Murray Bookchin's libertarian technics

A robot adjusting solar panels

The first in a series of critical introductions to thinkers and concepts that inform discussion of the climate crisis, looking at Murray Bookchin's ideas about technology.

Murray Bookchin (1921-2006) was a pioneer of radical ecological thought and working class autodidact. Bookchin's political trajectory took him from Stalinism (as a 9 year-old, he was soon expelled), to Trotskyism, to anarchism, to eventually breaking with anarchism and founding libertarian municipalism/communalism in an attempt to engage with the local state. But while his start and end points leave much to be desired, along the way he made important and erudite contributions to libertarian ecological thought. Iain McKay's obituary gives an overview of his contributions, but here we will focus on his advocacy of liberatory technology, a.k.a. libertarian technics.1

Bookchin drew on Aristotle's notion of techné, technique, as encompassing a wider web of social relations and ethical principles. In his view, to treat technology as separate from this context is a symptom of modern capitalist development.

Once societal constraints based on ethics and communal institutions were demolished ideologically and physically, technics could be released to follow no dictates other than private self-interest, profit, accumulation, and the needs of a predatory market economy. (EoF p.254)

A libertarian technics would therefore require the re-embedding of technology in a web of communal social relations and ethics. Bookchin's philosophy of technology can perhaps be best understood in opposition to two other tendencies. The first is what he calls a "promethean, often crassly bourgeois" Marxism (EoF p.226)2 that saw nature as something to be conquered and subjugated by boundless productive forces.3 This means:

A sharp disjunction is thereby created between society, humanity, and "needs" on the one side, and nature, the nonhuman living world, and ecological ends on the other. By contrast, organic society contains the conceptual means for functionally distinguishing the differences between society and nature without polarising them (EoF p.232).

But while Bookchin turns to 'organic society' for inspiration, his term for so-called 'primitive' or preliterate societies, he has no desire to return to hunter-gatherer or agrarian subsistence modes of living, what in today's terms is called deep ecology, primitivism or anti-civilisation. Indeed, he rubbishes the idea that humans can avoid interfering with nature, since we are part of it; biological entities with nutritional requirements. Rather, he is interested in drawing on examples from throughout human history to demonstrate the possibility of a different technology, one which does not incarnate an instrumental approach to nature but rather works in co-operation with ecological processes. "How can we heal the fracture that separates living men from dead machines without sacrificing either men or machines?" (TLT p.155).

For Bookchin, the profit motive constrains and limits human creativity to that which can be commodified. This favours large-scale industry, hierarchical management, and the subsumption of the labour process into the deadening, alienated toil of the assembly line (Bookchin was an auto worker in his youth). But despite the massive outputs of mass production, scarcity is artificially maintained by the state through property relations. "A century ago, scarcity had to be endured, today, it has to be enforced" (PSA p.59). Hence capitalist production tends towards "the shabby, huckster-oriented criteria that result in built-in obsolescence and an insensate consumer society" (TLT p.152). Instead, Bookchin advocates automating repetitive work and a move towards modularity and self-assembly, so that large scale automated production facilitates creative, flexible, local assembly.

We can identify three core heuristics which guide Bookchin's notion of liberatory technology: (1) liberation from toil; (2) the creation of new social relations; and (3) amenability to face-to-face, assembly-based direct democracy. He is clear that "in a future revolution, the most pressing task of technology will be to produce a surfeit of goods with a minimum of toil" (TLT p.152). He qualifies this with an insistence that:

Post-scarcity, as I have emphasised in earlier works, does not mean mindless affluence; rather it means a sufficiency of technical development that leaves individuals free to select their needs autonomously and to obtain the means to satisfy them. (EoF p.261).

But liberation from toil is not merely quantitative, a matter of reducing 'toil hours' while increasing 'free time'. In fact for Bookchin, this very distinction implies the persistence of alienated labour. Rather, the reduction of toil also has a qualitative dimension. Here, Bookchin turns to the traditions of traditional peasant life:

Their most striking feature is the extent to which any kind of communal toil, however onerous, can be transformed by the workers themselves into festive occasions that serve to reinforce community ties. (EoF p.255).4

Perhaps most intriguingly, Bookchin's understanding of technology as imbricated with social relations leads him to look towards technologies which can support the reproduction of libertarian, communal relations, operating in line with wider ecological processes.

In fact, the real issue we face today is not whether this new technology can provide us with the means of life in a toil-less society, but whether it can help to humanise society, whether it can contribute to the creation of entirely new relationships between man and man. (Original emphasis, TLT p.116).

This remaking of social relations seeks a "a balanced relationship with nature" (TLT p.127-128), communities which live in a "symbiotic relationship with their environment" (TLT p. 160). For Bookchin, just as capitalist technology tends to separate us from natural processes, to keep 'nature' at bay and to dominate it, a liberatory technology can inculcate a sense of mutual dependence on nature into the fabric of everyday life. To "add a sense of haunting symbiosis to the common productive activity of human and natural beings" (EoF p.264). Unlike much of the green movement, Bookchin sees no inherent beauty in small scale, 'soft' or 'appropriate' technologies. Rather technologies are to be assessed according to their role in enhancing human freedom and integrating human society with natural processes.

