Archive for the ‘Red and Black’ Category

Learning about (and from) the Spanish anarchists

December 29, 2016

Anarchists advocate a society based on voluntary cooperation and mutual aid.   They reject government and corporate bureaucracy and the profit motive.  They champion personal and political freedom.  I find this highly appealing.

Writers and thinkers I respect—Paul Goodman, Murray Bookchin, Noam Chomsky, James C. Scott and David Graeber—self-identify as anarchists.

spanishanarchists-bookchin-51vdq4ymscl-_sx332_bo1204203200_I’d like to believe such a philosophy is feasible.  The problem is the scarcity of examples of anarchists in power.

That’s why I recently read three books about the Spanish revolution of 1936.   The three books were Murray Bookchin’s The Spanish Anarchists: the Heroic Years, 1868-1936 and To Remember Spain: The Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936, and Frank Mintz’s Anarchists and Workers Self-Management in Revolutionary Spain.

In the Spanish revolution, ordinary workers and farmers took over factories, businesses and landed estates and operated them on anarchist principles.  By one estimate, some 1.8 million Spaniards (workers and their families) participated in rural and industrial collectives.

I learned from reading these three books that anarchism can work well—provided there is a hard core of capable and strong-willed people dedicated to making it work.

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Murray Bookchin and the Rojava revolution

September 30, 2016

I first heard of Murray Bookchin when I read that his philosophy had been adopted by the Kurdish fighters in Syria.

kurdistan-cock01_3805_01The Kurds are the only faction in the current struggles in the Middle East that I root for.

The Kurds of Rojava in northern Syria fight ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, while defending themselves against the Syria government.

They practice religious freedom and shelter persecuted ethnic minorities, including Assyrians and Turkmen, and religious minorities, including Christians.  They recognize equal rights for women.

Abdullah Ocalan, the leader and co-founder of the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey, was a Communist and a nationalist leader who fought to create an independent Kurdish state.

After his arrest in 1999, he read Bookchin and adopted a philosophy he called “democratic confederalism,” which he thought would enable the Kurdish people to achieve freedom and true democracy on a local basis while remaining within the borders of Turkey.

Ocalan’s followers in Syria have adopted his ideas.  The Turkish government sees them as a threat and has them under an economic blockade.

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The Ecology of Freedom: epilogue

September 30, 2016

THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).  Epilogue.  This concludes my chapter-by-chapter review of Murray Bookchin’s great work, which I began last April.  I could and should have completed this project in a few weeks.   But the exercise was worth doing from my standpoint, and I will be pleased if I have stimulated interest in Bookchin’s ideas.

Western philosophers, from the ancient Greeks to the European Renaissance, maintained that human values should be rooted in nature.  Their problem, according to Murray Bookchin, was that they called upon an external factor—God, Spirit, what Henri Bergson later called the “vital force” to bring them together.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_The truth is, according to Bookchin, that no external factor is necessary.   Mutualism, self-organization, freedom and awareness are present in nature, and evidently were latent in the universe from the very beginning.  Matter has self-organizing properties that cause it to become more complex.  Life has self-organizing properties that generate fertility, complexity and interdependence.

The evolution of life is as much a matter of developing new forms that fit in with the whole as it is competition between individuals and species.

Some biologists think that the biosphere itself is like a huge organism, which is able to regulate its internal processes and keep itself in balance.

The cruelty of nature is exaggerated, Bookchin wrote.  Wolves bringing down a sick or aged caribou is part of the cycle of life.  There is nothing in the natural world that is comparable to organized human warfare.

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Murray Bookchin: an ecological society

September 29, 2016

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.

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Murray Bookchin: the ambiguities of freedom

September 8, 2016

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.

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Murray Bookchin: the social matrix of technology

August 21, 2016

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.

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Murray Bookchin: two images of technology

July 8, 2016

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.

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Murray Bookchin: from saints to sellers

June 24, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin

bookchin-endquote

chapter eight – from saints to sellers

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin traced the history of peasant revolts, starting with one recorded in Egypt in 2500 BC and continuing through peasant revolts in ancient Egypt and Sumeria, helot revolts in ancient Sparta, slave revolts in ancient Rome and peasant revolts in the European Middle Ages.

Based on my reading, I can say that what he wrote was also true of peasant revolts in Russia, China and probably other civilizations as well.

He wrote that all these rebels destroyed, first of all, records of taxation, mortgages, other debt and legal records, and secondly, treasure.

The rebels deeply resented the transubstantiation of tangible wealth, such as grain, livestock, wine and cloth, into symbolic wealth, such as golden utensils, jewelry, intricate works of art and rich furnishings and palaces, which were manifestations of domination.

In the politics of ancient Rome, Bookchin wrote, commoners demanded redistribution of land, cancellation of debts and greater equality before the law.  This is not too different from what the Occupy Wall Street movement demanded.

He devoted most of the chapter to the rebels of the European Middle Ages who, unlike the rebels of ancient times, had ideals of a better society which they derived from Christianity.

These ideals included (1) the tradition of the first Christians, who were poor and owned all things in common, (2) the ideal that all human beings are equal in the sight of God, (3) the idea that God’s law is superior to human law and (4) the hope of a better and more just world in the End Times.

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Murray Bookchin: the legacy of freedom

June 8, 2016

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 seven – the legacy of freedom

Bookchin was an anarchist who believed it was possible to create a society without government or corporations, in which free people could live in peace with each other and with nature.  I’m interested in Bookchin because of the failures of state socialism and corporate neoliberalism and the unsatisfactory nature of current politics.

