Introduction to Social Ecology and the Right to the City

Image courtesy of James McKay

Written by Federico Venturini, Emet Değirmenci, and Inés Morales. The following piece is the introduction to TRISE’s book “Social Ecology and the Right to the City” (Black Rose Book 2019)

We have seen the future—and it doesn’t work
– Jerome Ross, ROAR Magazine

We don’t want to manage the inferno, we want to disassemble it and build something new
– Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar, Pikara Magazine

The ecological principle of unity in diversity grades into a richly mediated social principle; hence my use of the term social ecology
– Murray Bookchin, The Modern Crisis

About this Book

This volume arose from proceedings of the conference The Right to the City and Social Ecology—Towards Ecological and Democratic Cities, held in Thessaloniki 1–3 September, 2017. The conference was organized by the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology (TRISE).

TRISE is an association of activists and intellectuals based in Europe, who are concerned with current socio-ecological crises. It was founded in Greece in 2013 and focuses on research, education, and training. The association initiates, supports and facilitates research on social ecology, urban social movements, and the democratization of society. Historically, its inspiration can be traced to Vermont, US, where the Institute for Social Ecology was co-founded by Murray Bookchin and Dan Chodorkoff in 1974.

At the heart of the organization’s mission lies the theory of social ecology. Multiple definitions of social ecology exist. However, TRISE largely follows the innovative philosophy of Murray Bookchin, as well as other writers and activists who developed his work. TRISE aims to foster and develop social ecological analysis and practice that can be adopted for the struggles to come.

This book answers this call, exploring the contemporary discourse surrounding urban rights—the right to the city—and presents a selection of new essays on social ecology. This volume seeks to bring the ideas of social ecology into conversation with the worldwide call for the right to the city, thereby challenging and extending existing discussions on both topics in a fruitful cross-fertilization. Theories and practices need to be discovered, engaged with, and transformed in order to build an effective culture of resistance.

Getting Started: Understanding Ecological Disasters and Inequality

Social and ecological crises are intertwined and, as becomes more evident every day, they are exacerbated by the dominant social, economic, and political systems. Human impacts on the planet are so evident and unique that more and more commentators are calling the geological time in which we live the “Anthropocene” era (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000), from “anthropos” (human) and “-cene”, from kainos (new or recent). The biosphere and geological time scale have been fundamentally transformed by human activity and researchers have identified many processes that regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth’s systems and nine quantitative planetary boundaries (Steffen et al. 2015) that must not be crossed if humanity is to continue thriving. These include such trends as stratospheric ozone depletion, loss of biosphere integrity, chemical pollution and the release of novel entities, climate change, ocean acidification, freshwater consumption and  the global hydrological cycle, land system change, nitrogen and phosphorus flows to the biosphere and oceans, and atmospheric aerosol loading. Crossing these boundaries threatens the existence of life on this planet as we know it, potentially bringing deep or even irreparable change. Of these boundaries, two (biodiversity loss and climate change) have already been
crossed, while others are in imminent danger of being crossed.

Bookchin expressed his concerns for the future of humanity and warned us that “if we do not do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable” (2005: 107).

However, more appropriate still is the term “Capitalocene” (Moore 2016). The causes of current changes are determined not just simply by human intervention, but by the current system that permeates all aspects of our societies—capitalism. These pressing planetary environmental problems can be adressed only by facing the problems within society.

Even the United Nations acknowledges that we live in a world of global inequality and poverty (United Nation Development Programme 2005; 2010). Oxfam (see Hardoon 2017: 2) has also collated some alarming statistics on economic inequality:

  • “Since 2015, the richest 1% has owned more wealth than the rest of the planet’s population.
  • Eight men now own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world.
  • Over the next 20 years, 500 people will hand over $2.1 trillion to their heirs—a sum larger than the GDP of India, a country of 1.3 billion people.
  • The incomes of the poorest 10% increased by less than $3 a year between 1988 and 2011, while the richest 1% increased their incomes by 182 times what they earned in 1988.
  • A FTSE 100 CEO earns as much as 10,000 garment factory workers in Bangladesh.
  • In the US new research by economist Thomas Piketty also shows that over the last 30 years income growth for the bottom 50% has been zero, whereas income growth for the top 1% has been 300%.
  • In Vietnam the country’s richest man earns more in a day than the poorest person earns in 10 years.”

Insofar as these data depict a grim picture, economic inequality is just one indicator among many that illustrate a widespread social crisis; we could add unequal access to resources, gender/racial/class discrimination, widespread conflicts, the Global North–South divide, and so on.

