Murray Bookchin (Wikipedia) (1921-2006) was a political theorist with an interest in the theory of technology and the philosophy of nature.
Weird Sly Kips comments: I met Murray Bookchin at a green party conference in Toronto in the 90s and it was his encouragement that lead me to work long and hard on green party policy and run municipally. In his later years he reject what he called “lifestyle anarchism”. Modern anarchists who reject the core values of the Enlightenment, in favour of mysticism, paganism, and the New Age. Being hostile to reason leads to theoretical incoherence; and a recession into Taoist quietism and Buddhist self-effacement. It condemned modern technology as well as science, even though Kropotkin, for one, significantly emphasized “the progress of modern technicians, which wonderfully simplifies the production of all the necessaries of life.”
With that in mind I have freely summarized, source documents are linked, your comments and squabbles about the narcissism of tiny differences works to the advantage of the bourgeoisie.
Why social Ecology?
What is Social Ecology? (original text)
All our present ecological problems arise from deep-seated social problems which cannot be clearly understood, much less resolved, without resolutely dealing with problems within society. (See Critical Theory)
Many “environmentalists” who identify ecological problems with the preservation of wildlife, wilderness, or more broadly, with “Gaia” and planetary “Oneness,” confuse the minutia of our daily lives with the cumulative effect of the fundamental processes of our daily lives.
Unless we realize that the present market society, structured around the competitive imperative of “grow or die,” is the problem we will falsely tend to blame technology for environmental problems. We will ignore their root causes, such as trade for profit, industrial expansion, and the identification of “progress” with corporate self-interest. In short, we will tend to focus on the symptoms of a social pathology rather than on the pathology itself, and our efforts will be directed toward limited goals whose attainment is more cosmetic than curative.
Nature and Society
Nature is more than the beautiful vistas we see from a mountaintop or in the images that are fixed on the backs of picture postcards. Such images of nature are basically static and immobile. It deceives us into believing in the “eternal” of a single moment in nature.
If we look with care we see nature as an evolving phenomenon, as the totality of its evolution.
This vast drama is in every respect stunningly wondrous. It is marked by increasing flexibility and differentiation that makes an organism more adaptable to new environmental challenges and opportunities and renders a living being more equipped to alter its environment to meet its own needs. One may decide, quite matter-of-factually, that the “struggle for existence” explains why increasingly flexible beings are capable of dealing with environmental changes more effectively.
Conceiving nature as an evolution rather than as a vista has profound implications; human development becomes placed squarely within this organic evolution. We are not “intelligent fleas,” to use the language of Gaia theorists who believe that the earth (“Gaia”) is one living organism. Humans are highly intelligent, indeed, very self-conscious primates, which is to say that they have emerged not diverged from a long evolution of vertebrate life-forms into mammalian, and finally, primate life-forms. We are intentional; a product of a significant evolutionary trend toward self-awareness, and expressiveness.
We are all Aboriginal
We belong to a natural continuum, to depict us as “aliens” that have no place in natural evolution, or to see people as an infestation or a parasite on the planet (Gaia) the way fleas are on dogs is bad thinking, not only bad ecology.
We belong because we are products of a long, natural evolutionary process. Seemingly “unnatural” activities—like the development of technology and science, the formation of mutable social institutions, of highly symbolic forms of communication, of esthetic sensibilities, the creation of towns and cities—all would be impossible without the large array of physical attributes that have evolved over eons, be they large brains or the bipedal motion that frees their hands for tool making and carrying food everything about us is natural.
In many respects, human traits are enlargements of nonhuman traits that have been evolving over the ages. Increasing care for the young, cooperation, the substitution of mentally guided behavior for largely instinctive behavior—all are present more keenly in human behavior. The difference between the development of these traits among nonhuman beings is that among humans they reach a degree of elaboration and integration that yields cultures or, viewed institutionally in terms of families, bands, tribes, hierarchies, economic classes, and the state, highly mutable societies for which there is no precedent in the nonhuman world—unless the genetically programmed behavior of insects is to be regarded as “social.” In fact, the emergence and development of human society is a shedding of instinctive behavioral traits, a continuing process of clearing a new terrain for potentially rational behavior.
The Greening of politics
Separating the human from nature reveals a failure to think organically, if we are content to regard nature as no more than a scenic vista a poetic description of it might suffice to replace systematic thinking about it. But if we regard nature as a history, as an evolutionary process that is going on to one degree or another under our very eyes, we dishonor this process by thinking of it in anything less than a continual self-organizing ever-richer future of which we are a part, not as the naive or religious claims “superior to” or “made for”.
