A letter to those who would deride revolutions in the name of purity:
Revolutions do not happen suddenly, nor do they immediately transform a society. A revolution is a process, which moves at different speeds whose tempo can change rapidly if the motor of history is accelerated by intensified class conflict.
But, most of the time, the building of the revolutionary momentum is glacial, and the attempt to transform a state and society can be even more slow.
Leon Trotsky, sitting in his Turkish exile in 1930, wrote the most remarkable study of the Russian Revolution. Thirteen years had elapsed since the Tsarist empire had been overthrown. But the revolution was already being derided, even by people on the Left. ‘Capitalism’, Trotsky wrote in the conclusion to that book, ‘required a hundred years to elevate science and technique to the heights and plunge humanity into the hell of war and crisis. To socialism its enemies allow only fifteen years to create and furnish a terrestrial paradise. We took no such obligation upon ourselves. We never set these dates. The process of vast transformation must be measured by an adequate scale’.
When Hugo Chavez won an election in Venezuela (December 1998) and when Evo Morales Ayma won an election in Bolivia (December 2005), their critics on the left in North America and in Europe gave their governments no time to breathe. Some professors with a leftist orientation immediately began to criticise these governments for their limitations, and even their failures. This attitude was limited politically—there was no solidarity given to these experiments; it was also limited intellectually — there was no sense of the deep difficulties for a socialist experiment in Third World countries calcified in social hierarchies and depleted of financial resources.
Pace Of Revolution
Two years into the Russian Revolution, Lenin wrote that the newly created USSR is not a ‘miracle-working talisman’, nor does it ‘pave the way to socialism. It gives those who were formerly oppressed the chance to straighten their backs and to an ever-increasing degree to take the whole government of the country, the whole administration of the economy, the whole management of production, into their own hands’.
But even that—that whole this, and whole that—was not going to be easy. It is, Lenin wrote, ‘a long, difficult, and stubborn class struggle, which, after the overthrow of capitalist rule, after the destruction of the bourgeois state…. does not disappear…. but merely changes its forms and in many respects becomes fiercer’. This was Lenin’s judgment after the Tsarist state had been taken over, and after the socialist government had begun to consolidate power. Alexandra Kollantai wrote (such as in Love in the Time of Worker Bees) about the struggles to build socialism, the conflicts within socialism to attain its objectives. Nothing is automatic; everything is a struggle.
Lenin and Kollantai argued that the class struggle is not suspended when a revolutionary government takes over the state; it is in fact, ‘fiercer’, the opposition to it intense because the stakes are high, and the moment dangerous because the opposition—namely the bourgeoisie and the old aristocracy—had imperialism on its side. Winston Churchill said, ‘Bolshevism must be strangled in its cradle’, and so the Western armies joined the White Army in an almost fatal military attack on the Soviet Republic. This attack went from the last days of 1917 to 1923—a full six years of sustained military assault.
Neither in Venezuela nor in Bolivia, nor in any of the countries that turned to the Left over the past twenty years, has the bourgeois state been totally transcended nor has capitalist rule been overthrown. The revolutionary processes in these countries had to gradually create institutions of and for the working-class alongside the continuation of capitalist rule. These institutions reflect the emergence of a unique state-form based on participatory democracy; expressions of this are the Misiones Sociales among others. Any attempt to fully transcend capitalism was constrained by the power of the bourgeoisie—which was not undone by repeated elections, and which is now the source of counter-revolution; and it was constrained by the power of imperialism—which has succeeded, for now, in a coup in Bolivia, and which threatens daily a coup in Venezuela. No-one, in 1998 or 2005, suggested that what happened in Venezuela or Bolivia was a ‘revolution’ like the Russian Revolution; the election victories were part of a revolutionary process. As the first act of his government Chavéz announced a constituent process for the re-foundation of the Republic. Similarly, Evo affirmed in 2006 that the Movement to Socialism (MAS) had been elected into the government but had not taken power; it was later that a constituent process was launched, which was itself a long journey. Venezuela entered an extended ‘revolutionary process’, while Bolivia entered a ‘process of change’ or—as they called it—simply the ‘process’, which even now—after the coup—is ongoing. Nonetheless, both Venezuela and Bolivia experienced the full thrust of a ‘hybrid war’—from sabotage of physical infrastructure to sabotage of the ability to raise funds from capital markets.
Lenin suggested that after capturing the state and dismantling capitalist ownership, the revolutionary process in the new Soviet republic was difficult, the stubborn class struggle alive and well; imagine then how much more difficult is the stubborn struggle in Venezuela and Bolivia.
