The Plausibility of Anti-Civilization Without Anarcho-Primitivism: A Critique of Murray Bookchin’s ‘Social Ecology’
An avid Deep Green Resistance (DGR) member highly recommended a read on ecology by Murray Bookchin, who was, at least at the time of the writing, a self-labeled eco-anarchist. Bookchin is liberally mentioned in critiques on his overarching plan for restoring nature and humans’ place with it. With myself being an anarcho-primitivist restoration ecologist, I’d finally let my thinking brain chomp on his conception of social ecology as elucidated in The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy.
Admittedly I was reluctant and doubtful before opening the first page solely due to the DGR source of the referral. I reject DGRist Derrick Jensen’s embrace of societal reform, and I reject DGRist Leirre Keith’s goal for a return to pre-capitalist markets, hence my knee-jerk reaction to anything DGR as sketchy. Shortly after opening the book, my hopes for common ground were repeatedly dashed.
“…the simplification of biotic evolution would become the harbinger of a world in dissolution. History, conceived as the overall rational continuum of human affairs, would disappear, and humanity itself would undergo self-dissolution. The disappearance of the organic would find its expression in the steady decline of complexity, in the replacement of meaning, consciousness, agency, and creative causality by complete purposelessness…” p. 12
Instead of ending this madness, welcoming the collapse of tyrannical civilization, finally freeing nature, Bookchin seems gravely appalled that modern humanity is at risk. He holds tightly on in effort to save not only civilized humans, but civilization itself. He uses his updated introduction as platform for his own harbinger to toughen the struggle for societal reformation, driven with a clear sense of rational purpose, ultimately achieved by more decentralized organization and human management of nature. Do I sense the appeal to my DGR friend?
Initially fooled by the title, ‘The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy’, I now step into a one-way argument with Murray on his wished-for a-hierarchal societal utopia (his word). That’s right, yet another proposed form of society, this one scientifically adept at living in sync with nature. Ah, I sense I am walking straight toward the ‘plausibility of anti-civ without anprim’ dilemma, on which I’ve never fleshed out my thinking. But soon Murray begins attacking back, launching hysterical shots at anarcho-primitivism. A two-way argument with a dead author? After grinding through his 1991 ‘Twenty Years Later, Seeking a Balanced Viewpoint’ add-on introduction, positioned just before the original introduction, I stop pulling out my hair and redirect my fingers to the keyboard.
Rejection of non-rational
Most of Bookchin’s 50-page re-introduction is differentiating his thinking from other emerging ideas he perceives as fetishizing wilderness, invented to escape reality and conceal empty lives, the ultimate abandonment of real hope. He lumps together mystical and romantic biocentric approaches he deems partial to wilderness. The list of virtual ‘cults’ include: Deep Ecology, Ecofeminism, Gaiaism, Shamanism, Earth Goddess, Animism, Pantheism, Wiccan, and an Anarcho-Primitivism that celebrates a return to Neolithic and even Pleistocene sensibilities and lifeways. Bookchin does not distinguish differences between these groups, much less nuanced differences within them. For example, there is no consensus on a given time to which anprims strive for return. Some may prefer Neolithic, some Pleistocene, some later, some earlier, some compromise drawing from a variety of earlier times to coalesce into a new form of primitivism. Perhaps most offensively to some, Bookchin fails to acknowledge the stuffed library of rational ‘sensibilities’ driving anarcho-primitivism.
What all these groups seem to have in common is that, to varying extents, they step away from patriarchy in civilization. But perhaps unlike the other ‘cults’, anprim often begins with utmost sensibility, and features a definitive end goal that fully excludes civilization’s domination through technology, absolutely dismissing any reformed version of society. Ironically, in regard to the end goal, most of these ‘cults’ seem to have more in common with Bookchin’s social ecology utopia than anprim. Then how does he justify attaching anprim to his axis of mystical evil? With little to no contemplation, he disparages a human return to wilderness as ‘silly’. For Bookchin, there is no return to original nature because “(t)his way of life is bereft of purpose, meaning, or orientation,… a way of life that no human being could endure except by ceasing to think.” p. 48 But what if anprim is not only demonstrated to be an actually enjoyable way of life for real humans, but perhaps the only way to achieve even his own goal, a return to a state of freedom on Earth with, as his title declares, ‘the emergence and dissolution of hierarchy’. How is the ‘free society’ he envisions not just a ‘gentler, kinder’ form of civilization with its inherently detrimental hierarchy? Is any society with science and technology possible without hierarchy? Without explanation, he thinks it is. Following the logic of DesCartes, ‘He thinks therefore it is.’
In his glib critique of rewilding, Bookchin warns of all the losses of conveniences and luxuries of modernity, and the dangers of living life as survivor, as predator and prey. Watch yourself Murray, that primal fear is exposing your primitive side. You might be even further alarmed that humans are primates, designed to be more prey than predator. As a matter of scientific fact, by our evolutionary biological nature we are not only still folio-frugivores, but ‘man the hunted’ by design. Being the rational man you are, read Chivers and Langer in Food, Form and Function on human’s evolutionary diet, and anthropologist Sussman’s Man the Hunted. Only through biocultural adaptations were humans able to overcome and oust our predators, read Wrangham’s Catching Fire. Yet even some anprims may reassuringly retort, ‘Adaptation is the way of nature’. I add that the launching of our ‘rise to the top’ was also the commencement of nature’s fall. We are eating and adapting ourselves out of our own sustenance and shelter, read Mason’s An Unnatural Order, Weisman’s Countdown, and Livingston’s Rogue Primate. I must concede, Rogue Primate was at my DGR friend’s highest recommendation, which leaves me pondering her possibilities for having a split personality.
Bookchin asks an interesting dichotomous question of anprims. Will human return take the form of hunter-gatherer sheer pragmatic survival disavowed of primordial rituals, mythologies, etc. or will we revert to a spiritualistic mindset if we adopt ways of early hunters in need of mystical sanction? A third option is a return to our foraging ancestors’ lifeway. Let me finish my reply to Murray’s warning here with, the formation of civilization prompted by fear of death (read Forbidden Dimensions) does not equate to easy living. Look around you at all the human suffering. It is not only wrought by capitalism, much of it would still exist in technocratic localized societies. Each lifeway has its own form of misery and death. But there is a reason people living today who reject civilization’s technological lifeway tend to be a happier lot. As C.G. Browne suggests in her research into the early human mindset, paradoxically, an obsession with ‘not dying’ is what birthed Earth’s ultimate death machine, civilization.
I agree with Bookchin’s criticism that some ideologies remove human agency in nature. The restoration ecologist in me cherishes some of his lashings on this, like calling out ideologies that distract from our survival instincts to take action on civilization’s environmental catastrophes, and that misdirect action from healing wild to even more self-aggrandizement. The fallback idiom ‘nature can take care of itself’ is a fanciful but untenable easy way out of our recompense for our species’ wrath of destruction. Still, his diatribe to preserve human techno-society, combined with his failure to recognize fundamental pitfalls of his grand plan, reveal not only his his own magical thinking but his supremacy.
