1388 Restoration of the commons

Civilizing the State: Reclaiming Politics for the Common Good
by John Restakis

Gabriola: New Society Publishers, 2021
$19.99 / 9780865719439

Reviewed by Stan Markotich


The world as we know it is changing and we may be unable to return to anything familiar. With his thought-provoking Civilizing the State: Reclaiming Politics for the Common Good, John Restakis certainly does not make a claim in exactly this way, but he conveys the sentiment. The causes of disparity and suffering can be found, he suggests, in the globalization processes that have destroyed local socio-economic and political ecosystems the globe over. The suffering is difficult to fathom, yet it is worldwide and has prompted those indentured by the shackles of debt to large corporations to succumb to extreme and dire ramifications. For example, in a chapter dealing with the realities of the rural way of life, Restakis observes that in one part of India during roughly the first three months alone in 1998, “350 farmers had hanged themselves or drunk the poisons that had failed to save their crops” (p. 79). 

But Civilizing the State is not a catalogue of despair. Far from it. At its core, it stands as a challenge to those who advocate liberal globalization as a solution to problems and a provider of wealth for all. Perhaps most importantly, this book proposes its own solutions. People, Restakis states, have not only been fighting back against an iniquitous system; they have provided practical guidance and inspiration by clawing back their ties to truly democratic relationships that may still serve as solutions.

John Restakis of Simon Fraser University

Restakis argues that the modern state has simply failed its citizenry. “If the state has abandoned its duty as steward of the common welfare,” he observes, “…it has not done so accidentally” (p. 7). In fact, he suggests that the modern state has committed nothing short of treason by abandoning its responsibilities to all citizens. The state, in the current environment, has become the instrument of one particular class — large capital. Restakis provides numerous examples to underscore this point, including several that illustrate how national governments have divested public assets at fire-sale prices. The result can be measured by how enriched and powerful the investing classes have become, and how impoverished almost everyone else is. Given such realities, Restakis suggests, it becomes easy to understand growing social tension.

To be sure, he does not oversimplify his presentation. The modern state is not solely the result of processes that have evolved through some inevitable cartoonish evil. Restakis makes many positive observations about the welfare state as the pinnacle and great accomplishment of liberal reform policies, but it is bound to a neoteric (modern) ideology that reduces all relationships to crude market exchanges. This, no doubt, is because the welfare state grew out of a system rooted in concepts of private ownership and consumer-supplier exchanges. A welfare state may deliver excellent health care, but it does so as a purveyor of medical goods and services. The recipient is dehumanized, seen as little more than a client, an engine of consumption geared to perpetuating the system. The goal must not be merely be to return to old institutions, but to advance beyond them, to find a way of humanizing relations between the public and the state.

Here Restakis asks how do we remake the world? In short, there must be a restoration of some notion of the “commons.” There was a time in history when property was held and used in the service of a community, and not for the enrichment of select individuals at the expense of others. One key to achieving such a conceptual renaissance is to rediscover cooperation, especially intra- and inter-class cooperation. Yet, he cautions, not all forms of working together lead to desired results. For example fascism, which emphasizes a particular variant of close cooperation, is a highly toxic substance. And certainly no one type of individual institution is necessarily to be excluded from the body politic. As much as one may rail against big banks, Restakis argues that even they once worked in and for the public trust. He points out, for instance, that “From 1935-1974, the Bank of Canada created interest-free money that was used by the Government of Canada to finance major infrastructure projects in the country” (p. 185).

The solution to these vexing problems is to activate the public’s proclivity to democratic problem solving. Here “democratic” is meant as more than a formality defined by a mere process such as voting. It involves invoking a mindset that collapses social, class, ethnic, cultural, and religious borders between people that might also be seen as barriers. In several case studies Restakis illustrates how common people, banding together to oppose the economic and social forces pressing for inequality, may frustrate interests bent on seeking economic and political power that also undermine the state. Restakis bases these chapters in part on his personal experiences: as former director of the BC Co-operative Association, he views co-op movements as agents of empowerment, and he insists that civil society organizations have a vital role to play.