Revolutions In The Realm Of Necessity
Imagine, again, how hard it is to build a socialist society in a country, in which—despite its wealth of natural resources—there remains great poverty, and great inequality. Deeper yet, there is the cultural reality that large parts of the population have suffered from and struggled against centuries of social humiliation. Little surprise that in these countries, the most oppressed agricultural workers, miners, and the urban working class are either from indigenous communities or from communities that descend from Africans. The crushing burdens of indignity combined with the lack of easy to access resources makes revolutionary processes in the ‘realm of necessity’ all the harder.
In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844), Marx makes a distinction between the ‘realm of freedom’—where ‘labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases’—and the ‘realm of necessity’—where physical needs are not met at all. A long history of colonial subjugation and then imperialist theft has drained large parts of the planet of its wealth and made these regions—mainly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America—appear to be permanently in the ‘realm of necessity’. When Chavez won the first election in Venezuela, the poverty rate was an incredible 23.4%; in Bolivia, when Morales won his first election, the poverty rate was a staggering 38.2%. What these figures show is not just the absolute poverty of large sections of the population, but they carry inside them stories of social humiliation and indignity that cannot be made into a simple statistic.
Revolutions and revolutionary processes seem to have been rooted more in the realm of necessity—in Tsarist Russia, in China, in Cuba, in Vietnam—than in the realm of freedom—in Europe and the United States. These revolutions and these revolutionary processes—such as in Venezuela and Bolivia—are made in places that simply do not have accumulations of wealth that can be socialised. The bourgeoisie in these societies either absconds with its money at the moment of revolution or revolutionary change, or it remains in place but keeps its money in tax havens or in places such as New York and London. This money, the fruit of the people’s labour, cannot be accessed by the new government without incurring the wrath of imperialism. See how quickly the United States organised for Venezuela’s gold to be seized by the Bank of London, and for the US to freeze the bank accounts of the governments of Iran and Venezuela, and see how swiftly investment dried up when Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia refused to abide by the World Bank’s investor-State settlement mechanism.
Both Chavez and Morales tried to take charge of the resources in their countries, an act treated as an abomination by imperialism. Both of them faced rebuke, with the accusation that they are ‘dictators’ because they want to renegotiate the deals cut by previous governments for the removal of raw materials. They needed this capital not for personal aggrandizement—no one can accuse them of personal corruption—but to build up the social, economic, and cultural capacity of their peoples.
Every day remains a struggle for revolutionary processes in the ‘realm of necessity’. The best example of this is Cuba, whose revolutionary government has had to struggle against a crushing embargo and against threats of assassinations and coups from the very beginning.
Revolutions Of Women
It is admitted—because it would be foolish to deny it—that women are at the centre of the protests in Bolivia against the coup and for the restoration of the Morales government; in Venezuela as well, the majority of people who take to the streets to defend the Bolivarian revolution are women. Most of these women might not be Masistas or Chavistas, but they certainly understand that these revolutionary processes are feminist, socialist, and against the indignity visited upon the indigenous and the Afro-descendants.
Countries like Venezuela and Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina, faced immense pressure from the International Monetary Fund through the 1980s and 1990s to make deep cuts in state support for health care, education, and elder care. The breakdown of these crucial social support systems put a burden on the ‘care economy’, which is largely maintained—for patriarchal reasons—by women. If the ‘invisible hand’ failed to take care of people, the ‘invisible heart’ had to do so. It was the experience of the cuts in the care economy, that deepened the radicalisation of women in our societies. Their feminism emerged from their experience of patriarchy and structural adjustment policies; capitalism’s tendency to harness violence and deprivation hastened the journey of working-class and indigenous feminism directly into the socialist projects of Chávez and Morales. As the tide of neoliberalism continues to wash over the world, and as it engulfs societies in anxiety and heartache, it is women who have been the most active in the fight for a different world.
Morales and Chavez are both men, but in the revolutionary process they have come to symbolise a different reality for all of society. To different degrees, their governments have committed themselves to a platform that addresses both the cultures of patriarchy and the policies of social cuts that burden women with holding society together. The revolutionary processes in Latin America, therefore, must be understood as deeply cognizant of the importance of putting women, the indigenous, and the Afro-descendants at the centre of the struggle. No-one would deny that there are hundreds of errors made by the governments, errors of judgment that set back the fight against patriarchy and racism; but these are errors, which can be rectified, and not structural features of the revolutionary process. That is something that is deeply acknowledged by indigenous and Afro-descendent women in these countries; the proof of this acknowledgement is not in this or that article that they have written, but by their active and energetic presence on the streets.