Like so many, Bookchin builds a solid case for a return to nature, for anarcho-primitivism itself, but in the end cannot stomach the thought of it actualizing and so jumps the ship he himself built. He retreats to a human-centric social ecology goal: to create a ‘free society’ knotted together with differentiation, wholeness, and complementary relationships. There are many ilk of anprim, but for my ilk, a comparable goal might read something like: to wholly rejoin organic freedom with thriving wild communities and all that entails. But his diatribe is not of sincere analysis or comparison, not a consideration to extrapolate merit from his mystical targets. They are his competition, and he fears they are winning the hearts, if not the minds. Assigning no real value to any of his targets, he shuns such ‘silly’ thinking that subverts his sole realizable ecology movement, a rational one of progress forward that dares not ask humans to renounce their dominionistic place in nature. Oh and, he offers reassurance that rational society will not continue making human bodies into annihilation machines thusly:
“(f)ree nature, in my view, can only begin to emerge when we live in a fully participatory society literally free of privilege and domination. Only then will we be able to rid ourselves of the idea of dominating nature and fulfill our promise for acting as a moral, rational, and creative force in natural as well as social evolution.” p. 58
Mic drop. What could possibly go wrong?
In Bookchin’s thinking, nature is a cumulative evolutionary development of ever-increasing differentiation “from the inanimate to the animate and ultimately the social.” p. 22 Earth started out abiotic, then biotic, and then humans were brought about by evolution to bring consciousness and meaning to the world. For him, humans are evolution’s intended apex. Once human societies emerged, ecological issues metamorphized from biological to social. He points to almost all ecological ‘dislocations’ today originating from social ‘dislocations.’ Hence the need for ‘social’ ecology.
Separateness itself between humans and nonhumans is not at issue, but it is the type of ‘otherness’ that can be problematic. In social ecology, the goal is to shift from a conflicted separateness to a complementary separateness. And, “it must have secular and rational underpinnings: a “quasi-animism… based on respect and appreciation for the continuity of life,,.” p. 60 Humans need to take action to spare nature, but only in a rational manner. Social ecology calls humans to put their respect and appreciation for natural life into reasoned action. Do values of dominionism, supremacy, and even hierarchy itself underpin Bookchin’s rational? Is he proposing more of the same, the exact foundational values that charged human’s down our tyrannical path? Is the problem of civilization’s covertly value-laden rational also the answer to the problem?
Scientific and rational narratives are created, not described. As example, Paleoanthropologist Adrienne Zihlman contends with the value-laden misleading ‘hunting hypothesis’ in her look into the role of women and sex roles in adaptions of early human societies. Sociologist Martha McCaughey reveals how scientific narratives profess to offer neutral descriptions of reality while instead naturalizing values. In customs of deeply embedded, rationalized, sciencified, enculturalized, institutionalized bias, civilization’s patriarchal narratives are insidious. Disturbingly, social ecology’s dominion over the world is a value projected far into the future.
So, social ecology is an “eco-anarchist project to restructure society along rational lines.” A ‘libertarian municipalism.’ A “radical utopian alternative.” p. 21 “Free nature’ can change into a new differentiated ‘othernes,’ neither biocentric nor anthropocentric, but complementary. The utopian balanced relationship between human and nonhuman is a “richly articulated unity drenched in the sunlight of evolution, not submerged in the darkness of a mythic Pleistocene…” p. 50 Here, Murray steps down from his human pedestal to pat the head of his differentiated subordinate nonbrethren, incongruously in the same mystical, romanticized manner he detests.
I wonder if I’m reading satire when Bookchin explains how his ‘eco-anarchist’ utopia is the most liberatory, doable form of societal organization.
“…if any radical movement for social change and ecological balance… can be achieved, it must be based on a participatory democracy, rooted in a politics of gradual confederalism — the step-by-step formation of civic networks that can ultimately challenge the growing power of the nation-state.” p.57
Was nature free before humans? And became ‘unfree’ after our arrival? So now it makes sense for us to ‘refree’ nature from and for us? Or is he only talking about free nature in relation to humans? Nonetheless, for Bookchin, humans originated by evolution into separateness from nature, but now after eons of destroying nature, separateness can be sculpted into a good thing for nature, or at least for humans with nature, who are the species evolutionarily charged with logically managing nature to be free.
In contrast to mystical ecology, or pragmatic environmentalism, social ecology is a melding of original nature with rationality, science and redesigned technology
“to promote humanity’s integration with the nonhuman world. This selective integration could form the overarching practices of an entirely new society and sensibility.” p.16
How many times has an end goal of dominionistic control been tried and only achieved advancing human control over nature? What are the barriers to stepping outside the box of human as master? The crux of Bookchin’s blindspot may be this: society’s foundation is based on at least some variation of hierarchy, which is antithetical to ‘free’ anything. Hierarchy is hidden just beneath the skin of free society’s bait lured to those too afraid to accept the truly most palpable choice: rewild or die.
From 1st Nature to 2nd Nature
Bookchin asserts that until hominids became humans, we existed like all biotic life by instinct in pure survival mode,
“an unperturbable existence that consists of eating, digesting, and defecating, like animals that live on a strictly day-by-day basis. This is a world that has no sense of ‘otherness;’ no sense of self, no sense of consciousness-“
This is where and why Bookchin demarcates a line indicating the split between first and second nature:
“-(H)umanity had to break with the purely animalistic sensibility… that had confined it to a mere ecological niche, if it was to enter into and know the larger world around it.” p. 49
So his story is this: First nature is ‘free’ nature. Humans separated themselves out of free nature, (and I’ll take up the story from there) initiating hierarchy, domination and the inevitable ruin that followed. Humans are now destroying the world so much that it threatens even our own survival. In response, social ecology proposes human reengage and reintegrate with free nature, but in a manner keeping with our intelligent form.
Comparative anthropologist Layla AbdelRahim discusses the generally enjoyable, leisurely lifeway of earliest humans living wild. Anthropologist Joan Halifax lived with two tribes of 1st people living in 1st nature, and observed deep interconnections and enduring bonds. Additionally, Apache underling and wilderness awareness mentor Jon Young facilitates unwilded humans rewilding themselves with methods involving both thinking and body. If rewilding self is as doable as rewilding nature, why shouldn’t we?
But Bookchin dismisses the notion of a more complete return, with no substantial justification besides fulfilling our creative and innovative potentials and ‘needs’ for onward adaptation. p. 49 These needs are the novelty to which rogue environmentalist Livingston calls out for our leading to our damaging invasive ways. This natural calling to adapt, to evolve, to grow, to spread, regardless of consequence, is hallmark of invasive species. It’s like they just cannot resist once they take off. They become hyper-focused on out-competing and dominating habitat of others in an orgy of hierarchal positioning. And not only did humans ‘need’ to heed their calling to colonize the world, they brought their preferential plant and animal species with them to do the same. Where Bookchin perceives this natural calling as fulfillment of our potentialities, a restoration ecologist has ample workload undoing the damage from human potentiality achievement. If human-centric ‘needs’ remain embedded in social ecology, where is the hope for living in balance with nature? When and how will exploitation to meet civilization’s ‘needs’ end? Will we continue along with quasi-plans sure to maintain our civilized comforts to the point of total collapse? Now that sounds like a genuine calling for mass genocide by a mass species.
Back to the story. Once hominids became humans, ‘second nature’ sparked a cultural evolution from egalitarian organic ‘societies’ to hierarchal, and ultimately to institutionalization with command and obedience bureaucracies, and patriarchies of class, clash and ruin. Patterns of relationships shifted from mutualistic or ‘complementary’ to differentiated with dominance and submission, superior and subordinate. Otherness and separateness away from nature extended. Rational thought and symbolic communication became mechanisms of patriarchal power. The beginning changes toward hierarchal society proceeded through stages,
“from gerontocracy, through patricentricity, shamanistic guilds, warrior groups, chiefdoms, and finally to state-like formations… Status innovations were permeated by certain honored traditions that had shaped organic society in order to render hierarchy more socially acceptable to dominated people, and eventually to ingrain them as inevitable in the popular mind” p. 26
And may I insert, “As inferred by our biology, humans emerged from the first nature of foraging, transitioning in second nature with speciesism in the form of systematized hunting, then onward to pastoralism and agriculture.”
