The Future of Social Ecology in Belgium

Written by Rafa Grinfeld

While the climate and ecology movement in Belgium has been growing during the past two years, certainly amongst young people, we must ask ourselves what the role of social ecology in this has been in the past and can be in the future.

Social ecology is rapidly becoming more known in Belgium, probably also because tackling the ecological crisis has become more and more a necessity. If we want a good future for the earth – its human and non-human nature – we will have to make social ecology much more influential, as social and ecological problems are very interconnected. But what is social ecology? This little text made by the Institute for Social Ecology in North America briefly describes what it is:

Social Ecology advocates a reconstructive and transformative outlook on social and environmental issues, and promotes a directly democratic, confederal politics. Social Ecology envisions a moral economy that moves beyond scarcity and hierarchy, toward a world that reharmonizes human communities with the natural world, while celebrating diversity, creativity and freedom.

A bit short, so a while ago I made a text that can continue describing these ideas. It is much inspired by the way Murray Bookchin described social (or socialist) anarchism in 1998, in the text The Unity of Ideals and Practice:

We must assume that social ecologists, like other leftists, understand that capitalism is a competitive market system in which rivalry compels bourgeois enterprises to continually grow and expand. We must assume they understand that this process of growth is absolutely inexorable, driven by the “competitive market forces” of production and consumption—as the bourgeoisie itself acknowledges. Nor can these “forces” be eliminated as long as capitalism exists, any more than a class-dominated economy could ever put an end to the exploitation of labor. Social ecologists, we must assume, understand that if capitalism continues to exist, it will yield catastrophic results for society and the ecological integrity of the natural world. So inherent are these features to capitalism that to expect the capitalist system not to have them is to expect it to be something other than capitalist.

Further, we must assume that social ecologists, like other leftists, believe that if humanity is ever to attain a free and rational society, capitalism must be completely destroyed. Social ecologists are distinctive among leftists, however, in maintaining that the social order that must replace it must be a collectivist, indeed a libertarian communist society, in which production and distribution are organized according to the maxim “From each according to ability, to each according to need” (to the extent, to be sure, that such needs can be satisfied given the existing resources of the society). Social ecologists agree, we must assume, that such a libertarian communist society cannot be achieved without the prior abolition not only of capitalism but of the state, with its professional bureaucracy, its monopoly over the means of violence, and its inherent commitment to the interests of the bourgeoisie.

Social ecologists agree, we must further assume, that the state must be replaced by a democratic political realm, one that comprises “communes” or municipalities of some kind that are in confederation with one another. Social ecologists will also comprehend that participating in electoral politics at the local level can have some advantages. When we meet a social ecologist, we assume that he or she more or less shares these minimal, underlying common principles: the basic analysis of capitalism and its trajectory that we have described, as well as the imperative to replace competitive market-oriented social relations with libertarian institutions.

If you want to read the text Murray Bookchin wrote, you can find it online. This text of Bookchin, and my reworking of a part of it, could maybe also function as a base for an international social ecology movement. We have been discussing about this idea with many social ecologists living in Belgium and there were some other ideas added to the text. Ideas like the one that there should be more about the problems with social hierarchy in it, problems we have with things like colonialism or the domination of women by men. There should probably also be something about technology in it and the way we think of it. We’re not at all against technology but it has to be good technology, something also that can help us to get rid of the ecological crisis. My friend Sixtine van Outryve has stated that she thinks “social ecologists also comprehend that, in some contexts, participating in electoral politics at the local level can be strategic in order to give the power to communal popular assemblies”. She also stated that “the terms direct democracy and popular assembly should be present in it” (by saying that public power is exercised by the people assembled in popular assemblies at the communal level and deciding in direct democracy, or something like that). And she thought as well that a small explanation on the concept of confederation and how it differs from the State should be included.

It’s my aim to get social ecology more known in Belgium. Not only social ecology but also the ideas of people who are much in agreement with me on political and social matters. This is not easy. Belgium is a country in which two languages are very influential: Dutch and French. Other languages that are somewhat influential here are English, German and also more and more the Arabic language. Belgian society is multilingual, and I know of no person who lives in Belgium, who is very much interested in social ecology and is a polyglot at the same time. In fact, social ecologists living in Belgium often wonder what kind of language they should use while communicating with each other. In some situations it is Dutch, in others it is French or English. Not all social ecologists living in Belgium have French or Dutch as their mother tongue. That’s one of the problems we face while organizing these people here.