As part of the Bolivarian process in Venezuela, women have been essential in re-building social structures eroded by decades of austerity capitalism. Their work has been central to the development of people’s power and for the creation of participatory democracy. Sixty-four percent of the spokespersons of the 3,186 communes are women, so are a majority of the leaders of the 48,160 communal councils; sixty-five percent of the leaders in the local supply and production committees are women. Women not only demand equality in the workplace, but demand equality in the social domain, where the comunas are the atoms of Bolivarian socialism. Women in the social domain have fought to build the possibility of self-government, building dual-power, and therefore slowly eroding the form of the liberal state. Against austerity capitalism, women have shown their creativity, their strength, and their solidarity not only against neoliberal policies, but also for the socialist experiment and against the hybrid war.
Democracy And Socialism
Left intellectual currents have been badly bruised in the period after the fall of the USSR. Marxism and dialectical materialism lost considerable credibility not only in the West but in large parts of the world; post-colonialism and subaltern studies—variants of post-structuralism and post-modernism—flourished in intellectual and academic circles. One of the main themes of this seam of scholarship was to argue that the ‘State’ was obsolete as a vehicle for social transformation, and that ‘Civil Society’ was the salvation. A combination of post-Marxism and anarchist theory adopted this line of argument to deride any experiments for socialism through state power. The state was seen as merely an instrument of capitalism, rather than as an instrument for the class struggle. But if the people withdraw from the contest over the state, then it will—without challenge—serve the oligarchy, and deepened inequalities and discrimination.
Privileging the idea of ‘social movements’ over political movements reflects the disillusionment with the heroic period of national liberation, including the indigenous peoples’ liberation movements. It also discards the actual history of people’s organisations in relation to political movements that have won state power. In 1977, after considerably struggle indigenous organisations forced the United Nations to open up a project to end discrimination against the indigenous population in the Americas. The La Paz-based South American Indian Council was one of these organisations, which worked closely with the World Peace Council, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, as well as a number of national liberation movements (African National Congress, the South-West Africa People’s Organisation, and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation). It was from this unity and this struggle that the UN established the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1981, and that it declared 1993 as the UN International Year of Indigenous Peoples. In 2007, Evo Morales lead the push for the UN to pass a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This was a very clear example of the importance of unity and struggle between people’s movements and fraternal states—if not for both the people’s movements struggles from 1977 to 2007, aided and abetted by fraternal states, and if not for the Bolivian government in 2007, this Declaration—which has immense importance to take the struggle forward—would have been passed.
Indigenous intellectuals from the Americas have understood the complexity of politics from this struggle—that indigenous self-determination comes from a struggle through society and the state to overcome bourgeois and settler-colonial power, as well as to find instruments to prepare the transition to socialism. Amongst those forms—as recognised by Peru’s José Carlos Mariátegui and Ecuador’s Nela Martínez almost a century ago—is the comuna.
The revolutions in Bolivia and Venezuela have not only politically sharpened the relations between men and women, between indigenous communities and non-indigenous communities, but they have also challenged the understanding of democracy and of socialism itself. These revolutionary processes not only have had to work within the rules of liberal democracy, but they at the same time built a new institutional framework through the comunas and other forms. It was by winning elections and taking charge of state institutions that the Bolivarian revolution was able to turn resources towards increased social expenditure (on health, education, housing) and towards a direct attack on patriarchy and racism. State power, in the hands of the left, was used to build these new institutional frameworks that extend the state and go beyond it. The existence of these two forms—liberal democratic institutions and the socialist-feminist institutions—has led to the bursting of the prejudice of fictitious ‘liberal equality’. Democracy if reduced to the act of voting forces individuals to believe that they are citizens with the same power as other citizens, regardless of their socio-economic, political, and cultural positions. The revolutionary process challenges this liberal myth, but it has not yet succeeded in overcoming it—as can be seen in both Bolivia and Venezuela. It is a struggle to create a new cultural consensus around socialist democracy, a democracy that is rooted not in an ‘equal vote’, but in a tangible experience of building a new society.
One of the textbook dynamics of having a left government is that it takes up the agenda of many social and political movements of the people. At the same time, many of the personnel from these movements—as well as from various NGOs—join the government, bringing their various skills to bear inside the complex institutions of modern government. This has a contradictory impact: it fulfils the demands of the people, and at the same time it has a tendency to weaken independent organisations of various kinds. These developments are part of the process of having a left government in power, whether it be in Asia or in South America. Those who want to remain independent of the government struggle to remain relevant; they often become bitter critics of the government, and their criticisms are frequently weaponised by imperialist forces towards ends that are alien even to those who make such criticisms.
