Social Ecology London

Review of Social Ecology and Communalism
December 13, 2007, 5:44 pm
Filed under: Articles and reviews, Uncategorized

‘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”.


4 Comments so far
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I don’t like that Eiglad decided to include the essay “the Role of Social Ecology in a Period of Reaction.” That essay is sensationalistic, alarmist and, as already mentioned, dogmatic. I think Bookchin gave way too much credence to some of those lines of thought by launching a sustained attack against them and actually served to prolong their indignance. Maybe it’s because I live in the US and the whole Social Anarchism vs. Lifestyle Anarchism (which “the Role of SE in a Period of Reaction” is a precursor of) has been played out…

I think Eiglad would have better served the communalist project by replacing “the Role of SE…” in the book with another Bookchin essay that could provide the reader with a more concrete vision such as “Municipalization: Community Ownership of the Economy.”

Comment by Matt


What is communalism?
It depends upon where you live.
It is not a straightforward concept. In some countries it is not a valid concept.
Among the social ecologists and socialists of the USA/EU, communalism refers us to direct democracy, local and neighbourhood assemblies, decision making by local residents in a local context.
However, among the religious communities of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, communalism is a description of religious communities in conflict with the various communities of Moslems, Sikhs, Hindus, Jain, Buddhists, Christians, in particular localities, attacking each other on the grounds of their religious differences, and centuries of oppression and domination.
In view of these contradictions, it may be better to think about communalism as direct democracy whereby every adult living in a neighbourhood, village, town, municipality, local authority, county and city, is free to be involved in the discussions and debates and decisions concerning their locality and region. It is important that every adult is involved, not just a privileged few. But if we wish to institute a direct democracy, we have to remember that we are not operating on a clean slate.
In the past, it was applied to societies, such as Athens, in which only the male elite took part. In the present, facilities, utilities, social services, local offices and officers exist already. There are roads, railways, telephones, water and sanitation, electricity, schools, hospitals, clinics, banks and building societies, mutual funds and hedge funds, industry and commerce operating within our hierarchical societies. In all neighbourhoods across the world there are issues concerning the use and development of existing services and facilities, which could be matters for local neighbourhood assemblies, but, in the main, are currently determined by representative politics, or dictatorial edict.
The notions of communalism or direct democracy also assume that it is possible to reach a consensus, and to have a majority vote which everyone will observe. The civil conflicts that rage across the fragile countries of Africa, Asia, and South America, as well as the Balkans in Europe, and the Caucasus of Russia reveal that this is far from certain.
Does this mean that they are concepts that can only be developed and put into action in the ‘peaceful’ developed world?

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