K. Rajesh, Local Politics (Primus Books, 2020)

In his useful chapter on Kerala, India, Restakis examines the popular democratic sentiments that have overtaken that province and argues that these might provide an exemplar for others. It was in Trivandrum, the provincial capital, in September 1996 that the multitudes converged for “a long series of social dialogues.” People from many walks of life — peasants, activists, government representatives, and workers — met in an event that would evolve into a movement that spread back into villages across Kerala. Restakis notes that the involvement “of civil society organizations, which provided volunteers and organizing expertise, was essential to the success of the mobilization” (p. 101). Other case studies come from Spain and Syria. Restakis also examines the life and accomplishments of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, who at one time was “a traditional Marxist,” but since has become a proponent of “democratic confederalism,” or a “political theory of stateless democracy …[that] advocates universal and direct democracy as the foundation of a free society and rejects the state as a precondition for its realization” (pp. 114-5). Yet just exactly what separates democratic confederalism and democratic centralism on a macro level remains opaque to me.

It is precisely on the diagnostic issue that Civilizing the State will drive lively debate. Restakis mentions some thinkers and philosophers — Karl Marx and Adam Smith, to name but two — but he deals with their contributions to statecraft and social development peripherally. Restakis reflects on how and why these political economists might be useful in our current situation, worth studying if only to understand how they themselves erred. Marx, not known for his advocacy of the bourgeois state, might have failed to reflect on the notion that the investing classes of his day were more critical of political restraints than hitherto suspected. Indeed the bourgeoisie needed the legitimacy of an earlier governing socio-economic elite, but the royal usurpation of wealth through taxation might have made kings and queens the objects of annihilation. In other words, did the bourgeoisie want to “smash the state” all along, instead of merely seizing it for their own benefit? Was Marx therefore the ultimate reactionary by providing a trenchant analysis of the ambitions of a class he professed to loathe?

John Restakis in Athens. Courtesy Facebook

And what of Restakis’s observations about nature? He notes the alarming treatment of our common natural environment by globalist enterprises. Some of his analysis evokes the nineteenth century Romantics and their reactions to the abuses of the Age of Reason. Yet his concern with nature also extends to matters of human nature and indeed he resuscitates the ancient nature-nurture debates. On the one hand, humanity can be trained to live in social peace and in a cooperative society; but on the other hand, individuals have been known innately to seek power, advantage, and resources for their own selfish desires. Restakis’s emphasis on education suggests his sympathies are with solutions that pin their hopes on nurture. Or is the core of “civilizing the state” a two-front contest that requires two entirely different sets of solutions? Resolving issues of inter-class conflict may in no way relate to matters of state. When employers rail against workers and suggest they lack motivation, and take advantage of investor resources, those employers are leaning on their nature. The state is not top of mind when discussing such group dynamics.

John Restakis’s Civilizing the State is an important volume that demands a reading. It raises awareness of critical issues that threaten to ruin societies, perhaps beyond repair, and goes further than most by proposing practical solutions. It is difficult to disagree when he hints that much can get worse if we as a society insist on standing as individuals with no shared interests. As curators of arcane identity politics and a belief that the world is little more than what we say it is, we may just sear ourselves in a stew of postmodernist ideology.


Stan Markotich

Born and raised in Vancouver, Stan Markotich completed his undergraduate work at Simon Fraser University in 1985. From there, he went on to receive a master’s degree from the University of Victoria. In 1987, he moved to Indiana University, earning his doctoral degree in history under the supervision of Dr. Barbara Jelavich. Upon graduation, Markotich accepted an appointment with Radio Free Europe, serving as Serbian analyst and remaining in Europe for roughly a decade. During that time, he served in a variety of capacities, including as Senior Policy Advisor with Bosnia’s Independent Media Commission, with a secondment from the Canadian Ministry of External Affairs. Markotich has published hundreds of academic and popular articles as well as book chapters. He is the main author of White Paper of the Independent Media Commission: Media and Democratisation in Bosnia and Hercegovina (2000). Markotich is currently teaching at a private college in Richmond, and plans to return to SFU Continuing Education in the Fall 2022. He has completed two manuscripts, including one that deals with his experiences in the Balkans, and is currently reaching out to publishers. Editor’s note: Stan Markotich has also reviewed a book by Peter Clarke for The British Columbia Review.


The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and writers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

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