Democratic political practice

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One of the striking paradoxes of the age we live in is that climate change and biodiversity loss are making demands on our political systems for radical actions which are probably unprecedented in human history. At the very same time, these political systems are under severe strain with right-leaning authoritarianism on the march and liberal democracy facing a very uncertain future. At the very time when humanity needs a robust, far-seeing, participatory and transformative politics, what we have is weakness, division, posturing and denial. In this situation, what are the prospects for a low-carbon transition by 2050 and decisive action to foster the flourishing of biodiversity?

Another great paradox of our times is the effective disappearance of the socialist alternative just when capitalism is entering into terminal decline with its social model devouring its environmental, financial and social bases. The reduction of politics to the technocratic management of a radically destructive free-market model has become part of the problem and the vital liberatory spark that drives the incubation of alternatives has virtually disappeared from our formal political structures. What has increasingly replaced it is the politics of indignation, frighteningly manifested in Washington DC when the Capitol was attacked in January 2021.  

The new right

The new right is nothing new in Western politics where its presence has been growing apace for over three decades, dismissed and denigrated by the mainstream but rarely understood or countered in any effective way. Sometimes called ‘identity politics’, its roots lie in the swift marketisation of society and of politics in the era of neoliberalism. As Spanish sociologist, and now government minister, Manuel Castells, puts it:

The less control people have over the market and over their state the more do they fall back on a core identity that cannot be dissolved in the vertigo of global flows. The find refuge in nation, territory, God. While the triumphal elites of globalisation proclaim themselves world citizens, broad sections of society entrench themselves in the cultural spaces where they find recognition and in which their value depends on their community and not on their bank account.[1]

Castells’ diagnosis is revealing as it avoids the easy dismissal so often embodied in phrases like ‘the new populism’, widely used as a shorthand way of avoiding engagement with the roots of the phenomenon. Some solid research backs up the fact that most people identify first and foremost with the tangible and immediate realities of community, local traditions, and vernacular values, rather than the abstractions of globalised liberal human rights.[2] Attention therefore needs to be focused much more on the elitist nature of our mainstream politics and the sense of exclusion and powerlessness so widely experienced.

This is fertile soil for conspiracy theories to flourish and they have made a dramatic comeback over recent years, amplified and strengthened by social media. Such theories tend to flourish at periods of social breakdown such as the 1890s and the 1930s and signal a serious mistrust in democratic institutions. Where politics are widely seen to serve the interests of elites and seem impervious to change through democratic means, it is a short step to the belief that democracy is a sham facade behind which secretive elites manipulate the system in their own interests. As we have seen in the US of Trump and the UK of Brexit, such theories quickly become the common sense of whole communities, indeed the glue that binds such communities.

Interstitial transformations

In this situation, the space where an alternative to capitalism is being incubated is in innovative grassroots communities. This too is an inherently political space in the sense that, unlike the simplistic and antagonistic sloganeering of the new right, it engages in the creative task of building community on a basis of environmental and social sustainability. It is unleashing an immense wave of social creativity, illustrated throughout the Ecolise Status Report, which is the essence of the new politics, laying the foundations of a post-capitalist culture, society and economy.

This activity is an example of what the late US sociologist Erik Olin Wright called interstitial transformations which ‘build new forms of social empowerment in the niches and margins of capitalist society’.[3] As the ECOLISE report shows, such transformations in the interstices of the system are gathering pace and presence, though they are still far from becoming ruptural, in other words creating ‘new emancipatory institutions through a sharp break with existing institutions and social structures’ as Olin Wright put it.[4] The foundations of an alternative are being laid but we are still far from any break with the existing system which maintains its enormous power and almost juggernaut-like quality.

While the Ecolise report focuses on the politics of local community-led initiatives, politics is also being re-energised within our political systems as elections take on a new significance drawing more people to engage and vote. This was evident in the 2020 US presidential election which saw record levels of participation, in support of Biden but also of Trump. In the words of UK journalist Jack Shenker this is ‘the new politics of the people’ emerging in the gap between electoral politics and civil society activism and taking the fight to remake the future to the ‘crevices neglected by market liberalism’. As the centre ground implodes, a new ‘fractious and volatile’ politics is being unleashed in the search for alternatives to a system in crisis unable to meet the basic needs of people and their communities. This is both of the right and of the left, and in places it is far from clear which vision will win out.

