DEMOCRACY & NATURE: The International Journal of INCLUSIVE DEMOCRACY
vol.6, no.1, (March 2000)
Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?
The limitations of Life-style strategies: The Ecovillage “Movement” is NOT the way towards a new democratic society
Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?
Abstract: The first section of this article briefly summarises the core causal elements in the global predicament, focusing on the market system and the relatively neglected limits to growth”; i.e., overconsumption. The second section ‘draws implications for the form a sustainable society must take. The Simpler Way must involve far less affluent lifestyles in small scale, highly self-sufficient and localised economies, within a zero-growth post-capitalist society. The third section discusses strategic implications. It is argued that the most promising arena in which to work for transition at this point in time is the Global Ecovillage Movement. Differences with orthodox left thinking about strategy are discussed, including the notion of attempting to build the new society before the old has been abandoned, the potential significance of setting examples, and whether or not it makes sense to confront capitalism.
Where are we?
It is no exaggeration to say that the global economy is basically a system of massive but legitimate expropriation. The world's core economic, political and cultural systems function to siphon off most of the world's wealth to the benefit of a few. The basic realities are glaringly undeniable. About 86% of world income goes to the richest 20%, while the poorest 20% receive only 1.3% of it. As a result billions of people experience serious deprivation, with at least 800 million chronically malnourished. The inequalities and sufferings are now getting worse. The overall situation in the mid-1990s has been effectively summarised in the Human Development Report published by the UNDP which stressed that the poorest one-third of the world's people were actually experiencing a marked long term deterioration in their real living conditions. Over 1.6 billion people were found to be getting poorer each year. Meanwhile about 1% of the world’s people own most of the corporate wealth.
Rich world living standards could not be as high as they are if these enormous inequalities, transfers of wealth and deprivations were not occurring. It is a zero-sum game. If we get the resources necessary to produce throw-away affluent lifestyles, they are not available to provide basic necessities for most of the world’s people. The main beneficiaries are the very few who own or manage the transnational corporations and banks. They are rapidly increasing their ownership and control through their stunning success in promoting the free market ideology. The few biggest and most powerful and predatory actors on the level playing field win, and take almost everything that is worth taking. Capitalism has never been so triumphantly dominant and secure from threat. It's legitimacy and permanence is more or less undoubted at official, political and popular levels.
The Basic Flaws
The two fundamentally mistaken commitments built into the current economic system are to the market and to growth. Considerable attention is being given within critical circles to the former but unfortunately social critics, especially those operating from a Left perspective, tend to give far too little attention to the problem of growth, and therefore fail to come to the conclusions regarding change that are arrived at below.
Little space needs to be given here to detailing the case that a major source of the overall global problem is simply the freedom given to market forces. It is appropriate however, to highlight the way that the basic market mechanism inevitably generates deprivation and inappropriate development.
Markets allocate scarce resources and products to the rich and to deprive the poor of resources they once had. In a market considerations of need and justice are irrelevant; goods go to those who can bid most for them. For example while possibly 800 million people in the world are hungry, about one-third of world grain production is fed to animals in rich countries.
Thus market forces determine that the Third World's resources are mostly taken by Third World elites, Transnational Corporations and shoppers in rich world supermarkets. Consequently market forces are the major and direct causes of the massive global injustice and deprivation that results in the avoidable death of some 30,000 to 40,000 Third World children every day. It is therefore no exaggeration to say that market forces are responsible for more deprivation, human suffering and ecological destruction than any other single factor.
In a market economy there is also a powerful tendency for development to be inappropriate to the needs of most people and of the environment. Investment will flow into those ventures likely to yield the highest returns. These are never the ventures that are most likely to produce what most people need. Thus while most Third World regions urgently need more production of cheap and simple food, tools, appliances, housing and clothing, the development that occurs is of export plantations, mines, Hilton hotels, international airports, etc. Such development draws away from poorer people the productive resources which they once had and were able to use to produce for themselves many of the things they need. Possibly the most disturbing examples of this process are to do with the application of Third World land to export crops while many people are malnourished.
The conventional economist focuses on the “efficiency” of the market system, claiming that it alone can maximise the value produced by available inputs. This is quite true, but only if an objectionable definition of "efficient" is employed. To the conventional economist, "efficient" and "productive" investments are simply those which make most profit. They therefore regard it as far more "efficient" to put Third World land into producing luxury crops for export than into feeding local hungry people. Obviously market forces are appallingly inefficient as mechanisms for applying available productive capacity to meeting the most urgent needs of people and their ecosystems.
Development as Plunder
There is increasing recognition that because of the way the market system enables resources and markets to be taken by the rich, conventional Third World development can be regarded as a form of legitimised plunder.
The normal functioning of the market system ensures that potentially productive resources, such as land under tribal "ownership”, becomes available for sale and therefore can be acquired by richer people and put into the production of those items which will maximise sales income, with minimal benefit to those who originally possessed them. Thus many Third World resources come to be possessed by rich world people and much Third World productive capacity comes to be devoted to production for the benefit of others.
Whereas in the colonial era physical force was used to bring about such a situation, in the post-colonial era it is brought about mainly by the normal and legitimate operation of the market system. Because such a system gives players the freedom to trade and invest in order to maximise their own advantage it ensures that those with most wealth will secure most of the resources and markets and that the development that results will be development which suits them. Thus Goldsmith discusses “development as colonialism". Rist says, “...development has resulted in material and cultural expropriation.” Schwarz and Schwarz say “Development now seems little more than a window dressing for economic colonialism.” Chossudowsky's The Globalisation of Poverty details the mechanisms, especially in relation to finance.