Still, we are lucky to have quite some original social ecology writings in English that have been translated. Today I learned that Remaking Society: Pathways to a Green Future by Murray Bookchin, a book written in 1989 and already translated into many languages in the nineties, has now been published by a group from the Netherlands. It was recently translated into Dutch by Johny Lenaerts (who lives in Belgium). The group behind this new book on paper is a small publisher called Kelderuitgeverij. Murray Bookchin thought of this book as one of the works that could help people comprehend what his social ecology was all about.

But who was Murray Bookchin? This philosopher, social theorist and political activist was born in 1921 and died in 2006. He can be called the most influential social theorist of social ecology and was an American Jew with Russian roots who grew up in New York. If you want to know much more about his life I can recommend an excellent biography Janet Biehl wrote about him five years ago: Ecology or Apocalypse: The Life of Murray Bookchin.

In the 1990s, when I got to know social ecology, Bookchin was not very well known. He only was known much in some parts of the Left or the ecological movement, in continents like North America, Oceania and Europe, mostly in anarchist or libertarian socialist circles. Together with someone like Noam Chomsky he was seen as an influential contemporary anarchist writer, but Chomsky was much better known I think, certainly in academic circles because Chomsky was a well-known linguist. Bookchin only became well-known later, when he started to influence the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, and because of that also ‘the Kurdish movement’.

Abdullah Öcalan had started as a Marxist-Leninist but later grew away from that, even before he went to prison – and he has been in a Turkish prison now for more than 20 years. It’s not fully clear what the other intellectual influences on Öcalan were as he grew older but the names Wallerstein, Braudel, and Foucault are often mentioned. As Janet Biehl (2012) has also stated in the text Bookchin, Öcalan, and the Dialectics of Democracy:

… it’s clear that in 2002 Öcalan started reading Bookchin intensively, especially Ecology of Freedom and Urbanization Without Cities. Thereafter, through his lawyers, he began recommending Urbanization Without Cities to all mayors in Turkish Kurdistan and Ecology of Freedom to all militants. In the spring of 2004, he had his lawyers contact Murray, which they did through an intermediary, who explained to Murray that Öcalan considered himself his student, had acquired a good understanding of his work, and was eager to make the ideas applicable to Middle Eastern societies. He asked for a dialogue with Murray and sent one of his manuscripts. It would have been amazing, had that dialogue taken place. Unfortunately Murray, at eighty-three, was too sick to accept the invitation and reluctantly, respectfully declined. Öcalan’s subsequent writings show the influence of his study of Bookchin.

I got to know much about the ideas of social ecology before Öcalan did, in the 1990s, when I was in my twenties. At first the term seemed very connected with the work of Murray Bookchin. I didn’t know of any other people who were calling themselves social ecologists. But I got more and more interested in the ideas of the ecological Left, certainly those of anarchists. One of the people responsible for that turn was a Belgian philosopher called Roger Jacobs. He was making the ideas of social ecology more known in the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, mostly by writing much about it. He lived – and still lives – in Hasselt, a city in Flanders not very far from Liège (a large city in Wallonia, a region in the south of Belgium). But Roger did not travel much, he had a family and a job to put time and energy in. When he travelled, the distances often were not that big, and then it regularly was to make ideas like those of social ecology more known in Flanders (a large region in the north of Belgium). He seemed to have more connections with anarchists active in The Netherlands than with the anarchists in Brussels and Wallonia.

Roger had started as a young Marxist but then became more interested in a tendency called “basis socialism”, a Left-wing tendency that tried to renew the socialist tradition by referring to the role of the working class ànd new social movements, Marxism ànd anarchism. Roger thought basis socialism suffered from a confusion of terms (politics, state, power, government) and that it didn’t set clear aims (the emancipatory influencing the existing institutions, how can you measure that?). Roger Jacobs (2019, unpublished work): “Bookchin’s developed view of ‘social ecology’ to the contrary presents a clear diagnosis and remedy for the problems of our time. He cuts the knots without ambiguities.”

On the one side he stated that the working class doesn’t necessarily play a revolutionary  part in a capitalistic system. Yes, Bookchin also started as a Marxist. Jacobs on Bookchin (2019):

As a young communist militant and union organizer he experienced that the organized working class could come to an agreement with the capitalists in exchange for a more or less comfortable place under the capitalist sun. With the institutionalisation of social consultation, first in the US and later on also in Europe, the right to existence of the capitalist and –implicitly – capitalism was admitted. Exit the part of gravedigger of Capital imputed by Marx to the working class.

