(Scotland, August 1995), by TAKIS FOTOPOULOS
My starting point is that democracy is today not just an ethical demand but the only rational way out of the present multi-dimensional crisis (economic, ecological, political, social). To my mind, this crisis has its roots in the power structures and relations which were developed two centuries ago, as a result of the establishment of the system of the market economy and the consequent growth economy and the parallel expansion of the nation-state and representative democracy. As I will try to show, democracy is incompatible with any degree, or form, of concentration of power, political or economic. Finally, I will try to develop a new conception of democracy, which, extending the classical non-statist conception, would introduce the elements of economic democracy, community and confederalism, which are necessary for any modern conception of democracy.
1. Freedom, autonomy and democracy (estratto)
But, let’s start with the meaning of democracy, a word which has had no parallel in its abuse, apart perhaps from socialism, this century. The usual way in which the meaning of democracy has been distorted, mostly by liberal academics and politicians, is by confusing the presently dominant oligarchic system of representative “democracy” with democracy itself. Even libertarian theoreticians and anarchists frequently seem confused about the meaning of democracy, particularly when they confuse it with some kind of “rule”. However, as I will try to show, the dominant today conception of democracy has hardly any relation to the classical Greek conception. Furthermore, the current practice of adding several qualifying adjectives to the term democracy has further confused the meaning of it and created the impression that several forms of democracy exist. Thus, liberals refer to “modern“, “representative“, or “parliamentary” democracy, social democrats talk about “social”, “economic” or “industrial” democracy, and, finally, Leninists used to speak about “soviet” democracy, and, later, “people’s” democracies, to describe the countries of “actually existing socialism“. But, in fact, there is only one form of democracy at the political level, i.e. the direct exercise of sovereignty by the people themselves, a form of societal institution which rejects any form of “ruling”. Therefore, all other forms of so-called democracy are not but various forms of “oligarchy” i.e. of ruling by the few. This implies that the only adjective that is permissible to precede democracy is “economic”, because economic democracy was indeed unknown before the emergence of the socialist project.
Freedom and autonomy
(Nella foto un giovane con la Kefia al collo, simbolo del nazionalismo palestinese tanto caro alle Sinistre)
Still, the meaning we give to democracy crucially depends on the meaning of freedom and autonomy. Furthermore, there is no way of defining democracy today unless we delineate first its relation to the state and then to the economy. This is so because it can easily be shown that it is the present separation of society from the state and the economy which is the ultimate cause of the concentration of political and economic power that characterise the present oligarchies that call themselves democracies. For reasons that I cannot expand on here I think that the concept of democracy is much more compatible with a concept of freedom that is defined in terms of individual and collective autonomy rather than in terms of negative freedom (as LIBERALS, INDIVIDUALISTIC ANARCHISTS and some libertarians do) or alternatively in terms of positive freedom (as socialists and most anarchist writers do).
I think that a definition of freedom in terms of autonomy not only combines individual freedom with collective freedom, rooting firmly the freedom of the individual in the democratic organisation of the community, but it also transcends both liberalism and socialist statism.
But, autonomy, as Murray Bookchin correctly points out, has been identified in the English literature with personal freedom or self-government. However, the original Greek meaning of the word had a definite political dimension, where personal autonomy was inseparable from collective autonomy. In this conception of autonomy, an autonomous society is inconceivable without autonomous individuals and vice versa. This is so, because, if we assume away the concentration of power and its epitome, the State, then, no individual is autonomous unless he/she participates equally in power. Similarly, no society is autonomous unless it consists of autonomous individuals. Furthermore, an autonomous society is a society capable of explicitly self-instituting itself, in other words, capable of putting into question its already given institutions and what I will call the dominant social paradigm, namely, the system of beliefs, ideas and the corresponding values, which is associated with these institutions. In this sense, a tribal society which is not capable of questioning tradition, or, alternatively a Christian or (Muslim) or Thaoist society which is not questioning divine law or some externally given “truths”, or, finally, a marxist society which is incapable of questioning the dominant social paradigm, are all examples of heteronomous societies, irrespective of the degree of political and economic equality they may have achieved. So, the definition of freedom in terms of autonomy implies that freedom cannot and should not be based on any preconceptions about human nature or on any divine, social and natural “laws” about social evolution.
An ‘objectively’ grounded liberatory project? (estratto)
Now, this raises a very important point. Traditionally, most libertarians, from Godwin to Bakunin and Kropotkin, based their ethics and politics, freedom itself, on a fixed human nature governed by “necessary and universal laws”, by which they usually meant natural laws, in contrast to marxists who emphasised economic “laws”. This reflected the same nineteenth century incentive which led Marx to develop his “scientific” economic laws, namely, the incentive to make the liberatory project look “scientific” or, at least, “objective”. However, this approach is not tenable anymore, since it is not possible today to continue talking about objectivity, at least as far as the interpretation of social phenomena is concerned. Furthermore, the fate of “scientific” socialism suggests that this approach is not desirable either.
