Murray Bookchin’s social ecology: communalism as evolutions path to self-consciousness, freedom and ethics
In Elonkehä’s number 10/03 Olli Tammilehto pointed to John Clarks and David Watsons attempts to combine deep ecology and social ecology. The basics of deep ecology are most likely familiar to Elonkehä’s readers, but what is social ecology?
Social ecology is typically connected to Murray Bookchin, an American, and I will discuss his ideas in this article. According to Bookchin nearly all ecological problems are social problems. Ecological crisis is caused by the capitalist society, but it has deeper roots in social hierarchies. Social ecology proposes replacing state and capitalism with an ecological society, that is based on relations without hierarchy, geographically decentralized communities, ecotechnology, organic agriculture and human scale production facilities.
Social ecology denies a clear division or a inevitable opposition between nature and humanity or society. Movement from nature to society is gradual and basic problems that pit society against nature are growing within social evolution – not between nature and society.
This way typical features to humanity and human communities such as reason, technology and science cannot be declared destructive without taking in to account the social factors that have an effect on them. Ecological problems are also not simply or primarily caused by religious, spiritual or political ideologies. To understand modern ecological problems we have to find their social causes and solve them using social methods.
Diversity, engagement and spontaneity
In his writings about ecosystems and evolution Bookchin emphasises the principle “unity in diversity”. Lifeforms and organic interactions diversity gives evolution new pathways to travel and is the basis for ecosystems fertility and stability. Because this diversity is created spontaneously in nature and our knowledge of complex internal relations within ecosystems are limited, humanity should try to protect natures diversity and leave as much room as possible for its natural spontaneity instead of trying to control it.
To Bookchin most significant factors in evolution were symbiosis and reciprocity, where different lifeforms complement each other by creating biotical ecocommunities between different organisms living within the same sphere. These biotical ecocommunities are by their nature participatory, so all of their very different members participate in evolution and creation of life.
Similar principles of diversity, participation, spontaneity and non hierarchical relations within ecosystems exist in anarchist social theories. According to Bookchin applying these ecological principles to social organization would remove the division between nature and society and replace it with a continuum that would combine biotical and social ecocommunities.
Hierarchy and domination as an ecological threat
Possibly the most central part of social ecology is formed by the critique of hierarchies and various forms of domination. According to Bookchin our attempts to control nature are caused by forms of domination among humans. Men didn’t think of dominating nature before they had started dominating young people, women and each other.
Hierarchies and domination are in addition to political and economic institution rooted in our their cultural forms so deeply in our families and between age groups, genders and ethnical groups that they effect even how we experience reality which also includes nature and other lifeforms. To counteract this social ecology emphasizes diversity without placing differences in to hierarchical order.
According to Bookchin we cannot remove the aim of controlling nature and create an ecological society before we remove from society all hierarchical structures. He also emphasizes that social hierarchies are an institutional phenomena, not biological. They are results of organized and carefully built power relations and we cannot find justification for them from nature.
Urbanization and state as detriments to democracy
One of the most central hierarchical structures is the state. According to Bookchin state takes both spiritual and material power away from communities and limits their developmental potential by taking their power and right to form their own fate. The state – and in our time the nation-state – representatives and institutions have eviscerated also the individual as a public creature, a citizen, that has an participatory role in social functioning. This development has been helped by urbanization, that transforms cities from clear, human scaled and democratically governable entities to enormous marketplaces and centers for mass production and consumption.
The ethical content of city life as a space where you can learn civic skills, responsibility and acting on ideals of democracy are wiped out. Modern city is ran like a business, that is guided by profit, expenses, growth and employment. This kind of corporate spirited city depends on and helps simplifying an active citizen to a receiver and customer of public services. “A Good Citizen” obeys the law, pays taxes and votes ritualistically among preselected representatives and “minds his own business”. Democracy becomes purely formal instead of being participatory. Power is bureaucratized and centralized to the state and half monopolistic economic actors.
Modern gigantic place an enormous burden on nature, waters and air in the areas that they have conquered. Urbanization has spread among the countryside as well disturbing it’s ecological balance. The culture of the countryside and it’s rich traditions have been displaced by city life and mass culture unifying and urbanizing the lifestyles of the countryside. Industry and city based economic forms and techniques have conquered agriculture. Cities seem to have taken full control of the countryside.
Capitalism and weakening communality
Central to decline of vitality and communality of local communities is also the development of modern capitalism. In addition to weakening traditional economic forms like small scale agriculture, craftsmen and simple barter capitalism also threatens to destroy all features of organization of communities, appreciation of cooperation, autonomous structures and local cohesion, that were typical to societies before capitalism. It has spread competition to all levels of society, not only between capitalists in their competition to control the market.
