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Book Review

Minding Nature: The Philosophers of Ecology

by David Macauley

Reviewed by:
Janet Biehl


This contribution to left-radical social theory is highly original and is based not on academic speculation but on revolutionary history itself: "Every class culture," he wrote in 1986,

was always a community culture, indeed a civic culture.... While the factory and mill formed the first line of the class struggle in the last century,... its lines of supply reached back into the neighborhoods and towns where workers lived and often mingled with middle-class people, farmers, and intellectuals. Wage earners had human faces, not merely mystified "proletarian" faces, and functioned no less as human beings than as class beings.... This communal dimension of the industrial era is of tremendous importance in understanding how class conflicts often spilled over beyond economic issues into broadly social, even utopian, concerns.(4)

Historically, revolutionary class struggles have been based in municipalities even more notably than in factories. Red Petrograd in 1917 and Barcelona in 1936-37 both had strong neighborhood and civic cultures and were crucial arenas for their respective revolutions. Even earlier, the uprisings in Paris in 1848 and in 1870-71, with the Paris Commune, were largely neighborhood affairs, where people fought behind barricades located in their own neighborhoods. Working people defended not just their workplaces but the communities of which they were a part and gained solidarity through their neighborhood civic cultures, which existed in cafes, squares, streets, and parks; local branches of clubs and societies; as well as local National Guard battalions and defense committees.

What alternative to Bookchin's approach do Rudy and Light offer? Their attacks on him for rejecting the proletariat might lead one to think that they stand for standard Marxist class struggle in the industrial workplace; and they do seem to confine ecological struggles, for example, to the factory alone when they write that "with cost-cutting, worker health declines, unemployment rises, resources are depleted, and pollution increases."

But for all their talk of wage labor and production and exploitation, Rudy and Light's "social labor" concept is actually by no means limited to the labor of the industrial proletariat within the factory: "within the socially organized labor of each mode of (re)production," they write, in their definition of "social labor," "is included the (re)production of ethics, culture, gender, politics, economy, art, and geographical and ecological space." Although the idea is expressed in somewhat different terminology Rudy and Light, as much as Bookchin, are dispensing with the industrial-proletariat-within-factory in favor of a broader concept of community whose members are afflicted not only with class but other oppressions as well, facing a common ecological threat.

The difference, in their case, is that their Marxist language obscures their expansion of the concept, while Bookchin is quite clear about what he is doing. No more than Bookchin do our eco-Marxists really want to confine ecological struggles to the workplace: they find arenas of struggle not in the factory alone but in "the destruction of the conditions for capital's own (re)production: human beings and their reproductive health; global, regional, and local ecosystems; and the organization of communities and social spaces in and through which people interact with their ecosystems" (emphasis added). What are the issues in these spaces if not the "issues that concern the quality of life and work" that Bookchin frequently discusses issues that pertain not to the factory alone but the broader community? These authors appear to have created a straw Bookchin, then appropriated his actual position for themselves.

Astonishingly, Rudy and Light then take it upon themselves to lecture Bookchin about the fact that capitalism has limits. "Capitalism must grow in order to survive, much less prosper, but it cannot grow indefinitely." This is a remarkable statement to make to the man who, more than anyone else, has popularized the Marxian concept of capitalism as a "grow or die" economy in the ecology movement. The idea that capitalism is on a collision course with the biosphere, a favorite among the ecosocialists, is certainly not news to Bookchin. He wrote in 1968 that "the contradiction between the exploitative organization of society and the natural environment 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." (A footnote added: "The economic contradictions of capitalism have not disappeared," although they are without "the explosive characteristics they had in the past").(5)

In March 1974, to take another instance, he wrote that "capitalism... turns the plunder of nature into society's law of life…. A society based on production for the sake of production is inherently anti-ecological and its consequences are a devoured natural world." The prospect that "the biosphere will become so fragile that it will eventually collapse from the standpoint of human survival needs" will eventuate "from a society based on production for the sake of production" is "merely a matter of time."(6) Some of the ideas circulating around Capitalism Nature Socialism are essentially restatements of this idea, albeit in Marxist dress.

On the subject of the nature of capitalism, Rudy and Light make Bookchin's analysis seem ridiculous when they quote him as saying that "' the grand secret from which [the market] draws its power' is 'the power of anonymity'" (emphasis added). "In fact," they scold, "the key to capitalism after mercantilism is not anonymity in the marketplace, but the wage labor that is at the root of production." But the reader who refers to Bookchin's original passage, from which the "grand secret" quotation is taken, will find no such definitive declaration: anonymity, Bookchin wrote there, is "a grand secret" of the market hardly the same thing.(7) Rudy and Light would do well to quote their subjects more accurately if they wish to carry on a fruitful debate. Nor is it true that "Bookchin treats capitalist economics as 'the buyer-seller relationship,'" or at least not exclusively. In fact, the central points of Bookchin's critique of capitalism are its commodification (of which anonymity is a feature) and its growth imperatives.