Cities today represent both one of the major causes of the aggravation of the ecological and social crises, but also a potential solution to them. Many contemporary authors have dealt with the complexity of cities. Merrifield (2013) argues that we live in an era of global urbanization, where the majority of the world population now live in cities, which are at the forefront of the current environmental and social crises (Harvey 2012). The world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050; of this number an astonishing 66% will live in urban areas and almost all of the increase will be concentrated in Asian and African cities (United Nations 2014).

Indeed, cities today represent the main source of ecological and social problems (Low and Gleeson 2005) And 71% of global energy-related carbon emissions are generated in urban areas (Rosenzweig et al. 2010). Moreover, they are also the frontier of the capitalist model of development, being fundamental to the reproduction of capital, as Harvey (2008) points out. Even NATO (2003) recognizes that cities are also likely to be the arenas of highest conflict in the future. In developing countries, cities are growing at an unstoppable pace, making clearer every day the unequal access to, and distribution of, resources and living conditions, as evident in Planet of Slums (Davis 2006). The increase in pollution, violence, and marginalization suffered by the urban poor, especially in the Global South (Aguirre 2009), constitute the hidden face of urbanization, and poverty is becoming a distinctly urban problem (Pugh 2000). Thus, by examining cities and urban crises the contradictions of capitalism become increasingly evident (Swyngedouw 2005).

At the same time, other authors (Hern 2010; Evans 2012; Portugali et al. 2012) argue that cities are major sites for re-imagining a more ecologically and socially resilient future, becoming the locus where the future of humanity is discussed and contested. This is why cities are so central to this volume.

Changing the World

By facing the social and environmental crises created by capitalism, social movements are key actors for change. From Cairo to Seattle, from Hong Kong to Barcelona, millions of people are working under the surface of oppression to build a different world. Sometimes this work surfaces with the eruption of millions of people in the street. However, a resurgence of populism and right-wing politics seeks to oppose them. In this respect, the call for the right to the city is echoing around the world.

The debate around rights gained extreme relevance after the Second World War when, in 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The concept of the right to the city was first introduced by Lefebvre in 1968 in his work Le Droit a la Ville, and has since been developed and spread, becoming a key phrase within urban social movements (Harvey 2008; Roussopoulos 2017).

The right to the city calls for a re-appropriation of the city in all of its aspects from full and equal access to resources to the possibility of collectively shaping the city environment. Moreover, it calls for a “revolutionary conception of citizenship” (Lefebvre in Merrifield 2017: 23), implying a sea change in society.

Since its first formulation, the importance of the right to the city has grown to the point that it has been introduced into the United Nations agenda (UN Human Settlements Programme 2010) and other international bodies, most notably in city charters and statutes. If we can say that speaking of the right to the city “has become fashionable these days” (Souza 2010: 315), this notoriety has come with a price. A plurality of actors now use the term to mean different things for different purposes, causing it to lose the revolutionary charge of Lefebvre’s formulation.

In this volume we wish to critically analyze the mobilizing concept of the right to the city, offering new insights and ways forward. To this end, we believe that social ecology offers a powerful analytical tool and a theory of action for strategies, ethics, and a reconstructive vision for a future society based on freedom. To sum up, social ecology understands the relationship between ecological and human exploitation and aims to assess and solve the current social and environmental crises, conceived as the direct consequences of capitalism and all forms of domination.

However, we have to admit that social ecology is often neglected, or dismissed, as political theory. Nevertheless, since Bookchin’s death in 2006 this holistic approach remains of inestimable value, leading to its revival, most visible in its vital influence on the Kurdish resistance in Syria and Turkey (Hammy and Finley 2015; Stanchev 2015; Hunt 2017), and the municipalist movement worldwide (Mansilla 2017; Rubio-Pueyo 2017).

We believe that social ecology has much to offer contemporary struggles, both as a theory to analyse reality and as a practice to change reality. However, we see the necessity of advancing social ecology, to open spaces for debate and organically make the discipline grow. In recent years few works have attempted to develop social ecology further; one of the few exceptions is the collection that Eiglad (2015) edited, Social Ecology and Social Change. The aim of the present work is to continue in the same spirit, going even further in a critical re-assessment of social ecology, offering ideas and reflections to use for social change, combatting the trend of dehumanizing urbanization, and moving towards active and revolutionary citizenship.

The Role of the Activist-Researcher

This book showcases the work of a vast array of authors with different cultural backgrounds, coming from different disciplines—some with academic experience, others with more activist sensibilities—but all united by a common aim: to change the current system that is based on exploitation and domination.