Separating yourself it is easy to deal with ecological issues like a bookkeeper. One simply juxtaposes two columns—labeled “old paradigm” and “new paradigm”. Obviously distasteful terms like “centralization” are placed under “old paradigm,” while more appealing ones like “decentralization” are regarded as “new paradigm.” The result is an inventory of bumper-sticker slogans; a form of “absolute good versus absolute evil.”
All of this maybe deliciously easy for the eyes, but it is singularly lacking as food for the brain. An understanding of process is required so we can gain some sense of direction—practical as well as theoretical—in dealing with our ecological problems.
Social ecology calls upon us to see that nature and society are interlinked by evolution into one nature. That is to say, people create an environment that is most suitable for their mode of existence. In this respect, we are no different from the environment that every animal, depending upon its abilities, creates as well as adapts to, the biophysical circumstances—or community—in which it must live. On this very simple level, human beings are, in principle, doing nothing that differs from the survival activities of nonhuman beings—be it building beaver dams or gopher holes.
Hence human beings, emerging from an organic evolutionary process, initiate, by the sheer force of their biology and survival needs, and owing to their naturally endowed intelligence, powers of communication, capacity for institutional organization, and relative freedom from instinctive behavior, they refashion their environment—as do nonhuman beings—to the full extent of their biological equipment.
Kinship to Social Hierarchy
How did class formations, and culture emerge from the biological? We can speculate that lineage, gender distribution, and age differences were slowly institutionalized, their uniquely social dimension was initially quite egalitarian. Later it acquired an oppressive hierarchical and then an exploitative class form. The blood tie in early prehistory formed the organic basis of the family, joined together groups of families into bands, clans, and tribes.
Outside the clans and tribes others were “strangers,” who could be welcomed, enslaved or put to death. Customs were inherited, morality began as the commandments of a mystical deity. Only later, beginning with the Babylonians and passed on to the ancient Greeks, did ethical behavior emerge, based on rational discourse and reflection.
The shift from custom to morality to rational ethics occurred with the rise of cities and urban cosmopolitanism. Humanity, gradually disengaging itself from the biological facts of blood ties, began to admit the “stranger” and increasingly recognize itself as a shared community of human beings rather than an ethnic folk—a community of citizens rather than of kinsmen.
From everything we know about the evolution of kinship, age, and gender groups into early institutions there is no reason to doubt that people existed in a complementary relationship with one another. Each, in effect, was needed by the other to form a relatively stable whole. No one “dominated” the others or tried to privilege itself in the normal course of things. Yet with the passing of time, even as the biological facts that underpin every human group were further reworked into social institutions, so the social institutions were slowly reworked at various periods and in various degrees, into hierarchical structures based on command and obedience. I speak here of a historical trend, in no way predetermined by any mystical force or deity, a trend that often did not go beyond a very limited development among many preliterate or aboriginal cultures, and even in certain fairly elaborate civilizations.
Early forms of Hierarchy
Primitive Communism (Wikipedia)
Elders were the earliest forms of hierarchy and were respected for their wisdom and often beloved by the young. We can account for the increasing stridency and harshness of later gerontocracies by supposing that the elderly, burdened by their failing powers and dependent upon the community’s goodwill, were more vulnerable to abandonment in periods of material want than any other part of the population.
The existence of elder hierarchy existence in communities as far removed from each other as the Australian Aborigines, tribal societies in East Africa, European feudal communities, Russian Serfdom and Indian communities in the Americas. Many tribal councils throughout the world were really councils of elders, an institution that never completely disappeared (as the word “alderman” suggests), even though they were overlaid by warrior societies, chiefdoms, fiefdoms and kingdoms.
“Why” hierarchy emerges is transparent enough: the infirmities of age, increasing population, natural disasters, certain technological changes that male activities of hunting and caring for animals over the horticultural functions of females, the growth of civil society, the spread of warfare. All serve to enhance hierarchy and its responsibilities.
Hierarchy vs Class exploitation
It is worth emphasizing that hierarchical domination, however coercive it may be, is not to be confused with class exploitation. Often the role of high-status individuals is very well-meaning, as in the case of commands given by caring parents to their children, of concerned husbands and wives to each other, or of elderly people to younger ones.