In the first six chapters of The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin described how hierarchy emerged from what he called the original organic society, of how tribal shamans and warrior bands became priesthoods and armies and of how the idea of abstract justice to balance the power of ancient despots.

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin wrote about how Christianity shaped the idea of freedom, and how, for many centuries, the struggle between freedom and hierarchy was fought within the framework of Christian thought.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Early Christian communities, in many ways, fit Bookchin’s anarchist ideal.   Early Christians came together voluntarily and as equals.  They not only came together for worship, but to provide for each others’ needs, since the Roman government’s functions were mainly limited to collecting taxes, suppressing disorder and waging war.

Later on the Christian church developed a hierarchy that accommodated itself to the Roman Empire, and then to feudal lords and medieval kings, and to the modern state.

The medieval Papacy was the ultimate hierarchy.  Its ideal was the Great Chain of Being—God and his angels at the peak, delegating authority to popes and kings, who empowered priests and nobles, with the common people at the bottom.  Papal power reached its peak under Pope Gregory VII, who excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, for resisting the church’s claims to power.

But, as Bookchin noted, the memory and ideal of primitive Christianity never entirely disappeared.  In time, Puritans, in the name of Christianity, beheaded their king and labeled the Pope as the Antichrist.

St. Augustine, he wrote, regarded government not merely as irrelevant, but as evil—a necessary evil, however, because people were corrupted by original sin.  The ideal, however, was a community in which people were united by the bonds of love, and that ideal never disappeared.

The ancient Greeks, Romans and most of the rest of the pagan world regarded history as cyclical, so that everything that happened would happen again.   But Christians believed that history had a direction and a goal, starting with the Garden of Eden and ending with the Second Coming of Christ, in which a better world would come into being.   That hope of a better world never disappeared.

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Murray Bookchin: justice—equal and exact

May 17, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin.   His ideas about the evolution of human society are conjectural, but I think much of what he wrote is unquestionably true, most of it could be true and all of it makes me see the world in a new light.

chapter six: justice—equal and exact

In this chapter, Murray Bookchin wrote about how concepts such as “freedom” and “justice” came into being as counterpoints to domination

The first human communities, which he called “organic societies,” practiced what Bookchin called equal treatment of unequals—what Marx later called the principle of from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.

Over time this changed into what Bookchin called the unequal treatment of equals—impersonal laws that treated everybody as if they were the same—what Anatole France called the law that in its majesty forbid rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets or steal loaves of bread.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In organic societies, Bookchin wrote, there were no laws, judges or punishments.  Instead there was solidarity within the group.  In such societies, it didn’t matter whether you were a mighty hunter or somebody who could barely keep up.  Everybody was entitled to what they needed in order to survive.

Limitations on choice were imposed by circumstances—the weather, the availability of game, sickness and health—not human domination.

If you endangered the survival of the group, you might be put to death (as among Eskimos) or severely beaten (as among Crow Indians).  Other than that, there was free rein for eccentric behavior, sexual freedom, personal ambition (to be a “big man”), religious visions and the exercise of skill and courage.

Bookchin wrote in previous chapters how the elders of organic societies reinvented themselves as shamans and then as priests, while young warriors made blood oaths that took precedence over loyalty to the tribe.   As sacred kings emerged in Egypt and Mesopotamia, priests and warriors provided teachings and coercive force to support their rule.

Within the original small organic societies, everybody knew each other personally.  The larger kingdoms had need for impersonal laws, such as the Code of Hammurabi.   Legal obligations and punishments were different for nobles, common people and slaves, and for subjects of the kingdom and for strangers.

As empires expanded, the idea of impartial and universal justice grew.

The Mosaic law in the Hebrew Bible, for example, deals mostly with obligations of the Jewish people toward one another, and distinguishes between Jews and strangers.  But the law contains other passages—inserted later?— prescribing the duty to be as just and kind to strangers as to one’s own.

There seems to be an evolution here.  Likewise, Yahweh is described at first as a jealous God and then as a just God.  What seems to be emerging is a need to morally justify the religion.

Ancient Greeks strongly believed that only they were free men by nature (Greek women weren’t free) and non-Greeks were naturally slaves.  Athenian democracy did not apply slaves, freed slaves, women or foreigners.

The conquests of Alexander the Great and his successors broke down this distinction.  They created empires that came and went, without resting on any fixed traditions or making any.

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Murray Bookchin: the legacy of domination

May 11, 2016

This is part of a chapter-by-chapter review of THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: The emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin, which I’m doing in order to help myself understand it better.  I’m interested in Bookchin’s philosophy of social ecology, which seems like a kind of socialism without government or libertarianism without corporations.

quote-the-assumption-that-what-currently-exists-must-necessarily-exist-is-the-acid-that-corrodes-murray-bookchin-71-78-05

chapter five: the legacy of domination

Murray Bookchin believed that human beings first lived in what he called “organic societies”.  They lived more or less in harmony with nature and with each other.  They were “matricentric”—not ruled by women, but reflecting the motherly values of home and hearth.

By the time of ancient Israel and ancient Greece, patriarchy came into its own.  Israelite and Greek fathers had complete authority over their grown sons, including the right to banish and disinherit them for disobedience.

