The Multidimensional Crisis and Inclusive Democracy, Takis Fotopoulos (2005)

Chapter 9:

The dimensions of the crisis


printable version




It has now become generally acknowledged that contemporary society, which presently takes everywhere the form of a market/growth economy and representative “democracy”, is undergoing a profound and widespread crisis. It is precisely the universal character of this crisis that constitutes the determining factor differentiating it from other crises in the past, while, simultaneously, it calls into question practically every structure and “signification” that supports contemporary heteronomous societies in East and West, North and South. Thus, the present crisis calls into question not just the political, economic, social and ecological structures that came into being with the rise of the market economy, but also the actual values that have sustained these structures and particularly the post-Enlightenment meaning of Progress and its partial identification with growth.


As I attempted to show in the previous chapters, this multidimensional crisis can be attributed to the very institutions of modernity which today have been universalised. It is the dynamics of the market economy and representative “democracy” that have led to the present concentration of power at all levels which, in turn, is the ultimate cause of every dimension of the present crisis. But, let us see in more detail the dimensions of this crisis.


The economic dimension


In this book’s problematique, it is the concentration of economic power, as a result of commodity relations and the grow‑or‑die dynamic of the market economy, which has led to a chronic economic crisis that today is expressed, mainly, by a huge concentration of economic power. This is shown by the enormous income/wealth gap that separates not only the North from the South, but also the economic elites and the privileged social groups from the rest of society all over the world.


The North has yet to recover from the crisis that surfaced in the mid-1970s as a result of the fundamental contradiction that was created, as we saw in ch. 1, by the internationalisation of the market economy and the parallel expansion of statism, in the sense of active state control aiming at determining the level of economic activity. The transnational elite, which began flourishing in the context of the internationalisation of the market economy process, embarked in an effort to shrink the state’s economic role and freeing and deregulating markets, which has already had devastating consequences on the majority of the population in the North. This drastic reduction in statism turned the clock back to the period before the mixed economy and Keynesian policies were used to create a “capitalism with a human face”. The result was an initial huge upsurge of open unemployment followed by today’s period of massive low-paid employment. This development was the outcome both of the liberalisation of labour markets and of a determined effort by the political elites to reduce open unemployment, which carried a high political cost and completely discredited the market/growth economy. Thus, in the USA, the “new economy” par excellence, between 1979 and 1995 more than 43 million jobs had been lost. Although most of these jobs have been replaced, still, as an analysis of the US labour statistics shows:[1]

The sting is in the nature of the replacement work. Whereas 25 years ago the vast majority of the people who were laid off found jobs that paid as well as their old ones, Labour Department numbers show that now only about 35 percent of laid-off full-time workers end up in equally remunerative or better-paid jobs. (...) the result is the most job insecurity since the Depression of the 1930s.

The USA experience has already been reproduced all over the North, particularly after the collapse of the alternative “Rhineland” model of “social market” capitalism that we saw in ch. 2. The fierce competition among the countries in the Triad can safely be predicted to create everywhere conditions, not so much of massive open unemployment, but of low paid employment in the context of “flexible” labour markets. Thus, in Britain, as Steve Fleetwood[2] of Lancaster University points out, “what the UK’s flexibility generates are poor jobs, maybe even a new kind of underemployment (…) The UK is not so much solving the problem of unemployment as transforming it into a different one: the problem of poor quality employment”.


However, to my mind, the crisis of the market/growth economy in the North does not constitute the decisive element in the economic crisis. As long as the “40 percent society” is somehow reproduced, the system may be stabilised when it moves to a new equilibrium resting on the exploitation of the technological advantages of the North and the low production cost of the new South. I think the decisive element in the economic crisis consists of the fact that the system of the market economy is not inherently capable of transforming the market economy of the South into a self-sustaining growth economy, similar to the one already established in the North, as we saw in the last chapter.


