Social Ecology: A Philosophy for the Future

Written by Dan Chodorkoff

Theory and Practice

I am going to try to offer some thoughts on how we might move forward from here. I think this is an important discussion. I will refer to familiar themes that we have raised this weekend. Overall, I believe the connection between theory and practice has been an essential part of social ecology and certainly of Bookchin’s thought. Although he was a scholar and did incredible research and produced very important works, he was at heart an activist. For Bookchin, the real soul of social ecology is praxis—an ongoing process of putting our ideas into practice, analyzing our experience of putting them into practice, revising our ideas in relation to that analysis, and taking those revised ideas and applying them again in the real world. That is an overall framework that we should keep in mind. It is very easy, given the sense of urgency that I am sure we all share, considering the time of crisis we are experiencing, to believe that it is time to act. And it is time to act, certainly, but the action that we take has to be informed, thoughtful, considered, and I believe should be taken within a framework of ideas that are developed and consequently examined and re-examined. What I am going to try to do today is lay out some broad ideas that I think will help us moving forward and enable us to develop effective praxis.

I wish I could offer a prescription or a mathematical formula or mantra that we can all chant that will get us to where we need to go, but I cannot. I will offer some concepts and ideas but I think each of us in our own particular community are going to have to determine how these ideas are applied in the world because the conditions in our communities differ. Cultural traditions and histories, the ecological areas in which we live, and the particular issues that we are facing vary. Certainly, there is an urgency here in Greece, that may not be felt in other parts of Europe or the US; the economic crisis is a particular concern here. But there is a crisis that is universal—the climate crisis and it is unprecedented. The threat is evident to us all. It has transcended issues of local pollution or development and has taken on a truly global nature, something that Bookchin was aware of in the 1960s but most people chose to ignore, and certain segments of society are still choosing to ignore. Furthermore, we are now seeing a resurgence of fascism, which I personally find terrifying, and there is no question that we may not in the future have an opportunity to act. So now is the time for action but, once again, let us make sure that our actions are actually informed by ideas.

The Role of Education

I offer a quote from Murray Bookchin: “Every revolutionary project is an educational project.” I believe this is a crucial insight. We need to educate ourselves no matter who we are, no matter how widely we have read. There is an awful lot that we need to learn and think through. And I want to emphasize that education happens on many different levels and in many ways. I am not simply talking about education in a classroom or education through conferences such as this, as important as that kind of learning is.
But education also occurs by acting on ideas. Education occurs when you learn how to act with others in a democratic fashion, when you begin to reshape your understanding and relationships between yourself and others and the environment in which you live. Education occurs when you organize a cooperative, when you organize a demonstration. We have to acknowledge this and we accept too that people learn in different ways, that some people will be reached by an academic treatise, some will be touched by a polemic, others may be reached by a novel or a song or a work of art; these all need to be incorporated into our educational process. We have to be holistic and multi-dimensional in the way that we approach the issue of education. And perhaps we must abandon our preconceptions about what constitutes education. We have a role to educate ourselves and then educate others, to take these ideas out into the world, to not be cautious about proposing what we believe, and be able to do so in a coherent and convincing fashion so as to allow others to enter into this new world that we are beginning to conceptualize and actualize. I think this is a really critical moment and an educational process has to progress.

I say this because what I envision in order to bring about the kinds of change I think are necessary is a process which is analogous to the Enlightenment. We need a new Enlightenment, not necessarily in terms of the content but in terms of the process. We have to remember that the Enlightenment began with just a tiny handful of radical thinkers who challenged all the beliefs of their day—the idea that a king had divine rights, the idea that the masses were incapable of learning or incapable of governing themselves. All of this flew in the face of history and tradition. And it took about 100 years for those ideas to percolate throughout the population. Bear in mind that levels of literacy were much lower than we have today, no radio, social media, no TV, so these ideas were popularized by those who read. People passed books and pamphlets hand-to-hand and discussed ideas over kitchen tables and in taverns. The process took 100 years but these ideas did spread and resulted in the democratic revolutions which set the stage for today. So it is an analogous process, except we don’t have 100 years because our crisis is in fact so dire and compelling that we need to act now, we need to act soon. But it will not take 100 years because in fact these ideas, the ideas that we’ve been discussing this weekend, are already shared by millions of people around the world and it is important for us to keep that in mind, to not feel isolated, to not feel marginalized, because in fact these ideas are at the center of the kind of change that has to occur if we are going to create a new world. I contend that the notion of education, both self-education and the education of others, is critical. It is not going to take 100 years; we are already partway there. We need to take advantage of our access to technology and our literacy. We need to educate using all of these media and means, re-conceptualize education as something that occurs not only in formal settings like this, but also in informal settings.

