vol.8, no.1, (March 2002)


The transition to an alternative society: the Ecovillage movement, the Simpler Way and the Inclusive Democracy project 

Takis Fotopoulos



The main issue: the paradigmatic differences between the Simpler Way and the Inclusive Democracy project

In my article assessing the ecovillage movement[1] I stressed that the differences between Ted’s strategy for the Simpler Way (SW)[2] and the strategy proposed by the Inclusive Democracy (ID) project reflect, in fact,  paradigmatic differences, i.e. differences related to the respective analyses of the present situation, as well as differences in goals and means. However, as Ted in his response insists that there is more or less complete agreement between us concerning not only the need for fundamental change but also about ‘goals’, granting only a ‘few significant differences between us on strategy’, it is necessary to clarify further the paradigmatic differences between the two approaches. Such a clarification becomes particularly important if one takes into account the extent of confusion  in the Left today.  Furthermore, it is obvious that any common activity among the various  trends of the radical Left in the future would crucially depend on a clear understanding of their programmatic differences.

The differences between Ted’s Simpler Way and the Inclusive Democracy project are paradigmatic because, in contrast to what Ted suggests, they do not simply refer to strategic but also to analytic and goal differences.

The analytic differences refer to the diverse perceptions of each approach with respect to  the causes of the present multidimensional crisis. For the ID approach, the main cause of this crisis is the concentration of power that results from the dynamics  of the market economy and representative ‘democracy’. On the other hand, for the SW approach, the fundamental cause of this crisis is the development of materialistic and consumerist lifestyles, competition and growth, as a result of the abuse of the market system and state power by self-interested elites and the development of corresponding values.

The goal differences refer to the diverse attitudes with respect to the form an alternative society should take. Τhus, for the ID project, the way out of the crisis, given its problematique about the causes of it, can only be found in a new form of social organisation that would involve institutions of equal distribution of political, economic and broader social power, i.e. an inclusive democracy. On the other hand, for Ted, ‘only The Simpler Way, centred on more materially simple, co-operative and self-sufficient ways within a zero-growth economy can solve the major global problems’. It is therefore clear that the SW’s goal is what I described[3] as an ecological democracy, which, however, is only one constituent part of an inclusive democracy that is also a political democracy beyond the present statist forms of organisation (which Ted does not reject), an economic democracy beyond the market economy (which Ted adopts, albeit partially) and a democracy in the social realm which involves democracy at the places of work and education, the household etc (on which Ted, as far as I know, says very little, if anything)   

It is from these fundamental analytical and goal differences that the strategic differences between the two approaches follow. For the SW approach, in accordance with the usual eco-anarchist lifestyle approach which does not involve the building of alternative institutions as an integral part of an antisystemic movement,  values have to change first and an eventual ‘structural change’ (as defined below) will follow. This is in contrast to the Marxist approach in which structures have to change first through the building of an antisystemic movement. On the other hand, the ID approach involves a synthesis of these two approaches as well as of the direct action approach. Thus, according to the ID strategy[4] it is within the struggle against the present institutions and the parallel process of creating alternative ones that a massive antisystemic movement can be created based on a new revolutionary consciousness and system of values. It is this new movement that will play the role of the catalyst for the transition (which does not have to be a violent one) to a confederal inclusive democracy .  

Structures and values

It is therefore necessary to see all the differences between the two projects within the framework of the above paradigmatic differences. Thus, as regards first the relation between structures and values, Ted misrepresents my critique of his stand on the matter. Although it is true that I criticised his stand on the grounds that he “focuses on ideology and values (not on ‘ideal values’ which apart from not making sense, is a term I never used - my note, T.F.) as opposed to structures"[5] I cannot find anywhere in the references he quotes the statement I supposedly made that for Ted only value change is needed, not structural change. There is an obvious difference between focusing on values (which I assume he accepts) and exclusively relying on them (for which I did not criticise him). However, what Ted means by ‘structural change’ has very little to do with the meaning I give to this term. For Ted, structural change means drastic reform of the market economy and the state so that the alternative sustainable society he proposes and the corresponding set of values could be established. For the ID project however, as I implied above,  structural change means the replacement of the market economy and the state with new institutions which secure political and economic democracy.

