Social Ecology London

Remaking Society
October 18, 2008, 7:01 pm
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Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future by Murray Bookchin

A review by Marcus Melder

This book, first published in 1990, is intended to serve as a primer for the body of work that Murray Bookchin developed over the thirty previous years. Another intent of the text to is to challenge other strands of the ecology movement who root the cause of the ecological crisis in human beings, liberal environmentalist who accept the status quo as a social given, and Marxist who still cling to the proletariat as the historical agent for overthrowing capitalism. While taking the reader on an exciting intellectual journey, Bookchin engages a range of disciplines such as evolutionary biology, anthropology, revolutionary history, utopian philosophy, political theory, and ethics. This book provides a coherent body of ideas for anyone seeking to challenge the growing ecological and social crisis.

Bookchin argues that human being’s unique capabilities, including mental subjectivity, are not alien to the natural world. Instead they incorporate aeons of natural differentiation and elaboration. In contrast to the Victorian view of nature as “blind” and “mute” where organisms merely “adapt” to their environment, Bookchin presents a view of nature that is creative, increasingly subjective, and embodying the potentiality to be free and rendered fully self-conscious. He defines nature as the “cumulative evolution towards ever more varied, differentiated, and complex forms and relationships.” We are told that it is social ecology’s commitment to the natural world that these potentialities are real and can be actualized.

Bookchin asserts that social ecology’s greatest contribution to ecological thought is that the domination of nature “stems” from the domination of human by human. All ecological problems are social problems. Therefore, social ecology reexamines the concept of domination, which exists exclusively in society, in order eliminate it and create an ecological society.

Like human beings, society (second nature) too evolves out of (first) nature. Society has its biological roots in the mother/child relationship, and the prolonged dependence of the young. That prolonged dependence creates the need for interdependence rather than “rugged individualism.” This interdependence assumes a highly structured form, social institutions, that can be altered for better or worse. Early primitive societies were essentially egalitarian, even lacking a domineering vocabulary. They lived by the principles of the “irreducible minimum”, usufruct, and mutual aid. Though lacking domination in institutional form, they were not ideal. Indeed they were notoriously parochial.

Next, Bookchin lays out his theory of the emergence of hierarchy. The elderly, who were the most vulnerable members of society, sought security and over time used their position, as the preliterate village’s historians and keepers of traditions, to create a gerontocracy. This was at a time when the biological division of labor of men’s civil world and woman’s domestic world were still complementary. Only later, when man’s civil world expanded and the “big man” hunter slowly developed into the “great warrior” and began to dominate the younger and weaker men, did woman’s domestic world begin to be dominated by men. Bookchin considers the growing authority of men over women as a major historical shift that had a profound influence on social evolution. Hierarchy was further reinforced by shamans, who were vulnerable due to the uncertainty of their magical practices. The great warrior slowly transforms into the hereditary chief, whose position is sanctified by the shaman’s new priestly corporation. These developments led to the creation of economic classes and the early quasi-State.

These changes occurred slowly over long periods of time. An epistemology of rule had to be instilled in people’s minds in order to overcome the egalitarian values of the “irreducible minimum”, usufruct, complementarity, and mutual aid. Bookchin emphasizes how much hierarchical differentiation reworked social relationships long before the emergence of economic classes. It was only later that society began to even think of nature as “stingy” and seek to dominate it.

A major turning point in history was the emergence of the city. The city was a new social arena, a territorial arena, where people affiliated based on residential and economic interest. This new development allowed for new forms of human association where people could interact with little regard for their ancestry or blood ties. In contrast to the parochialism of tribal society, the city offered the “outsider” a degree of protection and judicial security. Slowly over time, this gave rise to the idea of a common humanitas. One of the negative impacts of the city was that communal ownership gave way to private ownership. According to Bookchin, “hierarchy … became embedded in the human unconscious while classes, whose legitimacy was more easy to challenge because of the visibility of exploitation, came to the foreground of an embattled and bitterly divided humanity.”