Clearly there is no possibility of satisfactory development for most people in the Third World within the present global economy. 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 Limits to Growth Analysis 
As was stated above there are two major faults built into the foundations of our society. One is the commitment to the market principle and associated notions such as competition, individualism, and maximising freedom for corporations. 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.
Over the past 30 years a formidable case has accumulated in support of the claim that the living standards and levels of production and consumption characteristic of rich countries are grossly unsustainable for resource and environmental reasons. This conclusion can be arrived at via any one of a number of lines or argument. For example estimated potentially recoverable resources for fossil fuels and minerals indicate that if we were to try to increase production to the point where all people expected on the planet by 2070, perhaps 10 billion, were each to have the present rich world per capita consumption, then all fuels and one-third of the mineral items would be totally exhausted by about 2040. Renewable energy sources are very unlikely to be able to fill the gap. This means that there is no possibility of all people rising to the per capita resource consumption typical of the rich countries today.
The greenhouse problem provides a similar argument. If the carbon content of the atmosphere were to be prevented from increasing any further, world energy use for 10 billion people would have to be reduced to a per capita average that is just 6% of the present rich world average. Most people have little understanding of the magnitude of the reductions required for sustainability.
“Footprint” analysis” indicates that to provide for one person living in a rich world city requires at least 4.5 ha of productive land. If 10 billion people were to live that way the amount of productive land required would be around 8 times all the productive land on the planet.
Figures of these kinds indicate that present rich world levels of production and consumption are far beyond sustainability. Yet the supreme commitment in rich and poor countries is to economic growth; i.e., to constantly increasing levels of production and consumption without limit. The absurdly impossible implications are made clear by asking what increase there would be in Gross World Product if by 2070 the expected 10 billion people were to have risen to the living standards people in rich countries would have, given 3% growth until then. The answer is an approximately 100 fold increase in present Gross World Product. (If a 4% average growth rate is assumed the multiple is 200.)
These sorts of figures should leave no doubt that there is no possibility of all people rising to anything like the living standards we in rich countries have, let alone those we aspire to. A sustainable society must therefore be defined in terms that extend well beyond taking social control over the market. It 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, notions which many on the Left find distasteful.
The limits to growth analysis seems to reveal the insufficiency of Bookchin’s diagnosis of our ills. Bookchin identifies “domination” as the core problem. He believes that where humans have gone wrong is in moving from the equalitarian values that characterised tribal societies to obsession with gaining power and advantage over others. Clearly the cultural foundations of Western civilisation now take for granted hierarchical and authoritarian relations, competition, the importance of winning, privileges for superiors and the legitimacy of inequality. Bookchin claims that this syndrome explains the environment problem. That is, because we humans so readily dominate each other we also dominate the environment.
The limits to growth analysis makes clear that the fundamental source of the environmental problem is overconsumption, and this is not well described as a matter of domination. When a person buys pet food or decides to drive out to a restaurant, environmental damage is done but this is not as the result of any notion of dominating in the usual sense of a cognitive, wilful disposition or intention to exercise power or take advantage or gain superiority over another. The destruction of the environment that is taking place is mostly due to the unintended and unwitting effects of mindless affluent consumption, not to any intention to dominate. Conceptually it has little if anything to do with hierarchy, patriarchy or authoritarian relations.
Many people in rich societies who find the domination syndrome in its usual sense repugnant are willing participants in consumer society and are therefore contributors to the global ecological predicament. 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.
Where do we want to be?
The forgoing analysis of where we are yields very coercive implications for the form that a sane, just and sustainable society must take. There is considerable awareness that a satisfactory world order cannot be built until control of the economy is taken out of the hands of the very few who own capital. However, there is relatively little understanding that 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. Most Marxists for example typically see no fundamental problem in industrialisation, high “living standards”, urbanisation, internationalism, or growth. Indeed they tend to assume that when the waste and inefficiency of the capitalist system has been eliminated, the throttles in the factories can be turned up and then "we can all have a Mercedes". However the limits to growth analysis makes it clear that a satisfactory and sustainable society cannot be an affluent, industrialised, consumer society.
A Sustainable Society: The Inescapable Essentials 
There is rapidly growing recognition of the basic form that a sustainable and just society must take. If the limits to growth analysis is valid, then a sustainable society must be characterised by,
Much simpler, non-affluent living standards.
Small, highly self-sufficient local economies, mostly using local resources to produce to meet local needs with little trade between regions, let alone between nations.
Highly participatory and co-operative systems.
Alternative technologies which minimise resource and environmental impacts.
A totally different economy, one which is not driven by profit or market forces in which there is no growth, and in which much economic activity does not involve money.
The sustainable alternative path is appropriately referred to as The Simpler Way. Living more simply does not mean deprivation or going without anything necessary for a high quality of life. It means being content with what is sufficient for hygiene, comfort, convenience, etc. Adequate material living standards are easily achieved at negligible cost in non-renewable resources, and on very low cash incomes, if acceptance of simpler lifestyles is combined with intensive use of alternative technologies such as earth building and Permaculture design. Needless to say thriving household economies involving gardens, poultry, preserving, repairs and home-made furniture, entertainment etc., can greatly reduce dependence on supermarkets and the associated resource, energy and ecological costs.
The most important theme in The Simpler Way is not to do with the household economy or individual lifestyle choices. It is the development of small scale, highly self-sufficient local economies, enabling most of the everyday things we need to be produced within our suburbs or close by. There will not be enough energy or other resources for many goods to be produced far away, packaged and transported to us via floodlit supermarkets. Towns and suburbs must therefore contain many small firms and farms producing for local use. Only in small localised economies can nutrients be recycled to soils, capital and resource-intensive methods of production be avoided and the vital non-cash sectors of the real economy be fully developed. These include giving, mutual aid, sharing of surpluses, community working bees, and community commons. In small relatively self-sufficient economies, employment can be guaranteed to all, and most of the huge costs of social breakdown can be avoided. Many presently resource-expensive services, such as care of disabled and aged people, can be performed spontaneously with few professional inputs or specially built facilities, if communities are cohesive and self-sufficient.
