Social Ecology London

Social Ecology and Development
November 6, 2008, 10:03 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

When contemplating the relevance of Murray Bookchin’s social ecology to the contemporary world, it is striking to note the degree to which this school of thought, like other radical Euro-American intellectual traditions, concerns itself largely with ‘advanced’ Western/Northern societies. Like his sometimes-comrade Herbert Marcuse, Bookchin, in fact, has conceded as much, stating that the primary responsibility of Western/Northern radicals vis-à-vis less-developed country residents is to overthrow dominative institutions in their own societies so as to allow for the emancipation of those currently oppressed by the international system. It is to be wondered, then, whether his project, as valuable as it is, can be applied to contexts outside of those on which he focused most of his efforts—that is, directly to those peoples his work largely ignores. It certainly seems that he has much to say here, and that many of the profound problems that beset the “wretched of the earth” could perhaps be helped along by the contributions of social ecology. It is the hope of the present work, then, to employ the insights of Bookchin and his social ecology to critique mainstream development theory, in an effort ultimately to present an alternative by which the dominant trends, both contemporary and historical, of the world’s course might be overturned, and a “free nature”—a reconciliation between external nature and human society that radically diminishes the pain and suffering in both —realised. As the most radical critique of conventional development thought and practice with which I am familiar, and one that in fact shares many of the analyses advanced by the aforementioned thinkers, post-developmentalism seems to represent a useful means to this end.

Though ‘post-developmentalism’ is not as an intellectual tradition as clearly demarcated as Bookchin’s social ecology, the many thinkers associated with it share a number of common theoretical views. Most post-developmentalists hold a highly critical view of the trajectory of history, especially of its most-highly lauded creation, modernity. In language reminiscent of Bookchin, Sahlins notes that contemporary society is the “era of hunger unprecedented,” a time of “the greatest technical power” in which “starvation [is] an institution.” He contrast this with what he calls “the original affluent society,” or the lived space-time experience of hunter-gathering societies, which he finds to have “easily satisf[ied] all people’s material wants” and provided a degree of leisure time unknown in most of the forms of human social organization that have followed ‘primitive’ society. Latouche similarly remarks that the promises of Renaissance humanism have devolved within modernity into the instauration of “the most inhuman society ever constructed by man,” one characterised by the dominance of “the quantitative”—a “cult of life without quality” that remains fundamentally indifferent to the fate of the individual. He sees a valuable alternative in “traditional societies,” most of which he finds to have gone without the concept of accumulating wealth or dominating external nature. Galeano, for one, sees the perpetuation of the prevailing state of affairs, which he see as “poised on the brink of an abyss,” as fundamentally necessitating the perpetuation of injustice. Indeed, there is reason to believe that the very development of the West/North has been based on the systematic underdevelopment of the South; the poorer countries of the latter, which Latouche sees as being considered within prevailing society as “good only […] for the wrecker’s yard,” thus face little prospect of realizing development, as they lack a periphery of “‘New’ Worlds” to exploit for their own benefit. The atrocious consequences of the present situation are, then, unsurprising: according to Latouche, 40,000 “radically outcast” children die every day of poverty—the equivalent, as he puts it, of the number of deaths at Auschwitz every three months —while “large majorities […] within most Southern countries” are reputed to be worse-off now than at the time of formal decolonization, with Central and Southern American societies purportedly having suffered the worst social and economic conditions since the European conquest during the ‘lost decade’ of neo-liberal restructuring in the 1980s.

Faced with the enormity of problems extant in the status quo, many writers associated with post-developmentalism have called for an “end to development.” Most such advocates reserve much of their ire for those who, cognizant of the substantial problematics characteristic in conventional development theory and practice, call for an ‘alternative development’—whether ‘participatory,’ ‘socialist,’ and so on—noting that the “opposition between ‘alternative development’ and alternative to development is radical, irreconcilable.” For such theorists, ‘development’ cannot be made “different from what it has been,” and they suggest that we give up the “comforting illusions” of working to “change the world,” develop “new types of social organisation,” and “save ‘humanity’” and instead advocate the development of “post-modern spaces,” which one group of theorists find to be the “only hope [for] a human existence” and for the “survival and flourishing [of] the ‘social majorities’” of the world. Such positions amount to a radical rejection of ‘progress,’ which, in the view of various theorists, represents a Western ideology that has enshrined the “one and only way of thinking”—that of subordinating the entirety of the life-world to the interests of transnational capital —and legitimated the “top-down, ethnocentric, and technocratic” forms that Escobar sees development theory and practice as having represented since their inception. Declaring, then, that “we are facing modern problems for which there are no modern solutions,” some post-developmentalists advocate the rejection of all the institutions they see as associated with the Western social construct of Homo oeconomicus (neo-liberal globalization, the welfare state, human rights, and the “modern self”), the “replacement of ‘global thinking’ with the ‘local thinking’ practiced at the grassroots,” and support for peoples’ local struggles as consonant with “their own cultural contexts.” Rahnema, for his part, seems to favor a devolution of power from the modern state to those whom traditional societies purportedly found the “wisest, the most virtuous, and hence the most ‘authoritative’ and experienced.” He hopes for the day when the peoples of the world will be left “free to change the rules and the contents of change, according to their own culturally defined ethics and aspiration,” noting that the coming post-development period will “distinguish itself from the preceding one” if the world’s jen—Confucius’ purported term for “the authoritative persons”—come to institute “an entirely new rationale and set of assumptions” whereby responsibility and compassion for the min—the “masses”—is actualised.

