Social Ecology: A Quick Introduction

Social Ecology: A Quick Introduction

Social ecology is a critical theory coined by the late philosopher and political activist Murray Bookchin in the 1960s, and is associated with the pro-technology and directly-democratic side of the green movement.

It conceives of human society and nonhuman nature needing to relate to each other in non-hierarchical and complementary ways, and can be seen as a sort of middle way beyond anti-humanist forms of green radicalism, at one extreme, and pro-capitalist forms of liberal environmentalism, at the other. The philosophy proposes that in order for the social and natural worlds to reconcile, humans must first transform their relations to each other – recreating society along egalitarian, cooperative, and democratic lines – and then transform their relations towards nature – adopting an attitude to cooperation, rather than domination, towards the planet and its nonhuman forms of life. 

While starting out as a Marxist, social ecology’s founder Murray Bookchin came to reject Marxism’s focus on the state, centralisation, and economic determinism, aside from admiring many of the insights of Marx himself and some of the more anti-authoritarian Marxists, such as those from the Frankfurt School tradition. By the early 1960s, he found his way to social anarchism, infusing it with an ecological and futurist dimension. He called the political-economic goal he sought “post-scarcity anarchism” – which would be based on the automation of human labour by decentralised forms of technology – and his body of analytical theories social ecology.

He chose the term social ecology to stress his hypothesis that almost all ecological problems (apart from purely natural disasters) are rooted in human social problems, with these human social problems themselves stemming from political, economic, and cultural modes of power based on hierarchy and domination. The domination of nature by humans, he claimed, arose because of the domination of humans by other humans. These sets of hierarchical social relations – classes, patriarchy, ethnic supremacy – became projected onto the natural world. In other words, the ways the powerful treated the disempowered became reflected in how they, in turn, treated nature.

It was only by reconstructing human society along non-hierarchical, decentralised, cooperative, and directly-democratic lines that he felt society would be able to mend its rift with the natural environment; as we started treating each other better, we would start treating nature better. This perspective, in many respects, anticipates what’s now called intersectionality in social justice movements, enclosed within an ecological sensibility.

He borrowed a term from the Roman philosopher Cicero in referring to the human social milieu as “second nature”, while describing natural environment as “first nature”, doing so to reorient perceptions of human beings existing within nature, rather than conceiving of the species living (hierarchically) on top of it. Second nature is like a circle within a larger circle, first nature; not like a castle upon a hill, separate from the wilderness below.

This first/second nature dichotomy was also used to raise awareness of the fact that nature as a whole should not be thought of as mere wilderness, distinct from human intervention. Because, as humans are the first species capable of consciously altering their own environments – to an to extent that they can direct the flow of nature itself somewhat – so much of what we think of as “nature” is as much a result of human design as a city or a computer: gardens, pastures, parks, and even some forests.


One of the most beautiful examples of this sentiment from animated cinema can be found in the film Only Yesterday by Isao Takahata. At the film’s centrepoint, the main character, Takeo, on a visit to the countryside, looks out into the serene landscape and remarks on how glorious unspoiled nature is. She is in turn informed by her farmer companion, “No, everything you see before you is man-made”.

Humans should therefore, according to social ecology, take on an ethical responsibility as caretakers of the Earth, abandoning the idea of “dominating” or “conquering” nature in the name of progress. Instead, Bookchin emphasised ecological stewardship, stressing that progress could be achieved for both the human and nonhuman spheres of life by practicing cooperation with nature, with humans adopting the naturalist values of non-hierarchy, mutual aid, unity-in-diversity, and complementarity. This would, according to social ecology, lead to a dialectical synthesis of first nature and second nature, incorporating the best of both, which could be called “free nature”.

He also rejected the notion that there was anything inherently anti-ecological about technology, claiming that technology – or “technics”, borrowing a term from Lewis Mumford – could be used for good or ill depending on whether they were utilised for democratic/decentralist or authoritarian/hierarchical purposes. Bookchin, and other members of his Institute of Social Ecology, argued that technics such as fossil fuels and nuclear weapons are coded primarily for authoritarian purposes, while solar and wind power, as well as micro-manufacturing, are more coded for participatory purposes, enabling communities to become more self-reliant and less controllable by the the powers of the state and capital. We should therefore seek to use decentralist and ecological technics to enhance human and nonhuman well-being, especially through the use of automation (or “cybernation”) to get rid of needless toil from human labour, eventually reaching a condition of relative post-scarcity, as long as individuals agreed to live in an egalitarian and sustainable manner.

Another distinct feature of social ecology is its conception of historical progress. Seeing itself as part of the legacy of Enlightenment humanism, with a strong belief in scientific rationalism blended with an ethics of non-hierarchical cooperation, Bookchin agreed with Peter Kropotkin, and contra Marxism, that the move towards capitalism and the nation-state had in fact been a step backwards; and that “industrialisation from below” may have been possible had the municipal-confederations of the Middle Ages become the dominant political-economic model instead of the nation-state. Social ecology therefore always stresses decentralisation and democratisation over centralism and hierarchy, believing the former two are far better for both society and ecology.

Blending the dialectical thought of both GWF Hegel and Karl Marx, social ecology calls its analysis of historical forces “dialectical naturalism”, a middle way of sorts between the dialectical idealism of Hegel and the dialectical materialism of Marx. Dialectical naturalism examines history in terms of its “potentialities” – that is, capacities to realise social forms enabling non-hierarchy and free flourishing – and assesses the “rationality” versus “irrationality” of a society based on how well it actualises those potentialities in practice.

Bookchin and other social ecologists believed that the fullest actualisation of the current society’s potentialities would be a post-scarcity ecological society, founded on decentralised systems of direct democracy and the humane use of technology. This cannot, according to Bookchin, be conceived in Marxist teleological terms, as some kind of inevitable end-point of historical development, but as an ongoing process, a continuous approximation of an ideal; that ideal being a society of ecological balance, egalitarian cooperation, personal freedom, and social-ecological complementarity.

