The themes of this issue are, first, ‘welfare and democracy’ and, second, ‘ecology and ethics’. In both contributions to the first theme, the emphasis is on the interrelationship between welfare and democracy, a topic usually missing in the current debates about the future of the welfare state. The contributions to the second theme in effect introduce the theme of ‘Democracy, Ecology and Ethics’ which will be the subject of a future issue of the journal.
The discussion on the first theme begins with my contribution (Takis Fotopoulos) in which the aims are to examine the reasons why the welfare state is no longer feasible today and to show that the current discourse of ‘empowering’ the citizen through ending the ‘dependency culture’ functions as part of the ideology of marketization, if it does not involve proposals for ending the citizen’s dependence not just on the state but also on the market. Finally, a proposal for a new conception of social welfare is made which is based on a conception of economic democracy, as an integral part of an inclusive democracy.
Robley George’s paper explicitly introduces the element of democracy into the discussion on welfare –usually so blatantly missing! His interesting proposal for ‘socioeconomic democracy’ aims at determining the distribution of income and wealth through the use of democratic procedures. For this purpose he introduces the distinction between ‘qualitative’ democracy and ‘quantitative democracy, which he defines as ‘the procedure by which each individual participant in a democratic society can directly vote his or her particular preference for an amount or magnitude of something in question, with the democratically determined, societally desired amount unequivocally resulting’. However, one may raise serious objections to the assumption that the present regime can be characterised as a qualitative democracy, or, for that matter, as democracy at all, rather than just as a ‘liberal oligarchy’, as Castoriadis aptly called it. Not accidentally, the author states that ‘whether "representative" democracy is a fairly close approximation to democracy would appear to be situation-dependent’—a statement which implies a serious problem as regards the author’s conception of democracy. In fact, it is this conceptual problem whch accounts for the virtual absence of power relations and structures from the rationale behind this proposal. As a result, although Robley George’s scheme does introduce a significant element of economic democracy in the existing socio-economic system, still, it is obvious that his conception of economic democracy relates to a narrow definition of it, which refers to the distribution of income and wealth aspects of economic power only, and not to economic power itself which, obviously, relates to several other crucial aspects, in particular, who controls production and distribution and, in general, how resources are allocated. It is not difficult to imagine, for instance, that in the present framework of an internationalised market economy, the simple threat by those controlling production to move their capital elsewhere would force voters in a socioeconomic democracy to vote for such bounds on the distribution of wealth that would hardly differ from the present ones.
The discussion on the second theme begins with Dario Padovan’ s contribution, which is an insightful exploration of the relation of Nature to Ethics, as seen through the writings of Kropotkin, Guyau, Reclus and Bookchin. The author does not accept uncritically the attempt to derive an ‘objective’ ethics from the ‘laws’ of Nature. As he stresses, ‘the attempt to find the principles of a universal ethic within Nature posits a series of questions that have to do with the social and cultural interpretation of Nature itself’. Still, his concluding reference to Fouillée that we have “to subjugate the instrumental reason to the ethical values founded by objective and dialectical reason” creates the impression that the author, in principle, accepts the possibility of deriving an ‘objective’ ethics based on dialectical reason—a conclusion I would disagree with. As I attempted to show in vol 4 no 11/12, although it is, of course, right that in developing a democratic ethics we should adopt a non-hierarchical interpretation of Nature, like the one derived by Kropotkin and Bookchin, it should not be forgotten that this is just one possible form of interpretation of Nature that we consciously have chosen because it is compatible with our choice for autonomy in the first place. This is obviously very different from assuming that a non-hierarchical interpretation of Nature is an 'objective' one and that, as a consequence, a democratic society will be the product of a cumulative development, a rational process of realisation of the potentiality for freedom. In other words, it is perfectly possible to derive an ethical system which is neither ‘objective’, (in the sense that it is derived from a supposedly objective interpretation of social evolution—Marx, or natural evolution—Kropotrkin, Bookchin), nor just a matter of arbitrary individual choice. Therefore, although I would fully agree with the author that ‘only an ethics which is independent from theology and metaphysics could develop a more fruitful relationship with nature’, I think it would be a fatal error to avoid the Scylla of theology and metaphysics in order to fall into the arms of the Charybdis of ‘objective’ rationalism (dialectical or otherwise), instead of trying to develop a democratic rationalism, on which a new ethics about the Society-Nature relation could fruitfully be founded.
Serge Latouche argues a strong case against sustainable development and the entire economic literature (as well as the politicians’ rhetoric) built around this concept. He persuasively shows that sustainable development is a contradiction in terms—in fact, a fraud. As the author stresses, ‘by adding the adjective ‘sustainable’ to the ‘development’ term, one does not mean to bring up for discussion again the term ‘development’ but only to superficially add an ecological component to it’. However, to Latouche’s conclusion that ‘it is not possible to show that development can be different from how it was in the past’ one has to add the important proviso, ‘within the market economy framework’. In other words, it is not development as such which is wrong but the specific type of development implied by the logic and the dynamics of the market economy—a fact which means that within a different institutional framework, which secures the equal distribution of economic power between and within the peoples of the world, it is perfectly possible to show that development can be different ‘from how it was in the past’. Finally, the author’s reliance on the pressure of public opinion to avoid, or even effectively limit, the ongoing ecological damage seems not just optimistic but utopian in the negative sense of the word. It is obvious that, as long as the present institutional framework of the market/growth economy reproduces itself, public opinion pressure can only have a marginal effect on the eco-catastrophic process, as it is only to the extent that the general interest coincides with the partial interests of those controlling economic power that any effective action in regard to this process can be taken. The fact that the most serious global ecological problems have continued deteriorating in the last quarter of the century or so, despite the expansion of activist organisations and reformist Green parties—several of which are now in government, taking part in their elites’ wars against other peoples!-- is the clearest confirmation of this.
Dirk Holemans provides another case study of how ‘democracy’ works in practice. In last issue, we published a graphic account of how European Union governments, like the Irish one, are busy at the moment in establishing an undemocratic institutional mechanism in the name of increasing local democracy with reference to the implementation of Local Agenda 21. In this issue, we are offered a well documented case of separation of technology and ethics, through pseudo-democratic procedures, with reference to the Flemish biotechnology policy. As the author stresses, the apparent contradiction in our society is that more technocracy does not mean less public participation, but more public participation, which however has nothing to do with public control. So, the solution given by the technocratic elites to the problem of securing public participation in the relevant decision-making (so that public support could be maintained) in a way that would not create any obstacles to their objectives, is in terms of accepting public involvement, provided that it would be carefully controlled. Thus, as the history of the Flemish regulation of genetic engineering shows, the agenda for public discussion is determined in a way that technical safety issues and social aspects (ethics) are separated . No wonder the outcome of this ‘democratic’ process is, as Holemans reminds us, that ‘although surveys of public attitudes clearly indicate that a large portion of the population in different countries has serious doubts about the benefits of biotechnology, governments continue to sustain the development of a bigger biotech industry’.
Takis Fotopoulos, Editor