An economic system that is based on competition and the selfishness that it emphasizes invades also the family and neighbourhood and threatens to destroy even the smallest feelings of communality, ecological balance and diversity of social life. Citizens become mere buyers and sellers and simplifying social life and surrounding nature leads in the end even to the simplification of the human mind. Capitalism erodes peoples self confidence maintaining economic basis and community that would help participation in social life.
According to Bookchin basics for an safe and enjoyable life could be created for all. Despite this capitalism has created a stronger sense of scarcity then any social order before it. Needs are created artificially and capitalist exploitation and manipulation makes ordinary life social empty and boring. When society has been transformed to a factory and marketplace the basic reason for living has been simplified to production for the sake of production and consumption for the sake of consumption.
Grow or Die!
Capitalist society that is based on competition and growth for the sake of growth must eventually destroy nature just like an untreated cancer destroys it’s host. Personal beliefs, good or evil, do not matter in an economy based on the “grow or die” -principle. Accumulating capital to weaken, buy, merge and destroy your competition is a requirement for existing within capitalist economy, which makes it a system of endlessly growing and centralizing wealth. Capitalism inevitably turns against and turns environment to “unnatural”; inorganic, synthetic or simplified.
Ecological society as the fulfillment of nature become self-conscious
Despite the current state of our societies Bookchin believes in humanity’s possibility to develop as moral and ecological actor. Self-consciousness and capability to systematically generalize their consciousness by philosophy, science, ethics and aesthetics and also to change their selves and their environment with the aid of these things place humanity in a special place in evolution. These capabilities are creations of evolution itself and place humanity to be responsible for the progress of also the organic evolution.
Humanity could be rational manifestation of natures creativity and fertility and its involvement in events in the rest of nature could be equally creative as the rest of the nature. Ecological society could fulfill one of evolutions grand lines, the trend towards self-consciousness and would extend freedom, reason and ethics as a dimension in nature. This natures potentiality to realize itself as consciously creative is still unfulfilled: this is proven by hierarchies, class divisions, state and other social phenomena like this.
Communalism as an political alternative
Political and activity level Bookchins social ecological philosophy is concentrated on power and institutions that use it. According to Bookchin growing corporate and political system is removing almost all of control over their lives from ordinary people. That is why economic needs can force people to work against their best intentions, even against deeply felt values about nature in a way destructive of nature. Solving ecological and social problems created by created by centralized corporations, ownership relations and productions growing power is absolutely a question of power – who has power and who it’s denied from. To Bookchin democracy and peoples freedom to control their own life are basic prerequisites for an ecological society.
The nowadays mostly extinct “socialist” world doesn’t give a better model for failed liberalism. Totalitarian countries are equally responsible for pillaging the earth and a classless society is not necessarily free of hierarchies. As an ecological alternative Bookchin offers communalism, where social power belongs to democratical general assemblies. According to him true democracy can only happen if people take part in open, face-to-face assemblies to create social policy. Not a single act is democratically justified if it is not directly proposed, discussed and decided by the people – and not representatives. Administration of these acts can be left to committees and other workgroups that would fulfill assemblies decisions under close public scrutiny.
Politics or statecraft?
As a central method in creating communalism Bookchin thinks is starting local assemblies, empowering them and formalizing their power and radically democratizing local municipal institutions. To him politics like it is understood nowadays is an unfit arena for ecological movements. Modern politics mostly means a series of struggles for power, where parties try to occupy the key positions needed to control state functions. Political parties are formed to get power, to rule and control. They mainly built hierarchies and work top-to-bottom like miniature states.
According to Bookchin the concept of politics popular today is mostly statecraft. Influencing politicians, lobbying, voting and other parliamentary of party centric activity is statecraft, as is all functioning of state institutions. Those who take part in this – both politicians and lobbyists – is unified in a belief that change can only or primarily be done by the use of state power. Appealing to state power legitimates and strengthens the existence of the state inevitable and the more power the state has the less the people have directly. This way Bookchins views differ for example from Leena Vilkka’s interpretation that when considering the Green Party accepts as hallmarks of social ecology as reformism and acceptance of the parliamentary way.
As a replacement for statecraft Bookchin tries to rejuvenate politics in it’s classical meaning as a domain of self-governance. According to him politics cannot exist without municipal cooperation caused by peoples grassroots organization. The genuine unit of politics is municipality either as a whole if it is human scale or divided in to units like neighbourhoods. According to Bookchin practicing politics in arenas has a crucial meaning also for individual freedom: municipal freedom is the prerequisite of political freedom and political freedom is an prerequisite of individual freedom.