Since the 1960s and 70s, social ecology has branched off in several directions. Bookchin himself used it as the basis for a political theory he called Communalism (with a capital-c), carried on today by the Norwegian group New Compass, philosopher John P. Clark developed its dialectical methodology and liberatory political implications into a blend he calls communitarian anarchism, and Kurdish revolutionary Abdullah Öcalan used it as one of the components for his ideology of “democratic confederalism”, which has shaped much of the Kurdish freedom movement in southeast Turkey (Bakur Kurdistan) and northern Syria (Rojava Kurdistan); where, following Bookchin’s advice, activists have established directly-democratic popular assemblies, worker cooperatives, and an economy of the commons which stresses ecological stewardship.

While the aesthetic-cultural solarpunk movement evolved independently of social ecology, they have so much in common that they could even be regarded as the same tradition by different names. Solarpunk’s emphasis on the liberatory and ecological use of technology sounds as if it were ripped straight from the pages of Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism in 1971.

What is Solarpunk?

What is Solarpunk?

From the perspective of the early 21st century, things look pretty grim. A deadly cocktail of crises engulf the people of planet Earth and all other forms of biotic life which share it: a geopolitical crisis, an economic crisis, and a worsening ecological crisis due to global warming, which stems from a political-economic system that requires fossil fuels to power its technostructure.

Culture, having as it does a symbiotic relationship with material conditions, reflects a lot of these crises in fiction and the arts. The 2000s and 2010s were replete with apocalyptic imagery of a future ravaged by war, totalitarianism, runaway weapons technology, killer viruses, zombies, and environmental collapse. Not that such narratives are unneeded. At best, they can serve as a wake-up call for those caught up in the myth that we had reached the “end of history” with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the triumph of capitalism on a planetary scale. But if they remain the primary vision our globalised culture has of the potential future, they can end up reproducing the pervasive cynicism and despair which makes all crises seem inescapable. 
This is why solarpunk is of value.


Solarpunk is a Revolt of Hope Against Despair

Solarpunk is a rebellion against the structural pessimism in our late visions of how the future will be. Not to say it replaces pessimism with Pollyanna-ish optimism, but with a cautious hopefulness and a daring to tease out the positive potentials in bad situations. Hope that perhaps the grounds of an apocalypse (revelation) might also contain the seeds of something better; something more ecological, liberatory, egalitarian, and vibrant than what came before, if we work hard at cultivating those seeds.

Any tour of the geeky parts of the Internet will reveal an assortment of different traditions ending in the suffix “punk”: steampunk, dieselpunk, clockpunk, biopunk, cyberpunk, post-cyberpunk, and so on. All the many different punk science-fiction movements imagine how things could turn out if society and technology took a different turn. While steampunk imagines a past that might have been, based on Victorian-age technology, solarpunk imagines a future that could be, based on current-age technology. It anticipates the type alternative history science-fiction the people of the future might write about us if things turn out horribly. But more than just a new science-fiction or fantasy subgenre, it’s also practical vision for (maybe) bringing the things it imagines into being in the real world.

You may ask what exactly is meant to be “punk” about what a cynic might see as the lovechild of hippies and futurists. After all, isn’t punk meant to denote anger and rage at the “the system”, as well as black leather and spikey hair? Punk is more of an ethos than a specific set of signifiers, implying rebellion against, and negation of, the dominant paradigm and everything repressive about it. So in that sense, in a world being torn apart by a planetary system based on avarice and power-lust and ecocide, solarpunk might be the most “punk” movement of all.


Solarpunk is Eco-Speculation, in Both Fiction and Reality

Solarpunk is a (mostly) aesthetic-cultural and (sometimes) ethical-political tendency which attempts to negate the dominant idea which grips popular consciousness: that the future must be grim, or at least grim for the mass of people and nonhuman forms of life on the planet. Looking at the millennia-old rift between human society and the natural world, it sets as its ethical foundation the necessity of mending this rift, transforming our relation to the planet by transcending those social structures which lead to systemic ecocide.
It draws a lot from the philosophy of social ecology, which also focused on mending this rift by restructuring society to function more like ecology: non-hierarchical, cooperative, diverse, and seeking balance.

Solarpunk’s vision is of an ecological society beyond war, domination, and artificial scarcity; where everything is powered by green energy and a culture of hierarchy and exclusion has been replaced by a culture founded on radical inclusiveness, unity-in-diversity, free cooperation, participatory democracy, and personal self-realisation.

This would be a world of decentralised eco-cities, 3D printing, vertical farms, solar glass windows, wild or inventive forms of dress and design, and a vibrant cosmopolitan aesthetic; where technology is no longer used to exploit the natural world, but to automate away needless human labour and to help restore the damage the Oil Age has already done. Solarpunk desires societies of polycultural ethnic diversity and gender liberation, where each person is able to actualise themselves in societal environment of free experimentation and communal caring; and driven by an overriding ethos of compassionate rationalism, where science and reason are not seen as antithetical to imagination and spirituality, but as concepts which bring out the best in each other.

It attempts to bring such values in being in the here-and-now, prefiguring the world to be created, through science-fiction and fantasy literature, arts, fashion, filmmaking, music, games, and a set of ideas which inform political, economic, and ecological activism.