The liberal myth seeks to speak on behalf of the people, to obscure the real interests and aspirations of the people—in particular of women, the indigenous communities, and the afro-descendants. The left inside the experiences of Bolivia and Venezuela has sought to develop the collective mastery of the people in a contentious class struggle. A position that attacks the very idea of the ‘State’ as oppressive does not see how the state in Bolivia and Venezuela attempts to use that authority to build institutions of dual power to create a new political synthesis, with women at the front.
Revolutionary Advice With No Revolutionary Experience
Revolutions are not easy to make. They are filled with retreats and errors, since they are made by people who are flawed and whose political parties must always learn to learn. Their teacher is their experience, and it is those amongst them who have the training and time to elaborate their experiences into lessons. No revolution is without its own mechanisms to correct itself, its own voices of dissent. But that does not mean that a revolutionary process should be deaf to criticisms; it should welcome them.
Criticism is always welcome, but in what form does that criticism come? These are two forms that are typical of the ‘left’ critic who derides revolutions in the name of purity.
- If the criticism comes from the standpoint of perfect, then their standard is not only too high, but it fails to understand the nature of class struggle that must contend with congealed power inherited over generations.
- If the criticism assumes that all projects that contest the electoral domain will betray the revolution, then there is little understanding of the mass dimension of electoral projects and dual power experiments. Revolutionary pessimism halts the possibility of action. You cannot succeed if you do not allow yourself to fail, and to try again. This standpoint of critique provides only despair.
The ‘stubborn class struggle’ inside the revolutionary process should provide someone who is not part of the revolutionary process itself to be sympathetic not to this or that policy of a government, but to the difficulty—and necessity—of the process itself.Class StruggleHistoryIdeologyRevolution
DIRECT DEMOCRACY AND THE PASSION FOR POLITICAL PARTICIPATION
Above Photo: The People’s Parliament of Rojava. Photo: Studio Jonas Staal
For a radically democratic and ecological society we need to build democratic and resilient communities capable of deepening citizen participation at all levels of public life.
Yavor Tarinski is an independent researcher and activist whose publications and talks center on the possibilities of direct democracy and commoning practices as an alternative to the current social imaginary. He is the author of Direct Democracy: Context, Society, Individuality (Durty Books Publishing House, 2019). He is a member of the editorial team of the Greek political journal Aftoleksi, bibliographer at Agora International and member of the administrative board of TRISE. In the past he has co-founded “Adelante” — the first social center in Bulgaria as well as the first Bulgarian Social Forum.
Here, editor Eve Olney, discusses some of the ideas presented in the book with Yavor, regarding where direct democracy might situate itself within societies’ current crisis-led sets of conditions.
Eve Olney: I Would Like To Begin With An Issue That Your Book Addresses Directly. Current Discussions Concerning Conceiving An Alternative Social Imaginary To Neoliberalism, Predominantly Tend To Focus On Public/Worker Protests In Tandem With Creating Internal Pressure Within Institutions To Create Better Conditions For Citizens. You Propose Something Beyond This Approach. How Do You Respond To The Former Line Of Reasoning?
Yavor Tarinski: The tendency you describe is trapped in the imaginary of statecraft. It shares the fallacy of the separation of the economy from the wider political architecture of society and its supremacy over other social spheres. Due to this tendency, trade unions and worker parties operate within current hierarchies and bureaucracies with the aim of steadily improving the conditions of workers. However, people or groups operating within this imaginary neglect the question of concentrated power that is simultaneously advancing in other spheres, such as the social or ecological ones; essentially reproducing a similar precarity.
People also fall for the dominant narrative that convinces us that neoliberalism is the regime of freedom and individuality. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Neoliberal logic imposes, in a bureaucratic manner, the same social formula regardless of unique and different local contexts. As the French philosopher Jacques Rancière suggests, “capitalism [in its current neoliberal stage] has become a form of state, a bureaucratic form of organization and regulation of life.”
In my book I present the general social and historical tradition of direct democracy that challenges the very foundations of the political architecture of today. At its core is the question of who gets to institute the different aspects of our society? In other words, it is a radically different way of managing power.
Greek-French philosopher, Cornelius Castoriadis presents the social project of autonomy as an alternative to the current oppressive neoliberal social ordering of society. Within Castoriadis’s scheme of social organization the project of direct democracy acts as a continuous social condition of self-instituting. Castoriadis’ notion of self-instituting involves all members of society participating directly, equally and consciously in the formation of all institutions in order to make collective life possible.
