Volume 4, Number 2 (July 2007)
Passings: Murray Bookchin – A Political Philosopher Among the Ruins of the Transpolitical
Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada).
Our Being is Becoming, not stasis.
Our Science is Utopia, our Reality is Eros,
Our Desire is Revolution.1
...it makes no sense to ‘take the side’ of becoming, assuming it exists – no more than that of chance, or desire.2
... today, with the loss of utopias and ideologies, we lack objects of belief. But even worse, perhaps, we lack objects in which not to believe.3
The title that perhaps best captures Murray Bookchin’s spirit and driving impulse as a writer and activist is his Reenchanting Humanity.4 Bookchin, despite all the evidence that encourages one to do otherwise, could never give up on his species. It is here, and in his continued commitment to political activism, that we see him as a thinker diverge from the path taken by Baudrillard – despite the many sympathies they share. In an important way their divergence sums up so much of that which informs contemporary academe – the divide between the “theory” people, and the “political people” such as those who travel under the hard earned name of “feminist” or “political economist”. We “theory people” are constantly being called upon by the activists to account for ourselves and our pereived lack of action and concern for others with whom we share the planet. Smiling wryly and quoting Baudrillard: “the only true compassion is to suffer in silence for others”5 seems to satisfy only me. So how do we resolve this question as to why “theory” people (especially those of us written off as “French toast”6) are not involved more in politics and activism? I think it is a fitting way to say good bye to Murray Bookchin, a writer whom I very much enjoyed as a student, by contrasting his writings and choices with those of Jean Baudrillard in an effort to begin to sketch out an answer. So I turn to the life of Murray Bookchin with a question: How does one live a political life among the ruins of the transpolitical?
II. Murray Bookchin’s Political Life
Marray Bookchin’s insight into modernity was that of the knowing and suspicious peasant. If you think that is a slight then your bourgois linnens are hanging out for it is a very fortunate thing to possess the peasant’s suspicion of modernity – especially this far into its morass. Baudrillard says of himself: “I am instinctively suspicious of everything which is aesthetic or part of culture as a whole. I’m something of a peasant or a barbarian at heart”.7 My own suspicious and peasant mentality have found great solace in this pasage. As I reflect on Bookchin’s life for the pages of IJBS I can elaborate my question somewhat: how was it that this very wise peasant and factory worker become academic, could remain such a political animal – what was it about his experiences and his thinking that led Murray Bookchin to take the path of political man and activist, when so many of these experiences turned Baudrillard to theory and writing as challenge and away from politics and activism after 1968?
Bookchin was a political theorist who remained very highly self aware and whose life long intellectual growth prevented him from falling into easy politics. In the 1930s he spent a brief time as a member of the Communist Youth movement but tired quickley of its authoritarianism. His final parting of company with the Communists came following the Stalin-Hitler Pact (1939) when he found himself expelled for his Trotskyite sympathies and anarchist leanings. He soon lost interest in Trotskyite Bolshivism but never travelled far from the socialist spirit that informed his youth. He worked in a foundry and later as an autoworker and was a union organizer with the Congress of Industrial Organizations. In later years he would write about his dissatisfaction with the notion of the working class as vanguard following his participation in the General Motors strike of 1946 and the union’s all too easy cooperation with the company. Bookchin had expected revolutionary activity to follow the end of WW II as it had WW I and this was a period of great reevaluation for him. He described his early development to interviewer David Vanek in 2001:
When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, I went back to the Communists, because they seemed to be the only ones who were fighting Franco. I wanted to fight in Spain, but I was too young. Soon after rejoining the Communists, I left them again, this time permanently. After high school, I did not go to college – I went to work in a foundry near New York. I hoped that the Second World War would end in revolutions, as the first war had, and became a Trotskyist. When the war ended without a revolution, I became disillusioned with orthodox Marxism and realized I had to rethink everything. I came out of the army and went to work in the automobile industry, where the workers, formerly militant, were becoming ever more middle class in their mentality. So in the 1950s I went to the RCA Institute, where I studied electronic engineering. I saw that many machines could ultimately replace most human toil. Being a socialist, I wanted to reduce the amount of labor that people have to give to society, whether under capitalism or socialism, so that they could be free to become creative human beings, follow their own interests, and fulfill their own talents.8
It was all part of his eventual embrace of what he termed “libertarian socialism”. Bookchin was concerned with the rampant pace of the spread of domination throughout the contemporary world (as though it were not a central fact of all of human history). Bookchin refused the harsher perspective of Deep Ecology philosophers who see humans as inherently destructive to the planet. Bookchin laboured under the tremendous weight of a humanism which for him was a “social ecology” wherein human relations were understood to be the problem, not humanity itself. Bookchin believed that our most striking product as humans was domination of each other – more significant than any of our technological developments. Like so many who come from the humanist left, Bookchin could never accept that domination was as likely an outcome of our human evolution as is the socialist impulse. History has to have a winner in this view and that winner is the worker at the local level – those same workers he lived and worked with in the foundry, on trains, and on the assembly line at General Motors. Bookchin understood that the workers had to learn about ecology and he (and his followers) have remained sensitive about the fact that his pioneering work with ecology has been overlooked by many. As he also told Vanek:
I think it is fair to say that my writings on ecology and anarchism were the first radical political writings on ecology. They became rather popular with the New Left. People don't remember the origins of radical ecology – they think Ralph Nader or maybe Barry Commoner produced it and influenced the New Left. This is quite erroneous...9
By adding ecology to his then leftist anarchism, Bookchin was attempting to make the left aware of the urgent necessity of environmental action alongside of non-authoritarian centered revolution. This insight has breathed an important breath of life and energy into the tired leftist movements of the West and Bookchin is one of a handful of writers who could lay claim to being there at the beginning of it (along with Rachel Carson and Jane Jacobs).