Therefore, the outcome of the universalisation of the market/growth economy is the marginalization of a very significant part of the world population, which forces millions of people to emigrate from their countries of origin, risking their lives in the process, in a desperate attempt to enter illegally into the North. The inherent incapability of the North to create self-sustaining consumer societies in the South is the direct result of the fact that the concentration of economic power and the parallel growing inequality all over the world are not just consequences but also, as it was shown above, preconditions for the reproduction of the market/growth economy. In other words, there is an absolute natural barrier that makes impossible the universalisation of the North’s capitalist type of growth economy.


To give an indication of why this is impossible let us make some simple calculations. It is estimated at present that the world population will be over 7 billion people by 2015.[3] For the inhabitants of our planet to reach the per capita energy use rates that those living in the rich countries enjoy now, world energy production would have to quadruple (or increase 6 times as great for everybody to enjoy the US consumption standards)![4] Similarly, as Ted Trainer[5] has shown in a similar exercise for the year 2070:

[E]stimated potentially recoverable resources for fossil fuels and minerals indicate that if we were to try to increase production to the point where all people expected on the planet by 2070, perhaps 10 billion, were each to have the present rich world per capita consumption, then all fuels and one-third of the mineral items would be totally exhausted by about 2040.  Renewable energy sources are very unlikely to be able to fill the gap.  This means that there is no possibility of all people rising to the per capita resource consumption typical of the rich countries today. The greenhouse problem provides a similar argument.  If the carbon content of the atmosphere were to be prevented from increasing any further, world energy use for 10 billion people would have to be reduced to a per capita average that is just 6% of the present rich world average. (…) “Footprint” analysis indicates that to provide for one person living in a rich world city requires at least 4.5 ha of productive land.  If 10 billion people were to live that way the amount of productive land required would be around 8 times all the productive land on the planet.

The political dimension


Concentration of political power has been the functional complement of the concentration of economic power. If the grow-or-die dynamics of the market economy has led to the present concentration of economic power, it is the dynamics of representative “democracy” that has led to a corresponding concentration of political power. Thus, the concentration of political power in the hands of parliamentarians in liberal modernity has led to an even higher degree of concentration in the hands of governments and the leadership of “mass” parties in statist modernity, at the expense of parliaments. In neoliberal modernity, the combined effect of the dynamics of the market economy and representative democracy has led to the conversion of politics into statecraft,[6] with think tanks —“the systems analysts of the present hour”— designing policies and their implementation.[7] Thus, a small clique around the prime minister (or the President) concentrates all effective political power at its hands, particularly in major market economies that are significant parts of the transnational elite. Furthermore, the continuous decline of the State’s economic sovereignty is being accompanied by the parallel transformation of the public realm into pure administration. A typical example is the European Central Bank which has taken control of Euro and makes crucial decisions about the economic life of millions of citizens, independent from political control.


A “crisis of politics” has developed in the present neoliberal modernity that undermines the foundations of representative “democracy” and is expressed by several symptoms which, frequently, take the form of an implicit or explicit questioning of fundamental political institutions (parties, electoral contests, etc.). Such symptoms are the significant and usually rising abstention rates in electoral contests, particularly in USA and UK, the explosion of discontent in the form of frequently violent riots, the diminishing numbers of party members, the fact that the respect for professional politicians has never been at such a low level, with the recent financial scandals in countries like Italy, France, Spain, Greece and elsewhere  simply reaffirming the belief that politics, for the vast majority of the politicians —liberals and social democrats alike— is just a  job, i.e., a way to make money and enhance social status. 


The historical cause of the present mass apathy can be traced back to what Castoriadis called “the radical inadequacy, to say the least, of the programs in which (the project of autonomy) had been embodied—be it the liberal republic or Marxist-Leninist «socialism».[8] In other words, it was the inadequacy of representative “democracy” to create genuine democratic conditions which may be considered as the ultimate cause of the present apathy. However, the question still remains why this crisis has become particularly acute in the last decade or so. To my mind, the answer has to be found in the cumulative effect of the changes in the “objective” and “subjective” conditions which marked the emergence of the internationalised market economy since the mid-seventies and in particular:

  • the growing internationalisation of the market economy that has undermined effectively not only the state’s power to control economic events but, by implication, the belief in the efficacy of traditional politics.

