The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy
by Murray Bookchin
1982 Cheshire Books
Murray Bookchin (R.I.P., 2006) was one of the most important American theorists of the 20th century. He is most known for pioneering and promoting social ecology, which holds that “the very notion of the domination of nature by man stems from the very real domination of human by human.” In other words, the only way to resolve the ecological crisis is to create a free and democratic society.
The Ecology of Freedom is one of Bookchin’s classic works, in which he not only outlines social ecology, but exposes hierarchy, “the cultural, traditional and psychological systems of obedience and command”, from its emergence in pre-‘civilized’ patriarchy all the way to capitalism today. The book explains that hierarchy is exclusively a human phenomena, one which has only existed for a relatively short period of time in humanity’s 2 million year history. For that reason, and also because he finds examples of people resisting and overturning hierarchies ever since their emergence, Bookchin believes we can create a world based on social equality, direct democracy and ecological sustainability.
It seems to me this fundamental hope in human possibility is the most essential contribution of this book. In discussing healthier forms of life than we currently inhabit, Bookchin makes a distinction between “organic societies”, which were pre-literate, hunter-gatherer human communities existing before hierarchy took over, and “ecological society”, which he hopes we will create to bring humanity back into balance with nature, but without losing the intellectual and artistic advances of “civilization” (his quote-marks).
Of ‘organic society’ he says “I use the term to denote a spontaneously formed, noncoercive, and egalitarian society – a ‘natural’ society in the very definite sense that it emerges from innate human needs for association, interdependence, and care.” This, he explains, is where we come from. Not a utopia free of problems, but a real society based on the principle of “unity of diversity,” meaning respect for each member of the community, regardless of sex, age, etc. – an arrangement that is free of domination. He also characterizes pre-civilized organic societies as “part of the balance of nature – a forest community or a soil community – in short, a truly ecological community or ecocommunity peculiar to its ecosystem, with an active sense of participation in the overall environment and the cycles of nature.”
Things didn’t go wrong all at once, or all the sudden. It took eons of slow changes that eroded the solidarity and equality within certain societies before anything as destructive or coercive as the State, with its violent redistribution of goods, emerged. Along the way, many enclosures upon community life were reversed in whole or part. Nevertheless, a few areas of the world saw things degenerate into militaristic ruling classes coming to power, determined to conquer and destroy. To gain power for themselves required putting others down, by force if necessary, and taking as much as possible from the planet to supply their complicated technologies and armies. These people are still in control, hence our current state of affairs.
The other crucial point made in this book is that the structure of power is really the overriding issue when we think about moving towards an ecological society. Alternative technologies certainly have a role, as do more environmental consciousness, culture, etc. But none of these can do much unless we democratize the way power is distributed in society. Any attempt to “green” capitalism, for example, is futile because the system as such is precisely what is destroying the planet. Remedying this requires empowering people to take control of their lives and surroundings away from those interested only in domination of humans and the Earth. In Bookchin’s words, to achieve “harmony with nature”, we first need “harmony in society.”
The sweep of ideas that compose the doctrine of social ecology are compelling and extremely relevant for us today living in both social and ecological crises. Unfortunately Bookchin, while a great theorist, was a pretty lousy writer. In Ecology of Freedom he approaches his subject like a philosopher, attempting to separate himself from previous thinkers and carve an ideological niche for himself. He also constantly references other philosophers (mostly white dudes), in a way that assumes the reader knows what he is talking about. Most of the time, I didn’t.
What Bookchin lacked was the ability to speak to a mass audience, in their own language. He could not take the vast plethora of ideas in his head and synthesize them into a simple and readable program for change. Instead, we’re left with incredibly important and relevant ideas caught up in a web of philosophical jargon and sectarian attacks on other radicals. (His schizophrenic relationship with Karl Marx is especially frustrating because he never just comes out and says what he finds essential about Marx and what he finds destructive – we just get tons of side-comments as if he’s speaking to Marx while discussing other topics with the reader).
Nevertheless, I gained something from this book by taking Bookchin with a dose of irreverence. He had a lot of good ideas, but like all theorists, he’s no one to follow blindly. He was imperfect. But like the best of us he put his limited energies into making this world a better place.