Whither Anarchism? A Reply to Recent Anarchist Critics




Liberty without socialism is privilege and injustice.
Socialism without liberty is slavery and brutality.
Mikhail Bakunin

What form will anarchism take as it enters the twenty-first century? What basic ideas will it advance? What kind of movement, if any, will it try to create? How will it try to change the human sensibilities and social institutions that it has inherited from the past?

In a fundamental sense these were the issues that I tried to raise in my 1995 polemic Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm.[1] The title and especially the subtitle were deliberately provocative. In part, I intended them to highlight a profound and longstanding contradiction within anarchism, an ideology that encompasses views that are basically hostile to each other. At one extreme of anarchism is a liberal ideology that focuses overwhelmingly on the abstract individual (often drawing on bourgeois ideologies), supports personal autonomy, and advances a negative rather than a substantive concept of liberty. This anarchism celebrates the notion of liberty from rather than a fleshed-out concept of freedom for. At the other end of the anarchist spectrum is a revolutionary libertarian socialism that seeks to create a free society, in which humanity as a whole–and hence the individual as well–enjoys the advantages of free political and economic institutions.

Between these two extremes lie a host of anarchistic tendencies that differ considerably in their theoretical aspects and hence in the kind of practice by which they hope to achieve anarchism’s realization. Some of the more common ones today, in fact, make systematic thinking into something of a bugaboo, with the result that their activities tend to consist not of clearly focused attacks upon the prevailing social order but of adventurous episodes that may be little more than street brawls and eccentric “happenings.” The social problems we face–in politics, economics, gender and ethnic relations, and ecology–are not simply unrelated “single issues” that should be dealt with separately. Like so many socialists and social anarchists in the past, I contend that an anarchist theory and practice that addresses them must be coherent, anchoring seemingly disparate social problems in an analysis of the underlying social relations: capitalism and hierarchical society.

It should not be surprising that in a period of social reaction and apparent capitalist stabilization, the two extremes within anarchism–the individualistic liberal tendency and the socialistic revolutionary one–would fly apart in opposing directions. At best, they have previously existed only in uneasy tension with each other, submerging their differences to their common traditions and ideological premises. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the liberal tendency, with its strong emphasis on individual rights and sensibilities, gave greater emphasis to individual self-expression, ranging from personal eccentricities to scandalous or even violent behavior. By contrast, the socialistic tendency placed its greatest emphasis on popular mobilizations, especially in syndicalist organizations, working-class strikes, and the everyday demands of opposition to capitalism in the public sphere.

Supporters of the socialistic tendencies in anarchism, which I have called social anarchism, never denied the importance of gaining individual freedom and personal autonomy. What they consistently argued, however, was that individual freedom will remain chimerical unless sweeping revolutionary changes are made that provide the social foundations for rounded and ethically committed individuals. As social anarchism has argued, the truly free individual is at once an active agent in and the embodiment of a truly free society. This view often clashed with the notion, very commonly held by individualistic or, as I have called them, lifestyle anarchists, that liberty and autonomy can be achieved by making changes in personal sensibilities and lifeways, giving less attention to changing material and cultural conditions.

It is not my intention to repeat my exposition of the differences between social and lifestyle anarchism. Nor do I deny that the two tendencies–the liberal and the social–have often overlapped with each other. Many lifestyle anarchists eagerly plunge into direct actions that are ostensibly intended to achieve socialistic goals. Many social anarchists, in turn, sympathize with the rebellious impulses celebrated by lifestyle anarchists, although they tend to resist purely personal expressions.

Not surprisingly, the ability of social anarchism to make itself heard in the public sphere has generally fluctuated with the economic times. In periods of capitalist stability, social anarchism is often eclipsed on the Left by reform-oriented social-democratic and liberal ideologies, while lifestyle anarchism emerges as the embodiment of anarchism par excellence. During these periods anarchism’s cranks, often more rebellious than revolutionary, with their exaggerated hostility to conventional lifeways, come to the foreground, constituting a cultural more than a revolutionary threat to the status quo. By contrast, in times of deep social unrest, it is social anarchism that, within anarchism, has usually held center stage. Indeed, during revolutionary situations in the past, social anarchism has enjoyed a great deal of popularity among the oppressed and in some cases was responsible for organizing the masses in such a way as to pose a serious threat to the social order.

The varying fortunes of social and lifestyle anarchism belong to a long history of revolutions and counterrevolutions, of rebellion and conformity, of social unrest and social peace. When the rebellious 1960s bubbled up after a decade of social quiescence and numbing mediocrity, lifestyle anarchism enjoyed great popularity among the countercultural elements, while social anarchism exercised a measure of influence with some New Leftists. During the political apathy and social conformity of the 1970s and 1980s, as the counterculture was absorbed into New Age narcissism, lifestyle anarchists moved increasingly to the fore as the predominant expression of anarchism.

The America of the mid-1960s that had seemed to be weighing new, indeed utopistic possibilities opened by ferment among people of color, students, women, gays, and community activists, has been replaced, in the 1990s, by an America that is narcissistic and self-absorbed, moved by mystical, antirational, often otherworldly, and decidedly personal concerns. The visionary pursuit of social change that was so widespread a mere quarter-century ago has yielded, as the German social theorist Joachim Hirsch observes, to a “fatalistic and radically anti-utopian consciousness.” Social activity, such as it is, focuses overwhelmingly on single issues and seeks to reform the existing social order rather than challenge its basic institutions and economic relationships. Not only is today’s consciousness fatalistic and radically anti-utopian; it is derisively antirevolutionary and even antiradical. The enormous change in social and moral temper is reflected by the conventional ideology of the present time, with its emphasis on trivial concerns, financial markets, consumerist escapes, and personal psychology. It has all but eliminated, for the present, any principle of hope, to use Ernst Bloch’s phrase. Where social criticism does exist, it tends to focus on the abuses of specific corporations or on the defects of specific governmental actions (all valuable work, to be sure) rather than on the capitalist and state system that produces them. Cynicism about the possibility of social change now prevails, as well as an appalling narcissism in everyday life.