But there is a feature common to both in that ‘the collapse of technocratic authority that has been precipitated by the financial crisis and furthered by the rise of digital technologies has, if nothing else, exposed a stubborn determination on the part of many citizens to defy the old political status quo and see themselves as agents of their own future rather than captives of somebody else’s’.[5] The sudden explosion of children’s school strikes and of Extinction Rebellion expresses a similar stubborn determination. And there is a common feature of all these movements, common even to those that articulate hard-right stories, and that is the need to subdue market logics.

The new politics and its limits

A new politics is arising from civil society, of both right and left, it is messy even chaotic at times, but it has put the elites, both economic and political, on the defensive, unsure of what to do. It is evident to more and more people that the mainstream project has little new to offer; an anti-capitalist discourse is now more widespread and is energising creative actions in a way that hasn’t happened for generations. But if the dominant social and economic model is being rejected, what is the alternative being sought? To this, there are few answers of any substance.


The right offers a retreat back into an illusory past, scapegoating outsiders, those of colour and minority ethnic groups while trying at best to direct resources to those groups who feel most threatened by change. While such a message is easily dismissed, and even scorned, by progressives it needs to be remembered that in many countries it finds a strong reception among social groups that formed the bedrock of support for social democracy in the past, what used to be labelled the industrial working class. The conversion of social democracy to belief in neo-liberal recipes meant its abandonment of this former support base and, with the sole exception of the Iberian Peninsula, it is now in swift decline as a political force.


In some places Green parties are filling the gap but this remains a very contested space. Green politics remains caught between the aspiration to be a force for radical change and the urgent need to shift the mainstream system in a more ecological direction, what used to be called the ‘fundis’ and the ‘realos’. As political forces, Green parties have found it very difficult to become dominant players in any political system and usually suffer badly after spells in government. Somewhat surprisingly, what is emerging within mainstream politics is a focus on the Green New Deal (GND) as theproject to move societies towards a low-carbon future. At long last, the GND forces a realisation that climate action has to move far beyond technical fixes into social and economic transformation; however, it currently remains more a space for debate over the nature and trajectory of such a transformation than a defined political project.


If the seeds of an alternative are being sown by a myriad of grassroots projects around the world, we are still very far from the emergence of any clear articulation of what this alternative economy and society will look like, nor of how to get there. The central failure lies with our institutions of intellectual life, principally universities and the media, which perhaps more than ever before in history have been captured and colonised by the worldview and values of a commercial technocratic elite. This disastrous narrowing of horizons and ambition at the very time when we need the robust elaboration of a post-capitalist alternative in turn exercises a huge influence on political society, its institutions and those who inhabit them.

Mapping alternatives

Meanwhile, elements of an alternative are being fleshed out in debates around degrowth which have exploded remarkably[6] and, certainly in the English-speaking world, around doughnut economics[7] Yet, the abandoning of socialism as the seedbed of social imaginaries beyond capitalism has greatly weakened the ability to lay solid theoretical foundations for the alternative so urgently needed. The core insight of socialism is well expressed by the German philosopher Axel Honneth as turning individual freedom into social freedom through recognising that human capacities can only flourish in communities.[8] Or, as Karl Polanyi fleshed it out:

Socialism is essentially the tendency inherent in an industrial civilization to transcend the self-regulating market by consciously subordinating it to a democratic society. … From the point of view of the community as a whole, socialism is merely the continuation of that endeavour to make society a distinctively human relationship of persons which in Western Europe was always associated with Christian traditions. From the point of view of the economic system, it is, on the contrary, a radical departure from the immediate past, insofar as it breaks with the attempt to make private money gains the general incentive to productive activities, and does not acknowledge the right of private individuals to dispose of the main instruments of production.[9]

Honneth writes that ‘socialism does aim to foster experimental explorations across the globe that seek to bring about a democratic form of life … expanding our social freedoms in the most diverse places’.[10] This therefore connects directly with the alternative being developed by the many grassroots groups whose work is reflected in the Ecolise report. Furthermore, it serves to identify the central task being undertaken – the expansion of social freedom through wrenching our social relations from the domination of private money. This is the essence of the alternative being built and it places the task of decommodification as the central challenge if we are to achieve real social freedom.[11]

