An interview with author and activist Yavor Tarinsi on the occasion of the publication of his latest book “Concepts for a Democratic and Ecological Society” (Zer0 Books, 2022). Tarinski is an Athens-based independent researcher, activist and author. He participates in social movements around the Balkans, as well as in transnational organizations, dedicated to the production of grassroots knowledge. He is a member of the administrative board of the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology, the editorial board of the Greek digital journal & publications Aftoleksi, and is a bibliographer at Agora International. Among his works are “Common Futures: Social Transformation and Political Ecology” [co-authored with Alexandros Schismenos] (Black Rose Books, 2021) and “Direct Democracy: Context, Society, Individuality” (Durty Books, 2019). The questions for this interview were prepared by Not White.
NW: What does “Concepts for Democratic and Ecological Society” mean?
YT: Well, it’s the title of my book that I chose, because for years now, I have been reading and writing about different concepts that were developed, or were in the process of being developed in a quite the grassroots participatory manner. So it was concepts that were developed simultaneously by activists, by social movements, but also by scholars and thinkers. So these are a kind of radical, revolutionary type of concepts, all of which revolve around the idea of creating a society that is both genuinely democratic and also genuinely ecological. Democratic in the sense of going beyond the representative system that we have today, towards a real democracy based on real participation, and ecological in the sense of moving beyond mere environmentalist, green capitalist proposals that are being advanced by the current system, but instead, it’s a real rethinking of our relationship with nature, of which we are part of.
NW: What are some of the concepts you cover in the book?
YT: The book has quite a few chapters, each one focusing on a different concept. One of the concepts that intrigues me is that of the commons. There are also concepts such as libertarian municipalism, degrowth and many others. But there is always this common thread among all of these concepts, that they’re all based on direct democracy and ecology. I am interested and I have been working with concepts that have at their core, this exact element, this element of real people power. And so, I find that for example, in the the world wide discussion over the commons, both theoretical or practical, there is, of course, a lot of reformism, there are a lot of people who tend to water down the concept of the commons and turn it into some kind of alternative economic model which to be embedded into the system as we know it today. But ultimately, there is always this potential, that is always there and is the potential of people getting together and deciding collectively of how they should manage vital resources upon which their livelihood depends.
The same holds for concepts like degrowth. There are thinkers like Serge Latouche, for example, who try to somewhat minimise the revolutionary potential of degrowth’s body of theory, but more broadly speaking, the discussion around this concept almost always contains, to some extent at least, this element of direct participation by the people, citizen empowerment and also reframing our relationship with nature, rethinking our needs in terms of energy, of waste, etc. So all the concepts that I examined in this book revolve, in one way or another, around these two main pillars, the direct participation of the people, and the question of ecological reframing of our needs, and our attitude towards the living world around us.
NW: What inspired you to write the book?
YT: This is a very nice question! It’s actually my fifth or sixth book that I have written so far. And the inspiration is always the same. Since I’m not an academic, I am not a scholar, I do not work in an ivory tower, in a university or anything like that. For me, all my writings have been and still are, in a way, a form of political action. I am politically active in my everyday life, I participate in grassroots collectives and social movements throughout the Balkans, and I also participate in transnational organizations that try to develop collective knowledge and enrich the pallets of revolutionary theories, etc. So, for me, the only reason for writing a book, or a text for that matter, has always been the same. It’s political action, it is an effort of mine to advance certain ideas that I wants to be promoted more, to which that there is not enough space given to, and also help into developing further those concepts, ideas, projects, etc. I hope that my books could influence people to get to think more radically, to think beyond the mainstream, to think beyond the parameters of the system. To actually challenge the multilayered crisis that we face today, like war, economic hardship, environmental degradation etc., means to go to the root of all these problems, which is the domination of one person over the other, and of human beings over nature. So this is the main reason behind this book, as well as all the others that I have written.
NW: You speak a lot about Murray Bookchin and Cornelius Castoriadis. How have they influenced you?