Another flaw in Rudy and Light's presentation is that they appear to have stopped reading Bookchin after about 1986, and thus their description of his views on technology is not only wrong but wholly unrecognizable. In 1986, they observe, Bookchin wrote that he would "'temper the importance [he gave] to the technological "preconditions" for freedom.'" But our eco-Marxists leap from this quotation to assert categorically that Bookchin "no longer believes modern technology to have the potential to eliminate scarcity" and to announce that "Bookchin's views on technology have changed," consigning to the past his "idea of retaining certain forms of technology that had emerged under capitalism."

These supposed renunciations of postscarcity, they go on to judge, are the "greatest problems" of Bookchin's utopian philosophy." But actually, the "tempering" in Bookchin's quote had nothing to do with abjuring the idea of postscarcity; he was speculating that in precapitalist times it might have been possible to achieve communism even without a postscarcity technology, because needs (and not only fetishized needs) were fewer. Rudy and Light to the contrary, postscarcity remains very much in Bookchin's present thinking, as any number of his technophobic disputants among anarchists will testify, and as Rudy and Light would know had they consulted Remaking Society, Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, and especially Re-enchanting Humanity. (The latter contains an entire chapter on technology, including a sharp criticism of technophobia.)

Rudy and Light go on to object to the absence of an internationalist framework in Bookchin: for him, they say, the "transclass constituencies necessary for truly liberatory social movements are situated almost exclusively in the North." It is true that Bookchin is most interested in revolutions whose most prominent aims have been universal social and political liberation; since the Third World was historically an arena of colonization for Western capitalist nations, their subsequent movements for liberation have understandably been far more nationalistic than universalistic in content; and as movements to achieve independence from imperialist oppressors, their orientation has understandably been more materialistic, seeking to develop domestic production.

But Bookchin has long adduced another reason, one Rudy and Light do not mention, for advising Euro-American radicals to concentrate on revolutions at home rather than in the Third World. As he explained to his Marxist interlocutor in 1970, an excessive focus on Third World movements, on the part of American radicals, had led "to a bypassing of the social tasks in the First World…. [Our] real job is to overthrow domestic capitalism by dealing with the real possibilities of an American revolution."(8) The same problem prevails today: somehow it is much easier to express solidarity with uprisings overseas than to try to organize one in the heart of the empire. Yet it is precisely the job of Euro-American radicals, Bookchin has long argued, to generate social revolution at home, especially in countries that have historically been and continue to be the sources of oppression for the Third World, whether colonial or "postcolonial." If Bookchin's focus, in his writings on revolutionary practice, is largely on revolutionary protagonists, it is not in order to "lay the blame for the failure of these struggles" on them but so that present-day radicals may learn and absorb their lessons, in order to avoid repeating them.

Finally, Rudy and Light fault Bookchin for offering a political program that is "unreasonable." Presumably they mean libertarian municipalism although it is far from being the "gradualist movement in which communities guard themselves with militias against 'the ever-encroaching power of the state'" described by Rudy and Light. On the contrary, libertarian municipalism is a concrete program for forming a revolutionary movement, building a dual or counterpower, carrying out a social revolution, and constructing an ecological anarchocommunist society. How this can be construed as "gradualist" and defensive escapes me, especially coming from those who later accuse Bookchin (once again, wrongly) of advocating "a move from international capitalism directly to ecocommunism." The process of forming a dual power, such as libertarian municipalism offers, is neither gradualist nor immediatist but a viable, empowering program for a revolutionary transition.

Equally fallacious is their accusation that Bookchin's "political program... suggests localism in the face of an increasingly powerful, internationally coordinated capitalist world system"; Bookchin, far from being a localist, is a critic of localism and a fervent advocate of confederalism and internationalism.

At the same time they accuse Bookchin of demanding of revolutionaries "impossible measures of success." What are these measures? Bookchin belongs to the libertarian socialist tradition that has long sought to eliminate the state and capitalism. Eliminating them would be the "measure of success"; if Rudy and Light believe that that is an "impossible" standard to meet, then it's unclear why they claim in any sense to wear the mantle of Marxian socialism, which at least sought to eliminate capitalism if not the state.

Marxists that they are, it is certainly to be expected that they would hold a favorable view of the state, as "serv[ing] the interests of the public as well as those of political and economic elites"; and it's not surprising that they would find some things to be "worth saving" about "hierarchy and domination." But what is surprising is that they themselves offer no program beyond a vague assertion of "myriad cultures and individual acts of resistance within the capitalist workplace," "acts" whose nature remains undefined, in contrast to Bookchin's clearly spelled-out program.

Rudy and Light do, however, call militantly for analysis of capitalism's contradictions which surely exist. But are we to wait for those contradictions to generate the conditions for a social revolution? Shouldn't we be developing a program and building a revolutionary movement now, in preparation for coming crises? There is no substitute for either activism or analysis, for theory or practice. (Given the importance Rudy and Light attribute to analysis, incidentally, one wonders why they do not criticize their spiritual and mystical colleagues for obscuring such analysis.)

Insofar as this book sets out to delineate an ecosocialist intellectual tradition, in sum, it must be considered a failure. Too often, by the admission of many of the essayists themselves, a thinker who is strong on democracy is weak on ecology, and vice versa. The only exception is the anarchist, who is scolded for rejecting Marxist categories. If this book represents the best the ecosocialists can do along these lines, then their prospects for developing a intellectual tradition are not at all auspicious.

 

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