Solarpunk stories are likely to feature characters from (currently) oppressed or marginalised groups living more freely, equally, and inclusively than they are able to now; exploring an exotic world of body modification, gender and sexual discovery, new forms of technology – and dealing with conflicts from the remnants of the old world as well as the unique problems which are sure to arise in a very different social scene. Solarpunk arts are driven by mixtures of multimedia technology and more traditional handcrafts, blending such disparate things as anime, Art Nouveau, Afrofuturism, indigenous American designs, and Edwardian fashion into a stew of artistic cross-pollination. And all of the above try to take the existing aspects of our current world and repurpose them into something more liberatory, specialising in reframing, pastiche, and reimagining of existing characters, styles, and trends in a very different context. Blending the diverse aesthetic styles of several different cultures, solarpunk engenders a celebration of hybridity while still being sensitive to the problems of cultural appropriation – “taking” instead of “partaking” – from subordinate cultures by dominant cultures


Solarpunk is the Positive Articulation of a Better World

Not content to accept the dictates of a tomorrow ruled by authoritarian states, rapacious corporations, and a despoiled biosphere, solarpunk is an eco-futurist movement which tries to think our way out of catastrophe by imagining a future most people would actually like to live in, instead of ones we should be trying to avoid; a future characterised by a reconciliation between humanity and nature, where technology is utilised for human-centric and eco-centric ends, and where a society driven by hierarchy and competition has given way to one organised on the basis of freedom, equality, and cooperation. It’s purpose is to serve as a compelling counter-narrative to the material and ideational conditions which keep us trapped in an authoritarian and ecocidal world where, as Margaret Thatcher put it, “there is no alternative”.

There already exist bits and pieces of just such an alternative right now, if only their potentials were drawn out. Worker cooperatives, self-sufficient eco-communities, directly-democratic popular assemblies, voluntary federations of small polities, mutual aid networks, community land trusts; all of these could form, it utilised, a very different kind of political-economic structure than the one being pushed by neoliberal globalisation. Likewise, technologies such as solar and wind and wave energy, 3D printing, vertical farming, micro-manufacturing, free software, open-source hardware, and robotic machinery which can automate away human labour all serve to illustrate the possibilities of an ecological and decentralised technostructure where the means of production are under popular control, rather than used to enhance the profit and power of a ruling elite.

In politics, solarpunk belongs to the wider tradition of the decentralist left, associated with such thinkers and activists as Peter Kropotkin, William Morris, Emma Goldman, Lewis Mumford, Paul Goodman, E.F. Schumacher, and Murray Bookchin. It rejects the false choice between the Scylla of market capitalism and the Charybdis of state socialism, between rugged individualism and smothering collectivism, instead opting for a society which reconciles a healthy individuality with communal solidarity.

A solarpunk polity would replace centralised forms of state government with decentralised confederations of self-governing communities, each administering themselves through many forms of direct and participatory democracy, with countless kinds of horizontally-structured voluntary associations taking care of judicial, environmental, and societal issues in ways which seek to maximise both personal autonomy and social solidarity.

A solarpunk “economy of the commons” would dispense with both profiteering corporations and statist central planning in favour of worker-run cooperatives, collaborative exchange networks, common pool resources, and control of investment by local communities. The aim of the economy would be reoriented from production-for-exchange and industrial “growth” to production-for-use and increasing the bio-psycho-social well-being of people and planet. Production would be moved as close as is possible to the point of consumption, with the long term aim being a relative self-sufficiency in goods and manufacturing. Decentralist forms of eco-technology would be used to help make work more participatory and enjoyable – “artisan-ising” the productive process itself – as well as automate away dull, dirty, and dangerous forms of work wherever possible. After realising an appropriate degree of post-scarcity, local self-sufficiency, and labour automation, it may even be feasible to abolish money as an unneeded nuisance in the allocation of resources.

A solarpunk culture would strive to dissolve every form of social hierarchy and domination – whether based on class, race, gender, sexuality, ability, or species – dispersing the power some individuals or groups wield over others and thus increasing the aggregate freedom of all; empowering the disempowered and including the excluded. It is rooted in the legacy of such liberatory movements as anti-authoritarian socialism, feminism, racial justice, queer and trans liberation, disability struggles, animal liberation, and digital freedom projects.


Solarpunk is Practical Utopianism

As you can see, there have always been alternatives, conventional wisdom just dismisses them out of hand as “utopian”. But is utopianism really such a bad thing? In one way, yes. The word itself, coined by Thomas More, is a Latin pun which means both “no-place” (ou-topia) but also “good-place” (eu-topia); implying a place so good it couldn’t exist. Before and after More, there were attempts by outopian dreamers to craft perfect worlds in which no real problems existed, such projects also tended to be totalitarian and centrally planned societies with little personal freedom.

Yet there have also been attempts to craft future societies which weren’t flawless “end of history” scenarios, but that tried to eliminate the structural conditions which limited personal autonomy and enforced inequality upon people. Such eutopian visionaries mixed a spirit of hopefulness with an attitude of practicality, with one tempering the other. It is this latter tradition that solarpunk tries to take its cues from. So it is not utopian in the negative sense of wanting to design a “perfect” world without any problems – a outopia (no-place) – but it is utopian in imagining a better world which will inspire people to create it in reality – a eutopia (good-place).

So solarpunk is not utopian in the negative sense of wanting to design a “perfect” world without any problems – a outopia (no-place) – but it is utopian in imagining a better world which will inspire people to create it in reality – a eutopia (good-place). It sees utopia as a constant process of approximating an ideal, not reaching a light at the end of a tunnel. Solarpunk acknowledges that our utopia of social liberation and ecological stewardship may never be achieved 100%, but if we at least keep that vision in mind, throwing our efforts into making the world a bit better wherever we can, then at least every step we take towards achieving that utopia will be a step in the right direction. It will be progress, and, for those it positively impacts, liberation.

As Oscar Wilde once said, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of utopias.”

Why “Social” Anarchism?

Why “Social” Anarchism?

You may have wondered why I keep referring to social anarchism rather than just anarchism when I talk about the subject. Social anarchism is in fact what most who understand anarchism are referring to when they talk about “anarchism” without another word in front of or after it. 

It is an ethical-political traditional which (contrary to popular belief) does not seek chaos or disorder, but the “flattening” of social, political, and economic power relations: dissolving hierarchical authority into horizontal power, so that people are able to govern themselves as free equals rather than having to take orders from centralised institutions of control and subordination. So, as a process, if focuses on the continual empowerment of the disempowered, inclusion of the excluded, and the decentralisation of power and authority.