Despite Hirsch’s verdict, even this jaded public temper–a temper that prevails no less among young people than among their parents–needs compensatory escapisms to soften a life without inspiration or meaning. It is not easy to accept a gray world in which acquisition, self-absorption, and preoccupation with trivia are the main attributes of everyday life. To improve the “comfort level” of middle-class life, Euro-American society has witnessed an explosion of mystical, antirational, and religious doctrines, not to speak of innumerable techniques for personal self-improvement. The personalistic form of these anodynes makes self-expression into a surrogate for a politics of genuine empowerment. Far from impelling people to social activism, these nostrums are infected with an ancient Christian virus: namely, that personal salvation precedes political change–indeed, that in every sense the political is reduced to the personal, and the social to the individual.

Not only have lifestyle anarchism and social anarchism diverged very sharply, but their divergence reflects an unprecedented development in capitalism itself: its historic stabilization and its penetration into ever more aspects of everyday life. This development, not surprisingly, engulfs even the ideologies that profess to oppose it, so that in the end they actually work to justify those changes. More than any society that preceded it, capitalism (to use Marx and Engels’s phrase in The Communist Manifesto) “turns everything solid into air”–and polluted air at that. Rock ‘n’ roll, the music of countercultural rebellion, has long entered the liturgical ceremonies of modern churches, while radical folksinger Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” appears in television commercials for a giant airline. The “culture war” that created so many professorial jobs in major universities is rapidly drawing to a close. As Thomas Frank, editor of a recent anthology, Commodify Your Dissent, has observed, “The countercultural idea has become capitalist orthodoxy. . . . However the basic impulses of the countercultural idea may have disturbed a nation lost in Cold War darkness, they are today in fundamental agreement with the basic tenets of Information Age business theory.”[2]

In Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism (SALA), I tried to show that lifestyle anarchism is well on its way to becoming just this kind of rebellious chic, in which jaded Americans rakishly adorn themselves with the symbols and idioms of personal resistance, all the more to accommodate themselves to the status quo. Anarchism’s lifestyle tendencies orient young people toward a kind of rebellion that expresses itself in terms of narcissism, self-expression, intuition, and personalism–an orientation that stands sharply at odds with the socialistic core of anarchism that was celebrated by Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Malatesta, among so many others.

Lifestyle anarchism thus recasts the spirit of revolt itself–however residual it may be today–and subverts the very basis for building the radical social opposition that will be needed in times more propitious for a rational social development. Lifestyle anarchism, in effect, eats away at the traditions, ideas, and visions upon which anarchism as a socialist movement rests and that form its point of departure for the development of future revolutionary libertarian movements. In effect, its growing influence threatens to derail anarchism, with its rich implications for society as a whole, and redirect it toward the self as the locus of rebellion and reconstruction. In this respect, lifestyle anarchism is truly regressive. If a space is to be preserved on the political spectrum for serious left-libertarian discussion and activity–for use in the future, if not always in the present–then the growing influence of lifestyle anarchism must be earnestly resisted.

It is not only anarchism that is plagued by the advent of a an anti-Enlightenment culture with psychologistic, mystical, antirational, and quasi-religious overtones. Some of the ostensibly new reinterpretations of Marxism are patently psychologistic and even mystical in nature, while the ecology movement risks the prospect of becoming a haven for primitivism and nature mysticism. Goddess worship has invaded feminism, while postmodernism reigns in the formerly radical portions of the Academy. Indeed, the attempt to displace Enlightenment values of reason, secularism, and social activism with an emphasis on intuition, spiritualism, and an asocial psychologism pervades society as a whole. In this respect SALA may be seen as an appendix to my larger book, Re-Enchanting Humanity, which critiques the more general cultural manifestations of these tendencies.

Sorting Out the Issues

Nothing more strikingly supports my contention that lifestyle anarchism reflects present trends in bourgeois culture–its psychologism, antirationalism, primitivism, and mysticism–than the replies that lifestyle anarchists themselves have written to SALA since its publication. As of this writing (February 1998), two books, one pamphlet, and several articles have been published, all decrying my essay, yet all serving overwhelmingly as evidence to bolster my case against this tendency.

Consider, for example, a review of my essay in the journal Social Anarchism, written by Kingsley Widmer, an anarchist who harbors strong sympathies for primitivism and technophobia.[3] The critical thrust of his piece is that I insist on standing “in lonely splendor” on the “ghostly shoulders of Bakunin, Kropotkin, and their descendants in such as the Spanish anarchists of more than two generations ago,” which makes me a proponent of an “antique left-socialism,” a “narrow and thin libertarianism of a different time and place and conditions.”

I collapse to the floor in shame. Never did I expect that the day would come when an anarchist–in fact, a member of Social Anarchism‘s advisory board–would regard this lineage as “ghostly” and “thin”! Perhaps it would be more relevant to our time, in Widmer’s view, if I ended my “lonely isolation” and adopted today’s fashionable technophobia? Perhaps he believes I should join those who mystify the preindustrial age (which was already going into eclipse several generations ago)? Or those who mystify the Neolithic era of four hundred generations ago? or the Paleolithic of some 1,200 generations ago? If being up to date is the standard for social relevance, then the mere two generations that have passed since the Spanish Revolution undoubtedly give me the edge over the primitivists whom Widmer defends (although in all fairness to him, he appears to be not quite certain where he stands on primitivism anymore).

Despite its brevity, Widmer’s review touches on substantive issues concerning primitivism and technology that other critics have argued at greater length and which I will address later in this essay. Suffice it to note here that Widmer also makes use of a polemical technique that my longer-winded critics also use–namely, to demonize me as a “dogmatic” Leninist or even Stalinist. Widmer, however, makes this insinuation in a rather convoluted way: he reproves me for using the words “infantile” and “fascistic” in describing certain aspects of lifestyle anarchism–his objection being that “‘political infantilism’ was a favorite epithet of Leninists,” while “‘social fascism’ of Stalinist and fellow-traveling ‘progressives’ in the Thirties.”

This would be a damning criticism indeed if I had used these words in any sense that is relevant to Lenin, still less Stalin’s characterizations. Nowhere did I suggest that my opponents are infantile leftists, as Lenin did, or designate any of my opponents “social fascists,” as the Third Period Stalinists did. Am I to understand from Widmer that the words “infantile” and “fascistic” must be excised from the vocabulary of critical discourse today simply because Lenin and Stalin’s Communist International used them nearly seventy years ago? If my ideas really do constitute an “antique left-socialism” that belongs to “dogmatically exclusionary political movement,” then it is remarkable that Widmer can find a place on the anarchist spectrum at all for this “old socialist anarchist.”