  • the acute intensification of the struggle for competitiveness among the countries in the Triad (EC, USA, Japan) which, in turn, has resulted in the collapse of social democracy, the establishment of the “neoliberal consensus” and the consequent effective elimination of ideological differences between political parties.

  • the technological changes that have led to the present post-industrial society and the corresponding changes in the structure of employment and the electorate, which, in combination with the massive unemployment and underemployment, have led to the decline of the power of the traditional working class and the consequent decline of traditional politics.

  • The collapse of “actually existing socialism” which has led to the myth of “the end of ideologies” and further enhanced the spreading of the culture of individualism that has been promoted by neoliberalism.

Thus, in the context of the present neoliberal consensus, the old ideological differences between the Left and the Right have disappeared. Elections have become beauty contests between “charismatic” leaders and the party machines backing them, which fight each other to attract the attention of the electorate, in order to implement policies constituting variations of the same theme: maximisation of the freedom of market forces at the expense of both the welfare state (which is steadily undermined) and the state’s commitment to full employment (which is irrevocably abandoned). In fact, today’s electoral contests are decided by the “40 percent” “contended electoral majority,[9] whereas the “underclass”, which was created by neoliberalism and automation, mostly does not take part in such contests. Therefore, the growing apathy towards politics does not mainly reflect a general indifference regarding social issues, as a result, say, of consumerism, but a growing lack of confidence, especially of weaker social groups, in traditional political parties and their ability to solve social problems. It is not accidental anyway that the higher abstention rates in electoral contests usually occur among the lower income groups, which fail to see anymore any significant difference between Right and Left, I.e. between neoliberal and social-liberal parties respectively.


The decline of the socialist project, after the collapse of both social democracy and “actually existing socialism”, had contributed significantly to the withdrawal of many, particularly young people, from traditional politics. Thus, the collapse of “socialist” statism in the East, instead of functioning as a catalyst for the building of a new non-authoritarian type of politics, developing further the ideas of May 1968, simply led to a general trend, particularly noticeable among students, young academics and others, towards a postmodern conformism and a rejection of any “universalist” antisystemic project. The rest, including most of the underclass who are the main victims of the neoliberal internationalised economy, have fallen into political apathy and an unconscious rejection of established society –a rejection that usually has taken the form of an explosion of crime and drug abuse, and sometimes violent riots.


Still, the growth of the antiglobalisation movement is a clear indication  of the fact that today’s youth is not apathetic towards politics (in the classical meaning of the word as self-management)  but only with respect to what passes as politics today, i.e. the system which allows a social minority (professional politicians) to determine the quality of life of every citizen. In other words, it is the growing realisation that the concentration of political power in the hands of professional politicians and various "experts", as a result of the dynamic of representative “democracy”, has transformed politics into statecraft, that has turned many people away from this sort of “politics”. No wonder that the radical anti-systemic currents within the antiglobalisation movement have been implicitly placed under attack in the present “war against terrorism” launched by the transnational elite in the aftermath of the September 2001 events in the USA.


The social dimension


The growth economy has already created a growth society, the main characteristics of which are consumerism, privacy, alienation and the subsequent disintegration of social ties.  The growth society, in turn, inexorably leads toward a “non-society”, that is, the substitution of atomised families and individuals for society, a crucial step to the completion of barbarism. The social crisis has been aggravated by the expansion of the market economy into all sectors of social life, in the context of its present internationalised form. It is, of course, well known that the market is the greatest enemy of traditional values. It is not, therefore, surprising that the social crisis is more pronounced in precisely those countries where marketisation has been well advanced. This becomes evident by the fact that neither campaigns of the “back to basics” type (Britain), nor the growth of religious, mystic and other similar tendencies (United States) have had any restraining effect on the most obvious symptoms of the social crisis: the explosion of crime and drug abuse that has already led many states to effectively abandon their “war against drugs”.[10]  


