Biehl breaks with social ecology

[The following was left as a comment on the ISE Blog’s initial post “Announcing the New ISE Blog.” Re-published here as a blog post with permission from the author.]

Eric Jacobson

Dear Eric,

Thanks for your invitation to participate in the discussion on the ISE blog. I’ve had no contact with you for the past two decades, so in the process of replying, l’ll have to bring you up to date on a few things.

The short version is: the ISE blog is a venue for people who identify as social ecologists. I am no longer such a person.

Yes, during the 1990s I wrote books and articles advocating social ecology and defending it against its critics. I loved and lived with a notable social ecologist for almost twenty years. During the fireworks of the 1990s, after Murray retired from active political work, he and I collaborated in writing, editing, transcribing, translating, and researching at the same time as we had to answer one incoming round of criticism after another. It was arduous and frenetic beyond belief. I took a lot of heat for defending him and social ecology, but if I had to do it all over again, I would.

As you know, I wrote a book summarizing Libertarian Municipalism, whose purpose was to appeal to anarchists. At the end of the 1990s, at a series of conferences and in other settings, anarchists on an international scale decisively rejected LM. At that point, Murray chose to depart from the anarchist tradition and anchor it in a different tradition, communalism. I understood and sympathized with his choice, but I made a different one: I reverted to my pre-1987 political identity, which was what leftists call a social democrat. I told Murray about it, no one else, but it didn’t much matter because 2000-2006 was a period of political inactivity for both of us, as we finished The Third Revolution and his other final writings, and he entered his decline, while I cared for him.

After Murray’s death, out of loyalty to him, I kept a low profile on my changed political views; out of loyalty to myself, I avoided advocating social ecology (although I admit to some backsliding, as old habits died hard). As I had promised him I would, I became his biographer, writing “Bookchin Breaks with Anarchism,” “Bookchin’s Originality,” the recent pamphlet, and the forthcoming full biography (which I hope to finish later this year).

Meanwhile, as American social and economic life has been undergoing turmoil and regression, I found the antistatism of social ecology/viz. communalism paralyzing. In order to at least adhere to the appearance of antistatism, I had to stifle myself politically. (At least in the solitude of a voting booth I could vote for Obama.) But in the fall of 2010, when a Democratic candidate for governor ran on a platform to bring single-payer healthcare to the state of Vermont I could not longer suppress myself. I crossed the thin black line and … did volunteer work for this candidate. Shortly afterward I began “coming out” to my social ecology friends. Fortunately they have mostly taken it in stride, and I remain on good terms with most; my friends at New Compass, for example, continue to publish my writings in areas where we overlap.

Murray developed social ecology in the postwar era, when moving the social agenda forward in a radical way seemed possible. Utopianism, he said, not only possible but necessary. Today it may still be necessary, but it seems very far from possible. The champions of antistatism today are Wall Street, gigantic financial institutions, multinational corporations. The Koch Brothers are the great success story of American libertarianism, champing at the bit to undo the social safety net that progressive people in the twentieth century struggled to create. (Other forces subservient to capital are cutting social programs in Europe and the U.K.) In the coming months the Republicans in Congress are going to put Medicaid and Medicare on the chopping block. Many real people—not theoretical people in the pages of theoretical articles, but real people–are suffering now from the untrammeled financial royalism of Wall Street and will suffer more when they lose the social programs. I fail to see how an antistatist practice can address this ominous situation constructively. What does make sense to me, mundane as you may think it, is a rearguard fight to preserve the social programs. So no, I will not form a study group to smash the state; I will march to defend Medicare and Medicaid. I am not an antistatist—be it anarchist, communalist, or social ecologist; I am a social democrat and make no apologies for it.

I understand that people who identify as social ecologists have expressed their desire, on the ISE blog, to see social ecology changed. It’s not my affair. For me personally—and I emphasize personally–social ecology will always remain in my memory as Murray defined it, and as I fought for it for fifteen years. I don’t expect anyone else to agree with me or share this attitude; nor do I ask them to.

From childhood Murray struggled to build a revolutionary movement that could create a rational, ecological society, but at the end of his life he knew he had failed. A lifetime of boundless energy, charismatic orations, patient exposition of ideas, several teaching positions including a full professorship, indefatigable lecture tours, endless writing—none of it bore results that even began to fulfill his vision. His consolation, in his last years, was the integrity, coherence, and (my word) beauty of the ideas and histories in a couple of shelves worth of books. He was proud of them, rightly. As the era in which he wrote them recedes in time, I do him the courtesy and pay him the respect of leaving that creation intact. Knowing that people regard me still as a social ecologist, I prefer to step outside that body of ideas altogether, rather than confuse matters by dragging the label through my subsequent political peregrinations. I ask and expect no social ecologists to make the choice I have made.