What troubles me about this polemical strategy, as many of my current critics use it, is that by its own terms, commitment to principle comes to be chastised as “dogma”; support for revolution over reform is condemned as “sectarian”; fervent objections to opponents’ arguments are castigated as “authoritarian”; and polemical argumentation is designated as “Marxist” or “Leninist.” In my own case, even my authorship of more than a dozen books becomes evidence of my agenda to “dominate” or “master” anarchism. At the very least, such methods reflect the ugly personalism that pervades this highly individualistic and trivialized culture.

This polemical techniques and many others are also put to use in Robert C. Black’s Anarchy After Leftism, another response to SALA that is pervaded with a far more intense and personalistic vilification.[4] Black, the reader should be warned, is no mere author; he is a psychic who apparently can read my demonic mind, divine all my self-serving intentions, and unearth the Machiavellian meanings hidden in all of my writings, which are part of my devilish master plan to gain power and prestige, enrich my own wealth, and imperialistically colonize the entire anarchist scene as my own private fiefdom. Did I say that Black is a psychic? Actually, he is also an exorcist, and a cabalistic study of his book will surely free Anarchy (as distinguished from that lowly ideology “anarchism”) from the Great Bookchin Conspiracy to take over that flourishing galactic realm.

To be serious about Black’s endeavor–which his publisher, Jason McQuinn (aka Lev Chernyi) called “brilliant” in a recent issue of Anarchy–this ugly book is transparently motivated by a white-hot animosity toward me. So cynical, so manipulative, and so malicious are its invectives, even by the lowest standards of gutter journalism, that I will not dignify them with a reply. As I indicated in the subtitle to SALA, the chasm between people like this author and myself is unbridgeable.

Indeed, so numerous are the falsehoods in Black’s book that to correct even a small number of them would be a waste of the reader’s time. One sample must suffice to demonstrate the overall dishonesty of the tract. Black seems to establish early on that I am a “dean” at Goddard College (AAL, p. 18), a position that, he would have his readers believe, endows me with the very substantial income that I need in order to advance my nefarious ambitions. Consummate scholar that Black is, he sedulously documents this claim by citing Goddard College’s 1995 Off-Campus Catalog. Thereafter, throughout the book, I am referred to as “Dean Bookchin” or “the Dean,” presumably on the assumption that mere repetition will make my title a reality.[5]

Goddard’s 1995 Off-Campus Catalog is a rare document, one that even I had difficulty acquiring–a fact upon which Black is apparently relying. Those few individuals who are able to find it, however, will learn that Black’s claim is an outright fabrication. My name appears nowhere in that catalog nor in any other recent edition, for the very good reason that I ended my professional connections with Goddard College (as well as Ramapo College, which he also mentions) in 1981. Anyone who cares to find out my status as an employee of Goddard is invited to telephone the college and ask them.

Far from enjoying the material wealth that Black attributes to me, I live on a pension and Social Security, both of them paltry, supplemented by a occasional lecture fees and book advances. I shall conclude this obligatory sketch of my economic status by noting that my supplemental income has diminished considerably in recent years because the physical infirmities caused by advanced age prevent me from traveling or writing easily any longer. Some of Black’s followers will no doubt prefer to believe his statement that I am a well-to-do dean at Goddard, irrespective of the facts. I have neither the time nor the disposition to disenchant people who want to believe in his book.[6]

The Long, Dark Road Back

The second full-size book that contains a response to SALA is Beyond Bookchin: Preface to a Future Social Ecology (BB) written by David Watson (more widely known by his pseudonym George Bradford).[7] The leading writer for the Detroit anarchist periodical Fifth Estate, Watson is an individual whose writings I criticized in SALA for technophobia, anticivilizationism, primitivism, and irrationalism. In BB Watson, in turn, not only defends his positions, as he doubtless ought to do, but radically confirms my claim that the chasm between his ideas and mine is unbridgeable. Indeed, what puzzles me about his work is that he ever found my writings interesting at all, especially given our incommensurable views on technology, or that they even influenced him, as he says they did.

The fact is that BB is not merely a reply to my criticisms–it is also a sweeping critique of almost everything I have ever written. “It is the intent of this essay,” Watson declares early on, “to reveal how seriously limited Bookchin’s work was from the very beginning” (BB, p. 10, emphasis added). Nor is BB simply a sweeping critique of my work “from the very beginning”; it is a scandalous hatchet job on my thirty years of writing to create a body of ideas called social ecology. By the end of the book we learn that Watson true purpose is to “abandon [Bookchin’s] idea of social ecology” altogether (BB, p. 245). Or as Steve Welzer advises in his laudatory introduction to the book, “social ecology itself must be liberated from Bookchin” (BB, p. 4).

In this 250-page indictment, Watson pokes into the smallest crevices in my writings while omitting the aspects of my writings that, on his own admission, allowed him to set himself up as an libertarian thinker. Divesting all my writings of their contexts–spanning some forty years in social movements–he wantonly tosses together my casual observations and polemical exaggerations with my more considered writings on social theory, ecology, urban development, politics, and philosophy.

Running through almost every paragraph of Watson’s book are vituperative attacks, manic denunciations, ad hominem characterizations, and even gossipy rumors. In time, the reader becomes so drenched in Watson’s downpour of trivia, distortion, and personal venom that he or she may well lose sight of the basic differences between Watson and myself–the very issues that motivated my critique of his views in SALA.

What, after all, are the views that Watson is really trying to advance as the “future social ecology” that he advertises as an advance over my own? What precisely does it consist of? Amid the thickets, thorns, and weeds of personal invective that proliferate in Watson’s book, I find four basic tenets that he is promoting–each of which, if adopted by anarchists, would radically remove anarchism from the liberating realm of Enlightenment thought and entomb it in the mystical realm of anticivilizationism, technophobia, primitivism, and irrationalism.

Civilization and Progress

For many years, in many different essays, as I pointed out in SALA, Watson has sharply rejected civilization, presumably in its Western form (although he devotes little space to denunciations of Oriental despotisms, with their megamechanical armies of serflike gang laborers). Thus, he told us in 1991: “Civilization is coming to be regarded . . . as a maladaption of the species, a false turn or a kind of fever threatening the planetary web of life” (CIB, p. 10). It has been little more than “a labor camp from its origins” (CIB, p. 12); it is “a machine, an organization,” “a rigid pyramid of crushing hierarchies,” “a grid expanding the territory of the inorganic” (CIB, p. 12). Its “railroad leads not only to ecocide, but to evolutionary suicide” (CIB, p. 13).