As people committed to social change, we believe it is important to share some overarching beliefs that have pushed us while working on this book and in our daily efforts. As Conti expresses it, “the goal of research is not the interpretation of the world but the organisation of transformation” (2005: np). We hope that this book will not be simply relegated to academia but will appeal to activists and thinkers interested in social change.

We agree that research and knowledge production is fundamental to the advancement of social and political struggles. But it needs to be free of the interference of capitalist interests in order to help political groups and revolutionary social movements. The distinction between activism[1] and research should be blurred because researchers should, first and foremost, be committed to social change. Research and knowledge production are key for social movements that aim to change social relations in today’s dominant capitalist system.

Through research, critical reflection is realized, endowing the aim of specific and general knowledge to understand the society in which we live and at the same time develop mechanisms that help in its transformation. Research organizes and systematizes knowledge and allows the development of methods and analytical tools to support and improve the performance of groups and movements. In addition, research involves the possibility of socializing the knowledge produced. Indeed, knowledge should both be collectively produced and shared. Research should not be restricted to one group; it is not the sole responsibility of some technicians or specialists, despite the importance of technical and specialized study. Social movements themselves should be the subject of knowledge production, geared to the needs of their struggles and addressing societal problems. What we learn in university, in life, in the street, and at work should be used to fight, to help better understand the world, its conflicts and contradictions, and at the same time think through and prepare the most effective strategies for building a new society.

Research is not only for achieving new results, but it is a dynamic process of education, training, and collective growth. The research presented here is based on the principle of active participation, which starts from a collective formulation of objectives, then develops dynamically, involving all participants, and aims to produce useful knowledge to be incorporated into daily revolutionary practice.

From this perspective, we proudly call this volume an undisciplined production. As critical scholar Raman wrote:

The call to be “undisciplined” is both a way of exceeding the limits of disciplinary borders, and a refusal to conform to the requirements of neoliberal academia. It can open up new possibilities for radical research. (Raman 2017: vi)

On the one hand, reality is so complex that we need to engage with multiple knowledge realms. We wish to break down the wall of a compartmentalized knowledge, so often reproduced in universities. Limiting our approach to one discipline or perspective is, indeed, limiting. Society is complex and social change needs a holistic approach in which knowledge production is a collective effort, not just something that emerges from designated researchers.

On the other hand, not only are all the contributors to this volume committed to social change but, given their backgrounds, they have not followed the classical academic/research path. We are undisciplined. We do not exhibit good behaviour—not even self-control. Certainly not regarding this system that is bringing us towards sociological catastrophe and ever-expanding social inequality. We believe in the right to resist tyranny, oppression, and domination. We hope that this work stimulates debates, fosters a culture of resistance, and helps to inspire action. In order to facilitate this knowledge exchange, we have agreed with the contributors and the publisher to publish this book under a Creative Commons license. As St. Columba said in 561 CE:

The knowledge in books should be available to anybody who wants to read them and has the skills or is worthy to do so; and it is wrong to hide such knowledge away or to attempt to extinguish the divine things that books contain. (Columba in Pollock 2018: 111)

We believe that information and research should be freely shared in order for new ideas and practices to flourish and thrive. This collective book is an example that we hope will be followed.

Contributions to this Volume

The book is comprised of a series of different chapters, grouped into five parts. The wide diversity of contributions is a consequence of the rich and vibrant presentations at the 2017 TRISE conference. We see this as an opportunity to explore our world, giving voice to different actors to portray the complex mosaic of reality. The contributions span from political theory to grassroots experience, from UK-based examples to the Kurdish revolution, from social ecology to the right to the city.

In the first section, Discovering Social Ecology, the concept of social ecology is introduced, highlighting the key points.

For over 50 years, American radical scholar and activist Murray Bookchin produced a steady stream of impressive essays, political tracts, and substantive books on the ecological crisis, the culture of cities, libertarian political movements, and social ecology. Brian Morris’ essay outlines and reaffirm Bookchin’s enduring legacy, focusing on his philosophy of dialectical naturalism and his radical politics with respect to his thoughts on direct democracy within the context of the city.

In the following chapter, Dan Chodorkoff presents an overview of social ecology and explores a political ideology within social ecology called “communalism” or “libertarian municipalism”. He argues that we must change the underlying political and economic structures that govern us and create a new sensibility if we are to achieve an ecological society.

In her chapter, Emet Değirmenci analyses the limits to growth from the perspective of critics of social ecology. This contribution underlines that a steady-state economy is possible through de-growth strategies based on libertarian municipalism and revolutionary institutions.