Least of all do I participate any more in intramural discussions and debates among antistatists. So: from my perch outside the boundaries of you discussion, I wish social ecologists of the ISE well in your rethinking.

Janet Biehl
Burlington, Vermont
April 14, 2011

14 Replies to “Biehl breaks with social ecology”

  1. Janet, this is the right thing to do. To step up and declare your new ideas and orientation. My respect and love don’t change.

    Just one thing: I think that this conflict between statism and anti-statism is a burden for the Left. “Collectivism” is not a revolutionary choice against “individualism”. Social democracy and (neo)liberalism are two sides of the same coin. That is the failure of the Left and the growth of the peculiar dynamic of capital. The “statism” in Europe and “antistatism” in US are both sad cases but full of potentialities too. I am not saying that I have a better view on this issue. I feel trapped in these contradictions. But I embrace them.

  2. It was wrong to try to appeal so much to anarchists with LM. I know that many corrections came at a later time, that communalists departed from the anarchist tradition but we lost much time with making these corrections known.
    Libertarian municipalism is much connected with the traditions of social ecology and libertarian communism, much more than with the tradition of anarchism. This makes it strong and vulnerable at the same time. Strong because it contains very good ideas, weak because it is a marginal phenomenon.
    How much influence did leftist communalism, social ecology, anarchist communism and libertarian marxism have as currents in world history? Not much and this is what makes them vulnerable.
    What we need now, I think, is some good writings and discussions that make clear what the history of libertarian communism is about. A good introduction to libertarian communism in several languages would be good for example, while making clear that the ideas of communalism have recently played an important role in this current.
    I don’t fully understand what the politics of Janet are about today but I don’t see much future in participating in elections without clear, radical programs that put the Left back on the map in the world and have nothing to do with the vague, pessimistic and “realistic” ideas of the Center Left.
    I don’t see Wall Street, gigantic financial institutions, multinational corporations as champions of antistatism either. They benefit much from the existence of States that support capitalism.

  3. I believe I understand where Janet is coming from. I also voted for Obama in 2008, whether I vote for him again in 2012 is doubtful. I will probably vote for the Green Party candidate for president, since it’s doubtful the state I live in (Indiana) will come anywhere close to going for Obama again. We live in an era where the right-wing is on steroids in their assualt on social programs that assist the poor and middle-class. We have to be realistic in countering this. Although I still consider myself an anarchist at heart, I will counter them by any means necesary – whether by protest or even voting Democratic when practical. The other side (the proto-fascists) are going to vote. They have already transformed the once Party of Lincoln into the fascist Party of Jefferson Davis.

  4. Although I have a different perspective than Janet, and still think of myself as an anti-statist revolutionary, I very much respect her statement and her decision to pursue her convictions in a way that seems right to her. I would imagine that she made her break with social ecology with a heavy heart and after a great deal of serious reflection. I am also glad that she has shared some of her thinking with the blog.

    For my sake, I would like to help build upon Murray’s legacy and renew his project on slightly different terms. This is why I find value in discussing his work and critically exploring what is and is not pertinent in it.

    I think Janet raises (at least) two very important points that should be part of any discussion about how to build upon what Murray left us.

    First, she acknowledges that Murray failed in his life work. She writes: “From childhood Murray struggled to build a revolutionary movement that could create a rational, ecological society, but at the end of his life he knew he had failed.”

    I began my “Being a Bookchinite” essay with the same fact and I think this is significant. It is important not because we should denigrate or diminish Murray in any way; on the contrary, it is a way to honor and do justice to his life work. That is, he never set out to be a bourgeois professor, or a gadfly, or to “have an influence” on liberal thinkers and policy makers. He set out to build a revolutionary movement and gave his life to that task more fully and more selflessly than anyone I have had the privilege to meet. So, when we think of Murray, let us not equivocate about his aims, even if that means recognizing that he failed. He had the courage to try and we should have the courage to remember his life in its complexity, even if that forces us to confront questions that are painful or hard to unravel.