Nor is it merely one or several aspects of civilization that exhibits these qualities: it is civilization as such. In 1988 he wrote that civilization is “destructive in its essence to nature and humanity” (HDDE, p. 3). In 1984 he wrote that we must be “willing to confront the entirety of this civilization and reclaim our humanity” (SDT, p. 11). While considering the mystical pap of Monica Sjoo and Barbara Mor (in their book The Great Mother Goddess) to be “fascinating,” he nonetheless reproaches them for placing quotation marks around the word civilization because it suggests “a reverse or alternative perspective on civilization rather than . . . challenge its terms altogether” (CIB, p. 14, n. 23).

Metaphors for civilization as a unitary, monolithic grid or railroad, whose nature is necessarily destructive, are shallow, unmediated, and in fact reactionary. By putting quotation marks around “civilization,” a writer can at least acknowledge civilization’s advances without accepting its abuses.[8] If Watson will not allow even this concession to civilization’s role, then it becomes clear that for him, redemption can be achieved only by regression. The rise of civilization becomes humanity’s great lapse, its Fall from Eden, and “our humanity” can be “reclaimed” only through a prelapsarian return to the lost Eden, through recovery rather than discovery–in short, through a denial of humanity’s advance beyond the horizon of prehistory.

This sort of rubbish may have been good coin in medieval monasteries. But in the late Middle Ages, few ideas in Christian theology did more to hold back advances in science and experimental research than the notion that with the Fall, humanity lost its innocence. One of the Enlightenment’s great achievements was to provide a critical perspective on the past, denouncing the taboos and shamanistic trickery that made tribal peoples the victims of unthinking custom as well as the irrationalities that kept them in bondage to hierarchy and class rule, despite its denunciations of Western cant and artificialities.

Nor does Watson have the least use for the idea of progress; indeed, he even denigrates the development of writing, disparaging the “dogma of the inherent superiority of the written tradition” over nonliteracy as “embarrassingly simplistic” (BB, p. 24) and “an imperial tale” (BB, p. 100), and praises the oral tradition. Before the written word, it should be noted, chiefs, shamans, priests, aristocrats, and monarchs possessed a free-wheeling liberty to improvise ways to require the oppressed to serve them. It was the written word, eventually, that subjected them to the restrictions of clearly worded and publicly accessible laws to which their rule, in some sense, was accountable. Writing rendered it possible for humanity to record its culture, and inscribing laws or nomoi were where all could see them remains one of the great advances of civilization. That the call for written laws as against arbitrary decisions by rulers was a age-old demand of the oppressed is easily forgotten today, when they are so readily taken for granted. When Watson argues that the earliest uses of writing were for authoritarian or instrumental purposes, he confuses the ability to write with what was actually written–and betrays an appalling lack of historical knowledge.

On the subject of modern medicine, our poet–as he styles himself–delivers himself of the sublime view that “it could conceivably [!] turn out to be medicine which extinguishes humanity rather than ecological disaster or human conflagration” (BB, p. 115). Not nuclear war? Not a terrifying and rampant epidemic? Not even “ecological disaster”–but medicine?[9]

Watson’s rejection of “civilization in bulk” and his denial of even the most obvious advances of progress leaves us with the conclusion that, for him, civilization as such must either be accepted or rejected in its entirely. Such mental rigidity, such unitary determinism, gives us no choice but to define civilization exclusively by its evils. Accordingly, while Watson concedes that my defense of civilization’s achievements “might represent in some sense what is ‘best’ in Western culture,” ideas of civilization and progress “have also typically served as core mystifications concealing what is worst” (BB, p. 9). For Watson, then, the idea of progress is merely a cover-up for the sins of civilization.

That the “official story” of progress contains both good and evil, indeed that civilization is “Janus-faced” (RS, p. 180) and constitutes a subtle dialectic between a “legacy of freedom” and a “legacy of domination” (which I elaborated for nearly fifty pages in The Ecology of Freedom) is conveniently ignored in Watson’s discussion of this subject. Instead, he debases my account of civilization’s substance and form, divests my discussion of history’s interacting dialectic of all its development, flesh, bone, and blood, leaving only a straw man: a blind champion of all aspects of civilization, the unmediated reverse of his own radically simplistic rejection.

Which is not to say that Watson is unaware of his butchery of ideas; much later in his book, and in an entirely different context, he lets slip the fact that I see the “city” as “Janus faced . . . in its look toward the prospect of a common humanity as well as in its look toward barbarities in the name of progress” (BB, p. 171; quoting RS, p. 180). Unfortunately, in the original passage from which he draws this quote, I wrote that “civilization,” not the “city,” is Janus-faced–a distortion should warn Watson’s readers about the need to refer back to my writings whenever he undertakes to quote from me.

Having inserted this misquotation at the book’s end, Watson feels free to describe me as the “lone defender of civilization” (BB, p. 7), at the very beginning the book. This honor, however, is too great for me to bear alone. I must share my laurels with Lewis Mumford, who (even more than Langdon Winner, Lao-Tzu, and Fredy Perlman) seems to be the supreme guru of Watson’s “future social ecology.” As it turns out, Mumford also posited a dual legacy for civilization–and, like Mor and Sjoo, put quotation marks around “civilization” to cite one of them.[10]

In fact, Mumford explicitly condemned anticivilizationist positions like the one Watson espouses, describing them as a “nihilist reaction.” “The threatened annihilation of man by his favored technological and institutional automatisms,” he once lamented, “. . . has in turn brought about an equally devastating counter-attack–an attack against civilization itself.“[11] Mumford bluntly repudiated “the notion that in order to avoid the predictable calamities that the power complex is bringing about, one must destroy the whole fabric of historic civilization and begin all over again on an entirely fresh foundation.”[12] He objected to “a revolt against all historic culture–not merely against an over-powered technology and an over-specialized, misapplied intelligence, but against any higher manifestations of the mind.”[13]

The only person here who would seem to have difficulty accepting the existence of ambiguities in civilization appears to be Watson himself, the unwavering denouncer “civilization in bulk.”