Finally, Bookchin stresses the need for technologies to be compatible with face-to-face, assembly-based direct democracy. He elaborates a critique of the council system as expounded by many Marxists, where decision-making and administrative functions are fused (as in Marx's account of the Paris Commune). Rather, to avoid the emergence of representation and bureaucracy, he stresses that decisions must be made in assemblies, while council bodies should be strictly limited to administering the assembly's decisions, and made up of recallable delegates. Importantly, he stresses that "an authentic community is not merely a structural constellation of human beings but rather a practice of communising" (EoF p.263), that is, a commons, a set of relationships continually reproduced through social and ecological interactions. Bookchin is often caricatured as a naive localist, and while federation of autonomous communities sometimes seems an afterthought, he is clear that autonomy is a necessary, but not sufficient, component of a free society, with much wider, revolutionary changes needed:

...if we eliminate the money economy, the state power, the credit system, the paperwork and the policework required to hold society in an enforced state of want, insecurity and domination, society would not only become reasonably human but fairly simple. (TLT p.159)

While Bookchin did end up espousing a rather tame, reformist municipalism,5 this argument seems to anticipate more recent critiques of the fetishisation of autonomy as sufficient for social transformation.6 However, climate change does add an additional objection to his stress on decentralisation: local autonomy can't extend to local people burning local coal for local energy. Climate change makes clear that we live in a global commons, and autonomy needs to be understood within a globally organised society. The charge of parochialism may be unfair, but the danger is there, if local autonomy is promoted above all else. That said, the advent of internet communications seems to bolster the prospects for global interconnection over parochial localism, which only serves to highlight the importance of a libertarian technics.7

Bookchin also doesn't have a huge amount to say about the process by which liberatory technologies could supplant capitalist ones, other than by direct action and revolution. However, his insistence that "direct democracy is ultimately the most advanced form of direct action" (EoF p.339) does open the door to reformism. Specifically, he seems to prioritise process over antagonism, and hence potentially participation in the local state electoral apparatus ahead of collective, class struggle. Bookchin's battle with his own orthodox Marxist past sometimes lead him to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and endorse a popular rather than class-defined collective subject. This is a problem revived recently with Occupy. Bookchin's own political trajectory is not, therefore, entirely idiosyncratic.

The assumption of the abundance of productive forces does need to be revisited in light of dangerous climate change, but Bookchin provides some pointers to a more nuanced concept of post-scarcity. Despite his shortcomings, Bookchin's philosophy of technology remains an important point of departure. It informs both critique of capitalist technological fixes to climate change which leave the underlying social relations untouched, or even enhanced, while also providing an heuristic framework for thinking about technology's emancipatory potential. The words with which he closes his magnum opus are still remarkably prescient three decades later:

In the end, however, we must escape from the debris with whatever booty we can rescue, and recast our technics entirely in the light of an ecological ethics (...) The means for tearing down the old are available, both as hope and as peril. So, too, are the means for rebuilding. The ruins themselves are mines for recycling the wastes of an immensely perishable world into the structural materials of one that is free as well as new. (EoF p.346-347)

  • 1. Bookchin's works cited are abbreviated as follows. TLT = Towards a liberatory technology (1965), published in Post-scarcity anarchism. PSA = Post-scarcity anarchism (1968), also published in Post-scarcity anarchism. EoF = The ecology of freedom (1982), Cheshire Books, Palo Alto, California.
  • 2. Between his 1960s work and his 1980s magnum opus, Bookchin seems to have read Adorno & Horkenheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment, and dampened - but not extinguished - his earlier enthusiasm for scientific knowledge and productive technology. In the 1960s he enthusiastically advocated full automation and focussed on the technologies which made this possible (PSA), by the 1980s his emphasis had shifted to the social matrix within which technology operates (EoF). But this is mainly a shift in emphasis, not a distinct break.
  • 3. When Bookchin critiques Marx, he is more often than not critiquing the crude Stalinist and Trotskyist Marxism of his youth. That's not to let Marx off the hook, sometimes the cap fits. And there is an unmistakeable Promethean streak to some of Marx's writing - but also important ecological insights.
  • 4. Lest this be mistaken for nostalgia, Bookchin is clear that "a restoration of the peasant agriculture prevalent in Fourier's day is neither possible nor desirable" (TLT p. 137).
  • 5. "A libertarian municipalist movement, in particular, would not--and should not--achieve sudden success and wide public accolades. (...) If such a libertarian municipalist movement runs candidate for municipal councils with demands for the institution of public assemblies, it will more likely lose electoral races today rather than win even slight successes. (...) In any very real sense, however, this protracted development is a desideratum. With rapid success, many naïve members of a municipal electorate expect rapid changes--which no minority, however substantial, can ever hope to achieve at once. For an unpredictable amount of time, electoral activity will primarily be an educational activity" - Murray Bookchin (1995), Libertarian municipalism: the new municipalist agenda.
  • 6. E.g. Gilles Dauvé, A contribution to the critique of political autonomy.
  • 7. The history of the internet is a complex cat-and-mouse between a statist gestation, a distributed proliferation, and subsequent attempts at enclosure. The Telekommunist Manifesto's distinction between peer-to-peer and client-server models echoes Bookchin's emphasis on decentralised libertarian technology and centralised authoritarian technology.

