Reflections on Frank Fischer’s Climate Crisis and the Democratic Prospect (Oxford, 2017)

Frank Fischer’s Climate Crisis and the Democratic Prospect should be a must read in social-ecological circles.

There are many communal and cooperative alternative institutional designs being prefigured by grassroots activists.  The revolution in consciousness consists in part in spreading the word about these alternatives, and in building the political will for these to emerge in dual power form.  In the turbulence of the poly-crisis, what may appear today as utopian and even naïve can perhaps gain momentum, especially if those engaged in building these communal institutions stand firm and double down when they meet state repression and resistance.  A dialectical spiral in which strategic and theoretical orientation of anti-system forces can make a decisive difference.  The center is unlikely to hold.  Readiness to assume power at the local level, through democratic-confedral self-determination, in response to the poly-crisis can affect the contours and outcome of the dialectical struggle between system-defenders and system-resisters.

Fischer’s book counts among its many merits that of bringing prefigured alternatives to light.

Fischer’s analysis of the local participatory forms of governance implemented by the forest dwellers in Nepal is indeed insightful.  His account captures participatory dynamics in a project that is perhaps less flashy than the Zapatistas or the Kurds, and more integrated into a hegemonic governance model  in the country, which renders its achievements all the more noteworthy and remarkable.  Nor is this the only impressive case in his comparative repertoire.  He also interrogates the dynamics of participatory budgeting in Brazil and of people’s planning in Kerala.

Across all these examples, Fischer sets out to illuminate the promises and challenges for participatory politics, driven, as it were, from the bottom up.  In Porto Alegre, he insists, “the success of the model is clearly established” (p.148). The model has been championed by the Workers’ Party, which introduced in 1989 “a publicly accountable, bottom-up system of budgetary deliberations geared to the needs of local residences” (p.148).  Likewise, in Kerala, state power in a progressive coalition led by the Communist Party of India/Marxist have sought to implement “a statewide, bottom-up system of participatory planning (p.149).

The political struggles surrounding the implementation of such participatory dynamics need to be kept in mind.  After all, these are not mere utopian projects; rather, they are grounded in concrete material and social struggles, pushing to reconfigure power relations.

The kind of research upon which Fischer’s account relies he calls “critical action research” (p.178). Such participatory research is “learning oriented,” with a “focus on generating new knowledge that can be experientially learned by the various stakeholders, in particular through discursive interactions” (p.178).  In a word, he seeks to cultivate “counter knowledge.”

Moreover, the model of “critical participatory inquiry” that he advances can be used to help “identify problems of dominance in decision processes” (p.182).

According to Fischer, the Nepalese example provides several lessons about participatory governance.  Perhaps most prominently, political transformation associated with the project have given “rise to an experience cadre of activists” (p.182).  The Nepalese experience in turn also “confirms the view that the success of local participatory processes depends on … support from the top” (p.182).  In particular, the Nepalese experience shows how “the pitfalls long associated with the general logic of a social movement turned established political organization” can be avoided, in particular “the typical centralization leading to non-democratic forms of elite decision-making and an increasing reliance upon professional expertise” (p.183).

The lessons of Nepalese local governance of forest dwellers are particularly poignant insofar as they can help us respond to the growing “eco-authoritarian challenge” (p.184).

Fischer also pays attention to the worldwide network of ecovillages, composed of people who “put their money where their mouth is” (p.185).  He hones in on a much-neglected characteristic of these ecovillages, namely, their “well-developed forms of participatory governance” (p.186).  The network of ecovillages in Senegal is if particular interest.

The Global Ecovillage Network connects the experiences across more than 100 countries and all continents.  Its basic task is “to facilitate the sharing of information and ideas of ecovillage life” (p.193).

Ecovillages “are mainly committed to forms of consensual decision-making,” described elsewhere by Liftin as “small-scale postmodern models of governance … devoted to high degrees of consensus and legitimacy” (p.198).  The theoretical aporia related to consensus decision making are acknowledged and grappled with only to briefly, in this readers’ judgment.  Instead, we are told about training in consensus building (p.199) that takes place in these contexts.

Fischer does point out that “one of the main issues confronting consensus decision-making is that the process can be blocked by a small number of persons” (p.200).  To counter such occurrences, “there is an extensive discussion about what constitutes an appropriate block and how to deal with inappropriate blocks” (p.200).  To facilitate the forging of consensus, major and urgent decisions are subjected to special attention, and suggested alternatives are appreciated.  The notion of sociocracy is to this end employed, which “allows for less consensual approaches to various everyday concerns” (p.202).

The discussion of eco-villages is likewise very revealing.   There are thousands of these around the globe, but even the environmentalist movement has paid less attention to them than they should.  These are examples of people consciously and conscientiously going “off the grid,” to radically reduce their own carbon footprint.  They live communally and govern with participatory democratic measures as well.  A far cry from the revolutionary glamour of the Kurds or Zapatistas, but well worth analysis as part of the democratic prospect, as Fischer puts the point.  Their communal living may not be “for everyone,” as Fischer admits, but a global confederation of eco-villages should certainly be promoted in response to the climate crisis.  They will be part of the solution, no doubt.

Below and beyond the nation-state are the scopes at which such a confederation must operate, and the eco-village network fits that bill.  Even if, on its own, the network is outflanked by the big corporations, who continue to pillage and plunder the earth.  To undermine their ecocidal tyranny will require concentrated, statelike power which the ecovillages lack.  Fischer recognises this problem, but warns against the spectre of an eco-authoritarian statist response.  Or more precisely, the spectre of eco-fascism.

In a world in which US Republicans either downplay or outright deny the impending climate catastrophe, to speak of eco-fascism may seem to miss the mark.  It is somewhat similar to how the far right denounced the “plandemic,” rather than throwing their weight behind authoritarian statist encroachment of the public health emergency.  The libertarian elements in far right US politics should not be overlooked.  Their anti-statist credentials cannot be denied, even as they flex in favor of the police and the military and support the prison industrial complex.  Their attacks on woke culture show the racist and patriarchal underpinnings of their worldview.  Even so, in their anti-system posturing they are to a certain degree closer to a revolutionary position than are our sof-left social democratic friends and neighbors.

That said, the spectre of eco-fascism is real, and will play into attempts to police the borders against those who are fleeing as climate refugees.  The promotion of decentralised, local participatory governance can hopefully offset and ultimately vanquish the fascist alternative, which is ecocidal and genocidal and must be stopped.  We academics cannot stand by as neutral observors.  We must put our skin in the game, so to speak, and speak out in favor of the democratic prospect.  The stakes are simply too high to stand idly by.  The dreams and struggles of all the generations are in the balance, the pressure on us is enormous.  Benjamin was perhaps right to conceptualise revolution as an emergency break.  In the contemporary period, with the representative systems totally compromised, we must brace ourselves for great turbulence ahead.  The break must be pulled, at long last.  Lest our ancestors in resistance have struggled in vein.  Victory, snatched from the grasp m, the clutches, of defeat.

We need a great comeback.  Though the urgent should not displace the essential.  There are many lessons to be learned from Fischer’s most valuable compendium. He shows the way for grappling with the challenge of climate catastrophe in a participatory democratic way.

Nor does he promote a romantic ideal of local participation; instead, he carefully examines the promises and challenges participatory movements have faced in forging democratic spaces for collective governance.