It is toward the beginning of this transition from first to second nature that Bookchin, Mason, AbdelRahim and Livingston purports, spirituality took hold. Animal spirits had to be propitiated. To maintain former complementary relations with other species, early hunter mindset schemas appeared of luring other species to ‘accept’ the spear. Thus the birth of mysticism.
“They were undergoing a major transition from the domain of biological evolution to that of social evolution. As such, they could variously exhibit utter indifference to the pain they inflicted on animals and a strong affinity for them in their rituals — contradictory forms of behavior that occurred almost simultaneously… — a thoroughly dialectical tension in their outlook… Ethnological accounts of animism and magic tell us, in fact, that for many hunting-gathering cultures, second nature was still so deeply immersed in first nature that preliterate people could draw relatively little distinction between themselves and their environments. Not surprisingly, the distinctions between first and second nature were often problematical, with the result that the ability to achieve a clearly defined sense of human self-identity or ego was fairly limited.” p. 46 -7
Here, AbdelRahim, Mason and I wonder if the birth of hunting related mysticism, rituals, ceremonies and rites indicated an internal struggle signaling humans’ first catalyst toward our wayward path.
Bookchin proposes a logical formula for what he envisions is the evolutionary next step:
Original 1st Nature + rationality + science + redesigned technology = Social Ecology
This math is sensible and justified to him because
“(p)eople change first nature by virtue of the naturally endowed capacities to think conceptually, to create extrabiological tools and machines, and to do this with a high degree of collective organization and intentionality that is profoundly different from the behavior and abilities of nonhuman beings.” p. 32
Social ecology is based on the narrative that humans evolved out of wholeness of first nature into a transition from pre-literate, mutualistic, organic, egalitarian cultures, into social beings actualizing their evolutionary abilities by engineering Earth’s first nature to suit their needs and desires. To selectively evolve further is advantageous to humans. Oh, and to some other life forms that benefit us too.
Being my Deep Green Resistance friend is well read, and an enthusiast of DGR co-draftsperson and kingpin Derrick Jensen, it’s safe to assume she read The Myth of Human Supremacy. With his dedicating four chapters to the myriad of ways humans fail to perceive the true intelligences, emotions and capabilities of plant species, it’s safe to assume she agrees that civilized humans are distinctively ignorant to the complexion of other life. Is she opposed to humans using supremacist rationale to dominate other life forms?
Bookchin dedicates a page to countering claims of hierarchy rooted in his notion of humans as specially endowed. But his elucidation misses more compelling signs of hierarchy via human supremacy that he leaves unaddressed, like the ones deduced throughout this essay on his musings. Instead, he tackles the attack with an explanation of how humans’ advanced being does not relieve us of our dependence on ‘others’, and how it is social ecologists themselves who locate and study hierarchy, and aim to create a society free from it.
One of many elements Bookchin claims makes humans more advanced is that nonhuman animals may form communities, but only humans form societies. According to him, nonhuman animal communities are relatively fixed. Behavior is ‘programmed’. They are designed to focus on reproduction. They lack conscious intent, thusly they do not need to be defended with a sense of deliberate purpose. They have no ideologies that can change cultural or physical conditions. p. 24 And the special traits they lack, and we have, give us a special privilege and duty to follow our evolutionary purposes.
“…(H)uman capacity to reason conceptually, to fashion tools and devise extraordinary technologies, indeed, to communicate among themselves with a symbolic linguistic repertoire — all can be used for the good of the biosphere, not simply for harming it.” p. 34
So humans have ravaged the ecosphere to near ecocide because we choose not be free by utilizing our uniquely endowed capacities in formation of a utopian society, until now? And now our specialness combined with Earth’s collapsing ecology, that we caused, serve as the inspiration needed for humans choosing to finally embrace our evolutionary designed role on Earth?
But the list of failed societies with advanced capabilities gone awry does not insinuate us being in any way less advanced for destroying our own and every else’s habitat. Bookchin eschews humanity’s domination as society in ‘perverted’ form. But he hasn’t given up hope. We can still save the day by creating his utopia, not to give nature back to itself, not to rejoin nature in its inherent form, but to mold it into liberatory structure pleasing to decentralized human societies, thereby saving nature from us advanced humans. Rest assured, he decrees, evolutionarily prophesy of once perverted abilities turning away from buttressing death marches to designing right relations with nonhumans. Indeed, because humans need hope, he presents high hopes for humanity to achieve its evolutionary mission, to utilize our extraordinary intellectual equipment and rational culture to hone an ethic of care for the ‘others’. He reminds the reader that his theory is not toward hierarchy or domination. Which leaves the reader wondering, if he rejects a return to organic nature on its own terms, what else could human-centric utopian social ecology mean besides a new flavor of human hierarchy and domination?
Bookchin’s supremacism bleeds onto page after page. For example, due to our intellectual preeminence, we are able to replicate the abilities of ‘others’, and surpass them, as if humans are even capable of knowing the range of other species’ beingness. He purports that it is solely humans who are capable of ascribing value, to appreciate all of everything in the world. He believes that he knows no other species as ours is capable of such immense empathy, outside instincts of parenting and membership in uniquely close animal communities. Among other animals, empathetic behavior is mere manifestation of instinct. I feel compelled to question with rage human’s purportedly immense empathy in an age of animal agriculture.
Bookchin puts human “overpopulation” in quotes, as if it’s a dubious, offensive claim. He calls for a quasi-return to original nature, but takes offense at the ways of nature regulating population growth of a species through ecological phenomenon like famine and disease. Well, this is fine for other species, but not humans. People are branded ‘unfeeling’ if they suggest that humans are not more entitled to be free from the hardships of natural life.
He takes the classic misstep of framing a human return to wild as a call for genocide. He belongs to the group of pro-civers, like green liberals, who are somehow rational people yet cannot calculate the simple equation that civilization itself causes exponentially more human suffering and death, especially the longer human population rates go unaddressed. His view is inferred that humans are so uniquely evolutionarily endowed that they are entitled propagate at will. He speaks not of details on how human propagation under the scheme of social ecology could or would change Earth’s current landscape, with arable land about the size of South America utilized directly or indirectly for animal agriculture, and about the size of Africa utilized for pasture. But I agree with his point that reducing population does not address human’s harmful impact with capitalist mindsets and lifestyles of exploitative consumerism.
“(W)hatever most animals learn or ‘know’ is usually limited by simple everyday experience and their relatively restricted forms of communication.” p. 36 How does he know? Animal “relationships are not usually conscious ones. Much less do they consist of the conscious responsibilities and the reasoned behavior we call ethical.” p.37 How does he know? Early humans “felt passions often incomparably more compelling than any in animals.” P.46 How does he know? Has he crossed the barriers to inter-species communication? Does he, the one who rates human empathy as ‘immensely higher’ than nonhuman animal empathy, have the empathy to sense other species’ experiences, their lifeways? The revealed assumptions of Bookchin’s, logical mind run in stark parallel to the limitations and supremacism of the know-it-all patriarchal mindset.
As for what Bookchin deems the inevitable evolutionary motivation toward social ecology, due to uniquely human trifecta of self-awareness, self-consciousness and self-fulfillment, we are the only species equipped for sincere empathy, aesthetic pleasures and biophilia, which empower us toward our destined movement into a renaissance of social ecology. Is he saying what I think he’s saying? We ‘advance’, in so doing destroy, so we can admire the repairs of the collateral damage of our advancement? He ascribes humans into the logically bequeathed role of decision maker for the world.
