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). I’m interested in Bookchin’s work because he provides a way a deeper, broader and longer-range perspective than the false alternatives in current politics.
chapter ten – the social matrix of technology
In this chapter, Murray Bookchin debunked the idea that the level of technology determines the level of social organization. Rather social organization itself is the most important technology.
Human beings do not have to adapt to the requirements of technology. The machine was made for man, not man for the machine.
The Pyramids of Egypt and the great temples of Assyria and Babylonia did not depend on a high level of technology, he wrote; they were built with primitive tools.
What the great empires of ancient Egypt and the Fertile Crescent discovered was how to organize and mobilize huge numbers of people against their will, and to squeeze the maximum amount of labor out of them. So long as they had slaves, they had no need to invent labor-saving machinery.
The same was true of the New World, Bookchin wrote. The democratic Iroquois and the totalitarian Inca used the same types of tools. It was their social organization that was different.
Neither did geography determine social organization. The Inca empire and Greek democracy both arose in mountainous regions.
Rather hierarchy arose, as Bookchin noted in previous chapters, when non-productive old people reinvented themselves as priests and the young men gave their loyalty to warrior bands rather than the village clans. This happened in many different times and settings. It set in motion an evolution ending with supposedly sacred despots supported by priests, warriors and tax collectors.
When despotic societies arose, Bookchin wrote, organic matricentric societies had to militarize themselves or else either be conquered or driven from their lands. What’s remarkable, he wrote, is not the spread of despotism, but how much of the world’s people remained free.
But even under the rule of despots, much of life remained free. India was ruled by a succession of conquerors, but villagers in India, after paying tribute in goods and labor, continued to live in their ancient ways.
Europeans were surprisingly free in the period between the fall of Rome and the rise of modern absolute monarchs, Bookchin wrote. There was greater technological advance, but adapted to the needs of the people.
Medieval Europeans, for example, found many new uses for windmills and water wheels, Bookchin wrote. In ancient Greece and Persia, water wheels were used almost exclusively to grind grain. But European peasants made gears, levers, cams, cranks, pumps and pulleys so they could use water power to raise and trip hammers in forges, to operate lathes, to operate bellows in blast furnaces, and to turn grindstones for polishing metals.
Work was hard, but less inhuman, in those days, he said. He recalled stories of his Russian immigrant parents, and the description of harvesting on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. The harvesters would bring picnic baskets, sing work songs and turn necesary hard labor into something joyful.
The rise of the modern state and modern corporation brought back bureaucracy. Bookchin said the bureaucratic revolution preceded the industrial revolution.
“Factors” who supplied raw materials to spinners, weavers and dyers brought them together in a “factory” for the sake of exercising control and getting more work out of them. Once the factories came into being, industrial machinery was developed to make them more efficient.
Bureaucracy has expanded to a point unimaginable in previous eras. A medium-sized American city or American corporation employs more supervisors and clerks than the Pharoahs of Egypt did to administer their whole empire.
The development of technology is regarded as a good in itself, Bookchin wrote. This is the first time in history this has happened.
Work, for many people, consists in obeying orders, not in making an effort to achieve a needful or desirable purpose beyond receiving a wage or salary. “Free time” is separate from work. Even Marxists regard this as normal.
“Appropriate technology”, in and of itself, is not the answer, he wrote. You can have solar panels on your house, and an organic garden in your back yard—both good things, in and of themselves—and still be subject to an impersonal, unfree system.
The important thing is to live in a humane, self-governing community, Bookchin wrote. The community can then choose what level of technology it needs.
PREVIOUS: chapter nine – two images of technology.
Murray Bookchin’s New Life by Damien White for Jacobin magazine.
The Ecology of Freedom by Murray Bookchin. The complete text in PDF form.
Toward a Liberatory Technology by Murray Bookchin.
Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: an Unbridgeable Chasm by Murray Bookchin.
On Bookchin’s Social Ecology and Its Contribution to Social Movements by Brian Tokar for the Institute for Social Ecology.
Murray Bookchin’s libertarian technics on the Out of the Woods blog.