    Second, Janet mentions that her concern for various concrete, material reforms (healthcare, etc) expedited or prompted her departure from social ecology. Although I have a different perspective on the viability of social democracy, I very much share her interest in social reforms and hope that our capacity (or incapacity) to concretely mitigate injustice and inequality can be part of our critical discussions about our work. I am not content with designing abstract “programs” that have no chance of being instituted——we need to look at what effect we are actually having on the world (and who is actually a part of our groups). I think that Murray did not do this as effectively as he could have and sometimes explained his own marginality by faulting the times (i.e., calling them “counter-revolutionary”) or by faulting his critics (i.e., calling them “irrational”) when, in fact, a confrontation with his own relative marginality could have prompted useful but critical insights into his own efforts.

    I won’t say more for now, but I very much appreciate this discussion and the sincerity and clarity with which Janet has made her statement.

  5. 1. There does not exist a United Federation of Anarchists, and;

    2. If there did, they could maintain and constitute a plurality and continuity of transitional ideological scenarios.

    3. This being so, Social Ecology itself, in my opinion, should retain the form which is yet undefined and more inclusive than simply one potential variation of the localized and situational political approach towards Universal Comprehension, Liberation, and Equality.

  6. At first a little disappointed but understanding of Janet’s post, I’m convinced that Social Ecology is more relevant today than it has ever been.

    Not ever knowing Murray and being somewhat new to Social Ecology it seems to me from reading Murray’s books, especially the Ecology of Freedom, he would want Social Ecology to live on, grow and evolve even after his death. For whatever reason, there seemed to be a Social Ecology lull between Murray’s death and until now.

    Now the idea’s of Social Ecology are becoming more and more important. Just a few months ago I was wondering if the Institute of Social Ecology was still around. This website and the dialog shows that there is still interest in furthering Social Ecology.

    I think there is a lot of talk on the Left about a post-capitalist society and what to put into its place. The dilemma that the Left and Radicals always run into is how to implement the changes and the obstacles in place. It seems to me, Social Ecology is on the right path but it can’t just stop at Murray. We have to move it forward and build upon its ideas.

    Social Ecology’s ideas need to expand into everyday conversations. There is a stigma associated with all Left Radical thought, which we need to break. Why are aren’t we having more serious conversations about Marxism, Anarchism and Communalism? We cannot let our radical ideas sit comfortably in our minds. We need to discuss. We need to debate. We need to open a dialog, which I am happy to see this site do, but the discussion cannot stop here.

    No doubt we have a tough road ahead. We need to act for people to react. We need to show people that Social Ecology is a serious alternative to the status quo. If we do not have real solutions to people’s real problems, we will never gain much traction.

  7. Dear Janet,

    I was freshly inspired by the film of Murray’s oration to students that you recently posted on Facebook and wanted to thank you for doing that. He was truly the greatest speaker of all time.
    I was preparing a 1/2 hour speech to a Philosophical Society which for the first time spells out the connection between the principles expounded by Murray, Noam and Karl Linn and the facts of the ecological crisis, all this and my urban design theory which responded to them. Or rather, as I finally realize, my theory is a Utopian dream describing a vision of a communalist city for the inhabitants of a post-revolutionary society – all this in advance of any evidence in the real world that people are even beginning to coalesce into viable self-regulating communities of the kind my proposals assume.
    It was a great blow for me to read of your ‘defection’ in the midst of my frantic efforts to rationalize my life’s work of the last 20 years, when I was already having such a hard time doing so, for exactly the same reasons you outline. I admire your ability to face unarguable facts that are so black and depressing and to re-calibrate your policies accordingly. The last shred of my credibility lies in two facts that I still believe to be true: my city is sustainable. The auto city of today is not. My utopia incorporates REAL democracy, of the face to face variety, both in the living communities and in the work place. In todays world its a sham.
    With love, David

  8. My response here is not to Janet per se. I’ve been aware of Janet’s shift in perspective for many years. Murray informed me several years before his death that Janet saw his project as a failure and had begun to identify as a social democrat.

    What concerns me is not whether Janet (or anyone in particular) identifies as a social ecologist generally speaking. I’m more concerned with how we as leftists make sense of our own ideas and of the projects with which we are engaged. Deeming social ecology a ‘failure’ because Murray didn’t live to see his ideas in some way inspire or support a revolutionary movement, seems an unfortunate claim.

    I know that Murray himself didn’t see his work as a failure. He expressed, at least to me, a terrible sadness at not living to see a revolution that could bring a rational society into being. At times, he felt demoralized like the rest of us do from time to time.

    I simply don’t see life or social movements in those black and white terms (failure/success). I’m interested in how sets of ideas and political praxis inform movements at particular historical junctures. Social ecology informed so many movements (anti-nuclear, feminist, anarchist, the greens, the eco-tech movement, the organic foods movement, the whole eco-socialist concept).