This kind of self-governing goes beyond current capital-orientated concepts of democracy, and acknowledges that democracy cannot be limited to one field of human activity such as economics alone. Bookchin reminds us that:
Workers have always been more than mere proletarians. [They] are also parents who are concerned about the future of their children, men and women who are concerned about their dignity, autonomy, and growth as human beings, neighbors who are concerned about their community, and empathetic people who were concerned with social justice, civic rights, and freedom.
Today, in addition to these very noneconomic issues, they have every reason to be concerned about ecological problems, the rights of minorities and women, their own loss of political and social power, and the growth of the centralized state — problems that are not specific to a particular class and that cannot be resolved within the walls of factories.
This does not suggest that the struggle for better material conditions is not of importance for social emancipation, but that it cannot be advanced if it does not challenge the very foundational basis of our societies and the way power is being distributed vertically. I would argue that it is this current socio-political framework is the cause of widespread alienation and passivity within today’s societies.
Yes, You Talk Of The Strong Influence Of “Capitalist Economism…Over Traditional Radical Ideologies.” This Infers An Incredibly Challenging Task In Setting The Seeds To Create A Social Understanding Of The Kind Of Direct Democracy You Are Describing In Your Book. Working Within Current Apathetic Or Oppressed Parts Of Society You Must Also Attempt To Counter Historical, Strongly-Held Marxist Ideals From The Radical Left. Have You Found Possibilities Of Where/How Direct Democracy Might Find A Space To Situate Itself Within This?
First of all, traces of direct democracy can be found in popular efforts at re-organizing forms of people power, even when such efforts don’t explicitly claim this goal. We saw democratic seeds in the public squares around the world with the Arab Spring, Occupy, Indignados, Nuit Debout, and more recently with the Yellow Vests. The latter went further than previous movements by attempting to establish a democratic confederation of autonomous local groups, under the form of the Assembly of Assemblies.
In such cases grassroots movements attempt to radically re-imagine the institutions that structure society by introducing non-hierarchical decision-making bodies to redistribute power equally among all. The success of such popular endeavors towards direct democracy varies. As Marx wrote, about one of the most significant among them — the Paris Commune — “the great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence.”
Political organizations, therefore, do have the choice of attempting to sustain a particular social movement through a more in-depth pursuit of self-organization. However, this requires any activist collective to being open to a direct democratic mode of governance regardless of how that might impede their own political ideology.
As witnessed during the dissipation of the austerity “movement of the squares” in Athens in 2011, social conditions rarely fit the specifics of different activist group’s ideological preconditions for radical social change.
In order for the first option to be obtainable, activists would need to demonstrate patience and abandon attitudes of revolutionary vanguardism. As Castoriadis argues, the activity of revolutionary militants has no privilege; it is but one component of a historical movement. The following steps can reinforce a radical social transformation beyond capitalism and statecraft:
- Mapping emerging/existing social counterpowers (participatory commoning, the right to the city etc.) and nurturing their direct democratic traits;
- Abandoning ideological dogmatism. Didactic methods of operating obstructs radical political organizations’ interactions with the general public and can lead to the organization’s sectarization.
- Addressing the difficult question of managing power within a democratic non-hierarchical manner. This includes the abandonment of the logic of anomie (a term which derives from Greek language and it suggests existence in a state of lawlessness), that is favored by some anti-authoritarian activists.
We must always bear in mind, as Israeli thinker Aki Orr suggests, “A society can be run by direct democracy only if most of the people want to decide policies themselves.” History has taught us too many lessons about how a revolutionary vanguard cannot bring genuine social emancipation.
During A Recent Book Launch And Discussion Of “Direct Democracy: Context, Society, Individuality,” (SPARE ROOM, Cork, 2019) There Yet Seemed To Be A Need On Your Part To Clarify To Individuals Your Specific Critical Positioning And Understanding Of Direct Democracy. What Do You Find To Be The Most Generalized Misconception Of This? Also How Do You Position The Ancient Greek Notion Of “Paideia” In Terms Of How It Is Augmented Into Your Developing Argument?
The term “direct democracy,” like most political terms today, has been used by various political tendencies to serve different ends. The most common misconception equates the concept with referendums, plebiscites and the case of Switzerland. The Swiss model operates strictly within the dominant imaginary, which seeks to improve the current system without addressing some of its fundamentally anti-democratic core structures.
This logic however is completely false as it does not take into account the separation of decision-making and implementation, which is embedded in referendums. One example is the 2015 Greek referendum, in which 62 percent voted against new austerity measures, but the SYRIZA government passed them anyway, just in a different ideological wrapping.