It seeks (in the long term) a directly-democratic and non-hierarchical society characterised by:

  • Individual autonomy
  • Voluntary association.
  • A ethos of communal individuality rather than either rugged individualism or smothering collectivism, balancing the personal and social instincts.
  • The dissolution of all forms of oppressive social hierarchy and domination: racism, sexism, queerphobia, ableism, and the domination of nature.
  • A cooperative economy of the commons premised on workplace self-management; beyond the profit motive, market capitalism, and central planning by the state.
  • And the decentralisation of government into voluntary confederations of a directly-democratic, self-governing communities.

As a tradition, social anarchism first emerged out of the wider socialist movement in the 1860s, with most of its foundational traits being developed within the First International out of the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, only taken in a more anti-authoritarian direction by figures such as Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume, and later in a more communalistic direction by Peter Kropotkin, Élisée Reclus, and Emma Goldman. It has been regarded by many as a confluence of the best of (classical) liberalism and (democratic) socialism, with its economics being described as libertarian socialism, in constrast to the authoritarian state socialism of most Marxist movements and to paternalistic social democracy as it exists on most of the liberal left. It also contrasts with the so-called “libertarianism” of the neoliberal right, a term they appropriated from social anarchists in the mid 20th century.

It is by far the majority tendency among those who describe themselves as anarchists and to many it is even considered the only form of anarchism, and it’s followers the sole legitimate users of the label.

So if it’s the primary (or even only) form of anarchism anyway, why the need for the adjective “social”?

Well, there are three reasons:

1. Specificity 

There are countless ideologies which slap the prefix “anarcho-” onto themselves and whose adherents describe themselves as “anarchists”: anarcho-capitalists, “post-left” anarchists, anarcho-primitivists, market anarchists, national-anarchists, anarcho-monarchists (yes, really).
Specifying a more particular tradition helps reorient things and disassociates one’s ideas/practices from every silly belief-system which self-identifies with the a-word.

2. Accessibility

The word “anarchist” is quite loaded and carries with it a whole heap of stereotypes and myths. Calling yourself an anarchist to someone uninitiated with anarchist theory is likely to make them think you’re insane, or perhaps just immature.  

Social anarchism on the other hand is something they’re at least likely to Google before dismissing you as some kind of nutter.

3. Definition

Adding the word social helps emphasise the positive features of the philosophy rather than just its oppositional aspects. The very etymology of the word anarchism means “without/against rulership”. So the term anarchism by itself refers to what it’s against rather than what it’s for.

Social however implies communality, popular order, and the connections between individuals. So putting them together the two terms – social anarchism – denote “society without rulers” and “sociality against rulership”; implying that authentic human sociability itself is contrary to the logic of hierarchical power.

The term itself isn’t even new. It first emerged in the late 19th century as a way to distinguish the anarchist mainstream from various individualist or egoist strains which promoted a kind of anti-social worldview opposed to building popular movements and in many cases content to merely live freely within the capitalist state system rather than doing anything to get rid of it.

So do try to make the term more popular if you can. There’s at least a slightly better chance that more people will google it, learning what real anarchism is all about, rather than dismissing it out of hand as mindless chaos or black-clad teenagers hurling Molotov cocktails and getting smashy-smashy with shop windows.

For a world beyond hierarchy and domination; for freedom, equality, and solidarity; for Social Anarchism.

The Social Anarchist Conception of Freedom

The Social Anarchist Conception of Freedom

It’s hard to find a single political tradition that doesn’t place “freedom”, of some form or another, at the top of its list of values – from the far left to the far right.

So what is the social anarchist position on freedom? Anarchists are libertarians, a term associated with freedom by its very etymology, but not “libertarians” going by what the word has come to mean in many Anglophone countries since the 1970s – a form of “free market” capitalism and propertarian individualism. Because anarchism also grew out of the wider socialist movements of the 19th century, using the word libertarian for decades before capitalists to refer to anti-authoritarian varieties of socialism, seeing real (libertarian) freedom as being impossible without (socialist) equality. It conceives of libertarianism and egalitarianism not as opposites, but as complementary, with a relative equality of material conditions, equality of autonomy, and equality of power making possible the fullest freedom of the individual in both the personal and social dimensions of life.

After all, if there exists “freedom” in the context of hierarchy, and thus inequality between people, then those at the top of the hierarchy are more free than those at the bottom, meaning their freedom is being limited by the structure they’re in, and is thus a false freedom. At the same time, if there exists “equality” that is forced rather than voluntary, then those charged with enforcing that equality are more free than those subject to the enforcement, meaning it’s not a real equality.

But to clarify what social anarchists, as “libertarian egalitarians”, mean by freedom, let’s look through some of the more familiar understandings of the concept.

Those of a rugged individualist persuasion tend to favour what’s called negative freedom. 

This perspective generally views freedom as the absence of coercion, whether the coercion is overt or just threatened. While a necessary starting point, social anarchists see this concept of freedom as incomplete. After all, if freedom is to mean nothing more than the absence of coercion, then a person with two broken legs is technically “free to walk”, as there’s no one coercing them to stay seated. 

It’s limitations like this which lead many, especially on the political left, to support the alternative concept of positive freedom. 

This defines being free not in terms of a lack of formal restrictions, but in terms of one’s real capabilities to carry out chosen actions and to realise one’s needs and desires. Erich Fromm made one of the more well-known elaborations on positive freedom in Fear of Freedom.

Supporters of positive freedom decry the rugged individualists who only adhere to negative freedom as merely wishing to give justification to the domination of the weak by the strong, rationalising their subjects’ subordination as formally “voluntary” without taking account of the power imbalances which lead people into making “voluntary” agreements out of sheer necessity and the lack of available alternatives. Freedom, in this view, comes not from the absence of coercion, but the presence of enablements – which allow people to fulfil their needs and realise their desires.

This attack on negative freedom from the point-of-view of positive freedom forms a large part of the ethical socialist critique of wage-labour (the boss/worker relationship) and landlordism (the landlord/tenant relationship), deriding the apparent liberty of the parties making “free agreements” as cases of the powerful taking advantage of the disempowered’s lack of capabilities – in not owning private property as they do. Workers need an income to live properly, and as capitalists are the only ones able to provide them with one, in exchange for being subordinated in a workplace, it is not a free choice, in any meaningful sense, but a mere succumbing to necessity. Positive freedom comes from a wish to root a person’s freedoms in justice and equality; the presence of enablement instead of the absence of restrictions.

