Interview of Takis Fotopoulos for the norwegian publications Tidsskrift/Klassenkampen
(published in July/August 1995)
1. In your writings you are pointing to the fact that what you call statism is declining in today’s Europe because of the internationalisatlon phase of advanced capitalism and its ideological justification in the form of a “neoliberal consensus”. How do you define the word “statism and what is your opinion of the role of for example European Nation—State apparatuses and their enormous technocratic bureaucracy in maintaining today’s advanced capitalism?
I call statism the historical tradition that aims at the conquest of state power as the basic means for solving the fundamental social problems. Statism is today in deep crisis, as it has been shown in the last ten years or so with the collapse of socialist statism, both in the form of "actually existing socialism" in the East and social democracy in the West. At the same time, the fact that the market economy has become, for the first time in its history, almost fully internationalised means that the economic sovereignty of the nation-state and, consequently, its political sovereignty (particularly within the European Union), is now at an end. This, of course, does not mean the end of sovereignty as such but simply its replacement by market sovereignty on the one hand and a supra-national sovereignty on the other. The former means that today, more than ever, it is the market which determines who and what human rights he/she can enjoy. The latter means that, at present, political and economic power is concentrated at the supra-national level of new inter-state organisations (like the European Commission) and of an emerging city-regional network. The political implication of all this is that the fashionable new ideas of the Left today about enhancing the "civil society" (i.e. autonomous from the state institutions) and the similar ideas of the "communitarians" about enhancing communities within the present institutional framework of the market economy are both a-historical and utopian. They are a-historical because they can not see that the present internationalisation of the market economy is the latest phase that completes the marketisation process of the economy (i.e. the gradual separation of society from the economy) which started some 200 years ago and not just a temporary phenomenon. They are, also, utopian because they do not take into account the fundamental fact that the logic and the dynamic of the internationalised market economy effectively undermines any attempt for real decentralisation of political and economic power within the existing institutional framework.
2. You are using the words direct and economic democracy to describe your political vision. Could you elaborate a little on what such a democracy would imply and what kind of institutional and economic changes would have to be accomplished?
I define democracy as a structure and a process which, through direct citizen participation in the decision-taking and decision-implementing process, secures an equal distribution of political and economic power among citizens. Democracy is not therefore just a set of democratic procedures in political decision-taking, which could simply be introduced within the present institutional framework "to broaden and deepen" what is called "democracy" today-- as civil societarians like Habermas argue. Democracy is, first, a form of social organisation which involves new structures of decision-taking that rule out any form of representation. Second, direct democracy secures the equal sharing of power at the political level only. But, equal sharing of political power is impossible, especially today, without a corresponding equal sharing of economic power to complement it. This is why I talk about "direct and economic democracy". Third, today, direct and economic democracy is only possible at the community level (the municipality and its subdivisions). It is only at the community level that new forms of decision-taking could be established, creating a new public space (community assemblies) and new economic structures (community ownership and control of the means of production) leading to economic self-reliance (not autarchy) and restoring the ecological balance. Fourth, although the community should be the basis of a new democratic system still, too many decisions have to be taken at the regional, the national, the continental or even the world level. This implies that unless communities are confederated at the corresponding levels, democracy is impossible today. I would therefore say that direct democracy, economic democracy, community and confederalism are the four basic elements that define the project for a new society today. I am saying a project because I do not believe that democracy could "evolve" out of some economic or natural "laws" or tendencies. Democracy is a process of societal self-instituting which can not be grounded on any divine, social or natural laws but can only come about as the outcome of a conscious social choice and the struggle to implement it.
3. In your writings on ecological economics you are stressing the need for decentralised and self—reliant local communities as a precondition for a democratic and ecological society. How do you think local communities around the world could enhance their economic self—reliance amidst the vast centralising and accumulating economic forces that rule the world in the present state at advanced capitalism?