In early societies, even where a considerable measure of authority accrues it is as advisers rather than rulers; earning the esteem of the community by interacting with the people, and a person is easily ignored or removed from position.
Classes tend to operate along different lines. Power is gained by the acquisition of wealth, rule is guaranteed by physical coercion, not persuasion; and the state is the ultimate guarantor of authority.
Certain customs guide human behavior along basically decent lines. Once a shared notion that all members of a community are entitled to the means of life, irrespective of the amount of work they perform. To deny anyone food, shelter, and the basic means of life because of infirmities or even frivolous behavior would have been seen as a heinous denial of the very right to live. Nor were the resources and things needed to sustain the community ever completely privately owned: overriding individualistic control was the broader principle of usufruct—the notion that the means of life that were not being used by one group could be used, as need be, by another.
Thus unused land, orchards, and even tools and weapons, if left idle, were at the disposition of anyone in the community who needed them. Lastly, custom fostered the practice of mutual aid, the rather sensible cooperative behavior of sharing things and labor, so that an individual or family in fairly good circumstances could expect to be helped by others if their fortunes should change for the worse. Taken as a whole, these customs became so sedimented into society that they persisted long after hierarchy became oppressive and class society became predominant.
The Idea of Dominating Nature
“Nature,” often has no meaning to preliterate peoples. Immersed in nature it has no special meaning. Words that express our conventional notions of nature are not easy to find, if they exist at all, in the languages of aboriginal peoples.
With the rise of hierarchy and human domination, however, the seeds are planted for a belief that nature not only exists as a world apart, but that it is hierarchically organized and can be dominated.
The biblical injunction that gave to Adam and Noah command of the living world was an expression a society with class and hierarchical structures; it made for obedience in private as well as public life. These attitudes and values are given substance through objective institutions, the ways in which humans concretely interact with each other, and in the realities of everyday life from child rearing to work and play.
Until human beings cease to live in societies that are structured around hierarchies as well as economic classes, we shall never be free of domination, however much we try to dispel it with personal martyrdom, eco-theologies or adoption of “natural” ways of life.
Common sense calls for a sweeping change in existing spiritual values; a far-reaching transformation of our prevailing mentality of domination into one in which we would see our role in the natural world as creative, supportive, and deeply appreciative of the needs of nonhuman life. Any spirituality that does not focus on the ability of humanity to function as moral agents engaging in ecological restoration, and fostering an esthetic appreciation of natural evolution in all its diversity is corrupt.
Armies continually roamed the landscape; tax-gatherers plundered village peoples, and daily abuses were inflicted by overseers on workers and yet community persisted and retained many of the cherished values of a more egalitarian past. The customs of the irreducible minimum, usufruct, and mutual aid were persistant well into history and surfaced almost explosively in massive popular uprisings, from early revolts in ancient Sumer to the present time. Many of those demanded the recovery of caring and community values when these were under the onslaught of elitist and class oppression.
In ancient Greece, a rational philosophy rejected the encumbering of thought and political life by extravagant wants, this served to slow the pace of technological innovation to a point where new means of production could be sensitively integrated into a balanced society. Medieval markets were modest, usually local affairs, in which guilds exercised strict control over prices, competition, and the quality of the goods produced by their members.
“Grow or Die!”
But just as hierarchies and class structures tend to acquire a momentum of their own and permeate much of society, so too the market began to acquire a life of its own and extended its reach beyond limited regions into the depths of vast continents. Exchange ceased to be primarily a means to provide for needs, subverting the limits imposed upon it by guilds or by moral restrictions.
Not only did it place a high premium on techniques for increasing production; it also became the creator of needs giving an explosive impetus to consumption and technology. First in northern Italy and the European lowlands, later—and most effectively—in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the production of goods exclusively for sale and profit (the capitalistic commodity) rapidly swept aside all cultural and social barriers to market growth.
By the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the new industrial capitalist class with its factory system and commitment to limitless expansion began to colonize the entire world, and finally, most aspects of personal life.
It is crucially important, in social ecology, to recognize that industrial growth does not result from a change in a cultural outlook alone, and least of all, from the impact of scientific rationality on society. It stems above all from harshly objective factors churned up by the expansion of the market itself, factors that are largely impervious to moral considerations and efforts at ethical persuasion.
