Community Control or Statist Politics: A Reply to David Lewis

By Murray Bookchin (1991)

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Untitled Anarchism Community Control or Statist Politics: A Reply to David Lewis

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(1921 - 2006)

Father of Social Ecology and Anarcho-Communalism

: Growing up in the era of traditional proletarian socialism, with its working-class insurrections and struggles against classical fascism, as an adult he helped start the ecology movement, embraced the feminist movement as antihierarchical, and developed his own democratic, communalist politics. (From: Anarchy Archives.)
• "Broader movements and issues are now on the horizon of modern society that, while they must necessarily involve workers, require a perspective that is larger than the factory, trade union, and a proletarian orientation." (From: "The Ghost of Anarcho-Syndicalism," by Murray Book....)
• "The historic opposition of anarchists to oppression of all kinds, be it that of serfs, peasants, craftspeople, or workers, inevitably led them to oppose exploitation in the newly emerging factory system as well. Much earlier than we are often led to imagine, syndicalism- - essentially a rather inchoate but radical form of trade unionism- - became a vehicle by which many anarchists reached out to the industrial working class of the 1830s and 1840s." (From: "The Ghost of Anarcho-Syndicalism," by Murray Book....)
• "...anarchism is above all antihierarchical rather than simply individualistic; it seeks to remove the domination of human by human, not only the abolition of the state and exploitation by ruling economic classes." (From: "The Ghost of Anarcho-Syndicalism," by Murray Book....)

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Community Control or Statist Politics: A Reply to David Lewis

"Community Control or Status Politics: A Reply to David Lewis," GREEN MULTILOGUE [Toronto] (May 13, 1991)

Community Control or Statist Politics: A Reply to David Lewis

by Murray Bookchin

 Photo by wyz W, CC BY-NC-SA License

Photo by wyz W,
CC BY-NC-SA License

In his Green Multilogue hatchet job "The Thought of Director Bookchin" (May 13), David Lewis apparently sets out to undo any obstacle that my antihierarchical views -- libertarian municipalism and social ecology -- might present to his efforts to build a Green party. This does not exclude using blatant lies and gross distortions of my ideas.

At his crudest (and he can be very crude indeed), he describes people who agree with my work as my "followers" and in the same vein demagogically makes an analogy between me and Chairman Mao ("Director Bookchin"). He asserts that I "claim" to be Director Emeritus of "all eco-anarchists" -- rather than the bearer of a purely honorific title that the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont generously gave me. Recently, in the Pacific Tribune of May 20, Lewis went so far as to describe me as an "unabashedly" self-serving prima donna who "advertises his thought on the cover of his late book [Remaking Society] as 'the most important contribution to ecological thought in our generation.'" What Lewis crudely omitted to mention was that the passage he quoted was written not by me nor even by my publisher but by Theodore Roszak, in an appraisal of my work in the San Francisco Chronicle several years ago. In short, Lewis has no compunction about stooping to outright falsehoods and demagogery in criticizing an opponent -- forms of behavior that should be of serious concern to his political associates as well as to those who disagree with him.

Some time ago, when his attack first found its way into my mailbox, its sophomoric and malicious aspersions simply induced me to deposit it in my waste basket. More recently, however, friends have told me that Lewis is getting his piece around. I therefore feel obliged to correct the false conceptions about social ecology and Iibertarian municipalism that he may have planted in the minds of well-meaning people.


It should be clearly understood from the outset that Lewis's believes in the State, in the party system, and in conventional "politics." He is upset by "libertarians" who "put down the Green Party mercilessly for its 'hierarchical' structure," indeed who engage in what he calls "ritual flagellation" of the Green party. Seen from his statist perspective, I can understand Lewis's objections to social ecology and the animus he feels toward me. He wants a party, as do many like him, who view the House of Commons (or the House of Representatives) as an arena for their "brilliant carers," to use an old expression. I would like to think the Greens prefer a movement that is inspired by a new politics -- one rooted in the people and based on their empowerment in participatory democratic institutions.

Libertarian municipalism seeks to foster popular control over political life by locating the arena of politics in the immediate surroundings of the average citizen. it seeks to create a new politics, in which politics is a transparent part of the daily life of the citizenry, not a once-a-year affair in which one steps into the voting booth and pulls a lever. It seeks to recreate a public political culture in which citizens debate and have the power to make decisions about all important matters that affect their community life. This local political activity should involve direct action and single-issue organizing but the focus that gives it coherence is the local electoral campaign.