“Whatever rights or other ethical formulations that we develop in an ecological ethics, the fact remains that we as a species are the sole ethical agents on the planet who are able to formulate these rights, to confer them, and to see that they are upheld.” p. 38
With our demonstrated history of collectively believing we know that which we clearly do not, of the string of disasters wrought by our unintended consequences, of harming to the point of causing species’ extinctions as a byproduct of meeting human pleasures and lifestyles, I sense civilized humans are virtually least worthy of trust on decisions intervening in ecosystems. How is social ecology itself not another biocultural adaptation driving ensconcing human colonizing even deeper, with a greenwashed friendly smile?
Even those who are careful to check their own supremacism in calling for another way for civilized humans to relate to nature, even something similar to social ecology, see the hypocricy of human visions. Lee Hall deliberates in On Their Own Terms: Animal Liberation for the 21st Century:
“This relinquishment of dominion is the final frontier — the greatest risk the human spirit could take. For we are primates. In some regions of the planet we’re still the lions’ prey. Maybe it’s no surprise that we’d fashion weapons, and set out to vanquish and tame. That we’d reformulate food chains; invent, subscribe to, and jump to the top of hierarchies, and then justify oppressions — from the “man the hunter” identity, to the building of national border walls, to everyday bullying. To be sure, we know how to project hierarchy as orderly and elegant. Meanwhile, the planet’s communities of free-living animals are dying…” p. 92
If humans do not dig out our domination from its root, it is bound to resprout. How does social ecology utopia not fit into Hall’s ‘orderly and elegant’ category?
To me the words Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy signals focus on mutualism itself, as opposed to hyper-rationalizations for why one species is entitled to the position of sole architect for how skewed mutualism should manifest. For example, one of the numerous unique abilities Bookchin attributes to humans is cultural development. How does he know ‘others’ do not have cultures of their own that may serve as rightful models? Indigenous scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer tells of stories and studies on how even the disregarded lowly-endowed moss lives culturally, interwoven with countless others. Moss sets a fine example of mutualism, of life without hierarchy. If Murray were alive, imagine his reply to this notion.
Vis-à-vis Restoration Ecology
While the anprim in me gags at the notion of a ceaseless holding on to rationality, science and technology, my restoration ecologist mind tells me that these devices, steeped in hierarchal ideologies and actions as they have been and are, are required to erase and ease some of civilized humans’ disastrous footprint. Numerous examples of restoration success have been demonstrated, like Joan Bradley’s bringing back the bush in Australia. Alas restoration cannot keep up with the civilization’s ongoing onslaught, civilization is winning ground. Still nature needs to be protected and rewilded, if for no other reason than the anthropocentric, so we have a habitat to return to in event of nonreturnable collapse.
The restoration ecologist in me was surprised by a few choice areas of agreement with social ecology. We both value more stable ecosystems unified through interconnections. While the goal for me is expanding resiliency through diversity, the goal for Bookchin is sparking more eco-evolution:
“A diversity of species, in my view, is vitally important because it opens new pathways for the evolution of life. Ecocommunities with more species are usually more complex; they tend to give rise to new, more subjective and more flexible life-forms that in turn open greater evolutionary possibilities.” p. 59
Further, we both believe in the power of nature to develop, diversify and grow increasingly complex, as that is the way of nature. But this process has been hindered, damaged, destroyed. Hence, we both see the need at this point for skilled human intervention.
But the similarities end there. Where Bookchin reveres in evolution’s gifts to the human species entitling us to take the wheel of evolution, I revere evolution’s gifts to wild species to hold on during the civilized human invasion, entitling them to rewilders’ honed interventions to help heal. Where Bookchin esteems human survival abilities as unprecedented, I see them as equivalent to many other invasive species wreaking havoc on recently pristine bioregions. Where Bookchin aims to design a decentralized utopia involving the lifeways and evolution of other species for human ideals, I aim for however much return to pre-civilization past can be achieved, with native species ranges and communities honored. While Bookchin dreams of human ability to recreate nature, I dream of wild and rewilding humans restoring nature to its pre-civilization state of resilience more resistant to human ruination.
Where Bookchin and I agree is on the imperative that heavily impacted nature is in need of human intervention. Where we disagree is to what ends. Bookchin envisions a restored nature to meet human needs and please human senses. I envision a restored nature meeting its own intentions, whether or not that includes humans. When I intervene in nature, I struggle with the question, What does this place want to be? Where possible, I let it guide me. I notice which species are self-propagating and sharing space with other species, and how wild animals interact in the reforming habitat? I use my ‘intelligence’ to research the history of the place, but also consider what intervention does it need to help it remain a regenerating thriving community under the current conditions, and projecting to future conditions. Where Bookchin relies only on thinking ways to resolve these ethical questions, I rely on every way my entire rewilding being can act as its catalyst toward growth. I form an emotional relationship with the place that sometimes crosses over into the mystical. I hold the emotive or spiritual answers in high regard. My ‘wholistic’ restoration strategy results so far have been salient.
Despite my differences with Bookchin on motivations and goals, his warning still frightens me as my rewilding being increasingly senses, and my civilized mind perceives and projects humans’ swelling spread fragmenting and disintegrating through colonization:
“If we do not intervene in the world today for purposes of ecological restoration, the management of wild areas, and reforestation, neither we nor the wildlife we wish to conserve is likely to have any future at all. We have gone beyond a so-called “primeval” world, to a point where the possibility of returning to it is simply excluded.” p. 58
I have no confidence in the success of combining human-centric changes with first nature lifeway. Sadly, I see no discernable hope for action by non-wild humans changing themselves to live mutualistically in or with nature. I can understand how a vision of continuing to change nature to meet our needs and desires could be compelling to civilized humans, and thought to be more easily achievable. But unfortunately, that’s just more spinning our wheels. Real change does not come easy. Even when faced with choices of whether to consciously needlessly harm, ‘immensely empathetic’ humans too often either irrationally and selfishly justify, or chose to ignore the harm in the choices of their desires.
The perspective of my restoration ecologist being came a bit closer with Bookchin’s understanding of ecology and need to helpfully meddle in nature. While we both deploy science, we differ to what ends restoration is performed. The approach of my mutualistic foraging being (like that portrayed by comparative anthropologist Layla AbdelRahim) juxtaposed to his human-centric societal tactic, rewidened the gap between us. The crux of our difference may reside in his esteem for individualism and sense of self, compared to a primitivist’s group loci and lack of ego-boundaries.
With mainstream reverence for anyone indigenous, and fervent taboo of critiquing indigenous cultures, I was shocked and pleasantly surprised to read Bookchin’s frank analysis of indigenous impact on pristine nature. While clearly not as intense as the coming industrial war on wilderness, he detailed silenced narratives on transitioning humans degrading land bases. Aboriginals’ extensive alterations to swaths of landscapes, some collaterally beneficial some not, triggered colonizing style extinctions. Extinction events also transpired as humans spread throughout the planet into others’ habitats that lacked the slower pace needed to adapt to human aggression. As opposed to some anprims who justify this invasion with ‘Their impact also added to diversity,’ or with ‘the way of nature’ or ‘the circle of life’, the scope of the sweeping and sometimes rapid changes in ecological terms is ‘the way of the colonizers’, which I doubt many anprims strive to become.
Bookchin simplifies early human hunters as predatory opportunist survivors. Some anprims believe that early hunters were naturally sensible enough to hunt sustainably. For me, as a foraging anprim, I view human hunting as primates exploiting outside our nature, as origins of speciesism and hierarchy, and as the first catalyst toward civilization. The shift from foraging to hunting escorted our shift out of our niche habitats, and is a prospective candidate for the first biocultural adaptation toward us becoming a colonizing invasive species, ecologically.