Utopian Thinking

The second idea that I want to emphasize is that I used the term “revolution” earlier. I am surprised that I have not heard that word used much here this weekend. The kind of change that we are seeking really is revolutionary change. I am not talking about the classic notion of revolution— insurrection, going to the barricades with guns—although there may be settings in which that is necessary and appropriate to defend these ideas. Rather, I am talking about a revolution which transforms the underlying structures of our society, the economic and political structures that govern our lives. In order for us to achieve that, we need to develop not just revolutionary movements, but a revolutionary sensibility. The Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta said, “Everything depends on what people are capable of wanting.” I have to agree with this. If we cannot develop the imagination to conceptualize a qualitatively different world, we are doomed. The situation we are in is taking us down the path of destruction. Bookchin used to wear
a button with a quote from Bakunin: “I will continue to be an impossible person as long as those who are now possible remain possible”. I think that is worth thinking about. We need this new sensibility to reconceptualize our relationships with each other and our relationship with the natural world. And this is not a simple task. It is not simply an intellectual exercise. We need to incorporate this new understanding and this new sense of self and relationship to others into our very being. We need to transform ourselves, and this is a process that will only occur through practice. In the crucible of thought and action we can begin to see the outlines of the new world that we want to create. I would also suggest that this new sensibility needs to stem from a utopian perspective. One of the problems I see facing movements today is the lack of a truly revolutionary imaginary. Certainly, we are facing pressing issues in the here and now which require our attention (e.g. in the US, the Black Lives Matter impulse). It is crucial, because black people, particularly young men, are killed by the police on a regular basis. Civil rights have been denied to a whole segment of the population who are subjected to all kinds of degradation and their struggle is crucial. It is absolutely necessary and it is not sufficient.

We cannot simply stop at civil rights—the core concern for Black Lives Matter, for people in the black community, or in any other community. That struggle needs to be incorporated into a larger transformative struggle that recognizes the need to transform underlying structures. I know that intersectionality is a very popular concept today. We have used the term a “holistic” movement or a “revolutionary” movement, but we did not really talk about intersectionality back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Nevertheless, I believe we can recognize that all of the issues that people are dealing with, be they Black Lives Matter or stopping pipelines, or stopping the development of a gold mine here in Greece, are really one struggle. They are struggles against the dominant culture which has no respect for human life, which puts profits before people, and is responsible for the kind of rapacious treatment of the earth which will ultimately lead to the decline of the human species and our ability to inhabit this planet. Bookchin thought about this back in the 1960s, wrote about global warming in 1964 and was ridiculed, and at that point he said maybe in 200 years we will begin to see the greenhouse effect take shape and influence our environment. He was prescient in understanding this issue, as in so many others.