Women were taught the virtues of renunication, modesty and obedience, lest they become like Eve, Pandora or Circe.   They were regarded as sources of temptation, and were taught the virtues of renunciation, modesty and obedience.

In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh exercised the absolute authority of a patriarch, not only over a clan but over a whole nation.   The book of Genesis told how Joseph, Pharaoh’s agent, collected and distributed food, and had food surpluses stored up so they would be available in hard times.

This became the typical pattern for the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world.  People became convinced they could not get along without a government to provide for them, Bookchin wrote.

The same attitude persists today, he added.  People think freedom is choosing the right form of government.  They do not question the need for government.

Ancient Athens was the shining exception to this, he wrote.

It is true the Athenians were patriarchal.  They did not accept slaves, former slaves, women or foreigners as equals, so were every other people they knew about.  But among themselves, they regarded each other as competent, self-reliant individuals, capable of self-management and management of public affairs.

Everything was decided in public assemblies, and the people who decided were the ones who carried out the decisions, including decisions regarding peace and war.

This represented an advance over the primitive organic societies, Bookchin wrote, because Athenian society was created and maintained intentionally and with full awareness, as the Funeral Oration of Pericles showed.

The oration was the equivalent of the Gettysburg address, paying tribute to Athenian soldiers who died in the war with Sparta.   Pericles said Athenians honored the right of the individual to strive for excellence in his own way, and they fought just as bravely as those who submitted to regimentation and hierarchy.

But many Athenian thinkers, including Thucydides, who recorded Pericles’ oration, regarded freedom and democracy as a form of chaos, and chose order instead.

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Murray Bookchin: epistemologies of rule

May 7, 2016

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.

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Murray Bookchin: the emergence of hierarchy

April 26, 2016

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)

bookchin-quote

chapter three: the emergence of hierarchy

At the dawn of recorded history, the human race was in the midst of a social, political and technological revolution.  Agriculture had started to replace hunting and gathering.  New technologies such as the wheel, the pottery kiln, the metal smelter and the loom generated increased wealth, making possible societies with much larger populations than villages and hunting clans.

Hardly any of this, however, went to improve the overall human material standard of living.  Instead the increased means of power and wealth went to support emperors, priesthoods, aristocracies and the armies and merchants who served them.

Human beings gained both increased power over nature and increased power over other human beings.

Studies of grave sites indicate that the average human in ancient civilizations was in poorer health and was more poorly nourished that the so-called savages living in hunting and gathering societies on their borders.

Most historians, including Marxist historians, recognize this, but they think it was a good thing, not a bad thing.

If the increased wealth had been spread among the populace, they say, it would have resulted only in a moderately prosperous mediocrity.  The concentration of wealth made it possible to create science, philosophy, literature, the fine arts and more new technologies, which is turn allowed humanity to advance through stages to the good life we enjoy today—or, according to the Marxists, create the material basis for a utopian society yet to come.

Murray Bookchin disagreed.  For one thing, he did not believe that history proceeds in pre-ordained stages.  He believed that the different periods of history offered choices of roads to take, some good, some bad, most of them mixtures of the two.

The rejection of hierarchy would have been a good choice, he wrote.  There are many non-Western societies in which people, in Gandhi’s words, have enough for their need, but not their greed.  Such societies are rich in tradition and culture, and their people are at least as happy as modern Americans and Europeans.

I am not as sure as Bookchin that such a choice was feasible.  Once one civilization devotes itself to militarism and acquisition, the rest must submit or find a method of defense, and the most obvious method of defense is to become militaristic and acquisitive themselves.

This is a dilemma that still exists today, which thinkers such as Gene Sharp have tried to find answers for.

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Murray Bookchin: the outlook of organic society

April 23, 2016

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 two: the outlook of organic society

Drawing on archeological evidence, mainly from the Near East, and anthropological research, mainly among American Indians in the Southwest, Murray Bookchin constructed a picture of human society before the emergence of hierarchy.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_He saw primal human societies as “organic”—one in which everybody shared, nobody gave orders and all regarded themselves as members of an extended family.

He gave the example of the Kintu Indians, who lacked words for “have,” “take” or “rule.”  A Kintu mother does not “take” a baby with her, she “goes with” it.  A Kintu husband does not “have” a wife, he “lives with” her.  A Kintu leader does not rule, he “stands with” his people.

People in organic societies typically saw plants and animals as living things like themselves, Bookchin wrote; they saw themselves as part of the natural world and not separated from it or dominating it.

They had private property in that each person had personal tools and other possessions.  But they typically had usufruct—the right to take anything you need for survival.

Nobody in an organic society would deny anyone food, clothing or shelter, no matter what their work contribution.  In a community living close to the margin of survival, this would be the equivalent of a death sentence.

Bookchin wrote that organic societies did have a sexual division of labor.  Women bore children and raised them.  Because of this, they had less mobility than the male hunters and warriors.  Instead they were gardeners, potters and keepers of the hearth.

Kinship was based on descent from common mothers.  Bookchin did not believe that organic societies were  matriarchal, in the sense that women gave orders to the men, but he did believe they were matricentric, in their unity was based on kinship, and because they honored the values associated with hearth and home.

Organic societies extended their sympathies by extending family ties—by intermarrying with other kin groups, or by adopting strangers into their own kin group

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Murray Bookchin: the concept of social ecology

April 20, 2016

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 one: the concept of social ecology.