Another major turning point in history, we are told, was the development of the nation-state and shortly after, capitalism. Initially, the “king’s justice” was welcomed by commoners as a buffer against unruly nobles. The growth and use of power by the nation-state caused it to be later resisted by commoners. Bookchin briefs us on the history of that resistance: the Communeros of 16th century Spain, the radical farmers of New England after the American revolution, the sans-culottes of the French revolution, and finally the Paris Commune of 1871. The fate of the nation-state hung in the balance. Bookchin argues that history could have gone the route of decentralized confederated municipalities. He further argues that capitalism was not preordained by history, nor was the nation-state formed by the bourgeoisie. Markets existed long before the rise of the market economy. We are told that before the rise of capitalism all societies had a disdain for competition, growth, accumulation, and egoism. Capitalist were held in check by the values of their times as well as their own desires to invest their wealth in land, in order to join the aristocracy, rather than further accumulation. The breakthrough for capitalism came in England where common lands of the peasantry were enclosed in order for nobles to grow wool for Flanders’ textile industry. This created a large number of dispossessed proletariats. The bourgeoisie were then able to evade guild restrictions by concentrating cottagers into new “factories” and subjecting them to harsh exploitation. Bookchin explains that it is not technology and industry itself that undermines the natural environment, but rather the capitalist system that puts them to use. Capitalism’s very law of life is to “grow or die.” There is no greening capitalism. The only choice we have is to destroy it.

Bookchin moves on to discuss the “ideals of freedom” that developed out of the libertarian movements that resisted the emergence of hierarchy, classes, and the State. In order to do so, Bookchin distinguishes between freedom and justice. Justice is a demand for equity based on ones contribution. Thomas Jefferson stated that justice was “equal and exact” based on the principle of equivalence. People are different for many reasons. This allows for inequality in substance because justice is established in mere form. Freedom on the other hand, acknowledges people’s differences and seeks to compensate for them. Out of this Bookchin derives a maxim that forms the foundation of the ideal of freedom, the “equality of unequals.”

Next Bookchin critiques the concept of myth. Myths, according to Bookchin, seek for a return to a “golden age” that is actually regressive to the ideal of freedom. Many people today call for a return to an atavistic prehistory where freedom takes on the form of an absence of desire, will, and purpose. This notion is in contrast to nature’s evolution towards greater subjectivity and sensibility. Christianity changed myth from longing for a past “golden age” to a vision of a future utopia. Radical Christian sects of the Middle Ages contributed greatly to the increasingly expansive ideals of freedom. Over time this vision became increasingly earthbound, naturalistic, and secular. In contrast to myth, Bookchin considers the influence of reason as the greatest contribution to the expansion of the ideals of freedom. He argues against the notion that there is only one type of reason. In addition to formal syllogistic logic, there is also dialectical reason. Dialectical reason is an organic form of reason that stresses growth, potentiality, and eduction. This form of reason offers an organismic approach to understanding the world, rather than a mechanistic one. Bookchin denotes several great tendencies in the development of the ideals of freedom. First a commitment to the existing world and to secular reality. Second, the need for a carefully structured society. Third, a high esteem placed on work. And finally, the great importance of community. Furthermore, Bookchin adds that the anarchist theorist and libertarian utopists of the 19th century stressed the importance of ethics to influence choice. In addition, anarchist and libertarian utopist, especially William Morris and Charles Fourier, sought a balanced society that provided material well being yet was well ordered. The society they sought would eliminate the contradictions between substantive equality and freedom, and between sensuousness, play, and work.

