Book Review of ‘Social Ecology and the Right to the City’

Written by Elvira Wepfer, Ph.D.

[Published in 2019, the edited volume Social Ecology and the Right to the City (Edited by Federico Venturini, Emet Degirmenci, Ines Morales) grew out of a conference two years prior, organised by TRISE. The Transnational Institute of Social Ecology is an association of Europe-based activists and intellectuals who foster, develop and promote the analysis and practices of social ecology. First conceptualized by Murray Bookchin, social ecology combines anarchist claims to a self-determined life with socialist insistence on communal social structures, and positions these within a framework of eco-systemic sustainability. It thus constitutes one of the most holistic and solution-focussed social theories to face today’s convergence of environmental, social and political troubles. This review presents the volume that grew out of TRISE’s 2017 conference in Thessaloniki, Greece, and proposes further trajectories for the study and implementation of social ecology.]

In the introductory pages, the editors Federico Venturini, Emet Degirmenci and Ines Morales propose that social research be committed to social change insofar as it supports and furthers civil society initiatives and distributes knowledge beyond academic circles (5). Indeed, most of the contributors to this volume engage both activism and theoretical research in their quest to understand, support and inform about civil society efforts to create more sustainable, just and inclusive ways of living in urban environments. For practical purposes, the volume is organised into five parts which introduce social ecology, discuss the right to the city as concept, examine the Kurdish movement for autonomy as a case-study, discuss the potentials of transforming social theory, and finally walk the city to find different kinds of neighbourhood communities. Throughout the volume, a profound critique of capitalist relationalities emerges as a basis for a transformative vision of society based on active citizenship and relational ontology, or connectedness as condition of and for being. This ontology, in turn, combines freedom and solidarity in a trajectory that reaches beyond today’s multiple ecological, social and political difficulties.

Part 1 opens with the editors’ introduction to the legacy of Murray Bookchin (1921-2006), whose libertarian socialism made him the founding father of social ecology. Foreseeing environmental depletion caused by capitalism’s unremitting search for profit, Bookchin understood that the imbalances in the natural environment are caused by imbalances in the social realm. Capitalism casts nature as an exploitable resource devoid of intrinsic value – a concept so unsustainable that it has become life-threatening as environmental depletion, caused by relentless production-consumption-waste patterns, is leading to mass-extinction, soil, air and water pollution, and severe climatic changes. As capitalism has infiltrated every aspect of contemporary society, Bookchin argued to maintain and strengthen the ‘restorative powers’ of both nature and humanity in order to reclaim the planet for the continuation of life (6). To accomplish this task, he combined libertarian anarchist theory and Marxist socialism with ecology to arrive at what he termed social ecology. Grounded in an understanding of nature as a ‘cumulative evolutionary process’ (18) that includes and exceeds the sum of its components, social ecology acknowledges the intrinsic value of all life-forms through their participation of an interactive, procreative mutuality – in other words, it declares that nature exists because all its parts are in relation to one another, and that this interrelation makes each part valuable in its own right. This relationality includes humans who, while part of this ‘first’ nature, have created a ‘second’, social nature through their social and cultural expressions. Yet this second nature is part of the first, not separate from it; from this understanding Bookchin arrived at an ethics that advocated human ‘stewardship’ of the earth (23)[i] in the sense of an ecological sensibility based on respect, responsiveness and care, a second nature that creatively interacts with the fist to enrich both. In practical terms, Bookchin advocated libertarian municipalism, a social organisation of decentralized, autonomous and sustainable municipalities that interact with one another. Libertarian municipalism opposes the statism of contemporary social order and administration and acknowledges constant flux; it arrives at decisions through direct democracy and assemblies; and it combines libertarian self-expression with communal socialism in a framework of ecological ethics of mutuality.

Dan Chodorkoff picks up from this detailed introduction and, in the second chapter, suggests to apply social ecology through a three-fold engagement. This includes opposition to the rationalisation of capitalism, the reconstruction of relationships, and an applied politics of direct democratic decision making and confederalism. To reach this, he points to the role of education, especially through practical engagement, to reshape the relations between the self, the social, and the environment (33). In a similar vein, Emet Degirmenci critiques ‘rational’ efforts to tackle environmental depletion. She shows how the Club of Rome’s influential 1972 report of the ‘Limits to Growth’ inspired the past decades of ‘green growth economy’ that has failed to address the structural inequalities of capitalism. Against capitalism’s intrinsic need for growth and accumulation, she poses a de-growth strategy based on a moral economy of ecological restoration and social and economic justice, realized in self-governing institutions by a dynamic collective activity of communing (53). Degirmenci explains that this turn to morality reflects ‘the reality of nature’s limits’ which requires ‘clear ethics to reassess human’s needs, wants and desires’ (53). From this derives a new understanding of citizenship, defined in opposition to capital and the nation-state that supports it: social ecology proposes active citizenship in the form of self-determination and non-hierarchical governance (55).