Bookchin walks the reader through Stephen J. Pyne’s evidenced narrative described in Fire in America. By the time Europeans arrived in present day America, the landscape had been thoroughly altered through systematic burns. Ecosystem types shifted drastically from virgin forests to grasslands to attract large herbivores for hunting, taking a large toll on flora and fauna. Ironically, it was the Europeans who were responsible for restoring some forests, but in their case to log wood for ship building. Though anthropological evidence is controversial and seemingly not settled, it is clear that Paleo-Indians at least had a contributing role in mass megafauna extinctions via hunting. Here, Bookchin and I agree that mystics and romantics join the mainstream in having a hard time swallowing this narrative, exposing their bias through cherry-picking realities to match their chosen world view.
Bookchin attributes early human’s forest-destroying actions not to their insensitivity, but simply to their animistic, instinctive survival. I attribute these actions to a bio-culturally rapidly adapting primate species, motivated not only by survival but by ideas, invention and anything ‘novel’ (Livingston), overextending its habitat range into new bioregions offering opportunities of easy exploitation. This results in increasing population, and further spread and colonization. In my forest restoration work, I’ve learned the ways of invasive species. They’re not ‘bad’, but they and other species are better off remaining closer to their habitat’s species communities, or moving slowly to co-adapt mutualistically as they shift their range. A high level of invasive activity indicates the lack of flourishing homeostasis in a bioregion, often caused by human disruptions.
Whereas Bookchin generalizes indigenous nature destruction and lauds them for their unique developing capabilities and desires, Layla AbdelRahim points to a diversity of indigenous lifeways, from foragers to hunters. She posits that folio-frugivore foragers are lesser known because they left fewer artifacts, that they were the first to be marginalized and extinguished by other more aggressive indigenous peoples and then by European colonizers. Whereas Bookchin views indigenous human evolution shifted from biological to social, I view humans’ expanding territory and technologies based on bio-cultural adaptations, which paradoxically leave them more dependent and susceptible. For example, imagine humans without fire. Or without clothing. Or without systematized hunting. Or without agriculture. Further, our ideas, inventions, novelty and resulting adaptations are ravenously engulfing free nature. Where Murray fears, I look forward to the day when our dependence on technologies overextends and collapses civilization, reverting us back to our original lifeway.
Despite all the criticisms, from the ignorance of overkills to the burning vast original forest for hunting, after stressful climactic events subsided, lifeways stabilized, indigenous peoples slowly blended into the wild as a melding of social/animistic beings. “The sense of ‘otherness’ was probably more consciously benign and complementary, based on differentiation rather than opposition.” p. 50 It must be said that many humans today live varying lives between animistic and social. There are primitive peoples fighting civilization’s encroachment to retain their wild lifeways in fragmenting forests, etc. And there are primitive people encroaching back upon civilization. For example, indigenous seed spreading along seasonal nomadic ‘hoops’, as exemplified in Finisia Medrano’s devoting her life to seasonally rewilding hoops through disappearing traditional landscapes fenced off and scarred by industrialization.
Dispersing early humans first caused rapid change, then settled into bioregions. They leisurely co-adapted with flora and fauna in phases of ecological stability. ‘Animism with sensibility’ encompassed a veneer of cooperative spirit with other animals, offering pre-history humans deep understanding of ‘others’ in a way that aided them in both co-existence and exploiting, for example stalking prey. For Bookchin, mysticism formed to mediate this contrariness, giving them a false image of nature. For me, to invalidate early humans image of nature is supremacist.
Bookchin belittles early humans for driving other species to extinction via predation. AbdelRahim views hominid primates’ intrinsic role in ecological niches to be propagator of fruit bearing plants, as fixed in the human biological frugivorous form. Yet culture in changing conditions can rouse mounting hierarchal behavior inciting domination in multiple directions. Even with some of the Earth impacting ways of various indigenous people, their record of destruction pales in comparison to that of destructive civilized humans. Further, is there anything that makes the ecological callings of a civilized human such a Murray superior to callings of various free-living humans and nonhumans toward their free life of experientialism that Murray deems untenable?
If Bookchin were alive I’d be tempted to ask some questions. At what point did humans become conscious agents in their own evolution? What is the relationship between biocultural adaptations and original nature’s survival?
Bookchin’s human supremacy bias is displayed in his interpretations and ideas throughout. For example, are the following descriptions of human — nonhuman relationships mutualistic or exploitative? Egalitarian or hierarchal?
“Human beings and human society in varying respects are products of natural evolution; further, human beings are organized anatomically and physiologically by natural evolution to interact with nonhuman nature productively, as creatures that consciously produce their own means of life with tools, machines, and the organized deployment of their very capacity to labor.” p. 21
Species that systematically exploit offer little to the eco-community, threaten innate preference for thriving diversity, interfere with growth toward complexity, plague with domination, and tend to evolve increasingly toward simplicity. Could it be that the human species is invasive, colonizing the world? If so, how did it begin, and what are the implications?
With supremacist perspective going so far as to exclude humans from the animal kingdom, Bookchin misses the natural ecological dynamics of human mutualistic participation in nature.
“The utmost havoc has been created by anthropomorphically applying the word hierarchy to various entities in nonhuman nature. As a social term, hierarchy cannot be applied to so-called “dominance-and-submission” relationships among animals…Many allegedly “hierarchical” animal relationships are actually very arbitrary and limited… They markedly differ in function from one group of individuals to another within the same species. More important, to apply the term to animal communities divests hierarchy of its strictly social character.” pp. 24–5
It’s interesting to see a retort, however supremacist, to the assertion that domination is natural in nature, such as the example of leafcutter ants’ taking slaves. But the actions and impacts of humans are too similar to that of other invasive species to simply declare that behaviors mean different things depending on the social character. How does leafcutters’ organized system of command and obedience not count as hierarchy? If your answer is because theirs comes from a place of instinct and not consciousness, how do you know that to be true, and why would that make the difference?
Most fundamentally, how is it possible to have no hierarchy in social ecology, or any society that includes technology, science and rationality? Even if your utopia accepts humans separate from nature and one-sidedly living off and exploiting nature, and all decisions are to be made by and for humans alone, does rationality prevent exploitation of any humans? If humans differentiated from nonhumans is the mode, how will the same concept not be applied within human groupings? Where and how will resources for human needs and desires be extracted? How will local democracies refrain from voting for a tyranny of the majority?
And some out of context questions on veganism, just because I’m curious. What do you think of Jensen’s attempt to justify humans eating other animals because plants have feelings, thoughts, consciousness, and amazing abilities too? Do you think the ‘immense empathy’ you ascribe to humans could account for some humans’ innate sensibility from early ages to refrain from harming animals through consumption? Do you think humans are, like other closely related primates, biological folio-frugivores who can be behavioral omnivores? How do you see the human diet in a social ecology utopia?
So thanks to my Deep Green Resistance friend for challenging me to distinguish and clarify my own thinking and vision through comparison. And for challenging me to take on a question that has long haunted me on the plausibility of anti-civilization without anarcho-primitivism. Because social ecology explicitly aims for a society in civilized form that excludes hierarchy, it served as a perfect test case to explore this question. After trudging through Bookchin’s monolithic introduction, I sense the reason civilization intrinsically resists mutualism is that civilization entails separating oneself from others. Once that happens, relations center on egoism, hierarchy and domination. A return to complementary and/or mutualistic relations is only possible in a return to original human in original nature.