To further complicate things, concepts of “direct democracy” have also been espoused by the far-right, such as the Czech far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy party. Here, the term is embedded within nationalistic notions of citizens’ rights towards protecting their sovereignty and where the “non-national” is cited as a threat to the country’s social stability.
This is entirely contrary, for example, to the inclusive essence of the project of direct democracy expressed by the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, popularly known as Rojava, where popular participation, female emancipation and an ecological mindset all together contributed to the building of a more democratic and egalitarian society. These examples feature in my book. I think that Judith Butler has explained clearly why there is nothing democratic about the far-right:
If a group of right-wing racists get together and say that they have been excluded from a public space that does not accommodate racists, then they are actually asking for a right to exclude others. They are trying to assemble and achieve public space for the expressed purpose of a racist and exclusionary project. That is hardly democratic in intent or in effect.
The revolutionary essence of direct democracy was initially enunciated by the people of ancient Athens. Certainly there were serious shortcomings like slavery and sexism, but what did emerge from the polis was the idea that society can be managed by people without special skills or knowledge. This reasoning was then institutionalized through the use of the general public assembly as the highest decision making body and the fact that citizens had the opportunity of being selected as magistrates by sortition.
The ancient Athenians spoke of “paideia,” a concept that understands that the education of the individual is not limited to time spent learning in institutions and recognizes all experiences and exchanges throughout their life as being significant in their development as a citizen. A crucial element of this lifelong learning was participating in the popular deliberations that took place at public institutions.
This cultivated a civic culture that maintained a passionate involvement in public affairs and lawmaking. Castoriadis has argued that it was this passion for political participation that made the self-governance of the Athenian polis possible.
Nowadays it seems more urgent than ever to create a democratic culture that can lead people to reclaim power from the governing elites who are currently pillaging the planet and our societies. This is something that the current passive consumer/voter seems unable to achieve. We are in dire need of more people engaging in grassroots decision-making and in genuine civic paideia.
Well That Brings Me To Your Argument For The Necessity Of Direct Democracy Being Implemented In All Spheres Of Public Life. In Order To Achieve Social Equality And Rid Ourselves Of Escalating Exploitative Everyday Processes We Must Reinstitute Through Self-Organization And Non-Hierarchical Governing Structures. In Practical Terms Can You Discuss How We Might Achieve That Transition, For Example, In The Educational Sector?
We need to imagine different forms of organizing the type of society that we want to bring into existence. We can move into visionary thinking as long as we keep our visions as kinds of political compasses and not as blueprints to be followed to the letter. I would argue that those who struggle against the ills of a certain political system but do not offer an alternative to it are politically impotent. To only strive at blocking new degrading measures is precarious at best.
A strategy towards a direct democratic transformation of society in practice is twofold. On the one hand, it requires social movements pushing for changes, which will embed further citizen participation in the official institutional processes. This means demanding equal wealth distribution as well as equal power distribution. This is in keeping with participatory budgeting or citizen’ assemblies within the current institutional framework.
On the other hand, there is also the need for the creation of autonomous democratic decision-making bodies, independent from the dominant institutions — structures that can allow local communities to express their collective will and enable them to confederate with one another, resembling the strategy of dual power. This can radically challenge the supremacy of the State and capitalist technocracies.
For the education system in particular I would suggest we need to embed the participation of the students with the wider community in the formation of the colloquium, as well as the management of the actual educational facilities. Such experiments have taken place in Summerhill or in different Kibbutz.
We need to expand this radical rethinking and practicing of education. This implies the emergence of student and social movements dedicated to the rediscovering of the concept of paideia and breaking away from the current perception of education as a tool for the production of cadres that will serve the capitalist economy.
I Am Interested In How You Frame “The Democratic Individual,” In The Book. Many Institutional And Social Spheres Seem To Be Endemically Corrupt And Self-Serving. Assuming A Critical Argument Where The Individual “Anthropological Type” Might Shift Significantly Through Ongoing Direct Democratic Processes Can Be Often Dismissed As A Gross Naiveté On The Part Of Those Taking Such A Position. Can You Talk A Little Bit About How You Challenge Such Resistance To This Idea?
I would agree with you regarding the corruption of contemporary institutions. This was the central argument of Rancière in his Hatred of Democracy, where he suggests that our society is being governed in such a way that everything essentially democratic is being actively resisted. We hear a lot about individualism nowadays and unfortunately many anti-capitalists fall for this narrative.
What we have in reality has nothing to do with being free as an individual but is actually a global uniformity of unseen proportions worthy of an Orwellian novel. The neoliberal doctrine is an extremely bureaucratic multiplicity of regulations and norms that are often strictly enforced. Different populations are force-fed its doctrine regardless of their unique contexts.