The Ecology of Freedom begins with an account of Norse mythology and how the Vikings saw the world’s precarious balance.  There was Asgaard, the celestial domain of the gods above; Midgard, where human beings lived on the earth; and Niffleheim, the dark, icy domain of giants, dwarves and the dead.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_These domains were linked by the great World Tree, which was sustained by a magic fountain that infused it continually with life.  Odin, the god of wisdom, and his mighty son Thor kept the great wolf Fenris, and the great serpent of Midgard and the hostile giants at bay.   They enforced the keeping of oaths and treaties and invited the bravest of warriors to dine with them in Valhalla.

Odin attained wisdom from drinking of the waters of the World Tree, but the price he had to pay was the sacrifice of an eye.  So his wisdom was a one-eyed wisdom, like that of modern science, which reveals the scientific laws that govern the world, but blinds us to the uniqueness of each individual thing, especially living things.

Order began to break down when the gods tortured the witch Gullveig, the maker of gold, to make her reveal her secrets.  Corruption, treachery and greed began to rule the world.  Warriors sought gold and forgot their blood oaths.

The end will be Ragnarok, a war in which the giants, Fenris the wold and the great serpent will destroy humanity and the gods and make the universe a void of cold and darkness.

In one version, that is the end.  In another, gods and humans will regenerate, learn from their mistakes and live in joy.

Modern scientific knowledge, according to Bookchin, gives us the possibilities both of Ragnarok or a world of joy.  It depends on whether we have a one-eyed or a two-eyed wisdom.

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The Ecology of Freedom: introduction

April 11, 2016

THE ECOLOGY OF FREEDOM: the emergence and dissolution of hierarchy by Murray Bookchin (1982, 1991, 2005).  Introduction

I am coming to realize that  Murray Bookchin, whose name I first heard a year or so ago, was one of the great thinkers of our time.

murraybookchin.ecologyoffreedom512T99r4GjL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_His book, The Ecology of Freedom, is a profound work that is worth studying closely.  I intend to do this by reviewing the book chapter by chapter, partly to stimulate interest in his ideas but more to clarify my own thinking.

His basic idea is that human domination of nature and human domination of other human beings are part of the same thing.  This sounds simple.  What he does in this book is to describe the history of how this has played out in all its cultural, political, economic and religious aspects, and map paths to a better future.

My basic political principles are the ideas of American freedom and democracy that I was taught as a small boy.  My ideals have changed little in more than 70 years, but my ideas of how the world works have changed a lot, especially in the past 10 or 20 years.

State socialism based on command economies haven’t worked.  A tiny group of masterminds, even if they have good intentions, are not qualified to make decisions for the rest of us.  The kind of capitalism we have now doesn’t work either.  So I am interested in learning about alternatives.

Born in 1921 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Bookchin was a labor organizer in the 1930s and 1940s and a participant in the anti-nuclear and radical Green movements in the 1960s and 1970s.  As a young man, he was a Communist.  He later became a Trotskyite, then an anarchist, and, in this book, espoused a philosophy he called social ecology or libertarian socialism.

The Ecology of Freedom begins with introductions to the 2005, 1991 and original 1982 editions, in which he expresses his disappointment with the environmental movement’s failure to live up to its original promise because of the failure to develop an adequate political philosophy.

One current of the environmental movement became a mere lifestyle option, based on consumer choice.  The Deep Ecology movement and part of the population control movement decided that human beings as such, rather than oppressive governments or exploitative corporations, were the problem.

Many self-described environmentalists identified being anti-rational, anti-science and anti-technology with being in harmony with nature, which was one of the teachings of fascism.

ecological-crisis-quotes-2All these things, Bookchin wrote, indirectly helped prop up the status quo.  Environmentalists did accomplish important practical victories in individual situations, for which they deserve praise.  But they did not change the overall direction of society because of the lack of a unifying vision, which he called “social ecology”.

That vision is a symbiotic relationship among human beings, and between human beings and the rest of nature.  This doesn’t mean passivity, or abandonment of the human-made environment to wilderness, he wrote; it means to work with natural processes and with human nature rather than trying to override them.

This seems to me very much like the Unitarian Universalist Seventh Principle, which is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

###

NEXT: chapter one: the concept of social ecology

chapter two: the outlook of organic society

chapter three: the emergence of hierarchy

chapter four: epistemologies of rule

chapter five: the legacy of domination

chapter six: justice—equal and exact

chapter seven: the legacy of freedom

chapter eight: from saints to sellers

chapter nine: two images of technology

chapter ten: the social matrix of technology

chapter eleven: the ambiguities of freedom

chapter twelve: an ecological society

epilogue

LINKS

MURRAY BOOKCHIN’S COLLECTED WORKS

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

Society and Ecology by Murray Bookchin.

Social Ecology Versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement by Murray Bookchin (1987)

Libertarian Municipalism by Murray Bookchin (1991)

What Is Social Ecology? by Murray Bookchin (1993)

Bookchin Breaks with Anarchism by Janet Biehl.

Murray Bookchin: The Man Who Brought Radical Ecology and Assembly Democracy to the Left by Janet Biehl

Remembering Murray Bookchin by David Rosen for Counterpunch.

Another way of looking at things

April 5, 2016

Murray Bookchin is a leading anarchist thinker whose work I had never thought about until I learned that he is, of all things, respected by the Kurdish people in the Middle East.

The Kurds have struggled for decades for independence for decades against the governments of Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.  They are the most effective fighters in their region against the Islamic State and the successors to Al Qaeda in their region.

