Democracy & Nature: The International Journal of Politics and Ecology, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Issue 9), 1997
Democracy and Nature initiated in the last issue a discussion on the contours of an inclusive democracy for today. In this issue, the discussion moves from the political component of the inclusive democracy to the economic one, with a dialogue between all the main currents of radical economic thought.
James Robertson examines the institutional restructuring that the transition to an ecological society would require. In this context, he proposes the replacement of the present tax and benefits system which, as he stresses, penalises work and the environment, with a system taxing energy use and land occupation that would be complemented by a basic (citizen’s) income. However, although the proposed system may be a significant step in the direction of ‘greening’ the present tax and benefits system (assuming that such greening is still realistic within the present internationalised market economy) one may have serious reservations, first, about the system’s credentials with respect to economic equality and, more important, about the relevance of it to a radical transitional strategy. As regards economic equality, the proposed system does not show how the combination of two regressive measures, (i.e. measures that favour the high income groups much more than the low income groups) like the abolition of taxes on income and profits and the introduction of taxes on energy, will be so much countered by the parallel introduction of a land-rent tax and a basic citizen’s income so that the overall effect would be “greater economic equality”. The very fact that the citizen’s income would be “unaffected by a person’s other income and wealth” (i.e it will be basically the same for a millionaire and an unemployed person) points towards enhanced rather than reduced inequality, at the very moment when the neoliberal consensus has created monstrous conditions of Victorian inequality, particularly in UK and the USA. Even more problematic is the claim that such a system can be “a crucial step towards the journal’s goal of a libertarian confederation of local communities”, let alone towards an inclusive democracy, given that the proposed system takes for granted ― in fact, aspires to improve ― the fundamental characteristics of the present system (competitiveness, flexibility of labour market etc) and does not seem to include a dynamic leading to the replacement of the capitalist market economy with a moneyless, marketless and stateless economy, which constitutes the essence of an inclusive democracy.
The double aim of my (Takis Fotopoulos) contribution in the discussion is to outline an economic model for an inclusive democracy and to sketch the elements of a transitional strategy. The article starts with an assessment of the proposals made by the civil societarian “Left” today ― which take for granted the entire institutional framework of the market economy and representative democracy ― as well as of an interesting proposal for democratic planning, and proceeds to outline a full model of economic democracy. Unlike past attempts to describe the economic functioning of a free society, the model presented here explicitly assumes conditions of scarcity and sets as its main targets the meeting of the basic needs of all citizens and the parallel securing of freedom of choice in a marketless, moneyless, stateless economy.
Paul Ekins’s article involves a persuasive argument against the applicability of the classical comparative advantage principle in today’s conditions of globalisation, which have made wage differentials and differences in environmental controls part of the competitive package each country offers in world trade. The logical conclusion the author derives from this analysis points to the enhancement of social controls on domestic and international markets (through national policies, the World Trade Organisation ― WTO/ex GATT ― and international treaties ) to protect labour and the environment from the expansion of trade. However, it is obvious that in an internationalised market economy, which is characterised by huge productivity and competitiveness differentials, any significant controls to regulate the trading system for environmental or social reasons will inevitably discriminate against the weaker trading partners which have always attempted to compensate for their lower productivity and competitiveness with the depreciation of their human and natural resources (low wages, minimal environmental protection etc). Ignoring these huge inequities and the consequent power structures and relations that characterise the internationalised market economy (for instance, who controls and on whose interest international organisations like the WTO, the World Bank etc) one may end up with utopian (in the negative sense of the word) proposals that disregard the fundamental fact that the only feasible controls are those that can be tolerated by the stronger (in terms of competitiveness and productivity) trading partners, whereas effective social controls to protect labour and the environment, which are incompatible with the logic and dynamic of the internationalised market economy and the interests of those controlling it, are not likely to be adopted, let alone to be effectively implemented.
Sharon Beder, in an excellent critique of mainstream green economics ― which she rightly perceives as an attempt to extend the marketization process to the environment ― stresses that green economics can hardly lay the foundations of an economic democracy. This is because green economics takes for granted the market economy and the power relations that this system of economic organisation implies. As the author aptly puts it, “environmental economics consists of minor reforms in basic economic systems, such as national accounts, pricing mechanisms and cost-benefit analysis rather than any fundamental change in thinking or power relationships. It is a way of keeping things going as they have been by reducing the threat of environmental breakdown.”
Simon Avenell and Herb Thompson offer a powerful critique of the theoretical and epistemological premises of neoclassical economics, which constitures the core of orthodox economics and almost monopolise the field after the collapse of Keynesian economics. The inadequacy of neoclassical economics with respect to the ecological implications of economic activity is particularly stressed. However, the authors’ criticism of the orthodox conception of economic efficiency focuses exclusively on its inadequacy with respect to the ecological implications of economic activity with no mention at all of its gross inadequacy with respect to its social implications. But, the supposedly ‘neutral’ definition of efficiency used by orthodox economists assumes away distributional aspects so that in a market economy it is perfectly possible for a particular allocation of resources to be ‘efficient’ and at the same time not capable to meet adequately (or not at all) the needs of many citizens . The question therefore arises of the development of a new conception of efficiency that would cover both the social and the ecological aspects of economic activity.
Finally, Geoffrey Carpenter, starting from the assumption that the Marxist faith in the ability of an improved mode of production to eradicate scarcity is problematic, explores what he calls a ‘necessary prelude’ to a project of reforming Marxist theory on ecological premises: a revised conception of scarcity which includes resource scarcity. The author is of course right in bringing scarcity into the agenda of freedom from the Marxist paradise of a post-scarcity society. However, the common explanation given by the author for the environmental devastation in both the West and the ex-actually existing socialism in the East is that both systems operated under the assumption of infinite abundance of natural resources. But, although such an explanation may be partially true for the East where the bureaucratic elites in whose hands economic power was concentrated operated under the constraints imposed by the ideology of Progress (in its Marxist version) and the implicit assumption of abundance , one may have serious reservations about the explanatory power of this assumption, as well as of ideology in general, with respect to the Western market economy. In other words, it may be argued that as far as the West is concerned,the ideology of Progress has played basically a role of justifying the market economy and its grow-or-die dynamic rather than of determining the system’s mode of operation. The latter has been determined by the objectives of the economic elites which have concentrated economic power in their hands through their private control of the means of production. To the extent that the pursuit of these objectives has been incompatible with ecological balance, the environment was expendable, irrespective of abundance (or pro-Nature ideological) considerations. One may therefore assume that what is needed for an adequate explanation of the ecological crisis in the West is an analysis of the interplay of power relations with ideology rather than just an analysis of the interplay of production relations and conditions that Marxist economics offers.
International Managing Editor