Social Ecology and the Crisis of Our Time
By Andy Price
New Compass, 2012, pp.3 04
In the 1980s, the emerging Green political movement was looking for an alternative to conventional politics and became enamored with a “new paradigm” based on holism. The earth is a living whole, a unitary system, ran the adopted view, and we should peacefully seek consensus over conflict, diversity over monoculture, and symbiosis over polarization. A new ecological spirituality, worshipping nature, even an earth goddess, pervaded the movement.
Amid the nodding bliss, a tendency emerged within the movement that was poised to test the mettle of the “new paradigm.” According to deep ecology (the philosophy) and Earth First! (the activists), humans are radically distinct from the rest of nature. With their civilization and their technology, they are a blight on the biosphere; they should change their ways and humble themselves before untouched wilderness. One deep ecologist even outrageously declared that the world should allow people in famine-stricken Ethiopia— impoverished black people—to starve to death, in order to reduce population numbers, to let nature take its course.
The ecology movement, steeped in mellow, embracing diversity, initially seemed at a loss to challenge this ugly development. But Murray Bookchin, who had come out of a contentious leftist tradition and who had been propounding what he called “social ecology” for half a century, had no trouble finding his voice. In 1987, he took the deep ecologists to task for promulgating the misanthropy and even racism. It’s capitalism, it’s hierarchy, it’s domination that’s causing the ecological crisis, he said—our social arrange- ments—not people as such.
It’s easy to understand what Bookchin meant by “social ecology” when contrasted with deep ecology. Debates bring out the contrasts between ideas and let us weigh their merits more easily than a straightforward, linear exposition might do. That was why Bookchin often affirmed that argument is not only healthy but necessary in order to clarify ideas.
But so mellow had the eco-movement become that, instead of rallying to Bookchin’s side—as any humane person would have done—most of its members turned against him and cried instead for harmony and reconciliation. When Bookchin, astounded, refused to reconcile himself to racist misanthropy, the Greens attacked him. Since they had no intellectual or political ground on which to stand, they resorted to gossip and personal caricature. They said his tone was unpleasant and unduly harsh. They accused him of waging a “turf war” and seeking to foment a “red-green putsch.” Bookchin gave as good as he got, but the fight became bitter. By the time he died in 2006, the embers had long since cooled, but his reputation was still tainted as that of an ornery, peevish, resentful old man.
Andy Price, a native of Manchester, UK, never met Bookchin, but in the early 2000s, having enrolled at his local university, he began to pore over Bookchin’s writings, paying special attention to this debate. As he waded through the jabs and counter-jabs, parsing slurs, carefully examining the debate with a fresh outsider’s eye, he kept thinking (as he recounts) that in the next paragraph he would finally come to the intellectual substance of the greens’ objection to Bookchin’s argument. But he never found it.
He has now written Recovering Bookchin, his first book, to clear away the smoke and debris raised by the fracas and shine a light on the thing that went missing from the angry greens’ side: content. In terms of content, he concludes, the deep ecologists and their apologists—and their fulminations—never laid a glove on Murray Bookchin.
Price’s book not only “recovers” Bookchin from the 1990s mud-slinging; it validates Bookchin’s thesis that argumentation (as opposed to mindless, nodding consensus) clarifies ideas. Not only is it an essential text for all future study of social ecology, it will likely educate many current social ecologists about just what social ecology is.
Some leftist literature dissects the ills of the existing society, revealing its many abuses and injustices: the “what is.” Another sort of literature is prospective, envisioning alternative social arrangements in works that range from utopian dreams to detailed blueprints: the “what should be.”
Bookchin’s work ranges over the terrain between the two, the realm that lies between the “what is” and the “what should be.” There, in that intermediate zone, as Price makes clear, Bookchin looked for pathways that could take us from the existing society to a new, rational one that would be both ecological and humane. By examining these potentialities, dialectically, he tried to show the radical left how, beyond mounting rallies and protests demonstrations, it could embark on the formidable process of making a transition to the good society.
But as Price shows, even Bookchin’s more sophisticated critics, accustomed to more conventional ways of thinking, misunderstood this about him, misunderstood the dialectical nature of his cast of mind, his writing, and his entire project. Does Bookchin tell us (in his book The Ecology of Freedom) that long ago, in “organic” or tribal societies, people lived harmoniously? Then, his critics say, he is guilty of misrepresentation, since he has neglected to inform us that intertribal warfare was endemic in those societies as well. Does Bookchin write about cities (in many works, including Urbanization Without Cities)? Then, his critics say, he must be in favor of cities as they are today, anonymous, sterile, concrete moonscapes. Does Bookchin designate the citizen (rather than the worker) the agent of revolutionary change? That is intolerable, say his anarchist critics, for “citizen” is a statist concept. Does Bookchin find that a path toward change runs through existing city government? Then that clinches the case against him as a statist, for the city today is merely a miniature nation-state.
