Thursday, February 10, 2022

Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Chapter 1


Summary of Chapter 1: Post-Scarcity Anarchism

Bookchin lays out his great, two-part thesis: that 1) the productivity of modern technology has created the conditions for a post-scarcity society, free of hierarchy and exploitation; and 2) that only a society that is free of hierarchy and exploitation will manage to avoid destroying the environment. Bookchin emphasizes the promise of the present [1960s, early 70s], but there is an unstated (at least so far) flipside of urgency in the face of impending ecological disaster; no doubt, if the book had been written today, that dark side would get more emphasis. A third and related point, which he will discuss throughout the chapter, is the difference between the current revolutionary moment which he saw in the counterculture of the late 60s, with earlier revolutionary movements: while all the past successful revolutions have been particularistic, asserting the interests of a specific "minority" class, there is now the potential for a generalized revolution in the interest of all of humanity.

The great bourgeois revolutions of modern times offered an ideology of sweeping political reconstitution, but in reality they merely certified the social dominance of the bourgeoisie, giving formal political expression to the economic ascendancy of capital. The lofty notions of the "nation," the "free citizen," of equality before the law," concealed the mundane reality of the centralized state, the atomized isolated man, the dominance of bourgeois interest. Despite their sweeping ideological claims, the particularistic revolutions replaced the rule of one class by another, one system of exploitation by another, one system of toil by another, and one system of psychological repression by another. (55)

The “great wound" of propertied society (and inequality) can be "healed." He distinguishes between "abstract" vs. "concrete" freedom: and only with the latter are humans "fully human.” The preconditions exist, but technology is currently used to maintain the centralizing and unequal system of the status quo, privileging the bourgeoisie. The further downside of current technology is that, in trying to dominate and control the environment, "bourgeois society" is destroying it (57).

Bookchin emphasizes the difference between today's economy and the economy at the time Marx was writing. Today, the problem is not scarcity but "‘consumption for the sake of consumption,’ in which immiseration takes a spiritual rather than an economic form—it is starvation of life” (59). According to Bookchin, it was a limitation of Marx’s time that led him to focus on the struggle over the means of production in the economic system; what Marx had described is really just the preconditions for liberation. He introduces the idea of a "redemptive dialectic" which appears to be a criticism of Marx's dialectic – with his idea of generalized against particularistic revolutions, it sounds like he would have seen Marxist revolution as particularistic? It is no longer about the proletariat, or the economy itself, according to Bookchin.

Part of why he calls the modern system "state capitalism," as opposed to the earlier "industrial capitalism": “A century ago, scarcity had to be endured; today, it has to be enforced—hence the importance of the state in the present era” (59-60). The old dialectic between classes is replaced by a new dialectic: capitalism against the environment. Besides capitalism against [Gaia], there is the contradiction/dialectic between hierarchy/exploitation and "man's Eros-derived impulses" – which is why the youth are the true revolutionary class, according to Bookchin. He cites Vaneigem that "hierarchical power has preserved humanity for thousands of years as alcohol preserves a fetus, by arresting either growth or decay"  (61: endnotes have been cut off this pdf. Online this passage is identified as from "Basic Banalities" published in the Situationist International). These hierarchical forms, which once played a role in fighting scarcity, now threaten the very survival of humanity.

The counterculture of the time of his writing plays a revolutionary, or potentially revolutionary, role, by its refusal of the bourgeois order: he lists several important negations in this regard on page 63 in a rapidfire paragraph which I’ll tease apart here:

1. negation of city by community:

The absolute negation of the city is community—a community in which the social environment is decentralized into rounded, ecologically balanced communes. (63)

[Since Merrifield called out Bookchin for anti-urban sentiment, I am on the lookout for passages like this; nevertheless, although he is using the “city” as something to be negated, it doesn’t seem to me like “commune” and “community” are necessarily anti-urban concepts here. Later on he will mention the idea of “human scale” as opposed to modern cities which are beyond human scale. There is a reductionist vision coming out of ethology that tries to cook this insight regarding “human scale” down to some kind of naturally acceptable and reifiable number; this has been used in a very anti-urban way [in contrast with Benjamin’s writings on panorama and physiologies, and scarring etc., as a distinct reaction to the more-than-human size of the metropolis]. But the situationalists themselves wanted a “unified” political order and the idea of urban communes on some kind of council or soviet model does not have to be about abolishing cities, just about changing their governance.]

2. negation of bureaucracy by face-to-face relations (akin to above)

3. negation of centralized economy (which includes capitalism; the opposite is a localized economy)

4. negation of patriarchal family by liberated sexuality

5. negation of marketplace by communism

A growing societal rejection of hierarchy and centralization is learning from ecological examples: agriculture should be more decentralized to be more ecological; manufacturing and power generation should also be smaller and more diverse, more clean. He champions the idea of ecocommunity which seeks a lasting balance with the natural world. Individualism is essential to any true [generalized] revolution: such a revolution he describes as "self-liberation that reaches social dimensions.” The most advanced form of class consciousness thus becomes self-consciousness.