In Britain, for instance, it took 30 years for the crime rate to double, from 1 million incidents in 1950 to 2.2 million in 1979. However, in the 1980s, the crime rate has more than doubled, and it reached the 5 million mark in the 1990s. The ruling elites respond to the explosion of crime by building more jails, despite the fact that, as a Home Office study in Britain (reflecting similar research from the US and Germany) has shown, the prison population has to increase by 25 percent to cut the annual crime rate by 1 percent![11] Thus, a recent UK Home Office report predicted that the present prison population in England and Wales will rise from 64,600, to 83,500 within six years. This means that 153 people will be in jail for every 100,000 of population.[12] Similarly, it took the United States 200 years to raise its prison population to a million, but only the last 10 years to raise it to almost two million, with 680 people in jail for every 100,000 —a quarter of the world’s total prison population! In fact, the explosion of crime, as Martin Woolacott[13]  points out, tends to take the form of an insurgency in urban conglomerations all over the world, and is treated as such by the ruling elites. 

So, the concentration of economic power, as a result of the marketisation of the economy, has not only increased the economic privileges of the privileged minority. It has also increased its insecurity. This is why the new overclass increasingly isolates itself in luxury ghettos. At the same time, marketisation and in particular the flexible labour market, has increased job insecurity —a phenomenon that today affects everybody, apart from the very few in the upper-class. No wonder the International Labour Organisation Report 2000 has found that the stress levels in advanced market economies have reached record levels because of the institutionalisation of flexible labour markets that increased employers’ pressures for greater labour productivity.


The cultural dimension


The establishment of the market economy implied sweeping aside traditional cultures and values. This process was accelerated in the twentieth century with the spreading all over the world of the market economy and its offspring the growth economy. As a result, today, there is an intensive process of cultural homogenisation at work, which not only rules out any directionality towards more complexity, but is in effect making culture simpler, with cities becoming more and more alike, people all over the world listening to the same music, watching the same soap operas on TV, buying the same brands of consumer goods, etc.


The rise of neoliberal globalisation in the last quarter of a century or so has further enhanced this process of cultural homogenisation. This is the inevitable outcome of the liberalisation and de-regulation of markets and the consequent intensification of commercialisation of culture. As a result, traditional communities and their cultures are disappearing all over the world and people are converted to consumers of a mass culture produced in the advanced capitalist countries and particularly the USA. In the film industry, for instance, even European countries with a strong cultural and economic background have to effectively give up their own film industries, unable to compete with the much more competitive US industry.


Thus, the recent emergence of a sort of “cultural” nationalism in many parts of the world expresses a desperate attempt to keep a cultural identity in the face of market homogenisation.  But, the marketisation of the communications flow has already established the preconditions for the downgrading of cultural diversity into a kind of superficial differentiation akin to a folklorist type. Finally, one should not underestimate the political implications of the commercialisation and homogenisation of culture. Thus, the escapist role traditionally played by Hollywood films has now acquired a universal dimension, through the massive expansion of TV culture and its almost full monopolisation by Hollywood subculture.


The ideological dimension


The changes in the structural parameters marking the transition to neoliberal modernity were accompanied by a parallel serious ideological crisis which put into question not just the political ideologies, (what postmodernists pejoratively call “emancipatory metanarratives”), or even objective” reason,[14] but  reason itself, as shown by the present flourishing of irrationalism in all its forms: from the revival of old religions like Christianity and Islam etc up to the expansion of various irrational trends, e.g. mysticism, spiritualism, astrology, esoterism,  neopaganism and “New Age”.