Local and decentralised production means there would be far less transport of products and inputs, and far less travelling to work, enabling most people to get to work by bicycle or on foot. Consequently there would be far less need for cars and many roads could be dug up, increasing gardening areas within cities. Market gardens and “edible landscapes” of free food trees could be established throughout suburbs. There will be much home, craft and hobby production and much less factory production. Small local markets will enable people to earn small incomes from garden and craft production. There will be commons; i.e., neighbourhood woodlots, ponds, orchards, clay sources and facilities for all to use. Neighbourhood workshops will enable sharing of tools, recycling, repairing, and giving away of surpluses. Voluntary committees, working bees and rosters will carry out many tasks presently performed by expensive experts and councils. Leisure-rich neighbourhoods reduce the need to travel, spend money or consume resources. All food nutrients will be recycled back to local soils. Town banks will make our savings available for investment in ventures which will enrich our locality. Most tax revenue will be collected and allocated locally. Taxes will be partly payable in non-cash forms, e.g., contributing to working bees.
Towns, suburbs and regions must develop ways whereby the people collectively take responsibility for the welfare of all. For example the town Community Development Cooperative must monitor the local economy to determine which imports a can be replaced by local production, how small firms can be assisted, the best way to organise local markets, how well the aged people of the region are being provided for, whether there are there enough activities for young people, etc.
In other words there must be participatory self-government whereby all citizens can be actively involved from time to time in the discussions, the committees, the working bees, town meetings and referenda that will determine what is done locally. Some functions might remain for state and national governments but many of the things they now do will be performed far more satisfactorily through the voluntary contributions of local people.
There might still be a considerable role for small private businesses and for market forces, but if so there would have to be firm social control over these and over the whole economy. Obviously what is produced and developed must be determined by what is best for people and the environment, not by what is most profitable to corporations. The most suitable mechanisms for doing these things are yet to be worked out and might be quite problematic, but they must mostly be at the level of small, local, participatory systems, not big, centralised bureaucratic states.
Because we would have much simpler material lifestyles and because many things now produced would not be necessary (such as many of the trucks bringing food to the cities) the total volume of producing and work required could be slashed. Most of us might on average need to work for money only one or two days a week, leaving much time for working at home in gardens and craft centres, for community activity and personal development. Technologies would in general be simple, but some sophisticated and mass production technologies could still be used where they make sense. Much of the frenetic activity that now goes into legal, communications, financial, transport, insurance, information technology, media, advertising and many other industries would not be needed and vast amounts of work and resource use would be eliminated. (Some advocates of The Simpler Way insist that we now work at least twice as hard as is necessary.)
The Simpler Way need not involve any reduction in those industrial or high tech systems that are socially beneficial. In fact resources available for research, medical and dental care, higher education etc would be greater than they are now, given the massive reductions that will occur in the present production of non-necessities.
Obviously The Simpler Way cannot come into existence without vast change in world views and values. It is not possible if the present obsessions with competition, individualism and greed remain. However these values would probably lose their attraction if sources of activity and satisfaction other than those provided in consumer society become available.
It should be made clear that there is a variety of forms of The Simpler Way in addition to the rural intentional commune, is most common form. By far the most important areas for development of alternative economies are city suburbs and country towns. Existing neighbourhoods could retain the present pattern of private housing etc., while developing the intensive local self-sufficiency indicated.
The detail suggested above is open to debate. Obviously in many domains the best alternative procedures can’t be foreseen and will have to be worked out through experience. Especially uncertain at this stage are ways of organising those economic functions that involve regions larger than suburbs (for example, what might be the best way to organise refrigerator production to meet regional needs), what is the appropriate role (if any) for private firms, the profit motive and market forces, do we need a state and if so what should be its (residual) functions and what is the best way to organise participatory-democratic control over it.
However there can be no uncertainty regarding the core principles of this general alternative vision. These are not options that we can take or leave. Given the limits to growth analysis of our situation we have no choice but to build settlements of this general kind, in rich and poor countries, if we are to achieve a sustainable world order. If the limits to growth analysis is valid we have no choice but to dramatically reduce resource use and environmental impact, and this means we must shift to The Simpler Way.
The Global Eco-Village Movement
Over the last two decades there has emerged a Global Eco-Village Movement in which many small groups have begun to build settlements more or less according to the principles outlined above. The movement can be seen as having developed from the intentional communities and alternative lifestyle movements of the 1960s, but has now broadened to include a variety of elements such as ethical finance, community supported agriculture, rural economic renewal, town banks, land trusts, LETS and permaculture. There is an international agency, the Gaia Trust, which has recently published A Directory of Eco-Villages in Europe, describing 57 settlements.
In the Third World there is also now emerging a considerable alternative or appropriate development movement, whereby literally thousands of villages have in effect rejected conventional development ideology, in response to its patent failure to solve their problems. They have begun to take collective control over their own fate, devoting their local resources to creating relatively simple solutions to their own problems, independent of national and international economies. Brown indicates the magnitude of these initiatives, presenting a table referring to literally thousands of village level development organisations in South Asia.