In all this, they have not engaged in acts of terrorism against civilians.  They respect the rights of women, and even have women in their fighting forces.  Although mostly Sunni Muslims, they gave refuge to people of all religions, including Christians, who suffer religious persecution.

remakingsociety369096Of course all this does not necessarily stem from their admiration for Murray Bookchin, but I am intrigued that this American thinker finds admirers in admirable people in a (to me) unlikely part of the world.

Bookchin is an anarchist, which means that he is opposed both to capitalism and to state socialism, a point of view I have come to share, late in life.  Some other anarchist writers I admire, and have posted about, are David Graeber and James C. Scott.

I just finished reading Bookchin’s Remaking Society, a quick and readable, but somewhat superficial, outline of his views.  I have started reading his earlier and longer book, The Ecology of Freedom: the emergence and dissolution of hierarchy, which is more detailed and profound, but more difficult to follow.

Bookchin is opposed to hierarchy as such.  He thinks all domination is connected – political domination, economic domination, racism, patriarchy and the domination of nature.

His ideal is the “organic” society, in which people cooperate voluntarily for their mutual benefit, and seek to understand natural processes rather than override them.

He thinks organic societies existed in pre-historic times.  Tribes based on kinship worked together for the benefit of all.  Persons of superior ability became leaders, but not rulers.  They had prestige, but not the power to coerce.  Men and women had different functions, but neither ruled the other.

Their principle, he said, the equal treatment of unequals, which sound to me very like the Marxian principle of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”.  Our present capitalist society, he said, is based on the opposite principle – the unequal treatment of equals.

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Radical democracy in besieged Kurdish enclaves

January 17, 2015

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The Kurdish Freedom Movement, based on three towns in northern Syria fighting for survival against the totalitarian ISIS, has created a radically democratic society based on feminism, environmentalism and community democracy.

Malcolm Harris, writing for Talking Points Memo, described what seems like an anarchist utopia which is, at the same time, an effective self-defense force.

Neighborhoods have peace committees to resolve disputes without the threat of jail.  Women’s councils enforce ostracism for spousal abuse.  A children’s council designed a playground in one community.

These three communities, which comprise 4 million people, half of them refugees from the Syrian civil war or the ISIS occupation, follow the philosophy of  “non-state political administration” or “democracy without a state” promulgated by Abdullah Ocalan, a Kurdish leader now serving a life sentence in a Turkish prison.

The KFM rejects capitalism, top-down government and male supremacy.  Decision-making is pushed down to existing community organizations.  Reportedly this is highly efficient, because it does away with the need for bureaucracy.

The Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan are admirable in that they are democratic and they give refuge to people of different religions and ethnicities fleeing ISIS perscution.  The KFM in Syria goes further, in rejecting ethnic nationalism altogether and demanding only self-government.

I have long disagreed with friends who say that there is something about the Muslim religion or Middle Eastern culture that is inherently incompatible with freedom and democracy.

Abdullah Ocalan is a leader and thinker who not only believes in freedom and democracy, but could give us Americans lessons in how to practice it.

∞∞∞

The Small Miracle You Haven’t Heard About Amid the Carnage in Syria by Malcolm Harris for Talking Points Memo.

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Blockadia: the climate fight’s new front

October 25, 2014

The fight against global warming consists of many local struggles that, at first glance, don’t have anything to do with climate change.

These struggles include resistance to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, to the Alberta tar sands industry and the Keystone XL pipeline, to deep ocean oil drilling and to other destructive practices by oil, gas and coal companies.

Such destructive practices are necessary to keep the fossil fuel companies in business because all the easy-to-get oil, gas and coal has been used up.  And greenhouse gas emissions will decrease only when oil and gas drilling and coal mining decrease.

naomi-klein.book0coverNaomi Klein in her book, THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism vs The Climate, reported on how these scattered local resistance movements are coming to realize they are part of a common cause.

In just one chapter, she touched on protests in Greece, Rumania, Canada’s New Brunswick, England’s Sussex, Inner Mongolia, Australia, Texas, France, Ecuador, Nigeria, West Virginia, South Dakota, North America’s Pacific Northwest and Quebec—all related directly or indirectly to stopping fossil fuel operations that would produce greenhouse gasses.

She and others call this alliance “Blockadia”.   Unlike some of the big, established environmental organizations, the grass-roots protesters do not limit themselves to lawsuits and political lobbying.  They engage in nonviolent direct action, the kind of mass defiance that Gene Sharp advocated.   These movements, more than the lobbying and lawsuits of the Big Green environmental organizations, will determine the future climate, she wrote.

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Can workers own the means of production?

September 30, 2014

income distribution

The Marxist economist Richard D. Wolff thinks that a new form of economic organization, the worker self-directed enterprise, can gradually replace the for-profit corporation.

Richard D. Wolff

Richard D. Wolff

I hope he is right because the world needs something better than predatory corporations or oppressive government bureaucracies, which are the main choices on offer now.

But successful worker-owned enterprises have been around for a long time, and yet have never reached the critical mass that would enable them to become an important part of the economy.

Advocates of worker-owned businesses cite the example of the Mondragon Corporation, which originated in the Basque country in Spain in 1956 with a half dozen people and now is a federation of 257 businesses and co-ops employing 76,000 people in 31 countries.  But why is there only one Mondragon Corporation?  Why hasn’t it become a template for other successful efforts?