We need to be utopian and think beyond the given and understand that there are, within our current situation, potentialities that can be actualized that will take us to a qualitatively different place. So when I use the term “utopian”, I mean it in the positive sense. I do not think I have to lecture the Greeks here about the roots of the word “utopia” but it was coined in 1515 by Sir Thomas More and he indicated it had two roots, both from ancient Greek. One was the word οὐτόπος (comprised of οὐ (ou, “no”) + τόπος (tópos, “place, region”), and the other word was “u-topia”, which means the good place. It is in this second sense that I use the term. Unfortunately, utopian thinking has largely fallen by the wayside. We are dismissively told, “Oh, that’s utopian”, or as a pejorative; “that’s cloud cuckoo-land; it’s unachievable; it can never happen.” But from our understanding of anthropology and history we know that, in fact, what is defined for us as a very narrow human nature—greedy, competitive, violent, and acquisitive— seems to define humanity in a way that fits beautifully as the rationale for capitalism. We know that previous cultures existed in very different ways with qualitatively different relationships with each other and with the natural world. Not that we can return to these cultures, but rather they represent certain principles that are part of our legacy as human beings. Rather than talking about a narrowly defined human nature, anthropologists discuss a continuum of human possibilities. Among these possibilities, and we know they exist because they have been actualized in other cultures, are the ability to function through mutual aid, to live and create an economic system that does not depend on the market, to make decisions in nonhierarchical ways, to live an egalitarian life, and to achieve a degree of selfreliance in humanly scaled communities in which relationships are based on face-to-face ties rather than the bureaucratized, atomized, and alienated forms of social life that predominate today. In short, the re-harmonization of people with nature and people with people.

I think it is very important that we begin to articulate our utopian vision and once again there is no universal here. It is going to vary from community to community, to grow out of our own cultures and experiences, be located in a particular environment, but nonetheless it needs to be based on a set of broad principles on which we find agreement. We began the weekend by talking about the idea of rights or a constitution or a set of ethical principles on which we can find broad agreement, even ultimately a global agreement. Such principles will be actualized in different ways in different places and this is how we find that elusive balance between the universal and the particular that was one of the themes that we addressed in our first conference.

The Principles of Social Ecology

Now where do we find those principles? Social ecology has some concrete suggestions. Brian Morris did a marvelous job describing Bookchin’s concept of dialectical naturalism and I think dialectical naturalism gives us insight into what those principles might be. I would like to lay them out briefly here. First, I would emphasize that these are tendencies in nature, not immutable natural laws but possibilities that find expression at various times in various places and they are crucial to the whole process of evolution, a model which unfortunately has been misinterpreted and abused. We know the concept of natural law was one of the axioms that the social Darwinists used to classify people and cultures into various levels and hierarchical schemas. Herbert Spencer wrote of the primitive savage and the civilized, a schema which provided a marvelous rationale for colonialism and materialism, because, of course, the West “brought civilization” to these benighted savages, the “primitives” who could barely speak, according to the western view, who were barely human. We also saw the abuse of the theory of natural law in Nazi Germany. So I will talk about certain tendencies and principles of nature. Undeniably, competition plays a role, mutations occur through a process that sorts out winners and losers in terms of species, not individuals, but there are other aspects of natural evolution that have not been emphasized but, in fact, have been largely ignored. I would also add that Bookchin tried to elucidate these principles because he believed we must incorporate them into society if we are to reharmonize humanity and nature, which is ultimately the goal of social ecology—the integration of first nature and second nature, which leads to a third nature. So if we are going to do that we have to understand how these principles that are at work in natural evolution can be transformed and applied in society.

First among them is the understanding that in nature there is no hierarchy. When we talk of the lion, king of beasts, or the lowly ant, we are anthropomorphizing. We are taking our particular social structure and looking at the rest of nature and saying that is what it is. But this thesis is not correct. Ecologists know that; they understand that in fact there is not a food chain in which the big carnivores sit on top, but rather a food web in which interdependency is the rule. The ant, of which there are 40 or so species on the floor of the rainforest, plays a crucial role in decomposing the organic matter, which then feeds the plants, which feed the herbivores, which feed the carnivores. Without the carnivores the herbivores would destroy the plant matter. The carnivores help keep that population in check, and without the herbivores the carnivores could not exist, and the lowly ant provides the nutrition that allows all of those relationships to exist, and the micro-organisms in the soil play a crucial role as well. So nature is not hierarchical and, by extension, society should not be. Once again, the anthropological record shows us that for the most of human history people existed without formal hierarchies. And here I am using “hierarchy” in the technical sense—as a system of command and control that ultimately has recourse to physical coercion. A hierarchical society is a fairly recent invention. To use the old anthropological saw in which the whole of human history becomes a clock, for about 95% of our time on the planet, it is only the last five minutes or so that hierarchies emerge. We lived without hierarchies before that, which indicates that we have the capacity to live without hierarchies in the present. Social relations are shaped by our sensibility and the kinds of social structure under which we choose to live or under which we are forced to live.

