self-reliance, a ‘demotic’ economy and a confederal allocation of resources). The description of the ID strategy covers almost 20 pages in a book, which it should be noted is not just a book on strategy as it aims to describe an entirely new paradigm. Furthermore, it is at least strange for Trainer to claim that the above description of the ID strategy ‘is really about goals’ and that it does not give us a clue about what to do in the next 15 years (!) when, in fact, many of the steps described in the book constitute also parts of Trainer’s strategy[35] —the difference of course being that in his strategy these steps are not supposed to be part of a comprehensive political programme and of a process to build a massive political movement for systemic change, as this, for Trainer, has to be postponed for the ‘distant future’.

The real meaning of the ID projects strategy cannot be appreciated unless one has a full understanding of the fact that it is not just another utopia, but, as described in the first and the third parts of the book, a realistic way out of the present multi-dimensional crisis. Still, some of the questions/criticisms raised by Trainer give the impression that this basic fact about the ID project may not be clear. Thus, he asks: ‘Why would people who presently despise politics and have little or no interest in anything other than passive consumption opt to go to meetings year after year in increasing numbers? People do not, as he seems to assume hunger for real democracy.’ However, the ID strategy does not propose that the establishment of its institutions would have to wait for the revolution to come. A crucial element of the ID strategy is that the political and economic institutions of the ID begin to be established immediately after a significant number of people in a particular area have formed a base for ‘democracy in action’. It is through action in building such institutions that a massive political movement with a high level of consciousness can be built. Therefore, the ID strategy, like the one proposed by Trainer, also involves local economic renewal activities which could enable people, especially disadvantaged people, to start meeting some of their own urgent needs and, likewise, provides an incentive for involvement and experience of participation and co-operation, while actually constructing the first elements in the new democracy, the difference with Trainer’s strategy being —I will keep repeating it that all the activities in the ID project are part of a programmatic political movement for systemic change.

People alienated from all forms of power and particularly political and economic power would have every incentive to be involved in such a movement for the establishment of democracy in action in their area. They will be fully aware of the fact that problems like unemployment and poverty could only be solved within the institutions of ID (demotic enterprises, demotic welfare etc) which may begin to be launched immediately after a significant number of citizens have formed a base for democracy in action at a particular area. They will also know that problems like air/water/food pollution could only be sorted out effectively, and at a massive social scale, if citizens start taking control of local power within the institutions of ID, rather in the context of communes outside the main political and social arena. They will finally know that unless they get hold of political power at the local level and then, through confederations of local bases, at the regional level, they will never be able to control their lives. To sum up, people will be involved in a struggle for the establishment of the ID institutions not out of hunger for an abstract notion of democracy but because their own action will help them to see that the cause of all their problems (economic, social, ecological) had been due to the fact that power was concentrated in a few hands.

In the light of the above analysis we may assess Trainer’s argument that the strategic differences between the two paradigms are due to confusion related to sequence rather than to paradigmatic differences. As he stresses, ‘the task is to build the (ecovillage) examples as a first step in a process that aims to become a mass movement that is capable of political action on centre stage if and when it comes to that’. To this he adds in a parenthesis, as if it were a kind of a ‘side issue’ ‘of course, much work also has to be done to help the Eco-village Movement develop a more determined and radical political consciousness.’ But, as I stressed above, this is the crucial issue. The Eco-village movement not only is not part of a political movement for systemic change but also it cannot even potentially play this role, given its nature (most of its activities being outside, or at the margin of society), its basic philosophy (spirituality being one of its main principles of organisation — at least as far as the ecovillages are concerned) and its fundamentally a-political character given that most people involved in this movement are mainly interested in meeting their own needs rather than in changing society. This means that any existing radical strands within the ecovillagers will have first to break from this movement in order to be able to take part in a democratic movement for systemic change. This is not just because of the serious reservations one may raise[36] as to whether people within the Global Eco-village movement can indeed enjoy ‘some experience of community, worthwhile work, a more relaxed pace, and a more ecologically acceptable way of life’, as Trainer argues. The point is that, even if we assume that the eco-village movement does offer such experiences, it would still be, for the reasons mentioned above, the least suitable means to create the deeply political consciousness, which is necessary for systemic change, not to mention its suitability to lead to such a change ‘by way of example’

Finally, It is neither accidental, nor surprising that the political and economic elites do not object to the sort of activity expressed by the ecovillage movement (in contrast even to the anti-globalisation movement, particularly when it ceases to be a ‘peaceful’ movement). In the UK for instance, the establishment’s liberal press (The Guardian, The Observer etc) and the mainstream ‘radical’ Greens writing in these papers (John Vidal, W. Schwartz et al) have repeatedly promoted the ecovillage movement, the activities of the Gaia institute and of the deep ecology journal (Resurgence), whereas they deliberately ignore the existence of any proposals for real alternatives to the system, like the social ecology and the ID projects including this journal. The reason is simple. Unlike the latter, the ecovillage movement and its philosophy is perfectly compatible with the present system.

