Book Review of "Enlightenment and Ecology: The Legacy of Murray Bookchin in the 21st Century"

Submitted by free_demos on April 25, 2021

Written by Elvira Wepfer

Murray Bookchin’s (1921-2006) anti-capitalist thinking combined community, direct democracy and ecology into a radical political theory he called social ecology. Throughout the 20th century it stood alongside growing arguments for eco-social change and influenced leftist discourses on citizenship, domination and freedom. In the new millennium, it has formed the basis of the Kurdish feminist-ecological revolution in Rojava and thus been implemented for the first time in practice. The edited volume "Enlightenment and Ecology. The Legacy of Murray Bookchin in the 21st Century" (Black Rose Books, 2021) celebrates Bookchin’s legacy and considers the lived experiences of social ecology. The anthology is a heart-felt endeavour to point out the urgency, potential and possibility for social change that grounds in the collaborative world-making of ecosystems to create free democratic societies that gain their resilience through a unity in diversity. The activists, thinkers and scholars writing place their contributions in political and economic theory, in decades of social engagement and in co-creation and observation of real-life movements. The outcome is a multifaceted anthology whose engaged voices paint a vivid, dialectical picture of the challenges and hopes of creating practice out of theory.

The volume is divided into two parts, the first discussing social ecology’s theoretical influence, the second exploring its discourses in different socio-cultural contexts as well as its adaptation to the liberatory struggles of Rojava and its connections to the recent rise of municipalism in Europe. Spearheading these, the Introduction by editor Yavor Tarinski presents Bookchin as a left-wing activist and writer whose lifetime of teaching, public speaking, organizing, and writing carried a distinctly direct, non-intellectual and at times polemical style (VI). Based on the insight that it is not human nature as such but rather the organization of society that determines attitudes to and engagement with nature, the Russian-American philosopher and educator proposed alternative forms of social organization that could lead to an ecological society (X). As Bookchin criticised the depoliticcation of social movements and the fragmentation of reality through postmodernism, his work, Tariski insists, should be read as a call to action (IX). “Bookchin drew a direct link between social organization and human interaction with nature; the way societies treated their natural environment was a reflection of the way their social interrelations were structured” (X). Given today’s dramatic ecological degradations, social inequalities and political failures, the statecraft and economic systems that have grown out of these interrelations are in dire need of mending, and social ecology proposes distinct forms of direct democracy and societal organization that can result in symbiotic relations with nature.

Part One, titled Bookchin’s Theoretical Legacy, opens with Jean-François Filion’s discussion of how social ecology builds on Hegelian dialectics in pushing for a dialectical naturalism which acknowledges nature’s fluid, plastic potentiality and understands humans as both evolving from and depending on nature. Due to this dialectics, Filion argues, humans need to restore the essential compatibility with nature through specific social norms (6). To do so, social ecology suggests libertarian municipalism, a form of small-scale citizens’ political engagement in municipal communities which repoliticizes citizens through pedagogical and ethical interactions that consider the communal more foundational to society than the individual (7).

Such a bottom up approach to institutions, Tarinski continues in the following contribution, functions through majority voting for decision making. This, he is swift to point out, is not necessarily linked to coercion and suppression but may, ensure the ongoingness of a society in practical terms while fully granting dissent and its expression (13). Assemblies thus emerge as the most important aspect of social ecology’s politics as they ensure widespread public participation.

That this kind of democracy emerges dialectically is what Janet Biehl argues for in describing how Abdullah Öcalan, leader of the PKK and the Kurdish freedom movement in Turkey and beyond, reached out to Bookchin during the early years of the former’s solitary confinement (1999 - present). Coming from a Marxist-Leninist background, Öcalan subsequently adapted social ecology for the Kurdish struggle for freedom. Biehl relates how both thinkers discussed civilization narratives dialectically to show how early human communal living was overtaken by civilization, which instilled hierarchies of religious and secular rulers who subjugated women, the ethnically other, social classes and also the natural world (19). Rejecting all oppression, social ecology presses for an ecological society in which everyone is free – most of all women, Öcalan declares. Underlying this narrative, Biehl points out, is a ‘principle of hope’ which dares to dream an otherwise: against the narrative that hierarchy has always been part of social order, it poses a potential of equality and equity, and a trans-historical and transcultural strive for freedom (24). A bottom-up approach to social organisation ensures that this freedom is applicable to all.

