Democracy and Ecology as Forces of Change: Interview With Yavor Tarinski

By Yavor Tarinski /
May 21, 2022
Democracy and Ecology as Forces of Change: Interview With Yavor Tarinski

Interview with author and activist Yavor Tarinski, whose latest book "Concepts for a Democratic and Ecological Society" (Zer0 books, 2022) has just came out. He participates in social movements around the Balkans, as well as in transnational organizations, dedicated to the production of grassroots knowledge. Among his previous 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). Questions: J.H. Kagi.

Hello Yavor, can you please introduce yourself?

Hello! I'm based in Athens, but I originally come from Bulgaria, with both countries being situated in the Balkan Peninsula. I have been active in social movements for well over 10 years. And this practical activism provoked a lot of interest in me into more theoretical issues, as a result of which I have been writing actively ever since. So far, I have published, like, five books. And some of them have been translated into Spanish, and some of them have been also published in Bulgarian, and all of them have been originally published in English. The main interest in my writings and in my activism in general is a twofold: on the one hand there is the question of direct democracy and then there is also a great interest in political ecology. In a way, I understand direct democracy as a specific form of popular self-management of our social environment, while ecology has to do with the collective stewardship of our natural surroundings. This is, in short, at the core of my interest. 

Can you tell us more about the connection between direct democracy and ecology?

I understand ecology as a deeply political thing, in the sense that it is not about discovering some kind of technological quick fix that wouldn't be harmful to the environment. It goes deeper than that, because we have seen that contemporary civilization can start moving away from coal, for example, and away from other dirty forms of energy, adopting instead renewables, etc, but still implementing them in a non-sustainable manner. For example, nowadays in Greece there is a huge movement consisting of local communities resisting the mass construction of huge wind farms that currently cover most of the mountain tops all over the country. They're destroying local nature and are making more sustainable ways of life in these mountainous regions impossible. The thing is not that these communities are anti-ecologically minded or something, but that most of these wind farm projects are being placed there not to serve local energy needs, but to serve the needs of profits of some big multinational corporations that are in bed with the national government, the European technocratic elites, etc. These communities could have easily agreed on a certain amount of wind farms, for example, or hydropower or some other renewable source, if only they could directly participate in the decision-making processes that would determine the general outlook of a given project and the purpose of the generated energy. But instead, all of their natural environment is being sacrificed after decisions that are being made by small circles of people in the high echelons of power, for profits that will further enrich private investors who are situated very far away - in short their nature and livelihood is sacrificed to the teansnational engines of unlimited growth. That's why I claim that ecology is always political. Even if you decide to exploit nature "responsibly", as the advocates of "green" capitalism suggest, you will still have to increase exploitation in order to maximise profits. We can imagine and develop the best type of renewable energy and still be anti-ecological. So, what is the political ecology then? It is first and foremost the recognition that the way we treat the natural world around us is actually a reflection of how we treat one another. So, when you start putting other human beings in cages, you start treating them like disposable tools or cattle, then you start thinking of other animals in terms simply of cattle, thinking of them as tools or viewing nature, not as something upon which your very existance depends on, but as something that you can exploit for short-term profit. So, we can suggest that the most ancient forms of exploitation - patriarchy and gerontocracy - have played a significant role in humanity's current anti-ecological outlook. It was in the birth of these two ancient exploitatory forms that for first time certain groups of human beings begin treating other human beings as lesser than them. And so we see these things worsening with the passage of time. Today our social imaginaries have been down-right drowned into economistic thinking. We tend to percieve everything as a resource waiting to be exploited. We have reached so far as to commodify even our interactions with other human beings - take as example the so called "social medias", where one, by simply interacting with other users, is himself, and the content he is posting, becoming a commodity.  So if we want for the planet to remain inhabitable, we will have to start by changing the political architecture of our societies. This is where direct democracy and ecology meet. 