The 1950s saw him turn to ecological matters and he published Our Synthetic Environment followed by Crisis in Our Cities.10 Essays such as “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought” and “Towards a Liberatory Technology” marked his continued leadership in the American New Left of the 1960s. In these writings he argued that: an anarchist society, far from being a remote ideal, has become a precondition for the practice of ecological principles.11 This is a thought that would remain with him almost to the end. Over the last decade he developed the term “communalism” to elaborate his political vision diverging as it had from anarchism which he felt lacked sufficient political dynamism on its own:
Today I prefer the word communalism, by which I mean a libertarian ideology that... includes the best of the anarchist tradition as well as the best in Marx. I think neither Marxism nor anarchism alone is adequate for our times: a great deal in both no longer applies to today's world. We have to go beyond the economism of Marx and beyond the individualism that is sometimes latent, sometimes explicit in anarchism. Marx's, Proudhon's, and Bakunin's ideas were formed in the nineteenth century. We need a left libertarian ideology for our own time, not for the days of the Russian and Spanish Revolutions.12
Like Baudrillard, Bookchin experienced a break with Marxism in the 1960’s and 1970’s. His critique of traditional Marxism and his position as a leftist libertarian are explored in his 1969 work Listen Marxist! which served as an introduction to Bookchin for many members of my generation. I wonder how much Bookchin’s thought may have even influenced France’s “New Philosophes” when I read a passage such as this from Listen Marxist!:
This pursuit of security in the past, this attempt to find a haven in a fixed dogma and an organizational hierarchy as substitutes for creative thought and praxis is bitter evidence of how little many revolutionaries are capable of 'revolutionizing themselves and things,' much less of revolutionizing society as a whole. The deep-rooted conservatism of the People's Labor Party 'revolutionaries' is almost painfully evident; the authoritarian leader and hierarchy replace the patriarch and the school bureaucracy; the discipline of the Movement replaces the discipline of bourgeois society; the authoritarian code of political obedience replaces the state; the credo of 'proletarian morality' replaces the mores of puritanism and the work ethic. The old substance of exploitative society reappears in new forms, draped in a red flag, decorated by portraits of Mao (or Castro or Che) and adorned with the little 'Red Book' and other sacred litanies.13
Here was something you could not expect your Marxist professors to place in your hands any more quickley than they might recommend Baudrillard’s Mirror of Production.14 Many professors on both Right and Left protected us from Bookchin and Baudrillard. After all, we were in the business of developing and proclaiming ourselves to be “critical theorists” so what use could writers such as Bookchin or Baudrillard serve? They were both to remain insider-outsiders in academe as both men asked too many awkward questions for the professional academic Marixsts for whom theory was not about challenge (including deconstructive self criticism of one’s own thought) but merely criticism to be hurled at the “dominant capitalist hegemonic system”. Bookchin wrote several other books but it is his Ecology of Freedom for which he is perhaps best known today. The language used in this book forms the core of many contemporary ecology movements:
If we recognize that every ecosystem can also be viewed as a food web, we can think of it as a circular, interlacing nexus of plant animal relationships (rather than a stratified pyramid with man at the apex). …Each species, be it a form of bacteria or deer, is knitted together in a network of interdependence, however indirect the links may be.15
Bookchin understood ecology as a desire to transform society while he viewed environmentalism as merely partial solutions to the deeper problems caused by capitalism. In this book he also took a strong stance against partial solutions calling for an approach of greater depth and scope than even most left-environmentalists were yet willing to embrace:
Nor do piecemeal steps however well intended, even partially resolve problems that have reached a universal, global and catastrophic character. If anything, partial ‘solutions' serve merely as cosmetics to conceal the deep seated nature of the ecological crisis. They thereby deflect public attention and theoretical insight from an adequate understanding of the depth and scope of the necessary changes.16
For Bookchin our society had to be remade not according to some authoritarian top-down system, but by a revolution that came from the bottom up, from the municpal level of local control and worker ownership and management. He remained a utopian to the end. After a life spanning most of the twentieth century you have to be a very staunch utopian to utter the following words:
People will never achieve this kind of face-to-face democratic society spontaneously. A serious, committed movement is necessary to fight for it. And to build that movement, radical leftists need to develop an organization – one that is controlled from the base, so that we don't produce another Bolshevik Party. It has to be formed slowly on a local basis, it has to be confederally organized, and together with popular assemblies, it will build up an opposition to the existing power, the state and class rule. I call this approach libertarian municipalism.17
