Bookchin on Technology

Review of Murray Bookchin's Post-Scarcity Anarchism.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on January 18, 2011

Murray Bookchin's collection of essays, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, provides an important challenge to Marxists who want a living Marxism.

He argues for a liberatory technology and describes inventions and scientific advances that make it possible. That it is necessary is shown by the ecological harm resulting from our present use of technology. He then argues that only a decentralized society will be capable of using the technology he proposes and locates tendencies for such a society in the development of communes, affinity groups, and other forms of positive opposition to centralized and bureaucratic society. At the end of the book he gives his impressions of the French General Strike of 1968 and his analysis of why it did not advance to the overthrow of the old society and the construction of a new one.

Let's deal with Bookchin's discussion of technology. First Bookchin argues that 19th-century technology brought a sense of promise that scarcity could be ended. "It seemed to the revolutionary theorist that for the first time in history he could anchor his dream of a liberatory society in the visible prospect of material abundance and increased leisure for the mass of humanity" (p.88). However to bring this about required planning for a long period of toil. Redistribution of wealth with little to distribute as Marx and Engels rightly saw would merely return us to the old struggle for survival.

Marxism's answer was a transitional proletarian state to plan the economy. The anarchists hoped without much evidence that this stage could be avoided and argued with strong evidence that it would be dangerous. According to Bookchin neither side really won the argument because the low level of technology would have caused problems for either a "proletarian state" or "mutual association". However while the problem was still being argued in such terms technology sped forward. While socialism was (and still is) glorified as a society where toil was ennobling, technological advances took place that allow for a reduction in the amount of labour necessary to do the world's work. Already the possibility of a greatly reduced amount of toil finds quantitative expression in proposals for guaranteed incomes.

"This quantitative approach is already lagging behind technological developments that carry a new qualitative promise-the promise of decentralized, communitarian lifestyles, or what I prefer to call ecological forms of human association".

According to Bookchin the open-ended development of technology, the breakdown of tasks to mechanical operations that machines can perform have occurred along with certain new features of machines.

1. They have the ability to correct their own errors; they are self regulating, e.g. thermostats and lights that adjust to darkness.
2. Machines now have sensory devices, e.g. X-ray machines and radar.
3. Machines can now exercise judgment, memory, and skill. Computers can remember facts, perform complicated logical exercises, and can evaluate routine processes.

Technological advances embodying these principles can be applied to virtually every form of toil. The present technology could be used to further existing tendencies toward centralization and bureaucracy. However it could have an opposite and happier consequence. Computers that once required miles of wiring and weighed 30 tons have been replaced by computers roughly as big as a bedside AM-FM radio.

Larger machines have been developed too. Rolling mills can be built that are a fraction of the size of the huge mills existing in Hamilton let alone the enormous mill planned for Nanticoke (23,000,000 tons production per year, more than the entire current Canadian output.)

The present system is geared to an international market. The new technology could not hope to meet such a demand but it could satisfy the steel needs of several medium-sized communities.

Multi-purpose machines have been developed as well. Drills can now use a range of gauges to drill holes of various thicknesses. Thus a variety of goods can be produced by using them.

An additional aspect of modern technology is the possibility it offers of a new relationship with nature. "Some of the most promising technologocal advances in agriculture made since World War II are as suitable for small-scale ecological forms of land management as they are for the immense industrial-type commercial units that have become prevalent over the past few decades". (p.115) This is true for such processes as the feeding of livestock and for farm machines.

Agriculture could continue to be agribusiness or it could become husbandry with the promotion of a variety of flora and fauna.

Regional resources could be used too. Old resources that now exist only in small amounts could now be of value again.

The present single source energy economy could be gradually abandoned as solar energy could meet 20 - 30 per cent of our energy needs and other forms could be applied as well.

The point is that this new technology would be less dangerous but would require a new society different not only from what exists but different from most currently envisioned. Such a society or rather societies would be decentralized using primarily the natural resources and technology available in the immediate area.

Production would be for smaller markets. Political units could more nearly approach a size allowing for face to face contact.

Man could regain respect rather than fear of the natural environment as the daily evidence of his dependence on it would be part of an ecological society — one that encouraged diversity as not merely the most pleasant but also the most efficient form of agriculture. If "many ecologists now conclude that we can avoid the repetitive use of toxic chemicals such as insecticides and herbicides by allowing for a greater interplay between living things" then the form of agriculture best suited to our needs requires not the domination of nature but more of a partnership with it.

What does this mean to Marxists? Marx was the greatest critic of technology. He wrote unsurpassed analyses of the technology of his day and revealed modern technology to be an alienated form of human labour that could be used to reduce toil rather than adding to it.

However this technology required the centralization of production in his view and the disciplining of the working class and one-man management. An individual performer of a musical instrument he said is his own conductor but a symphony requires a conductor. The analogy between the craftsman and the factory was thus very clearly drawn.

This analogy was not lost on the Leninists who brought one-man management to its apogee. Unfortunately, while Marx may have had some justification for his conclusions based as they were on the most advanced research then existing present-day Marxists have no reason for following this path. Instead Marxists must take up Marx's task of the critique of technology and see if it can take a liberatory direction. The Frankfurt School and Herbert Marcuse especially have criticized technology under capitalism but always with the assumption that the closed system of instrumental reason that it tries to create can succeed or at least prevail indefinitely. There is no hint in Marcuse or Habermas that systems theory as a means of domination could be self-defeating. Instead for Marcuse the critique comes from outside the system. For Haberman the process of rationalization is checked if at all only by the presuppositions of communication that imply a normative content to speech. Rather a feeble hope! An a priori argument for the inviolability of language.

If Marxists want to develop their theory to take account of the new needs and possibilities of technology, they must admit that if this theory is not exhausted on this topic it remains to be developed. As good a place as any for them to start it remains to be developed. As good a place as any for them to start in gaining knowledge for their arsenal would be Post-Scarcity Anarchism.

After praising the book a few words of criticism may be in order.

For example Bookchin believes that such a thing as an ecological breakdown would occur. "Ecologically bourgeois exploitation and manipulation are undermining the very capacity of the earth to sustain advanced forms of life". (p. 36). "The contradiction between the expoitative organization of society and the natural environemnt is beyond co-optation: the atmosphere, the waterways, the soil, and the ecology required for human survival are not redeemable by reforms, concessions or modifications of strategic policy" (p. 38). While technology can't solve all the problems it creates it is possible to adjust human expectations to accept a deteriorating ecology. In Los Angeles there are smog alerts and the acceptance of an environment that has been barbarized is already far advanced. Thus an ecological crisis no more than an economic crisis is purely objectivistic. It depends to a large extent on political criteria. What do people expect; what can they be forced or persuaded to tolerate? Further one needn't have a blind faith in science to expect that some attempts can be made to adjust us to a worsening environment through technological manipulation. Moreover Bookchin does not emphasize the possibility of economic crisis. Not a breakdown: such a thing never happened and never will happen. The economy is of course no longer the unregulated chaos that was under competitive capitalism. But now that the state has to step in to regulate the economy it creates tensions that it may not be able to resolve. However Bookchin emphasizes the problems of prosperity and unfulfilled expectations rather than the tensions due to economic crisis which the state must both regulate and exacerbate.

Post-Scarcity Anarchism
Murray Bookchin
Black Rose Books, Montreal

Published in Volume 2, Number 2 of The Red Menace, Spring 1978.