Despite the close association between capitalist development and technological innovation, the driving imperative is the need to grow. As important as greed or the power conferred by wealth may be, sheer survival requires that capital must expand it’s productive apparatus in the process devour its competition. The notion of progress, once identified as a faith in the evolution of greater human cooperation and care, is now identified with market share.
The effort by many well-intentioned ecology theorists to reduce the ecological crisis to a cultural rather than a social problem may shelter the entrepreneur from the harsh fact that his or her actions are directly leading to
Business is Business
Indeed, to the extent that environmental movements and ideologies merely moralize about the “wickedness” of our anti-ecological society, and emphasize change in personal life and attitudes, they obscure the need for social action. Corporations are skilled at manipulating this desire to be present as an ecological image. Mercedes-Benz in a two-page ad, decorated with a bison painting from a Paleolithic cave wall, that “we must work to make more environmentally sustainable progress by including the theme of the environment in the planning of new products.” Such deceptive messages are commonplace. Advertising is equally self-serving in the United States, where leading polluters piously declare that for them, “Every day is Earth Day.”
The point social ecology emphasizes is not that moral and spiritual change is meaningless or unnecessary, but that modern capitalism is structurally amoral and hence impervious to any moral appeals. The modern marketplace has imperatives of its own, irrespective of who sits in the driver’s seat or grabs on to its handlebars. The direction it follows depends not upon ethical factors but rather on the mindless “laws” of supply and demand, grow or die, eat or be eaten. Maxims like “business is business” explicitly tell us that ethical, religious, psychological, and emotional factors have absolutely no place in the impersonal world of production, profit, and growth. It is grossly misleading to think that we can divest this brutally materialistic, indeed, mechanistic, world of its objective character, that we can vaporize its hard facts rather than trans forming it.
A society based on “grow or die” as its all-pervasive imperative must necessarily have a devastating ecological impact. Two centuries ago, the forests of England were hacked into fuel for iron forges with axes that had not changed appreciably since the Bronze Age, and ordinary sails guided ships laden with commodities to all parts of the world well into the nineteenth century. Indeed, much of the United States was “cleared” of its forests, wildlife, soil, and aboriginal inhabitants with tools and weapons that would have been easily recognized, however much they were modified, by Renaissance people who had yet to encounter the Industrial Revolution.
What modern technicians did was to accelerate a process that was well under way at the close of the Middle Ages. It did not devastate the planet on its own; it abetted a phenomenon, the ever-expanding market system that had its roots in one of history’s most fundamental social transformations: the elaboration of hierarchy and class into a system of distribution based on exchange rather than mutual aid; in other words an Ecological Society
Social ecology is an appeal to moral regeneration and social reconstruction along ecological lines. The popular notion of a personal, ethical change only obscures the power relationships that prevail today by making the attainment of an ecological society seem merely a matter of “attitude.”
Social ecology seeks to dismantle notions like the “domination of nature.” It challenges the entire system of domination itself and seeks to eliminate the hierarchical and class edifice that has imposed itself on humanity.
Social Ecology seeks to enrich the evolutionary process by diversification of life-forms. To oppose the corporate world does not mean that one has to become naively romantic and “biocentric.” By the same token, to applaud humanity’s potential for foresight and rationality, and its technological achievements, does not mean that one is “anthropocentric.” The loose usage of such buzzwords, so commonplace in the ecology movement, must be brought to an end by reflective discussion.
Social ecology, in effect, recognizes that—like it or not—the future of life on this planet pivots on the future of society. It contends that evolution is not yet complete. Nor must we choose one or the other; either natural evolution with its “biocentric” halo, or social evolution, as we have known it up to now, with its “anthropocentric” halo—as the basis for a creative biosphere.
Doing the impossible
We must go beyond both the natural and the social toward a new synthesis that contains the best of both. Such a synthesis will transcend them in the form of a creative, self-conscious, existence where we intervene in natural evolution with their best capacities, our moral sense, an unprecedented degree of conceptual thought, and our remarkable powers of communication.
Decentralization of cities into confederally united communities sensitively tailored to the natural areas in which they are located,
Technology like Solar, wind, methane, and other sources of energy, the use of organic forms of agriculture,
Industry that is humanly scaled to meet regional needs of confederated municipalities. It means, too, an emphasis not only on recycling, but on the production of high-quality goods that can last for generations.
Creative work rather than insensate labor and an emphasis on the crafts person in preference to mechanized production.
