Kathimerini English Edition (Thursday July 18, 2002)

Changing the system, from without


In new book, Takis Fotopoulos attacks neoliberal globalization, reformist critique, proposing sustainable form of social organization

By Harry van Versendaal


Takis Fotopoulos, the author of “Globalization, the Left and Inclusive Democracy” (Ellinika Grammata, 2002), possesses excellent analytical skills and a persuasive interpretation of the crisis in global capitalism. What is more, unlike the vast majority of writers on the subject, he has a proposal on how the alleged crisis can be overcome — his vision of Inclusive Democracy.

This is where problems begin to creep in. For having a vision is one thing; but sketching out how this vision can be implemented can prove an awful strain. In the wake of the failure of communism, radical political projects tend to be discarded as utopian — often, rightly so. Often, but not always. In the case of Inclusive Democracy, criticism comes from the conservative elite who see any alternative voices as a threat to the established order, or from reformist left-wingers who fail to grasp the “systemic” nature of globalization. Or so Fotopoulos would have it.

The writer, who is the editor of the journal “Democracy and Nature,” has laid out his vision of Inclusive Democracy in numerous articles in the past and, more thoroughly, in his book “Toward an Inclusive Democracy.” Inclusive Democracy is described as a project for direct political and economic democracy, democracy in the social realm, and ecological democracy. It envisages an equal distribution of economic and political power, which Fotopoulos says is impossible in the existing context of a global free-market economy and a representative democracy (in the sense that we are equal only with respect to our visits to the polling booth) and related hierarchical structures. Local activism, in Fotopoulos’s vision, is the turbine for bringing about a renewed and deepened democracy.

The present crisis, Fotopoulos argues, is multidimensional: economic, political, social, ecological and cultural. It is reflected in the widening inequalities and the growing centralization of power in the hands of economic and political elites. All this, Fotopoulos says, makes the Inclusive Democracy project an imperative. This is even more so, given the limitations of alternative approaches which are subjected to his criticism and, occasionally, sarcasm.

Crucial distinction

In his latest book, Fotopoulos classifies the various approaches to globalization according to whether they define the phenomenon as a “systemic” one or not. For systemic approaches, globalization is irreversible within the system of the market economy for it is the result of structural change in economic policy. Neoliberal and social-liberal approaches fall in this category.

“Non-systemic” approaches, on the other hand, see globalization as an offshoot of non-structural change in economic policy, such as the poor policy-making by the elites. Hence they deem that globalization is a reversible development, even within the existing system of market economy. The approach of the reformist left — and of kindred views which debunk globalization as a myth or an ideology — are classified here as non-systemic.

Between the two categories are several intermediate views such as the Transnational Capitalist Class, the ecofeminist and the anarcho-syndicalist approaches — all mixtures of the two main trends.

Inclusive Democracy is, of course, a systemic approach, for it assumes “that it is the grow-or-die dynamics of the market economy system that inevitably led to its present neoliberal globalized form.”

Fotopoulos points out that the neoliberal / social-liberal view and that of Inclusive Democracy may both be systemic interpretations. But they are divided by one major qualitative difference: The former embraces the current system of market economy while the latter tries to overcome it by gradually introducing “an alternative form of social organization, which involves a form of globalization that is not feasible within the system of market economy and statist ‘democracy.’”

Within the current framework, however, Fotopoulos argues, “globalization is irreversible, as no effective controls over markets to protect labor and the environment are feasible within the system of the internationalized market economy.”

In other words, in the present free-market context, globalization can only be of a neoliberal nature as neoliberalism and globalization are interrelated phenomena; they are two sides of the same coin: the dynamics of the market economy.

In effect, resistance to the existing order has to come not from within existing institutions but from without. Any change has to be a systemic one, meaning a change at the structural level: that of neoliberalism and the market economy.

Simply put, neoliberal globalization will continue as long as the free-market economy stays in place. Anything less simply won’t do. The rhetoric of the reformist left is therefore, at best, conformist or, at worst, suspect — aiming to undermine radical, anti-systemic action.

The writer uses the term “reformist left” to refer to those who either propose mild reforms to improve the functioning of the internationalized market economy (such as abolishing its corporate character), those who criticize it without suggesting any real alternatives, and those who take the present system “for granted.”

The reformist left encompasses post-Marxists, social democrats and other figures of the broader left (Fotopoulos’s list includes Pierre Bourdieu, Immanuel Wallerstein, Noam Chomsky and John Gray). These all share the belief “that a return to some kind of statism is still possible, since the present globalization of markets is simply seen as the product of neoliberal policies (if not merely an ideology to justify neoliberalism), and not the outcome of a fundamental structural change.”

Similarly, they labor under the delusion that pressure “from below” could stop the engines of neoliberal globalization or at least force the elites to “renegotiate” its rules, such as the functioning of international organizations like the World Bank.

Tilting at windmills?

Notably, Fotopoulos remains vastly unimpressed with the anti-globalization movement, which he sees as a vehicle for the expression of reformist demands or even as a tool, a Trojan horse rather, for marginalizing and potentially crushing genuine anti-systemic trends.

Indeed, at his most conspiratorial moments, Fotopoulos suggests that the reformist trend is deliberately trying to derail anti-systemic efforts in an attempt to preserve the status quo — making him seem as if he is tilting at windmills.

The “non-systemic” nature of the anti-globalization movement, according to the writer, was clearly reflected in the 2001 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre. With a touch of irony, Fotopoulos notes that the forum was embraced by the entire spectrum of the reformist left, from Noam Chomsky, NGOs and unionists to ordinary deputies and Le Monde Diplomatique.

The demands adopted by the anti-globalization movement are, in turn, described as reformist in nature: Tobin tax, fair trade, autonomy of national policy from the IMF, World Bank, WTO and NATO, and so on. But this falls short of undoing the existing free-market system and, by extension, the prevalent mode of neoliberal globalization. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“At most,” Fotopoulos says, “the present anti-globalization movement can function as a kind of ’resistance movement’ to globalization and bring about some sort of (easily reversible) reforms.”

But Fotopoulos wants to see more than that. He wants to see the existing system go and a new one put in its place. In this sense, his theorizing has more than a touch of utopianism to it. It’s hard to see, however, how the abolition of the system of market economy can come about in the absence of a tangible alternative, as was the case with capitalism and communism / state socialism. No less problematic is the question of transition to a new order and the opposition that such a radical societal change would trigger.

Despite reservations regarding Fotopoulos’s vision, this is an enterprising and thought-provoking book, with a clear exposition of the various approaches to globalization and powerful, often devastating, criticism of the current economic order.