By Cam Mancini
I have recently been reading Murray Bookchin. AK Press put out a wonderful collection, titled Post-Scarcity Anarchism, of ten of his works, including essays and discussion pieces on them, and a collection of letters and observations. Bookchin is a touchy topic with some, because as most are aware, he moved away from anarchism later in his life, supporting what he called “communalism.” None-the-less, all of these texts are from no later than 1970, when he was in his prime as an anarchist and, I contend, a leading theorist of the time. In the first three essays of the collection (“Post-Scarcity Anarchism”, “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought”, and “Towards a Liberatory Technology”), he would define the revolutionary need for an ecological perspective, and not without controversy.
One must not take Bookchin out of his historical context, and to do so makes his works an enigma. Most of these essays were penned between 1965 and 1968. This must be kept in mind when reading his works, which make references to “free love,” the hippies, and the lifestylism of the time. He has many praises for these things, which many dismiss now, but in the sweeping social changes of the 1960s they could be seen as positive occurrences. Following the repressive social relations of the 1950s, it truly must have felt like a breath of fresh air to those who lived through these times – an explosion of sexual freedom, feminist and queer theory, and the civil rights movement. All these things, from experiments in communal living, consensus decision making, rioting and mass insurrection, contain lessons that we continue to pull from today. Bookchin took them in a critical light, used the parts he respected and applied them to his ecological-anarchist perspective in a pragmatic way.
Bookchin’s position on ecology was ahead of its time. He believes that much of the failure of earlier socialist movements was precisely because of their lack of this perspective. The earlier Marxists and anarchists believe in a society that was based solely around industry, glorifying work and toil, but he tempers this critique by attributeing this attitude to the lack of development of productive forces at the time. This deterministic attitude would have us believe that it was not possible for there to be a human community during the industrial revolution, because goods were not in abundance (or, unable to be in abundance). He does not speak to whether he believes it was possible to achieve a communist society before hand, but he does praise the feudal era for its intimate attachment to the land. Despite this, Bookchin’s central point is correct: communism requires new forms, new relationships with both land and industry. Compared to many Marxists and anarcho-syndicalists, who see workers’ self-management as the end in itself, Bookchin sees this as the beginning of a new human community. In this we can see the beginnings of a critique of self-management as a total end and Bookchin begs the question: what exactly will we self-manage? A society solely based on the self-management of exploitation appears only liberatory on the surface, but because it is still a society of labour and toil (but “self-managed,” naturally), it does not abolish the alienation that these forms create. In addition, it does not break down the division between humanity, nature, and work.
The essay “Towards a Liberatory Technology” describes the changes in technology that were occurring throughout the 1960s. Namely he speaks to automation and computers. An unfortunately large portion of the essay is devoted to technical information on technology, which I have no interest in and has little contemporary use. While, as stated before, Bookchin unleashe a criticism of Marxism and anarchism focusing on and glorifying toil, this essay tends to be the weakest of his three in the collection on ecology. I believe this is because, as having seen the deployment and use of the liberatory technology he describes, I can certainly say his predictions were wrong. Rather unfortunately, we are able to see first hand that technology has been recuperated as another source to enhance the process of capitalist accumulation, which is reminiscent of Marx’s warning in capital of the immiseration of the proletariat. Furthermore, this assertion that technology is in itself liberatory and necessary for a post-scarcity society are shaky. A major gripe of mine with his work is that he provides no evidence that it is not possible to have a post-scarcity society, or even communism, without automation or computers. Perhaps at the time it would not have been possible for him to predict the waste these technologies would create and the alienated forms of communication they would create, but regardless these things have become reality for modern capitalist society.
What he saw as liberatory, or having the potential for being so, has, in reality, been turned against the proletarians. Recuperation is a concept put forward by the Situationists, who Bookchin did keep up with (since he references Guy Debord at least once), and is a concept that states the existing order will take radical ideas and turn them against the pro-revolutionaries. Recuperation is what has been done to these technologies. They could be used to reduce toil, but certainly not in the market economy. Perhaps Bookchin did not mean it was, but he does not make this point clear, and uses the idea of liberatory technology to support his bizarre economic determinism, almost as a justification for the continued existence of capitalism.
I do not bring these issues up, though, to shoot down everything in Bookchin’s entire theory. In his ideas on freedom, I find his analysis correct and moving. He puts forward the belief that the ability to abolish scarcity is now a precondition to freedom… that while humans are incapable of getting all they need, and the required sacrifice through labour, they cannot truly be free. In this, we can find echoes of the communist call for the abolition of value. In addition to this, his visioni for an ecological anarchist society was, I believe, ahead of its time and has an important place in the way which “red anarchists” and communists consider the natural world and its place in a communist society, without delving deeply into the wasteland of primitivist thought. A term brought up often in his writing throughout these essays is the need for a “well-rounded man” [sic] – which seems to reconcile the apparent contradictions of a deep relationship with nature, and the need for automation and technological advance. It does this by suggesting that ones livelihood cannot be restricted to one avenue (ie, just agriculture or just industry). This is, of course, tied into the idea of the abolition wasteful work that is created by a national division of labour. In refreshingly novel terms, Bookchin has put forward some of the classic ideas of true communism – that of transforming our relationships with work, land, production, and play and not merely substituting one form of management for another.