I call for a future primitive utopia called Rewilding Restoration Ecology, that is, a return to first nature without apparatuses of domination. This is a calling for wild and rewilding humans restoring wild places as we step back/forward to our wild ways on a wild planet.
One final comparison. Bookchin puts faith in the human species reneging hierarchy and domination through reasoning. I no longer take refuge in either that belief, or in successions of sidesteppings of the beast with various utopian dreams. If some inspired, dedicated humans do not begin the process of dismantling the beast, we’re bound for a more anguishing collapse. Check out Natasha Alvarez’s novella Liminal for poignant insight.
I must end with an apology to my DGR friend. She says: “…you have misrepresented me in your diatribe. Hopefully you will see this as you read Livingston (Rogue Primate, the other book she recommended).” And I do. All apologies.
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Zihlman, A. (1981) “Women as Shapers of the Human Adaptation.” Woman the Gatherer. Ed. F. Dahlberg. Yale University
The Political Legacy of Murray Bookchin
Article by Brian Morris, written in 2009 and included in “Anthropology, Ecology, and Anarchism: A Brian Morris Reader” (2015, PM Press).
Brian Morris is one of of the keynote speakers at our upcoming conference in Thessaloniki. In this article from 2009 he gives his own perspective on the political legacy of Murray Bookchin and its stance in the anarchist tradition.
Ever since I read “Post-Scarcity Anarchism”, some thirty years ago I have been a fan of Murray Bookchin – in the same way as I have been a fan of Peter Kropotkin, Richard Jefferies, Elisee Reclus and Ernest Thompson Seton. All were pioneer ecologists. In 1981 in a review of a book on eco-philosophy, I described Bookchin as a “lone voice crying in the wilderness”, and even ten years later still felt the need to publish an essay on “The Social Ecology of Murray Bookchin” (1996 : 131 – 138), emphasizing Bookchin’s seminal; importance as a social ecologist and as a radical political thinker. However, by the end of the decade, Bookchin’s trenchant (and valid) criticisms of deep ecology, anarcho-primitivism and the bourgeois individualism of the likes of Hakim Bey, had thrust Bookchin into the media limelight, and he became something of a controversial figure. He certainly ruffled many feathers, especially amongst those happily ensconced in the academy. He thus came to be assailed from all sides – by deep ecologists, political liberals, technophobes, spiritual ecologists, anarcho-primitivists, poetic terrorists, neo-Marxists, and Stirnerite individualists, as well as the acolytes of Nietzsche and Heidegger.
In the process, of course, Bookchin’s seminal importance as a social ecologist and as a radical anarchist thinker tended to be forgotten, if not completely denigrated. But what to me was important about Murray Bookchin was that he re-affirmed and creatively developed the revolutionary anarchist tradition that stemmed essentially from Michael Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin and Elisee Reclus. This tradition emphasized the need to integrate an ecological world view or philosophy – what Bookchin was later to describe as dialectical naturalism – with the political philosophy offered by anarchism, that is, by libertarian socialism. This political tradition and social movement, as many have emphasized, combined the best of both liberalism, with its emphasis on liberty and individual freedom, and socialism with its emphasis on equality, voluntary associations, mutual aid and direct action. This unity, that indeed defines libertarian socialism (or anarchism) was most succinctly expressed in the well-known maxim of Michael Bakunin:
“That liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice, and that socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality” (Lehning1973 : 110).
Some forty or so years ago Murray Bookchin sensed that the social and the natural must be grasped in a new unity. That the time had come to integrate an ecological natural philosophy (social ecology) with the social philosophy based on freedom and mutual aid (anarchism or libertarian socialism). This unity was essential, he argued, if we were to avoid an ecological catastrophe. What we must, therefore do, Bookchin stressed, was to
“decentralize, restore bioregional forms of production and food cultivation, diversify our technologies, scale them to human dimensions, and establish face- to- face forms of democracy”, as well as to foster a “new sensibility toward the biosphere” (1980 : 27).
Although in later years Bookchin became embroiled in rather acrimonious debates with deep ecologists, anarcho-primitivists and bourgeois individualists – in which Bookchin fervently defended his own brand of social ecology and libertarian socialism – Bookchin never, in fact, deviated from the views he expressed in his earlier writings. Bookchin’s core ideas on social ecology, libertarian socialism and libertarian municipalism – which he defended and elaborated upon throughout his life – are thus to be found in three key early texts, namely, “Post-Scarcity Anarchism” (1971), “Toward an Ecological Society” (1980), and his magnus opus “Ecology of Freedom” (1982) As Tom Cahill remarked in his generous tribute to Bookchin, these books contain the “essence” of Bookchin’s thoughts (2006 : 164).
It has to be recognized that although Bookchin always expressed his views with some stridency, even rancour – to a degree that many found disturbing – he was in fact no more doctrinaire, sectarian and ideological than the anarcho-primitivists and the individualist anarchists with whom he disputed, and he expressed a much broader social vision. What could be more narrow and sectarian than the kind of anarcho- primitivism expressed by Bob Black and Jolhum Zerzan. An Oxford University academic like Uri Gordon, deeply offended by Book chin’s “vituperative attacks” on the “new anarchists”, thus comes to completely ignore the substance of Bookchin’s critique (2008 : 26), for anyone who has read, for example, Hakim Bey’s (aka Pete Lamborn Wilson) esoteric writings can easily understand why Bookchin described them as “narcissistic”, “elitist”, “petit-bourgeois” and as a “credo for social indifference”. (1995 : 20-26). Benjamin Franks is of the same opinion. For Franks suggests that Bey’s kind of bourgeois politics completely fails to confront the oppressive power of both the state and capital, happily co-existing with them, and is essentially a form of liberalism, akin, he even suggests, to anarcho-capitalism (2006 : 266 – 67). And contrary to what many academics think, the anarcho-capitalism of the likes of Ayn Rand – Aynarchism, as Ruth Kinna )1005 : 25) describes it – is by no stretch of the imagination – as Bookchin described it. (see my critique of Ayn Rand’s politics 1996 : 183 – 192). Bey is just an old-fashioned liberal with a penchant for Nietzschian aesthetics and Islamic mysticism, and his liberal politics were rightly condemned by Bookchin.
What Bookchin describes and critiques as “life-style” anarchism is in fact what many academics have now come to describe as the “new anarchism” (e.g. Kinna 2005, Curran 2006). According to Ruth Kinna (2005) this “new anarchism” consists of a rather esoteric pastiche of five ideological categories – for Bookchin can in no sense be described as a “new” or “life-style” anarchist! These categories are : the anarcho- primitivism associated with Bob Black and John Zerzan; the “poetic terrorism” of Hakim Bey and John Moore who follow the aristocratic aesthetic nihilism of Friedrich Nietzsche; Stirnerite individualism; the anarcho-capitalism of Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand; and, finally, the so-called post-modern anarchism that is derived from the writings of Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida and Lyotard. None of this “new anarchism” is in fact either new or original.. What they have in common is the kind of radical individualism and neo-romanticism that Bookchin identified and critiqued as “life-style” anarchism.
In their response to Bookchin’s critique, Bob Black, David Watson and surprisingly, John Clark (aka Max Caford, who at one time was a fervent devotee of Bookchin) all harshly denounce Bookchin’s social ecology, and were more than a match for Bookchin in their invective. Bookchin thus came to be depicted by these three as an aspiring “anarchist Lenin”, an “anarcho-leftist fundamentalist”, a dogmatic “technocrat”, and advocate of “spontaneous violence” due to Bookchin’s “revolutionary fantasies”, the arrogant promoter of some “Faustian project”, as well as being described as an intellectual buffoon. Bookchin’s defence of reason and truth – as against religious dogma, mysticism and postmodern relativism – implied, it was argued, that he had affinities to the American neo-conservatives, advocates of free market capitalism! (Watson 1996, Black 1997, Clark 1998).
