Continuing the dialogue



Some background, to help contextualize this piece for those who might be new to this discussion. This past January, I published a short essay “Social ecology needs development, dissent, dynamism” on the Social Ecology Blog hosted on the Institute for Social Ecology’s website. My intention was not to specifically articulate my own evolving perspective but to try and establish some space for “development, dissent, and dynamism” with respect to the social ecology of Murray Bookchin. For those who might not be aware, Bookchin was a co-founder (with Dan Chodorkoff) and longtime director of the Institute for Social Ecology and his body of work is the clearly recognized basis for the particular notion of “social ecology”  that has inspired the Institute for Social Ecology, among various other projects, movements, and organizations including the Communalism Journal that has continued as New Compass Press.

I’m a graduate of the ISE’s MA program in Social Ecology (in association with Prescott College) and current ISE Board member. I have engaged in close study of Bookchin’s work and the history of projects, movements, and organizations rooted in his ideas. As such, I feel a strong need to be respectful and accountable to the generous support, encouragement, and stimulation I’ve received from the ISE community over the past few years. Furthermore, the influence of Bookchin’s work on the development of my own perspective is undeniable.

It is for those reasons that I sought to provoke an open, critical discussion in posing two primary questions:

Which aspects of Bookchin’s social ecology are essential and what elements might, at least for some self-identifying social ecologists, deserve critique and revision?

Can there be social ecologies—that is, varying interpretations, philosophies, and modes of praxis that differ in some ways but remain in solidarity with one another and identified with the social ecology tradition?

By way of inspiring furthering discussion on these points, here’s some brief ideas:

First, we ought to always be striving to create an open and critical culture around a social ecology community or network such that there isn’t a continuation of the nearly exclusive focus on Murray Bookchin or a reproduction of the positioning of a single person (or a few persons with little or no publicly dissenting views) as responsible for defending the “integrity” of social ecology. For social ecology to be dynamic rather than static, public, critical discussion should be encouraged–not ignored, trivialized, or evaded.

Second, I want to say to other people who identify or associate with Bookchin’s social ecology  that my intention is to contribute to a critical reconstruction of the social ecology tradition that Bookchin inspired, identifying both the enduringly valuable aspects of his work as well as that which is deserving of critique and transcendence. I believe we will inevitably have substantive disagreements. My feeling is that we agree on much more than we disagree and that I hope that whatever dialogue or debate that comes from this will proceed with a shared acknowledgement and respect of the substantial common ground that does exist.

Third, this whole post is a sketch, written in a couple of hours, by a graduate student who is very much in the midst of intense study and various other personal commitments. As such, I ask that you approach this text with some generosity: please ask for clarification if something is unclear. I’m planning something significantly more specific, well-cited, and so forth for submission to the 2011 ISE Colloquium. I hope that a focus on my particular point of view will not forestall a public dialogue on any aspect of social ecology among any people who identify with Bookchin’s social ecology.

My primary concerns with Bookchin’s work and, thus, the conception of “social ecology” that has animated the ISE, Communalism/New Compass Press, etc. generally stem from his clear and definitive defense of the Enlightenment project and the polemical situation of his work within that tradition. Bookchin’s work demonstrates a polemical unwillingness to recognize the value and, perhaps, inevitability of a variety of epistemologies and cultural value systems (cosmologies, perhaps, is a useful word here?) and instead proclaims his work a part of The Single Enlightened Tradition capable of bringing about The Third Revolution which would usher in Utopia. Accordingly, Bookchin’s vision of The Third Revolution will be brought about by Libertarian Municipalists, who are characterized as Rational Humanist Citizens in opposition to the, generally speaking, incoherence, irrationality, and/or misanthropy (Bookchin’s characterizations) of those who orient by any tradition other than The Single Enlightened Tradition. Similarly, those who fail to orient in the Most (Only?) Enlightened Way–i.e Bookchin’s social ecology–to the The Single Enlightened Tradition (for example, some marxists or anarchists), are also subject to polemic and denigrations.

There are many compelling critiques of notions of the supremacy of the Enlightenment project that have been developed by (in alphabetical order, no intended privileging) anarchists, anti/post-colonialists of varying positionalities including indigenous and other land-based peoples, feminists, radical ecologists, and queer theorists. That list is certainly not exhaustive. Briefly, to take one critique I find especially compelling given my position as a settler in North America, the insistence upon a singular or hegemonic Enlightenment cosmology is indicative of and perpetuates the ongoing colonial violence being experienced by indigenous peoples whose knowledges and practices do not fall within the Enlightenment project. Following the trajectory of Bookchin’s work, those traditional knowledges and practices ought be polemicized against for their “incoherence, irrationality, and/or misanthropy.” Ultimately, for Bookchin, all of Humanity ought Rationally unite under the aegis of “universal humanitas” and adopt The Single Enlightened Tradition as a universal cosmology. Here I believe that Bookchin reproduced the logic of domination he so fully dedicated himself to unravelling throughout his long and prolific life.

Bookchin’s philosophy (“dialectical naturalism”) is, in many ways, an elegant system for deriving a valuable ethics. Bookchin’s politics (“libertarian municipalism”) is, in many ways, a compelling articulation of valuable political praxis. However, these are not and should not be conceived of as the singular basis for bringing about “… the unfolding of a decentralized, truly democratic, non-hierarchical, ecological society.” (from A Statement from the ISE Board) What I am arguing for is a recognition of the value of what some feminists and anti/post-colonialists (among others) sometimes refer to as standpoint theory and situated knowledges. That is, the need for a recognition and appreciation of complexity, difference, and multiplicity commensurate with the unique time/space circumstances each person faces. To head off the likely charges of a “collapse into relativism,” let me emphasize that, in my view, a recognition of standpoint and situated knowledges obliges a similar recognition of the inevitability of complexity, difference, and multiplicity but does not oblige an uncritical acceptance of all cosmologies or forms of political praxis. But rather than reproduce the problematic masculinist “soapbox” polemic culture that Bookchin emerged from and, clearly perpetuated, I would suggest (and, yes, I know this is broad language) principles of solidarity, affinity, and generosity as the basis of the culture of the ISE, in particular, and social ecologies, plural, generally.

In terms of the basis for “solidarity, affinity, and generosity,” following the language articulated by the ISE Board, those who hold a commitment to a “decentralized, truly democratic, non-hierarchical, ecological society” ought be recognized as sharing sufficient affinity to be approached with generosity and in the spirit of solidarity. But I’d suggest that the basis of affinity, solidarity, generosity is enduringly dynamic–it’s emergent and ought be seen as an ongoing collective and processual project of whomever would identify with social ecology. As such, I see Communalists, and those who draw on Bookchin’s dialectical naturalism as a basis for an ethics, as allies, comrades, and friends. I’m curious and excited to continue this dialogue.