We can decide how to organize our own society and we must. According to Bookchin, people are part of nature. There is first nature which is nonhuman nature and then there is second nature and we are organic beings, an outgrowth of the process of natural evolution and the same principles that have carried us through that process need to be applied in human society. If our goal is to achieve a re-harmonization of first and second nature, that is a project of social ecology. In relation to hierarchies within species, bear in mind the technical definition I offer of hierarchy, an institutionalized relationship of command and control that ultimately has recourse to physical coercion. People often ask, “Well, what about the alpha males in the gorilla troops?” What you see there is not a hierarchy but a form of situational dominance and, in fact, ethologists who have observed the gorilla troops in the wild have noted that the silverback gorilla alpha male beats his chest to scare off the other males and gain exclusive access to the females of the troop for breeding purposes, while a younger male will sneak into the woods with a female, so it is not even an effective form of situational dominance. I would maintain that there truly is no hierarchy in the technical sense in first nature.

I look at anthropology to understand what qualitatively different forms of leadership look like. When Western society encountered, say, Native Americans they immediately looked for the chief. And they could not find the chief, so often they would assume someone was a chief, or they appointed a chief. In fact, what happened in those societies was that leadership existed but it was also situational. There was no permanent leader and situational leaders could not coerce others to follow their will. Leaders depended on their ability to persuade others through logic or rhetoric. They were admired because of their experience, their knowledge, their insight. One would lead a hunt because of their proven ability to find the game that was necessary for the survival of the group. But they could not force anyone to follow their instructions. They suggested or they exhorted, they tried to inspire, maybe they manipulated sometimes. But they lacked that coercive ability that the kind of leadership in our societies entails. Virtually every individual in a hunting and gathering band eventually plays a leadership role in one activity or another. One individual may lead the hunt, another give the dance, another makes gathering activities. Even the gender division of labor between men and women was very fluid. We are told that men are the hunters and women are the gatherers, but the Marshals, who lived among the San people, observed that when women were out gathering they sought game, and they would hunt it. And if the men saw something that could be gathered in the wild they gathered it. Women were even observed hunting with the men. So these hard and fast categories that have emerged in our time are not really an essential part of our humanity. There are alternative arrangements that have existed for millennia, for most of our time on the planet. We have lost sight of that. Once again, I am not a primitivist. I am not suggesting going back to hunting and gathering, but I am suggesting that the relationships that existed in those societies represent certain principles that we can extract and dialectically transform and apply in our own society. We have a lot to learn from these people.

The second principle that I would suggest we need to derive from our understanding of the natural world, which may inform our actions, our movements, and our utopian vision, is the fact that nature is mutualistic. Mutual aid plays a crucial role in natural evolution. This was brought up by Kropotkin and re-emphasized by Bookchin and others thinkers. In first nature life is interdependent, just as individuals are interdependent, which is why humanity created societies. So mutualism also has to be incorporated into our utopian vision and into the vision of the new society that we wish to create.

Another principle is the notion of unity and diversity. When we look at natural history in ecosystems, we see that the most stable ecosystems, those which last, are those that have the greatest number of species interacting at various trophic levels. Hence, even though there may be great fluctuations in individual species, even the elimination or extinction of a particular species, there are other species to fill that niche and as a result the ecosystem derives some stability. It is not static, it is homeostatic. It is a dynamic balance, but a balance nevertheless. And this balance is dependent on diversity. Unity is only achieved through diversity, and clearly this is another principle that needs to inform our thinking and our action, our vision, and our movements. We need to strive for diversity and find within such diversity strength, resilience, and unity.

Another principle that we derive from our understanding of the natural world is the idea of homeostasis. Bookchin understood, as biologists understand, that nature is not static; it is constantly changing. Yet in the midst of that constant change, healthy ecosystems are able to maintain a dynamic balance. This is the very definition of sustainability, the ability to maintain balance in the midst of constant change.

