Murray Bookchin: two images of technology

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 nine – two images of technology.

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin examined the current disillusionment with the idea of technological progress.  This is something fairly new, he noted.  In the early 20th century, even radicals such as Woody Guthrie celebrated giant engineering feats such as Boulder Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

There is a big difference, he wrote, between the ancient ideal of the good life and the modern ideal of the abundant life.

Ancient Greek philosophers such as Aristotle believed that the good life was an ethical and balanced life lived within limits and within community.  A skilled craftsman, according to Aristotle, had understood well not only how to do his work, but the reason and purpose for his work.

Modern industrial production is the opposite.  It defines efficiency in terms of quantity and cost.  Workers are not required to understand their work, only to follow instructions.  “Living well” is defined as consumption and material comfort apart from work.  Industrial workers, unlike laborers in preceding ages, do not sing work songs.

Bookchin said the modern industrial system is not a result of technology.  It is a result of peasants being uprooted from the land and their communities, and having no choice but to work for merchants and capitalists.  Originally this was done by piecework in the home, but “factors” insisted in assembling workers in common workplaces so that they could be better controlled.

Industrial technology developed to fit the already-existing factory system, Bookchin said.  Mindless labor is not a product of mechanization, he wrote; it is part of a process of subordination and control.

Contemporary economists describe labor in terms of hours, output and efficiency, he wrote, but rarely is it understood as a concrete human activity.  Rather abstract labor and abstract matter are regarded as interchangeable.

Bookchin did not go into the benefits of the industrial system, which has enabled millions of people to enjoy a material standard of living equal to kings and emperors in the past.   Rather he pointed out the cost in human freedom.

Most modern working people see work as something they have to do in order to enjoy freedom off the job, he wrote. Economists, including Marxist economists, see labor as a means by which people exercise domination over nature, and wrest value from nature.  They do not see work as a way in which people interact with nature.

(I am not sure Bookchin is being fair to Marx in this respect.  Marx wrote a good bit about “alienation” of labor from meaningful work in modern industry.)

Bookchin contrasted industrial society to so-called primitive organic societies, who regarded the earth as a living thing.  Ancient Greeks thought the earth constantly gave birth to metal ores.  Eskimo carvers regarded ivory as alive and their goal to bring out the concealed.  Plains Indians talked to horses as if they understood their words.

None of these beliefs is literally true, of course.  But Bookchin wrote that it is closer to the truth than the modern philosophy that regards the earth and every non-human thing in it as inert.  Each piece of ivory as a unique nature which it takes a skilled carver to understand.  Each horse is a unique living being with its own unique nature or, as the Taoists would say, it’s “way”.

There is no bright line between human nature and non-human animal nature, nor between living and non-living nature.  Much human mental activity takes place below the level of consciousness, and all is correlated with biological and biochemical processes.

Scientists interpret the world in terms of the uniform scientific laws they have discovered and hope to discover.  Science has made a great contribution to human understanding and well-being.

But even if we knew all the scientific laws that exist, we wouldn’t know everything.  Everything has its own uniqueness which it behooves us to understand.   Understanding how things are is useless, Bookchin wrote, without understanding why.



PREVIOUS: chapter eight – from saints to sellers

NEXT: chapter ten – the social matrix of technology.


The Murray Bookchin Reader: Introduction by Janet Biehl.

Excerpt from “The Ecology of Freedom” for the Land Art Generator Initiative.

The Ecology of Freedom by Murray Bookchin, the complete text in PDF form.

What Is Social Ecology? by Murray Bookchin.

Ursula Le Guin on the Future of the Left for Motherboard.

Bookchin: living legacy of an American revolutionary, an interview of Debbie Bookchin, Murray’s daughter, for ROAR magazine.

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