In Part 2, Engaging with the Right to the City, authors introduce the concept of the right to the city and problematize it. Magali Fricaudet first explores the actual resonances of the right to the city as an emancipatory narrative and social practice, treating cities as centres of capitalist accumulation processes that commodify life in all its aspects. The right to the city should be based on the use-value of the city, rather than its exchange value, as a way of freeing citizens from private property and space-based class relations. This perspective has influenced a diversity of interpretations and practices that have in common the aim of taking back the city as a common good, a place for collective emancipation and freedom.

Theodoros Karyotis then juxtaposes urban commoning and the right to the city as two different vocabularies for making sense of urban struggles. The two narratives give rise to different conceptualizations of social conflict, different tactics and objectives, and ultimately different antagonistic subjects. The author offers examples from the past decade in Greece to show that commoning is not necessarily an alternative to “rights talk”, but rather a way in which rights may be fleshed out, and tethered to contentious politics waged by concrete communities.

In the final paper of Part 2, Federico Venturini explores the relations between the right to the city, spatial justice, and social ecology. He claims that the more general concept of challenging all forms of power that oppress freedom can be developed as a unifying concept to include and amplify the agendas of both the right to the city and spatial justice.

In Part 3, The Kurdish Answer, the experiences of the Kurdish movement are introduced. In her piece, Havin Guneser explains the “Molotov cocktail” of historical conditions which drove the Kurdish freedom movement to break with the old orthodoxies. Guneser shows how Abdullah Öcalan and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) question what is handed down as truth in an ongoing process of self-transformation.

In their contribution, two ecology activists from the Mesopotamia Ecology Movement, Ercan Ayboga and Egit Pale, then analyse the development of cities in North Kurdistan in the twentieth century. However, they focus on the social, cultural, and economic changes that have accompanied the growth of the Kurdish freedom movement and the takeover of municipalities. Against a neoliberal framework and political pressure, the Kurdish freedom movement is challenged to develop a social and ecological city with an emphasis on popular participation in decision-making processes.

In the fourth part, Transforming Social Theory, an array of theoretical topics is presented. Metin Güven’s analysis includes the transition from a US-dominated world system to a new one, varieties in the evolution of the State, and the cultural differences between states during the Axial Age. The chapter then focuses on state capitalism in China and explains why a new theory of the State is needed to tackle upcoming struggles against domination as China develops its authoritarian capitalism state model.

The purpose of Alexandros Schismenos’ work is to correlate central aspects of the crisis of established signification in order to highlight the opportunities for social emancipation that emerge through collective forms of direct democracy. Inspiration is drawn from social ecology, which calls for a “free” public time. The main point of this chapter is that creating a free public time implies the creation of a democratic collective.

In his contribution, Olli Tammilehto attempts to understand how rapid and profound societal change is possible. He develops a theory of a “shadow society” and a “shadow personality” that come to the fore when societies undergo deep structural transformations. This chapter also explores the relevance of this theory for social movements.

The fifth and final section, Walking with the Right to the City, presents two different experiences of groups working with the right to the city. Diana Bogado, Noel Manzano, and Marta Solanas focus on the phenomenon of squatting and occupying, showing how it currently constitutes a global way of resisting the “neoliberal” dynamic of the global metropolis. By comparing experiences in Spain and Brazil, they attempt to explain how cities have menaced the popular classes in both countries, transforming the city to attract speculative financial capital. They observe how local populations reacted to maintain their rights to the city.

Finally, Jemma Neville offers a short story from her street in Edinburgh, Scotland. As much as human rights are universal, indivisible, and interdependent, neighbours living side by side must still negotiate and share common ground. This piece explores how academic theory and social ecology activist practices can be blended in everyday interaction.

As stated in the essay opening this book, building a lasting culture of resistance that can operate within all societies requires discourse that not only explores the negative effects of capitalism, but also offers a reconstructive and revolutionary vision. Contributing to building this vision is the aim of this book. Let us implement it and transform our societies!


Federico Venturini:
I wish to thank: my co-editors, Emet and Inés, for their patience and guidance; TRISE and BRB for the opportunity to undertake this project; Josie for being close to me in a dark period of my life; Margherita for having brought back a smile on my face; David Cann for his tireless work copy-editing the text of this book, and the Korov’ev and 3E collectives for continuously helping me to discover, engage, and transform reality.

Emet Değirmenci:
First, I would like to thank Federico for proposing the book project during the conference. Gathering all the contributions required great patience. I wish to thank my other co-editor, Inés, for her academic insights. I am grateful too for guidance from TRISE and BRB. Without their constructive efforts, this project would not have materialized.

Inés Morales:
Thanks to all those who struggle to disassemble the inferno.

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[1] We use the term “activism” for convenience and for reasons of space. However, we believe that we should go beyond the divide between activists and the rest of the world, building a unifying/plural society working towards social change.

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