However, although the SW approach does not aim at replacing the present institutional framework with new forms of social organisation, as the ID approach does, this does not mean that the former is ‘realistic’ whereas the latter is ‘utopian’. In fact, the opposite might be the case. Ted, following a long social democratic tradition on the matter, refers to Polanyi’s Great Transformation in which  a market is assumed to be "embedded" in society. But, Polanyi envisaged his ‘Great Transformation’ (in which society -in the form of the state- would be capable of effectively controlling the market for the benefit of the former) at the time that the socialdemocratic ideology was already ‘hegemonic’ – a fact which led, a few years later, to the socialdemocratic consensus. Still, this ‘Great Transformation’ (what I called elsewhere the ‘statist form of modernity’[6]) lasted for less than 30 years and since the mid 1970s, with the complete opening and the consequent liberalisation of commodity and capital markets brought about by globalisation, we have entered an era in which market forces are freer than ever.

In fact, as I attempted to show elsewhere,[7] the monumental failure of the Left to realise the significance of the structural changes associated with globalisation, in parallel with its demoralisation after the failure of the planning system, has led many to imagine that we could return to some sort of socially controlled markets—the latter playing a minor role in the economy, as it was the case before the establishment of the market economy. Similar positions are supported by Ted and several radical Greens. This is the reason why Ted misinterprets my position as a ‘dogmatic rejection of any role for these factors (market economy, money and state) when the necessity for that is far from clear’. My position however does not stem from romantic visions of how an alternative society should look like, as it is the case with radical Greens, but from a historical analysis of the dynamics of the market economy and representative ‘democracy’. In my view, it is these institutions and their dynamics that led to the present concentration of political and economic power and the associated ecological crisis rather than the  ‘greed’ of some people, the evil intentions of the elites, or the establishment of wrong values etc, as the reformist Left suggests. This is why we need new institutions rather than a (utopian) reforming of the old ones. Thus, although I would agree with Ted that ‘the alternative of somehow planning all economic decisions would seem to be highly undesirable’ (this is why I rejected the kind of ‘participatory economics’ model for a future society proposed by Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel[8] which relies exclusively on planning for the allocation of resources) I would not agree with any proposals for some sort of variation of the market economy. My rejection of the market economy is not therefore based on some  ‘dogma’, as Ted asserts, but on  a theoretical and empirical analysis of the market economy which shows conclusively that its dynamics inevitably leads  to the sort of concentration of power we witness today. This is why the ID project proposes a new system of allocation of resources that combines democratic planning with an artificial market and secures a genuine freedom of choice while it also meets the basic needs of all citizens.[9]

However, apart from the crucial issue that what is described in the SW as structural change is in fact a reform (albeit a drastic one) of the present institutional framework, there are other critical issues differentiating the SW approach from the ID project. Values have to change in parallel with structures in the ID case, unlike the SW case in which structures will change eventually, following a change in values. This crucial difference is not semantic. It highlights the fact that in the ID case the change in values is interlinked with and dependent on the change in structures at a significant social scale. This is because the aim is the creation of a genuine democratic consciousness among citizens, something that presupposes a ‘living experience’ of democracy which  can only be realised through the parallel introduction of new institutions of political and economic democracy. This can only be done within the context of an antisystemic movement meeting the conditions described above –a movement which is engaged both in a struggle to fight the existing system (something excluded from the SW approach) and to build in parallel the new institutions, through the creation of what I call ‘local inclusive democracies’ that involve the introduction of new political, social and economic institutions at a significant social scale. On the other hand, the kind of basically ecological consciousness that the SW demands for the creation of a sustainable society clearly  does not depend on the parallel creation of new sustainable institutions at a significant social scale. Experiencing the ecological implications of present ‘development’ and creating alternative sustainable institutions, at the level of a commune or a similar project, seems to be enough for Ted, whereas the foreseen energy crisis and the deterioration of the ecological crisis  are expected to trigger a massive change in consciousness towards the SW.

But, apart from the fact that the development of ecological consciousness is only part of the major problem of creating a new democratic consciousness that would reintegrate society not only with Nature but also with polity and the economy, a democratic crisis of monumental proportions is already with us demanding an immediate change in the institutional framework. This is shown by the huge and continuing concentration of economic power created by the market economy, which is a system with an in-built tendency to grow and lead to  ecological deterioration. This is also shown by the concentration of political power at the hands of the transnational elite and its local branches and representatives, which is presently leading to the creation of semi-totalitarian regimes throughout the world , North and South, on the pretext of fighting the war ‘against terrorism’ that, in fact, is a war to crush any resistance movements against the present  world order.

Irrationality, spirituality and Democracy

But let us now see another major difference between the two approaches which illustrates the crucial paradigmatic differences between them. Ted argues that he cannot see why irrational belief systems ‘matter in the least except in those instances where these beliefs lead to  practices that are contrary to sustainability or democracy’. Furthermore, after charging me for  ‘making the mistake of identifying spirituality with irrationality’ he concludes:

However surely some of the most serious deficiencies in capitalist society are to do with the lack of other than economic values, the lack of purpose, enthusiasm, reverence for nature, sense of oneness with other people and with the earth, peace of mind, appreciation, inspiration. social responsibility and compassion.  I see the Global Ecovillage Network's concern with lack of spiritual values as one of its greatest virtue.