However, in view of its great potential importance, at present the Eco-village Movement falls well short of satisfactory performance. It 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. Unfortunately many Eco-villages seem to be far from satisfactory in their degree of adherence to some of the core principles listed above. Those within the Movement for whom contributing to a new society is a high priority need to become more clear and assertive about its mission, and more theoretically and politically sophisticated. (These criticisms are elaborated in Trainer, 1998, and Chapter 4 of What Is To Be Done ― Now?)
It should be stressed that I am not endorsing the Global Ecovillage Movement as a whole. My argument is that within it there is to be found a strand which is of immense potential significance for the transition to a sustainable post-capitalist society and that it is important for radical theoreticians and activists to think carefully about how best to help that strand to sharpen its focus and to flourish.
Thus the fact that the movement contains irrational and reactionary strands (including in my experience considerable sloppiness, self-indulgence, irresponsibility and acceptance of affluence) is not crucial; what matters is that it also contains a groups that are working for the right way.
How do we get there?
The basic argument in my What Is To Be Done - Now? is that our top priority should be to contribute to the building of impressive examples of alternative communities. Before elaborating, it is necessary to discuss some general themes to do with strategy and to argue that some common and strongly held ideas are mistaken.
There is little need here to argue against strategies which attempt to work within the existing political system of parties and parliaments.
The Marxist Strategy
Marxist analysis is of indispensable value for our understanding of the global predicament. The main problems are essentially explicable in terms of the situation to which capitalist dynamics have brought us. The ceaseless drive to accumulate has inevitably led to extreme polarisation, deprivation, environmental destruction, social breakdown and globalisation. However, when it comes to guidance regarding the nature of the alternative and sustainable society required, and how to get to it, I want to argue that Marxist theory is seriously misleading.
Firstly as has been explained, the good society cannot be affluent, highly industrialised, or centralised. Thus the limits to growth analysis shows that we must do far more than merely get rid of capitalism. A socialist world order which remained committed to affluence and growth would inevitably generate much the same range of resource and ecological problems as we have now because it is not possible for a society of any kind to maintain anything like the present rate of resource use. If a few in a socialist rich world tried to do so, they would have to go on depriving the Third world of a fair share of world resources and generating intolerable ecological impacts.
Marxists insist on the centrality of the mode of production in the analysis of society. However the limits to growth indicate that there is now a much more important consideration, viz., the mode of consumption. Yes overconsumption is crucial for and promoted by the capitalist system. Nevertheless our society’s biggest problems come not from the mode of production capitalism involves but from its commitment to ways of life and systems, especially affluent lifestyles and a growth economy, which involve high and ever increasing rates of consumption. To repeat, if we changed to a socialist mode of production without changing our consumption patterns little difference could be made to major global problems such as Third World deprivation and ecological destruction. In Marx’s terms, The Simpler Way represents transition not to a more advanced mode of production, but to a more advanced mode of consumption. (This is not to deny the need for fundamental change in the mode of production.)
To the Marxist capitalism can only be overcome through a violent revolutionary process in which the working class, led by a strong party, seizes state power and then over time develops the consciousness whereby a co-operative society becomes possible and a coercive state apparatus is no longer needed. I want to argue that in view of the foregoing discussion of limits to growth and the form a sustainable society must take, the core elements in this standard Marxist view are quite mistaken.
There is a world of difference between the Marxist vision of a post-capitalist society that is still centralised and industrialised and in which people do specialised work and officials manage, and on the other hand the alternative or Simpler Way in which there is radical decentralisation of production and control into very small self-governing regions, which will require a great deal of conscientious participation and goodwill on the part of most if not all citizens. Such communities cannot function satisfactorily unless almost all people work enthusiastically at keeping their local ecological, agricultural, industrial, commercial, social and cultural systems in good shape. These systems will not be run by external or centralised governments. They will only function if local people take responsibility, research, plan, organise, manage, evaluate and govern well. These functions will require of the average citizen far more skills, social responsibility and public spirit than most of us have today in consumer society.
Now the required habits, values and skills can only be built through the long experience of living in self sufficient, self governing communities. States, external authorities, experts and dictators cannot develop the necessary skills and dispositions in people. Power and force are irrelevant to the task. The skills and habits must be learned from living in societies which are responsible for their own government and maintenance.
Thus the transition process implicit in the Eco-village movement has no place for power, authoritarian relations, centralisation or for seizing state power. These are not means that could help us. We cannot expect to develop the sorts of communities that are required, with their great dependence on autonomous, skilled, conscientious, responsible and active citizens, via means that involve top down control or authoritarian relations of any kind.
To Marxists it is essential to eventually seize and use state power. But state power cannot make ecovillages work! It does not matter how much control lies in the hands of the state or its secret police. Ecovillages will only function effectively if most ordinary people want them to.
In addition the Marxist order of events must be reversed. The Marxist expects to see change in structures first, via a revolutionary takeover of power, followed by a period of dictatorship of the proletariat in which ideas and values are reformed. However, the Eco-village Movement assumes that there must be widespread change in ideas and values before general change in structures, institutions and systems can occur.
The foregoing discussion also make clear that in the Eco-village movement strategy means must be consistent with ends. In Marxist theory it can make sense to adopt centralised, repressive, authoritarian and violent means in order to eventually arrive at a society which is peaceful and equalitarian. However because the goal of the Eco-village movement, a non-authoritarian, cooperative and communal society, is to be achieved by means which involve developing and experiencing such a society now, it is not possible for means to be inconsistent with ends. We can only learn the cooperative and non-authoritarian dispositions needed for The Simpler Way through a process that involves cooperation and non-authoritarian relations.
The Eco-village Movement’s (implicit) strategy
The Eco-Village Movement is not based on a clear transition philosophy that is consciously and deliberately held by all or even most of its participants. It is made up mostly of people who are building and living in settlements and increasing the number which more or less follow The Simpler Way. Thus it is appropriate to talk about the Movement’s implicit strategy for radical change.
