Reopening the “Intellectual Space” of Social Ecology
Revised May 2018
While ecosocialists (particularly Joel Kovel, John Bellamy Foster, and Fred Magdoff) and their tendency have been given consideration by social ecologists like John P. Clark and Brian Tokar, their work seems under-appreciated in our field. Conversely, the social ecological perspective seems to have had little presence or impression within ecosocialism. This is a strange situation given the wide area of general theoretical agreement (though the vocabulary and argumentation may differ), the fact that social ecology can be seen as a non-Marxist ecosocialism (1), and that Murray Bookchin (then a dissident Trotskyist), whose work on the industrial degradation of the environment dates at least to 1952 with the publication of “The Problem of Chemicals in Food,” was one of the first to introduce a strong ecological dimension to radical (especially Marxist) thought.
I am aware of Kovel’s and Bookchin’s exchanges (see “Negating Bookchin” and “Turning Up the Stones“ for a sampling), and I wish I had access to the issue of Capitalism, Nature, Socialism that deals with Bookchin’s legacy. The importance of history within social ecology leads one to acknowledge that with few exceptions, the field became increasingly marginalized and withdrawn from the rest of the radical left toward the end of Bookchin’s life. Arguably, this alienation climaxed in the tendency of communalism (sadly, a name shared by reactionaries in Asia), which rendered social ecology’s dissociation from anarchism and reliance on libertarian municipalism complete.
Yet, it must be remembered that the narrowness the field had taken was not always the case. As Bookchin’s own work attests, social ecology is robust and able to be approached from different angles and with different emphases, both theoretically (more or less social-anarchistic, anti-authoritarian or unorthodox Marxist, “communalist,” etc.) and practically (libertarian municipalism, prefiguration, neighborhood restructuring and social “dual power” strategies, etc.). His path of theoretical engagement over a period of six decades will no doubt yield additional insights for second and third generation social ecologists (2). As Bookchin scholar Damian F. White (2008) observes:
It is notable that following in the wake of this writing [of Toward an Ecological Society and Ecology of Freedom], we start to see a slow opening up of the intellectual space of social ecology as a diverse range of thinkers, activists and practitioners — from eco-philosophers such as John Clark and Joel Kovel, to anthropologists such as Chaia Heller and Dan Chodorkoff, ecofeminists such as Ynestra King and Janet Biehl, political theorists such as John Ely, Howard Hawkin and Brian Tokar, and eco-technologists such as Nancy and John Todd — in varying ways begin to engage, appropriate and develop Bookchin’s social ecology…. It is equally striking how, the potential for a rich, diverse and open-ended discussion of an urban social ecology with utopian intent having been opened up, much of this space for discussion seems to close down in the final decade of Bookchin’s life (p. 153-154).
Along with the above, White mentions that social ecology was engaging productively with bioregionalist, Situationist, ecosocialist, left-libertarian, and other left-green perspectives. Indeed, Joel Kovel was a lecturer at the Institute for Social Ecology for a time.
If a twenty-first century social ecology is committed to prefiguring the post-scarcity society in ways that immediately improve the material conditions of working people and create a dual power infrastructure; committed to building a global social and political radical ecology movement; moving forward theoretically, in practice, and in a comradely manner; and to staying scientifically and philosophically relevant, reopening the field’s “intellectual space” becomes an immediate priority. Social ecologist John P. Clark shows a way forward in his engagement with Eastern philosophy as radical, dialectical and ecological (2008a), as well as with deep ecology (2010). To this list for re-engagement I would add Inclusive Democracy and the eco-anarchism of Graham Purchase and others at the Anarcho-Syndicalist Review. Scientifically, the work of conservation biologist David Theodoropoulos (2003) and ecologist Michael Rosenzweig (2003) may be of significance, particularly to the development of a social ecology for arid lands.
Clearly, social ecology is too wide and fecund a field to be chained to one specific politic or praxis, especially given the particularities of ecoregions. The opening of social ecology’s intellectual space will be a recurring topic here, as a twenty-first century social ecology has much to contribute to the global radical ecology movement.
(1) While Marxism is considered an antecedent tradition from which social ecology would emerge, and has partially informed the social ecological analysis of capitalism and the ecological crisis, it differs substantially from orthodox Marxism and is generally not considered within the Marxist milieu. Many consider social ecology a transcendent theory of Marxism and social anarchism.
(2) I would suggest particularly a critical re-engagement with the Frankfurt School and Theordore Adorno’s negative dialectic and views on reason to resolve the Bookchin/Clark debate on dialectical naturalism. See Bookchin 1996, Clark 2008b and 2009, and Biehl 2009.
Biehl, J. (2009). “Reply to John Clark’s ‘Domesticating the Dialectic’” in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, vol. 20, no. 1, p. 120-124.
Bookchin, M. (1996). The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays on Dialectical Naturalism. Black Rose Books: Montreal, Quebec.
Clark, J. (2010). “A Dialogue with Arne Naess on Social Ecology and Deep Ecology (1988-1997)” in The Trumpeter: Journal of Ecosophy, vol. 26, no. 2, p. 20-39.
Clark, J. (2009). “On Biehl’s Defense of Bookchin’s Immanent Dialectic” in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, vol. 20, no. 1, p. 125-129.
Clark, J. (2008a). “On Being None with Nature: Nargarjuna and the Ecology of Emptiness” in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, vol. 19, no. 4, p. 6-29.
Clark, J. (2008b). “Domesticating the Dialectic: A Critique of Bookchin’s Neo-Aristotelianism” in Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, vol. 19, no. 2, p. 51-68.
Kovel, J. (2008). The Enemy of Nature: The end of capitalism or the end of nature? Zed Books: London, England.
Rosenzweig, M. (2003). Win-Win Ecology: How the Earth’s species can survive in the midst of human enterprise. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.
Theodoropoulos, D. (2003). Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudo-Science. Avvar Books: Blythe, CA.
White, D. (2008). Bookchin: A Critical Appraisal. Pluto Press: London, England.