That if traditional ideals of civic democracy will be fulfilled and if municipalities and cities can be governed by all their population in assemblies depends largely on the size of municipalities and cities. Although assemblies can also work as networks on block, neighbourhood and city level the cities have to be decentralized in the end. Decentralizing power and large cities is also a spiritual and cultural value because it combines community empowerment to individual empowerment.
Bookchin does admit that physical decentralization of large urban entities such as New York to genuine municipalities and local communities takes a long time. But according to him there is no reason why they couldn’t be decentralized institutionally before that.
Smaller cities are not only prerequisites for fulfilling ideals of freedom, but we also need them to live in balance with the rest of nature. Decentralizing our cities and economic production would make possible to use local materials and sources of energy fully, would shorten transportation distances, would help preventing pollution and recycling waste, would improving knowing earths ecology for example in agriculture and would remove bureaucracy that wastes resources to managing work.
Human scale and self-sufficiency
Decentralizing and changing to human scale technology and production would help people to understand their functions better and govern them directly without “experts” and leaders. Decentralizing production and creating more self-sufficient local communities would shift economic power’s center of gravity to local level and would create economic essentials for local communities self-government and sovereignty. The diverse and equal participation that human scale makes possible would create a basis for a new feeling of humanity – a feeling of individuality and community.
Reasonably self-sufficient communities whose dependence on their environment would be clearly visible, would create a new form of reverence to the organic world that sustains them. Even if small industrial complexes would have duplicates in multiple communities each groups knowledge of their environment would cause a more intelligent and loving use of it. Single community should however not strive for complete self-sufficiency because mutual dependence among communities and regions is both a cultural and political advantage.
Decentralizing cities and human scale of communities do not necessarily guarantee fulfillment of democracy or ecological society. Decentralized society is not necessarily free of domination, hierarchies or parochialism. Social organization must be based on larger principles the localism. Bookchin proposes confederation as a democratic and libertarian form of municipal alliance. It is a network of administrative councils, whose members are chosen from face-to-face assemblies. Delegates can be recalled and exchanged when ever and they are responsible to the assemblies that chose them. Assemblies also define carefully the authority of their delegates and provide guidelines for their action. Confederalism includes a clear division between deciding about policy matters and coordinating and executing those policies. Power to decide and create policy would be solely the function of assemblies and administration and coordination would be the responsibility of confederal councils.
To govern production and distribution Bookchin proposes that economy would be municipalized and decisions for economic actions policy would be made among all citizens of a municipality in assemblies. This would mean bringing economy to the sphere of political decision making as a whole, so that individual factories or farms would no longer be competing units. This would create a basis for a moral economy, where people would work more for the benefit of the community instead of their own benefit and where everyone would give according to their capabilities and take according to their needs.
The principle of confederalism would reach its fulfillment when communities would combine their resources in local confederal networks. Confederal ecological society would share resources and not be based on selfish and calculating trade of capitalistically working local communities. Combining handcraft and small scale industry and farming in to cooperation of multiple municipalities confederation would increase individuals possibilities of action and the stimuli that they are exposed to.
Also rotating political civic responsibilities and productive work duties would diversify the experiences that people have both in intellectual and physical work that would stimulate their senses and help find new dimensions in self development. Communal life would be created in to a sort of school of civic skills, paideia, like Greeks of the ancient era called it. Giving birth to new citizenship and participation in common matters should become a form of creative art, that would also in an aesthetic sense be appealing to deeply human need for self expression. Possibility for meaningful participation in political and communal life and plentiful stimuli can increase richness of skills and character also in individuals. This way the largest possible freedom of personal development would be combined to skills and possibility to work communally and ecologically to bring humanity in harmony with the rest of nature.
• Bookchin, Murray: Toward an Ecological Society, Black Rose Books, Montréal-Buffalo, 1980.
• Bookchin, Murray: Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Black Rose Books, 1986.
• Bookchin, Murray: The Modern Crisis, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, 1986.
• Bookchin, Murray: Remaking Society. Pathways to a Green Future, South End Press, Boston, 1990.
• Bookchin, Murray: From Urbanization to Cities. Toward a New Politics of Citizenship, Cassell, London, 1995.
• Bookchin, Murray: The Murray Bookchin Reader, Cassell, London, 1997.
• Vilkka, Leena: Mustavihreä filosofia, Elämänsuojelija-lehti, Tampere 1999.
• www.demokratisktalternativ.org/suomi/demalt-fi.html (trans. now http://kommunalismi.net )
Edited version of the article has been published in two parts with the name “Ecological society” in numbers 1-5-16/2003 and 1/2004 of Elonkehä -magazine.