In apparent contrast to his later condemnations of “lifestyle anarchism,” he here insists that there is a revolutionary lifestyle, which is essential to the process of building for revolution. Though not stated as such, this multitudinous self-making of diverse, [unique] individuals would be the opposite of the failed, top-down model of imposed revolution a la the Bolsheviks. Bookchin traces examples of spontaneity in earlier revolutions; this "surreal dimension of the revolutionary process" has been an essential component in every revolutionary movement. In contrast, the traditional left puritanism (of the official vanguard parties which are in fact drags on true, spontaneous, bottom-up revolution) is the product of the infiltration of bourgeois life into the revolutionary movement, "the commodity nature of man under capitalism" which also transforms the group into a self-maintaining thing, contra its original goals. The truly revolutionary group must see itself as a "catalyst," not a vanguard. It must avoid all hierarchy, bureaucracy, and "commodity relations" in its working, and be totally open, transparent, and decentralized.

The potential limits of Bookchin's somewhat idealist view of revolution is revealed in his account of the great promise presented by the counterculture of his day, as a "refusal" of Bourgeois values. He again privileges the role of college youth in bridging the “particularistic critique[s]” of antiracism, feminism, gay rights, environmentalist, and labor movements, into a "generalized opposition to the bourgeois order" (70-1). He compares and contrasts the present to the period of the Enlightenment, in which he sees a bottom-up dissatisfaction and change in consciousness in the lower classes, which seems to then take a more critical form in the educated classes, which then “seeps downward” as critique in a sort of dialectic:

In this respect, the period in which we live closely resembles the revolutionary Enlightenment that swept through France in the eighteenth century—a period that completely reworked French consciousness and prepared the conditions for the Great Revolution of 1789. Then as now, the old institutions were slowly pulverized by molecular action from below long before they were toppled by mass revolutionary action. This molecular movement creates an atmosphere of general lawlessness: a growing personal day-to-day disobedience, a tendency not to "go along" with the existing system, a seemingly "petty" but nevertheless critical attempt to circumvent restriction in every facet of daily life. The society, in effect, becomes disorderly, undisciplined, Dionysian—a condition that reveals itself most dramatically in an increasing rate of official crimes. A vast critique of the system develops—the actual Enlightenment itself, two centuries ago, and the sweeping critique that exists today—which seeps downward and accelerates the molecular movement at the base. Be it an angry gesture, a "riot" or a conscious change in lifestyle, an ever-increasing number of people—who have no more of a commitment to an organized revolutionary movement than they have to society itself—begin spontaneously to engage in their own defiant propaganda of the deed. (71)

There are many key ideas in here: the “molecular movement” from below [aka undirected spontaneism]; general lawlessness as a form of propaganda by the deed, part of a "vast critique" [but the critique "seeps downward", so is not identical with the uncritical lawlessness; the loss of faith and dissatisfaction precedes the formation and spread of critique. [Another good example of a point where "suspicion" and "critique" are two distinct things, though related].

 Bookchin sees several parallels between the modern counterculture and the Enlightenment:

1. similar unevenness and contradictory makeup

2. the emergence of the crowd or "mob" (72) as a vehicle of protest. Similar to Shumsky, the mob represents an alternative form which comes into being when the need for protest is not serviced by existing institutions. Yet Bookchin, contra most traditional theorists of the crowd, emphasizes the mob as a site of individualization and of de-massification [because they are rebelling against the massified and de-individualizing social order; cf. also Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between “mass” and “pack”]. The rebellious crowd reclaims the street from commodification, for real human existence. Bookchin here reiterates his themes of 1) individual revolt becoming social revolt, and 2) the opposition between the abstract, and everyday life.

3. just like with the Enlightenment, there are growing numbers of Lumpen/ declasses, educated middle class people falling into lower strata, and at the bottom unruly "sans-cullottes" in ghettos, etc.

However, despite these similarities, the present time is also different from the Enlightenment, which was a switch between two social orders based on scarcity. Bookchin details how the forces of the Enlightenment revolution were harnessed and controlled by industrial society and democratic politics. He contrasts the slogans of the French revolution ("Bread and the Constitution of '93!") with the modern "Black is Beautiful!" "Make Love, Not War," and the graffiti of the May 1968 events. The old struggle was still over scarcity but the new one is over the potential for a world without toil or exploitation.

What we are witnessing is the breakdown of a century and a half of embourgeoisement and a pulverization of all bourgeois institutions at a point in history when the boldest concepts of Utopia are realizable. And there is nothing that the present bourgeois order can substitute for the destruction of its traditional institutions but bureaucratic manipulation and state capitalism. (75)

 [Here he does not seem to have foreseen the future of neo-liberal adaptation, accompanied by use of computing power. It is the technological control of information, and later massaging of consumers in the environment through apps (for example), which has been part of the “state capital” response to the crisis he is referring to (along with increased globalization and off-shoring of production; the wealth he describes is still dependent on labor, just in other countries; unless it could be argued that obscene financialization and debt consume the "wealth" that could be going to a post-scarcity society).]

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