If Watson claims that the good that civilization offers is merely a veil for its evils, it is not likely that he and I will ever agree on so provocative an issue as technology. My conviction is that productive and communications technologies will be needed by a rational society in order to free humanity from the toil and the material uncertainties (as well as natural ones) that have in the past shackled the human spirit to a nearly exclusive concern for subsistence. Watson, by contrast, is an outright technophobe.

What makes this disagreement particularly abrasive, however, is his persistent tendency to misrepresent my views. Consider, for example, his assertion that because my “notion of social evolution is clearly linked [!] to technological development and an expansion of production” (BB, p. 96), I am an icy technocrat who rhapsodizes about the technics of the “megamachine,” especially the chemical and nuclear industries.[14] Watson, who seems to have difficulty acknowledging the existence even of a mere “link,” as he puts it, between technological and social development, performs the kind of fabrication at which he excels and turns a “link” into sufficient cause:

Only [!] technological development, [Bookchin] says, would bring “a balance . . . between a sufficiency of the means of life, a relative freedom of time to fulfill one’s abilities in the most advanced levels of human achievement, a degree of self-consciousness, complementarity, and reciprocity that can be called truly human in full recognition of humanity’s potentialities” [EF: 67-68]. (BB, p. 96)

In fact, the reader who consults the whole passage from which Watson has cynically clipped this quotation will find that I made no statement that “technological development” alone creates these marvels. Quite to the contrary, by inserting the word “only” and clipping the words after “balance,” Watson distorts my claim. What I actually wrote was not that technology will bring such a “balance” but that a “balance must be struck between a sufficiency of the means of life” and self-consciousness, complementarity, reciprocity, and so on. That is, technological development, far from “bringing” these features, must “strike a balance” with them!

The same misquoted passage from The Ecology of Freedom leads into a discussion of the fact that material scarcity is not only the result of physically limiting conditions but is also “socially induced” and “may occur even when technical development seems to render material scarcity completely unwarranted. . . . A society that has enlarged the cultural goals of human life may generate material scarcity even when the technical conditions exist for achieving outright superfluity in the means of life” (EF, p. 68, emphases added). Expressed in more general terms: technics is a necessary condition for progress, but it is not a sufficient one. Let emphasize quite strongly, as I have repeatedly argued, that without moral, intellectual, cultural, and, yes, spiritual progress, a rational society will be impossible to achieve.

In the same passage, I then went on to discuss the “fetishization of needs” that capitalism creates, and which a rational society would eliminate. That is, capitalism creates artificial needs by making people feel they must buy the most status-elevating motor vehicle or the fastest computer in the market.

Watson’s distortion of my views cannot be written off as accidental; indeed, it is hard to believe that it is not cynically deliberate, leading me to conclude that he is a demagogue who regards his readers as gullible fools.

What is basic to my views is that the ecological crisis is more the result of the capitalist economy, with its grow-or-die imperatives, than of technology or “mass technics.” Capitalist enterprise employs technologies to produce on a wide scale for the market, but in the end these technologies remain the instruments of capitalism, not its motor, amplifying the effects of a grow-or-die economy that is ruinous to the natural world. Yet as devastating as the effects of technology can be when driven to maximum use by capitalist imperatives, technologies on their own could not have provided the imperatives that produced the ecological damage we are now witnessing.

Nor do the technologies that capitalism drives to the point of wreaking ecological destruction need always be sophisticated industrial ones. The romantic heaths of Yorkshire that excite such wonder in travelers today were once covered by stately forests that were subsequently cut down to produce the charcoal that fueled the making of metals even before capitalist development in Britain got under way. European entrepreneurs in North America used mere axes, adzes, and hammers to clear forested land. A nearly Neolithic technology deforested much of Europe in the late Middle Ages, well in advance of the “megamachine” and the impacts Watson assigns to it.

To distinguish his own view of the relationship between technology, capitalism, and the rest of society from mine, Watson turns philosophical. He disparages my ostensibly simplistic ways of thinking in favor of his supposedly more dialectical mental processes. I am not at all sure what Watson thinks dialectics is; instead of standing on his own philosophical ground, he turns to John Clark for a quick philosophy lesson. Clark, whose philosophical insights I have always found to be less than trenchant, advises Watson that mere causal notions, presumably of the kind I advance concerning capitalism, are “uni-directional.” Dialectics, he advises us, must instead be understood in the following terms: “If the [social] totality is taken as the whole of society, rather than the superstructure, and if reciprocity is extended to encompass all relations, including the economic ones, then this represents a model for a dialectical social theory in the full sense” (quoted in BB, p. 157; emphasis added). Put in less pompous language: We can identify no single cause as more compelling than others; rather, all possible factors are mutually determining.

This morass of “reciprocity,” in which everything in the world is in a reciprocal relationship with everything else, is precisely what dialectical causality is not, unless we want to equate dialectics with chaos. Dialectics is a philosophy of development, not of mutually determining factors in some kind of static equilibrium. Although on some remote level, everything does affect everything else, some things are in fact very significantly more determining than others. Particularly in social and historical phenomena, some causes are major, while others are secondary and adventitious. Dialectical causality focuses on what is essential in producing change, on the underlying motivating factors, as distinguished from the incidental and auxiliary. In a forest ecocommunity, for example, all species may affect all others, however trivially, but some–the most numerous trees, for example–are far more prominent than the ferns at their base in determining the nature of that forest.

In Clark’s befuddled understanding of dialectic, however, a potpourri of causes are so “interrelated” (a magic word in modern ecobabble) with one another that major and secondary causes are impossible to distinguish. Watson nonetheless accepts Clark’s wild mix of “reciprocity” not only as serious thinking but as true dialectics and blandly incorporates it into his own position on technics. “It makes no sense,” he sagaciously muses, “to layer the various elements of this process in a mechanistic [!] hierarchy of first [!] cause and secondary effects”–that is, to assign greater potency to either capitalism or even technology as generating the ecological crisis. “There is no simple or single etiology to this plague, but a synergy of vectors” (BB, p. 128).

Watson then goes on to offer us his version of a “synergy of vectors”: the megamachine. This is a concept he borrows from Mumford, in which technics, economics, politics, the military, bureaucracy, ideology, and the like are all one giant monolithic “machine,” all of them so closely interrelated as to be causally indistinguishable. In this universe etiology is indeed meaningless; everything is the “synergy of vectors” known as the megamachine.

