BOOK REVIEW (Thesis Eleven, no 69, May 2002)

Takis Fotopoulos, Towards An Inclusive Democracy The Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need For a New Liberatory Protect (Cassell, 1997)


Given the manifest failures of capitalism, the state and ‘actually exist­ing socialism’, why has anarchism nor attracted a greater following? The fre­quent response is not that anarchism cannot work, but that its proponents have not demonstrated that it can, especially in societies of scale. Woodcock’s classic study, Anarchism concluded that, however principled, anarchist refusal to provide detail had limited its support. This book fills in a number of these gaps, proposing with clarity and originality the key mechanisms that might enable and sustain such a polity. Fotopoulos’ approach is not openly anarchist, yet anarchism seems the formal category within which he works, given his commitment to direct democracy, municipalism and abolition of state, money and market economy.

Fotopoulos analyses economic political, social and ecological prob­lems, indicates consequent civilizational crises, and responds with a mani­festo scarcely less ambitious than that of 1848. State socialism, market capitalism and liberal oligarchy support domination, the growth economy, false science and economics. Market economies are inefficient, ‘liberal democracy’ is liberal oligarchy. ‘Representative democracy’ is oxymoronic, democracy means direct democracy. The atomized form that presently passes for ‘autonomy’ would be unrecognizable in early Athens, autonomy could only mean a synthesis of collective and individual determination. Athens’ legacy is that direct democracy is feasible and economic oligarchy and political democracy incompatible. Athenian democracy did not collapse due to democracy’s inherent contradictions. but was undermined before matura­tion.

Fotopoulos reworks Castoriadis and Lefort. The choice today is between barbarism or democracy. An inclusive democracy would have safeguards protecting minorities. Athenian-style paedeia (broadly based, self-questioning civic education) and a constellaton of sympathetic institutions and values. The municipality is the appropriate economic unit and inclusive democracy is possible today only at this level. The size of a municipality must be suf­ficient for economic viability yet not so large as to undermine direct democ­racy. Thirty thousand members is perhaps the minimum, cities larger than this could comprise any number of these organizational units. The economy would be based upon community (demotic ownership). Provided that domi­nation is avoided, Fotopoulos accepts scale, contemporary industrial tech­niques and a division of labour. Municipalities could choose to confederate. Municipal self-reliance is supported autarky rejected. Trade between confederally united communities is acceptable and desirable once communities rather than markets control exchange, replacing domination and dependency with mutual self-reliance and collective support. This requires a framework for occasional regional, national and supranational decision making between confederations.

Vouchers replace money and are unavailable for exchange or to aggre­gate wealth. Two categories of voucher provide entitlements, to basic and non-basic goods respectively. Allocation of resources occurs collectively via decisions at meetings and individually through voucher choices. Community assemblies establish policy and rotate recallable delegates to regional and confederal administrative councils, rotation prevents the emergence of a brahmin caste of professional politicians. Productive resources belong to the demos, leased through long-term contracts. Production is aimed at basic needs, after which those desirous of non-basic goods may volunteer to work additional hours for non-basic vouchers. The community establishes an ‘index of desirability’, ranking jobs relative to inherent capacity for satis­faction. Less satisfying jobs provide a slightly higher income of non-basic vouchers. This will produce a certain amount of inequality, tolerable because it is small-scale and pertaining to work that is voluntarily chosen. Where some municipalities enjoy natural endowments that others in their confederation do not, there should be cross-subsidization. Basic vouchers and barter provide the medium of trade. If trading outside the federation or with market economies, the form can be determined through bilateral or multilateral agreements. The transitional strategy will develop small-scale, working models of democracy across numerous spheres, gradually forging alternate values and institutions; as they strengthen, there is a commensurate phasing out of existing institutions. Transition contains political and economic dimen­sions, toward a new kind of politics and a gradual transfer of labour, capital and land to the new economy.