Brian Morris’ contribution discusses Bookchin’s radical agriculture which proposes to decentralize and restore bioregional forms of production and food cultivation, to diversify technologies and scale them to human dimensions, and to foster a new sensibility towards the biosphere. This approach grounds in care and love for all forms of life, a feeling of responsibility, and an attunement with the natural world (32-3). As industrial capitalism is inherently and antiecological and has dangerously degraded both non-human biospheres and human settlements, social ecology envisages decentralized, moderately-sized cities which combine both local industry and agriculture and make maximum use of local energy sources.

Based on awareness of citizens’ responsibilities as political and ecological agents, such a radical transformation of communities is to synthesize the progressive aspects of city and country side so that the economic system will be integrated into a bioregional framework and subjected to direct political control (46). To begin this process, Eirik Eiglad describes how urban regeneration necessitates a reclamation of the commons, including squares, streets, forests, and parks but also important public services and the means of production, owned and administered by direct-democratic communal structures (46).

Giorgos Papahristodoulou underlines this argument by pointing out the historic significance of the city as a place to form new political relations in which the self-governing citizen commits himself dedicatedly to assemblies and thus co-creates and participates in a system that elevates communal interest over self-interest (49). As a rich system of cultural meaning, the city has the potential to be an experienced space of freedom, political decision making and creation that echoes the ancient Greek άνδρες γαρ η πόλις (which Papahristodoulou translates with “the people are the city” (49)), yet its transformation into an ecological and democratic city depends on the attitude of citizens (52).

In considering these very attitudes, Jason Toney aims to bridge intellectual legacies by discussing social ecology alongside Hannah Arendt’s philosophy. He points out that her claim that the greatest failure of most revolutions is their inability to institutionalize spaces for freedom to appear, (manifest most clearly in the form of participatory assemblies), fits well with Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, as the latter insists not to wait for a revolutionary moment but to build power alongside the state to eventually make it redundant (56-7).

Yet Nikos Vrantsis seems not convinced of people’s ability to reconstruct their attitude regarding citizenship: he paints a dark and haunting picture of today’s technological society. Vrantsis argues that relying on technology has turned humans into cyborgs whose desires, needs and will are but a prefabricated commodification, created to exploit and dominate by cybercapitalism. Underlying this domination he finds a Darwinian narrative of competition and conquest, whose epistemological hegemonism privileges the self-interest of individuals and institutions, rather than their collaboration and co-creation (62). Whether such cyborgs can dream up and create social ecology seems doubtful, as he finds them lacking even the most elemental skill that defines humans: self-reflection (65).

Countering on a more hopeful note, Peter Piperkov advocates for a new economics that engages humans’ critical thinking to analyze how to maintain production, consumption and distribution activities in ways that are beneficial to people without destroying the environment (70). He suggests an interdisciplinary scientific approach to economic phenomena beyond the privatization and marketization of universities and builds on his personal engagement for free seminars in Sophia, Bulgaria, to show that democratization of economic education is possible as a way of dismantling the current unscientific nature of economics (74). I here would like to suggest that any such critical economic engagement need also consider waste management; that, as destruction of the environment is very advanced and cannot be ignored, regeneration is crucial; and that emerging interdisciplinary approaches such as agroecology and integral ecology may be a good place to start such a project for economists sincerely interested in looking beyond their dilapidated syllabi.

The last pages of Part One are dedicated to reviews of selected works by Bookchin discussing the city, the concept and practice of freedom, and the reorganization of society; they are written by Kostas Papoulis, Ramazan Kaya and Georgi Konstantinov.

Stavros Karageorgakis & Niovi Chatzinikolaou open Part Two, titled Bookchin’s Influence on Political Practice around the World, by describing Bookchin’s ideas in relation to both ancient and modern Greece, explaining how ancient Athens’ model of direct democracy built an important cornerstone for Bookchin’s theories. Costas Despiniadis follows suit, relating that via the Kurdish struggle Greeks were somewhat aware of social ecology and that the translations and publications of Bookchin’s work distinctly affected Greek anarchist, libertarian, ecological and communalist movements (98). Alexandros Schimenos finally discusses the kind of influence social ecology has had on contemporary Greek social movements, pointing to the latters’ shared struggle for an emancipation of humanity from authority and the liberation of nature from exploitation (102). Specifically, Schimenos traces the beginnings of Greek social ecology along the lines of local engagement beyond the traditionally strong Marxist tendencies into antiauthoritarian theory and practice culminating in the anti-globalization movement (108).