Still, in some passages of BB, etiology sneaks back into Watson’s rarefied dialectical cogitations: “Technology also forms a matrix,” (BB, p. 125), he tells us, “by way of a synergistic tendency to reshape the pattern within which it emerged” (BB, p. 125). Not only do “technological relations” (whatever they may be) “shape human action”(BB, p. 120), but in some societies “technology has thoroughly shaped and redefined the social imaginary” (BB, p. 124).

Far from advancing a “synergy of vectors,” in fact, Watson advances a very clear “etiology,” with one very clear determining cause: technology. A decade and a half of Watson’s writings show that he has been consistent (might one even say dogmatic?) on this score:

“The technological apparatus has transformed human relations entirely, recreating us in its image.” (ATM, p.5)

“Technology is not a tool but an environment, a totality of means enclosing us in its automatism of need and production and the geometric runaway of its own development.” (SDT, p. 11)

Our “form of social organization, an interconnection and stratification of tasks and authoritarian command” is “necessitated by the enormity and complexity of the modern technological system in all of its activities. (SDT, p. 11)

“The direction of governance flows from the technical conditions to people and their social arrangements, not the other way around. What we find, then, is not a tool waiting passively to be used but a technical ensemble that demands routinized behavior.” (Winner quoted in SDT, p. 11)

Mass technics is “a one-way barrage of mystification and control.” (SDT, p. 11)

“Mass technics have become . . . ‘structures whose conditions of operation demand the restructuring of their environments.'” (Winner quoted in SIH, p. 10)

These quotations give “uni-directional” determinism a bad name. So habituated is Watson to making such all-encompassing statements that, even while he was writing BB, he sometimes forgot about Clarkean “dialectics.” Technology, he writes, “bring[s] . . . about imperatives unanticipated by their creators, which is to say: technological means come with their own repertoire of ends” (BB, p. 120; the emphases here and in the next paragraphs are mine). “Technicization” is “now extinguishing vast skeins in the fabric of life” (BB, p. 126). The technological system “requires” people to operate within it (BB, p. 143). Technics makes “hierarchy, specialization, and stratified, compartmentalized organizational structures . . . inescapable” (BB, p. 144).

A similar intellectually paralyzing reductionism is also reflected in passages Watson quotes from other authors. Jacques Ellul is trotted in to say that technology is establishing “a new totality” (BB, p. 144). Ivan Illich remarks on “the industrially determined shape of our expectations” (BB, p. 142). Langdon Winner observes that all tools “evoke a necessary reaction from the person using them” (BB, p. 126) and that “the technical ensemble demands routinized behavior” (144). And:

“Ultimately,” [Winner] explains, “the steering is inherent in the functioning of socially organized technology itself,” which is to say that the owners and bosses must steer at the controls their technology provides. As the monster says to Doctor Frankenstein, “You are my creator, but I am your master.” (BB, p. 143)[15]

Not only does Watson single out technology as a determining cause, he explicitly regards capitalism as secondary, a mere expression of a supposed technological imperative. “Market capitalism,” he writes, “has been everywhere the vehicle for a mass megatechnic civilization” (BB, p. 126). Accordingly, it is not simply “capitalist greed” that produces oil spills; “not only capitalist grow-or-die economic choices, but the very nature of the complex petrochemical grid itself makes disasters inevitable” (BB, p. 120).

I have often written that, because capitalism is still developing so rapidly, we cannot be sure what actually constitutes mature capitalism. Watson puts his own spin on my formulation and offers a redefinition of capitalism that is so broad as it strip it of its specific features and submerge it to the megamachine altogether:

We need a larger definition of capitalism that encompasses not only market relations and the power of bourgeois and bureaucratic elites [!] but the very structure and content of mass technics, reductive rationality and the universe they establish; the social imaginaries of progress, growth, and efficiency; the growing power of the state; and the materialization, objectifications and quantification of nature, culture and human personality. (BB, p. 126)

So much is included within this “larger” definition of capitalism that capitalism in its specificity and in all its phases is completely lost. Elsewhere, in a quintessential example of his obscurantism, Watson tells us with finality: “Technology is capital” (ATM, p. 5).

Farewell to two centuries of political economy and debates over the nature of capitalism: over whether it is a social relation (Marx), machines and labor (Smith and Ricardo), a mere factor of production (neo-capitalist economists) or, most brilliantly, the teeth of a tiger (H. G. Wells)! Farewell to the class struggle! Farewell to an economics of social and class relations! When Watson slows down his dervishlike whirl and gives us a chance to examine his ecstatic spinning, we find that it leads to the elimination of the social question itself, as a century of socialist thought called it. Watson is now here to apprise us that the great conflict that has beleaguered history is not really workers and bosses, or between subjects and elites. Fools that we have been–it is between human beings and their machines! Machines are not the embodiment of alienated labor but in fact the “social imaginary” that looms over them and control their lives! And all this time, Marx, Bakunin, Kropotkin, et al. foolishly labored under the illusion that the social question stems from exploitation and domination, scarcity and toil.

If my conclusion seems overstated, then I would suggest that readers follow Watson himself down into his dark valley of technological absurdity. Approvingly quoting Langdon Winner, Watson enjoins us to practice “epistemological luddism” as a “method of inquiry” (BB, p. 132). To those who notice that these phrases are empty, Watson concedes that they are “inchoate and embryonic” (BB, p. 132)–so why present them? But only three paragraphs later, we learn that Watson’s luddism is not merely “epistemological” or a “method of inquiry.” Rather, it is a concrete agenda. We will require, he enjoins, “a careful negotiation with technics” and (approvingly quoting the mystic Theodore Roszak) “the selective reduction of industrialism” (BB, p. 133).

Roszak, at least, was sensible enough to speak of a selective reduction of industrialism. For Watson, however, selectivity all but disappears, and his “negotiated” dismantling of industry becomes nothing less than spectacular. “Let’s begin dismantling the noxious structures,” he has enjoined; “let’s deconstruct the technological world” (BPA, p. 26). We have to “dismantle mass technics” (SIH, p. 11)–that is to say, all those “vectors” that make up the “megamachine” and civilization.