The rise of irrationalism in particular is a direct result of the crisis of the growth economy in both its capitalist and “socialist” versions. As I attempted to show elsewhere, the collapse of the two main projects of modernity, i.e. the socialist and development projects, in combination with the parallel “credibility crisis” of science that developed in the last quarter of a century or so, were crucial for the present flourishing of irrationalism.[15] Thus, the growing realization of the social effects of the rise of the consumer society, the ecological implications of growth, the economic effects of neoliberal globalisation in terms of increased poverty and insecurity, the parallel failure of “development” and the cultural homogenisation were instrumental for the rise of irrationalism in the North and the expansion of various fundamentalisms in the South.


On top of this, the credibility crisis of science has systematically undermined many scientific “truths” and especially those on the basis of which we used to justify our “certainty” concerning the interpretation of social and economic phenomena. But, as science plays a double role with respect to the reproduction of the growth economy, this crisis was particularly significant. Thus, first, science plays a functional role in the material reproduction of the growth economy, through its decisive contribution to the effort to dominate the natural world and maximise growth. Second, science plays an equally important ideological role in justifying “objectively” the growth economy. Just as religion played an important part in justifying feudal hierarchy, so does science, particularly social “science”, plays a crucial role today in justifying the modern hierarchical society. In fact, from the moment science replaced religion, as the dominant world-view, it had “objectively” justified the growth economy, both in its capitalist and socialist versiona. However, the realisation of the effects of economic growth upon Nature and, subsequently, upon the quality of life, called into question the functional role of science in advancing Progress. When the credibility of scientific truths themselves was also challenged, whether those truths originated in orthodox social science, or in the alternative science of socialism, Marxism,[16] then, the moment of truth for the growth ideology had come.


Still, it is not science itself and rationalism in general that have to be blamed for the present multi-dimensional crisis, as irrationalists of various types usually assert. Like technology, applied science is not “neutral” to the logic and dynamic of the market economy. Science belongs to the autonomy tradition from the point of view of the methods it uses to derive its truths and, sometimes, even from the point of view of its content (e.g. demystification of religious beliefs). Therefore, what is needed today is not to jettison rationalism altogether in the interpretation of social phenomena, but to transcend “objective” rationalism (i.e. the rationalism which is grounded on “objective laws” of natural or social evolution) and develop a new kind of democratic rationalism, as I will attempt to show in chapter 5.  


Furthermore, as I mentioned in the last section, the collapse of socialist statism and the rise of neoliberalism had the effect that the radical critique of “scientific” socialism, statism and authoritarian politics did not function as a catalyst for further development of the non-authoritarian left thinking. Instead, the critique of scientism was taken over by post-modernist theoreticians and was developed into a general relativism, which inevitably led to the abandonment of any effective critique of the status quo and to the theorisation of conformism.[17]


However, although the two phenomena, i.e. the emergence of neoliberal globalisation and the ideological crisis that gave rise to postmodernism and irrationalism, have taken place roughly during the same period of time, i.e. the last quarter of a century or so this does not imply a strict causal relationship between them of the type that Marxists used to assume between changes in the economic base and changes in the “superstructure”. Postmodernism, in particular, developed mostly independently of these economic structural changes, as the result of a combination of parallel developments at the epistemological level (the crisis of “objectivism” and “scientism”), the ideological level (the decline of Marxism in the aftermath of the collapse of “actually existing socialism”) and the ecological level (the vast ecological crisis which cast a serious doubt on the meaning of progress).