Moving from Greece to Turkey, Hawzhin Azeez describe’s the PKK’s evolution via Abdullah Öcalan’s democratic confederalism. Importantly, Azees points out the orientalizing tendency of leftist interpretation of the success of the Kurdish engagement in Rojava via Öcalan to Bookchin, reproducing the narrative of historical power dynamics and the structured flows of knowledge, ideas, and ways of knowing from the West to the oppressed (117). Instead, Azees insists that the Kurds’ liberation efforts were dialectical and in motion, containing the synthesis, evolution, progress, and revision that allowed them to develop practice out of and beyond theory (123). Similarly, Recep Akgün traces Bookchin’s influence on the Kurdish Movement in Turkey, stating that his influence was absent until Öcalan began engaging with the American thinker’s work. Since then, social ecology has spread beyond the Kurdish question and influences wider sections of the Turkish left, impacting on social and political structures such as new political organs, which furthered the rise of legal methods of engaging in politics, and producing new subjectivities and experiences, thus impacting on everyday life (35).

Following these in-depth regional discussions is a series of accounts of personal engagement, both with Bookchin the person and for the propagation of his ideas. Dimitrios Roussopoulos recounts Montreal’s close connections to Bookchin and the many ways in which social ecology has been implemented in different civil society efforts, while Bob Spivey introduces the Social Ecology Education and Demonstration School in Washington State. In Europe, Wolfgang Haug was deeply involved in spreading social ecology in Germany through an anarchist publishing house and its engagement with the writings and activities of Bookchin and Biehl until the early 2000s. A radical pedagogy of collective design is being implemented in an art collective between Athens and Cork, co-created by Eve Olney, as practice of ‘making politics’ on the ground rather than following any particular ideology. And in Belgium, Roger Jacobs has spent decades working to connect social ecology to both grassroots and party politics, ending in disappointment with the incapability to build connections. In neighbouring France, Theo Rouhette recounts, the yellow vest movement has implemented the self-organising libertarian and municipalist approach of social ecology – without, however, relating explicitly to Bookchin. And in Italy, Selva Varengo reports, social ecology is fairly absent despite ongoing efforts to distribute Bookchin’s work. Together, the accounts of Part Two paint a lively picture of the complexities of translating theory into practice.

In his Conclusion, editor Tarinski critically reflects that social ecologists have found it difficult to reach people beyond the activist scene, yet contends that Europe’s recent municipalist risings and, most of all, the ongoing manifestation of social ecology in Rojava, are changing this (208). Engaging with some of the critique raised in regard to Bookchin’s work, Tarinski points out that class issues are certainly not to be ignored, yet that more ancient forms of domination need to be unearthed and addressed lest we replicate structures of hierarchy which ultimately lead to exploitation (209). He also points out that terms like municipalism mean different things to different people, and warns of a watering down of theories. Any influence, he asserts, is welcome as long as it is equally revolutionary so that crosspollination between theory and practices “enriches the plethora of revolutionary practices” (213). In this spirit, I would like to propose some critical considerations and challenges that I see arising from this volume.

Some of the contributors point to the limits of Bookchin’s notoriously fervent engagement, like Haug who recalls how a colleague’s conference contribution on Gandhi was turned down by Bookchin with the note that “a pacifist would be not welcome” (146). Others remind the reader not to uncritically commit to any ethical-political theory (Filion 5) and call on the “duty of any reader to read the political philosophers and writers critically and with vigilance, feeding and activating their own thought and not searching to find ready-made recipes and solutions” (Despiniadis 98). These notes balance the passionate admiration some of the contributors entertain for the work and persona of Bookchin. In opening, Tarinski praises the protagonist of his edited volume as a “prophetic American philosopher” (IX, original capitalised) while others refer to him as “maestro” (Kaya 81) worthy of veneration. The at times over-indulging praise for Bookchin, manifest also in the iconographic décor of TRISE ’s headquarters in Athens, not only implies a personal glorification that Bookchin himself rejected, but also resonates with Azees’s waring about the orientalizing tendency of the left. The volume’s Part Two claims to discuss Bookchin’s influence on political practice “Around the World”. Actually, the regions covered include western and southern Europe, North America, Turkey and Rojava. While this realistically reflects the limited local engagement with Bookchin’s work, the title’s representative claims speak of a painfully colonial approach to the heterogeneous geographies of social and ecological change. Maybe in an attempt to rebut critique that conflates social ecology’s just and free vision with its loud-mouthed and polemic originator, the volume’s language at times exaggerates its heart-felt enthusiasm into simplification.