One of the things that limit worker-owned businesses, as I see it, is precisely this lack of critical mass.  There is a societal infrastructure of business schools, business services and business finance to serve the new for-profit business.  Worker-owners would have to learn as they go.  This takes a level of commitment of which many people aren’t capable, unless they are in dire straits.

One of Wolff’s ideas is to provide seed money for WSDEs by giving the unemployed their compensation in a lump sum rather than weekly checks.  This shows how he underestimates the difficulty of implementing his program.

To begin with, starting a successful small business is not something everybody can do, although many people think they can.  If you wanted a pool of people with the ability to succeed in business, you probably wouldn’t choose them from among the unemployed.  You’d be more likely to find them among people who have good jobs and money in the bank.

Then again, the American Dream is to own your own business.  Generally speaking, it is not to be part of a community of comrades who share and share alike.   We Americans think of ourselves as individualists, no matter how subservient to authority we may be in practice, and we only abandon the dream of self-sufficiency for compelling reasons.

Farmers’ marketing co-ops came into existence because farmers thought they were being cheated by middle-men.  Electric power co-ops came into existence because the investor-owned utilities weren’t interested in serving them.  Savings and loan associations, and later credit unions, were formed because people were dissatisfied with banks.

Workers have been known to take over factories from bankrupt employers and restart the businesses.  Some co-ops are formed around political and social movements, such as selling organic food.  But worker-owned and cooperative businesses are not the norm.  There has to be a compelling reason to commit to starting one.

The commitment tends to fade when the compelling reason fades.  Even the successful cooperatives tend to wither away, or be bought out, or to incorporate.  Even the successful utopian communities, the Oneida community in New York state and the Amana community in Iowa, wound up as corporations.

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Is economic democracy possible?

September 30, 2014

feed-with-gdp

Richard D. Wolff, a Marxist economist, wrote in his recent books that capitalism has failed, and that it is necessary to replace for-profit corporations as we know them with what he calls worker self-directed enterprises.

Democracy at WorkBut for-profit corporations aren’t going to go away, even if—which remains to be seen—worker-owned enterprises offer a better alternative.

If economic democracy is the only means by which workers can keep the value of what they produce, then it is going to be necessary to reform existing corporate structures.

The USA needs legislation to curb abuses in corporate management, such as leverage buyouts, in which slick financial operators can gain control of a company with borrowed money and then milk it for their own benefit, regardless of its impact on the company.  We need enforcement of anti-trust laws and prosecution of corporate and financial fraud.

Beyond that, the USA needs to build up labor unions as a countervailing power.  Congress should enact the Employee Free Choice Act, aka Card Check, in which employees get the right to bargain collectively when a majority sign up to join a union.  It should repeal or reform the Taft-Hartley Act and Landrum Griffin Act.

But all of this falls short of true economic democracy.  True economic democracy would mean something like Germany’s co-determination system, in which employees of firms are represented on the board of directors.  I think this should be required of all companies whose stock is publicly traded.  If an entrepreneur doesn’t want to share control of a company,  then don’t sell its shares on the open market.

Economic democracy also would mean letting workers share in day-to-day management of the company, along the lines suggested by W. Edwards Deming.  Knowledge in any institution is widely distributed.  No small group has a monopoly on useful information.  I think a company will be better managed when workers and managers have the same information available.

Banking and finance are a separate issue.  There can be no economic democracy when financiers have a veto over democratic decisions.  Banks should be regulated utilities.  Bankers should be servants of the people, not masters of the universe.

When and if these things can be achieved, there will be a favorable environment for Wolff’s worker-self-directed enterprises.  The government would give them the same kind of support across the board that rural electric co-ops got in the 1930s and 1940s.  Otherwise, probably not.

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Is there a better way than capitalism?

September 30, 2014

20120314-graph-the-1-percents-jobless-recovery-01Marxists say that the trouble with the capitalist economy is that workers don’t get the full value of what they produce.  Whether or not that’s true as a general principle, it is a good description of the current direction of the U.S. economy.

capitalismhitsthefan_The Marxist solution is that the workers themselves should own the means of production.  A Marxist economist, Richard D. Wolff, said that where socialists and Communists have gone wrong is in promoting government ownership rather than worker ownership.

I recently read Wolff’s three latest books.  His view of the current economic crisis is the same as mine.   In the 1970s, overall American wages stopped growing.  Working people tried to maintain their material standard of living by putting in longer hours and having more family members in the work force.   When that reached a limit, they kept up their spending levels by borrowing.

Now the spending power of ordinary Americans has reached a limit.  Most Americans are either broke, nearby broke or paying down their debts.  That’s why the government has failed to stimulate the economy through spending or lower interest rates.

occupytheeconomy0The solution, according to Wolff, is the creation of WSDEs – worker self-directed enterprises – in which the workers themselves are the ultimate deciders of what is done with the profits (in Marxist lingo, the “surplus”).

A WSDE would be more than worker participation in management, where corporate ownership remains the same.  And it would be more than a worker-owned business, where board of directors and the rest of the corporate management structure remains in place.   And it would be more than just a co-operative, which can be organized to serve the interests of any group, not just employees.

This would not necessarily solve all problems, Wolff wrote, but it would make other problems easier to solve.  A WSDE wouldn’t lay off workers or reduce wages merely to increase the income of managers and stockholders.  Employees wouldn’t feel alienated from their work.  A worker-owned business would be less likely to be willing to pollute the community in which they live than would a board of directors responsible to stockholders who live far away.