However, this concept is not without problems of its own. For a start, it has historically been used to justify totalitarianism by statist left regimes and other ideologies of rule. By paternalistically wishing to “take care” of people by “building them up”, it ended up rationalising censorship, denials of free expression, and curbs of free movement; dismissing calls for such basic liberties as “merely formal freedoms”. This was the crux of Isaiah Berlin’s famous argument against it in Two Concepts of Liberty

Just as negative freedom justifies unequal enablements in the defence of non-coercion, positive freedom justifies coercion in the defence of equal enablements.
So given the strengths and weaknesses of both, do social anarchists want an even balance of the two?

Yes, but also something more than that.

An even balance of negative and positive freedom can in fact be supported by many traditions. With most forms of social democracy coming close to this position – while supporting a paternalistic nanny-state. What makes social anarchism unique in this regard is in positing a third concept of freedom which unites and complements the first two: Reciprocal freedom.

This is, as Mikhail Bakunin so eloquently expounded, freedom within the context of the equal freedom of others. Where one’s liberty to realise their needs and desires is bounded only by the same liberty of others to do the same. “My freedom ends where yours begins” is the classic way of putting it.

“The materialistic conception of freedom is therefore a very positive, very complex thing, and above all, eminently social, because it can be realised only in society and by the strictest equality and solidarity among all men. One can distinguish the main elements in the attainment of freedom. The first is eminently social. It is the fullest development of all the faculties and powers of every human being, by education, by scientific training, and by material prosperity; things which can only be provided for every individual by the collective, material, intellectual, manual, and sedentary labor of society in general.

The second element of freedom is negative. It is the revolt of the individual against all divine, collective, and individual authority.”

— Man, Society, and Freedom, 1871

The third concept of freedom goes beyond the rugged individualism of negative freedom alone, and the paternalistic collectivism of positive freedom alone, and comes to a conclusion of communal individuality as the personal and social ideal to strive for.

Politically and economically, it naturally leads to advocacy for a system in which 

  1. All people’s basic needs for survival and a decent standard of living are met as a social guarantee
  2. There exists a relative amount of material equality between individuals, so that some individuals cannot exploit others economically
  3. Each person possesses individual autonomy (self-determination) to act however they wish, provided they do not infringe upon the autonomy of others
  4. Every individual has the enablements and lack of restrictions necessary to pursue self-fulfilment and self-realisation however they so choose, provided they do not restrict anyone else from doing the same

Social anarchists view all three concepts of freedom as necessarily complimentary for a free society, with each being incomplete without the other two. Reciprocal freedom alters the negative dimension to imply not only non-coercion, but non-domination, and alters the positive dimension to imply not only enablement, but self-realisation. 

I should also stress that this understanding of freedom is scalar, not absolute. Meaning that we should think of our struggle for reciprocal freedom not in terms of “free vs unfree”, but “more free vs less free”. It’s something we always tend towards without ever achieving 100%, but the process of approaching it always enhances our well-being while evading it results in the contrary.

So to sum up, social anarchists want:

  • Negative freedom (freedom-from)
  • Positive freedom (freedom-to)
  • Reciprocal freedom (freedom-with)

With each of the above balancing each other out and creating a more complete picture of what personal and social liberation can mean.

The Dialectic of Freedom and Justice in Liberatory Movements

The Dialectic of Freedom and Justice in Liberatory Movements

Every era of liberatory movements comes with its own terminology, rhetoric, and iconography; largely emerging in response to whatever those movements are busy fighting against and what they want to counterpose to the reigning ideologies and practices of their day.

Perhaps the most common term to see in popular left-wing discourse nowadays is social justice. The term has many uses, but in general it refers to the practice of trying to make society more egalitarian by focusing on the empowerment of disempowered groups of people. I’m sometimes dismayed at how younger people tend to avoid explicitly identifying as leftists, and how they use “social justice” almost like a stand-in for “left-wing”. But hey, better to have the beliefs with a different set of signifiers than to use the same terminology without any of the content. Social justice it is then, at least for now. 

“Social Justice Warrior” (SJW) has even become a childish right-wing/liberal insult directed at the new generation of left activists and theorists, and at just about anyone who voices criticism of the various hierarchies which plague neoliberal society in the 21st century.  

Some would contest that this is what “SJW” means, claiming that it’s reserved exclusively for those who are too overzealous in their social justice rhetoric. To which I would reply, there are literal neo-nazi groups on Tumblr and you’re worried about a few teens being a little overzealous about trying to make the world more equal? In any case, this distinction between “legitimate social justice person” and “social justice warrior” is meaningless in practice; just like the distinction between “feminist” and (gag) “feminazi”. Even if you make such a distinction, every member of the former ends up being tarred as the latter by reactionaries. 

With regard to framing current social struggles in the language of justice, or in other cases equality, this is somewhat in contrast to the wave of social movements which characterised the 1960s and 1970s; from anti-colonialism, to black/Chicano power, to second-wave feminism, to the first gay and ecological movements. The rhetoric of that cycle of struggles tended to focus more on “freedom” and “liberation” rather than justice or equality.  

Why was this? One explanation is that this was natural for a era defined by attempts to throw off colonial dictatorship in the global south, dismantle totalitarianism in the Marxist-Leninist regions, and escape from the smothering bureaucracy of the post-war welfare state in the global north. To some extent, those generations felt like the issues of justice and equality were (sort of) already covered by the mid-century prosperity and grand class compromise which made business and organised labour bedfellows. What they needed now was liberation. 

It’s worth pointing out that the rhetoric of “justice” and “equality” have often been used by the authoritarian left to rationalise restrictions on freedom. Given that social anarchists, as part of the libertarian left, want to create a world defined by freedom at the personal and social levels, should we be cautious at this generation’s emphasis on social justice over social liberation? 