YT: Well, I have quite a few names that you’ll see being referenced in this book, as well as in previous books of mine. But no doubt the biggest influences for me are Cornelius Castoriadis and Murray Bookchin. I find them really inspirational. They are both thinkers that we’re not prisoners to ideological dogmas. This is also true for a thinker that I know is a favorite of yours: of CLR James, for whom I also have deep respect. There is also Hannah Arendt who is a source of inspiration. So it’s this type of thinkers that are not afraid to go beyond ideological purity in search of revolutionary perspectives that are relevant to our time. So, both Castoriadis and Bookchin were, until their very last breath, concerned with the genuine self-empowerment of people and with the creation of institutions that will maintain such an empowerment. They were not interested in developing a blueprint, but they were, nonetheless, advancing certain ideas and values, defending them from bad hearted opponents that would try to argue that direct democracy or a self-managed society is not possible. The political projects of both these thinkers were very coherent. That’s why they would both distance themselves, from an early age, from communism, because they will find it too economistic. Because the latter was too focused on economic relations that left too much space for the development of powerful bureaucracies and state power. And then they both, in one way or another, also distance themselves from anarchism, as well. They were not satisfied with this idea that there could be a type of society of good individuals where no political institutions are needed. So they believed in the necessity of political institutions that will maintain equality, that will ensure the potential for political participation. Political participation is something that we can learn to value, but we must have the space to develop it, to accept it, and ultimately to develop passion for it. In today’s system, it is clear that there is no such space, there is only a space for us being consumers, taxpayers, and from time to time – vote-casters. But most certainly there is no space where we can develop a citizen consciousness, there is no space where we can develop passion for politics. So, what these two thinkers advanced was the idea that we should start developing such passion for politics, for political participation, for political equality in the cracks of the system, and to try to spread them.
NW: I’m now going to read a quote from the book, and it’s a quote that I think is really, really strong. Here it is: “we should abandon the growth doctrine altogether and direct our attention toward the already enormous pace of economic production. There is no point in enlarging it even further; on the contrary, if we want to have any future on this planet, we have to degrow it. But this can have meaning only if we decide to share it equally. And this cannot be done by the State or other hierarchical extra-social structures, for equality requires equal participation in the decision-making by all citizens. Thus, here we speak for a major paradigm change: an altogether abandonment of the capitalist economism of homo economicus and embracing of the social ecology of active citizens, passionate about public affairs and conscious of their symbiotic relationship with nature.” That’s just an excellent quote. And it ties into what you were just saying before my question: you go against hierarchy and the State quite a bit. Were you influenced by anarchism?
YT: Yes, most certainly, I have an influence from anarchism’s body of theory and practice. And more broadly from the libertarian tradition. This quote that you just read, in a way, it summarizes the general thrust of the book, and of many of my other works. You know, capitalism is a type of system that places an enormous emphasis on economics. So, thinkers like Karl Polanyi and Cornelius Castoriadis have suggested that in this case we must talk of economism because what we have, in a sense, is a fetishization of economy. Today everything is about economics. Capitalism tends to separate economics from all the other human spheres of activity, it places it on a pedestal, and develops a web of bureaucratic relations, through which it manages the economy and everything else. And unfortunately, Marxist theory, from its inception, has also entered into this trap. Marx himself was really putting an enormous emphasis on economics. And I would argue that it is not by chance that it was from this body of theory that totalitarian systems such as the Stalinist State emerged. When you put so much emphasis on economics, and not enough on anything else, then you create certain preconditions. So, since the economy is the most important sphere, then the most important thing is stimulating it and making it grow, and not who runs it. There could be some technocratic institutions, like the capitalist free market that manages it. Or, as was the case with the Soviet Union, it can be managed in a totalitarian manner by a group of supposedly enlightened party functionaries, that are well known and have a great knowledge of Marxist theory. There is not enough emphasis in such economistic theories on the political field and this is the main problem. In order to avoid a totalitarian or an eco-fascist nightmare, then you must set forward the political question – i.e. the question of who gets to determine tha laws and norms that frame our life in common. What I advance in the book is that nation-states, political parties, bureaucratic market mechanisms, etc. are all parts of the same political architectures that allows for economy to be fetishized. Instead, I argue, we should play a specific attention to politics and the question of who gets to decide on the crucial issues that will determine our future – is it the few or the many.
This is a central theme of this and all the rest of my books, but also of the practice of the grassroots collectives in which I participate. Bookchin has said it quite clearly, when referring to his political project called “libertarian municipalism” (a concept on which I expand in the book), that in a genuinely direct-democratic setting the economy will slowly be absorbed by the political sphere, in the sense that the most of the people will make the decisions that concern them in their neighborhood assemblies directly. These participatory grassroots institutions will not deal exclusively with one set of issues or the other, they’ll have to deal with all aspects of our life in common. There will be deliberation on issues that will have to do with the environment, with culture, with education, and also with economics. And of course, this does not mean that all citizens will spend countless hours discussing all these issues to the smallest detail, but instead there will be the space wherw they can collectively develop the framework within which all the spheres will function. And all the the committees and councils that will be tasked to manage each of these spheres separately, will be under the direct control of these participatory grassroots institutions. In this way the economy will cease being the top priority of capitalist markets and nation-states, and instead will become one of many issues that will be deliberated upon by all members of society at the political arena. As you can understand, this is radically different from what is happening in places like Switzerland, where under “direct democracy” they mean only referendums taking place once in a while in a setting where the State and the capitalist relations remain intact. It is only logical that their plebescites have limoted power and often cannot affect the economy. So we see, that there the economic sphere remains elevated above the political sphere. Thing look radically different in communities like those of the Zapatistas or those in Rojava. Both of these are examples of radically democratic communities that successfully function today. We see that in the communes of Rojava and in the Zapatista assemblies how people discuss and decide on all spheres of social life – they discuss everything that concerns them. And in this sense, the political issue of who decides also determines all the other sphere in the sense that education will obtain more participatory characteristics, the economy will be managed in a more cooperative manner etc. So what I ultimately propose in the book is that we do not tackle each sphere of our collective coexistence separately, like speaking for economic democracy, or democratic education, but we instead tackle the root of all crises that torment our societies – which is the domination of narrow elites over rhe vast majority of human beings and nature – which is a political issue.