Democracy at WorkI am in favor of more worker-owned businesses, but I think Wolff greatly underestimates the opposition to his proposed program.   Does he think the interests that engineered the sale of the Postal Service’s assets to private businesses (such as Nancy Pelosi’s husband) or advocate replacing public schools with for-profit businesses (aka charters)—does he think these interests are going to sit still and allow Wolff’s WSDEs to push them aside?

Back in the New Deal era, the federal government fostered electric power co-operatives, which provided electricity at lower rates than the for-profit corporations.  But they did not displace the for-profit corporations, nor become a model for how to operate electric utilities.

Instead the electric power industry successfully pushed for deregulation of the industry, in which competition between electric power providers was supposed to keep rates low.  Deregulation also abolished a requirement that an electric utility have enough reserve generating capacity to prevent future blackouts and brownouts.  Nobody is responsible for keeping the lights on now.

 The fact that something is economically feasible and socially desirable does not mean that it will be politically successful.   There is no substitute for political power.

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Dmitry Orlov on communities that abide

June 23, 2014

I recently read Communities that Abide, a quirky little book whose editor and lead author, Dimtry Orlov, seeks lessons for human survival in the study of small, resilient communities such as the Roma (gypsies), the Amish and the Hutterites.

Orlov thinks such lessons are needed because industrial civilization is in danger of collapse.  He writes weekly on his blog about this subject.  He sees the key to survival not in stockpiling guns, ammunition, gold coins and canned food, but in human solidarity and mastery of survival skills.

He admires the anarchist thinker, Prince Peter Kropotkin, and says the three communities follow the anarchist principle of mutual aid.  Community work is not based on payment of wages.  Distribution of goods within the community is not based on ownership of property.  Community rules are not enforced by means of violence.   That’s anarchism in a nutshell.

CommunitiesThatAbide_CoverLack of a formal governmental structure does not, however, mean a high degree of individual freedom.  Norms of behavior within the community, which are largely unwritten, are enforced my means of gossip, ridicule, peer pressure and, in extreme cases, shunning and expulsion from the group.   Such means are much more controlling than a system of formal rewards and punishments, because there is nothing tangible to rebel against.

Orlov said the experience shows that the maximum size of an effective community is about 150 people.   Any group larger than that starts to develop a bureaucracy, he wrote.  The three groups he described are all networks of communities small enough that members can decide things in public meetings where everybody gets a chance to speak.

This fits his own experience working with high-tech start-ups in the Boston area.   Every time a new company got to be larger than 150 employees, he wrote, it ceased to be a team and become a hierarchy.

My own experience is the same.  I belong to a church whose congregation never seems to grow beyond 150 members.  Our denominational leaders and ministers have told us we are wrong in being content not to grow.  But Orlov’s book indicates that maybe growth is better achieved by spinning off new groups.

Solidarity within Roma, Amish and Hutterites is maintained through customs, some of them hidden from the outside public, that separate them from the public.   Orlov said all communities that endure have a story of their founding, which they continually affirm through stories, ceremonies and historical re-enactments.   Jacob Hutter led his community for only three years in the early 1500s before he was martyred for his beliefs, yet so strong was his vision and his commitment that, 500 years later, there are people called Hutterites.

The key activity of these communities, aside from providing members with food, clothing and shelter, is the rearing and home schooling of children.  The greatest threat to group identity is public education, because it teaches the values of the modern world.  That is not to say they all refuse to send their children to school, but they have their own schooling to teach their own values.

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The case against government and civilization

April 19, 2014

Montani Semper Liberi: Mountaineers Always Free

==State Motto of West Virginia

James C. Scott, a political scientist and anthropologist, in his book, THE ART OF NOT BEING GOVERNED: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, (2009) calls into question accepted ideas about government versus anarchy, civilization versus barbarism and the nature of progress. It is an account of a mountain region including parts of Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, plus northeast India and four provinces of southern China, which is home 100 million people.

Scott’s argument is that the tribal people of this region, which he calls Zomia, are not backward and not at an earlier stage of human development.  Rather they have made a rational choice not to be subject to government and to be free of despotism, serfdom, taxation, military conscription and slavery, which is what civilization has meant to most people for most of history.

scott.notgoverned.coverHe tied it in with a larger framework which is not the familiar story of the rise and spread of civilization, but an unfamiliar story of evasion and  escape from the spread of civilization.

The invention of agriculture made civilization possible.  It created a food surplus large enough to allow people to be employed full-time as overseers, priests and soldiers.  This was beneficial to rulers, but not necessarily to their subjects.  I recall reading that ancient remains of hunter-gatherers show them to have been bigger and healthier than those who worked the land.   The lives of laborers who built the Pyramids were more nasty, poor, brutish and short than the free nomads in the deserts beyond.

There always were people who fled to inaccessible mountains, forests (like Robin Hood), jungles, marshes and the open sea to be free of control — the Berbers in North Africa, the runaway Russian serfs who formed the Cossack nation, the runaway slaves who joined with natives to form the “maroon” communities of North and South America, even those white American pioneers like Daniel Boone who preferred life beyond the frontier of settlement.   But their story has been neglected, Scott wrote, because they left few artifacts and virtually no written records.   Upland southeast Asia is part of that story.

