"The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking." --Murray Bookchin
The excuse for this post is to point to a rather incredible 1970's talk by Bookchin, "Ecology and Ideology," that was rebroadcast today (8/30/06) on the KPFA program, Against the Grain. The talk starts about 5 minutes into the broadcast (after news headlines & a little trouble with the tape). If you've got the time, treat yourself to the voice of a man who dared to Imagine! a better world. Highly recommended!
Murray Bookchin was a left-libertarian social theorist who, in the early 1960s, introduced the concept of ecology into radical politics. A self-described utopian, he sought a decentralized, genuinely democratic society and placed ecology in a humanistic and social framework. He wrote more than two dozen books on ecology, history, politics, philosophy, and urban planning. At all times he upheld reason against the alternatives and sought to bring a lived revolutionary past forward into the future. [snip]
His first book, Our Synthetic Environment (written under the pseudonym Lewis Herber), published in 1962, addressed a broad range of ecological issues. Preceding Rachel Carson’s famous Silent Spring by nearly half a year, it called for a decentralized society using alternative energy sources. In this and later writings he developed what he called social ecology, which holds that ecological problems can be remedied only by the creation of a free and democratic society. At a time when “ecology” was an unfamiliar concept to most people, he lectured indefatigably on the subject to countercultural groups throughout the United States. . . . His 1960s essays were very influential both in the counterculture and in the New Left and were anthologized in Post-Scarcity Anarchism (1971).
During the 1970s Bookchin’s writings and lectures influenced the formation of Green movements in the United States and abroad. [snip]
In 1982 Bookchin published The Ecology of Freedom, which became a classic in social thought. His 1986 The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (1986) presented his program for direct-democratic politics at the municipal, neighborhood, and town levels. In Burlington Bookchin attempted to put these ideas into practice by working with the Northern Vermont Greens, the Vermont Council for Democracy, and the Burlington Greens, retiring from politics in 1990. His ideas are summarized succinctly in Remaking Society (1989) and The Murray Bookchin Reader (1997).
That's from the obituary written by his longtime companion Janet Biehl. The 85 year old Bookchin passed away earlier this summer. A good, on-line selection of his writings can be found at The Bookchin Archives.
Brian Tokar has a nice memorial in Counterpunch, The Visionary Life of Murray Bookchin, where he adds:
During the 1950s and '60s, Bookchin built upon the legacies of utopian social philosophy and critical theory, challenging the primacy of Marxism on the left and linking contemporary ecological and urban crises to problems of capital and social hierarchy in general. Beginning in the mid-sixties, he pioneered a new political and philosophical synthesis-termed social ecology-that sought to reclaim local political power, by means of direct popular democracy, against the consolidation and increasing centralization of the nation state.
From the 1960s to the present, the utopian dimension of Bookchin's social ecology inspired several generations of social and ecological activists, from the pioneering urban ecology movements of the sixties, to the 1970s' back-to-the-land, antinuclear, and sustainable technology movements, the beginnings of Green politics and organic agriculture in the early 1980s, and the anti-authoritarian global justice movement that came of age in 1999 in the streets of Seattle. His influence was often cited by prominent political and social activists throughout the US, Europe, South America, Turkey, Japan, and beyond.
Even as numerous social movements drew on his ideas, however, Bookchin remained a relentless critic of the currents in those movements that he found deeply disturbing, including the New Left's drift toward Marxism-Leninism in the late 1960s, tendencies toward mysticism and misanthropy in the radical environmental movement, and the growing focus on individualism and personal lifestyles among 1990s anarchists. In the late 1990s, Bookchin broke with anarchism, the political tradition he had been most identified with for over 30 years and articulated a new political vision that he called communalism.
Andy Price begins an article on Bookchin's critique of Marx with this 1991 quote: "Perhaps the most compelling real fact that radicals in our era have not adequately faced . . . is the fact that capitalism today has become a society, not only an economy."
If the books Our Synthetic Environment and Carson's Silent Spring were ground-breaking in the 60's, the issues raised in his long 1952 essay "The Problem of Chemicals in Food" could be described as near prophetic. In a 2000 interview, he notes:
DV: The summarizing phrase that is commonly associated with your work is "We cannot solve the environmental crisis without solving social problems." To whom specifically were these words addressed when you wrote them for the first time? To the environmental movement of the time?
MB: No, it was 1952, and there was no environmental movement at that time — just a few books on conservation and overpopulation, most of which were very reactionary. There was no organic gardening movement except for experiments among a few people who had come over here from Europe and especially England. I strongly believed, however, that making a few small changes would not solve the ecological problem — on the contrary, a transformation into a rational, egalitarian, and libertarian society was necessary. When I talked about solar and wind energy, I didn't just propose them as alternative technologies; I proposed them as part of the technological apparatus of a new communal society.