Libertarian municipalism is literally structured around the institutions of the community itself, which people encounter in everyday life the moment they step beyond the threshdold of their homes or apartments. It advances an appeal for civic power, not state power; neighborhood control, not parliamentary control; local power, not centralized power. And it calls for new forms of civic association -- networking of communities into free confederaations in which confederal councils link cornmunities and their public assemblies together, without denying the people of a city, town, or village their autonomy. The practical visions involved in creating such a society and their rich ecological implications have been elaborated in considerable detail and are available for anyone who is interested.

Libertarian municipalists thus argue that Greens should engage in elections at the local level -- at the level of the ward, town, village, borough, or city--not at the national or provincial level. "You'd think it could be valuable to articulate the Green vision in elections at all levels," objects Lewis. But libertarian municipalism excludes electoral campaigns at the state, provincial, and national or federal levels, for a very clear set of reasons. For one, even the most radical state-oriented parties are easily subject to cooptation by the prevailing political system. As I wrote in Remaking Society:

Ecology movements that enter into parliamentary activities not only legitimate State power at the expense of popular power, but they are obliged to function within the State, ultimately to become blood of its blood and bone of its bone. They must play the game, which means that they must shape their priorities according to predetermined rules over which they have no control. This not only involves a given constellation of relationships that emerge with participation in State power, it becomes an ongoing process of degeneration, a steady devolution of ideas, practices and party structure. Each demand for the effective exercise of parliamentary power raises the need for a further retreat from presumabiy cherished standards of belief and conduct. ( p. 161)

In local politics, by contrast, people who run for office are unavoidably close to the people to whom they are accountable. They are neighbors and friends, coworkers and colleagues under easy public scrutiny. Libertarian municipalist campaigns are calls for an even greater democratization of local political life that exists today, as distinguished from centralized executive decision-making powers of large-scale and geographically remote governmental centers.

To this, Lewis objects that my "definition of 'parliamentary activities' actually extends right into city and town councils." But there is a real qualitative difference between elections at local levels and elections at other levels. Obviously, one can't hope to establish popular assemblies at the provincial or national level. Such levels, by definition, require representative policy-making institutions, not directly democratic ones. By contrast, at the local level, politics can become completely transparent. It need not be a mysterious, technical, professional function of a provincial or state "representative" who occupies a seat in a distant legislative body, or worse, a member of an executive branch of government -- who is remote, has very little contact, if any, with his or her "constituents," and is buffered from the public by an elaborate, unelected bureaucracy.

Lewis seems to think that councilors, elected on a local basis in a libertarian municipalist campaign, would function no differently from representatives who are elected to provincial and national legislative bodies. That is to say, they would blandly accept the existing political structure. Nothing could be further from the truth. Libertarian muncipalism avowedly challenges the very structure of local government as it is currently constituted. It seeks to radically democratize city government so that what we now call representative government becomes self-government by the citizenry itself. The goal of libertarian municipalism is to change city charters drastically, and to profoundly alter the very means by which local policies are formulated--namely, through community assemblies -- and that are coordinated by nonfederal delegates who are bound by the imperative mandates of their communities. It seeks to bring the people directly into the administration of public affairs by means of community assemblies and to completely control any delegates (not "representatives") who are assigned the function of coordinating intercity and intertown policies in confederal councils.

Put bluntly: Libertarian municipalism attempts to raise the issue of a radically new politics based on local and confederal forms of participatory democracy, not modify or put band-aids on existing statist structures, he be they national, provincial, or local, its new politics is a militant, indeed dynamic politics, not an acquiescent one in which political parties duel with each othcr for power over existing civil and state instituions.

Lewis, who prefers top-down solutions. absurdly suggests that it might be a good idea to elect "a philosopher-king type in Canada who would then impose from from the top a system of participatory democracy [1] to create the Green society." People getting together have never succcssfully democratized anything, objects Lewis: "small groups agitating from the bottom trying to inspire a vision for the ideal society in enough people for a confederation to jell which will grow while the existing State withers away," he says, is "unprecedented." Even ancient Athenian democracy, he notes, citing my book, was brought about by certain individuals--Solon, Kleisthenes, and Periclcs.