What is Watson’s opening “negotiating” position? For the most part, in his other writings, he has long avoided naming which technologies he would keep and which he would dispose of, even airily disparaging the question. But for one who wishes to “negotiate,” the necessity for him to identify technologies he favors and disfavors should be self-evident. These other writings give us some idea of Watson’s alternative to the cage of megamechanical civilization.

“Let’s reforest and refarm the cities,” he counsels; “no more building projects, giant hospitals, no more road repair” (BPA, p. 26). I may be simple-minded, but this seems to be a call to pull down cities and reduce them to forests and farmland. In the absence of cities and roads, Watson seems to want us to return to small-scale farming, “a clear context where small scale, the ‘softness’ of technics, labor-intensiveness, and technical limits all crucially matter” (BB, p. 138). Clearly tractors and the like will be excluded–they are clearly products of the megamachine. But I would hope Watson’s brave new world will not be so extreme as to exclude the plow and horses–or are we being domineering if we put horses into harnesses?

“Stop the exponential growth of information, pull the plug on the communications system” (BPA, p. 26). We would thus have to eliminate computers and telecommunications; farewell, too, to telegraphs, radios, and telephones! It is just as well we do so, since Watson doesn’t understand telephones: the work of telephone line workers, he says, is “a mystery” to him (BB, p. 146). So good riddance! He has also written that “the wheel is not an extension of the foot, but a simulation which destroys the original” (MCGV, p. 11, emphasis added). So away with the wheel! Away with everything that “simulates” feet! And who knows–away with the potter’s wheel, which is a “simulation” of the hand!

As to energy sources, Watson really puts us in a pickle. He disapproves of “the elaborate energy system required to run” household appliances and other machines, since it renders people “dependent” (Christopher Lasch quoted in BB, p. 141). So–away with the mass generation of electricity, and every machine that runs on it! Needless to say, all fossil as well as nuclear fuels will have to go. Perhaps we could turn to renewable energy as an alternative–but no, Watson has also voiced his sovereign disapproval of “solar, wind and water technologies” as products of “an authoritarian and hierarchical division of labor” (NST, p. 4). All of this leaves us with little more than our own muscles to power our existence. Yes, “revolution will be a kind of return” (BB, p. 140), indeed!

To be sure, we will eliminate such noxious products of the megamachine as weapons, but if we also dispense with roads (clearly if we do not repair them, they will disappear), typewriters and computers (except the computer owned by Fifth Estate, presumably, for otherwise how will Watson’s golden words reach the public?), any form of mechanical agriculture (which Watson seems to confuse with agribusiness), et cetera ad nauseam. The reader has only to walk through his or her home, look into each room, and peer into closets and medicine chests and kitchen cabinets, to see what would be surrendered in the kind of technological world that Watson would “negotiate” with industrialism.

Let it be noted, however, that a return to the economic conditions of twelfth-century Europe would hardly create a paradise. Somehow, even in the absence of advanced technology to generate them, oppressive social relations still existed in this technological idyll. Somehow feudal hierarchies of the most oppressive kind (in no way modeled on ecclesiastical hierarchies, let alone “shaped” by technology) superimposed themselves. Somehow the peasant-serfs who were ruled and coerced by barons, counts, kings, and their bureaucratic and military minions failed to realize that they were free of the megamachine’s oppressive impact. Yet they were so unecological as to drain Europe’s mosquito-infested swamps and burn its forests to create meadows and open farmland. Happily spared the lethal effects of modern medicine, they usually died very early in life of famine, epidemic disease, and other lethal agents.

Given the demands of highly labor-intensive farming, what kind of free time, in the twelfth century, did small-scale farmers have? If history is any guide, it was a luxury they rarely enjoyed, even during the agriculturally dormant winters. During the months when farmers were not tilling the land and harvesting its produce, they struggled endlessly to make repairs, tend animals, perform domestic labor, and the like. And they had the wheel! It is doubtful that, under such circumstances, much time would have been left over for community meetings, let alone the creation of art and poetry.

Doubtless they sowed, reaped, and did their work joyously, as I pointed out in The Ecology of Freedom. The workman’s song–proletarian, peasant, and artisan–expresses the joy of self-expression through work. But this does not mean that work, bereft of machinery, is an unadulterated blessing or that it is not exhausting or monotonous. There is a compelling word for arduous labor: toil! Without an electric grid to turn night into day, active life is confined to daylight hours, apart from what little illumination can be provided by candles. (Dare I introduce such petroleum derivatives as kerosene?) It is one of the great advances of the modern world that the most arduous and monotonous labor can often be performed entirely by machines, potentially leaving human beings free to engage in many different tasks and artistic activities, such as those Charles Fourier described for his utopian phalansteries.

But as soon as I assign to technology the role of producing a society free of want and toil, Watson takes up the old dogmatic saw and condemns it to perdition as “the familiar marxist version” (BB, p. 129). Watson may enjoy appealing to unthinking political reflexes that date back to the Marx-Bakunin battles of the First International, but the merit of an idea interests me more than its author. Instead of directly addressing the problem of scarcity and toil in any way, however, Watson settles the issue, at least in his own mind, by quoting his guru, Lewis Mumford: “The notion that automation gives any guarantee of human liberation is a piece of wishful thinking” (quoted in BB, p. 130)–as though a technological advance in itself were a “guarantee” of anything under capitalism, apart from more exploitation and destruction. (It is astonishing that one has to explain this concept to a former Trotskyite like Watson, who should have some knowledge of Marx’s ideas.)

Alas, Mumford does not serve him well. In The Pentagon of Power (the same work from which Watson quotes), Mumford himself actually gives what Watson would be obliged to dismiss as “the familiar marxist version.” Mumford notes, first quoting from an unattributed source:

“The negative institutions . . . would never have endured so long but for the fact that their positive goods, even though they were arrogated to the use of the dominant minority, were ultimately at the service of the whole community, and tended to produce a universal society of far higher potentialities, by reason of its size and diversity.” If that observation held true at the beginning, it remains even more true today, now that this remarkable technology has spread over the whole planet. The only way effectively to overcome the power system is to transfer its more helpful agents to an organic complex.[16]

Elsewhere in the same book, speaking of “the decrepit institutional complex one can trace back at least to the Pyramid age,” Mumford says that “what modern technology has done is . . . . rehabilitate it, perfect it, and give it a global distribution.” Then, more significantly: “The potential benefits of this system, under more humane direction” are “immense.” Indeed, elsewhere he speaks of “our genuine technological advances.”[17] Now what does Watson have to say about that?