Although Robert Graham (2000) has little sympathy with the acrimonious and denunciatory polemics that have marred the anarchist debates around social ecology – and rightly so – he nevertheless defends Bookchin’s integrity, and suggests that the three critics have seriously misjudged, or wilfully mis-interpreted, Bookchin’s social ecology.
In the bookshops now is a useful little book entitled “Social Ecology and Communalism” (2007). In many ways it constitutes Bookchin’s last testament, and provides a good introduction and summary of Murray Bookchin’s political legacy. It consists of four essays written in the last decades of his life, and has a short but useful introduction by the editor Eirik Eigland.
The first essay “What is social Ecology”, originally published in 1993, essentially outlines Bookchin’s thoughts on the emergence of hierarchy and capitalism, and his conception of an ecological society. For Bookchin, human life is essentially a paradox. For on the one hand, humans are intrinsically a part of nature, the product of an evolutionary process. That humans are conceived as “aliens” or as “parasites” on earth, as suggested by some deep ecologists and eco- phenomenologists, Bookchin found quite deplorable. It implied, he argued, a “denaturing of humanity”, and denies the fact that humans are “rooted” in biology and evolutionary history.
On the other hand, in the course of their development as a unique species-being, humans have developed language, a potential for subjectivity and flexibility, and a “second nature”, such that their cultures are rich in experience and knowledge. This gives humans technical foresight, and the capacity to creatively refashion their environment (24 – 27).
To understand the natural world as an evolutionary process, and the place of humans within the cosmos, Bookchin therefore argues that we need to develop an organic way of thinking, one that is dialectical and processual, rather than instrumental and analytic. Such a way of thinking avoids the extremes of both anthropocentrism, exemplified by Carthesian metaphysics which radically separates humans from nature and biocentrism, which is a naïve form of biological reductionism expressed by both deep ecologists and sociobiologists (27 – 28).
Early human societies Bookchin argued, were essentially egalitarian, practising mutual aid, and following the principles of usufruct and the irreducible minimum – the notion that everyone in a community was entitled to a basic livelihood (37). Bookchin goes on to suggest that the first forms of hierarchy were based on age and gender and that it is therefore important to make a distinction between hierarchy as a form of domination and class exploitation (36).
Although the idea of dominating nature is almost as old as that of hierarchy itself, Bookchin emphasizes that the current ecological crisis has its roots not in over-population, technology or human nature, but in the capitalist system, which is inherently anti-ecological. It is well to recall that over forty years ago Bookchin was reporting in detail the environmental and health costs of pesticides, food additives, chemicalized agriculture, pollution, urbanization and nuclear power. He was even, with some prescience – long before Al Gore and George Monbiot – highlighting the problems of global warming – that the growing blanket of carbon-dioxide would lead to destructive storm patterns, and eventually the melting of the ice caps and rising sea levels (1971 : 60). But the cause of this ecological crisis, for Bookchin, was not because humans were inherently the most destructive parasite on earth; rather it was due to a capitalist system that was in its very essence geared to exploitation, competition and to ruthless economic expansion. This is spelled out in the second essay “Radical Politics in an era of Advanced Capitalism” where Bookchin describes capitalism as an “ecological cancer”, a form of “barbarism” that is making the earth virtually unsuitable for complex forms of life (56). Equally important, for Bookchin; capitalism is not simply an economic system that is polluting and ravaging the natural world; it is also leading top the expansion of commodity relationships into all areas of social and cultural life. One thing that can be said about Bookchin is that he is a fervent anti-capitalist, in ways that media radicals like Naomi Klein and George Monbiot are most certainly not. For both Klein and Monbiat are simply reformist liberals, with a vision of some benign forms of capitalism.
This leads Bookchin to advocate the creation of an “ecological society”, involving the following: the social transformation of society along ecological lines; the elimination of class exploitation and all forms of hierarchy and domination; a spiritual renewal that develops humanity’s potential for rationality, foresight and creativity; and the fostering of an ecological sensibility and what Bookchin describes as an “ethics of complementarity “ (46 47). But crucial to Bookchin’s vision of an ecological society is the need to develop a radical form of politics based on the municipality.
Unlike Nietzschean “free spirits” and Stirnerite individualists, who in elitist fashion rely on other mortals to provide them with the basic necessities of life, Bookchin recognized that throughout human history some form of social organization has always been evident. For humans are always intrinsically social beings. Some kind of organization has therefore always been essential, not only in terms of human survival, but specifically in terms of the care and upbringing of children (kinship), in the production of food, shelter, clothing and the basic necessities of human life (the social economy) and finally, in the management of human affairs, relating to community decisions and the resolution of conflicts (politics). Bookchin, therefore, has always been keen to distinguish between ordinary social life , focussed around family- life and kinship, affinity groups and productive activities, and the political life of a community, focussed around local assemblies.
Bookchin has been equally insistent on distinguishing between politics – which he defined as a theory relating to the public realm, and to those social institutions by means of which people democratically managed their own community affairs, and what he called “state craft”. The latter was focussed on the state, defined as a form of government that served as an instrument for class exploitation and for class oppression and control (95). Thus Bookchin saw “government” – institutions which deal with the problems of orderly social life – as consisting of two forms: as the state or as local democratic assemblies centred on what he described as municipal politics.
But even in his earliest writings, reflected in the seminal essay “The Forms of Freedom” Bookchin was concerned with exploring what “social forms” were most consistent with the “fullest realization of personal and social freedom” (1974 : 143). It is of interest that in this early essay Bookchin is critical of the limitations of workers’ councils and does not in fact use the term “government”, only that of “self-management”. He also indicated the dangers of an assembly becoming an “incipient state” (168).
In his last essays, however, Bookchin argues that we need a new politics based on what he describes as the “communalist project”. As in the early writings, he describes the various forms of popular assemblies that have emerged throughout European history, particularly during times of social revolution. Bookchin is particularly enthusiastic about the classical Athenian polis, where citizens (aristocratic males) managed the affairs of the community through a form of direct democracy, instituted in a popular assembly. Even though, as Bookchin always recognized and stressed, such a form of democracy was marred by patriarchy, slavery and class rule (49). The Athenian polis was in fact a city-state. But such forms of popular democracy had been found from earliest times, and Bookchin cites, for example, the following: the popular assemblies of medieval towns; the neighbourhood sections formed during the French revolution; the Paris commune of 1871; the workers’ soviets during the Russian revolution; and the New England town meetings (49).
Bookchin thus comes to put a focal emphasis on the need to establish popular democratic assemblies, based on neighbourhoods, towns and villages. Such local assemblies through face to face democracy, would make policy decisions relating to the management of community affairs (101). He argues consistently that such decisions should be made by majority vote, though Bookchin does not advocate majority rule (109), and emphasizes that a free society would only be one that fosters the fullest degree of dissent and liberty. He is, however, given his early experiences with the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance, highly critical of consensus politics, except for small groups (110).
