“Social Ecology and Communalism” by Murray Bookchin

This book is a good, short introduction to the ideas of Murray Bookchin. He draws on anarchist and socialist thought to come up with a model of social organisation that will be more fair not only to humans but also to the planet.

Bookchin’s thesis is that capitalism has reached crisis point, both socially and ecologically, and new modes of thought are needed to create a better society in which to live. He derides environmentalists who focus only on conservation or protecting nature in isolation, without addressing social issues. To do so, Bookchin argues, is to miss the root cause of environmental destruction, the brutal imperative of “grow or die” capitalism. He also disagrees with the view of nature as a static, pure, scenic backdrop which man inevitably despoils. Nature is always changing, he says, and creatures are always evolving. Humans have evolved the ability to change nature to suit our wants and needs, but this doesn’t necessarily make us parasites. Technology is not evil or even unnatural. We could use our technology, ingenuity and foresight to better effect, if we lived in a nonhierarchical society in which competition and anatagonism did not dominate.

This is where Bookchin links the ecological and the social. The domination of nature, he says, begins with the domination of human by human. If we don’t address that, then much of the other “environmentalist” activity we indulge in is pointless. Green capitalism, ethical consumption and similar initiatives are simply contradiction in terms.

Until human beings cease to live in societies that are structured around hierarchies as well as economic classes, we shall never be free of domination, however much we try to dispel it with rituals, incantations, ecotheologies, and the adoption of seemingly “natural” lifeways.

Bookchin’s model for a better society is essentially democracy – not the distant, tick-a-box-every-five-years variety we currently delude ourselves with, but real, living democracy, true rule by the people. This has to be local, on a scale at which everyone can get involved and have a say directly, without appointing career politicians to represent them. He argues that politics is not the same as statism. We have come to see the state as the only model for efficient governance, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The root of the word politics is Greek,and originally referred to informed, engaged citizens running their own communities, or poleis. He traces similar examples of functioning local democracy from Greek city states through cities around the world. Municipal organisation is the model to follow, with each local town or city running its own affairs, and coming together with others in federations to make larger decisions. He acknowledges that localised societies have often in the past involved excluding others, whether it was Greek city states excluding slaves or American town hall meetings excluding African-Americans, women, etc. But Bookchin is not advocating a return to the past. He wants to use what we have learnt and create a better society for the future.

I would like to read more of Murray Bookchin’s work. I often find with books of essays that they don’t quite hang together, and this was the case here as well. There is a definite theme throughout the book and the arguments are consistent, but I prefer a single book organised as one argument from beginning to end, rather than separate essays. So I’ll try to pick up another of his books – does anyone have any recommendations?

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10 thoughts on ““Social Ecology and Communalism” by Murray Bookchin

  1. I wondered when books would start appearing with solutions to the crisis of capitalism. I competely agree that the principle of grow or die is itself now causing more problems than anything else. And I think the issue of human competitiveness (alongside natural aggression) lies at the heart of it – only I don’t think we can ever remove it from humankind. The thing about the ecology movement is that it MAY divert competition onto better areas – if we all become competitive about recycling and saving the planet, then we may get useful technological advances out of that, as well as undoing some of the damage that has been done. I’m not convinced by the idea of governing cantons; I fear a multiplication of turf wars, just at a more local level. The only really good thing about the global society we’ve forged is that we all HAVE to work together, which reduces the risk of war.

    You are very diplomatic and don’t say what you feel, Andrew. Did the book convince you? Bookchin is a new name to me, but then the only sociologist I know anything about at all is Pierre Bourdieu, who is probably a bit dated now.

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  3. Hi litlove
    Sorry, didn’t mean to be diplomatic 😉 I was convinced by parts of the book, but didn’t feel it added up to a coherent whole. As I said, though, I thought a big part of that was the structure of the book (individual essays) so I suppose that’s why I didn’t want to criticise the arguments too much. I thought he was really onto something, but that if you want to overturn existing society, you really need a full book length!

  4. This book looks quite interesting, Andrew! Books on this topic typically have an either / or point of view, but this book seems to be different because it tries to integrate both points of view and provides a unified perspective. I haven’t heard of Bookchin before and he seems to be an interesting writer. Thanks for reviewing this interesting book and introducing an interesting new author to us.

  5. Yes, it was interesting, Vishy. It did have a clear point of view, but integrated different aspects of ecology, anarchism, socialism and other political theories. Glad you liked the review!

    By the way, just to clarify, although I talked in the review about his theory that capitalism had reached crisis point, this book was written quite a long time ago, well before the current crisis point! For him the crisis is not about debt etc, but about the over-utilisation of resources, the goal of infinite growth in a finite world.

  6. @Andrew Blackman

    Interesting to know that this book was written a long time ago 🙂 It is interesting that what people thought was a big crisis, turns out to be a not-so-big crisis, when future events dwarf its scale. I am not an expert on this, but I have an in-between point of view – I feel that growth is possible beyond physical resources, like it has been happening in the financial markets, but the bubble can also burst as it happens every few years now.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation, Bruce. I’ve been meaning to read that for ages, but will move it to the top of my list now!

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