Murray Bookchin: an ecological society

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).  Doing this has been harder and taken longer than I expected.  The effort is worthwhile for me, but I fear I am not doing justice to the breadth and depth of Bookchin’s thought.  I hope videos and links will partly make up for this lack.

chapter twelve – an ecological society

In previous chapters, Murray Bookchin explained his ideas about humanity’s original organic societies, which were family-based clans in which everyone was valued, everyone contributed what they could and there supposedly was neither coercion nor selfish individualism.

He went on to explain his ideas of how hierarchy arose through priesthoods and warrior bands, and the permutations of hierarchy through human history, and how universal religious and philosophical ideals arose as both a product of hierarchy and a reaction against it.

In this, his final chapter, he outlined his hopes for a future society which embodies the best ideals and practices of the original organic society and the newer universal ideals.

He didn’t provide a detailed outline of an ideal anarchist society not a strategy for bringing such a society into being.

Rather he provided a way of thinking that leads me to question my assumptions about what the world has to be like and to realize that things have to be the way they are now.

A good society rejects the idea that humanity and nature are antagonistic, Bookchin wrote.  Although the idea that humanity is nature made conscious is only a figure of speech, it is the case that individual human nature is rooted in biological nature and human society is rooted in ecological nature.

Down through history, underneath the layers of domination, there have been “layered membranes” of freedom and community, he wrote.  We need a modern vision of freedom that is intentional and not based on tradition and custom, although it will be hard to improve on the virtues of pre-literate societies.

Civilization historically has rested on scarcity, so that the freedom of the elite rested on the labor of the many.   From scarcity arose the notion of contract, so that people could protect themselves from being cheater of their fair share.

Pre-literate societies rejected the idea of contract as the basis of society, Bookchin wrote.  When you live in fear of being short-changed, you short-change others.

He said we should cease to identify freedom with domination.   We should admire Michelangelo, not Gilgamesh, Achilles, Joshua and Julius Caesar.

Neither should we identify progress with industrialization, as did not only the Marxists but many  leading anarchist thinkers.   Most of the utopian literature of the 18th and 19th centuries emphasized order and discipline, based on the industrial model.  Very seldom did it glorify human sensuality and happiness, as did Rabelais (in an earlier era) and Fourier.

The 1960s saw a rebirth of utopian thinking, based on the ideal of self-governing small communities rooted in the natural world rather than technology.

It was based on (1) personal empowerment as opposed to state power, (2) radical feminism as opposed to male domination or domination in general , (3) ecology as a social outlook and (4) community based on face-to-face association and mutual aid.

12murraybookchin905122An ideal society would be governed by direct democracy, like ancient Athens, New England town meetings or self-governing Parisian sections during the French Revolution, but formed out of self-chosen affinity groups rather than based on territory or heredity.

Bookchin said policy should be made by popular assemblies, not delegated to committees, councils or administrators.  Direct democracy, he wrote, means everybody has the right to participate in decision-making, not that everybody does participate in every decision.   The executive function should be to administer and coordinate, not decide.

He said direct action should flow from direct democracy, which means rejection of  aggression, arrogance and terrorism.  This sounds like the decision-making process of the Occupy Wall Street movement, which came into being a few years after his death.

An ideal society would also have a non-authoritarian attitude toward nature.   Human interaction in the natural world should be aimed at making it more fertile, varied and integrated.   It would be based on sustainable agriculture and renewable energy.   It would emphasize craft rather than mass production, and permanence rather than cheapness.

It sounds attractive.  I have some mental reservations.  One is that Bookchin’s world is one of slow change and low technology.   I don’t think it could sustain an Internet, let alone by science fictional dream of humanity someday colonizing the stars.  That is not a fatal objection.

People who live in Bookchin’s ideal society would be products of that society, just as I am a product of industrial capitalist society.  Presumably they would be adapted to that society just as I am adapted to this one.

My other problem with Bookchin is that he assumed a change for the better in human nature.  His thinking is the opposite of The Federalist Papers, which devotes many chapters on how to mitigate the effects of political factions working the system for their own benefit.

That is my concern about anarchism in general—that it relies too much on the assumption of universal good will, and that anarchists are therefore unable to defend themselves without ceasing to be anarchists.

Bookchin’s answer is that people like me mistake the bad aspects of current society for unchanging reality.   A better world is possible.


Here are some quotes from the final chapter of The Ecology of Freedom.

220px-murray_bookchinHuman nature is a biologically rooted process or “consociation,” a process in which cooperation, mutual support and love are natural as well as cultural attributes.

Without the care, cooperation and love fostered by the mother-child relationship and family relationships, individuality and personality are impossible or begin to disintegrate.

Hierarchy … would be replaced by interdependence, and “consociation” would imply an existence of an organic core that meets the deeply felt biological needs for care, cooperation, security and love. Freedom would no longer be placed in opposition to nature, individuality to society, choice to necessity or personality to the needs of social coherence.

The ancient values of usufruct, complementarity and the irreducible minimum must be extended from the kin group to society as a whole.

We … must recover the terrain necessary for the personification and the formation of a body politic. To defend society’s molecular base—its neighborhoods, public squares and places of assembly—expresses demand not only for “freedom from—”, but also for “freedom for.”


PREVIOUS: chapter eleven – the ambiguities of freedom.

NEXT: epilogue


Introduction to The Murray Bookchin Reader by Janet Biehl (1997)

What Is Social Ecology? by Murray Bookchin (1993)

Toward an Ecological Society by Murray Bookchin (1996)

On Bookchin’s Social Ecology and Its Contributions to Social Movements by Brian Toker (2008)

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