    Moreover, positing one’s decision to support ‘Medicaire’ as a Statist intervention incompatible with social ecology is to my mind, taking a limited and ‘purist’ approach to social ecology. If I am not mistaken, Murray depended upon Medicare to pay his considerable bills and was very grateful that he was able to benefit from at least that small token of humanity flung at him from a state he abhorred.

    Murray was a dialectical man. Principled, but not puritanical. As I like to say, he “lived the contradiction,” taking in stride the ways in which so many of us must work at demoralizing jobs that are far out of alignment with our values and so on. If we stare at the clothes that cover our bodies and the cars we drive, we are faced to either live in denial or to live, as I said, ‘the contradiction’.

    I agree that social ecology is more relevant now than at any time during my own life time. We are witnessing a crisis in capitalism and a concurrent ecological catastrophe of unfathomable proportions. Social ecology does not, in my mind, need to be thrown, like a baby out with the bath water simply because many of us are faced with a situation in which we must and do live within a nation state that often feeds us, cares for us (Medicaire) and supplies us with lesser-than-2-evil candidates (Obama–first election).

    I don’t write this to challenge you, Janet. I respect your decision to identify yourself however you wish. I write this because I feel compelled to clarify that Murray did not see his life’s work as a series of failures. He said to me so many times that my generation would not even live to see the revolution. He believed in keeping the revolutionary fires alive for a historical juncture in which the flames might take.

    And Chuck, to say that Murray weakly defended social ecology’s ‘failure’ against the fact of ‘counter-revolutionary times’ is unfair. Times often do make a man (and woman) and can unmake us as well. Recognizing historical conditions as historical limitations is a worthy acknowledgment. It’s not simply a bitter form of psychological denial or a cop-out.

    It’s up to us to figure out how to live in the balance between ‘living the contradictions’ (accepting, recognizing the existence on a state on which we depend for instance) and living a revolutionary tradition so that those who come after us may benefit from our thoughts and actions.

    False dilemmas such as being pro-Medicaire reform vs. being a social ecologist are misleading. At best, they assuage those that believe that the only honest or authentic choice is to embrace social democracy in a world such as ours. Such a politics of renunciation is in my mind not only depressing, but slightly tragic. It is an analysis drained of complexity, contradiction, and a utopian sensibility.

    Here’s to those who want to stride out deeper into a future that needs sharp and creative minds that can think beyond the walls of the state and the mirrored halls of capitalism.

    See you all at the revolution (we’re building it, little by little, by carrying on this conversation), and I hope to see and meet many of you as we carry on.


  9. @admin
    I had posted this on Eric Jacobson’s page.
    But I think it is more appropriate here. But please place it wherever, or not.

    Janet Biehl’s epistle has provided an insight into the struggles to formulate a social ecology that was coherent with direct democracy. Her epistle has enabled me to see that the one has little to do with the other! And that Social Ecology is best seen as a social science.

    ‘Social Ecology’ studies the role of human societies in the natural environment. As such, it is a social science. It analyses the consequences of human action on the earth, air, fire and water that supports all ecological communities in the biosphere.
    Social Ecology evaluates evidence to devise a social, moral, philosophical, economic, ecological, environmental manifesto. It attempts to identify the principles, policies, and actions that are necessary to protect the environment and enable the survival of all ecological communities in the biosphere in the future. As such Social Ecology is a reflexive social science, identifying problems and offering solutions.
    Social Ecology devises manifestos that can be adopted by any organization, government, or group; from a dictatorship, or a plutocracy, or a parliament, or a corporation, or a local authority, or a municipality, or any political party. Nevertheless, for some reason or other, it has become associated with the particular politics of particular protagonists and their perspectives [such as anarchy; libertarian municipalism; direct democracy; inclusive democracy; communism or communalism] to the exclusion of all others.
    I suggest that there is no valid reason why Social Ecology has been so completely tied to these perspectives, In fact, to do so has led it into a dead end!
    Today, most organisations are hierarchies.Nation States are plutocracies …even those parading as democracies. All states and corporations are actively involved in capitalism, and state socialism has failed. Most people in the world live in large cities, not villages, with little sense of community. Most people are poor and uneducated, struggling to survive. It is most important that all these groups pay attention to, and enact, the Social Ecology manifesto.
    Social ecologists recognize the role of humans in the destruction of the environment and the consequences of capitalist enterprise to the exploitation of natural resources. They propose policies and practices that preserve the environment, and do not poison the biosphere. They draw our attention to the facts that ‘we’ are responsible for the pollution of nature. They urge governments to move towards a sustainable economy based on subsistence, conservation and preservation. They devise models of a steady state economy which will stabilize consumption and growth. They emphasize the need to ‘care and share’, and for communities to provide welfare for the benefit of all by redistributing wealth.
    Such a manifesto would lead to significant social change whether it was adopted by local or central government, direct or participatory democracy, hierarchical or non-hierarchical organizations. To be relevant to our present lives, it has to be available to all organizations.

