In a real democracy people would determine their own future, as individuals and communities, instead of as anonymous members of a society that treats them as ciphers – someone who puts a piece of paper in a ballot box every five years and then has no control over what happens next.
People often find it difficult to be free and open about themselves, other human beings or the surrounding world. The reckless abuse of the planet and its inhabitants can lead to such a deep estrangement that people become indifferent to the monstrous abuse of nature and people.
In our hollowed-out democracy, not to mention in war zones or impoverished parts of the planet, people have little or no control over the course of their own lives and that of others. Even the air that we breathe poisons us in many cities and towns.
Each individual sees herself or himself as part of an unstoppable machine, unable to influence anything. Our humanity seems to be stolen from us, and what is left is alienated and unnatural. No wonder that mental illness, drug-taking and other psychological problems have reached epidemic proportions. Our connection with the world – be it our natural environment, other human beings and even ourselves – is thus unnatural and constrained.
The aim of a truly democratic society would be to liberate society from these narrow, exploitative and unhappy social and personal relations.
Unlike other animal species, human beings in society connect with nature not immediately, but through the state and the economy, which includes working or obtaining the means of subsistence in other ways. In other words, the need to sell our labour mediates the way we connect with nature. In this process, our relationships are turned upside down and inside out.
Re-connecting with nature
Instead of being part of a natural whole, we are compelled to work and live in ways that destroy the ecosystems on which all economy, husbandry and livelihood depends.
Millions of workers are involved in forms of agriculture, industry and production that are fatally damaging for the planet and the life upon it. These include coal mining, manufacturing products like cars, running various energy industries and using and extracting precious metals. Others have to travel long distances to get to their jobs and buy cheap food full of pesticides and sugar.
For those who want to live in a more ethical or individual way, recycling or lowering their carbon footprints in a variety of ways, it is virtually impossible to avoid using things that exploit or harm human beings, animals and the planet’s ecosystems.
Over time, the law, constitution, education, and so on have been shaped to promote the assumption that the capitalist economic form is the natural form of our social existence. We relate to nature at one or perhaps many removes through the prism of capitalist social relations. Until we transcend the whole concept of waged workers and profit-driven growth, and develop a completely different ‘social metabolic relation’ (as Istvan Meszaros, building on Karl Marx put it) we cannot protect the future of humanity or millions of other precious species.
A social licence
Overcoming our one-sided relationships with the world around us is, therefore, the challenge for real democracy.
It is little surprise that people are increasingly inspired by the understanding of the human-nature relation that is part of indigenous culture. Indigenous peoples’ principles of stewardship, rather than ownership, of the earth’s resources are intrinsically early communist forms which recognise that humans are part of nature and reliant upon it.
The social licence idea can help us consider the way forward and provide a vision of a future structure for managing the human-nature relationship. In this approach, communities have to agree to economic and infrastructure projects before they can go ahead. The social licence would replace the way governments ride roughshod over local people to impose fracking and other activities. It could transform the one-sided extraction-only relation with nature into a dialectical and natural relation, which is restorative and conservative as well as extractive. It can redefine and regenerate the concept of the commons.
Over to you
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