Bookchin understood himself as a key theorist of an extreme version of left wing socialism, one that attacked the authoritarian tendencies of the Eastern European or Chinese models as well as Western statist capitalism. Bookchin’s was also an anti-patriarchal (quasi-feminist) ideology which was highly inclusive. Indeed, it is largely through thinkers like Bookchin that the contemporary Left learned to speak the language of inclusion and to understand the challenges of our time to lay far beyond class analysis:
Without changing the most molecular relationships in society – notably, those between men and women, adults and children, whites and other ethnic groups, heterosexuals and gays (the list, in fact, is considerable) – society will be riddled by domination even in a socialistic 'classless' and 'non-exploitative' form. It would be infused by hierarchy even as it celebrated the dubious virtues of 'people's democracies,' 'socialism' and the 'public ownership' of 'natural resources,' And as long as hierarchy persists, as long as domination organizes humanity around a system of elites, the project of dominating nature will continue to exist and inevitably lead our planet to ecological extinction.18
Among his deepest concerns was that the libertarian socialist core would never emerge because the people who would built it would be swayed by various kinds of postmodern spiritual individualisms. He was unable to understand that some of us can only understand and experience collective action as an authoritarian impulse. Is there anything the twentieth century taught us to fear more than the mobilization of collective action towards new forms of governance? The devil lives in the details and no socialist political philosopher, from Marx to Mao to Bookchin has ever detailed exactly how a collectivist movement will not mutate into totalitarianism, be it socialist or fascist. I personally may admire Fidel Castro’s achievements, but I would not wish to be a writer in his Cuba. As with his faith in our ecological future, Bookchin had that leftist brand of blind faith in people’s ability to make a democracy that works. This vision lacks nothing except a scrap of evidence of its existence and it ignores the key insight of Robert Michels on oligarchy.19
Contemporary individuals are not merely some form of postmodern fancy, but are necessary for resisting the collective force of society. Society is a prison and a corrective surveillance machine as it has been so from the time our human ancestors first lived in larger groups. The family itself, whatever form it takes, and whatever benefits it may bring, is at the root of all oppressive and corrective apparatuses. Bookchin’s ideal of a local municipalized economy rings naive (despite his deep sincerity) as it does not admit that some of the most nasty and petty politics we ever encounter is in one’s local area. Bookchin was not above, so it appears, that Vermont and thoroughly pious American ideal of the small town and the rural seeing its “small is better” philosphy as transportable to the city.20 I do not know if this ideology can be transported to the city but I do know, having grown up in a rural area, that one feels the prison like surveillance of society every bit as much at the local level of the rural and the small town as one does in the modern capitalist city where one goes relatively unnoticied if one so desires. The ideal of the small town and the municpal is a utopian vision and one that forgets something Bookchin himself was long wary of: the power of oligarchy. Bookchin never explained to my satisfaction how the independent municpality as a utopian form would goven any differently than any other society as a system of surveillance.
Bookchin was never motivated by an authoritarian impulse, but like authoritarian voices, he did not shy away from telling the rest of us we had to both change our ways and our minds:
To speak of 'limits to growth' under a capitalistic market economy is as meaningless as to speak of limits of warfare under a warrior society. The moral pieties, that are voiced today by many well-meaning environmentalists, are as naive as the moral pieties of multinationals are manipulative. Capitalism can no more be 'persuaded' to limit growth than a human being can be 'persuaded' to stop breathing. Attempts to 'green' capitalism, to make it 'ecological', are doomed by the very nature of the system as a system of endless growth.21
He was a proponent of a nonheirarchical populism (a municipal economy as against the republican centrist state) that was hitched to an understanding that ecological issues have to come to the fore in our understanding of the world and economics. Bookchin’s analysis went far beond the narrow confines of class analysis. He preferred to call his position, with a nod to Hegel, “dialectical naturalism”, in his effort to see past traditional Marxism yet retain the best of it. His understanding was that we should not attempt to give up on Marxism but to transcend it as Marx had transcended Hegel. As he aged and broke with anarchism Bookchin started to cut very important corners in his philosophy to my great discomfort. In his interview with Bookchin, David Vanek asked him a pointed question with implications for the individual. Bookchin’s reply is telling. It sounds very much like the kind of thing that frightened Bookchin away from the Party in his younger days:
Vanek : Some critics have said that you are mostly interested in what's going on the lower level, within municipalities, and that you don't say much about how to connect different municipalities into a higher structure, say confederation.