Not quite. 

There’s always a dialectical relationship between the concepts of freedom and justice. Each can feel like the antidote to the other when the other gets co-opted by the dominant powers. 

In places/times where justice (or “order”) is the prized political value, freedom becomes the concept to rally liberatory movements around. 

In places/times where freedom (or “individualism”) is the prized political value, justice becomes the concept to rally liberatory movements around. 

Because neoliberal societies make pretences to support freedom and the individual – in the form of rugged individualism – it’s not surprising that the liberatory social forces of today (such as Black Lives Matter, fourth-wave feminism, and intersectional class politics) focus more on social justice; perhaps viewing “freedom” as an ideological spook used to justify the domination of the disempowered by the powerful. 

It’s an understandable reaction to a society that venerates freedom as an ideal, but doesn’t deliver on anything resembling collective well-being for the majority of the population. 

That’s not to say that current social justice movements aren’t doing anything wrong in venerating justice over freedom. Just as the discourse of freedom in the 1960s ran into excesses – such as advocating sex with children as part of the sexual revolution – the discourse of justice has lead to an atmosphere that’s (at times) moralistic and judgemental, shaming people for making mistakes of language or conduct and treating them like “the enemy”, rather than someone worth educating or simply having a comradely disagreement with. 

“No platform” is a form of proactive boycotting originally devised to deny literal fascists a public forum to covertly incite racist and queerphobic violence, but without getting the state involved – for the reason that statist repression could in turn be used against leftists. It can be necessary in certain dire situations, and I would always defend those who no-platform hateful people from false charges of “censorship”, but we seem to have gotten into the habit of overusing it to deny a public forum to just about anybody. This doesn’t set a good example. Though I should emphasise that this is more because denying authoritarian figures public space can in fact be a less successful tactic than allowing the, to make fools of themselves and correcting their drivel with rational counter-arguments. 

For this reason, it would be a good move for social justice people to amp up the focus on freedom once again, to emphasise that the “liberty” capitalism/neoliberal culture offers is a false liberty; and that real freedom is only possible through conditions of non-hierarchical equality. 

As social anarchists claim, the unity of freedom, equality, and solidarity is the only basis for both free self-development of the individual, and complementarity of the diverse forces in society. 

The empowerment of the disempowered – women, people of colour, indigenous peoples, queer folks, the disabled, the working classes – means a net increase in social freedom, so as long as justice is pursued in a liberationist (as opposed to statist/protectionist) manner. 

The current wave of liberatory movements and the counter-culture of social justice among the young (in colleges and online for example) is a great place to begin creating a new liberated consciousness and commons-based infrastructure. 

Though it needs to be modified with an increased emphasis on class struggle – as in, moves to acquire control of the means of production, distribution, and investment in the economy – creating direct democracy in communities, individual autonomy, and on social freedom as well as social justice. Focusing on the trans-economic oppressions of people as status-groups is important and necessary, regardless of what crusty old Marxists say about “identity politics”, but can devolve into capitalist accommodation unless accompanied by a definite class politics which defies attempts to divorce interpersonal liberation from economic-political liberation from the capitalist state system. Bonding status-group struggles to demands for an economy of the commons, defined by worker self-management and directly-democratic coordination, could be a massive step forward.

Far from having to choose between freedom and justice, what we need is a dialectical synthesis of the two. Start with the drive towards social justice that exists now, and push it in a more freedom-oriented direction.
Make those so-called safe spaces into free spaces – free from the trappings of hierarchical society.

A Look Back at Black Flame by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt

A Look Back at Black Flame by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt

Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism was a controversial book when it came out and is even more controversial now, though for very different reasons. It presented a revised theoretical framework for anarchism which:

  1. Painted it as a global, rather than Euro-American tradition
  2. Pointed out that syndicalism can be considered an offshoot of 1860s anarchism rather than a separate idea-set
  3. Argued that class-struggle communist anarchism was in fact the only legitimate form of anarchism.

  
This vision was lauded by many anarchists of a more class struggle orientation, criticised by those of a more intersectional and less “workerist” mind, and loathed by anarchist individualists. Though today the disputes the book sparks have taken on another far more sinister dimension.

Any future readings of this book, seminal and lauded when it came out, are inevitably going to be coloured by a giant elephant in the room: one of its co-authors, Michael Schmidt, was (arguably) exposed as a racist and Afrikaner nationalist, if not an outright fascist, who for some reason saw these beliefs as compatible with a particular brand of class struggle anarcho-syndicalism.

While his writing partner, Lucien van der Walt, remained publicly silent for several months, he used his web moniker RedandBlackWritings to defend Schmidt and argue that the evidence against him wasn’t credible. He later issued a public statement through the Anarkismo network in which he depicted himself as torn between the man he thought he knew and the double life he appeared to have lead, not sure which was the real one.

Given that at least one piece of evidence – an internal memo written under his own name which he’s confessed to writing – contains pretty overtly racist material which he hasn’t even disowned, it’s clear that if he isn’t a total fascist, he’s at least a man with extremely questionable racial politics and therefore a hindrance to the global social anarchist movement. His attempts to defend himself – posting pictures of himself with black people and pointing out that his ex-wife is Indian – have been nothing short of pathetic.

But then what of the book itself? Should it be written off completely because of the double life of one of its authors? Not necessarily.

Many respected anarchists did or advocated doing horrid things aside from their core body of work. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a vicious misogynist and racist (especially towards Jewish people), Mikhail Bakunin likewise harboured many contemptible prejudices towards Jews, Peter Kropotkin supported World War One, and so on. While these flaws are always brought up (and should be) they do not invalidate what they got right or render their contributions to anarchist thought and practice void.

The same should arguably apply to contemporary anarchist and socialist writers, though their infractions should be taken a great deal more seriously given the more socially enlightened time we live in, and thus the greater standard we should hold people to.

So how does Black Flame stand up on its own as a work of social anarchist theory?