Finally, natural history is the process of evolution and in that process we see a development. It is not a steady process of ascension, there are peaks and valleys, there is fluorescence and extinction but over time the process of natural evolution has moved towards ever greater diversity, complexity, and degrees of freedom. It is undeniable because, if you agree with Darwin, life on earth began as single-celled organisms and those organisms became more and more complex: they came together to form various species and, as a result, we moved from single-celled organisms to a multitude of highly complex life forms. Over that process we have seen greater and greater degrees of consciousness and self-consciousness—the ability to make choices and, ultimately, the ability to choose freedom.

So, once again, we see principles that we can extract from the natural world and apply in the specific situations in which we find ourselves to move towards ever greater degrees of freedom. Regarding freedom and utopia, we will never achieve them. They will always hover on the horizon and, as we approach them, will recede into the distance. But that is as it should be, because natural evolution is dynamic, constantly changing, constantly moving, constantly developing, and we have to acknowledge that, learn to live with it and embrace it. And we have to learn how to live with ambiguity. For me, paradox, ambiguity, and ambivalence is inherent in the human condition, and we need to accept that. Nevertheless, we need to embrace our freedom to make choices so I suggest that these are some basic principles on which we need to find agreement, whether this takes the form of some kind of a constitution or a set of ethics on which we can agree. It has to be a basis on which we can begin to create our free communities because these communities cannot exist in isolation. We live in a global world, globalization of course in its current form is an extremely destructive process, but there is the opportunity to create an alternative form of globalization in which free self-reliant communities confederate, offer each other mutual support and exchange, and create a richer and fuller life for all of us. And I believe that has to be our goal.

Opposition

This is all very abstract and theoretical and I realize that ideas are most important when they arise from the theoretical and move to the concrete. I am not going to be prescriptive, I am not going offer easy answers or solutions, but I do want to suggest some arenas in which I think we need to begin to work effectively. The first would be to recognize the need for oppositional movements. Let us not fool ourselves. We are in the midst of a deep crisis, something unprecedented in human history, and I do not believe it is overly dramatic to suggest that the future of humanity on the planet is at stake today. The decisions that we make and the actions that we take over the next few years are going to determine the course of human life. This is a big responsibility and what we are seeing is an increasing pace of exploitation and domination, as expressed in capitalism, a system which is rationalizing control of every aspect of our lives, which has expanded dramatically and functions not only in the economic sphere, but has actually colonized our consciousness—so these are pressing problems. And we need to oppose it; we need to protest, we need to stop the goldmine, stop the pipeline, stop the murder of black people, stop the imprisonment of people, and so on. We need to do all of these things, and protest is a very powerful weapon in that process. Protest and opposition is absolutely necessary, but not sufficient. It will not get us to where we need to go because protest is about negation. We do need to stop those who are now in power; we need to remain impossible as long as those who are possible remain possible. But it is not enough. I think those of us who have been active have seen the limitations of protest. We have been able to gain certain rights for certain groups, we have been able to prevent a dam from being built here or there, but we are fighting a holding action. While it is necessary to stop these exploitative moments from destroying the things that we hold dear, we also need to move beyond protest.

Reconstruction

We need to move beyond opposition to reconstruction. Once again, this is not something new and I am sure many of you are actively engaged. By “reconstruction”, I refer to the Wobbly slogan. The IWW (International Workers of the World) was an American anarcho-syndicalist movement at the turn of the twentieth century, whose slogan was “we have to build the new world in the shell of the old”. I refer to it because we need to begin to create new relationships, new ways of being together, and we need to institutionalize them. This means creating cooperatives, creating community gardens, creating community housing, moving towards the forms of mutual aid and cooperation that this society tends to ignore. And we need to propose such measures as a way of showing people that another world is possible, that we can build a new world in the shell of the old. These experiences, these reconstructive projects, also serve as a form of education because through them we learn how to come together and make decisions democratically—horizontally. We learn how to accept and create new forms of leadership. When I talk about a non-hierarchical society, I am not suggesting there is a lack of influential, experienced, wise, knowledgeable, or brilliant people who can offer us insights and lead us forward. But it will be a process in which leadership is redefined. It is no longer defined hierarchically—it is not power over, it is power with. We need to educate ourselves and others and learn how to function in these horizontal and democratic ways.