A wholistic approach was one he continued to cultivate:
"Nor do piecemeal steps however well intended, even partially resolve problems that have reached a universal, global and catastrophic Character. If anything, partial `solutions' serve merely as cosmetics to conceal the deep seated nature of the ecological crisis. They thereby deflect public attention and theoretical insight from an adequate understanding of the depth and scope of the necessary changes." (from The Ecology of Freedom, 1982)
"To speak of 'limits to growth' under a capitalistic market economy is as meaningless as to speak of limits of warfare under a warrior society. The moral pieties, that are voiced today by many well-meaning environmentalists, are as naive as the moral pieties of multinationals are manipulative. Capitalism can no more be 'persuaded' to limit growth than a human being can be 'persuaded' to stop breathing. Attempts to 'green' capitalism, to make it 'ecological', are doomed by the very nature of the system as a system of endless growth." (from Remaking Society, 1992)
In an "Open Letter to the Ecology Movement" published on Earth Day, 1980, Bookchin articulated clearly what lay ahead (& in fact played out in many of the large environmental & other social advocacy groups); it echoes dilemmas many face today:
It is necessary, I believe, for everyone in the ecology movement to make a crucial decision; will the eighties retain the visionary concept of an ecological future based on a libertarian (anarchist) commitment to decentralization, alternative technology, and a libertarian practice based on affinity groups, direct democracy, and direct action? Or will the decade be marked by a dismal retreat into ideological obscurantism and a "mainstream politics" that acquires "power" and "effectiveness" by following the very "stream" it should be seeking to divert? Will it pursue fictitious "mass constituencies" by imitating the very forms of mass manipulation, mass media, mass culture it is committed to oppose? These two directions cannot be reconciled. Our use of "media," mobilizations, and actions must appeal to mind and spirit, not to conditioned reflexes and shock tactics that leave no room for reason and humanity. In any case, the choice must be made now before the ecology movement becomes instituionalized into a mere appendage of the very system whose structure and methods it professes to oppose. It must be made consciously and decisively -- or the century itself, and not only the decade, will be lost to us forever.
--quoted in Deep Ecology, Bill Devall & George Sessions (1985)
For his withering critque of the deep ecology movement, take a peek at Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement. Then, aiming his fire at the left, here's a snippet from Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm:
Today's reactionary social context greatly explains the emergence of a phenomenon in Euro-American anarchism that cannot be ignored: the spread of individualist anarchism. In a time when even respectable forms of socialism are in pell-mell retreat from principles that might in any way be construed as radical, issues of lifestyle are once again supplanting social action and revolutionary politics in anarchism. In the traditionally individualist-liberal United States and Britain, the 1990s are awash in self-styled anarchists who -- their flamboyant radical rhetoric aside -- are cultivating a latter-day anarcho-individualism that I will call lifestyle anarchism. Its preoccupations with the ego and its uniqueness and its polymorphous concepts of resistance are steadily eroding the socialistic character of the libertarian tradition. No less than Marxism and other socialisms, anarchism can be profoundly influenced by the bourgeois environment it professes to oppose, with the result that the growing 'inwardness' and narcissism of the yuppie generation have left their mark upon many avowed radicals. Ad hoc adventurism, personal bravura, an aversion to theory oddly akin to the antirational biases of postmodernism, celebrations of theoretical incoherence (pluralism), a basically apolitical and anti-organizational commitment to imagination, desire, and ecstasy, and an intensely self-oriented enchantment of everyday life, reflect the toll that social reaction has taken on Euro-American anarchism over the past two decades.
I'll close with his closing words in the 2000 interview:
We live in a very confusing time. Sometimes people look for easy answers to complex questions. If a machine or item functions poorly, it is easy to blame technology rather than the competitive corporations that try to make money, or to blame people's attitudes rather than the mass media that shapes people's thinking, or to say we should go back to old ideologies — Christian fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, orthodox Marxism, orthodox anarchism, even orthodox capitalism — for solutions.
People need new ideas based on reason, not superstition; on freedom, not personal autonomy; on creativity, not adaptation; on coherence, not chaos; and on a vision of a free society, based on popular assemblies and confederalism, not on rulers and a state. If we do not organize a real movement — a structured movement — that tries to guide people toward a rational society based on reason and freedom, we face eventual disaster. We cannot withdraw into our "autonomous" egos or retreat to a primitive, indeed unknown past. We must change this insane world, or else society will dissolve into an irrational barbarism — as it is already beginning to do these days.