The implicit Ecovillage Movement strategy is simply to start building the new post-capitalist society here and now, and gradually increasing the numbers who come across from consumer society to live in the new settlements, (and increasing the number who practise various elements of The Simpler Way but in isolation, e.g., the numbers in LETSystems or practising Permaculture.)
This is essentially an anarchist strategy. It involves firstly a grass roots approach whereby ordinary people will be the builders of the new ways, not authorities, officials, experts or the state. Secondly it centrally involves the anarchist principle of “prefiguring”, i.e., building the new within the old. It also involves the crucial assumptions that it is not necessary or desirable, at least at this point in time, to confront the old system and get rid of it before we can start building the new.
These assumptions are challengeable and problematic but nevertheless my argument is that the implicit Eco-Village Movement strategy is by far the best one available to us at this point in time. (At some future point in time it might become necessary change strategy markedly; see below.) Following is an attempt to counter some of the most obvious criticisms.
Perhaps the most important point in support of the strategy is the fact that in view of the limits to growth analysis and its implications for the sustainable path the Ecovillage Movement seems to represent the only current movement that has the right vision and goals and which is growing and is likely to go on doing so. In general few if any of these things can be said of any other movement, especially including Left movements.
A second line of argument derives from the extremely depressing history of achievement of Left causes in general. It could be argued that since the 1970s direct struggle against capitalism has brought little more than catastrophic rout on all fronts, even taking into account the (temporary) blocking of the MAI and the WTO Seattle conference. Capitalism has never been so triumphant, and its drive for ever greater scope and power via the globalisation agenda is far from having reached is zenith. It is therefore distressing to contemplate the continuing devotion of minuscule critical energies to the manifestly futile quest to defeat capitalism. Admittedly there are some defensive battles that must be fought and one would not want to see all resistance cease, but in my view 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.
It should also be recognised that sometimes radical change seems to occur without any overt conflict. Sometimes it is more like the fading out of a once-dominant thesis, to be replaced by a newly popular one. This is in fact the norm at the level of paradigm change in science, and in many cultural realms such as art, pop music and fashion. A particular view or theory or form is dominant for a time, but then people more or less lose interest in it, cease attending to it and supporting it, and move to another one.
Some of the most revolutionary changes of the twentieth century seem to have occurred predominantly in this way, such as the collapses of the Soviet Union and the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the fall of the Berlin Wall. All seem to have been characterised mostly by people “voting with their feet”, after a long period of growing disenchantment and increasing awareness of the desirability of other ways. These revolutionary changes seem to be much better described as instances of collapse or abandonment due to increasing internal failure to perform, and loss of legitimacy and support, rather than as defeats in head-on combat with superior opposing powers. In the end the vast military, bureaucratic and economic power of the ruling establishments counted for nothing in the face of a withdrawal of support. They did not have to be engaged in direct and open battle and conquered.
It is not obvious that the passing of capitalism and the emergence of The Simpler Way cannot possibly proceed in this way. Certainly if the Ecovillage Movement were to become a significant threat capitalism would seek to oppose it strenuously, but the question is whether it will be able to do this effectively. At present the Eco-village Movement is minuscule but it is rapidly growing. There are also impressive reasons for thinking that despite capitalism’s present triumph, in perhaps as little as twenty years time it will have plunged into an era of great troubles and be incapable of dealing with us effectively. (See below.) But before that it is quite likely that capitalism will enjoy another period of boom.
We are probably going into the A phase of a new Kondratiev cycle. The globalisation currently taking place represents by far the most thorough restructuring the capitalist system has ever undergone, involving enormous destruction and elimination of “inefficient” firms, and freeing of many markets and resources for greater access by corporations and banks. The opportunities for profitable business are being rapidly increased. Above all the last two decades have seen an enormous strengthening of the power of the World Trade Order and the World Bank to make the rearrangements that will facilitate more business turnover. It is likely that all this activity will result in a surge of economic growth, trade, investment and world GDP. (Wallerstein is one who expects this to happen.) Of course such a boom will probably intensify the suffering of most people on the planet, but this is of no consequence for the “health” of the global economy.
However there are reasons for thinking that it is likely to be an historically very short period in the sun followed by a fairly sudden shift to a long era of chaotic and terminal breakdown. The main cause of the time of troubles is likely to be the chronic and insoluble oil crisis that will probably set in not long after the peaking in world supply in the period 2005-2010. Also contributing will be increasing costs of production due to accelerating ecological problems especially affecting food supply, water shortages and associated conflicts, deterioration within the Third World which will raise the costs of resource extraction, and greater general global insecurity and conflict which will impose increased military and other costs of maintaining “order” and access. Meanwhile the inequality and poverty caused by globalisation will be removing more people from the ranks of potential consumers. We must add the effect of ever-accumulating debt worldwide, recently increasing at three times the rate of increase of GDP.
If there is a boom we in the Eco-village Movement should welcome it, through gritted teeth, because it will give us the time we desperately need. The last thing we want is a collapse of the system in the immediate future. We are far from ready. Hardly any of the hundreds of millions of people who live in rich world cities have any idea of an alternative to the consumer way and their settlements have no provision for anything but maximising the throughput of resources. By all means let’s have a collapse a little later, but the prospects for The Simpler Way depend greatly on how extensively the concept can be established before the mainstream runs into serious trouble. We need at least two more decades to build the understanding, and the most effective way to do that is by developing examples.