  10. We should be willing and prepared to accept and opportunize on the most that circumstances have realistically to offer. This does not imply that we should abandon or neglect to develop our high ideals for themselves (whether of ecological or strictly human interactions), nor that we should underestimate the settings from and in which the transformative emphasis of these ideals could best be implemented and applied.

  11. I don’t see a problem with building non-hierarchical, cooperative communities AND being active in the political process at the same time. As Malcolm X said, “by any means necessary”. The political process is about controlling a government (and what its proper role is), and it does heavily favor those with money, but people do get to vote, you don’t have to approve of government to alter its conduct, and fighting over what the government should or shouldn’t do at the ballot box is a lot more civilized than having a civil war. We’ve got people like Bernie Sanders and Dennis Kucinich in Congress, so it IS possible to get progressive candidates elected. It’s not an “either/or” thing – you can do all kinds of things at the same time. I was somewhat active in the anarchist and peace movements, I’ve belonged to unions, I’ve tried to get people’s history and progressive perspectives into Wikipedia, I’ve voted for third-party candidates, I’ve donated a little money to the ACLU, I’d love to be part of a cooperative community, and, completely disgusted with Obama and the Democrats, I started a blog (which masquerades as a political party) at (since the Greens have apparently been co-opted by the Democrats). This may not be perfectly ideologically consistent, but it’s all good. And now is the time for our ideas! The false god of capitalism has stumbled. The Constitution is being shredded by the politicians (it’s not anarchism, but “free speech”, the right to “peacefully assemble”, the ban on “cruel and unusual punishment”, the right to a trial, freedom of conscience, and the ban on “unreasonable searches and seizures” all sound pretty damn progressive these days). The massive Wall Street bail-outs have exposed who really runs the country. The wars drag on and on. People are disillusioned with the Democrats. What more can we ask for? I’d really like to see Progressives, Greens, Constitutionalists and Libertarians get together to end the oligarchy (rule by the elite), end the wars, restore the Constitution, and hold “truth commission” hearings to uncover all the dirt. It would only require getting people around the country to run as anti-establishment independents (with the support of an anti-establishment coalition).

  12. Hello,

    I think Janet touches important points for anti-statists to think about, which we have neither adequately addressed in theory nor practice. Yet I do not think she gave an adequate explanation for why she thinks social democracy is suitable to this task. (I understand she did not set out to do so, but her post begs some questions.)

    I think the question of how leftists respond to the current attacks on the remaining aspects of the welfare state is a key question. But I am not sure that a defense of those remnants require abandoning an anti-statist position. Janet does not explain why a “rearguard fight to preserve the social programs” requires a social democratic orientation, nor does she address why social democrats actively dismantled the welfare states over the past decades in multiple european countries.

    The Left absolutely dropped the ball during the healthcare “debate”, missing the opportunity to push further, towards universal healthcare. And this was a major error. In a struggle for free and universal coverage contains the possibility for a post-capitalist order, and such a project could have been an opportunity to forward radical positions.

    I regard Janet’s statement describing Wall Street as “anti-statist” as a polemical one — I am sure she is aware of the government bailout of the banks as well as the way Obama’s healthcare reforms created, through the obligation to be insured (and the lack of a “public option”), millions of new customers for private insurance companies. The question of how the anti-statist Left should approach deregulation and right-wing libertarianism remains a challenge not adequately addressed. The “anti-statist” rhetoric of some sections of the Right have even led some on the Left to think that there are shared ideas across this political divide. That is a problem. But Janet did not explain why these challenges should make us embrace social democracy, as if it is somehow this time “really” going to curb capitalism.

    So, I am left with the questions of what Janet’s disavowal of social ecology tells us, and wondering what the flight of former anti-statists towards social democracy might tell us about the deficiencies of social ecology.

    -Rob Augman

  13. PS – Regarding social democracy and austerity, from today’s NY Times:

    “Portugal’s Social Democrats unseated the governing Socialists with a resounding parliamentary election victory on Sunday, giving the next government a strong mandate to enact a tough austerity program in return for 78 billion euros, or about $114 billion, international bailout.” (“Social Democrats Claim Victory in Portugal”).

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