Civilization in China, as elsewhere, originated in fertile river valleys where there was enough of an agricultural surplus to support a government and an army, which gave rulers the means to bring more people under their control.  Scott said that the rulers of China, and their imitators in the small kingdoms to the southeast, were less interested in increasing the territory under their rule than in increasing the number of people under their rule.  Conquering generals were expected to bring back captives to increase the subject population.   The Great Wall of China and the Chinese border troops were more to keep their subjects in than to keep invaders out, according to Scott.

Southeast Asia was largely populated by people whose ancestors were pushed out of what’s now southern China by the expanding Han Chinese.   Some organized governments on Chinese and Indian models, based on royal courts and hierarchies of rank.   These centered in rice-growing areas.  The advantage, from the standpoint of governments, is that rice and other grain crops are easy to identify, hard to relocate and easy to confiscate.   Rulers wanted their subjects, in Scott’s phrase, to be “legible”.

The hill people of southeast Asia didn’t want to live like this.  They chose to live in mountain regions that were hard to get to.  Ethnic groups, according to Scott, were differentiated not so much by location on the map as by altitude.   They defined themselves by how much hardship they were willing to endure to make themselves inaccessible, versus how much they wanted to trade with or raid the more settled people below..

Zomians mainly engaged on foraging, or in slash-and-burn agriculture (swiddening), which involves cutting down the trees, burning the underbrush, planting a crop for one growing season and moving on.   They planted root crops, which were hard to spot and hard to seize.  New World crops such as the sweet potato quickly found their way to Zomia.   (The Irish took to the potato for the same reason.  Potatoes were hard for English landlords and tax-collectors to seize, and the potato mounds tripped up the Irish horsemen.)

The hill peoples had flexible and changeable social structures, much to the frustration of the valley kingdoms whose rulers never were completely sure who or what they were dealing with.   They often were multi-lingual  and multi-cultural, adopting different customs depending on whom they dealing with.   When invaders came, they tended to scatter and fade away, breaking up into smaller units.

Southeast Asia kingdoms had established religions, usually based on Theravada or Mahayana Buddhism.   The upland peoples followed individual shamans with fluid doctrines and, in times of crisis, often followed charismatic prophets who appeared seemingly from nowhere, but often were defectors from the civilized communities.

In his most debatable chapter, Scott argued that there was an advantage to being an oral culture rather than an illiterate culture, and that rejection of literacy may have been a choice rather than a pre-existing condition.

Written laws and histories are a means to give kingdoms a fixed identity and hold them together.   An oral tradition is easier to adapt and change.   This, of course, is contrary to the idea that people who lack a recorded history live in a culture that is timeless and unchanging.  I think of the Comanche Indians, who wandered the Great Plains on foot for centuries, but as soon as they encountered stray horses left by the Spanish conquistadors, transformed themselves into some of the fiercest and most effective mounted warriors the world has ever seen.

These are all generalities, but, as Scott noted, every upland culture was different.  Each had its own mix and match of traits from different cultures.   He made had a lot of specific things to say about the Hmong, the Karen and other peoples, most of which didn’t register on me.  I’m more interested in the overall picture.

The inhabitants of Zomia were not angels and their societies did not represent an anarchist idea of utopia.  Some had a trading relationship with neighboring civilized communities.  None of them were barbarian invaders like the Vikings, Mongols or Huns, but  some were thieves and bandits, and some have been slave traders.   The region includes the Golden Triangle, a central of the world opium trade.

However, the main objection to the upland peoples by the Chinese, by the southeast Asian kings, by the British and French colonial rulers and by the modern governments is the same — that they are hard to pin down and command.   The possibility of evading control of government becomes less every year, barring some civilization-destroying catastrophe, which Scott does not consider.

The main thoughts I took away from this book were:

1.  The desire for freedom – that is, the desire to live one’s life without taking orders from overseers – is not limited to American or European culture.  It is found in many different cultures, probably all or almost all of them.

2.  As the world’s cultures go, we Americans are not, as a whole, especially freedom-loving.  As somebody pointed out, we think of ourselves as heirs of Athenian democracy, but the way the USA is organized is more like the Persian Empire.   We accept much more supervision in our daily lives than not only our ancestors, but than much of world’s peoples through history.

3.  As an offset, we have the possibility, which has only emerged since the American and French revolutions, of creating governments that serve the welfare of their subjects, and are accountable to their subjects.   This is a new experiment in human history, not certain to succeed, but worth trying to make succeed.

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James Scott and the Art of Not Being Governed

February 25, 2014

Some time ago I read and admired James C. Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism, in which he pointed out how nowadays most Europeans and Americans are overly ready to obey authority.

I also read Scott’s Seeing Like a State, which is about how the modern world has been shaped by the desire of rulers to make their subjects legible, so that they can be more easily taxed, conscripted and controlled, and the disasters that have followed from rulers’ illusion that information is the same as understanding.

I haven’t yet got around to reading his other great book, The Art of Not Being Governed, which is about 100 million people in the uplands of southeast Asia who have successfully escaped the control of governments in the region.  This video is a good preview.

As Scott pointed out, the ungoverned people he studied were not primitives who had failed to catch up with civilization.  Rather they were the descendents of people who centuries before had escaped the control of governments of China, Vietnam, Thailand and other countries.

He noted that only during the last few centuries has it been possible to even argue that there is a  net benefit to being under the jurisdiction of a government.  Prior to that you were better off being a free hunter-gatherer.  All government did was tax you, conscript you, enslave you and possibly provide some protection for other governments.

[Added later]  I did eventually finish reading The Art of Not Being Governed.  Click on the link for my review.