To my mind, the only way in which we can create a new society beyond the market economy and the nation-state is through the gradually increasing involvement of people in a new kind of politics and the parallel shifting of economic resources (labour, capital, land) away from the market economy. The ultimate aim in this approach is the creation of alternative political and economic structures based on direct and economic democracy on the one hand and confederal municipalism on the other. It is a realistic approach, because only by creating new self-reliant local economies, run as direct and economic democracies, it is possible not only to create a new public space of citizens' direct involvement in decision-making but, also, tackle the fundamental problems of today i.e. massive unemployment, poverty, rising concentration of income and wealth and the continuing destruction of the environment. The question that arises here is what sort of strategy can ensure the transition to a democratic society. It is obvious that participation in national or federal elections, in the form of a traditional party organisation, creates a fundamental inconsistency between the aim of a democratic society, as I defined it, and the means to achieve it. An alternative strategy that is proposed by some libertarians involves no direct interference in the political and social arena and focuses, instead, on life-style changes, Community Economic Development (CED) projects, creation of "free zones" and building alternative institutions, from free schools up to self-managed factories, housing associations, LETS schemes, communes etc. However, such an approach, which has been criticised as individualistic in nature, is, by itself, utterly ineffective in bringing about any radical social change. Although helpful in creating an alternative culture among small sections of the population and, at the same time, morale-boosting for activists that they 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-- in building the democratic majority needed for radical social change. The projects suggested by this strategy may too easily be marginalised, or absorbed into the existing power structure (as it happened many times in the recent past), whereas their effect on the socialisation process is minimal-- if not nil. Radical social change can never be achieved outside the main political and social arena. Bookchin's communalist approach therefore, is, to my mind, the best strategy today for a new kind of democratic Politics. Contesting local elections, as a culmination of grassroot action, which can include direct action and activities like the ones I described (CED etc), does provide the most effective means to massively publicise and initiate the immediate implementation, on a significant social scale, of a programme for direct and economic democracy, The immediate objective should therefore be the creation, from below, of "popular bases of political and economic power", so that local public realms of direct and economic democracy may be established which, at some stage, will confederate and create the new society. In my view, this approach offers the most realistic strategy today to dismantle the existing power structures. A political programme based on the commitment to create institutions of direct and economic democracy, within the context of an ecological society, will eventually capture the imagination of the majority of the population, which now suffers from the effects of political and economic concentration of power. And they suffer in more than one ways: Either, through their exclusion from today's "public" realm, which is monopolised by the professional politicians. Or, through their deprivation of the possibility of controlling the way their needs are satisfied, which is now left to the market forces. Or, finally, through the everyday worsening of the quality of life because of the inevitable deterioration of the environment, which the market dynamics imposes. Once such institutions of direct and economic 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 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.
4. From time to time we are hearing about different efforts to create so—called ‘green economies’ in towns and villages in the U.K. Do these efforts have anything in common? Are they isolated from each other or do they attempt to confederate such as to constitute an authentic counter—power to the nation—state and the market?
I am not aware of any attempt to confederate the various community economic development (CED) projects (in which I include LETS schemes, Community Land Trusts, Community enterprises etc) going on at present in the UK in order to create an authentic counter-power to the nation-state and the market economy. In fact, as I implied in answering the previous question, this is the major weaknesses of all these projects: their lack of a political dimension. As long as such projects are not integrated into a comprehensive POLITICAL program of radical social change, they are bound to be marginalised or integrated into the existing power structures. The supporters of CED projects themselves admit that they do not have any chance of effectively challenging the present structures of concentrated power (see e.g. Eric Shragge's Community Economic Development, Black Rose, 1993). This is the reason why such projects far from being attacked by the system are either tolerated by it (e.g. the LETS schemes which provide a way to satisfy some basic needs of the unemployed and the poor that does not involve the need for any extra public spending) or even encouraged by it (see, for instance, the financing of many community enterprises in UK by major business interests and state organisations). It is only by creating power bases at the local political level, through contesting and winning local elections on a programme for direct/economic democracy and confederal municipalism that CED projects could be put into effect on a massive scale and, at the same time, create the subjective and objective conditions for a change in society at large.
5. You are using the expression ‘two—thirds’ society to describe the divisions between social strata in the advanced capitalist system. Are you referring to the two groups of employed and unemployed people or to a more general ‘affluence and poverty division?
As regards the expression "two-thirds" society, which was coined in the 1980s to describe the privileged or secure strata in advanced capitalist countries, today this figure seems to be an overestimate. As modern research in countries like the UK and USA shows, these strata do not exceed today 40-50% of the population. Anyway, this expression has an economic and a social dimension and the employment status plays a significant role with respect to both dimensions. At the social level, the strata in the "two-thirds" (or less) society belong mainly to the middle classes which play a significant role in the political process, since they take an effective part in the electoral game and they are generally well organised in terms of lobbies etc. As regards the economic dimension Will Hutton has recently estimated that the UK society divides into three categories. The first 30% are the absolutely disadvantaged which includes unemployed (registered and non-registered), people in the "poverty trap" (i.e. people who would lose more money, in terms of foregone benefits etc, by working rather than by not working) etc. The second 30% is made up of the marginalised and the insecure, who are defined not so much by income but by their relation to the labour market (part-timers, casually employed, fixed term contracts etc). In other words, this category includes the growing number of people in insecure working conditions, the underemployed and so on. Finally, there is the category of the privileged (about 40%) which includes all full-time employees, the self-employed (who had their jobs for over two years), the part-timers (for over five years etc). So, in effect the privileged strata in UK constitute, at most, "a 50% society" whereas the other half are living either on poverty incomes or are in insecure work and are socially marginalised. In fact, I think that, out of these three categories, it is the second one (marginalised and insecure) which is the fastest growing one .
6. What chances do people, who fall ‘outside the market system and the ranks of the employed, have? Do you think that this growing number of people can play an important part in accomplishing or, rather, paving the way for radical social change?