One of Karl Polanyi’s major contributions to socialist thought was what he called the rediscovery of society and community as the site from which the alternative system will be built. But he warns that the reality of community is impeded by our present market system which ‘acts like an invisible boundary isolating all individuals in their day to day activities.’ Achieving real community therefore requires a change in the economic system by abolishing the private ownership of the means of production and, instead ensuring that they be owned by the community. Indeed, he goes as far as to state that ‘the helpless drift of the world towards destruction is the denial of community within the nations expressed in the retention of the capitalist system’.[12]

Laying foundations

Whether we call this ecosocialism or the eco-social paradigm, it fleshes out a theoretical basis for the transformation of the global system from the bottom up, exactly what is happening through the many communities for the future the innovative contribution of which is mapped out in the Ecolise report. It identifies a co-operative form of socialism as being central to this alternative, returning to the utopian socialist tradition that was so dismissed by Marx. Yet, while the conditions of the 19th and 20th centuries greatly hampered the development of this alternative at that time, Paul Mason argues that this has changed and that the structural conditions of our time now favour its flourishing:

The utopian socialist communities of the mid-nineteenth century failed because the economy, technology and the levels of human capital were not sufficiently developed. With info-tech, large parts of the utopian socialist project become possible: from cooperatives, to communes, to outbreaks of liberated behaviour that redefine human freedom.[13]

This is the space from which the Ecolise report emerges. It is a space that is experimenting with a wide range of those elements that form the foundations of an alternative to the current capitalist system – sustainable production and consumption within co-operative forms of ownership and community, living within planetary boundaries, a flourishing cultural life of creative interdependence, experimenting with new forms of democratic deliberation and decision-making such as sociocracy, fostering healthy lifestyles and nature-based spiritualities, and much much more. This is politics as it should be, the very essence of community creation. It is where a system beyond capitalism is being built but on its own it can sow seeds and demonstrate the possibilities of radically alternative forms of society. Transitioning the whole of society to a post-carbon future however, will also require the transformation of the formal world of electoral politics and in this regard there are fewer grounds for hope.  

References

  1. Castells, Manuel: Ruptura: La Crisis de la Democracia Liberal, Alianza Editorial, 2017, p. 21. Translation by PK.
  2. Ignatieff, Michael: The Ordinary Virtues: Moral Order in a Divided World, Harvard University Press, 2017.
  3. Olin Wright, Erik: ‘Socialism and Real Utopias’ in Robert Hahnel and Erik Olin Wright: Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy, Verso, 2016, p. 100.
  4. Olin Wright, Erik: ‘Socialism and Real Utopias’ in Robert Hahnel and Erik Olin Wright: Alternatives to Capitalism: Proposals for a Democratic Economy, Verso, 2016, p. 101.
  5. Shenker, Jack: New We Have Your Attention: The New Politics of the People, The Bodley Head, p. 220, 228.
  6. For a good introduction to the degrowth concept and movement, see Vincent Liegey and Anitra Nelson: Exploring Degrowth: A Critical Guide, Pluto Press, 2020.
  7. [7] Raworth, Kate: Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, Penguin, 2017.
  8. Honneth, Axel: The Idea of Socialism, Polity, 2017.
  9. Polanyi, Karl: The Great Transformation, Beacon Press, 2001, p. 242.
  10. Honneth, op. cit., pp. 101, 102.
  11. On the decommodification of land, labour and money, see Peadar Kirby: Karl Polanyi and the Contemporary Political Crisis: Transforming Market Society in the Era of Climate Change, Bloomsbury, 2021, Part III, chapters 5, 6 and 7.
  12. [12] Polanyi, Karl: ‘Community and Society: The Christian Criticism of Our Social Order’ in Michele Cangiani and Claus Thomasberger, eds: Karl Polanyi: Economy and Society, Selected Writings, Polity, 2018, p 149.
  13. [13] Mason, Paul: PostCapitalism, Allen Lane, 2015, p. xxi.