Many have come to suggest that democracy is simply a procedure, like referendums, plebiscites or some other kind of deliberative tool, that can function in parallel to the State and its representative institutions. But if we follow the logic of people-power, i.e. of direct democracy, then it becomes clear that it is much more than that: it entails a whole new type of system, in which everyone have an equal share in power, where there is spatial and temporal dimensions that allow for decisions to be taken collectively by everyone that are concerned. In this sense, it is ridiculous to think of direct democracy as something that can function in parallel to capitalism and the Nation-State, because they both suggest that societies will be managed by bureaucratic mechanisms like the capitalist market or parliaments, both of which are unprone to genuine popular control. In them both there is also this trend of separating (and fetishizing) the economy from society, while direct democracy have always meant the exact opposite: that the economy is not a thing, it's not something superior over all other spheres, it is one of our human spheres, and as such it should be subjugated to our collective will (i.e. to politics). 

In a democratic society the economy will be under the control of what Murray Bookchin calls demotic or municipal assemblies. It will be public's participatory institutions, where the people from a given neighborhood, a small town or village, will gather, and they'll decide all questions that concern them. They'll gather together and will decide that they have this vision for society, they want these things being done, etc. So, in one such setting you cannot have capitalism, because there is no place for the bureaucratic "free market". There'll be markets in the sense of people's marketplaces where exchange of goods will take place. There producers can join into producer cooperatives, consumers may join in consumer associations, etc. But ultimately, if the people's assemblies decide that what one economic unit do is harmful, either to nature, or that it vests some people with more power than others, then the municipal participatory institutions can step in and say stop, we don't want you to do this. In a sense, the municipal grassroots institutions will create, through deliberative processes, the general framework of how the economy shall function and will excercise public control. I think this is the basic characteristic we must focus on - on the political - because direct democracy suggests that the collective decision-making of everyone should be the sovereign power source. In this sense, there will be no place for parliaments as well. You know, parliamentarism is something that was invented to exist alongside monarchies - it was the monarch who rule and in the parliament were the representatives of his subjects, with whom he consulted himself. That's why Jean-Jacques Rousseau have suggested that the subjects of parliamentary regimes are only free during election day, but during all the rest of the time, they're not. Later on, Cornelius Castoriadis corrected him, saying that even on this day you are not free, because those in power have had the resources and the time to prepare a different agenda and have worked hard to influenc public opinion so that they can get reelected. So when you go to vote, you have already been influenced by the power structures, by the media, and of course, by the huge power and influence that big Capital has.

Tell us a little bit more of who your influences are.

So, probably the biggest influence on my thinking and practice comes from philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis. He was a Greek-French thinker and activist, co-founder of the journal "Socialism or Barbarism" that influenced the student movement before and during the May '68 rebellious events. He was a vocal critic of both capitalism and Marxism. What is important is that he criticised the latter from revolutionary position. What he advocated for was a project of social and individual autonomy, in which all members of society participate consciously in the creation of laws and norms that shape their lives in common. From this it is obvious that direct democracy played crucial role as the political basis of Castoriadis' vision. The other great influence on me was Murray Bookchin. He is considered as the founding father of Social Ecology, a living body of theory that is continuously being expanded and developed by new generations of scholars and activists. In his vision for an ecologically minded society direct-democratic municipal politics played an integral part - what he termed libertarian municipalism. Bookchin made a clear distinction between what is being done in parliaments today and what can be done by grassroots decision-making institutions. The former he called statecraft, while the latter he viewed as genuine politics. To do politics means to be an active participant in the creation of the institutions that manage everyday life, or in short, to be active participant in the management of the city where you live. This is important distinction because we have to bear in mind that nation-states and parliamentarism go hand-in-hand. They entail huge scales and are essentially bureaucratic. They're not manageable by the common person, while cities, although not always, allowed at certain historic periods for citizens themselves to undertake directly their management. And as Henri Lefebvre, another important French thinker, has underlined, these people exercised a genuine rights to the city. So I find certain political similarities in the thought of Castoriadis, Bookchin, Lefebvre and others. I will also invoke the name of Hannah Arendt as a great influence. She was a sagacious thinker that advocated for council democracy and emphasised on the emergence of institutions of popular power during revolutipns. 

And what about CLR James?  Have you heard about him?