Bookchin: That's absolutely untrue – the aim of confederating the popular assemblies is basic to libertarian municipalism. My writings on the subject always include a call for confederation. From the local confederations should come regional confederations, and then national or continental confederations. But the power must always reside in the popular assemblies, and the final decisions must always come from below, that is, from assemblies of the people. (I should add that anyone who does not attend an assembly is simply saying, "I am not a citizen, I don't care." So if they don't care to attend, let them live with the decisions of assemblies.) ...I am for interdependence among self-governing people in assemblies. ...This is one area in which I differ with authentic anarchists, who emphasize an individual ego and the fulfillment of its desires as the overriding consideration. Many anarchists reject democracy as the "tyranny" of the majority over the minority. ...Decisions, once made, have to be binding. ...I think majority voting is not only the fairest but the only viable way for a face-to-face democratic society to function, and that decisions made by majority vote should be binding on all the members of the community, whether they voted in favor of a measure or against it.
It is reasonable to remind ourselves at this time that he didn’t volunteer to leave the Communist Party, he was thrown out.
Bookchin remained faithful to socialist ideals such as workers ownership and management. The spirit of syndicalism lived on in Bookchin’s thinking in his effort to confront fascism, the destruction of the ecosphere, right wing populist politics, globalizing capitalism and its technocratic rationality. Bookchin was one of a number of thinkers very influential in the rise of Green politics alongside of writers such as Jane Jacobs who brought together a concern for biopolitics, urbanism, and economics. In some of his obituaries Bookchin is referred to as the founder of a new social ecology school of libertarian socialist thought. Whether or not that claim is entirley true, these terms do adequately describe his focus. Certainly Bookchin was a balm against the deterministic sociobiology of our times through which some sociologists seek to integrate themselves even deeper into the established power structure. He was also a leading voice in bringing ecological concerns to the remnants of 1960s counterculture in America. When few were talking about ecological concerns in a way that tied them to a revolutionary view of the future, Bookchin was. His idea of building a postscarcity society has obvious debts to Marx with its understranding that technological development would allow for a shorter workday leaving workers with the necessary free time to engage in self management.22 Bookchin’s utopianism in the face of globalizing capitalism and the death of politics was remarkable. His spirit lives on in various countercultural leftist groups and Green movements. Looking back on his life he told intetrviewer David Vanek:
In my twilight years – I'm now 80 years old – I've been trying to evaluate what I've seen and done in my life. I ask myself: What happened in the 20th century? What's going to affect the 21st? I've come to some very definite ideas about that. If we are going to change the direction of society in a libertarian way, we will need to build a systematic and coherent project. Coherence is very important, not only in politics and organization but in economics, in history, and in philosophy as well.23
Among Bookchin’s greater battles in his later years was with the Deep Ecology philosophy. According to Bookchin, deep ecology fails to see that the problem of the environmental crisis is directly linked to the “real” problems of authoritarianism and hierarchy. For a social ecologist like Bookchin the problem is to eliminate authoritarianism and heirarchy. Can we not, ask the Deep Ecologists, imagine a world “where social heirarchy is eliminated and yet the new egalitarian society dominates nature just as badly. The problem is that anthropocentrism can take on different forms... ”.24
Bookchin’s perspective was the kind that protects its owner from understanding modernity’s catastrophe in slow motion as a deepening anti-utopia. What happens to a thinker when utopianism is no longer possible? The answer to this question may explain the difference between thinkers such as Bookchin and Baudrillard.
III. The Transpolitical
The revolution of our time is the uncertainty revolution.25
Bookchin and Baudrillard make a very interesting comparison for me because they are extreme examples of two strong tendencies in thought and in the university today: those drawn to theory and those drawn to political activism. While activists like Bookchin may be said to seek a revolutionary politics to come, many of the same experiences that informed his choices [disilluionment with traditional Marxism and the left, globalizing capitalism, environmental degradation, war, etc.] pressed those like Baudrillard to seek to understand why, in our present morass, revolutionary politics are no longer possible. While Bookchin sought a social ecology inspired version of libertarian socialism, Baudrillard sought to understand the transpolitical. In an important way this was Baudrillard exercising his former activist spirit during a time when activism seemed no longer possible.