NW: Exactly! And that brings me to my next question: you talk a lot about direct democracy, and you’ve just explained a lot about it. What does it mean to you?
YT: Nowadays we have come to percieve direct democracy as a kind of procedure. So, a collective is direct democratic, because it works with an assembly and everyone has a voice in it. Or a co-op is direct-democratic because its worker-owners run it collectively. In short, having an assembly, conducting a referenda, or choosing by lot supposedly equals direct democracy. And while the creation of specific institutions that foster broad public participation are vital for every genuinely democratic setting, this on its own is not enough. Direct democracy, as Castoriadis suggests, is also a regime. It is not this or that tool implemented in this or that situation, like the case of Switzerland’s referendums: this, like I explained in my previous resonse, does not make a society democratic. Direct democracy as a regime means that a whole range of participatory tools and procedures are being implemented in all fields, so as to erase every trace of oligarchic rule. It also means the emergence of a specific anthropological type that is developing along such radically democratic institutional framework. So, it is a type of people that has developed a passion for politics, who has developed a great interest in public affairs. We understand that the capitalist anthropological type of today has nothing to do with that. It is a very politically passive type of person whose only passion is buying a new type of smart gadget or a good car, going to vacations, etc. Now, this kind of person is a very cynical, very passive, and very conformist one exactly because it is being formed within the political architecture of today’s oligarchic societies. So, if we begin creating a network of popular assemblies and municipal councils, along with practices such as sortition (choosing by lot), rotation and revocability of delegates, and many other such tools and processes, replacing the existing parliaments and representatives that are unprone to public control, then we are also beginning to pave the road for the emergence of certain radical democratic and ecological traits that can result in a new anthropological type. Direct democracy thus is a social system based on broad and unmediated popular participation, but it is also a specific type of democratic individual. These two, the social and the individual aspects, are interlinked.
NW: I have one more question. You speak a lot about cities in your book. What do you think future cities will look like?
YT: I am very interested in urban issues and municipal politics. Cities, from their very inception, united human beings not around blood ties or tribal belonging, but around political agreement. In a sense, cities are highly political by their very essence and because of that they are vital for the creation of a genuinely democratic and ecological society. Cities, unlike nation-states or capitalist corporations, are prone to citizen participation. The very term citizen originated from the idea that each urban dweller must take responsibility for his or her city. So in this sense, the city has certain revolutionary democratic potential. The very concept of direct democracy emerged from the urban setting of Ancient Athens. The latter had many flaws, like sexism and exclusionism, but it nonetheless developed the idea that the management of society does not require special skills or knowledge and can be done collectively by ordinary people. Castoriadis, Bookchin, Arendt and CLR James understood all this very well. Today, of course, the urban reality has changed completely. Cities are no longer places for public deliberations; on the contrary, they have become temples of capitalist growth that turn their inhabitants in alienated and passive consumers. They have also grown into these huge sprawling monsters that pollute everything around them. In short, they have become unsustainable, both on social and environmental level. With some cities having populations of tens of millions of inhabitants, they look more like centralized empires with strong oligarchic rule. But this does not mean that we should abandon the city as a concept and to call for a retreat to a kind of romantic, overromanticized image of agrarian life. No, I do think that there is great need for the recreation of our cities along democratic lines. Of course, this will mean detaching them from the doctrine of constant economic growth, from the dogma of consumerism, from political centralization, and instead to charge them with new significations, such as those I examine in the book. In over a decade we have seen a plethora of urban movements around the world that are trying to reclaim public spaces and set up alternative political institutions. We have seen this in the Arab Spring, as well as the movement of the squares that followed shorlty after, the Gezi park uprising in Turkey, the plenum movement in Bosnia and Harzegovina, etc.
In all these cases we saw citizens gathering together in attempts at actually opening spaces where they could act as citizens, because, like I said before, democratic politics need a space where they can be practiced. If we want to reclaim the control over our cities and societies, we cannot limit our action to the internet, we also need to take to the physical space of urdan environments – the streets and the public squares. This is the revolutionary potential of cities and that’s why I put so much emphasis on it.
NW: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer to these questions.
YT: The pleasure was all mine.