As the majority of people today live in urban environments, Part 2 engages with the right to the city, a concept first developed by Henry Lefebvre in 1968. Magali Fricaudet explains how it defends the use value of the city instead of its exchange value (60). It denounces capitalist urbanism as co-opting with the financial sector and thereby producing power through space and alienated time (61). As social relations are produced in space, the right to the city emerges as a claim to recreating these spaces as collective pieces of work (ibid.), enacted through creativity, spontaneity and self-organisation (62). In picking up this concept, social ecology proposes to ‘citify’ (68) the rural to reach harmony between first and second nature through human-scale cities whose self-organization and interconnections resemble that of ancient Greek city states. In the following chapter, Theodros Karyotis moves beyond Lefebvre’s concept and discusses urban communing in Greece. The social organisation of social ecology’s cities envisions active subjects that enact and materialize their rights, rather than merely demanding their implementation (72). Managed by their very inhabitants, these cities group people around commons, or collectively owned public spaces. Karyotis points out that, for people to become such active collectives, individuals need to transform themselves to become new, active social agents (80). Federico Venturini, finally, reconceptualises the right to the city through social ecology. He suggests that, by claiming spatial justice, or the ‘full and equal enjoyment of the resources and services concentrated in cities’ (86), individuals and collectives can engage a kind of applied freedom that goes beyond demands to justice and systems change. Instead, this freedom takes responsibility for its duties and desires. In this way, people recreate the concept of citizenship as a ‘praxis of citizens’ expression towards self-realization’ (92). Venturini therefore proposes a spatial turn for social ecology, to pay greater attention to spatial dynamics and processes (95).

Part 3 discusses the democratic confederalism of the Kurdish movement with a focus on Bakur, the territory under Turkish government. Havin Guneser and Eleanor Finley narrate the evolution of the Kurdish struggle via the PKK and its most prominent figure, Abdullah Öcalan. Founded in the late 1970s, the PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, has always been critical of the Middle East’s Leftism and the so-called ‘real socialism’ of the UDSSR and China, and instead embraced Marxist-Leninist socialism and social ecology in their endeavour to reach autonomy and freedom. At the turn of the millennium, Öcalan developed further Bookchin’s analysis of the rise of hierarchy through class and nation, and associated it with the loss of freedom of women and her social system (106). He thus anchored the institutionalisation of patriarchy in the beginning of state society, and subsequently called for a non-state solution for the Kurdish struggle (and beyond). Instead, he picked up on Bookchin’s concept of interlinked autonomous municipalities through democratic confederalism, and countered modern day’s oppression through violence, ideology  and economy with what he called a ‘moral and political society’ – Bookchin’s ‘organic society’ (107). This, importantly, is to be grounded in ‘Jineology’, a science of women and their history, and depends on individual change for social change. The outcome, Guneser & Finley state, is to be a mutualistic and dynamic identity of freedom and solidarity. Ercan Ayboga picks up from his vision and discusses how Kurdish cities in Turkey have developed towards greater democratisation and self-governance over the last 30 years, and how hierarchies in organizational structures continue to pose challenges to reaching radical direct democracy. While at the time of TRISE’s conference, Turkey’s urban warfare and gentrification already posed serious threats to the very livelihood of Kurds (116), two years later, in 2019, these threats have taken on a much more urgent form. Turkey’s recent invasion of Syria involves genocidal ethnic cleansing of Kurdish people on both sides of the border, while resistance continues.

Part 4 sets out to transform social theory through a series of articles that take on the state, public time and social change. Metin Guven describes how today’s world leadership is based on a heritage of domination and juxtaposes the ‘irrationality’ of capitalism that came to rule Euro-American societies with the ‘authoritarian rationalism’ (123) of China to show that a new theory of the state needs to consider the differences of state evolution in order to oppose future hierarchy and domination (126). Alexandros Schismenos argues that the reclamation of self-determined social time through democratic collectives creates public time free from authoritative hierarchy. He elaborates how the internet has generated a global public time within a virtual space (133), and how, in parallel, a new social time arises as social movements refute regulatory mechanisms that organize productivity of public time through the colonization of personal time (137). As authorities depend on an established social temporality (e.g. through time and date measurements to implement requirements of work hours), the institutionalization of social and ecological temporality undoes the focus on economic growth in favour of self-determined time. Olli Tammilehto, finally, looks to nature to find both gradual and abrupt change, and argues that in abrupt social change, a ‘shadow society’ arises (143) which, formerly not recognised by the official economy, has the ability to institutionalize novel social paradigms. This, he suggests, brings both hope in times of imminent abrupt climatic changes, and simultaneously calls to active engagement in the ‘shadows’ to strengthen the counter currents of contemporary domination (147).