For Baudrillard writing served as a kind of activism, especially given his belief that the only use of theory is challenge.26 This is not a well understood aspect of Baudrillard by some of his critics. Baudrillard’s contribution to activism, his own activism if you will, was to seek to understand the frustrating reasons why activism was no longer possible on a large scale collective level. This was his gift to activism, a gift that has not been well received but one that cannot be returned. This of course is an ironic project and irony in not a popular device among many activists if the irony involves facing up to the challenge of peering over the abyss politics has tumbled into.
Baudrillard [who was first and foremost a “writer”27 rather than a political philosopher], is understood by many leftists, especially those who do not read him, as somehow enraptured by the unpleasant state of our times. Nothing could be further from his actual feelings of frustration:
It is intolerable for everybody that events should be inconsequential, or that their own desires should be inconsequential. And, in the last analysis, that theory should be inconsequential. No exceptions allowed.28
There was a strong willingness in Baudrillard, perhaps inspired by his reading of thinkers like Cioran, to enquire into the possibility that we are a species whose destiny is self destruction, if not planetary destruction. Speaking on contemporary science and technology, he put it this way to listeners at his Welleck Lecture in 1999:
...perhaps we may see this as a kind of adventure, a heroic test: to take the artificialization of living beings as far as possible in order to see, finally, what part of human nature survives the greatest ordeal. If we discover that not everything can be cloned, simulated, programmed, genetically and neurologically managed, then whatever survives could be truly called “human”: some inalienable and indestructible human quality could finally be identified. Of course, there is always the risk, in this experimental adventure, that nothing will pass the test – that the human will be permanently eradicated.29
These words are as likley to anger Deep Ecologists and Social Ecologists alike. What separated a therorist like Baudrillard from the more hopeful activist tradition is the willingness to take seriously the problem that the very catastrophe activists are seeking to avoid, may have already taken place – and that an important part of this catastrophe is the eclipse of the political30.
We are now in the transpolitical sphere… the zero-point of politics, a stage which also implies the reproduction of politics, its endless simulation. …politics will never finish disappearing – nor will it allow anything else to emerge in its place. A kind of hysteresis of the political reigns.31
Baudrillard took no delight in the transpolitical, indeed it was to him but a central part of the intolerable “trans”-ness of our times: transpolitical, transeconomic, transsexual, transaesthetic etc. As he told an interviewer some years ago: “... it is true that leftist, moralizing, revolutionary positions of the seventies are finished. At the moment I do not see a new position, one which is original and credible. That is the true problem”.32
Where for Bookchin there are masses to be educated and convinced, for Baudrillard the masses are weary of socilization by both left and right and have opted for a strategy of silence – his “silent majority”. Contrary to what Bookchin may have thought, we must see “freedom of speech” as the most subtle system of surveillance yet achieved (one who speaks freely can be monitored while one silenced by fear of power cannot).33 It comes at the cost to power of only liberal democracy (itself a fabulous, even if somewhat expensive, instrument of social integration). Who can now refuse to speak? Who cannot speak in favour of democracy – forced free speech and forced democracy then – Baudrillard has read his Nietzsche:
Nietzsche grappled with the death of God, but all we have to deal with is the disappearance of politics and history. This disappearance may take on a degree of pathos (as in May ‘68) but that will no doubt be the last time. May ‘68 marked the onset of a long eventless process. That is why those who did not live through it can never understand what is happening today in a diluted form, just as those who never lived through the death of God can understand nothing of the convalescence of values.34
Baudrillard like Bookchin had no use for the state which he understands to be as useless as terrorism.35 He, like Bookchin, also grew weary of the organized left as the 1970s approached. Unlike Bookchin, who held out great hope in refining the left beyond Marxism, Baudrillard lost faith in the ability of social movements to trascend the transpolicial stasis of our times:
...the left collapsed... it proved incapable of speaking for the indifference and inertia of the social body. ...The Right, for its part, identifies spontaneously with this inert ghost of the social body and its deep resentment of the political sphere. It is, in this sense, not so much political as transpolitical – that is to say, aligned with the lowest common denominator of a politically disaffected society.36
This is the key difference between Baudrillard and Bookchin, and for me, between may so called “theorists“ vs. “activists” today – a faith in popolar social movements. For Bookchin it is a question of motivating potential members of the social ecology movement before they lapse into other individualist persuits. For Baudrillard that catastrophe has already taken place, and the Left are dying of the same causes as power:
If there is something to be retained from Marx it is this: capital produces the social, it is its essential production, is ‘historical function’. And the great moments of the social, the convolutions and revolutions, coincide with capital’s ascending phase. When the objective determinations of capital lose their force, the social will not overcome capital according to some dialectical movement. The social, too, will collapse, even as a moribund Real corresponds to an anaemic Imaginary. This is what we are witnessing today: the Left dying of the same causes as power.37
There is something of the pure anarchist in Baudrillard although he rarely addresses the subject specifically.38 Further, Baudrillard puts it: “Why has everything moral, conventional and conformist – things which were traditionally on the Right – now gone over to the Left”?39 In the transpoliitcal, the terms “Left ” and “Right ” lose their meaning:
As for saying Left/Right, I don’t know. I only want to judge people on new things. The criterion Left/Right leads us into dividing people into good and bad. I can no longer function according to this criterion. If we had new criteria, if we had something else, I would not be averse to taking up some kind of political will. But I would have to have different bases. I refuse to make any pronouncements on these old bases, on this tired political play. ...People are hasty to judge ideologically before they try to understand what is going on and what is being said.40
So Jean Baudrillard was one who moved from Nanterre and the barricades of May 1968 to the frustrating position of an occupant of the transpolitical where even the political applications of his own writing are unknown to him – “no one excepted” as he said.
