Review of Radical Political Economics, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter 2002), 34: 97-99

Book review: "Towards an Inclusive Democracy: the Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need for a New Liberatory Project", by Takis Fotopoulos



Abstract: Review of the book "Towards an Inclusive Democracy: the Crisis of the Growth Economy and the Need for a New Liberatory Project", by Takis Fotopoulos; London and New York: Cassell, 1997, xiii + 401pp. + index.



Towards an Inclusive Democracy is a comprehensive response to the global triumph of neo-liberalism and the failure of socialism. It analyses the present state and past history of the world economy, offers a vision of an alternative future for the world, and provides a philosophical justification for this vision. While Fotopoulos is highly critical of the socialism of former communist countries, his more important arguments are directed against socialists who believe that social justice can be achieved through state control of the market. Inclusive democracy is presented as the only realistic response to a looming social and environmental crises engendered by neo-liberalism.

Fotopoulos’ study of the global economy develops Karl Polanyi’s analysis of the separation of the market economy from society and the subordination of society to the laws of the market. The extension of the market has never been inevitable, Fotopoulos argues. Those controlling the market have, where feasible, always striven to extend it to labor and land to augment their own power. This is as true of those people in the eighteenth century who extended the market to encompass labor as it is of neo-liberals of recent years who have deregulated the labor market, privatized public utilities and social services and broken down the barriers between national economies. For Fotopoulos, the fundamental conflict is not that between the forces and the relations of production, but between the market dominated economy and society.

This provides a new perspective on recent history. Fotopoulos reviews debates over whether the growth of international trade heralds a new era, whether the division between the first and third world is breaking down, and whether capitalism is now disorganized or is being reorganized at an international level. To this end he argues that the shift from socially controlled markets to self-regulating markets occurred at the end of the eighteenth century, but they were reregulated. While this reregulation took place largely because it served the interests of the ruling elites, Fotopoulos, unlike most Marxists, acknowledges that this regulation resulted in a structurally different economic system. The so-called statist phase of capitalism was not merely a stage in the expansion of capitalism; it was the period of the social-democratic consensus. But, argues Fotopoulos, while control over the economy was achieved at the national level, the marketization process continued at an international level. The growth of the international market eventually made it impossible to sustain state control over the economy. This heralds a new phase in the concentration of power through the market. Although this phase extends the market into the Third World, power is concentrated as never before with the elites of the core zones. In the new order, the state’s role, along with a range of new institutional structures ranging from the local to the international level, is reduced to creating the stable framework for the efficient functioning of the market. Civil society has dissolved almost completely, people have been brutalized, and politics and democracy rendered superfluous.

Fotopoulos argues that with liberalized commodity and capital markets and an over-riding commitment to economic growth, the Anglo-Saxon model of a deregulated market will inevitable prevail over social democracies. Market efficiency and social control of the market are irreconcilable. But only a small minority of the world’s population, mostly in a few affluent regions in North America, Western Europe and East Asia, are benefiting from these developments. And the consequence of the internationalization of the market economy and the concentration of economic power it engenders, is “an ecological crisis that threatens to develop into an eco-catastrophe, the destruction of the countryside, the creation of monstrous mega-cities and the uprooting of local communities and cultures.” (p.116)

This argument provides the background for the defence of inclusive democracy. Inclusive democracy encompasses the political, economic, social and ecological realms; that is, any area of human activity where decisions can be taken collectively and democratically. Democracy is defined as the ‘institutional framework that aims at the equal distribution of political, economic and social power… in other words, as the system which aims at the effective elimination of the domination of human beings over human being.’(p.206f.) Correspondingly, ecological democracy is defined as the institutional framework that aims to reintegrate humans and nature. The original example of genuine democracy (although confined to a small proportion of the population) is taken to be ancient Athens. The liberal “democracies” of the modern world, social democratic models and Marxist socialism which reduces politics to the scientific management of production, are dismissed as various forms of oligarchy. Fotopoulos traces the history of these social forms, claiming them to be perversions of the democratic ideal.