First, it has to be stressed that when I talked about the incompatibility of democracy with any sort of irrationalism I did not simply mean ‘irrational beliefs’, as Ted seems to think, but  ideological systems 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.[10] Second, the fundamental incompatibility between democracy and irrationalism arises not simply because the latter  may lead to  practices that are contrary to the former as well as to sustainability, as Ted assumes, but because an inclusive democracy, which is the realisation of  individual and social autonomy, is premised on the constant questioning of any given truth. It is because all forms of irrationalism take for granted certain ‘truths’, which are excluded from questioning and are derived through nonrational methods, that irrationalism is utterly incompatible with citizens setting their own laws and making their own ‘truths’ about their society. In other words, any kind of irrationalism in the sense defined above cannot be the basis of a genuine democracy because it denies the very principle of individual and social autonomy which involves people making their own truths rather than adopting various spiritual ‘truths’ coming from outside. For Ted, this does not matter --something hardly surprising given that autonomy and democracy are not the founding stones of the SW, as they are for the ID project. Instead,  the founding stone of the new society for the SW project is sustainability and some kind of democracy as a procedure, rather than as a regime[11] in which polity is not separate from society.

Finally, it is obvious that  in a democratic society we do not have to resort to spirituality, or to the external ethical systems created by various religions,  in order to discover the Values mentioned by Ted. Clearly, all these values can and should be derived through the use of democratic rationalism which creates ‘internal’ values rather than through the use of nonrational ways of deriving them that create ‘external’values which have then to be internalised through the socialisation process. A democratic society will create its own values and ethical systems. In fact, reliance on irrational belief systems is not only in fundamental conflict with the principle of autonomy/democracy but it also implies a society consisting of a set of communities, many with their own irrational belief systems and corresponding set of values, rather than a confederal democracy in which citizens share a common set of values, rationally and democratically derived. However, the former type of society could easily lead to the kind of cultural/religious conflicts, if not actual wars, between communities which we have seen so frequently in the past and even in the present. The simmering conflicts in the North between supporters of various religious denominations and the open conflicts in the South (Indonesia, Africa etc) are obvious examples of the type of world society to which the various kinds of irrationalism lead. Is this the kind of alternative world society that Ted aspires to?

Strategic differences

 Ted agrees with my argument that the GEM (and presumably the GSAM), is not a real movement but, as he points out,  the real question is whether it could be the source of one. His argument is that, given the current almost complete lack of any other potential sources of such a movement, working with the Global Alternative Movement might be the best way available to us at present to start building a mass movement like the one I described in my article. However, in view of what I said above, the nature of these ‘movements’ is such that they cannot function even as potential sources of such a movement. This is so for the following reasons.

A social movement is characterised by a number of elements[12]: some sort of organisation, which distinguishes it from spontaneous gatherings of people with similar ideas and values; a common outlook on society, i.e. a common world-view; and, finally, a common set of values that include, on the one hand, the program, which is derived on the basis of a set of shared long-term goals with respect to society’s structure and, on the other, the ideology, i.e. the body of ideas which justify the program and the strategy of the movement. On top of these elements an antisystemic movement is characterised by a crucial extra element: it  explicitly or implicitly challenges the legitimacy of a socio-economic ‘system’, both in the sense of its institutions, which create and reproduce the unequal distribution of power and also in the sense of its values, which legitimise the domination of a human being over human being, or of Society over Nature.

It is therefore clear that none of these conditions are met by the GEM or what Ted calls the Global Alternative Society Movement. First, it is obvious that there is no common organisation covering the activities of the communards in the  GEM, let alone the even more diverse activities of the GASM. In both cases, we should more accurately call the groups involved in such activities as  spontaneous gatherings of people with similar ideas and values rather than ‘organised movements’ worthy of this name. Second, it is equally clear that there is no common worldview characterising say the eco-villagers’ beliefs and those supporting the LETS schemes, land trusts etc, as I stressed  in my article on ecovillagers. Furthermore, as the activists involved in these activities never put forward any kind of common program with shared goals, ideology and strategy (in fact, the very diversity of their activities rules out any such possibility), it is hardly possible to talk  about a common set of values characterising the participants in these  ‘movements’. Finally, the activities of many of the participants involved are in no way related to antisystemic politics (in the sense of promoting an alternative society), if  indeed they are related to politics at all!

