Review of The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (1982)


Murray Bookchin (writer).

Read in 2017.

The review, and page numbers in it, refer to the 2005 AK Press edition.

An “unabashed messianic” (page 79) attempt to “stimulate dialectical and ecological thinking” (ibid.) on a wide range of historical developments. The main conclusion is that some non-hierarchical values, such as usufruct, supposedly universal in ancient societies, “must be extended from the kin group to humanity as a whole” (page 419) to create a heterogeneous libertarian solution to social and ecological problems.

A cohesive political philosophy.

Many features of Bookchin’s starting position are laudable. For example, he sees ethics as a human project, denies any intrinsic or inherent worth, and offers no arguments from the supernatural. He rejects the soul-body dualism of Descartes, the purported sense-world dualism of Locke, and the mind-reality dualism of Kant, preferring “the physical anthropology of the mind, of the human brain” (page 104), which has developed well since the time of writing, though not in the direction the author would have expected. He is critical of Marx but sees a similar alienation: The “dissociation of working from works—of the abstract process of laboring from the concrete use-values work produces—is savagely dystopian” (page 340).

Bookchin’s terminology is at times eccentric. He obsesses over technics and techne, as if straining to avoid the word “technology” for no good reason. He rejects “environmentalism” as facilitating exploitation, following intelligent notes on the abuse of terms like “holism” (page 86). He assumes a familiarity with Hegel, Kropotkin and many other philosophers, even name-dropping Max Stirner (page 235). He has the stereotypical academic’s caution in drawing conclusions, saying it would be “arrogant to present finished analyses and recipes” (page 79). However, he doesn’t have the full cowardice of much later writing, which he calls ”high-culture nihilism” (page 62). Regard this refreshing passage (page 123):

Anthropological etiquette requires that I occasionally sprinkle my remarks with the usual caveats about my use of “selective data,” my proclivity for “rampant speculation,” and my “normative interpretation” of disputable research materials. Accordingly, the reader should realize that by interpreting the same material differently, one could show that organic society was egotistical, competitive, aggressive, hierarchical, and beleaguered by all the anxieties that plague “civilized” humanity. Having made this obeisance to convention, let me now argue the contrary.

Similarly (page 322):

Hence, it is not in the innocent metaphors, the magical techniques, the myths, and the ceremonies they generate that the animistic imagination has earned the right to a more rational review than it has received up to now. Rather, it is its hints of a more complete logic—a logic possibly complementary to that of science, but certainly a more organic logic—that render the animistic imagination invaluable to the human mind. Anvilik Eskimos who believe that ivory conceals a vocal subject are in error, just as are Plains Indians if they believe that they can engage in verbal dialogue with a horse. But both the Eskimo and the Indian, by assuming subjectivity in the ivory and horse, establish contact with a truth about reality that mythic behavior obscures but does not negate. [---] Ivory does have its “grain,” its internal structure and form; good craftspeople must know where to carve and to shape if they are to bring a material to the height of its aesthetic perfection. [...] A horse, too, has its “grain” or its “Way”—its prickly nerves, its need for attention, its capacity to fear, its delight in play. Behind its verbal muteness lies a wealth of sensibility that the rider must explore if the horse is to achieve its own capacity for perfection—if its potentialities are to be realized.

Accordingly, much of the book remains a pleasant read. For example, the author uses Bantu and Spartan examples of primitive moralism to discuss the development from a natural conscience, via “the subtle introjections of social codes into the individual’s psyche”, to “highly opaque emotional sanctions called customs” and a later ethics dressed up as a rational system (page 188). His analysis of the relationship between Hebrew monotheism and the rise of hierarchy is also fairly cogent. In retrospect he admits readily to one flaw therein (Hebrew transcendentalism did allow for human society to continue changing, p. 62f). The author otherwise spends much of his lengthy foreword to the 1991 edition defending other weaknesses of his own work and attacking various competing ideologies.

The most glaring weakness of the book is its teleology (explicit, though carefully defined as weak, on page 455), e.g. a bee hive having a “purpose” (page 92) conflated with climax ecology (page 102), or ores a “nisus” (page 316). In line with this, Bookchin views human rationality as a development of a general tendency toward subjectivity and “‘mentalism’” throughout natural history (page 370). As usual for such teleological thinkers, he takes this idea to untenable conclusions. Falsely, he imagines predators as reducing suffering, merely picking off the old before they get too sick (page 463). He also contradicts himself in denying the possibility of hierarchy in non-human nature on the grounds that it requires our intellectual development (page 104, in a footnote), here separated from its asserted larger context. This entire leg of the analysis is weakened by the later, fruitful application of chaos theory and other dysteleological tools to the formal study of ecology, but even Darwin would have found it presumptuous.

Gene-centred studies have shown why Bookchin’s proposal to extend egalitarian sharing “from the kin group to humanity as a whole” would be difficult. Unfortunately, Bookchin rejects correctives obtainable and necessary with a scientific view. He distrusts “science’s claims of universality” (page 323) and its “impersonal gadgetry” (page 363). It seems he doesn’t want anything thrown out, except the quantitative: “We need not abandon even Aristotle’s Organon” (page 454), but we must reject utilitarianism (page 243). In coming to these conclusions he paints a picture of constant cognitive effort being necessary to maintain his ideal society. It would be a world where everybody holds their own beach ball of intuition under water. Despite his admirable effort, Bookchin ends up sadly representative as a modern utopian thinker.

References here: The Night Land (1912), Always Coming Home (1985), Kretslopp (1993).

text non-fiction