Fotopoulos offers an historical, social and economic analysis of ancient Greek democracy to show what true democracy is and what are the conditions for its success. The basis of democracy must be the choice of people for individual and collective autonomy. Political decisions should be made by citizens collectively in community assemblies, not through representatives. Positions to which authority is delegated should be filled by lot on a rotation basis. All residents in a particular geographical area should be directly involved in decision-taking processes and should be educated to enable them to do so. Political rights should be accompanied by social and economic rights and, to ensure this, productive resources should be owned by the demos (the people). In one of the most important sections of the book, Fotopoulos provides a detailed model of a distribution system simulating and gaining the benefits of a market economy while avoiding the destructive effects of real markets. Satisfaction of basic needs involving more than one community should be coordinated through a confederal plan formulated in regional and confederal assemblies made up of delegates. Fotopoulos offers a detailed analysis of how such a system could be made workable economically and politically. He argues we do not have to wait for the conditions for inclusive democracies to emerge. They can be created at any time. To escape the destructive imperatives and brutalizing effects of the present order, “[t]he immediate objective should … be the creation, from below, of ‘popular bases of political and economic power’, that is, the establishment of local and public realms of direct and economic democracy which, at some stage, will confederate in order to create the conditions for the establishment of a new society.” (p.284) This struggle must be undertaken simultaneously at the political, economic, social and cultural levels.

The final part of the book is devoted to the philosophical justification of inclusive democracy. Essentially, Fotopoulos develops Castoriadis’ arguments that the core of democracy is autonomy – the freedom of people to be self-instituting, that is, to be able to put into question and transform their existing institutions and their dominant social paradigm (beliefs, ideas and values).[1] Any philosophy that denies the possibility of such autonomy is criticised. The question then is whether people are prepared to struggle for democracy now, given that their failure to do so not only means accepting their subjugation and brutalization, but also the destruction of the ecological conditions of their existence.

How convincing is Fotopoulos’ argument? Some recent events support his analysis of the present and its possibilities. Following the Asian meltdown, countries thoughout the world are moving to emulate USA and Britain. More social democracies appear to be disintegrating. Does this mean that the only alternative to neo-liberalism is the inclusive democracy as elaborated by Fotopoulos? This is questionable, at least for the immediate future. New Zealand, which de-regulated its markets more than any other country, has stagnated, while Denmark, Austria and the Netherlands which, so far, have maintained forms of social democratic consensus, are flourishing. Nor is the argument entirely convincing that only an inclusive democracy in its pure form could avoid the corrupting effects of the concentration of power in the longer term. Benjamin Barber, for instance, whose study of a Swiss canton had revealed how corrupt a small, democratic society could become,[2] has argued for the recreation of participatory politics (what he calls “strong democracy”) without totally abolishing the state as an alternative way of decentralizing power.[3] And while Fotopoulos offers us a detailed, attractive and plausible model of a fully democratic society, his proposal that confederations of such societies could overwhelm existing nation states committed to maximising economic and military power, is less plausible.

However, these objections do not touch what is most important in Fotopoulos’ work. He has shown the disastrous effects on society and nature of the concentration of power through the global market, and consequently the need to overcome not only the market, but also concentrations of power. We need to create genuinely democratic societies. And this requires us to envisage such societies. Until such efforts are made we will remain saddled with the neo-liberal vision of the future. 

This work should be of interest not only to environmentalists, political economists, political scientists and philosophers, but to all those seriously concerned about the world's future.


Reviewed by Arran Gare
Swinburne University,

Melbourne, Australia



[1] On this notion of autonomy see Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991).

[2] See Benjamin R. Barber, The Death of Communal Liberty: A History of Freedom in a Swiss Mountain Canton (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974).

[3] Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age (London: University of California Press, 1984).