The final Part of the volume invites readers to ‘walk with the right to the city’. Diana Bogado, Noel Manzano and Marta Solanas first explore how occupying and squatting practices in Spain and Brazil represent pragmatic responses to the commodification of life under financial capitalism. While squats represent common spaces in which to enact social rights, and occupation opens up housing for people in precarity (160), both practices are based on a claim to built urban space that is empty due to either financial speculation or legal eviction. The authors find and support an internationalization of urban social movements that create autonomous, self-regulated spaces in response to the real estate logic of capital gains (166). Their methodology combines research and activism and builds on reflexivity (157) to further the Lefebvrian purpose to ‘support a deep transgression of the urban and systemic logic, founded in a subaltern re-appropriation of the city’ (166). In a similarly engaged vein, Jemma Neville concludes the volume with a story from her neighbourhood that relates the enactment of the commons as a way to face today’s national-political, financial and economic domination of human beings. The TRISE conference of 2017, she reveals, taught her that ‘local active participation is where democracy and the meaningful distribution of power can most flourish’ (176). Together, the 14 contributions to this volume paint a lively and engaged image of social research and activism that engage social ecology to address the multiple difficulties financial capitalism and the commodification of life pose in today’s cities.

Two years in the making, Social Ecology and the Right to the City has recently been followed up by TRISE’s latest conference titled Power to Destroy, Power to Create: Building a Culture of Resistance towards Radical Social Change, held in late October 2019 in Athens, Greece. The conference programme emphasised revolutionary experiences of the Zapatistas and the ongoing Kurdish struggle in Rojava, together with other creative examples of resistance to capitalism such as participatory design and ecological and cooperative economic models. Yet it was not only the content of the conference that was inspiring, but also its form: the three-day event was free of charge and open to all. After a few welcoming words, Dimitrios Roussopoulos invited a minute’s silence for the victims and prisoners of war in Syria, and Yavor Tarinski announced the event’s safe space policy to ensure the respect of diversity. Taking serious the requests raised in the 2017 conference, the organisers had ensured gender balance among speakers, and the hallway leading to the conference auditorium invited informal conversations, as it displayed informative posters and radical books (very reasonably priced). In these ways, the event and its organisers aimed to embody social ecology’s ethics of respect, mutuality and care – to empowering success.

As social ecology is further developed both in academia and activism, I would like to point to two specific trajectories for its study and implementation. First, the imminent environmental, political and social turbulences are likely to bring with them enhanced movement of people. Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism implies the permanent settlement of individuals who share ecological ethics and possess the will, the capacity, and the ability to recreate their human-environment relations. Capitalist globalization has set in motion a convergence of different cultural, social and political traits that, during the 21st century, are likely not only to increase but to derive from need and precarity. This outlook challenges social ecology to include both the diversified socio-cultural backgrounds of people and to balance individual needs with community living into its approach to socio-environmental change. The ecological concept of ‘unity in diversity’, a principle for both ecological and social resilience, seems helpful in this respect. Second, both the edited volume that arose from TRISE’s 2017 conference and the event two years later, focus on social theories, struggles and visions. Little has been written or said concerning ecology, both in practice and theory. Bookchin employed ecology as a lens through which to see the social, but left it to others to flesh out the concrete subsistence practices that can sustain his ecological society. Yet such practices exist, both among the initiatives in TRISE’s current focus and in other parts of civil society. Researching and relating, as well as experimenting with and applying holistically sustainable agricultural practices is essential to re-creating human-environment relations, and to regenerating the global depletion capitalism has caused in environmental, social and individual realms. I am looking forward to scholars and activists’ engagement not only with the social, but also with the ecological word-making of social ecology.

Footnotes:

[i] However, Degirmenci (48, this volume) points out how indigenous cultures across the world pass on an ethics of guardianship, rather than stewardship. In relation to the declaration of the Anthropocene, the latter term has been critiqued as a technical, managerial approach to solve today’s pressing environmental problems through eco-modernist visions that perceive Earth as a series of ‘coupled’ yet bounded ‘spheres’ to be manipulated (Lorimer 2017; Hamilton 2016, 2015). While Bookchin’s concept of planetary nature differed from this serial perception, his stewardship did include visions of highly advanced techno-science (1971 [1965]).

References

Bookchin, M. 1971 [1965] Towards a liberatory technology, in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, San Francisco: Ramparts.

Hamilton, C. 2016 The Anthropocene as rupture, The Anthropocene Review 3(2):93-106.

Hamilton, C. 2015 The technofix is in, Earth Island Journal News, 21 April, Available at: http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/elist/eListRead/the_technofix_is_in/ Accessed: May 2018.

Lorimer, J. 2017 The anthropo-scene: A guide for the perplexed, Social Studies of Science 47(1):117-142.

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