I should make it clear that my argument is about what we should focus on doing here and now. It is not being argued that confrontation with capitalism can or should always be avoided, nor that the new ways could be increasingly adopted to the point where they have smoothly and peacefully replaced the old. Nor is it being assumed that a transition from capitalist society can take place without at some point becoming a matter of mass political involvement and intense conflict in which power is taken from those who now have it. In the distant future we may well find ourselves in a situation in which fighting against the system becomes the most appropriate thing to do. My basic argument is that 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.
That is, trying to build the new social forms seems to me to be by far the most effective first step open to us at this point in time, towards the day when we have built the mass political movement that will replace the present order, with or without conflict. If we are lucky people will in time adopt the new ways in such large numbers that the old system will be more or less abandoned. If we are not so lucky and great conflict occurs, so be it.
“But if you become a threat they will crush you”
The obvious retort from the Marxist perspective to the Eco-Village Movement’s implicit strategy is that if it were to become more than an insignificant minority movement, if it were to begin to look as if it might attract sufficient numbers to become a threat to capitalism, the monster would turn on it and crush it out of existence.
Let us assume that the Eco-Village Movement does not become a significance force, and that capitalism does not become a helpless giant due to the onset of oil and other crises. In my view this would make no difference to the choice we should make today. Our top priority should still be to work to build impressive examples of Eco-Villages. Why? The answer is, in order to establish The Simpler Way more firmly in the historical record and in the cultural memory. The more successful we are in getting thriving examples going, the more firmly will the desirability of The Simpler Way be established in human consciousness. If in the far distant future, humans get another chance to build a sustainable society, the chances of taking the sane and sustainable path will be better if they have access to memories and records from a practice that once demonstrated the sensible way.
So what should we do right now?
The most important area for the development of Eco-villages is not the intentional rural "commune", where most action is currently taking place. We must focus most attention on the dying country towns and especially the suburbs and neighbourhoods of the cities. The latter are where most people live and the biggest problem we face is how to transfer these existing settlements into highly self-sufficient urban eco-villages. I discussed a possible approach in Chapter 19 of The Conserver Society, and in more detail in Chapter 6 of What Is To Done - Now? Following is only a brief indication of the main theme.
The recommended process begins with the establishment of a community cooperative "general firm" which will enable local people, especially those on low incomes, to begin cooperatively producing for themselves some of the things they need. This Community Development Cooperative would focus first on the development of the garden and workshop and then begin to explore other possible productive enterprises that might be set up, such as bread baking and furniture recycling. It will be necessary to introduce a new local currency (e.g., LETS) to enable economic interaction between people who have no normal money. Especially important is working out how to enable trade between this new economic sector and the old firms of the town or suburb. In time the Community Development Collective must also work on ways of cutting town imports, organising working bees, town banks, and local voluntary tax and insurance systems. The long term goal is for the Community Development Cooperative to become the arena in which participatory town self-government emerges.
Above all the Community Development Cooperative has the educational task of building awareness of the need for the town or suburb to do these things in order a) to save itself from the fate globalisation will otherwise deliver, and b) to help pioneer global transition to a sustainable and satisfactory society.
Thus this strategic vision is for a very humble grass-roots beginning centred on a community garden and workshop as the first step in a long process towards an increasingly self-sufficient neighbourhood economy largely under the control of the local community. Governments will not and cannot do these things. They can only be initiated by small groups of enlightened local people prepared to persevere with little or no official assistance.
This has been an argument about the best action strategy open to us, and an attempt to recruit to it. I am not claiming that its prospects are very good. In fact my outlook is quite pessimistic. From decades of experience within educational and activist campaigns I do not think it is likely that a society thoroughly stupefied by two generations of the passive consumer way is going to be able to make the necessary response. Toynbee analysed the rise and fall of civilisations in terms of their capacity to respond to challenges. One must judge our prospects to be poor given our failure to respond to the most glaring threats, such as the greenhouse problem, let alone the more subtle but possibly more dangerous dissolution of social cohesion. Yet, regardless of the chances of success, I see no acceptable moral position but to work hard for what seems to be the best option available.
There is a fairly narrow window of opportunity here. The coming petroleum crisis could mean that we have less than 20 years of relative calm in which to get the job done. After that it is probable that the compounding difficulties will generate too much chaos and confusion for the Simpler Way to be taken up.
Connections with Takis Fotopoulos’ thoughts on Strategy
In Towards an Inclusive Democracy Takis Fotopoulos has offered a detailed and convincing critical analysis of the global situation, which I think aligns on all major points with the above argument. His discussion of a desirable alternative society is also at least very similar to that put forward above. His focus is on the need for democracy, which is not in dispute, but his discussion of solutions does not give overconsumption and the need for simpler ways the emphasis I have argued that they deserve. He argues for a society that is completely stateless, moneyless and marketless. In my view these are among the matters of detail which cannot be decided at this point in time and will have to be worked out in the light of experience. My uncertain expectation is that we will opt to give them all a minor role, in forms which put them firmly under the control of participatory local institutions, and new values.
The later parts of Towards an Inclusive Democracy take up the question of strategy, and this is where there is room for profitable debate. It seems to me that Takis actually gives us very little to go on regarding strategy, and that what he does say is not very plausible. He says his “...strategy of confederated municipalism ... aims to transform and democratise city governments, to root them in popular assemblies … To appropriate a regional economy along confederal and municipal lines. In other words the goal is to develop a public sphere that grows in tension and ultimately in a decisive conflict with the state.” 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. The crucial strategic question for us is what should we start doing right now in an effort to have eventually built the confederated assemblies that will then, if necessary, be able to confront the capitalist State and prevail. Takis gives us almost no assistance on this problem.
