Unpacking the “Partner State”
A Conversation with John Restakis about Civilizing the State (Part One)
After almost two decades as the executive director of the BC Co-op Association and a stint as executive director of Community Evolution Foundation, John Restakis currently dedicates his time as a lecturer in Alternative Economies for Social Transformation at the University of Victoria, and to community economic development in Vancouver. He is the author of Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital (2010) and a co-founder of the Synergia Institute.
In our previous issue, Ownership Matters published a review of John Restakis’ Civilizing the State: Reclaiming Politics for the Common Good (2021). Here, we have invited the author to join us and asked him to expand on some of the critical aspects of the Partner State concept.
We live in an age of extremes. We witnessed that during the invasion of the Capitol last year, which you described in the introduction to your new book as one of the moments defining an epoch. You also pointed out that “the empire of capital” is the driving force behind the great dichotomies of our time, including the abyss between “the upper world of wealth and global civil society.” Tell us more about how you see the potential of the Partner State to repair this abyss.
I start with what I refer to as the crisis of legitimacy of the state and the growing disaffection and mistrust that populations have with their governments and how nation-states are governed worldwide. It’s not just a European phenomenon. It’s happening everywhere.
We have a state of disaffection and mistrust, without all the answers about what an alternative would be. We need a new form of governance and a new form of state to deal with this problem. What I propose is this idea of the Partner State.
The only way government or a state can establish trust with the citizenry is if the citizenry believes that the state or the government actually reflects and represents their interests, priorities, and values. If we do not have a fundamental reidentification with a state with a new set of values and priorities, the problem does not disappear.
We need a regime change: the Partner State is a different form of governance, democratizing the state and formally aligning state power with an empowered civil society. The Partner State reflects the values of cooperation, mutualism, common welfare, and the ability of individuals and democratic civil organizations to be directly involved in the economy.
In your book, you suggest a transition to economic democracy. For example, you say “enterprises over a certain size controlling more than a maximum allowable percentage of a market would have to divest and subdivide into separate enterprises.” Could you expand on how we can gradually transition towards economic democracy without a complete revolutionary break with the current system?
In countries like the U.S. or France, where there is capitalist liberal democracy, a new government or regime could perform changes in the legislation to limit the size of corporations — this has already happened in the past. In the 1920s–1930s, the U.S. government passed antitrust laws that limited the size of corporations. It is the same reason why you would consider a similar legislation today. In fact, some of the bills have been drafted today in the United States, for example, to control the size and the power of social media corporations like Facebook or Google. Legislative change is a fairly conventional way of dealing with the monopoly power in the markets in capitalist economies. Therefore, the problem is not concerning what the solution might look like but is rather a political issue — an issue of political will.
In other words, there isn’t enough political power either in government or in civil society to compel the government to pass this kind of legislation. We need political constellations in place that provide the impetus to pass legislation limiting the size of corporations; ensuring that corporations operate within a social mandate or a social contract; directing them to provide a living wage to their workers; allowing collective bargaining; ensuring transparent policies that address the issues of climate change and environmental responsibility. All these tools are available to us, but how do we mobilize the political power to implement these ideas?
We need a different framework than the free market model, where the market and capitalists determine who gets what. Neither is it the state centrally planning the economy. The Partner State is this new ideological foundation for a healthier economy and society. Within the economic democracy framework, the Partner State promotes social values and provides needed services to people, embodying cooperation, reciprocity, and mutuality.
Towards the latter part of your book, you mention the role of corporations and possible ways to accomplish economic democracy. You describe economic democracy as the basis for an alternative to capitalism. Is it accurate to assume that the partner state could not be sustained within a capitalist system?
I ask that because I’ve always perceived economic democracy outside the traditional conception of capitalism versus socialism. On the one hand, economic democracy is rooted in wealth distribution, mitigation of labor exploitation, and abolishing authoritarian-based hierarchies in the workplace, resembling socialist trends. On the other hand, workers and users get private ownership of the means of production in many cases. Do you believe economic democracy through broad ownership and governance is capable of transcending past dualisms?
In the U.S., the rise of authoritarianism triggered a return of traditional socialist visions, which will hardly get vast popular support. The task is to reinterpret socialism and the state’s role in ways that address inequalities and empower civil society.
The Partner State represents economic democracy, transcending the conventional dualism between private capitalism and state — both result from the absence of economic democracy. The partner state cannot exist within the current capitalist framework where there is an overwhelming power and wealth concentration in the hands of mega-corporations and the elites. Contemporary capitalism is, in essence, anti-democratic.
The Partner State is a different form of socialism — it is a form of distributed civil socialism in which the institutions held by civil society have a much more assertive role in managing the economy and politics with the support of the state. I am not advocating that everything should be collectively owned with no more private companies. Economic democracy is pluralistic, encompassing different kinds of enterprises (e.g. cooperatives, private enterprises, public enterprises, employee-owned businesses). I advocate embedding democratic principles in the economy and empowering citizens to undertake a more predominant role in how the economy and society are organized.
As a Brazilian, I appreciated your mention of Bolsonaro when talking about the concept of social murder. What is happening in Brazil is an excellent example of how governments can completely abandon their duty as a steward of the common welfare, betraying their people. I liked your description of democracy as “an exotic plant amidst a forest of authoritarian political forms.” Brazil is a reminder of how fragile democracy still is. How can we restore the state and trust it as a partner in systems where it is so far gone?
In failing states and democracies, the instability provokes radicalization within society. That radicalization can take progressive and democratic forms or reactionary and fascistic forms — both of those forms appear today side-by-side in popular discontent against governments around the world.
What kind of leadership and civil organization will determine the direction of the regime that will succeed? It could be reactionary and far-right, as often happens in times of instability. Between the First and the Second World Wars, the rise of fascism directly responded to this kind of instability and the inability of more progressive movements to provide leadership — we’re in a very similar situation today.
A socio-political movement must articulate policies and mechanisms by which alternative values can be institutionalized in a new form of regime and a new government. New values and ideas lead to a new kind of political movement that wins the allegiance of broad sectors of civil society and determines what the revolution will look like — if it happens.
Look for Part Two of our interview with John Restakis in issue 26, to be published Tuesday, May 3.