However, if GAM and GASM cannot be characterised as antisystemic movements, can they potentially be the sources of such movements, or can they be seen, as Ted argues, as constituting the best way available to us now to start building the mass movements? But, for this to be the case, the GAM and the GASM should have the potential to ‘evolve’ into antisystemic movements, something that is ruled out by their highly heterogeneous nature in terms of goals, means, and strategies. This is particularly so if one takes into account that even those taking part in the activities of these movements who are not mainly motivated or inspired by some sort of irrational belief system do not share any clear antisystemic consciousness. In other words, a consciousness well exceeding the usual limits of an ecological consciousness about the need for a sustainable world order based on ‘simplicity, small scale, localism, self-sufficiency and zero growth’ and extending to a comprehensive demand for the replacement of the present institutions of concentration of power (market economy, representative ‘democracy’) with new forms of social organisation. If on top of this limited consciousness shared by most of the ‘ecovillagers’ one adds the apolitical (if not anti-political) motivation of most of them one may argue that the antiglobalisation ‘movement’ is a much better source for a mass political antisystemic movement given the overtly political and antisystemic nature of the demands of the most radical currents within it.

Still, as I stressed  elsewhere,[13] the antiglobalisation movement also suffers from serious flaws and from the fact that it is only a movement fighting against the present institutional framework rather than struggling also for the creation of a new institutional framework –in fact, it does not have even a vision about  how such a society should look like. However, although I agree with Ted that the way to build an antisystemic movement today should necessarily pass through the process of building alternative institutions within the old ones,  I think that unless such activities are an integral part of an antisystemic movement with clear goals, means and strategies they could easily end up as either reformist activities (e.g. LETS, credit unions, ethical investment etc) or as marginalized ones (communes, ecovillages and the like). In both cases, such activities can not even function as catalysts for the development of an antisystemic consciousness—the first step in the creation of a new massive antisystemic movement. Particularly so, if most of the activists involved aim simply at sustainability and zero growth and /or ‘social justice’ rather than at new institutions which realise individual and social autonomy through the equal distribution of all forms of power.

So, we need a new strategy that constitutes a synthesis of the old Marxist approach which is based on the creation of an antisystemic movement to fight against the present system, the anarchist approach of ‘prefiguring’ i.e. building the new within the old and, finally, the democratic forms of organisation and direct action activities  proposed by the ‘new’ social movements (feminist, Green etc). This implies creating a democratic organisation with clear antisystemic goals and means which will fight for the creation of a new massive antisystemic movement for an inclusive democracy, a movement that will combine the fight against the present system with the parallel struggle to create a new system within the old. Building  inclusive democracies at the local level, as an integral part of an antisystemic movement explicitly aiming at the institution of a confederal inclusive democracy,[14] is perhaps the only way leading to the creation of  a genuine alternative society (which does not necessarily involve overt conflict as I mentioned above) rather than an easily reversible variation of the existing one.

[1] T. Fotopoulos, ‘The limitations of Life-style strategies: The Ecovillage “Movement” is NOT the way towards a new democratic society’, Democracy & Nature, vol 6 no 2 (July 2000), pp. 287-308

[2] I am referring to Ted’s strategy rather than to the strategy of the Global Alternative Society movement, or the Global Ecovillage movement for that matter,  because, as I will attempt to show, it is out of place to describe these as   movements in the proper sense of the word with their own strategies, implicit or otherwise

[3] See Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy, (London/NY: Cassell/Continuum, 1997) ch 5

[4] See my article on the transition strategy (in this issue)

[5] T. Fotopoulos, 2000, p.289

[6] See T. Fotopoulos, The Myth of Postmodernity, Democracy & Nature, vol 7 no 1(March 2001), pp 27-76’,

[7] See T. Fotopoulos, ‘Globalisation, the reformist Left and the Anti-Globalisation ‘Movement’ , Democracy & Nature, vol 7 no 2 pp. 233-80 and Towards An Inclusive Democracy, ch 1

[8] See critique of this model in Towards An Inclusive Democracy, pp. 253-54

[9] ibid. ch 6

[10] See for a further treatment of the issue of the incompatibility of democracy to irrationalism my reply to Thomas Martin’s response in this issue

[11] ibid.

[12] See T. Fotopoulos, ‘The End of Traditional Antisystemic Movements and the Need for A New Type of Antisystemic Movement Today’, Democracy & Nature, vol 7 no 3 (November 2001), pp. 415-455   

[13] ibid.

[14] See my article in this issue on the transition strategy towards an inclusive democracy















note-id:ftn13" href="#_ftnref13" name="_ftn13" title> [13] ibid.

[14] See my article in this issue on the transition strategy towards an inclusive democracy