2. Concentration of power, Democracy and growth economy (estratto)
But, let us see briefly how the present concentration of political and economic power was effected in History. As regards the concentration of political power first, the emergence of the nation-state in 16th century Europe initiated a process of concentrating political power, initially in the form of highly centralised monarchies and later in the form of representative “democracies“. It was also during the same 16th century that the idea of representation entered in the political lexicon, although the sovereignty of Parliament was not established until the 17th century. In the same way that the king has once “represented” society as a whole, it was now the turn of Parliament to play this role, although sovereignty itself was still supposed to belong to the people as a whole. In fact, the doctrine that prevailed in Europe since the French revolution was not just that the French people were sovereign and that their views were represented in the National Assembly, but that the French nation was sovereign and the National Assembly embodied the will of the nation. The type of “democracy” that has been established since the 16th century in Europe has had very little in common with the Athenian democracy, because whereas the European democracy presupposes the separation of state from society and is founded on the exercise of sovereingty by a separate body of representatives, the Athenian democracy is based on the principle that sovereingty is exercised directly by the free citizens themselves.
Of course, it is true that power relations and structures did not disappear in classical Athens ―not only at the economic level, where inequities were obvious, but even at the political level, where the hierarchical structure of society was clear.
At the top of the social pyramid, the free citizens, who were entitled to take part in the democratic process, and, at the bottom, women, followed by slaves.
We may therefore argue that overall, Athens was a mix of non-statist and statist democracy.
It was non-statist as regards the citizen body, which was “ruled” by nobody and whose members shared power equally among themselves, and statist as regards those not qualifying as full citizens (women, slaves, immigrants), over whom the demos wielded power. Still, the Athenian democracy was the first historical example of the identification of the sovereign with those exercising sovereignty.
Dice Tucidide: “Benchè in pochi siano in grado di dare vita ad una politica, beh tutti qui ad Atene siamo in grado di giudicarla”, quindi non proprio “tutti ad Atene facevano cosi‘”;
As regards now the concentration of economic power, the dynamics of the market economy, namely the economic system which emerged about two centuries ago, led to the growth economy, which, in this century, took the form of either a capitalist growth economy, or a socialist growth economy. The growth economy, in both its versions, implied a high degree of concentration of economic power. But, as a high degree of economic concentration is incompatible with the spreading of political power, it is no wonder that the growing concentration of economic power this century was accompanied by a corresponding concentration of political power.
It is not therefore surprising that the present internationalisation of the market economy, which implies further concentration of economic power, has been accompanied by a parallel further concentration of political power. So, although It is true that today we see the end of sovereignty, still, it is not sovereignty in general that withers away but the nation-state’s sovereignty, particularly its economic sovereignty. The decline of state sovereignty is directly linked to the present internationalised phase of the market economy and the consequent withering away of the nation-state. In this context, one may argue that state sovereignty is today replaced by market sovereignty and a form of supra-national sovereignty.
Market sovereignty means that, today, it is the market which defines effective human rights, not just economic rights, but even who can really exercise his/her human rights in general.
Supra-national sovereignty. means that, at present, political and economic power is concentrated at the supra-national level of new inter-state organisations (like the European Commission) on the one hand, and of the emerging network of city-regional governments on the other.
Furthermore, the continuous decline of the State’s economic sovereignty is being accompanied by the parallel transformation of the public realm into pure administration.
For instance, international central banks are being established, which, in the future, independent from political control, will take crucial decisions about the economic life of millions of citizens (see for instance the planned European central bank that is designed to take over the control of the new European monetary system and the common European currency).
Compatibility of democracy with socialist growth economy
(Da leggere con molta cura)
As far now as the compatibility of democracy with the socialist growth economy is concerned, we should remember that the dominant social paradigm was grounded on the idea that the principal goal of human society was the maximisation of production on the one hand, and the creation of a just system of distribution on the other. Furthermore, the fact that the dominant social paradigm was supposed to be grounded on a “science” (marxism) implied the imperative need to “prove” it, in the sense of outproducing all competitor economic systems. There was therefore no doubt whatsoever in the minds of the Soviet elite about what will have to be sacrificed in any possible clash between the dominant social paradigm and democracy. No wonder therefore that, as early as 1920, Lenin was declaring that “Industry is indispensable, democracy is not“. So, whereas the original Leninist project for the soviet democracy, as expressed in The State and Revolution, was about the transformation of power relations, the Soviet elite, from 1920 onwards, consistently maintained the view (no doubt, “external” events have also played a role on this) that socialism wholly consisted in equality of ownership relations and not at all in equality in power relations. The incentive was obvious: to achieve the goal of maximising production, which was identified as the main goal of socialism. History, therefore, has shown in an unambiguous way that democracy is incompatible with both versions of the growth economy. However, the question still remains whether it is just the practice of liberal and socialist democracy that is to be blamed for the oligarchic character of the liberal and socialist regimes respectively, or whether instead it is the very conception of democracy that liberals and socialists adopt, which is incompatible with democracy ― a conception that is identified by a fundamental common characteristic: “statism“.
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