A living politics: no vision of an ecological society, can be meaningful unless it is embodied in a “politics”, not the statecraft practiced by what we call “politicians”—namely, representatives elected or selected to formulate policies as guidelines for social life and to manage public affairs.
To social ecology, politics means what it once meant in the democratic polis of Athens some two thousand years ago the formation of policy by popular assemblies and their administration by mandated, carefully supervised boards of coordinators who could easily be recalled if they failed to abide by the decisions of the assembly’s citizens. I am very mindful that Athenian politics, even in its most democratic periods, was marred by the existence of slavery, patriarchy, and the exclusion of the stranger from public life. In this respect, it differed very little from most of the Mediterranean civilizations—and Asian ones of the time.
What made Athenian politics unique, however, was that it produced institutions that were extraordinarily democratic—even directly so—by comparison with republican institutions in the so-called “democracies” of the Western world. Either directly or indirectly they inspired later, more all-encompassing democracies, such as certain medieval towns, the little-known “sections” of Paris (which were essentially forty-eight neighborhood assemblies) that propelled the French Revolution in a highly radical direction in 1793, New England town meetings, and more recent attempts at civic self-governance.
Any community, however, risks the danger of becoming parochial, even racist, if it tries to live in isolation and develop a seeming self-sufficiency. Hence, the need to extend ecological politics into confederations of communities, and to foster a healthy interdependence, rather than an introverted independence. Social ecology would embody its ethics in a politics of confederal municipalism, in which municipalities cojointly gain rights to self-governance through networks of confederal councils, to which towns and cities would send their mandated, recallable delegates to adjust differences. All decisions would have to be ratified by a majority of the popular assemblies of the confederated towns and cities. This institutional process could occur in the neighborhoods of giant cities as well as in networks of small towns. In fact, the formation of numerous “town halls” has already repeatedly been proposed in cities as large as New York and Paris, only to be defeated by well-organized elitist groups that sought to centralize power, rather than allow its decentralization.
Power will always belong to elite strata if it is not diffused, in face-to-face democracies, among the people, who are empowered as partly autonomous, partly social beings—that is to say, as free individuals, but as individuals responsible to popular institutions. Empowerment of the people in this sense will constitute a challenge to the nation-state—the principal source of nationalism, a regressive ideology, and of statism, the principal source of coercion.
Diversity of cultures is obviously a desideratum, the source of cultural creativity, but never can it be celebrated in a nationalistic “apartness” from the general interests of humanity as a whole, without a regression into folkdom and tribalism. The full reality of citizenship has begun to wane, and its disappearance would mark an irrevocable loss in human development.
Citizenship. in the classical sense of the term, meant a lifelong, ethically oriented education to participation in public affairs, not the empty form of national legitimation that it so often indicates today. It meant the cultivation of an affiliation with the interests of the community, one in which the communal interest was placed above personal interest, or, more properly, in which the personal interest was congruent with and realized through the common.
Property, in this ethical constellation, would be shared and, in the best of circumstances, belong to the community as a whole, not to producers (“workers”) or owners (“capitalists”). In an ecological society composed of a “Commune of communes,” property would belong, ultimately, neither to private producers nor to a nation-state. The Soviet Union gave rise to an overbearing bureaucracy; the anarcho-syndicalist vision to competing “worker-controlled” factories that ultimately had to be knitted together by a labor bureaucracy.
From the standpoint of social ecology, property “interests” would become generalized, not reconstituted in different conflicting or unmanageable forms. They would be municipalized, rather than nationalized or privatized. Workers, farmers, professionals, and the like would thus deal with municipalized property as citizens, not as members of a vocational or social group. Leaving aside any discussion of such visions as the rotation of work, the citizen who engages in both industrial and agricultural activity, and the professional who also does manual labor, the communal ideas advanced by social ecology would give rise to individuals for whom the collective interest is inseparable from the personal, the public interest from the private, the political interest from the social.
The step-by-step reorganization of municipalities, their confederation into ever-larger networks that form a dual power in opposition to the nation-state, the remaking of the constituents of republican representatives into citizens who participate in a direct democracy—all may take a considerable period of time to achieve. But in the end, they alone can potentially eliminate the domination of human by human and thereby deal with those ecological problems whose growing magnitude threatens the existence of a biosphere that can support advanced forms of life. To ignore the need for these sweeping but eminently practical changes would be to let our ecological problems fester and spread to a point where there would no longer be any opportunity to resolve them.