Bureaucrats and capitalists tend to frame the concept of the individual within specific attitudes that suit the needs of a neoliberal social economy. The notion of individual freedom, for example, is predominantly situated within consumerism and mediated by mass marketing industries, television channels and much of social media. Mass consumerism also serves as a great distraction from public affairs, as it encourages people to maintain a focus on their own individual needs and desires.
We are already witnessing the negative implications of such a society. Social protests demanding urgent needs therefore tend to remain within a consumerist imaginary of capitalism. For example, within this particular social framework exist voices who talk of the so-called e-democracy as a force for change. But the public discourse surrounding this subject is filled with shopping terminology. “It is comfortable”, “You can do it from your home”, “It only takes couple of mouse-clicks”. Such phrases are strongly reminiscent of arguments for online shopping.
This shaping of neoliberal subjectivity is the foundational basis of the current system as well as being crucial for its maintenance and is, therefore, being actively reproduced.
A popular argument against achieving a radical change in society is based upon this kind of skeptical framing of subjectivity. It is reasoned that people are naturally self-serving which conflicts with the idea of groups participating equally in decision-making. They are right to a certain point — the current attitude described above is the antithesis of such a society. But I am reminded of an argument made by William Godwin in 1793, that it is erroneous to judge mankind such as monarchy and aristocracy have made them, when judging how fit they are to manage for themselves.
We are not destined to live as passive consumers. The ancient Athenian civic culture, for example, was based on the Greek notion of “astynomous orgas” — the passion for law-making. There are many more examples like the Parisian communards who passionately deliberated in the sections.
The democratic individual that I attempt to trace through different historic and philosophical experiences, is the type of citizen that will be able to operate within the institutional setting of a direct democratic society. How such an individual will appear has everything to do with your previous question about paideia, as well as the efforts of social movements to self-organize within their communities.
It is not an easy task. But as Rousseau has suggested, democracy requires citizens to arm themselves with strength and consistency.
I Would Like To Apply Some Of The Ideas Around The Interrelationship Between The Individual And Society To Current Situations In Ireland. For Example, I Was Part Of A Panel Discussing The Irish Housing Crisis Recently And I Had An Acute Sense From The Audience That They Felt Utterly Powerless And Overwhelmed By The Global Scale Of Their Individual Problems. They Held No Hope Of Improvement And Actually Expect Much Worse Coming Down The Line. Yet, They Still Looked To External Governing Structures To Finding Solutions.
I Am Wondering If You Have Thoughts Regarding How And Why “Crisis” As In Global Crisis, Housing Crisis, Bank Crisis Etc., Is Mediated In This Compartmentalized Way And How This Shapes The Individual’s View/Understanding Of Their Subject Position Within The Current Social Imaginary?
What you have observed during this panel is something that I have encountered often — this sense of helplessness and insignificance before the grand scale of the world. It can be compared to the feeling you have when thinking of the vastness of the universe and our microscopic place in it.
However, I think that this comparison is wrong. History is filled with examples of individuals or communities evoking significant social changes. They often remain invisible due to our modernist fascination with large scales. The dominant social imaginary tends to view our world as a chessboard of nation-states and transnational technocracies. Since our societies are being structured in this manner, our individual worldviews are being shaped analogically. It is those at the top who make the rules and not the people at the grassroots.
This is also why the public’s response to crisis is to resort to means that operate within the dominant organizational order such as the political parties. How many times has a supposedly radical left-wing party taken power and then retreated from their initial promises? This results in increased popular cynicism and apathy. Even when armed with the best intentions one cannot make institutions intended to serve the few, suddenly work for the many.
It is true that those who oppress and exploit us operate in a tightly knit web of globalized and centralized power. We cannot change things if we think and act within the frame of the current system.
If we want create a radically democratic and ecological society, we will have to abandon all bureaucratic and exploitative means. It is not enough to consume ethically or vote for the lesser evil. We have to build democratic and resilient communities capable of confederating with each other so as to tackle large-scale issues. As Castoriadis has said, “an autonomous society cannot be instaurated except through the autonomous activity of the collectivity.” This might sound too general or abstract, but the direct democracy of which we are speaking represents such a paradigm shift, that must surpass both globalization and localism and can lead towards genuine social emancipation.
EXTRACTIVISM AND RESISTANCE IN NORTH AFRICA
Above Photo: “Enough humiliation, enough marginalisation”| Courtesy of author.
Should we see protests, uprisings and movements against extractivism as mainly environmental, or are these fundamentally anti-systemic?