The political application of my point of view is unclear to me; I do not know what I can do with this standpoint from a political point of view. Yet I know that something has happened, and I can’t go on believing that theory is still possible, as indeed it used to be. Theory can be reintroduced to the system; however, we have to assume that theory subverts the models. But again, the political applications of these steps are presently unclear to me.41
What then of resistance?
I think that each of us can resist. But it would be difficult for such resistance to become political. I don’t get the impression there could be any organized political resistance as such. It would always be an exception, and whatever you do will always be ‘exceptional’ in that sense. …all these singularities can create holes, interstices, voids et cetera, in the metastatic fullness of culture. But I don’t see them coalescing, combining into a kind of anti-power that could invest the other.42
The most frustrating thing for those activists on the Left is the lack of a global left and the most frustrating thing for followers of Bookchin is the dreadful failure of the social ecology momement to attract the millions of followers, indeed “makers” its proponets desire. Until this happens, Bookchin’s followers, like Baudrillard’s, may express their sincere frustration with the state of the transpolitical.
“Activists” and “theorists” alike occupy the transpolitical but they do so in varying degrees of self awareness and respect for oneanother. The activist left, following Bookchin, largely maintians a disrespectful stance toward contemporary theorists – those like Baudrillard who would perhaps, to use Bookchin’s words, lead us to “postmodern individualisms”. Theorists too can be harsh on the activists and if one believes, as Baudrillard does, that theory is best deployed as challenge, then the criticisms can seem harsh. As someone who has read Baudrillard I can say one thing with some certainty. Baudrillard retains a secret admiration for activists – it is is this respectful admiration that I as a member of the “theorists” do not feel from the activists, and I do not think they respect Baudrillard’s challenge enough. And here was Bookchin’s achillies heel as well – a brilliant challenger who alienated, despite his best efforts, more than he ever attacted to the cause of social ecology. Another key difference between Bookchin the activist and Baudrillard the theorist/challenger: the tone of the challenge. Bookchin maintained that old Leftist “I know better than you what is better for you and I am here to tell you what it is” attitude. Baudrillard’s approach is much more subtle:
Naturally, if you provoke then you must expect some counter provocation and some negative reaction. The fact that it is so virulent is really quite interesting. It shows that in a way my negativity has passed on to them, subliminally perhaps, which is what I expected. I would say there has been a hyper-reaction to my work and from that point of view I have succeeded.43
I knew Murray Bookchin only thorugh his writings and interviews and in these I found his temperment to me characterized by anger. Ours is a cooly indifferent time that can only be met with an even greater cool indifference.
IV. A Politics to Come ?
...Do we absolutely have to choose between meaning and non-meaning? But the point is precisely that we do not want to. The absence of meaning is no doubt intolerable, but it would be just as intolerable to see the world assume a definitive meaning.44
Whatever may be said of his approach, Murray Bookchin deserves to be read long after his death here among the ruins of the transpolitical as we search for what Giogrio Agamben calls “a politcs to come”. For me, if it comes, I hope it won’t be Bookchin’s politics. He did however spend his life asking diffiuclt questions and his answers are thoughtful. Whether or not we agree with Bookchin we miss an important statement about our times, from one of its fonts, if we ignore his work.