Many thinkers associated with post-developmentalism also express deep concern for what they see as the ecological predicament brought on by modernity. Sachs asserts that the global capitalist economy has “come up against its bio-physical limits” and, indeed, called into question the very survival of the earth itself, yet he expresses the concern that mainstream environmentalism tends to privilege dominant Western/Northern views of nature that, in the name of practicality or relevance, do not “plead anew against the world’s course” and hence ultimately serve the ends of capital, oligarchism, and eco-technocracy. In dominant formulations, argues Sachs, the “crisis of nature” stands at odds with the “crisis of justice”: thought and action dedicated to resolving problematics regarding humanity’s treatment of external nature are deemed mutually exclusive with attempts to ease the suffering of ‘second nature.’ Sachs asserts, however, that this false set of choices rests on conventional understandings of questions related to development and external nature, and he hopes for an eclipse of the current emphasis on endless growth, consumption, and “progress” by the emergence of a “politics of sufficiency” that would drive a search for modes of social organization that respected ecological limits and took “their inspiration from indigenous ideas of the good and proper life.” Escobar shares Sachs’s concerns about global eco-technocracy, noting that much of development discourse assumes it is the “benevolent (white) hand of the West”— the “fathers of the World Bank,” aided by “a few cosmopolitan Third Worlders”—that is to “save the Earth” by means of a set of superficial policies which follow directly from their understanding of the life-world as a “technical problem.” Escobar here remarks on the wealth of indigenous knowledges regarding external nature that largely is excluded from development theory, and he concludes that knowledge of the prospect of ecological finitude demands that humanity “reimagine the relationship between society and nature” and “reconnect life and thought at the level of myth.”

Toward a Post-Developmental Ecological Rationality

From the previous section, then, it should be clear that many of the thinkers associated with post-developmentalism share many of the concerns of Bookchin: common to all are fierce critiques of the trajectory of human history, a stress on the need to deconstruct and rethink given conceptions of ‘progress,’ opposition to capitalist modernity and most forms of constituted power, and concern for humanity’s relationship to external nature. However similar their concerns and views may be on some of these questions, there nonetheless exists a considerable degree of difference among them.
Perhaps the greatest conflict to be found between the thought of Bookchin relative to most post-developmentalists can be found in the latter’s interpretations of post-modernism and poststructuralism. Esteva and Prakash’s call to replace ‘the global’ with ‘the local’ typifies this, as does Latouche’s dismissal of the search for “new types of social organisation.” Such conclusions seem highly misguided, as asserting that humans give up concern for ‘the global’ and work to create local, post-modern spaces seems completely to overlook the decidedly significant influence that global processes—neo-liberal globalization, capitalism, colonial legacies and neo-colonial relationships, global warming, and so on—have on local realities and the very existence, let alone flourishing, of the “‘social majorities’” of the world. The very fact that these regional/global relationships exist in the current day, are socially contingent, and have dramatic and often highly negative effects on the lives of billions of people demands that they be addressed and radically overturned; to dismiss the structural bases for many of these relationships as immutable or irrelevant, as some postmodern strains of post-developmentalist thought suggest, is tantamount to a betrayal of the world’s dispossessed.

The emphasis many post-developmentalists place on outrightly rejecting ‘the Western’ also seems fundamentally problematic. Certainly, the West/North has much to atone for as regards its historical treatment of Southern peoples—for how can European colonisation, the Columbian Exchange, the Atlantic slave trade, neo-liberal structural adjustment processes, the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the destruction of Vietnam and Iraq, and the global imposition of a fundamentally ecocidal economic system be forgotten, let alone forgiven? Post-developmentalists are certainly right to be suspicious and critical of Western/Northern designs for Southern peoples, but they are mistaken in seeing Enlightenment principles of social emancipation and resistance to oppression as being irrecovably tied to neoliberalism, the welfare state, and the social construct of Homo oeconomicus. Esteva and Prakash correctly point out that dominant Western/Northern notions of the self and society represent just one in a set of “diverse cultural windows” regarding these questions, but it seems doubtful whether it follows that concerned observers uncritically endorse the resolution of such problematics in the pre-modern or hybrid modes of social organization that Esteva and Prakash, Rahnema, and Escobar seem to advocate. While it may be true that the modes of governance that have been imposed on Southern peoples in the modern period dwarf “[t]he evils and injustices of traditional village governance,” it hardly seems clear that what should follow is a return to societies dominated by the “compassionate and authoritative” jen favored by Rahnema. Instead, post-developmentalists like Latouche and Esteva and Prakash should remain true to their emphasis on difference and so come to see the concept of development “as a set of conflicting discourses and practices based in positions that contradict one another” and thus one open to contribution from critical, non-hegemonic Western thought, such as that advanced by Bookchin. If the analyses of the latter are to be seen as in any way legitimate—and it is the argument heretofore advanced that they most certainly are—it seems that the task of critical inquiry should be directed not toward the valorisation of hierarchical power but rather toward an opposition to hierarchy and domination as such. Such efforts are to stress the need for the emergence of the “real ‘state of exception’” sought by Benjamin: the “abolition of domination.” The realization of emancipatory societies, freed from both capitalism and domination more generally, could allow for the instauration of Bookchin’s ‘liberatory technologies,’ ones which could help historically poorer societies conquer material scarcity in manners that avoid the torturous “process of dissolution [that] constitutes the historical evolution of the West” : its legacy of thoroughgoing self-repression, social injustice, and destruction of nature. A new, critical developmentalism, one that views development, like the Enlightenment, as “a real quest for improving the human condition” corrupted by “class power and ruling ideologies,” would disprove Latouche’s view that development cannot be made “different from what it has been” and refute the view common to Esteva, Prakash, and Rahnema that the prospect for systemic change now has passed.