In each of these and other objections made by Bookchin’s critics in the more sober 1990s debates, Price shows that Bookchin was misunderstood. If he highlighted the peaceable cooperative qualities of “organic society,” it was simply to show us that people had lived cooperatively once and can do so again—not to say that that society was perfect. If he argued that the city contains a possible path to change, it was simply to identify a possibility, to make cities places of conviviality, political vitality, and ecological sanity, not to guarantee the final outcome of taking the path, let alone to endorse the existing city.
Price’s recovery operation shows us that Bookchin worked in the realm between is and ought, the terrain between the sordid today and the possible tomorrow. Price’s great achievement is to explicate the ways that Bookchin charted that terrain.
For me, the subtlest and most illuminating section of his book is the one that treats the subject of ethics. Bookchin proposed that one could ground an ethical system in nature. Among social ecologists, the subject of such an “objective ethics” has been a tortured one—even some of Bookchin’s most fervent admirers have rejected this part of his work. Granted, the phrase “objective ethics” hints at all kinds of philosophical dangers and social pitfalls. But Bookchin was well aware of them and, as Price shows, he never meant to say that nature is somehow ethical in itself.
Then Price proceeds to explain, far better than anyone ever has, what Bookchin meant. Nature unfolds in a process of growing complexity and diversity. Its directionality has led to increasingly self-conscious life forms. That’s an unfolding history on which ethics can be grounded. Once again, the key to this question is potentiality: “Bookchin is not reading his ethics as a fact of nature, but solely as grounded on a potentiality, elicited by speculative thought, that can be found in natural processes.” Our place in evolution is itself an objective potentiality for the creation of an ecological society.
The problems of ethics and of humanity’s place in nature, are ones that the environmental movement is grappling with even today. In some quarters discontent is growing with the notion that nature is radically separate from humanity, with misanthropy, and with rejections of civilization. Today’s “green modernists” (as opposed to “green traditionalists”) are recognizing that untouched wilderness doesn’t really exist, and that people are actually part of nature, part of all ecosystems. Fans of Emma Marris’s 2011 book Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World are hungry for a framework that is not only pro-environment but pro-humanity and even pro-technology.
They would do well to consider Bookchin’s work, as decades ago he brought the wrath of the green movement down on himself by asserting that human beings—with selfhood and reason—are part of nature, having evolved within it. That humanity is uniquely aware of this fact and is capable of guiding nature as a whole toward the fulfillment of its potentialities for freedom and self-consciousness. Twenty- five years ago, “stewardship” was a dirty word. Perhaps even that attitude is changing, giving a “recovered” Bookchin a new relevance.
In the process of recovering the work of an honest and brilliant and relevant thinker whose work was, 20-some years ago, unjustifiably sullied, Price established himself as, hands down, the foremost living interpreter of the literary works of Murray Bookchin.
Janet Biehl is an author, copy editor, and graphic artist living in Burlington, Vermont. Her books include Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics (1991) and The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (1997). She also edited The Murray Bookchin Reader and has written several articles on Bookchin’s life and thought.
Maj. General Smedley D. Butler’s
War is a Racket Speech Turns 80
It has been 80 years since Major General Smedley D. Butler, one of America’s most decorated soldiers, first delivered his powerful “War is a Racket” speech to the American people.
Many classics resulted in the war-weary atmosphere following World War One, including Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Alfred Bryan & Al Piantadosi’s hit song “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier.” But the most devastating account is Butler’s scathing 1935 polemic War is a Racket.
In the first passage of his impassioned anti-war screed, he writes: “War is just a racket. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of people. Only a small inside group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few at the expense of the masses.”
The author, Smedley Darlington Butler, was born in West Chester, Pennsylvania in 1881. When he left high school, he lied about his age so he could join the Marine Corps and fight in the Spanish-American war in 1898, which has been referred to as a “precursor to the Vietnam War.” This was the first of his many military adventures, a long journey that would eventually shape his worldview.