Instead of that internal gravedigger Bookchin claimed to have traced an external gravedigger of capitalism. No longer the contradiction between capital and labour is the weak spot in the system but the contradiction between capital and nature: capitalism does serious damage to the health of all people ànd to nature.

At the end of August 1998 Roger Jacobs and I participated in an International Conference on ‘libertarian municipalism’ in the Portugese capital, Lisbon. Libertarian municipalism was called the political dimension of social ecology, a synthesis of the economic ideas of Marxism and the anti-hierarchical ideas of Anarchism. The reason for the conference was the recent publication of Janet Biehl’s book, The politics of social ecology: libertarian municipalism (1998). In it she brought together the political ideas of her partner Murray Bookchin in a quite  accessible way of writing. In those days Roger and I became more and more interested in the political dimension of social ecology. We liked to talk to people about it and also write about it. But in Belgium these ideas did not have much influence, so I started to travel more. I liked travelling to places where there were other social ecologists active: Norway, Sweden, London, Leiden and Amsterdam in The Netherlands. I even went to North America for a while.

It hasn’t been until recently that social ecology has become more known in Belgium. Why is this? What is of help is the fact that also some French speaking people in Belgium have become more interested in the ideas. Not only that, they mostly tend to live in only two cities: Liège and Brussels. One of problems hindering social ecology from becoming more widely  known in Belgium was always the thing that those who were the most interested in social ecology in Flanders lived quite far apart, not at all in just two cities but in cities like Hasselt, Antwerp, Leuven and Ghent. Not only that, the Left in Belgium has always been more influential in Brussels (which is very central in Belgium) and Wallonia (the southern part of Belgium) than in Flanders (the northern part of Belgium). So I was quite happy to see social ecology becoming more known in Liège (one of the largest cities in Wallonie) and the Belgian capital – Brussels. In those two cities there are many interesting activists and large movements of radicals and Leftists. In Brussels, the ideas of social ecology are the most known and liked in groups like the Union Communiste Libertaire (Libertarian Communist Union) and an active group close to it defending the idea of self-government. Union Communiste Libertaire recently decided to organise an evening event on social ecology with speaker Sixtine van Outryve, in the heart of Brussels. There were approximately 120 people present, many of them learning much about social ecology for the first time. In Liège much started to happen for social ecology when Floréal Romero started to pay visits to the city.

The bilingual Floréal Romero (he writes much in French but speaks Spanish fluently, and lives in the south of Spain) gave some talks in Liège and Brussels about social ecology, in the years 2018-2019. He has been studying the ideas of social ecology for a long time. Roger Jacobs and I first met in Lisbon, in 1998, at the conference on libertarian muncipalism there. Later I visited him at his house in Spain and after that we never really lost contact. During the past few years he has been travelling much, giving talks about social ecology not only in Spain but also in France and Belgium. He has helped much with getting more French speaking people in Europe interested in social ecology, by the way… also quite some people in the French Yellow Vests movement. Romero has been one of the main organizers of RIES, international meetings for social ecology in Europe. RIES first was in Lyon, France and Bilbao, Spain. After this Romero asked people from Liège if they could help out with all of this, and the people of Liège agreed. So in September 2019 the third RIES took place, in Belgium this time, in Liège.

In advance, several info evenings and discussion workshops took place in Liège to inform local people about the ideas of social ecology and the upcoming RIES. Contrary to the previous RIES meetings, this time the aim was to discuss much in small workshops and find ways to organize on a local and international level rather than to dig much into social theory. The organizers decided to do a lot of international networking, inviting many groups to the four day meeting of RIES in September. Many groups were invited. People who answered the call were from Rojava (Kurdistan), Chiapas (Mexico), Commercy and Saillans (France), Athens (Greece) and many other places. Which topics were discussed in the workshops? Politics and direct democracy, self-government, the construction of autonomy, jineology/feminism. The first evening, Belgian philosopher and social ecologist/communalist Annick Stevens (she is very active in France) gave a social theory introduction to the concepts of social ecology. It was followed by a short discussion, dinner and music. The fourth and last day of RIES Liège was a day of general assemblying, after all of the workshops and lectures that had taken place over the preceding days. The third RIES connected a lot of people from Liège and other cities. If there is one thing we can learn from this: municipalism is not about localism, it’s much connected with international struggles for a better society.

March 12, 2020

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