Well, looking back, it’s actually a very flawed book.

I first read it myself a year or two after it came out and was extremely impressed with it. At the time, I was only starting to really look in depth at the large body of anarchist history and thought, and Black Flame served as a great solidification of anarchist ideas which contextualised them in light of their origins. Though even on that first reading, I regarded its picture of communist class-struggle anarchism as the “only” anarchism to be too narrow. Since then I’ve come to my own understanding of anarchism which is narrower than the “big tent” view which accepts just about any ideology that slaps “anarcho-“ onto itself as anarchist, but still wider than the ultra-strict categorisation found in Black Flame.

Having since studied a lot more of the vast literature of anarchism, reading the book again reveals a lot of downsides I didn’t notice before. For a start, their picture of communist class- struggle anarchism as the only legitimate form of anarchism isn’t even original. Stuart Christie (who introduces the book) and Albert Metzler posited the same idea in their book The Floodgates of Anarchy during the 1970s.

While its encapsulation of class struggle thinking in the late 19th and early 20th century is vast, it hardly even touches upon the multitude of fascinating anarchist theorising which developed after the Second World War, aside from a few mentions of Murray Bookchin.

And when I say “vast”, that’s both a complement and a condemnation. Because further reading revealed their scholarship (so impressive first time round) to be very wide, but not very deep. In many cases they only display a superficial understanding of the thinkers they describe, such as Emma Goldman.

With regard to people whose ideas they dismiss, their portrayals are even more shallow. This becomes especially evident with Max Stirner, whom I’m convinced the authors didn’t even bother reading, as they make errors about his thought that appear to have been picked up from second-hand misunderstandings than any serious consideration of his philosophy. They claim there was no real difference between self-described anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists in the early 20th century, but closer reading of the material reveals this to be false – with a strong disagreement over tactics (popular uprising in communes vs trade union action in workplaces) dividing them on ideological and practical grounds. Anarchist historian Robert Graham briefly takes them to task for this conflation in his recent book on the emergence of anarchism.

Also, the inclusion of Marxists like Daniel DeLeon, William Haywood, and especially James Connolly as part of “the broad anarchist tradition” is just comical. I’m Irish. I grew up learning about James Connolly since primary school and read a great bit by him in his own words since becoming a socialist. The idea that he was any kind of anarchist strikes me as one of the most ridiculous things in the whole tome. A syndicalist, yes, but come on.

The fact that the book consciously avoids painting a Eurocentric portrait of anarchism is often praised, but while the authors make mention of many anarchists and movements from the global south, they don’t really explore what they thought very much, or try to incorporate their insights into their revised anarchist framework. I wouldn’t quite call what they do tokenism, but in certain passages it can feel like it.

With regard to oppressed nationalities, they do at least portray the classical anarchists accurately in explaining how they advocated working within anti-colonial national liberation movements – trying to push them in a libertarian direction from within – rather than the simplistic rage against all forms of nationalism as one and the same you often find in anarcho-syndicalist circles today. But this is marred by an equally simplistic and class-reductionist perspective on victims of national domination by imperial powers, disagreeing with Rudolf Rocker that the popular classes from imperialist countries enjoy a slightly higher position in quality-of-life relative to colonial subjects. They seem to believe that as long as you’re working class, you aren’t in any real position of advantage to anybody else who’s working class.

Finally, there’s the chapter on race and gender. That Black Flame lumps these two distinct topics together is a problem all on its own, but let’s ignore that for now. The authors at least acknowledge gender oppression is its own unique form of hierarchy which cannot simply be reduced to exploitation by capital, but do not do the same for racial oppression. They paint one of the most puerile caricatures of white supremacy and anti-racist politics I’ve ever seen (I’ve literally seen critiques on Reddit with more nuance) before dismissing it in favour of abstract “working class” solidarity. Once again, if you’re working class, you apparently enjoy no real advantages to anyone else who’s working class. They cherry pick a few statistics showing that the most racist States in the US are also the ones with the lowest welfare for workers, expecting us to believe that this proves whites are not in fact in a structurally advantageous position relative to people of colour.

Do I even need to explain how simple-minded this is? It is conceiving of racial oppression in entirely economic terms, not even caring to consider the political, social, and psychological hierarchies which define racist societies; which inculcate in the minds of people of colour from an early age that white is the default and anyone else is a deviation from the default. And what about the grotesque treatment by the state of African-Americans? Are we supposed to believe this is just an epiphenomenon of working class exploitation by capital?

I really do want to not make this all about the authors personally, but I can’t shake the feeling that a good bit of this perspective could be informed by these two white working-class South Africans trying to convince themselves that they don’t really benefit from a system based on racial hierarchies, that it’s only their class position that disadvantages them; and that if purely economic differences were stripped away, there would be zero differences in life-chances between them and an unemployed black man from a Johannesburg township.

Despite anarchism being one of the first political traditions to support the inclusion of LGBT+ people, and to support free love and the uninhibited freedom to sexual pleasure, the issue of sexuality is never brought up. Nor are the crucial issues of ecology (despite Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus having explored them thoroughly), animal liberation, or liberatory technology. This last omission, especially for those of a solarpunk sensibility, makes the book even more dated as we look to enter an era defined by (A) an overflow of technological change, (B) an accelerating ecological crises, and the need, in turn, for social anarchists to know how to respond to both.

All in all, revisiting the work reveals it to be an attempt to create a version of anarchism that’s far too close to orthodox Marxism: class-reductionist, economistic, stuck in the golden era of proletarian socialism, and dismissive of attempts to expand revolutionary theory by incorporating struggles against other forms of hierarchy/domination into its conception of class struggle. And all of the above remains the case even if you discount the obvious personal flaws in character of Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt.

If you’re an anarchist of a more workerist orientation – who sees the added focus on the fights around race, gender, sexuality, ability, and ecology to be worthy of dismissal – then reading it will likely reinforce your convictions without making your arguments for them any stronger.