Yeah, this is actually very interesting, because Castoriadis and CLR James actually knew each other. They have even collaborated, together with Gracely Lee Boggs, on a book called "Facing Reality". I have also read and thoroughly enjoyed James' book "Every cook can govern". It's an excellent small pamphlet on what we must keep from the ancient athenian polis. This work is also in line with Castoriadis', who has also written extensively on this subject. And I think they both understand something very important, that along its serious shortcomings (such as patriarchy and slavery), the Athenian polis also gave birth to the revolutionary idea that people can participate as equals in the management of their communities without the need of any special skills or sets of knowledge. There was also a very specific institutional expression of this logic in the form of sortition (choosing by lot) and popular assemblies. It is this logic - that each and every one of us can participate in the management of society - that is so important for any tangible revolutionary project. This idea is completely absent from our dominant system, where all the power is vested in supposedly "the best" (representatives), "the most knowledgeable" (technocrats), and "the smartest" (businessmen),and because of this there is such high level of injustice. 

What do you think can be done today that can get us on the path to this new society that we want and that the people deserve?

Yeah, I have been thinking a lot about that. And I think one of the most important things is that we don't get caught up in what they call revolution with capital R, which often can lead to political inaction. It is this logic that tells us to wait for the grand revolution to sweep the world and destroy the capitalist class, liberating the people and then giving us the time to think what we'll do. Also we should be careful of not falling into like the trap of overideologizing our actions and turning into small sect that are really not interested in changing the world, but in keeping their purity and their elitism. Both of these approaches, in my opinion, are very counterproductive. What's important is that we get to where the common people are and get our hands dirty. We should try speaking languages that are as understandable as can be by the great majority of people, including those who are not traditionally interested in politics and try to get them on board to social change. Because if we want to create a free democratic society that will treat nature with respect, we have to get the majority of people around us to be part of it, otherwise we cannot impose it on them. If direct democracy is not implemented by most of the people themselves, but it is instead imposed on them by a small group, then we cannot talk of anything democratic, right? The same goes for ecology. If you simply go and try to impose it, then you won't get much further than bringing some kind of "green" authoritarianism and/or eco-fascism, and ultimately keeping the very mindset that destroys nature. So, what we have to do is get involved with social movements. Whenever we see that there are certain liberatory and democratic traits in such popular mobilization, we should encourage them (through our very participation) to continue in this direction. Of course, I don't mean that we go simply everywhere, but where we see that there are seeds of direct democracy and politic ecology - and there are a lot of movements that are bearers of such seeds. One neglected type of activism, at least maybe until recently, is the urban one: I am speaking of various experiences where citizens get together for various urban issues,like green spaces, housing, traffic intensity, and many other issues that directly affect our everyday life. I mean, these are genuinely democratic issues that provoke common citizens to try to have an impact on where they live. I am reminded of John Dewey's thought that democracy begins in the neighborhood level, where you live. You may remember the big 2013 upeising in Turkey, which was sparked by the fight of Istanbul residents to preserve an urban green space called Gezi Park. There were mass mobilizations and clashes with the police, but more importantly, public assemblies emerged in various neighborhoods, which gave voice to common people and coordinated protest actions. So we should think of all these types of struggles, without fetishizong them, and the collective identities they tend to create. This is important, because unlike the identity of the worker, which is enforced on us by the capitalist system, the one of the citizen is reclaimed through our actions in the places we live. In a sense, the identity of the citizen is an all-encompassing identity, because it has to do with a whole different type of mindset that is completely absent in today's world. So, it is very important to try to encourage people to think and act as citizens, which means to care about public affairs and to demand the right to directly participate in them, to speak up when needed, to care for what is happening on the streets around them, to try and reclaim power away from bureaucratic authorities, to not leave space to police brutality and frivolity, etc. And also it's very important to think of setting up grassroots institutions, like public assemblies, from today and to try to spread their influence among society. In a way, this was the approach of the people of Rojava (AANES). When the civil war in Syria broke out, their communities were already organized around ecology councils that were coordinating struggles against huge dam projects and other schemes that were destroyng nature. They also had established communes and assemblies that were helping in redistribution of food and communal self-defense. It was these grassroots institutions that managed to keep things organized, and to keep society functioning, but this time in a non-barbaric, very democratic, peaceful, harmonious way. In short, any meaningful strategy for social change should entail the opening up of spaces that allow to people to collectively liberate from the passive identities enforced on them by the system (such as consumers, tax-payers, vote-casters, etc.) and adopt new ones that are based on passion for political participation (that of the citizen). 

Excellent! Thank you for your time. 

Thank you very much! 

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