Fotopoulos’ purposes are proselytizing as well as scholarly. Three possible critical responses emerge. The first is anticapitalist, embracing this volume as one of the more cogent efforts at an exit strategy and destination. Like most anarchists since Kropotkin and Bakunin, Fotopoulos dismisses reformism, yet his detailed transitional period avoids a simple politics of negation. He deftly negotiates the highwire, providing specificity without uni­versal prescriptivism. Fotopoulos avoids the tease of many critics of capi­talism who conclude either with minute suggestions relative to the problems identified, or with the so-what final paragraph ‘the task now is to develop alternatives’. His confederal inclusive democracy partially resolves an anar­chist vulnerability how communities are to generate mechanisms for joint decision making without establishing a de facto state. Fotopoulos’ respectful deployment of a number of traditions will assist this books’ broad progres­sive appeal.

A second critical response to this book would locate capitalism and most of its alternatives within modernity. Are modernity’s conundrums resolved by shifting from one of its offspring (capitalism) to another (anar­chism), especially if modernity’s gains generate its losses, our lives consequently intractable Faustian pacts? If Fotopoulos possesses Weberian sensitivities, this fine volume hides them well.

The third possible critical response is anti-utopian. This broad church includes cultural and political conservatives, those gaining most from exist­ing arrangements, those adjudging capitalism and the state to be net con­tributors to humanity, those concurring with Smith and Friedman that collective well-being is best served by the pursuit of self-interest, and those comforted by liberal, republican and constitutional formulations that separ­ate powers and enshrine the nile of law. Notwithstanding his profound differ­ences with Jacobins and left reformers, Fotopoulos will be adjudged a fellow traveller within a larger utopian or redemptive field. Anti-utopians will find Fotopoulos’ claim unconvincing because his is a liberatory rather than utopian project. Conservatives will counter Fotopoulos with the intuition that anti-utopianism achieves more because it strives for less, and is thereby more practicable. Fotopoulos’ economics will be adjudged pauperizing, with Europe and East Asia the counterfactual that demonstrates that capitalism is history’s most rapid poverty removalist, however crude and cruel the costs and benefits.

If we think with Qakeshort for a moment, the problem with Fotopoulos’ book is contrivance. Fotopoulos proposals are only possible given a general­ized rationalism toward politics. This generates the self-deception that one first ponders the attributes of the good society and then draws up the cor­responding specifications. The spirit of ‘planification’ afflicts not only the nation-state but also its putative alternative – designing a new society as if next year’s General-Motors’ sedan overlooks the past that lives within us and frames what is possible.

Fotopoulos’ position is invidious and susceptible to caricature. Without detail, he looks like a dreamer, with it, he looks like a Skinnerian social engi­neer. To address questions that anarchism has historically neglected is to offer proposals that inevitably generate new questions and vulnerabilities. Some of these are anticipated and intelligently addressed. Others are un­acknowledged, as are critical ontologies upon which his edifice rests. Fotopoulos implies that liberal individualism, oligarchy and the growth economy skew and atomize our nature. He assumes that the attractions of speed, adrenaline, the new, hedonism and narcissism fade in demos-directed communities saturated with participation, connectedness and ‘real’ values. He implies that most desire extensive participation, and that the apolitical are alienated from their true nature, byproducts of societal dysfunction. This may be so – or it may be another instance of human diversity. The apolitical and otherwise-engaged may wonder why the specialization Fotopoulos permits of other endeavours cannot be allowed of politics. Do order and reason follow, once mechanisms are established that encourage proper deliberation? Can the fragmented public sphere and subject of late capitalism be reinvented so as to possess sufficient desire and judgement to underpin a vibrant local and civic culture? Paedeia may or may not produce such a citizen over time in the interim, how or why would most desire Fotopoulos’ version of society?

The more ambitious a normative project, the greater its evidentiary burden. That some of this burden remains undischarged ought not to obscure the magnitude of Fotopoulos’ contribution. This is a graceful, thoughtful text of philosophical and empirical substance, reaffirming agency, social soli­darism, creativity and hope over domination. Its limitations are relative to its ambition rather than its achievements. The volume that follows is eagerly anticipated.


Reviewed by David Freeman

School of Social Sciences,

La Trobe University