Yet here is one of the best representatives of the ecologically informed Left we have at the beginning of the third millenium – and he is still willing to cut corners when it comes to the individual. As such, I end my farewell to him with a challenge to his followers and activists in social ecology (a very enchanted movement I think), to seek to understand truly disenchanted theorists and social movements alike:
Is it possible to conceive of disenchanted social movements? Yet ones which are still powerful and irrepressible? What would a fundamentally pessimistic political strategy be like, one without illusions, cynical but energetic, one which would transform the fatal state of public affairs into an open challenge, instead of exhausting itself in trying to unmask it – unsuccessfully as it happens – though not without making its contribution to turning us into political morons?45
And, with the above challenge, a second that calls upon the activist tradition to ponder what has happend to the political, and perhaps therin, to find reasons for their failures to mobilize. This is not a project without hope if one possesses a certain anarchistic admiration of irreducible singularities:
The increasingly intense resistances to globalization – social and political resistances, which may seem like an archaic rejection of modernity at all costs – have to be seen as harbouring an original defiant reaction to the sway of the universal. Something which goes beyond the economic and the political. A kind of painful revisionism in respect of the established patterns of modernity, in respect of the idea of progress and history – a kind of rejection not only of the famous global technostructure, but of the mental structure of the identification of all cultures and all continents in the concept of the universal. This resurgence – or even insurrection – of singularity may assume violent, anomalous, irrational aspects from the viewpoint of “enlightened thought” – it may take ethnic, religious or linguistic forms, but also, at the individual level, may find expression in character disorders or neuroses. But it would be a basic error (the very error one sees in the moral orchestration of the politically correct discourse common to all the powers-that-be and to many “intellectuals”) to condemn all these upsurges out of hand as populist, archaic, or even terroristic. ...In the void left by the universal, the stakes have risen, and globalization isn’t certain to be the winner. In the face of its homogenizing, solvent power, we can see heterogenous forces springing up all over, forces which are not only different, but antagonistic and irreducible.46
Social ecology as a “leftist” movment today has the same problem as all movements in the transpoliitcal. Old terms like Left and Right still circulate, but they do so without meaning. We are in a politcal vacuum between politics as we thought it was understood, and a politics that is just taking shape, still fragmented and formless – a “trans”ient state – a state in between. “Left”, “Right”, the “masses”, the “state”, “power”, the “social” – these terms are all up for grabs now – their meaning uncertain and certainly not what it was throughout modernity. Before it can hope to participate in a politics to come, social ecology will have to participate more actively in this fragmented discourse. In short, the activist tradition needs a good think on the state of the times in which it currently attempts to operate and experiences its failures.
Baudrillard’s writing points to a biting problem for Bookchin’s kind of philosophy – its failure fully think through the long history of domination attached to all collective movements, especially those on the Left. It was Bookchin’s outright refusal to accept the dangers of his own kind of collective action that was most disappointing as he neared the end (despite his earlier work). Here there was little distance separating him from those traditional Marxists he had parted company from in his younger days for this very reason. There is something of the fundamentalist at work here – another very popular “American” strain in Bookchin. Whatever the philosophy the message is the same: “You shall live this way or perish!” I for one do not like it when these people have power whatever their philosophy or their better intentions.
How does one live a political life among the ruins of the transpolitical? One doesn’t, really – not a very satisfying one at least. Bookchin’s followers seem very determined that he receive sufficient credit for his leadership role in developing social ecology. I accept that it was Murray Bookchin who more than anyone provided us with an enthusiastic and thoughtful elaboration of its cause. Will his followers accept the dangers of his understanding of how it might be put into practice? If not, they offer us only another form of collective tyranny – this time a Green one. An object we can hopefuly all agree not to believe in. Given his admirable way of turning on causes to which he belonged, in about ten years, we could have expected Murray Bookchin not to believe in it either.
January 14, 1921 – July 30, 2005
Gerry Coulter is founder and editor of IJBS. He is also Canadian Editor of European Art (On-Line) Magazine. Recent writings include: “The Photograph as Contemporary Theory” in Ali Peksen, Ishan Derman and Can Soysal: Track06: An Exhibition Catalogue to Accompany an Exhibition of Recent Turkish Visual Communications Design, Bilgi University, Istanbul, January, 2007:9-20.47
1 Murry Bookchin. "Desire and Need", 1967.
2 Jean Baudrillard. Seduction (c 1979). Montreal: New World Perspectives Press, 1990:145.
3 Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:48-49.
4 Murray Bookchin. Re-enchanting Humanity: A Defense of the Human Spirit Against Antihumanism, Misanthropy, Mysticism, and Primitivism. New York: Cassell, 1995.
5 Jean Baudrillard. Fragments: Cool Memories III (1990-1995). New York: Verso, 1997:70.
7 Jean Baudrillard. “Interview with Nicholas Zurbrugg” (1990), in Mike Gane (Editor), Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:167. Baudrillard also refers to himself as part of the “race of pesants” in Cool Memories (1980-1985). New York: Verso, 1990:27.
David Vanek. “Interview with Murray Bookchin”.
Volume 2, Number 1,
11 Murray Bookchin. "Ecology and Revolutionary Thought". New York: Times Change Press, 1970.
David Vanek. “Interview with Murray Bookchin”.
