Ecology and Democracy


Towards an Inclusive Democracy: the Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need for a New Liberatory Project. by Takis Fotopoulos. Cassell, 1997, 401pp, $24.95 paperback.

The Conserver Society: Alternatives for Sustainability. by Ted Trainer. Zed Books, 1995, 246pp, $19.95 paperback

With the collapse or retreat of various forms of state socialism ranging from former Eastern bloc communism to social-democratic welfare capitalism, the political left everywhere has been debating the meaning of socialism and the very possibility for humane and democratic alternatives to global capitalism. In recent decades various manifestations of the green movement have emerged internationally to augur possible third ways between market capitalism and the bureaucratic pitfalls of state socialism. While traditional adherents of democratic socialisms have been debating such issues as plan versus market, left green theorists have been grappling with similar problems.

The two books cited above offer, in my opinion, the most developed blueprints to date on how to fashion a nonmarket, nonbureaucratic alternative to global capitalism that is democratic and ecologically sustainable. Both begin with sharp critiques of the inhumanity and ecological unsustainability of the industrial growth economy in its capitalist and socialists forms then proceed to lay out concrete economic and political alternatives.

Ted Trainer is an Australian environmental thinker and activists at the University of New South Wales who authored an earlier version of his thinking in the widely read book Abandon Affluence! (also published by Zed in 1985). His strengths lie in being able to offer tangibly concrete models at the neighborhood or community level on how to reorganize housing, energy, food production, light industry, etc., in ways that can sustain people at a reasonably comfortable material basis while engaging them in democratically cooperative work and governance. While he does not ignore the problems of how to link such partially self-sustaining communities in a broader economy as well as integrating inescapably large-scale manufacturing or high-tech industries and enterprises into this model his vision sometimes imparts a certain understandable sketchiness.

On the other hand, as a professional economist (transplanted from Greece to the U.K.), Takis Fotopoulos seems to simply assume much of what Trainer lays out in terms of the "techno-ecological" substructure of a future sustainable economy while going into great detail on the institutional workings of what could be termed a "municipal confederal democracy" or (Takis's formulation) "a confederal inclusive democracy". Those familiar with the writings of Murray Bookchin will find much that is familiar here, and until recently Murray served on the editorial board of Society and Nature (now renamed Democracy and Nature).

As the international editor and chief theorists of Democracy and Nature, Fotopoulos has developed many of his economic and political conceptions in its pages since its inception in the early 1990s. Here they are all brought together in a brilliant tour de force which qualifies as a major contribution to the ongoing debate over left alternatives to capitalism. While the first half of the book is an in-depth critique of "the crisis of the growth economy" in its market capitalist and socialist statist forms, the second half presents in exquisite detail the institutional mechanics of how to develop a popular and workable democracy from the local up to the regional and to the national levels. Through an innovative system of basic and non-basic vouchers combined with democratic decision making in the community and in the workplace, Fotopoulos offers a plausible solution to the problems which have bedeviled the plan versus market debate for most of the 20th Century (see diagram for an inkling of his intriguing model).

Towards an Inclusive Democracy is a book which deserves to be examined and critiqued in far more depth by those who have been involved in the plan versus market debate and especially by those with a solid grounding in economics. Although Fotopoulos describes himself as an anarchist, his vision, in my opinion is entirely compatible with the best elements of democratic or libertarian socialism.

These two books are complementary and should be read together in our continuing struggle to fashion a socialist road-map to the 21st Century.