Posted By

Out of the Woods
Mar 11 2014 20:22

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  • The means for tearing down the old are available, both as hope and as peril. So, too, are the means for rebuilding. The ruins themselves are mines for recycling the wastes of an immensely perishable world into the structural materials of one that is free as well as new.

    Murray Bookchin

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Comments

Joseph Kay
Mar 12 2014 14:56
Out of the Woods wrote:
Bookchin's battle with his own orthodox Marxist past sometimes lead him to throw the baby out with the bathwater, and endorse a popular rather than class-defined collective subject. This is a problem revived recently with Occupy.

Funnily enough, there's quite a good rebuttal of truncated critiques of capitalism on the Institute for Social Ecology website (Bookchin co-founded the ISE).

Spikymike
Mar 12 2014 15:14

This is a useful and balanced review of the better elements of Bookchin's contribution to an understanding of the relationship between technology and human relationships in an emerging communist society.

See also ocelot's comments on 'productivity' in the related 'let them eat growth' text.

These short related 'out of the Woods' blog texts seem a bit like the building blocks of a more substantial and rounded critique of capitalism and the potential for an alternative and sustainable human future - it will be interesting to see what comes of the completed house.

Out of the Woods
Mar 12 2014 17:42

Hi Spikymike - we haven't given a lot of thought to the long term, but we have at least a year's worth of material brainstormed at the moment, probably more. We're treating the blog something like a public notebook, working things out a bit at a time, while introducing useful ideas (and probably critiquing some wrong-headed ones) from different places. So hopefully over time it will build up into a richer patchwork and start to sketch the bigger picture.

We plan to write some similar articles to this looking at some of the ecological ideas coming out of the Marxist tradition ('the 2nd contradiction', the ecological rift, surplus populations), as well as heterodox/ecological economics (steady-state economics, degrowth).

The other advantage of writing like this, as opposed to sitting on it until we've got a polished final product, is that it allows us to develop our thoughts in response to comments and criticism, and it hopefully also serves as a resource and point of departure for other people thinking about these questions.

woooo
Mar 13 2014 06:42
sometimes explode
Mar 13 2014 11:41

I was wondering if you plan at any point to explore the various ecological theories that emerge out of the new materialist waves, and some of the folk that came before them? I'm thinking of Virilio's idea of grey ecology, Guattari's Three Ecologies, and the ecological thinking that extends beyond the "green" in all kinds of ways (such as in Jane Bennett, Timothy Morton, media ecology theory etc).

Out of the Woods
Mar 13 2014 21:15

We have a draft that engages briefly with Morton's Hyperobjects. We'll probably publish that soon. We've also thought about looking at assemblage theory as a way to take up the crucial question of repurposing, which Ray Brassier poses in his engagement with accelerationism/Endnotes. But prior to that, we'd probably want to first engage with some of the communisation stuff on surplus populations and capital as an external constraint.

In terms of the others you mention, we haven't discussed any of them, or as far as I know read any of them, but I will flag them up. The problem with the more ontological stuff is it raises really big problems of commensurability that are hard to tackle in a blog format (or in any format, for that matter). On the face of it, systematic dialectic (Chris Arthur, Endnotes), assemblage (Deleuze/Guattari, De Landa), speculative realism etc simply aren't compatible with one another. Though perhaps that's not a problem, and we could just draw on each in standalone blogs and work out the consequences and contradictions later.

888
Mar 14 2014 06:39

What's so bad about Prometheanism? Sounds good to me! Defying the gods, playing with fire, storming heaven...

boomerang
Mar 15 2014 18:24

More good stuff from Out of the Woods! Loving it. Keep it up!

Quote:
technologies which can support the reproduction of libertarian, communal relations

I think that the Open Source Ecology movement is developing machinery and equipment that can be used exactly for this.
http://opensourceecology.org/

My imagination is so stunted by capitalist modes of production, that (even though I know the technology for it exists) I have a hard time imagining what "libertarian, communal relations" of production would look like in practice.

Does anyone know any books or articles that give real or imagined examples of this?

Out of the Woods
Mar 16 2014 14:42
888 wrote:
What's so bad about Prometheanism? Sounds good to me! Defying the gods, playing with fire, storming heaven...

This is an excellent question - considering a response, but it might spill over into a fresh blog post as it raises lots of philosophical and political issues! Please bear with us...

Edit: short version - The problem with Prometheanism is not the enthusiasm for technology but the blindness to unintended consequences. Long version - abounds in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties, a.k.a. we're working on it.

@ Boomerang - open source ecology is one of the things we'd like to take a look at in future. I don't think we've done much more than watch the main promo video at the moment though, so can't comment further.

Out of the Woods
Mar 20 2014 07:21
888 wrote:
What's so bad about Prometheanism? Sounds good to me! Defying the gods, playing with fire, storming heaven...

We have now posted a full piece discussing this question, which you can read here.

OOTW.