Murray Bookchin: the ambiguities of freedom

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 eleven – the ambiguities of freedom.

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin wrote about the philosophers of the Enlightenment, aka the Age of Reason, who hoped that reason, science and technology would lead to human liberation, and why this hasn’t happened.

This is a difficult chapter, and I’m not sure I fully understand it.   I’ll try.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Early philosophers of science, such as Francis Bacon, emphasized an important truth, which is that reality is whatever it is, regardless of anybody’s desires.

They thought that if you want to know how things really are, you stick to logic and facts, particularly facts that can be measured, because these are the only things that are objectively true.

Fantasy, art, imagination, intuition, illumination and inspiration are merely subjective feelings, and can be ignored.

What’s left is what’s called “instrumental reason,” which tells you how to achieve goals, but does not tell you what goals to set.  “You can’t get from an ‘is’ to an ‘ought’,” as the saying goes.

By default, instrumental reason becomes a tool of government, business, the military and other structures of power.  Reason defeats itself.

That’s not an argument for irrationality, superstition or a willfully primitive existence, but for a broader concept of reason.

Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin

I have long understood that a normal person is a reasoning being, an emotional being and a moral being.  All three faculties are means of living in the world.

Empathy and sympathy are ways of knowledge.  I imagine myself in someone else’s place, I ask myself what I would do if I were them or what my motives would be if I were acting as they do, and I come to some understanding of them—and also of myself.

Murray Bookchin seems to be saying that empathy and sympathy are not only ways of knowledge of other people, but of other living beings and, in a way, the whole universe.

Newtonian science conceived of the universe as a vast machine, governed by impersonal, but predictable and measurable, forces.   Now the predominant scientific metaphor seems to be cybernetics and information processing, but it’s still impersonal forces.

In contrast, according to Bookchin, the ancient Greeks saw the universe as more like a living organism.  Was this superstition?  Consider the story of the universe as understood in contemporary scientific theory.

We start with the Big Bang which results in, among other things, hydrogen and helium atoms.  These fuse in the interiors of stars to create more complex atoms, which make possible the formation of planets.  Next come complex molecules, viruses, living cells, more complex life forms and a rich ecology and finally sentient beings.

Life was latent in the universe all along, Bookchin wrote, and we have an intuitive understanding, which, added to our instrumental rational understanding, enables us to relate to this living universe.

He said there seems to be something inherent in nature that fills every ecological niche and realizes every possibility.  Nature is neither kind nor just, but it is fertile and creative, and therefore has moral meaning.

We human beings are part of that.   Our understanding of nature and ourselves should be “symbiotic rationalism,” Bookchin wrote; we should seek not to dominate nature, nor yet to passively submit to nature, but to participate in nature.


The other part of Chapter 11 is about what happened to the ideal of the free citizen.

The ancient Athenians, Bookchin wrote, believed in a democracy based on active participation of free and independent citizens.

They did not, as commonly believed, despise manual labor.  They honored those who worked their own land.  But they did regard anybody who worked for wages and took orders from a boss as little better than a slave, and anybody who made a living by serving customers as little better than a hireling.

In modern times, Bookchin wrote, these ideals came closest to realization in the early United States, in the era of independent yeoman farmers and the New England town meeting.

The leaders of the early American republic decided that their country needed to industrialize in order to be economically independent of the British Empire.  They set in motion a process that made the USA the world’s leading economic power.

But the result of this was a society in which there is freedom for the entrepreneur, but only discipline and obedience for the employee.

The result was learned helplessness, Bookchin wrote.  Most Americans do not know how to garden nor to preserve food, how to kill and dress an animal or how to fell a tree and build a shelter, but are dependent on large organizations to provide for their needs.

That is true of me.  My parents and grandparents in fact had these homesteading skills, but I never bothered to learn them.  I wanted to be an intellectual, spend a lot of time reading books, and provide for my needs with money—which I happily have been able to do, but do not hold up as the best way to live.

   Management ceased to be a form of administration and literally become a way of life.  Ironically, republican virtue was not completely discarded; it was simply transmuted from an ideal into a technique.
   Autonomy was reworked to mean competition, individuality to mean egotism, fortitude to mean moral indifference, enterprise to mean the pursuit of profit, and federalism to mean free trade.
   The ethic spawned by the American Revolution was simply eviscerated, leaving behind a hollow shell for ceremonial exploitation.
            ==Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom

    We need to surmount the evil that lies in every good, to redeem the gain that inheres in every loss—be it the sociality latent in the solidarity of kinship, the rationality in primal innocence, the ideals in social conflict, the willfulness in patriarchy, the personality in individualism, the sense of humanity in the parochial tribal community, the ecological sensibility in nature idolatry or the technics in shamanistic manipulation.
    To redeem these desiderata without completely shedding certain features of the context that gave them viability—solidarity, innocence, tradition, community and nature—will require all the wisdom and artfulness we possess.
     ==Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom


PREVIOUS: chapter ten – the social matrix of technology,

NEXT: chapter twelve – an ecological society.


The Ecology of Freedom by Murray Bookchin.  Complete text in PDF format.

Being a Bookchinite by Chuck Morse for The Anarchist Library.

Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) on Better Worlds, Brighter Future.

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One Response to “Murray Bookchin: the ambiguities of freedom”

  1. Chico Says:

    Excellent, on so many levels.


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