Potentially, yes. But, we should not forget that apart from the deep economic crisis (not in the sense of growth rates etc but in the sense of structural unemployment and growing inequality) and the well known ecological crisis, there is also a serious political crisis going on. The fact is that all parties, which take for granted the institutional framework of the internationalised market economy, have to adopt the same policies (which, within the European Union, have been codified by the Maastricht Treaty) i.e. drastic cuts of public spending in general and welfare spending in particular, privatisations, improving competitiveness at all cost etc. This means that old differences between conservative and social democratic parties have disappeared. Many people, especially in the disadvantaged social strata, do not see the point in taking part in the political process at all (unless they have to), while others join various extreme right wing movements. The representative democracy is in deep crisis, as a result of apathy among the electorate, and corruption among the professional politicians. At the moment, therefore, those falling "outside" the market system do not see any real alternative and simply withdraw into privacy or fascism, racism etc. But, the development of a movement for direct/ economic democracy and confederal municipalism could have a significant appeal to all those underprivileged people. The creation of new political and economic structures will not only involve them in decision-making, creating a sense of self-fulfilment as citizens, but it will also give them the opportunity to satisfy their basic human needs (social, economic, cultural). This is why it is imperative today to design comprehensive political programs which will include concrete proposals about how the fundamental problems of today (economic, ecological, social) will be tackled within a new institutional framework. To my mind, it is only this way that people, and particularly the underprivileged, the "under-class", could be mobilised and take part in a broad social movement for radical social change.
7. How are we to overcome the new divisions created by this ‘two—thirds’ society between the ‘insiders’ and the ‘outsiders’, and formulate a common interest among people which we need to create a libertarian, ecological society?
At one level, the ecological level, one could say that a common interest has already been established, not only "objectively" but even "subjectively"-- although one could argue that, even at this level, certain aspects of the ecological crisis, for instance pollution, have different effects on different people, depending on the socio-economic group they belong to. However, as long as dilemmas of the type "jobs or environment?" are created by the market economy, and as long as the inequalities are growing within the dynamic of the inernationalised market economy, to my mind, no real common interest could be created. This is why I insist that the creation of a common interest at the subjective level presupposes a multi-dimensional political programme based on new political and economic structures capable of providing solutions to all fundamental problems of today: ecological, economic, social (explosion of crime etc) and cultural (for example, the huge problem of social control over the mass media) . Of course, at some stage, the ruling elites and their supporters, who will surely object to the idea of their privileges being gradually eroded, may be tempted to use violence to protect their privileges, as they have always done in the past. But, by then, the meaning of today's "democracy" will have been made clear and its legitimacy will have definitely been lost. In other words, 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.
8 Could I ask you about your reaction to the Norwegian people’s no! to membership in the European Union? How, in your opinion, has this more or less sensational referendum result been met with among British people or among the Greeks?
Apart from the local factors that may have played an important role in the Norwegian referendum, we should not forget that, despite the brain washing by the ruling elites, wherever these elites bothered to ask the electorates to approve the European Union, the results showed societies divided on similar lines to the ones I described in replying to question 6. In other words, the small majorities in favour of the Union were drawn mainly among the privileged and secure social strata. Now that the promised paradise of the single market has been proved to be mythical growing sections of the European populations --especially among the underprivileged strata-- turn against the Union and I think it was this feeling that was expressed in a stronger way by the Norwegian people. As regards how this result has been met by the British and Greek peoples, obviously no generalisation is possible but it did boost the morale of those in the radical and ecological left who fight for an alternative Europe. However, it also boosted the morale of people in the Right (especially in UK) who fight an anachronistic battle to retain political sovereignty, at a time when most of the economic sovereignty that underpinned it, has already been lost.
9. What would you say about opponents to the European Union among conventional statists and parliamentarians in Norway who have a “vision” about Norway as un “alternative country” in relation to the international market system? A utopia in the negative sense of the word?
Yes, I do think that it is a utopia in the negative sense of the world to believe that, within the present internationalised market economy (and Norway is very much part of it), it is still possible to create an "alternative country". As long as peoples do not create alternative economic structures, which do not require them to concentrate all their economic activity into producing for a world market that they do not control (or to avoid competition from imported commodities), in order to cover their most basic needs, no alternative way is possible. Either within the European Union, or outside it, a country whose economy is integrated into the internationalised market economy has to follow the same policies and, consequently, suffer the same effects. To give an example, Norway could not enjoy significantly stricter policies than those adopted by competitor countries in order to protect its environment or its labour force, when almost a third of its income is created by exports. Any significant increase in the cost of production, on account of social or environmental policies, will have an immediate effect on its competitiveness, its currency and eventually its income and will sooner or later lead to a reversal of these policies. This is why the real issue is not "inside or outside the European Union"? but "inside or outside the market economy and statism?".
(The interview took place on 27 May 1995).