This ties in with an unfortunate reification of the complexities of domination that discursively reproduces what social ecology and its advocates so ardently seek to overcome. For instance, the ancient Greek phrase which Papahristodoulou translates with “the people are the city” (49) correctly translates into ‘the men are the city’. While this corresponds with historical inequalities, a critical engagement with the gendered and social oppression inherent in the city’s concept and realities cannot be ignored. Later on in the volume, Karageorgakis & Chatzinikolaou explain how ancient Athens’ model of direct democracy constituted an important cornerstone for Bookchin’s theories. They polemically state: “All adult Athenian citizens (at least the free, male citizens) could freely express their opinions on any subject and vote” (86). Cramming all women, migrants, slaves and most of the poor (the authors nod to some financial alleviation for participation in public gatherings) into brackets of non-mention, effectively establishing their unimportance through absence, the authors dangerously reproduce the hierarchies and inequalities their writing charges. Ironically, they reinforce this grievance by subsequently quoting Bookchin in describing these free subjects as ““men of strong character who were indomitable in their social allegiances and rounded in their urbanity because they had firm ties to the soil and were independent in their economic position” (86). The attached footnote quotes the source, yet makes no attempt to challenge or even just situate the masculine pronoun and its socioeconomic presumptions in historical or cultural contexts. It is only a few pages later that they mention, in passing, that Bookchin was aware of the shortcomings and that women, slaves and migrants were excluded from ancient Greek democratic expression (89). The choice to ignore such discourses speaks of a male gaze and privilege, and sets the theory of social ecology into stark contrast with its, to date, only exploration of practice. Azeez reminds us that the feminist framework of women’s liberation has been an integral part of the PKK’s work for over half a century, and that one of the outcomes of these efforts is jineology, “which involves the subversion of hierarchies of power in the family, the tribe, the religious order, and the social honour-based system, as well as within capitalism, science, and history” (124). In order not to replicate structures of hierarchy which ultimately lead to exploitation social ecologists need to self-reflexively engage with feminist orientalist critique in order to decolonize their ideology, language, concepts, epistemologies and ultimately ontologies,. We all need to.

Via these challenges, the volume’s title aptly points to the complexities of a heritage many of us carry. In the Introduction, Tarinski postulates that Bookchin’s “thirst for knowledge and research resembled the spirit of the Enlightenment’, making him the latter’s “true son” (X). Beyond this tease, some fleeting notes point out that Bookchin’s ‘humanist vision’ embraces ‘community, direct democracy, and the better promises of the Enlightenment’ which is to be ‘free and egalitarian’. Yet the reader looking for reflexive engagement with the concepts Enlightenment and ecology is left wanting. Some contributors allude to the concepts’ intricate dialectics, such as Morris who suggests that an ‘enlightened agriculture’ be based on sound biological knowledge and combined with insights derived from skills and knowledge of human communities past and present (37). Or Eiglad, pointing out that the Enlightenment and industrialization, while “sorely needed to shed a feudal past[,] unfortunately also destroyed traditional communities and alternative lifeways” (43). And unmistakably, the volume’s celebration of an alternative social order builds on fervent critique of the hierarchies inherent in dominant socio-economic narratives. The very task of the title, and social ecology itself, is to bridge these narratives’ underlying dualisms that separate humans from their environment, or culture from nature. And I suspect it is the width and depth of this task that makes it so very challenging to translate theory into practice, and to invite people beyond the activist scene to dream of a free society based on ecological relations. Such relations are collaborative, processual and open-ended, and while they may not explicitly adhere to any political theory, their ethics, politics and visions may well resonate with social ecology. Beyond the strict adherence to the work of Murray Bookchin, they exist in various regenerative grassroots engagements across the globe. In the spirit of revolutionary crosspollination between theory and practices, I suggest that looking for real-life engagements in the epistemologically collaborative field of agroecology forms a promising departure point.