How should the technological level of a free society be determined? Watson’s thoughts on this question are such as to render his libertarian views on technics and human needs more authoritarian than is immediately evident. Suppose, for example, that nonindustrialized and even tribal people actually want not only wheels, roads, and electric grids, but even the material goods, such as computers and effective medications, that people in industrialized countries enjoy–not least of all, Watson himself and the Fifth Estate collective. I have argued in The Ecology of Freedom that no one, particularly in a consumption-oriented country such as the United States, has any right to bar nonindustrialized societies from choosing the way of life they wish. I would hope that they would make their choices with full awareness of the ecological and even psychological consequences of consumption as an end in itself, which have been amply demonstrated for them by the course of developed nations; and I would engage in a concerted effort to persuade all peoples of the world to live according to sound ecological standards. But it would be their indubitable right to acquire what they believe they need, without anyone else dictating what they should or should not acquire.

Not only is my proposal intolerable in Watson’s eyes, he cannot even paraphrase it correctly. He must distort it in order to make it seem ridiculous: “What are we to make of the proposal to develop mass technics and a combination consumer-producer utopia [!] in order to reject them?” (BB, p. 107). The implication of this distortion is, I believe, that poor societies must develop capitalism and technology in order to know the consequences of doing so, irrespective of the fact that the consequences of doing so are quite clear and the information is widely available, not least of all because of communications technology.

For Watson, however, the ecological crisis to be too urgent to wait for a policy as slow as mine. “Neither ecological wisdom nor the health of the planet can wait for this grotesque overindulgence [that I supposedly advocate] to have its curative effect,” he firmly declares (BB, p. 108). How, then, would our lifestyle anarchist handle this very real problem himself? He doesn’t tell us, but he does call on people in the industrialized countries to seek “a new relationship to the phenomenal world–something akin to what [Marshall] Sahlins calls ‘a Zen road to affluence, departing from premises somewhat different from our own'” (BB, p. 108). May I suggest that this is dodging the issue? If the urgency of resolving the ecological crisis is the paramount factor, Watson’s own solution would seem rather inadequate as well, requiring as it does an ethereal spiritual revolution on the basis of one-by-one conversion. Nor is such an approach likely to succeed, any more than Christianity succeeded in creating a loving, self-sacrificing, and all-forgiving world in two thousand years of one-by-one conversions–and the Church, at least, promised pie in the sky (as the old IWW song has it) in the next world if not in this one.

As for people in the industrial-capitalist world, Watson, who has tried to prejudice his readers against my views as “marxist,” “authoritarian,” and “dogmatic,” suddenly mutates into an ideological despot in his own right. He finds it inconceivable that people could actually make conscious decisions about the use of technology, still less place moral constraints upon it. Quite to contrary, inasmuch as, in his view, technology governs people rather than the other way around, we can scarcely hope to spring the trap and decide for ourselves. Watson ridicules the notion that “a moral society . . . could sit down and decide how to ‘use'” a technology (bioengineering is cited here) “without catastrophic results” (BB, p. 125). He arrogantly forecloses democratic decision-making by ordinary people on the proper use of advanced technologies, because open civic discussions would “inevitably” result in “compliance with the opinion of experts” and “would of necessity be based on persuasion and faith” (BB, pp. 146-47, emphasis added). Lest we have any doubt that Watson means what he says, he reiterates the same disdainful view: “It’s ludicrous [!] to think that citizen assemblies could make informed decisions about chemical engineering strategies, communications grids, and complicated technical apparatus” (BB, p. 180).

One may modestly ask: why should this be “ludicrous”? Expert knowledge is by no means necessary to make general decisions about the uses of technology: a reasonable level of ordinary competence on the part of citizens is usually quite adequate. In fact, today legislators at the local, state, and national levels make such decisions every day, and ordinary people can clearly do the same. Watson’s argument that such decisions are beyond the ken of ordinary people is (possibly unknown to him) precisely the argument that Lenin advanced in 1918 against workers’ control of factories (which, of course, Watson would abandon wholesale) and in favor of one-man management (to use Bolshevik terminology). Does our poetic lifestyler really have so little faith in the competence of ordinary people? Doubtless workers, technicians, and farmers need someone with higher wisdom–perhaps Watson himself–to specify their appropriate level of technology for them?

Actually, Watson seems to be suffering from a memory lapse. Somewhat later in his book he gives us the very opposite message, notably that “people have the capacity, in fact the duty to make rational and ethical choices about technics” (BB, p. 203). How, then, will they avoid all the “inevitable” and “necessary” obstacles that Watson himself earlier raised? One gets the distinct impression that, no matter what specific issue us under discussion, if I say yea, Watson is certain to say nay–even if it means he must reverse himself on a later occasion.


There is nothing new about the romanticization of tribal peoples. Two centuries ago, denizens of Paris, from Enlighteners such as Denis Diderot to reactionaries like Marie Antoinette, created a cult of “primitivism” that saw tribal people as morally superior to members of European society, who presumably were corrupted by the vices of civilization. This romanticization later infected not only the early nineteenth-century Romantics but thinkers so disparate as Marx and Engels, Jacob Bachofen and Lewis Morgan. These and others who wistfully thought that humanity had exiled itself from a benign, “matriarchal,” caring, and cooperative world to a civilization filled with immoral and egoistic horrors.

The more urbanized and suburbanized bourgeois culture of the 1960s was far from immune to this trend. During the 1960s anthropologists celebrated the “noble savage” in his or her pristine paradise, which more than ever seemed like a refuge, however imaginary, for jaded urban (and suburban) dwellers of the industrial capitalist world. Inhabitants of American cities and suburbs, from San Francisco to New York, were completely enchanted by myths of primal naiveté, particularly members of the youth culture, which stressed the virtues of innocence and passivity and harbored a basic sympathy for “noble savage” anthropology.

This anthropology, contrary to less sanguine views of primitive lifeways, argued that foraging peoples were compelled to work at hunting and food-gathering for only a few hours each day. Wrote anthropologists Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore:

Even some of the “marginal” hunters studied by ethnographers actually work short hours and exploit abundant food sources. Several hunting peoples lived well on two to four hours of subsistence effort.