Volume 2, Number 1,
13 Murray Bookchin. “Listen, Marxist!” in Post Scarcity Anarchism. Berkeley: Ramparts Press, 1971.
14 Jean Baudrillard. The Mirror of Production (c 1973). St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975.
15 Murray Bookchin. Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy. Palo Alto, California: Cheshire Books, 1982.
David Vanek. “Interview with Murray Bookchin”.
Volume 2, Number 1,
18 Murray Bookchin. Toward an Ecological Society. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1980.
19 Robert Michels. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies in Modern Democracy. New York: Hearst International Library, 1915.
20 It is worth noting that Bookchin is not the only one to miss this point. Take for example many contemporary studies of surveillance which see surveillance as a new technologically driven force in our society. Long before the video camera was placed in the street, or the retinal scanner at the airport, the whispers and prying eyes of our neighbors have sought to curtail our individuality in the smallest, least technologically informed environments. Walk down the streets of Paris as a middle aged professional in a pair of sneakers and jeans and feel the eyes of the disapproving bourgeoisie, that mirror of society expressing its shock and indignation that you dare affront the sense of fashion which is a central aspect of their indoctrination. How different is it from the stares that greet a young woman who has chosen to colour her hair green as she walks down the streets of small town America? Or those that greet the man who commits the unwritten crime against bourgeois values that is having long hair in our neo-fascist times when the shorn head of the U.S. Marine is the ideal of the young fashionistas. What we loath in people like George Bush and the large faceless organizations he commands can be traced to its roots in every small town in America and far beyond its shores. We are watchers who watch – its source lies deep within our human trajectory.
21 Murray Bookchin. Remaking Society. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1990.
22 See especially his essays in Post-Scarcity Anarchism. Berkeley: Ramparts Press, 1971.
David Vanek. “Interview with Murray Bookchin”.
Volume 2, Number 1,
25 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c 1990). New York: Verso, 1993:43.
26 Jean Baudrillard. Forget Bauddrillard: An Interview with Sylvere Lotringer (c1985) in Forget Foucault/ Forget Baudrillad. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:124.
27 See Jean Baudrillard. Interview with Le Journal des Psychologues (c 1991), in Mike Gane. Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, 1993:179.
28 Jean Baudrillard. “Forget Baudrillard” (an interview with Sylvere Lotringer c 1985). In Forget Foucault/Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:107.
29 Jean Baudrillard. The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000:15-16.
30 The notion of an “eclipse of the political” is Agambens. See Giorgio Agamben. State of Exception (c 2003). University of Chicago Press, 2005:88.
31 Jean Baudrillard. The Transparency of Evil (c1990). New York: Verso, 1993:11.
32 Jean Baudrillard. Interview with Guy Bellavance (c 1983) in Mike Gane, Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews, 1993:64.
33 “We have known for a long time that freedom of speech and desire is the modern and globalized form of surveillance and silence”. Jean Baudrillard. “The Divine Left” (c1985), in Gary Genosko, The Uncollected Baudrillard. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE, 2001:113.
34 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories (1980-1985). New York: Verso, 1990:186.
35 Jean Baudrillard. “Forget Baudrillard: Interview with Sylvere Lotringer”, (1985) in Forget Foucault, Forget Baudrillard. New York: Semiotext(e), 1987:121.
36 Jean Baudrillard. Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:81.
37 Jean Baudrllard. “The Divine Left” (c1985), in Gary Genosko, The Uncollected Baudrillard. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE, 2001:97.
38 Baudrillard does acknowledge his anarchist leanings during his development in the 1950s in a 1992 interview with Mike Gane and Monique Arnaud. See Mike Gane (Editor). Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews. London: Routledge, 1993:20.
39 Jean Baudrillard. Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:203.
40 Maria Shevtsova. “Intellectual Commitment and Political Power: An Interview With Jean Baudrillard”. Thesis Eleven. 10/11, 1985:172.
41 Jean Baudrillard. “Hot Painting: The Inevitable Fate of the Image” (A paper given at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 1986). In Serge Guilbaut. Reconstructing Modernism: Art in New York, Paris, and Montreal: 1945-1964. Boston: MIT Press, 1990:27.
42 Jean Baudrillard in Jean Baudrillard and Jean Nouvel. The Singular Objects of Architecture. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2002:20-21.
43 Jean Baudrillard. “Politics of Seduction: Interview with Suzanne Moore and Stephen Johnstone”. Marxism Today. January, 1989:54.
44 Jean Baudrillard. Impossible Exchange. London: SAGE, 2001:128.
45 Jean Baudrillard. Cool Memories (1980-1985). New York: Verso, 1990:191.
46 Jean Baudrillard. Screened Out. New York: Verso, 2002:157-158, 159.
47 This paper is dedicated to Dr. Mary Ellen Donnan.
©International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2007)