Javier Sethness


1 M. Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism xvi (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2004.)
2 Ibid, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy 191 (Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2005 [1982]), The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays on Dialectical Naturalism 45 (Montréal: Black Rose, 1990) 45
3 M. Sahlins, “The Original Affluent Society” 18 (The Post-Development Reader. Eds. Majid Rahnema and Victoria Bawtree. London: Zed Books, 1997. 3-21.)
4 Ibid 4, 18-19
5 S. Latouche, In the Wake of the Affluent Society: An Exploration of Post-Development 224 (Trans. Martin O’Connor and Rosemary Arnoux. London: Zed, 1993. emphasis in original)
6 Ibid 204, 230
7 E. Galeano, “To Be Like Them” 215 (The Post-Development Reader. Eds. Majid Rahnema and Victoria Bawtree. London: Zed Books, 1997. 214-22.)
8 M. O’Connor and R. Arnaux, “Translators’ Introduction” 8-9 (Latouche, Serge. In the Wake of the Affluent Society: An exploration of post-development. London: Zed, 1993. 1-20.); S. Latouche, op. cit. 41
9 Ibid 36
10 W. Sachs, “Global Ecology and the Shadow of ‘Development” 5 (Global Ecology: A New Arena of Political Conflict. Ed. Wolfgang Sachs. London: Zed, 1993. 3-21.)
11 A. Escobar, Encountering Development: The Making and Unmaking of the Third World 217. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1995.)
12 Ibid vii-viii; S. Latouche op. cit. 149; M. Rahnema, “Towards Post-Development: Searching for Signposts, A New Language and New Paradigms” 392 (The Post-Development Reader. Eds. Majid Rahnema and Victoria Bawtree. London: Zed Books, 1997. 377-403.)
13 S. Latouche, op. cit. 159; Escobar, op. cit. 5
14 S. Latouche, op. cit. 160, 187; M. Rahnema, op. cit. 392
15 G. Esteva and M.S. Prakash, Grassroots Post-Modernism: Remaking the Soil of Cultures 4. (London: Zed, 1998.)
16 I. Ramonet, “The One and Only Way of Thinking” 179 (The Post-Development Reader. Eds. Majid Rahnema and Victoria Bawtree. London: Zed Books, 1997. 179-81.)
17 A. Escobar, “The Making and Unmaking of the Third World through Development” 91 (The Post-Development Reader. Eds. Majid Rahnema and Victoria Bawtree. London: Zed Books, 1997. 85-93.)
18 B. De Sousa Santos, “On Oppositional Postmodernism” 36 (Critical Development Theory: Contributions to a New Paradigm. Eds. Ronaldo Munck and Denis O’Hearn. London: Zed, 1999. 29-43.)
19 G. Esteva and M.S. Prakash 146, 121, 11, 21, 137-8
20 M. Rahnema 388-9
21 Ibid 384, 391, 394; emphasis in original
22 T.W. Adorno, Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy 7 (Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.)
23 W. Sachs (1993) 6, (1999) 61, 68
24 (1997) 293
25 Ibid (1993) 17, 4, 7-8
26 (1995) 193, 91
27 (1995) 211
28 R. Bryant and S. Bailey, Third World Political Ecology 6-7 (London: Routledge, 1997); R. Peet and E. Hartwick, Theories of Development 159-61 (New York: Guilford, 1999.)
29 G. Esteva and M.S. Prakash, op. cit. 140-1
30 Ibid 137-8; M. Rahnema op. cit. 388-9
31 G. Esteva and M.S. Prakash op. cit. 114
32 M. Rahnema, op. cit. 394
33 R. Peet and E. Hartwick, op. cit. 156, emphasis in original
34 M. Löwy, Reading Walter Benjamin’s ‘On the Concept of History’ 59-60 (Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2005.)
35 K. Marx, The Portable Karl Marx 557 (Ed. Eugene Kamenka. New York: Penguin, 1983.)
36 R. Peet and E. Hartwick, op.