Large-scale oil and gas extraction in Algeria, phosphate mining; water-intensive agribusiness and mass tourism in Morocco and Tunisia, are all aspects of an extractivist model of development that is accompanied by disastrous social and environmental consequences, affecting the most marginalised sections in society.
Extractivism refers to activities that over-exploit natural resources destined particularly for export to world markets. As such, it is not limited to minerals and oil: it extends to productive activities which overexploit land, water and biodiversity, such as agribusiness, intensive forestry, industrial fish farming and mass tourism. According to a new research titled “Extractivism and Resistance in North Africa” for the Transnational Institute, extractivism is largely incompatible with social justice and plays an important role in the ecological crisis in North Africa. It creates what Naomi Klein calls ‘sacrifice zones’, areas disproportionately ravaged by extraction and processing, inhabited by people whose bodies, health, land and water are sacrificed in order to maintain the accumulation of capital.
The various cases against the extractive sector in Algeria (Ain Salah and Ouargla), Morocco (Khouribga, Safi and Imider) and Tunisia (Kerkennah, Gafsa and Gabes), exemplify broader patterns of primitive accumulation in the global South, taking the brutal form of the extraction and pillage of natural resources, and the degradation of environments and ecosystems through the privatisation and commodification of land and water. This has intensified in recent decades, following the neoliberal restructuring of the economy and the infiltration of transnational capital, including the extractive type.
This predatory model of development finds itself mired in serious tensions, which generates protests and resistance. The rural working poor and the unemployed in Northern Africa are the most impacted. Comprising small-scale farmers, near-landless rural workers, fisherfolks and the unemployed, the movements emerging in the various struggles are resisting the looting of their subsoil resources, the despoliation of their lands, pervasive environmental destruction and the loss of livelihoods. Such movements, while fighting for their rights and livelihoods, are fraught with tensions and face contradictions such as demanding jobs in industries with high environmental and social costs. In order to understand the nature of these movements, we must attempt to answer the following questions: should we see these protests, uprisings and movements as mainly environmental, or are these fundamentally anti-systemic? Are these circumstantial episodes of resistance, or do they rather represent the latest development in the historical trajectory of class struggle against the latest capitalist offensive in North Africa?
Extractivism in the Maghreb/North Africa is not a new phenomenon. As a mode of accumulation and appropriation, it was structured through colonialism in the 19th century to respond to the demands of the metropolitan centres. This accumulation and appropriation pattern has entrenched North Africa’s subordinate insertion into the global capitalist economy, maintaining relations of imperialist domination and neo-colonial hierarchies. The Maghreb region plays a geostrategic role when it comes to the extractive sector, due to its proximity to Europe and the richness of its soil. Algeria is the third largest provider of gas to Europe, while Morocco and Tunisia are very important players in the production of phosphates, which are used as agricultural fertilisers, feeding global agrarian capitalism. Moreover, Tunisia and Morocco export considerable quantities of agricultural produce to Europe. This strategic importance is reflected in the North’s attempts to control these resources through political, military and economic pressure. The latter is seen in the use of ‘free trade’ deals, such as the ongoing negotiations around the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreements with Tunisia and Morocco.
Northern African states facilitate the entry and operations of transnational extractive capital by passing laws favourable to extractive industries. The latest episode of this is the rushed attempt of the Algerian authorities to pass a more liberal and business-friendly hydrocarbon law in the midst of the current popular uprising. But resistance to extractive capital springs up and is led by the communities most directly affected by its destructive operations, as well as by the ‘new proletariat’ formed by the process of ‘accumulation by dispossession’. There is no doubt that these social movements and mobilisations are bringing the internal contradictions of extractivism and capitalism into the open, thus helping to forge the class consciousness necessary to overthrow capitalism and build a sustainable alternative in its place.
While for more than three decades, successive governments in the Maghreb have banked on a neoliberal extractivist model of development, extractivism is not the route to take towards development, capitalist or otherwise. The ‘new extractivism’ championed by progressive or post-neoliberal governments in Latin America is not the solution either. The (re)-primarisation (the heavy reliance on the export of primary commodities) of the economies of Maghreb countries and the reinforcement of extractivism are hallmarks of the political economy of development in the region and in peripheries in general. Therefore, any exploration of ‘alternative development’ must necessarily deal with extractivism by opening up new horizons of thinking and by the construction of radical discourses that are anti-colonial and anti-capitalist. Ultimately, the struggle for a just transition towards post-extractivist development models will be fundamentally democratic and would necessitate a true regional integration, in an autonomous, that calls into question the subordinate insertion into the capitalist globalisation.
You can read the full study “Extractivism and Resistance in North Africa” here