To conclude, although nobody could deny that there may be elements in the ecovillage movement which may be thinking politically, the strategy they use is fundamentally wrong. This particularly applies to those ecovillagers who rely exclusively on creating alternative communities and then BY EXAMPLE attempt to influence the general public. Not accidentally, the ecovillagers do not seem to have any influence whatsoever on the billions of the underprivileged people struggling to survive in the North or the South and that their influence seems to be concentrated among people who have already solved their survival problems and now worry about the quality of life and their spirituality. As regards the potential of ecovillages as agents of social transformation, several observers have pointed out that the communards’ effectiveness as agents of systemic change, rather than reform, is questionable and as Pepper puts it (referring to the work of Weston, Ashton, Ryle and Dobson):

their politics of wanting to by-pass rather than confront the powerful economic vested interests that are ingrained in socio-political structures are not likely to destroy these interests. More than this a process of assimilation, if not total integration is in fact happening[37] (…) our survey has suggested that at present the drift is towards becoming part of the society they were originally set up to oppose[38]

To my mind, moving out of society and 'doing our own thing' in villages, communes etc outside the political and economic arena (as many of the ecovillagers in the North do) does not have any potential either to change the institutional framework or to create a massive consciousness for systemic change. Similar conclusions may be drawn with respect to other life-style activities, as well as to forms of direct action which, are not an integral part of a movement for systemic change. Likewise, the activities of various movements in the South, which are engaged in organising life on the basis of alternative principles of organisation, aim mostly at securing survival WITHIN the existing society, rather than at replacing it. And this makes all the difference between a anti-systemic movement and a movement which is tolerated by the present system (for its own reasons, for instance to relieve social pressure etc.)

To sum up, admirable as many of the above activities may be, they have no chance to create a new society and they are bound to be marginalised, absorbed or crushed by the system, unless they become integrated within a POLITICAL movement explicitly aiming to create new political and economic structures securing the equal distribution of power among citizens, in a truly democratic society.

[1] See for a documented description of the green communes and their aims in the eighties and the seventies the significant work by David Pepper, Communes and the green vision, (London: Greenprint, 1991).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?’.

[5] Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy—The Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need For a New Liberatory Project (London: Cassell, 1997), pp. 65-67.

[6] Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?’.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, Ch. 8.

[9] Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, pp. 213-16.

[10] See Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy), Ch. 6.

[11] Ibid, ch 1

[12] See for a critique of a similar point made by Chomsky in T. Fotopoulos, ‘Mass media, culture and democracyDemocracy & Nature, Vol. 5, No. 1 (March 1999) pp. 33-64.

[13] See Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy), Ch. 8.

[14] Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?

[16] See the ecovillage network of the Americas, Ibid.

[17] See T. Fotopoulos,The Rise of New Irrationalism and its Incompatibility with Inclusive Democracy (Democracy & Nature, Vol. 4, No. 2/3, pp 1-49).

[18] I define an irrational belief system (i.e. a system whose beliefs are outside any rational discourse) as any system whose core beliefs are not derived by rational methods (i.e. reason and/or an appeal to ‘facts’) but by intuition, instinct, feeling, mystical experience, revelation, will etc. (see “The Rise of New Irrationalism and its Incompatibility with Inclusive Democracy”).

[19] David Pepper, Communes and the Green Vision, p. 211.

[20] Rudolf Bahro, Building the Green Movement, (London : GMP publishers, 1986).

[21] See James Hart & Ulrich Melle exchange with Janet Biehl on Rudolf Bahro, Democracy & Nature, Vol. 4, No. 2/3, pp. 204-226.

[22] Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?

[23] See David Pepper, Communes and the Green Vision, ch. 6.

[24] See T. Fotopoulos, ‘Welfare state or economic democracy?Democracy & Nature, Vol. 5, No. 3 (November 1999) pp. 433-468.

[25] See T. Fotopoulos, ‘Mass media, culture and democracy’.

[26] T. Fotopoulos, ‘Welfare state or economic democracy?

[27] Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?’

[28] Ibid.

[29] See T. Fotopoulos, ‘The catastrophe of marketizationDemocracy & Nature, Vol. 5, No. 2 (July 1999) pp. 275-310.

[30] Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, pp.284-85.

[31] Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?

[32] Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, ch. 7.

[33] ibid. for further details.

[34] Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?

[35] See Ted Trainer, The Conserver Society (London: Zed books, 1995) ch. 19.

[36] See David Pepper, Communes and the green vision, ch. 7.

[37] ibid. p. 204.

[38] ibid. p. 218-9.