Murray Bookchin: epistemologies of rule

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).

chapter four – epistemologies of rule

Murray Bookchin said the great enemy of human well-being is hierarchy.  The reason hierarchy persists, according to him, is that that hierarchical values rule our minds—discipline, renunciation, the work ethic, sexual guilt and obedience to rules.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In this chapter, he speculated as to how these values came to rule us.  In the previous chapter, he spoke of how old people in “organic” societies may have protected themselves from being regarded as expendable by reinventing themselves as shamans and priests, and how young men then may have replaced the ties of family and clan with oaths to the warrior’s blood brotherhood.

The first cities of the ancient Near East did not grow up around marketplaces, according to Bookchin; they grew up around temples.  People were ruled mentally by priesthoods, backed up by the power of warriors.

Community property, once controlled by families, clans and village elders, came to be placed at the disposal of the ruling gods.

This rule, however, was not complete.  Bookchin noted that there were popular assemblies in ancient Sumeria, the prophets of Israel denounced the sins of their kings and, even in Egypt, village life continued independently of the all-powerful Pharoah.   Ancient rulers were oppressive, but they did not interfere with the daily lives of their subjects.


The first human societies, according to Bookchin, were animistic.   Travelers wrote of how American Indians regarded horses as sentient beings like themselves, and tried to reason with them.  Some Indians had ceremonies in which they thanked game animals for agreeing to be killed.

EcologyOfFreedom560The first step away from this, he wrote, came when shamans claimed to be able to control animals by means of magical spells.  This was a step toward domination, and also toward instrumental reason – the idea that knowledge is power.

Deities evolved from animal spirits into half-human, half-animal figures like the Sphinx or the Minotaur and then into human figures—gods made in the image of ruling humans.

Agricultural societies in Egypt and the Fertile Crescent began by worshiping Mother Nature, Bookchin wrote.  As hierarchy developed, the female fertility deities were given male consorts, and, over time, the male deities came to take precedence.

In the solitude of deserts, the Hebrew people developed a more austere and transcendent conception of God.   The Bible says God told Moses that He had no name, except “I am who am.”  This was something new.

Bookchin said the Hebrew conception of God was a being completely separate from humanity and a being incomprehensible in human terms.   In the Book of Job, God told Job he had no standing to question His will nor ability to understand it.

The five books of Moses – the Torah – contain noble humanistic and ethical principles.  The Hebrew prophets, in my opinion, are the seed of our contemporary idea of social justice.  Other philosophers had said it is the duty of rulers to be benevolent, but Amos and the other later prophets were the first to say the people had a right to demand justice.

What Bookchin emphasized in ancient Judaism, however, was something different—the complete separation of God and humanity—as separate as masters from slaves, rulers from ruled, men from women and elders from youth.


The civilization of ancient Greece, like ancient Israel, arose in a relatively harsh environment.  What the ancient Greeks feared above all was chaos, and what they prized was order.

Bookchin said the Greek ideal of order was a life of balance—balance between nature and society, work and free time, sensual pleasure and the intellect, and individual and community.  The Greeks admired the yeoman who worked his own land, and the athlete who excelled in sports, but despised acquisitiveness and excessive concern with trade.

I myself admire Athenian ideals of freedom, democracy and philosophical reasoning, even thought, as Bookchin pointed out, these ideals applied only to the free male Greek citizen—not to slaves, freed slaves, foreigners or women.

Plato’s Republic was a model of a rational society completely under the control of a priesthood of philosophers (the golds) assisted by young male warriors (the silvers).  Its saving grace was equality for women.

Aristotle’s reasoning was more practical, but he, too, took for granted Greek superiority and entitlement to rule over slaves, foreigners and women.


Bookchin then made a big jump to the present day.  He said Hebrew monotheism and Greek rational philosophy combined to produce a belief that it is the duty of individuals to discipline and police themselves.  This is what Sigmund Freud called the “reality principle” which he said must always, unfortunately, take precedence over the “pleasure principle.”

Repression, renunciation and discipline in psychiatric terms are euphemisms for acceptance of oppression, exploitation and powerlessness, which serve the requirements of industrial production, according to Bookchin.

I am reminded of the book, A Shopkeeper’s Millennium, about how western New York merchants in the early 1800s promoted religious revivals because they saw it as a way to suppress the rowdiness and drunkenness associated with the newly-built Erie Canal.

I myself believe in self-discipline as Bertrand Russell defined it, which is simply keeping in mind all the things that you want and not sacrificing what’s important to what’s unimportant.

I think guilt has value as a behavior modifier.  If you do good things, you should feel good so you do more of them; if you do bad things, you should feel bad so you do fewer of them.

But to Bookchin, guilt is permanent self-blame, and no different from self-hatred.  In organic society, he wrote, wrongdoing is something to be admitted, if possible made right and then set aside.


PREVIOUS: chapter three: the emergence of hierarchy

NEXT: chapter five: the legacy of domination



The Ecology of Freedom by Murray Bookchin – the complete book in PDF form.

Freedom and Necessity in Nature: a Problem in Ecological Ethics by Murray Bookchin.

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