Common Futures: Social Transformation and Political Ecology
“Man is by nature a political animal.”
-Aristotle, Politics, Book i, 2
“If Liberty and Equality, as is thought, by some, are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will best be attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.”
-Aristotle, Politics, Book iv, 4
TWO EXCEPTIONAL young public intellectuals and activists, Yavor Tarinski and Alexandros Schismenos, invite us to consider their analyses and insights into our present circumstances and potential options for our common futures. Their contributions are well worth taking very seriously indeed.
Conventional politics are stuck, torn between the redundant doctrines of market or State capitalism and Keynesianism. As we face, across the planet, the pandemic plague, the collapse of Nature, social breakdown, and a gathering crisis of large-scale migration, massive urbanization, and permanent under-unemployment, neither of these current politics offers much. These State-driven economic politics are dismal, managerial politics that fail to articulate a vision of a better society. Thus, many people are again drifting and driven into the anti-politics of fascistic right-wing options. What then is urgently needed is a constructive, engaging vision that can welcome people into a politics that is social and cultural with a regenerating humanism rooted in community. And this is the promise of social ecology.
On top of all the major problems we are facing across the planet, since 2019– 2020, and now into 2021, the plague has wrought changes in our society that are so far-reaching that it is impossible to imagine the course of history without it. Will we return to ‘business as usual’ or turn towards radical democratic alternatives away from the way things were? A year of futile strife, accompanied by economic difficulties and attendant social upheavals has led many people to question their relationship to the world around them.
For a number of recent years, public intellectuals began to ask basic questions about human society and the prevailing human condition. These questions and concerns are also spoken about in various civil society movements and community associations in almost every region.
Questions like: What is the purpose of civic life when mutual aid and solidarity campaigns sprang up in various cities to help the elderly, the poor, the underclass, and the unemployed? Why have people come together, especially in communities, in the first place? Where is the conduct of cities or society given the ongoing conflict with the rhythm of nature? How are we on this side of a line called a border different from another on the other side?
Both Yavor Tarinski and Alexandros Schismenos address some of these concerns. As we grapple with the present and future, we have to acknowledge that the emergence and victories of the world’s largest social movements are still in the process of unfolding. I am referring here to Occupy Wall Street, Idle No More, the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matters, and many others, that are really affecting the tide of history. Recall that all of these movements are of the same spirit of resistance, drawing from the same well, articulating a need for another society, a more open and democratic one. The people’s cry is that power, all power, has to be localized in the interest of globalizing justice. History is in the present.
In considering what needs to be done, we must learn from the past to inform the present and beyond. We know that both Thucydides and Plato were critics of democracy, it should be noted that almost all the major thinkers of ancient Greece were. Fearing the destruction of the species, Zeus sent Hermes to bring aidos (‘shame’) and dike (‘justice’) to mortals. When Hermes asked Zeus whether these should be distributed to a select few, as was the case with the arts of medicine and other techniques to a select few, or to everyone, Zeus ordered him to give some to everybody, since cities cannot be formed if only a few share in these skills as they do in other arts.
It is for this reason, that Protagoras says, that when the Athenians come together to make decisions that this requires a sense of justice that goes into political wisdom, ‘they take advice from everybody since it is held that for states to exist everyone must partake of this excellence.’ Protagoras concludes, the Athenians do right to welcome political advice from anyone who is moved to give it. Nowhere does he suggest that everyone is equally skilled in civics, but everyone, he argues, has at least a little. And in dozens of orations surviving the fourth century, praise is offered to freedom of speech, liberty, equality before the laws, and the rule of law with justice. Our best understanding of the theory of democracy, however, is its practice (its praxis).
In a word, the practice entailed active participation by all citizens, guaranteed by frequent rotation in office, in the belief that average men could make decisions, as evidenced by the use of the lot and taking important decisions in the assembly by majority vote. They believed in trial by jury, and they took measures to protect the polis from corruption, and their right to call all officials to account without exception regularly, and on the slightest pretext. They also believed, needless to add, in slavery and patriarchy.
We have much to learn from this praxis, nevertheless, and modern archaeology has uncovered much new evidence in how the citizen assembly actually functioned, concretely. Citizens’ assemblies preceded, and in unexpected places, from those of ancient Greece to more sophisticated forms that the Greeks created.
Based on his reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, Maurizio Passerin d’Entreves’s gives as an estimation of her importance:
“Arendt’s theory of action and her revival of the ancient notion of praxis represent one of the most original contributions to twentieth-century political thought. …Moreover, by viewing action as a mode of human togetherness, Arendt is able to develop a conception of participatory democracy which stands in direct contrast to the bureaucratized and elitist forms of politics so characteristic of the modern epoch.”
The roots of such insights are very much alive.
In their engagement as activists in the praxis of social ecology, Yavor Tarinski and Alexandros Schismenos draw on the resources from the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology (TRISE), thus their politics attempt to merge theory and practice. In doing so what must be taken into account is that in Europe (where the TRISE is based), there are several radical currents that have emerged on the ground. These include urban movements for radical democratic and ecological shifts in various cities in France and Spain around the theme of ‘the municipalisation of Europe.’ While at the same time, the USA and its ‘progressives and so-called left’ are caught in a quagmire. Witness a political system caught in the lock-jaw of a Congress deeply divided, facing a society which is split between the centre-left and right-wing. To paraphrase the recently deceased actor Sean Connery, the Dems will be holding a knife in a gunfight. The one hopeful sign may be that the ideological gloves are finally off. Words like ‘the Left’, ‘progressives’, ‘socialists’ ‘capitalism’ are no longer banned in the US mass media. How and when the political soil will be seeded remains to be seen. When will the mass protests demanding change develop into a new politics?
Joe Biden received some 79 million votes, including 87 per cent of AfricanAmerican voters. Trump won over 73 million voters, the majority being white. The elections brought out historic numbers, including over 10 million young voters. Once the reality of the Biden presidency becomes clear, however, then what will emerge? To be sure, there will be seemingly important alternative developments, here and on the other side of the Atlantic.
By many objective accounts, China within three to four years will become the world’s largest economy. What does this mean concretely for our common futures?
In the meantime, let’s keep our eyes on old Europe, which seems to show some promise of a break from the present and toward a new reconstruction on a transnational basis.