Nine years after Bookchin’s death, his daughter has released this collection of essays including the previously unpublished The Future of the Left. A brief foreword by Ursula LeGuin includes great quotes like, “In a country that has all but shut its left eye and is trying to use only its right hand, where does an ambidextrous, binocular Old Rad like Murray Bookchin fit?” This is a heavy read, one that makes you spend thirty minutes reading a few pages and re-reading them to understand what he is laying on you in densely packed sentences. I wonder if it could benefit from a lightening of the writing, to spread the ideas more easily? Ultimately I read two of the essays deeply, the others getting the skim treatment: The Communalist Project and The Future of the Left.
He starts out with a grim note musing that the twenty-first century will be either the most radical of times or most reactionary, depending on the kind of social movement that comes out of the ideas accumulated over the prior two hundred years. We are “morally naked” and pessimistic, capitalism is entrenched in our minds and culture “regresses appallingly, almost to a vanishing point.” Yes! This kind of slap to the face in the first few pages makes me want to commit to reading slowly, to wade through the density. Then he begins his takedown of Marxism, rightfully crediting it for being revolutionary for its time but we now live 150 years in the future and things didn’t quite go down like Marx predicted. In the void that existed between Marxist theory and reality, anarchism sprung to prominence. Bookchin spent decades as an anarchist before realizing that this too was a flawed theory. One real problem is mistaking statecraft for politics; politics (as originally understood) is the “active engagement of citizens in handling their municipal affairs.”
He sets up the problem further:
While the state is the instrument by which an oppressive and exploitative class regulates and coercively controls the behavior of an exploited class by a ruling class, a government–or better still, a polity– is an ensemble of institutions designed to deal with the problems of consociational life in an orderly and hopefully fair manner.
Solution? Communalism. Hmm, my spidey senses are already rebelling since the word sounds too similar to the dreaded Communism. Very roughly summarized, this is ruling at a city-level where every citizen must participate, and several cities are in federation with each other to combine power, trade, etc, “radically restructuring cities’ governing institutions into popular democratic assemblies based on neighborhoods, towns, and villages.”
In the other essay I read closely, The Future of the Left, he dives into twentieth century failings of the proletariat to achieve revolution. “How did it come to pass that the classical era, marked by its coherence and unity in revolutionary thought and practice, gave way to a completely decadent era in which incoherence is celebrated, particularly in the name of a postmodernism that equates chaotic nihilism with freedom, self-expression, and creativity–not unlike the chaos of the marketplace itself?” Here again he dives into what Marx got wrong. Capitalism was not in its dying phase, it wasn’t even close to maturity, just getting its engines revving by the time the century dawned. “Capitalism… was still subordinated culturally and even structurally to elite strata, often based on kinship, that were more feudal than bourgeois.”
It’s surprising that the battlefronts of WWI were not the cause of the 1917 revolution; it was in the rear, where hunger was more powerful than death by tanks and guns and gas. “It speaks volumes that, despite the horrors of the Great War, the masses went along with the conflict until it was completely unendurable materially. Such is the power of adaptation, tradition, and habit in everyday life.” Then came the period of economic prosperity post WWII, and this I believe is the key to the failure of the Left:
The attempt to redefine the proletariat and make it a majority of the population lost all credibility when capitalism began to create a huge “salariat” of office employees, managers, salespeople, and an army of service, engineering, advertising, media, and governmental personnel who saw themselves as a new middle class, deeply invested in bourgeois property through stocks, bonds, real estate, pensions, and the like, however minor these may seem by comparison with the big bourgeoisie.
More on failings of Marx and Bakunin, and the need to figure out how to incorporate their theories into today’s reality:
Both ideologies–Marxism and anarchism–emerged at times when industrial societies were still in their infancy and nation-states were still in the process of being formed. While Marx tried to conceptualize small-scale, often well-educated Parisian craftsmen as “proletarians,” Bakunin’s imagination was caught up with images of social bandits and peasant jaqueries. Both men, to be sure, contributed valuable insights to revolutionary theory, but they were revolutionaries who formulated their ideas in a socially limited time. They could hardly be expected to anticipate the problems that emerged during the hectic century that followed their deaths. A major problem facing radical social thought and action today is to determine what can be incorporated from their time into a new, highly dynamic capitalist era that has long transcended the old semifeudal world of independent peasants and craftsmen; a new era, also, that has largely discarded the textile-metal-steam engine world of the Industrial Revolution, with its burgeoning population of totally dispossessed proletarian masses. Their place has been taken in great part by technologies that can replace labor in nearly all spheres of work and provide a degree of abundance in the means of life that the most imaginative utopians of the nineteenth century could not have anticipated.
On the current state of capitalism’s accelerated heartlessness:
But today, capitalism has penetrated into all aspects of life. Greed, an inordinate appetite for wealth, an accounting mentality, and a disdainful view of poverty and infirmity have become a moral pathology. Under these circumstances, bourgeois traits are the celebrated symbols of the “beautiful people” and, more subtly, of yuppified baby boomers. These values percolate into the less fortunate strata of the population who, depending upon their own resources, view the fortunate with envy, even awe, and guiltily target themselves for their own lack of privilege and status as “ne’er-do-wells.”
In this new embourgeoisement, the dispossessed harbor no class antagonisms toward the “rich and beautiful” (a unique juxtaposition) but rather esteem them. At present, poor and middle-class people are less likely to view the bourgeoisie with hatred than with servile admiration; they increasingly see the ability to make money and accrue wealth not as indicative of a predatory disposition and the absence of moral scruples, as was the case a few generations ago, but as evidence of innate abilities and intelligence… The myriad millions who envy and admire the bourgeoisie no longer see its members as part of a “class”; they are rather a “meritocracy,” who have become, as a result of luck and effort, winners in the lottery of life. If Americans once widely believed that anyone could become the president of the United States, the new belief holds that anyone can become a millionaire or–who knows?– one of the ten richest people in the world.
LeGuin’s foreword also includes:
What all political and social thinking has finally been forced to face is, of course, the irreversible degradation of the environment by unrestrained industrial capitalism: the enormous fact of which science has been trying for fifty years to convince us, while technology provided us ever greater distractions from it. Every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned. Yet we can’t stop the process. A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as [Bookchin] observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.