In discussing the revolutionary project, Bookchin briefly touches on peasant and artisanal radicalism before moving on to discuss proletarian socialism. The peasants that were proletarianized by the enclosure movement brought their precapitalist cultures along with them into the industrial cities. Bookchin denotes this point as being of significance in understanding the character of their discontent and their militancy. These proletarians were angry over their loss of autonomy, craftsmanship, and community. Out of that anger developed a revolutionary spirit that lasted from the worker’s movement in Paris in 1848 up until the anarcho-syndicalist movement of Barcelona in 1937. What has changed in the decades that followed, according to Bookchin, “is [that] the agrarian world and the cultural tensions with the industrial world that fostered the revolutionary fervor, have waned from history.” Indeed the working class has become completely industrialized and is no longer the bourgeoisie’s antagonist. This leads us to a flaw in Marxian theory, the belief that a new society is an embryo that grows in the womb of the old. Orthodox Marxist doctrine believed that the proletariat would become the majority of the population and would be driven to revolt due to miserable working conditions and chronic economic crises. What the Marxist did not see was that capitalism would domesticate the proletariat through racist tactics, patriotic chauvinism, hierarchical management techniques, economic crisis management, and by reducing their numbers through technological innovation. Furthermore, the Marxist “embryo” theory eliminated spontaneity from the revolutionary project by claiming that social evolution was historically determined. Centralization of the both the economy and the state were welcomed by Marxist as “historically progressive” and “stages” towards revolution. By reducing humans to primarily economic beings, the Marxian revolutionary project “reinforced the very degradation, deculturalization, and depersonalization of the workers produced by the factory system.” Finally, the objectification of human beings in Marxist theory led to the denaturing of nature. Capitalism, which destroyed all limits on the exploitation of the natural world, was welcomed as necessary. The conquering of nature was a “precondition” for the development of a socialist society.

Not long after Marxism began to wane a new set of ideas began to develop. The revolutionary project was being revived during the 50’s and 60’s with pre-Marxist libertarian ideals and was inspired to a great extent by the millenarian character of the civil rights movement. Other movements, such as the anti-Nuke and anti-War movements, contributed to the civil rights movement to create the New Left. The New Left, Bookchin tells us, contrasted the heavily Marxist influenced Old Left by its aims, forms of organization, and strategies for social change. The emerging counterculture mixed with the New Left and emphasized lifestyle changes, sexual freedom, and communal values. The sense of promise produced by these movements were partially fueled by a materialist view of abundance that could be possible for all. Initially the New Left and counterculture were anarchistic and utopistic. They began to revive the traditions of the democratic revolutions of the 17th & 18th centuries by calling for participatory democracy, and also demanded the decentralization of society in order to make democracy meaningful. In addition, the accumulation of property was viewed disdainfully. Unfortunately, the New Left became infested with Maoist tendencies and it began to dissipate as fast as it had developed. The economic insecurities during the 70’s also played a role in the demise of the New Left. According to Bookchin, “privatism, careerism, and self-interest increasingly gained ascendancy over the desire for a public life, an ethics of care, and a commitment to change.” An increasingly commercialized counterculture began to use drugs more for sedation than mind expansion. One of the New Left’s weakest points was that it valued action at the expense of theoretical insight. Despite its failures the New Left and counterculture contributed greatly to the revolutionary project by stressing antihierarchical, decentralist, communalist, and sensuous values.

Bookchin explains that environmental movements, which have a long history in both the United States and in Europe, are reform movements seeking piecemeal changes that do not threaten the capitalist system. Separately, certain groups of wilderness enthusiasts view all humans, regardless of power differences between oppressor and oppressed, as inherently anti-natural. Bookchin asserts that this is a simplistic view of both nature and society. In the early 60’s, eco-anarchist theorist sought to go beyond these forms of environmental concern by advancing libertarian ideas for restructuring society along ecological principles. Social ecology, influenced by the writings of Peter Kropotkin, stressed that ecological problems were rooted in social problems. They advocated the replacement of capitalism with decentralized democratic communities, eco-technologies, and economically structured around the ecosystems of its location. For the first time ecological problems were rooted in hierarchy. By the late sixties a new movement developed, feminism, that showed that women were a victim of a male dominated society irrespective of her class position. Feminism helped to rework social ecology into a critique of hierarchical forms. This critique of hierarchy highlighted the subtle forms of rule that existed throughout society and organized around a universal interest that was not specific to a particular class, gender, race, or nationality.