Looking back, I now find it unsettling that I recommended it to so many people – even if just to debunk the idea that anarchism had no coherent set of ideas – and have to concede that those who attacked it were on firmer ground than I remembered.

So if you’re a young social anarchist who’s looking to find out more about anarchist history and theory, you can safely skip this one and lose little of value.

Instead, try checking out the following for a broader and more nuanced understanding of social anarchism as an idea-set aimed at a beginner:

– Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism by Peter Marshall

– Anarchism and its Aspirations by Cindy Milstein

– We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It by Robert Graham

– Underground Passages: Anarchist Resistance Culture by Jesse Cohn

– Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward

– Red Emma Speaks by Emma Goldman

– Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism by Rudolf Rocker

– The Anarchist FAQ (long but very comprehensive)

Solarpunk Anarchist Solutions to Global Problems: A Quick List

Solarpunk Anarchist Solutions to Global Problems: A Quick List

While dwelling on the state of the world during the combination of COP21 – determining the future fate of the human species – and the worsening chaos in southwest Asia (with the Rojava Revolution being the only beacon of light) I was trying to cobble together in my head what some viable solutions to the problems we all face might be.

Obviously the biggest problems are at the level of the global system itself: it’s centralised and militaristic state structure, its irrational economic setup premised upon infinite growth on a finite planet, various ideological forces (some religious, some not) trying to subordinate humanity to a single way of viewing the world, the continuing ecocide of the biosphere and nonhuman animals.

In the very long term, the only thing that will suffice as a solution is total system change. A structural transformation of the capitalist state system to a completely different social, political, and economic mode of power.

Though when you think that big, it can be easy to lose focus of how those systemic problems affect us all on the day-to-day level and in the here-and-now. It’s important to keep perspective on how to respond to the problems that are right in front of us, so that we don’t become so concerned with the big picture that we forget about the immediate local issues that need resolving.

Social anarchism isn’t just a vision of a non-hierarchical society that will exist some time in the distant future – after we dissolve every state, communalise the means of production, and flatten every social hierarchy – it’s a means of relating to the world that’s right in front of us which aims to decentralise power, challenge authority, and enhance individual and collective autonomy wherever possible. It’s a method of drawing out the liberatory potentials in what we already do and trying to push them to the forefront of our actions, so that our practices in the present prefigure the world we want to create in the future, helping to transfer us from one to the other.

So in the spirit of “practical utopianism”, I made a quick list of short-term to mid-term to long-term goals in order to help conceptualise where I think we should all be heading and what we should be pushing for. It’s by no means definitive or exhaustive. Merely a few suggestions to help get our minds focused on a coherent transitional process from where we are now to where we want to arrive at.

Short-term

  • Support for the individual struggles of oppressed groups of people (relative to where we each stand): women through feminist activism, people of colour through anti-racist activism, indigenous and colonised populations through decolonisation, LGBT+ folks, nonhuman animals, and so on.
  • The construction of a future “economy of the commons” through the creation of things like worker-run cooperatives, participatory budgeting programs, community land trusts, and so on.
  • Starting up democratic schools which emphasise free creativity, cooperative self-education, and self-realisation over the passive-receptive memorisation of rote tasks and factoids.
  • Unionising the global workforce so as to resist the forces of corporate capital.
  • Opposing the expansion of state power, especially surveillance, militarism, wars to access new markets for transnational capital, etc.
  • Municipalisation – instead of nationalisation or privatisation – of economic resources, making them easier to manage locally and control democratically.
  • Building an international movement (of movements) for climate justice to (1) avert ecological catastrophe, and (2) make sure green goals are fully concurrent with social goals for popular liberation and economic justice.
  • Creating “infrastructures of resistance” to capital and the state, run according to the values of voluntary cooperation and decentralised federation, as part of a social anarchist “transfer-culture” which embodies the spirit of the new world, getting us used to the practice of freedom, equality, and solidarity.

Mid-term

  • The automation, through the applied use of human-scale eco-technologies, of as much needless human toil as possible so as to eliminate jobs that fall under the “Three Ds”: Dull, Dirty, Dangerous. And the reduction of what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” which have no reason to exist.
  • The localisation – to as great a degree as is feasible – of the production of goods and services, especially food and manufacturing. Though with technics such as 3D printing, micro-manufacturing, open-source hardware, free software, and vertical farming, this may be easier than you think.
  • Transition to a completely renewable (preferably localised) system of energy. With a particular focus (of course) on solar energy, wind, wave, and geothermal energy depending on the specifics of the community/region which needs power. (Nuclear power may need to be advocated as a necessary evil in a transitional phase, as a kind of methadone to wean us off of the heroin of fossil fuels)
  • The devolution of economic and political power (of state, regional, and local governments) to directly-democratic popular assemblies – meaning the democratisation of finance, investment, allocation of big resources, and political life in general.
  • Creation of a new kind of personal and social consciousness, centred on the values of personal autonomy, civil libertarianism, communal individuality, unity-in-diversity, inclusiveness, non-hierarchical ways of relating to each other, and ecological stewardship of the natural world.

Long-term

  • Elimination of the need for killing animals for food with cultured meat having been made viable.
  • Full automation of almost all dull, dirty, and dangerous labour, giving people more freedom to pursue jobs which are creative, helpful, and empowering; and to work at their own leisure.
  • Directly-democratic control of the economy at the level of the (worker self-managed) enterprise and (self-governing) locality – with administrative councils made up of spokespersons (as opposed to politicians) sent by each community to coordinate things on levels beyond the local.
  • The rewinding of areas of the Earth which were spoiled by the existing industrialist economic system; possibly even reintroducing extinct species through cloning.
  • An economy which has moved beyond scarcity to the point where markets and even money are no longer necessary, with people being able to take goods freely from stores.
  • A reconciliation of the urban and the rural with the decentralisation and ecologisation of cities.
  • The free movement of all people due to the elimination of nation-state borders and the equalisation of economic abundance.
  • The birth of a new ecological global culture reconciling humanity with the natural world.

So basically, Post-Scarcity Anarchism.