He was involved in the occupations of Vera Cruz, Mexico (1914) and Haiti (1915), where on both occasions, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for “bravery and forceful leadership.” For his work in France during WWI (1917) he received two Distinguished Service Medals from the Army and Navy. After serving in the Marine Corps for 34 years, he retired as a Major General on October 1, 1931 with 16 medals to his name.
However, his attitude toward these mementos is one of bitterness: “Napoleon once said ‘All men are enamored of decorations…they positively hunger for them.’ So by developing the Napoleonic system—the medal business—the government learned it could get more soldiers for less money, because the boys like to be decorated. Until the civil war there were no medals. Then the Congressional Medal of Honor was handed out. It made enlistments easier.”
Throughout the 1930s, he made a name for himself as a public speaker and a veterans’ rights activist. He enjoyed immense popularity travelling around the country to communicate his wartime experiences and his vision for peace. Somberly reflecting on his military record in one of his early lectures, he gave an account that drastically differs from the government’s authorized history, one stripped away of heroism: “I helped make Mexico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys. I helped in the raping of half a dozen Central American republics for the benefits of Wall Street. I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. In China I helped to see to it that Standard Oil went its way unmolested.”
Butler, like all Marines, took the following oath: “I… having been appointed an officer in the Marine Corps of the United States… do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic…”
Despite retirement, he upheld this oath by going after domestic enemies he felt were endangering America, namely the banks and corporations. He believed they were not motivated by national pride or by democratic values, but rather by blood money, by profit. The war profiteers always yell the familiar battle cry “No guts, no glory” in their romantic portrayal of war. Butler knew, in reality, it is always the profiteers’ glory but somebody else’s guts.
His lectures received so much attention that he condensed the main themes of these speeches into a booklet that was published by Round Table Press in 1935. (The excerpts were later serialized in Reader’s Digest.) Its five chapters are short, to the point and loaded with indispensable ideas.
The real power behind Butler’s words is rooted in his personal experiences on the battlefield. His rough but eloquent style reflects his real life image as a fighter, where he earned nicknames like “the fighting Quaker,” “Old Gimlet Eye” and the “Maverick Marine.”
Lowell Thomas’s forward in Reader’s Digest reads, in part, “Even his opponents concede that in his stand on public questions, General Butler has been motivated by the same fiery integrity and loyal patriotism which has distinguished his service in countless Marine campaigns.”
In Butler’s assessment, “I spent 33 years in the Marines, most of my time being a high-class muscle man for big business, for Wall Street and the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for Capitalism.”
In his calculations in chapter 3 (“Who Pays the Bills?”), he crunches the numbers in relation to the money spent and profits earned in previous wars, noting how bankers and CEOs manage to only see dollar signs when they stare into Uncle Sam’s eyes. Unlike most government reports, he takes the effort to examine a seldom-mentioned cost in warfare: that of human life: “…the soldier pays the biggest part of the bill.
“If you don’t believe this, visit the American cemeteries on the battlefields abroad. Or visit any of the veteran’s hospitals in the United States. On a tour of the country, in the midst of which I am at the time of this writing, I have visited 18 government hospitals for veterans. In them are a total of about 50,000 destroyed men—men who were the pick of the nation 18 years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital; at Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed at home.”
Butler was ahead of his time when it came to his commentary focusing on the not-so-secret conspiracy between the war profiteers and the mass media: “In the World War, we used propaganda to make the boys accept conscription [the draft]. They were made to feel ashamed if they didn’t join the army. So vicious was this war propaganda that even God was brought into it. With few exceptions our clergymen joined in the clamor to kill, kill, kill…God is on our side…it is His will.”
His analysis on WWI propaganda is reminiscent of all the military recruitment advertisements that plague the internet and television screens around the country: “Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die. This [WWI] was the ‘war to end all wars.’ This was the ‘war to make the world safe for democracy.’ No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going and their dying would mean huge war profits. No one told these American soldiers that they might be shot down by bullets made by their own brothers here. No one told them that the ships on which they were going to cross might be torpedoed by submarines built with United States patents. They were just told it was to be a ‘glorious adventure’.”
Butler’s words are uncanny echoes from the past that are still ringing in our ears. His barbed criticisms of the weapons industries still hold sway when considering the likes of Lockheed & Martin and Halliburton in their roles in American wars in the Middle East. His revelations about the relationship between war and capitalism were later repeated in President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous 1961 farewell address in which he warned the people about the “military industrial complex.”