The implicit assumption in Takis’ discussion of strategy is that large numbers of people will want to form popular assemblies and work within them for the many years that would have to pass before they became strong enough to challenge the state. However when we look at the current political landscape it is most implausible that people would want to do that. 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. Why would anyone vote for us? Because we are proposing confederated assemblies implementing The Simpler Way? Obviously hardly anyone would vote for that now, so the important question is what do we have to do now to start moving towards the stage where large numbers would vote for it. Again Takis does not begin to answer the question we must answer before we can start to move. He says “….. the only realistic approach in creating a new society….. is a political strategy that comprises the gradual involvement of increasing numbers of people in a new kind of politics, that parallel shifting of economic resources….away from the market economy”. Again this is a statement about a (sub)goal and it gives us no idea how we might start moving towards its achievement.
The closest Takis comes to suggestions regarding practical actions is in recommending that we contest local elections to win power “in order to dismantle it immediately”. “Contesting local elections gives the chance to start changing society from below….” But again the questions who would vote for us, and what would we have to do for many years in order to get them to vote us in, are not answered.
By contrast, Chapter 6 of What Is To Be Done ― Now? proposes beginning those local economic renewal activities which could enable people, especially disadvantaged people to start meeting some of their own urgent needs. This would provide an incentive for involvement and experience of participation and co-operation, while actually constructing the first elements in the new local economies. In other words this proposal at least offers people meaningful things to do here and now, things which have some chance (but obviously no guarantee) of attracting and retaining participation and accelerating the existing Eco-village movement.
Surprisingly Takis is strongly opposed to the idea of attempting to set examples. In another source he is even more emphatic. “Setting an example of a sound and preferable lifestyles at the individual and social level (is)...utterly ineffective in bringing about a systemic social change. (This)...does not have any chance of success...in building the democratic majority needed or for systematic social change...systematic 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.” Chomsky is then criticised on these grounds. Similarly Takis ridicules the idea that we could “bypass” the system by building alternatives. He anticipates open confrontation of some kind, regarding it as inevitable in the transition. “...the goal is to develop a public sphere...that grows in tension and ultimately in a decisive conflict with the state.” Clearly the Eco-village strategy does not set out to confront and it does focus on building an alternative to the system and attracting people to The Simpler Way.
I think that the apparent differences here derive from a simple confusion to do with the timing or sequence of steps envisaged in the overall change process. It may well be that fundamental change cannot be achieved without confrontation and power struggles at the centre of the main political arena some day. But we are far from that day and the question for us is what should we do here and now in order to either a) replace capitalism without a struggle because we have become too strong by the time it finds itself in terminal difficulties, or b) build sufficient numbers with the required alternative world view to have some chance of defeating capitalism via head-on conflict if and when it comes to that. I am arguing that by far the best thing to do now in order to start moving towards the day when we can achieve either a. or b. is to build examples of The Simpler Way. 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.
The second part of another quote from Takis seems to indicate that he would agree with this point about sequence. “...the various activities to set up communes, cooperatives, alternative media institutions etc. are just irrelevant to a process of systematic change -- unless they are an explicitly integral part of such a comprehensive political programme.” (A footnote says Bookchin also holds this position.) I see the development of eco-villages as the most promising immediate step available in “a comprehensive political programme” which must involve more than developing examples and which is very likely at some later stage to involve vast transformation in power structures, and may well involve vicious conflict.
Thus by focusing on the issue of sequence I think we can clarify the problem Takis and others see with any strategy which suggests that we should seek to set examples or advocate lifestyle changes, or to avoid confrontation with the capitalist system. As has been stated above, my main point is that this are the things it makes sense to do now, given that neither mainstream officialdom nor citizenry will at present take any notice of our arguments and analyses, although this does not mean that confrontation will not or should not ever become our focal purpose, and it does not mean that setting examples will be sufficient. The task is to build the 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. (Of course much work also has to be done to help the Eco-village Movement develop a more determined and radical political consciousness.)
Similar confusion to do with sequence seems to be generated by Takis’ statement that change has never been achieved outside the mainstream. My point is perhaps so, but it often begins outside the mainstream.
I should state again that I am far from confident that the Eco-village Movement strategy will succeed. My argument has simply been that in our very difficult circumstances it is the best option open and my concern has been to persuade people to join it, especially people on the Left. The Movement urgently needs to benefit from an infusion of Left critical thinking. Among the important benefits for those who join the Movement is the possibility of working within a positive and constructive climate, as distinct from being fully preoccupied with opposition, struggle and the destruction of capitalism. At least people within the Global Eco-village movement can enjoy some experience of community, worthwhile work, a more relaxed pace, and a more ecologically acceptable way of life. Orthodox Marxists cannot expect to do this for many decades, if at all within their own lifetimes.
Hence we can see the huge opportunity and responsibility before the Global Ecovillage Movement. The stakes are enormous. If The Simpler Way is not taken the prospects for a new dark age are high. In my view, whether or not the sane and sustainable alternative has become sufficiently visible and convincing by the time the turning point is reached will depend primarily on the Global Eco-village Movement.
 United Nations Developmnent Program, (1996), The Human Development Report, New York.
 Goldsmith, E., (1997), “Development as colonialism”, in J. Mander and E. Goldsmith, The Case Against the Global Economy, San Francisco, Sierra.
 Rist, G., (1997), The History of Development, London, Zed Books, p. 243.
 Schwarz, W., and Schwarz, D., (1998), Living Lightly, London, Jon Carpenter, p. 3.
 Chussudowsky, M., (1997), The Globalisation of Poverty, London, Zed Books.
 On development as plunder see also T. (F. E.) Trainer, (1989), Developed to Death, London, Greenprint, and Trainer, T. (F. E.), (1995a), The Conserver Society; Alternatives for Sustainability, London, Zed Books.