I think that this reconstructive process begins to show us ways that we can begin to actualize our utopian vision. I had incredible experiences in the 1970s working in the Puerto Rican community in New York City where people were living in a ghetto consisting of 40% city-owned property, abandoned buildings, vacant lots. Through direct action, I saw that neighborhood act and claim as their own the abandoned properties and reshape them according to a very concrete utopian vision which emerged through a series of community planning fora, where everyone in the neighborhood came together and developed the blueprint for their neighborhood. They planned how to use the buildings: some for elder housing; some for artists; a vacant lot to become a garden, and another a park. Block by block, building by building, lot by lot, they put together a plan. And then they began to implement it through direct action, initially squatting in abandoned buildings and reclaiming vacant lots without any legal recourse, but through their own will and the development of particular kinds of political pressure, through protest with direct action, they were able to begin to transform the neighborhood. We became involved because, at that time, the Institute for Social Ecology was doing a lot of work where we were looking at alternative technologies.

In the early 1970s we were working with solar and wind power, which we saw as crucial to the development of an ecological society, although of course we applied these technologies in communities that are human-scaled, where people democratically control them, far from the kind of corporatization of alternative technologies that has occurred today. The point being that this kind of direct action is as important as the type that we use in our opposition and we need to begin to actualize and create models for what society might look like and within those physical changes we can begin to make social changes. That is, organize the community to enable participation in this transformative process. Controlled by the people on the block, people can begin to take actions where they live today. I find it very heartening that people have talked about this over the weekend. We must recognize that different people have different skills and aptitudes and some people may be very effective at organizing street demonstrations, while others may be more effective organizing a community garden. The crisis is so dire and so compelling, and is occurring on so many levels that there are many different ways in which we can enter into this process of opposition and reconstruction.

However, I think we have to recognize that, as important and necessary as these reconstructive actions are, they are not sufficient. It is very easy for cooperatives to be co-opted right into the capitalist system, for our community gardens to fall prey to the developer’s bulldozer, so we need to develop within our communities and ourselves the sensibilities I argue for, and we need to be very conscious of the ambiguities inherent in human life. The best intentions can be turned against us, so we constantly need to be aware of how powerful and insidious the forces arrayed against us are, in the sense that we have internalized so many of the basic frameworks that capitalism presents to us because we have all been acculturated by that same system. It is a question of purging ourselves of these old beliefs and creating new ways of living together, and new ways of organizing.

Politics

Finally, the political realm, the realm of political action, is all-important. By this I mean a redefinition of politics, not politics as statecraft, not politics of Washington or London, but rather politics on the most basic level— developed and applied where we live, right outside our doors in our neighborhoods, and our towns and our villages. And in order to realize this we need to create fora for directly democratic decision-making and institutionalize them. I have a big problem with anarchism as it developed in the late twentieth century because there is so much emphasis on individualism, so much misunderstanding of the very nature of society, and politics was rejected. Ultimately, anarchists say, “we don’t want power, we want to do away with power.” But you cannot do away with power. Power exists, and the question is how we structure it. Are we going to accept power over or are we going to create power with? And in order to exercise power with, we need to develop politics. And this means we need to create neighborhood assemblies, town meetings, all kinds of fora, a kind of democratic confederalism. Rojava is the most inspiring example that I have seen and it proves that it is possible. My personal experience also proves that it is possible.