But Bookchin goes on to argue that such local or municipal assemblies must be formally structured, with constitutions and explicit regulations (111), and that the assembly, as the sole policy-making body, has priority over the workers’ committees and the co-operatives concerned with food production and other social activities. These would have a purely administrative function. As Bookchin puts it:
“every productive enterprise falls under the purview of the local assembly, which decides how it will function to meet the interests of the community as a whole” (2007 : 103). Town and neighbourhood assemblies would be linked through con-federal councils, consisting of mandated delegates sent by the assemblies (50). It seems important for Bookchin that power be both decentralized, and instituted in local communities, organized through face-to-face democratic assemblies. Even more controversial, Bookchin advocates that communalists, I.e. libertarian socialists, should not hesitate to run candidates in local government elections, and thereby attempt to convert them to popular assemblies (115).
What has troubled many anarchists is that while the “life-style” or “new” anarchists (whether anarcho-primitivists, poetic terrorists, poststructuralist anarchists, or Stirnerite egoists) have, as ultra-individualists, denigrated, or even repudiated the socialist component of anarchism – derided as “leftism” (that is, they have repudiated political protest and class struggle) – Bookchin in his later years, partly in reaction to the “life-style” anarchists, has moved to the other extreme and has increasingly downplayed not only cultural protest, but the libertarian aspect of anarchism. Thus his emphasis on local assemblies and confederations as structured institutions that take priority not only over voluntary associations and self- management of the economy, but also, it seems, over the individual, seems to many to introduce an element of hierarchy quite foreign to anarchism, that is, libertarian socialism or anarchist communism. In fact, the whole idea of “government” seems contrary to anarchist principles
Bookchin has always acknowledged the importance of protests and struggles to achieve a better world – whether centred around nuclear power, ecological issues, health care and education, or community issues, as well as the importance of the anti-globalization movement in challenging capitalism, both on cultural and economic grounds (85). Nevertheless, Bookchin has tended to focus “direct action“ rather narrowly on local municipal elections.. This also seems contrary to libertarian socialist principles, for local authorities are essential appendages of the nation-state. This strategy is thus basically reformist.
Bookchin’s critique of “life-style” or “new” anarchism is, I think, largely justified and valid. In fact, the essay “The Role of Social Ecology in a Period of Reaction” is largely devoted to a reaffirmation of what was expressed in his controversial polemic “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism” (1995). For besides emphasizing that social ecology is deeply rooted in the ideals of the radical Enlightenment and the revolutionary socialist tradition (71), Bookchin argues that the “new” or “lifestyle” anarchism, as expressed by the likes of Hakim Bey, Bob Black, and Jason McQuinn, is largely a retrogressive “goulash” in its embrace of spiritualism, anti-rationalism, primitivism and bourgeois individualism. Lifestyle anarchism, he writes, with some derision, is little more than an ideology that panders to petit bourgeois tastes in eccentricity (72).
Thus his hostility towards “life-style” anarchism and radical individualism, combined with his advocacy of a highly structured form of municipal “government” (no less) has led Bookchin to almost forget the libertarian component of anarchism and the cultural importance of the concepts of individual freedom and autonomy, both personal and social, as well as of cultural revolt. Indeed, in his early writings Bookchin put a crucial emphasis on the self, on self-activity and self-management, arguing that a truly free society does not deny selfhood and individual freedom, but rather supports and actualizes it (1980 : 48). He even advocates life-style politics as being an indispensable aspect of the revolutionary project (1974 : 16).But as Robert Graham (2004) has argued, Bookchin’s later writings on “communalism”, with its focus almost exclusively on the structured municipal assembly, tends to downplay or marginalize direct action, the self-management of the economy, and the crucial importance of individual freedom. Anarchism has a dual heritage, and must not only be socialist (denied by most of the “new” or life-style anarchists) but also libertarian – which seems to be rather downplayed by Bookchin in his last years.
It has to be recognized, of course, that although Bookchin is highly critical of Marxism and the idea of a “ proletarian revolution”, as well as of anarcho-syndicalism given his hostility to the “factory system”, Bookchin never repudiated the concept of the “class”. He always acknowledged – as a fervent anti-capitalist – the crucial importance of the working class in achieving any form of social revolution, and categorically affirmed the importance of class struggle (1999 : 264).
It is also important to note that although Bookchin was a harsh critic of the kind of anarcho-primitivism that essentially stemmed from the writings of Fredy Perlman, he was not an obsessive “technocrat” as portrayed by Watson (1996) – in fact Bookchin described himself as a bit of a Luddite. Nor was he besotted with civilization. He certainly emphasized the importance of the city, especially in introducing the idea of a common humanitas (61); but like both Peter Kropotkin and Lewis Mumford – both important influences on Bookchin – and unlike the anarcho-primitivists, Bookchin had a much more nuanced approach to both technology and civilization. As he put it, in defending his pro-technology stand:
“which is not to deny that many technologies are inherently domineering and ecologically dangerous, or to assert that civilization has been an unmitigated blessing. Nuclear reactors, huge dams, highly centralized industrial complexes, the factory system, and the arms industry – like bureaucracy, urban blight and contemporary media – have been pernicious almost from their conception” (1995 : 34).
Following Kropotkin, Bookchin therefore came to emphasize that there had been two sides to human history – a legacy of domination reflected in the emergence of hierarchy, state power and capitalism, and a legacy of freedom, reflected in the history of ever-expanding struggles for emancipation (1999 : 278).
It is thus disheartening to read, in the last essay, on “The Communalist Project”, that Bookchin comes to deny that he is an anarchist; that he had embraced, as an alternative, the politics of “communalism“ Rather ironically, communalism is defined as a form of libertarian socialism, and is seen as the political dimension of social ecology, libertarian municipalism being its praxis (108).
Significantly, making clear demarcations between Marxism, anarcho-syndicalism and anarchism Bookchin comes to narrowly define anarchism in terms only of its individualistic tendency. Thus in both the essay, and in his preface to the third edition of “Post-Scarcity Anarchism“ (2004), Bookchin comes to define anarchism as a “tangle of highly confused individualistic concepts“. Anarchism is thus misleadingly interpreted in terms of “life-style“ anarchism, characterized by ultra-individualism, nihilism, mutualism, aestheticism, and as being radically opposed to any form of organization. Both conceptually and historically this is an inaccurate depiction of anarchism, which has always embraced a dual heritage of liberty and socialism. But it leads Bookchin – like the Marxists, anarcho-primitivists and Stirnerite egoists – to postulate a false and quite untenable dichotomy between anarchism and socialism. For historically the main strand of anarchism has been anarchist communism (or libertarian socialism) combining liberalism – as existential not possessive, individualism – with socialism. The socialism that Bookchin now espouses as communalism, which he affirms as both libertarian and revolutionary (96), is in fact good old-fashioned anarchism. First formulated by Bakunin towards the end of the nineteenth century, anarchism in this sense has various synonyms: anarchist-communism, revolutionary anarchism, libertarian communism, class struggle anarchism, or as Bookchin and many contemporary anarchists conceive it : social anarchism or libertarian socialism.
Authentic anarchism is not then the life-style (or “new”) anarchism – as Bookchin contended in his last years – but the class struggle anarchism embraced by Reclus, Kropotkin Goldman, Berkman, Flores Magon, Galleani, Malatesta, Landauer, and by scores of contemporary anarchists and radical activists who muster (at least in Britain) under such banners as Class War, the Solidarity Federation (the Direct Movement), Black Flag, Industrial Workers of the World, and the Anarchist (communist) Federation (see Franks 2006). Bookchin, in spite of his rhetoric, and in spite of misleadingly equating anarchism with ultra-individualism, always essentially belonged to this libertarian socialist tradition – anarchism. Bookchin’s true legacy, it seems to me, was in re-affirming and creatively developing, this tradition, not in advocating libertarian municipalism, with its rather reformist implications.
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August 15, 2017
Posted in Uncategorized
Tags: Brian Morris, murray bookchin, Social Ecology