 The following discussion is similar to that presented in various other sources, including Trainer, F. E. (T.), (In press, a), What Is To Be Done -- Now?, and Trainer, F. E.(T.), (In press, b), “The global predicament”, Natur and Kultur.
 F. E. (T.) Trainer, 1985, Abandon Affluence, London, Zed Books, 1995a, The conserver Society, Trainer, F. E. (T.), (1998a), Saving the Environment; What It Will Take, Sydney, University of NSW Press.
 Trainer, F. E., (T.), (1995c), “Can renewable energy sources sustain affluent society?, Energy Policy, 23, 12, 1009-1026.
 Wachernagel, N. and W. Rees, (1996), Our Ecological Footprint, Philadelphia, New Society.
 The following outline is similar to that given in Trainer, in press, a. and b.)
 Trainer, The Conserver Society
 Grindheim, B., and D. Kennedy, (1999), Directory of Ecovillages in Europe, Ginsterweig, Germany, Global Ecovillage Network. See also Schwarz and Schwarz, Living Lightly, London, Jon Carpenter, 1998, R. Douthwaite, Short Circuit, a, 1996, the U.S. Communities Directory, A Guide to Cooperative Living, Langley, Fellowship for Intentional Communities, 1995.
 Brown, L., (1989), The State of the World, 1989, Washington, Worldwatch Institute.
 See therefore Trainer, F. E. (T.), (1998b), “Towards a checklist for eco-village development”, Local Environment, 3, 1, 79-84.
 This position derives from two basic sources, firstly many years spent attempting to raise awareness via a variety of educational means, which I regard as having achieved very little, and my personal experience of living within The Simpler Way and contributing to the Global Ecovillage movement. (See Trainer, 1995a.)
 T. S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.1970.
 Wallerstein, E., (1995), After Liberalism, New York, New Press.
 Campbell, C. J., (1994), “The immanent end of cheap oil-based energy”, Sun World, 1814, 17-18. Campbell, C. J., (1995), The World’s Endowment of Conventional Oil and Its Depletion, Geneva, Petroconsultants. Campbell, J., (1997), The Coming Oil Crisis, Brentwood, England, Multiscience and Petroconsultants.
 Clairmont, F. E., (1996), The Rise and Fall of Economic Liberalism, Penang, Southbound, p. 29.
 Fotopolous, T., (1997), Towards an Inclusive Democracy, London, Cassell.
 Fotopoulos, p. 282.
 Takis does not agree on this.
 Fotopoulos, Towards an Inclusive Democracy, p. 278.
 Ibid, p. 204.
 Ibid, p. 282.
 Ibid, p. 283.
 Ibid, p. 278.
 Fotopoulos, T., (1999), “Mass media, culture and democracy,“ Democracy and Nature, 5, 1, pp. 33-64, p. 59.
 Fotopoulos, Towards an Inclusive Democracy, p. 280.
 Ibid, p. 278, 280.
 Fotopoulos, 1999, p. 63.
 Ibid, p. 238.
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.
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.[i] 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’.
as I will try to show below, the difference in strategy between the two projects
reflects the fact that they represent
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
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
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)
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,
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:
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
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.
development and consumerism
critique of the Left, including myself, on the issue of growth and consumerism
is consistent with the above conclusion. As he points out:
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.
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
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, 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
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”. 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” 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 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, this is the necessary (though not the sufficient) condition for it.
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
people committed to affluent living standards and consumerism and not the other
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’.
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, 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, 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.
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,
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
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’.
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
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:
In a more ‘radical’ variation of the same theme, 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.
as I attempted to show elsewhere,
any kind of irrationalism 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’.
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,
(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!
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!
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.
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:
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
As Trainer himself admits, 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. 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.
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
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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
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.)’.
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’. 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.
I attempted to show elsewhere,
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
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
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:
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.
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”.
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.
let us consider in more detail the ID approach and the criticisms raised against
it by Trainer.
Inclusive Democracy strategy and Trainer’s criticisms against it
As I described it elsewhere, 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.
implementation of a strategy like the one outlined above requires a new type of
political organisation, which will mirror the desired structure of society.
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
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
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 —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.
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
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 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… our survey has suggested that at present the drift is towards becoming part of the society they were originally set up to oppose
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.
 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).
 Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?’ (in this issue).
 Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?’.
 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.
 Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?’.
Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An
Inclusive Democracy, Ch. 8 .
 Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, pp. 213-16.
 See Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy), Ch. 6.
 Ibid, ch 1
 See Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy), Ch. 8.
 Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?
 See the ecovillage network of the Americas, Ibid.
 See T. Fotopoulos, ‘The Rise of New Irrationalism and its Incompatibility with Inclusive Democracy’ (Democracy & Nature, Vol. 4, No. 2/3, pp 1-49).
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”).
 David Pepper, Communes and the Green Vision, p. 211.
 Rudolf Bahro, Building the Green Movement, (London : GMP publishers, 1986).
 See James Hart & Ulrich Melle exchange with Janet Biehl on Rudolf Bahro, Democracy & Nature, Vol. 4, No. 2/3, pp. 204-226.
 Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?
 See David Pepper, Communes and the Green Vision, ch. 6.
 See T. Fotopoulos, ‘Mass media, culture and democracy’.
 T. Fotopoulos, ‘Welfare state or economic democracy?
 Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?’
 Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, pp.284-85.
 Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?
 Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, ch. 7.
 ibid. for further details.
 Ted Trainer, ‘Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?
 See Ted Trainer, The Conserver Society (London: Zed books, 1995) ch. 19.
 See David Pepper, Communes and the green vision, ch. 7.
 ibid. p. 204.
 ibid. p. 218-9.
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