Bookchin see the 18th century Enlightenment as an era upon which to draw high ideals for the establishment of a free society. The ecological crisis and social conflicts that we face develop out of a domineering society and thus we must remake society along ecological lines. Bookchin believes in the importance of creating a broad social movement that is built upon a general human interest. Ecological principles are based on unity in diversity, differentiation, and wholeness. The social counterpart to these principles is the Greek ideal of a well rounded, many-sided person who lives in a well rounded, many-sided society. The earth can no longer be owned, Bookchin states, but rather the fruits of the earth must be distributed according to need. In addition, policies should be made by democratic assemblies which are open to the participation of every normal adult in the community. The administration of the community’s policies can be handled by boards or commissions that are fully accountable to policy making assemblies. These assemblies should be sized for face to face discussion at the village, town, or neighborhood level. In order to avoid parochialism, these communities should confederate at the city and regional levels. Communities would send mandated delegates, who are recallable and accountable, to these confederated assemblies. Bookchin seeks to develop an ethical system of values for the assembly. Drawing from the example of the ancient Greeks, he advocates communal solidarity, amateurism or roundedness, self-sufficiency, and the giving of one’s free time in service to the community. These ethical values allow for the forming of a well developed human being, a citizen. The formation of the citizen is achieved by a character-building process called paideia. The ideal of paideia is characterized by civic responsibility, the ability to reason out one’s view clearly, and to exhibit high ethical standards. Direct democracy, according to Bookchin, is a way of life. Bookchin gives this collection of political ideas the name libertarian municipalism. The municipality is the immediate environment in which a person interacts with society beyond one’s personal life. The way to achieve this is by creating counter-institutions that initially develop a dual power along side the existing power structure. In time, by working to build a larger and stronger movement, the abolition of the market economy and the nation-state can be achieved.

Our society’s use of technology has created an ecological crisis of monumental proportions. Agribusiness, which has compacted the soil with its heavy machinery, has also poisoned our soil and water with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Climatic changes are being induced by deforestation and a transportation system built around the private motorcar. Urbanization threatens both the city and the country side by spreading concrete over agricultural land along with the homogenization of life into a mass consumer culture. All of this is motivated by an economic system that must continually expand until it has completely devoured the natural basis of all life. Bookchin states that we must re-assess our technologies and the goods they produce. Decentralizing large cities into humanly scaled communities is indispensable to the creation of an ecological society. Ecological sensibilities could be developed through participating in organic agriculture as well as through solar and wind installations. Property in an ecological society would be neither privately owned nor nationalized, but rather it would be municipalized. Economic policies would be made by citizens in face-to-face assemblies. Work would be rotated between the city and the countryside and between everyday tasks. Land would be used ecologically. Small industrial operations would utilize labor saving devices and multi-purpose machines. Arduous labor, when necessary, would become festive communal affairs. Quality craftspersonship, aesthetics, and durability would be valued over quantity. The transition to this society, Bookchin notes, will not spring forth abruptly. The move to a new society is a long process that will no doubt entail uncertainties, failures, and digressions before the movement realizes its sense of direction. There is no certainty that substantial social change will occur in one’s lifetime. But one must act in order to save one’s own individuality in our corrupted meaningless society. Above all, the revolutionary project is an educational process where people develop a new consciousness of being.
At last, Bookchin states his belief in the probability that normal people have untapped reasoning capabilities on the level of humanity’s most gifted individuals.

Finally, Bookchin explains to the reader his dialectical philosophy and seeks to situate humanity’s place in nature. He admits that his philosophy, like all philosophies that account for humanity’s meaning, are based on unprovable presuppositions. All substance is in a process of development. This development is defined as “an unfolding of the latent potentialities of a phenomenon, the actualization of possibility and undeveloped form in the fullness of being.” Bookchin does not believe that existence is predetermined, but rather is marked by “an inherent striving … and tendency toward greater differentiation, complexity, increasing subjectivity … , and physical flexibility.” As life evolves into increasingly complex forms, it begins to participate in its own evolution. Nature has a tendency towards conscious development and choice exposes its potential for freedom. Humanity has actualized this development and is nature’s potential for becoming fully self-conscious. Just as society (second nature) evolved out of (first) nature, Bookchin states the possibility of a “free nature” evolving out of “second nature.” Free nature is described as an emancipated humanity that would provide caring and sympathetic guidance to evolution. Bookchin is careful to point out that his message does not approve of “natural engineering.” In addition, he informs us that rationality exists objectively and is a product of evolution. Because potentialities are objectively grounded, according to Bookchin, the rational what should be is no less real than the irrational what is.

Marcus Melder is a social ecologist from Louisiana, USA