I come from the State of Vermont. It is a small rural state. I live in a tiny town of 1,300 people, but for the past 200 years the town has been governed through a direct democracy, through town meetings. We get together as citizens face-to-face, we discuss the issues, and we make decisions as to how we intend to carry out our business over the next year. It works, and this is not a town made up of anarchists or hippies. This is a town with a progressive element, but also a very conservative element. And yet, we are able to come together as neighbors, not as Democrats or Republicans, and find a common interest through respectful dialogue. We disagree. We even get angry at each other but we walk into that room as neighbors and we leave as neighbors. In the process of making these decisions, we work through a whole series of issues and you might say, “Well, that’s easy because it’s a town of 1,300, it’s tiny, it’s humanly scaled, that’s no problem.” However, I had a similar experience working on the Lower East Side of New York, with 30,000 people, where people have town meetings as well. They come together and they go through this whole planning process. They have created a vision for the neighborhoods in their community, they have contested the official plans of the city, and achieved a degree of success. So I have seen it happen in larger urban settings as well.

But it is not enough to simply create these small-scale face-to-face democratic fora. We need to use them as a vehicle to contest for power with the State. We need to use them to redefine politics, create situations in which there is true accountability, in which everyone has a voice about decisions that will affect them—a direct voice, not a mediated voice. And, in order to do this we need the flip side of decentralization, the idea of confederation. We need to create a confederation between our local democracies based on a set of common principles or ethics. I believe this is the ethics that social ecology endorses.

This is the framework in which we need to move forward in these three interrelated areas, and no single one area, as necessary as it may be, is sufficient. If we can holistically bring together these different levels of action and coordination and institutionalize them, we can achieve an ecological society. Anarchists tend to be anti-institution, but human society is based on institutions. There are institutions. The question is what is the quality of the institution. I have been frustrated because I see many people embrace the idea that a new society will form spontaneously. I saw this in Occupy Wall Street, for example—this notion of temporary autonomous zones. It is as if that is the best we can do: a temporary autonomous zone—a “festival of the oppressed”, as Marx called them. These festivals may last weeks, they may last months, but ultimately they dissipate because we are unable to institutionalize them. We want permanent autonomous zones, not temporary autonomous zones.

Clearly, there is an urgency to our situation and there is a very strong tendency to look to the existing means of power in order to ameliorate the immediate suffering and destruction that is taking place today, and I think that has a certain value. But it has to be framed within a much more radical program. Bookchin proposed beginning with minimum demands which might be something that would express itself through existing political channels and then you move to transitional demands. You are constantly pushing, and from there you move to your maximum demands. And in terms of where to begin, each of us has to determine where we can work most effectively, and enter into this with whatever energy we can bring to it and whatever generosity of spirit, and we just need to keep pushing and working and recognizing. That it is not going to happen overnight, although there are moments where these ideas come to the fore. Then we have to be ready to act and institutionalize; we cannot allow them to be temporary. It is really a matter of where people feel they can contribute the most, and where they can work most efficiently. This is where we begin.

Thanks to Donald Trump we are facing the same problems in the US today as in many European countries: the rise of fascism. I don’t know if people in Europe followed the events in Charlottesville last week or the
week before, but the media reported only the fascists marching with torches, but there were right-wing militias that had automatic weapons and they out-gunned the police, which is why the police stood down. This is serious and I cannot offer an answer, but we have to oppose it on every level. We have to confront them; we have to be oppositional; we have to shut down the fascists. I believe this can be done non-violently, and we need to be ready to propose real solutions that address the root cause, systems based on hierarchy and domination. However, I must caution that moving to implement direct democracy in the US tomorrow would be a disaster because the consciousness is not there to support the kind of humanistic direct democracy that I think we all want to see. Therefore, education in various forms is the key. We need to change consciousness, we need to develop a new sensibility, and we will do that in different ways, by working in different groups.

Clearly, deep divisions exist. However, my experience has been that when decisions are being made in a considered way by a community, some of those distinctions and identities begin to break down and people find common ground. I think we need distance, we need to look for that common ground and at the same time we have to recognize that there will be those who oppose it. Then we need to create counter power, counter institutions. At the same time, we need to work to mitigate the worst excesses of what is. So it happens on many different levels simultaneously.

It is only by moving forward in a self-conscious fashion informed by the kind of theoretical framework I propose that we can begin to learn our way out of this crisis together.

March 7, 2020

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