So, the present era of neoliberal modernity has already developed its own dominant social paradigm.[18] The events of May 1968, as well as the collapse of Marxist structuralism, played a crucial role in the development of the postmodernist paradigm with its main themes of rejection of: an overall vision of History as an evolutionary process of progress or liberation; “grand narratives”, in favour of plurality, fragmentation, complexity and “local narratives”; closed systems, essentialism and determinism, in favour of  uncertainty, ambiguity and indeterminacy; “objectivity” and “truth”, in favour of relativism and perspec­tivism. As a result of these trends, and particularly the influence that the postmodernist rejection of universalist project had on the “new social movements”, today, we face the end of the old type of antisystemic movement, which was the main expression of the social struggle for the past hundred and fifty years or so.[19]                


The ecological dimension


The ecological crisis, as manifested by the rapid deterioration in the quality of life, is the direct result of the continuing degradation of the environment, which the market economy and the consequent growth economy promote. It is no accident that the destruction of the environment during the lifetime of the growth economy, in both its capitalist and state socialist versions, bears no comparison to the cumulative damage that previous societies have inflicted on the environment. The fact that the main form of power within the framework of the growth economy is economic, and that the concentration of economic power involves the ruling elites in a constant struggle to dominate people and the natural world, could go a long way toward explaining the present ecological crisis. In other words, to understand the ecological crisis we should refer not simply to the prevailing system of values and the resulting technologies (as the environmentalists and the deep ecologists suggest) nor exclusively to the capitalist production relations (as eco‑marxists propose) but to the relations of domination that characterise a hierarchical society based on the system of market economy and the implied idea of dominating the natural world.


In this context, humanity is faced today with a crucial choice between two radically different proposed solutions: “sustainable development” and what we may call the “eco‑democratic” solution. The former seeks the causes of the ecological crisis in the dominant system of values and the technologies used and naively presumes that a massive change in them is possible, if only we could persuade people about the need for such a change. This solution is supported not just by the mainstream green movement but also by the “progressive” parts of the transnational elite, as it takes for granted today’s institutional framework of the market economy and representative “democracy”. Alternatively, the eco‑democratic solution seeks the causes of the ecological crisis in the social system itself, which is based on institutionalised domination (not only economic exploitation) of human by human and the implied idea of dominating the natural world. It is obvious that this solution requires forms of social organisation that are based on the equal distribution of political and economic power. And this brings us to the relevance of the democratic project today.


[1] Louis Uchitelle and N.R. Kleinfield, International Herald Tribune (6 March 1996).

[2] Steve Fleetwood, “Less unemployment, but more bad employment”, The Guardian (13/9/1999).

[3] Human Development Report 2001, Table 5.

[4] Calculations on the World Development Report 2000/2001, World Bank, Tables 1 and 10.

[5] Ted Trainer, “Where are we, where do we want to be, how do we get there?”, Democracy & Nature, Vol. 6, No. 2 (July 2000), pp. 267-286.

[6] Bookchin, From Urbanisation to Cities, Ch. 6 and Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy , Ch. 7.

[7] See Charlotte Raven, The Observer (30 July 1995).

[8] Cornelius Castoriadis, “The Retreat from Autonomy” in World in Fragments (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997) p. 43.

[9] J.K. Galbraith, The Culture of Contentment (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993).

[10] See T. Fotopoulos, Drugs: Beyond penalisation and liberalisation (in Greek) (Athens: Eleftheros Typos, 1999).

[11] The Guardian (15 Oct. 1993).

[12] Nick Paton Walsh, The Observer (May 27, 2001).

[13] Martin Woolacott, “The March of a Martial Law”, The Guardian (20 Jan. 1996).

[14] See, e.g., Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970); Imre Lakatos, Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970); Paul Feyerabend, Against Method (London: Verso, 1975).

[15] See Takis Fotopoulos, “The Rise of New Irrationalism and its Incompatibility with Inclusive Democracy”, Democracy & Nature, Vol. 4, Nos. 2/3 (July/November 1998), pp. 1-49.

[16] For extensive bibliography, see TID, Ch. 8.

[17] Castoriadis, “The Era of Generalised Conformism”.

[18] See Fotopoulos, “The Myth of Postmodernity”, Democracy & Nature, Vol. 7, No. 1 (March 2001).

[19] T. Fotopoulos, “The End of Traditional Antisystemic Movements and the Need for A New Type of Antisystemic Movement Today”, Democracy & Nature, Vol. 7, No. 3 (November 2001), pp. 415-456.