‘Social Ecology and Communalism’ by Murray Bookchin
A review by SEL member Emily Kenway
This is a new publication of four essays by Murray Bookchin, intended to give an overview of his ideas. The four essays are well chosen; the book would be ideal as an introduction to anybody unfamiliar with Bookchin’s theories. These seem especially apt in current times, when corporate power shows no signs of stalling and the Marxist notion of capitalism collapsing from within is utterly archaic, leaving the traditional radical left floundering.
Bookchin will accept no accommodation with the tyrannical grow-or-die principles of capitalism and the corporate domination of nature. He argues that the only way towards a more rational society and to allay the catastrophe of global warming is through altering these fundamental economic and political tenets of our current society. His answer is the concept of ‘communalism’, a participatory political system comprised of directly democratic municipalities which then join together as federations. Central to this premise is that power flows from the bottom up and not the top down. His focus is on the intention behind social institutions. He advocates an economy that serves human needs rather than a runaway train of capitalist profit.
Bookchin is adept at explaining what his theories are not; he rails against primitivism, oxymoronic “green capitalism”, and the characterisation of humans as “intelligent fleas” by Gaian theorists or as “natural aliens” by those subscribing to what he calls a “naïve biocentrism”. He expounds his distaste for the current “goulash” of ideas that he describes as “antirational, atavistic”; the mysticism growing in popularity with the disillusioned, over-consuming bourgeoisie. There is the usual peppering of polemic that those familiar with Bookchin will have come to expect – he describes the academic presses as “pornographers” and refers with a gothic flourish to the “darkness of capitalist barbarism”- but underlying his sometimes dogmatic tenor are some seriously good, seriously applicable ideas. He reiterates throughout the essays the pillars of his theory; civic self-governance, healthy interdependence between communities to stem parochialism, humanly-scaled bodies of people working on bottom-up democratic principles; a focus on ‘craftpersonship’, employing eco-technologies and bridging the dislocation between work and leisure, rather than mechanised, automaton production. He speaks of nature not as the static vista that we have become accustomed to in our urbanised age, but as a constantly developing, fluid entity that we are both a physical part of and able to complement and nurture with our technologies, rather than ransack.
Murray Bookchin thought, wrote and was involved in radical politics for most of his eighty-five years. He described social ecology as an “uncompromising critique” of the current situation, and frequently explained that, as with nature, a rational reasoning to find an ethical and democratic society could not come from a static ideology. With this in mind, this book is a fantastic starting point for any leftist movement, implying a dynamic development away from the “co-optative wiles of capitalism” and towards a more ethical, localised and democratic society. In his words, “humanity is too intelligent not to live in a rational society. It remains to be seen whether it is intelligent enough to achieve one”.