Concepts for a Democratic and Ecological Society

By Yavor Tarinski

Published by Zero Books at £9.99, available at Bookbuster

Review by Tim Barton

We live in a culture defined by hierarchy, and by the domination of ‘man’ by ‘man’; of one class by another; by beliefs in inherent superiority of this tribe by that, that race by this, of woman by man… of ‘nature’ by ‘man’, as if we were separable. At times, to those embedded in this machine, it can be difficult to conceive alternatives. Such assumptions are taken as a given, as our ‘nature’. The machine grinds on, with massive inertia: the strange beast slouching towards a cliff edge has various names, for it is a many-headed hydra, yet its dominant driver today is a rapacious and virulent cancer we call ‘capitalism’.

As it metastasizes, this cancer seriously risks not only destroying our globalised culture, with all the tragic human costs that implies, but our very biosphere. To stop this would seem to require radical surgery.

How might we slow, halt, reverse this cancer without embracing an ultimately nihilistic violence? One that could only, for homo sapiens, be a pyrrhic victory? I believe that, at this juncture, it is in fact naive to assume we can slow the beast, at best perhaps we may roll the damage back a shade. The ‘win’ now is defined by degrees of mitigation. 

But, such analysis too often leads to inaction, as we face an enormity seen before only in the mass extinctions in the fossils record, and the fall of past civilisations; or, today, in perhaps the apocalyptic art of John Martin. Inaction, of course, guarantees a worst case scenario. Mitigation, whilst a compromise that may leave a taste of ashes in the mouth, is nonetheless imperative and requires action. Whilst fast revolutionary change of one sort or another is inevitable, we need to promote alternative ecological, economic, political and cultural ideas with urgency. Let us maximise the mitigation, looking ahead not behind.

Tarinski looks to change through the demolition of hierarchy and domination, a democratisation that includes significant change in our relations to the biosphere. This is not new territory, and the author is clearly well-versed in the ideas of Pyotr Kropotkin (on mutual aid and cooperation), of Murray Bookchin (on social ecology), of Janet Biehl (on feminism and ecology), and the political writings of Cornelius Castoriadis on popular self-governance. Bookchin and Biehl’s ‘libertarian municipalism’ is amongst the core concepts discussed, whereby a directly democratic bottom-up citizens’ assembly directs our choices. A discussion of ‘the Commons’ in history, and a defence of ordinary people’s ability to, given power over their own lives, create sustainable ways of managing the Commons is core to the idea that we can create a balance between society and ecology. 

Tarinski is far from blind to the obstacles, and presents examples of success stories (from Nepal, Mexico, Swiss cantons, and more) alongside key insights on the means to the end of surmounting the problems of social inertia. One chapter takes on contemporary responses to disempowerment such as adopting conspiracy theories, under the rubric ‘citizen participation as antidote to social paranoia’. In the words of Hannah Arendt, “before they seize power and establish a world according to their doctrines, totalitarian movements conjure up a lying world of consistency which is more adequate to the needs of the human mind than reality itself’, a view of authority (and it’s most powerful competitors) that must surely ring a few bells today. To re-empower citizens requires change, opportunity, and engagement: ‘if we want to one day live in a non-hierarchical society, based on solidarity and direct democracy, we will have to create the necessary conditions for its existence”.

Tarinski also teaches us to reject the patrician power structures of the traditional ‘left’ and ‘right’, both of whom seek control from the top of their exclusionary pyramid, where technocracy and capitalist control of resources dominate, with the power balance merely shifting between statist and deregulatory economics. Neither includes us. We must take the power back as a minimum step toward slowing the beast and saving the one biosphere we are able to inhabit, upon which our very lives depend. The author makes a strong case for core principles we need to embrace and embed in a new “framework that will allow society to constitute itself, while consciously self-limiting its affairs democratically inside the planetary boundaries”. Such principles subvert an imposition of a (if you must) ‘great reset’, from above, and reconstitute the, yes, necessary, ‘reset’ from below. It would be the only way to make it work, slim hope notwithstanding.

Castoriadis suggests that we are at a crossroads in our history. We are running fast, and very close to crossing the junction up the wrong track, the one we have been on for the last two or three centuries. Tarinski makes the case for rejecting the ‘grow-or-die’ ethics of modern economics, and pours cold water on the idea that this ‘growth’ has, through ‘trickle-down’, been at all successful in achieving the ‘progress’ it claims to achieve. He shows, too, how clearly ‘economic growth is incompatible with ecological and self-sustainable ways of life’. He proposes a ‘solidarity economy’ instead. He also takes on board the concept of ‘degrowth’, one gaining more currency by the day, albeit slowly, and one I will address in a future review.

We need to switch tracks urgently: as with the ‘trolley-bus problem’, this is a matter of mitigating inevitably bad effects. One political crossroads we zoomed past in the UK, an inflection point if you will, was Corbyn’s defeat in 2017, but globally many more have shot past since, and the runaway beast is tumbling into catastrophe. Books like this one are a necessary new addition to a growing ‘toolbox’, one well-furnished from the 1960s onwards, but left rotting in the garage.

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