This work has earned the admiration of figures such as Ralph Nader, Howard Zinn, and Adam Parfrey, publisher of Feral House Books, who re-issued the book in 2003 to coincide with the American invasion of Iraq. Upon the book’s re-release, Parfrey wrote “…the piss and vinegar classic, may be even more relevant today than when it was first published…”
Butler died on June 21, 1940 at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, a fallen soldier in a long battle against cancer, over a year before the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Though he has since joined his brothers and sisters in arms, his three steps to “smash this racket” still endure: “We must take the profit out of war. We must permit the youth of the land who would bear arms to decide whether or not there should be a war. We must limit our military forces to home defense purposes.”
His ghostly voice still cries out what millions have echoed after him: “To Hell With War.”
Mike Kuhlenbeck is a freelance journalist and author whose work has appeared in The Des Moines Register and other publications. I am also a card-carrying member of the Society of Professional Journalists.
Boz Scaggs’ Memphis: A Fine Return to R&B Roots
Review by John Zavesky
After a five year absence, Boz Scaggs is back with a new album steeped in Southern soul, Memphis, produced by drummer Steve Jordon, includes the rhythm section of Scaggs, Jordan, Ray Parker Jr. on guitar and Willie Weeks on bass. The core band is aided by former Fame Studios mainstay Spooner Oldham on piano, Charlie Musselwhite playing harp, and the Royal horns led by the noted session player, Jim Horn, with string arrangements by Lester Snell.
Even with all this talent, Memphis is an album that is truly defined by the place it was recorded—Willie Mitchell’s famed Royal Studios. Jordon and Scaggs have smartly channeled Mitchell’s production style during the heyday of Al Green’s sessions at the studio, with the tone muted and stripped down.
Memphis harks back to Scaggs’s 1997 release, Come on Home. While that album employed the Willie Mitchell Horns and contained soul and blues covers from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, it had a much brighter, fuller tone while Memphis is about as laid back a recording as you will find.
The album opens with, Gone Baby Gone, the first of two songs penned by Scaggs. The opening strains of the organ, guitar, bass, and drums instantly evoke the sound of Al Green and Mitchell’s “Royal Sound.” Jordan’s simplicity in his production emphasizes every instrument and sets the album’s tone. The sound is smooth, sweet, and has a groove that just begs to be danced to.
It takes a consummate artist to cover Al Green, one of the all-time great soul crooners. Scaggs is in top form here taking on Green’s So Good to be Here. His silky voice has aged but remains as smooth as ever. The album’s standout cut is certainly Mixed Up Shook Up Girl, originally penned and recorded by Willie DeVille on Mink DeVille’s 1976 debut Cabretta. The original had a Drifters-play-Max’s-Kansas City vibe to it. Here Jordan strips the song down to its absolute essentials. His drumming is sparse and gives the song a Caribbean feel. The second standout cut is Cadillac Walk, another song DeVille covered on his debut album, penned by Moon Martin. Jordan has given the song a swampy, bluesy quality. By laying back on the drums and putting Scaggs’s voice and a greasy slide guitar in the forefront, Jordon gives the material a juke joint quality DeVille’s version lacks.
Even with material that may initially appear perfunctory on the surface, Scaggs shines. Rainy Night in Georgia is a song where Boz Scaggs’s aged voice really gets to show off its chops. The vocals are smooth and smoky, a feat that Scaggs probably couldn’t have accomplished some 20 years earlier. One of the best examples of Jordan’s stripped down production is Corrina, Corrina. The song has been covered by dozens of artists over the years and begs the question, why bother adding to the list? The answer is as simple as the production. You’ve never heard a version as sparse and beautiful as the one Scaggs turns in. The song has the simplest of accompaniments, with the focus squarely on Scaggs voice—and he has never sounded better.
Scaggs clearly demonstrates he has not forgotten his blues roots with Dry Spell and You Got Me Cryin’. Bring in the rhythm section—augmented with Keb Mo on dobro, Musselwhite on harp and Oldham on piano—and you’ve got some down home blues. The album closes with the second Scaggs composition, Sunny Gone, a song that sounds very reminiscent of the artist’s 1995 Some Changes album. While it is hard to say anything bad about such a well-crafted album, Sunny Gone sounds oddly out of place following two scorching blues numbers.
Memphis is a little bit soul, a little bit blues, and a whole lot of fine playing by a consummate rhythm section. It took Scaggs five years to come out with a new studio album and just three days to record it. After hearing Memphis, let’s hope it won’t be as long a wait for the next one.
John Zavesky’s articles have been published in Counterpunch, Palestinian Chronicle, Dissident Voice, the Los Angeles Times, and other publications.