Let me emphasize that these figures did not dominate the popular movements in ancient Athens. At best, they were leaders of popular movements who helped to mobilize the masses in their locality. But in no sense did they try to supplant them, such as we might reasonably expect Lewis's "philosopher king" to do. Democracy could not have been achieved in Athens without the support of the people, nor did any of these figures "grant" democracy to the people. They simply organized the local struggles that gave rise to the democratic polis. Indeed, Perikles, to cite the most famous of the Athenians democrats, was actually removed from office for a time by the people during a difficult period in the Pelponnesian war.

But I need hardly review the lessons of history to respond to Lewis's arguments. In our own time, the German Green party, the "flagship" of the international Green movement, with its recently intensified emphasis on top-down politics and statecraft, has shown us that a movement divested of its community base becomes a mere replica of the very state it once pledged to challenge. The fact that the German Greens immediately leaped into the German Bundestag--the equivalent of the Canadian House of Commons -- separated them from the popular movement and turned them into a largely bureaucratic and conventional political party. And it was precisely "realists" like Lewis who destroyed the German Greens, a once-idealistic movement, turning their organization into a centralized, increasingly bureaucratized, top-down conventional party.

This party now has no reasonn to exist except to keep several thousand functionaries in a wide variety of state-subsidized jobs. To quote the acknowledge "strong man" of the new German Greens, Joschka Fischer, the party has become stinknormal, or "stinkingly normal." It no longer challenges Germany's social system and has dropped into the dead center of the German political spectrum--an increasingly lifeless bureaucratic apparatus that feeds on state funds to fatten the bellies of its cadre.

We cannot ignore this most recent of many examples, in which parties, even high-minded parties, became completely corrupted by gaining power and the financial emoluments of power in national legislatures. "Constituents" have no way of deciding the policies of these parties or their structure when their "representatives" and leaders are so far removed structurally and geographically from the purview of the people. Divested of all living roots in their communities and guided by statecraft rather than a popular politics, the German Greens have now become a pathetic shelll of the vibrant movement they were some twelve years ago.

Which raises the question: Why don't Canadian "realists" like Lewis join the Liberal party, whose structure they apparently admire unless, like certain German Greens I know, it takes too much time to climb the bureaucratic ladders of these parties. Is this the kind of structure rank-and-file Greens in North America want? Or do they want to change this world, to make it greener, more rational, and more concerned with the human and nonhuman condition?


Most of Lewis's other assaults on my work flow from this basic political difference between us. Indeed Lewis counters my antihierarchical emphasis with various implicit and some explicit defenses of hierarchy itself. For example, religious hierarchy is acceptable to Lewis if it keeps a society together. We are told that "Earth centered spirituality enabled tribal culture to live in harmony with the biosphere for millennia." So far as Lewis is concerned, my objection to religious hierarchy suggests that I oppose everything that can be called by the name "spirituality." He cites my statement that if "human beings fall to their knees before anything that is 'higher' than themselvcs, hierarchy will have made its first triumph over freedom." This statement is as much a claim for human dignity and quality as it is a criticism of human subservience to any deity, state, or leader. Astonishingly, for Lewis it is evidence of my hostility to native culture heroes. Thus, if I am to follow Lewis's argument, I am denigrating Chief Scattle's worship of his god as "sinister, hierarchical, anti-freedom." - Really! The fact is that I urge no one to bend down to the authority of a Supreme Creator, Supreme Deity, a Supreme Lord, a Supreme Master, or a Supreme Leader--whether such a supreme being be dressed in dollar bills, a buffalo skin, or bright green oak leaves.

At least one problem that I face when Lewis refers to the relationship between Chief Seattle and his Creator is that I cannot determine which of the several deities associated with Seattle it is that Lewis has in mind. Does he mean the Roman Catholic god, to which Chief Seattle had been converted in the 1830s? Does he mean the Great Spirit, manifest to "dreams of our old men" and "visions of our sachems"-- that is, the strictly tribal deity who primarily protected but then seemingly deserted his own people, as Chief Seattle lamented in his speech Of the 1850s? Or does he perhaps mean the contrived god reflected in a famous "Chief Seattle" speech that was actually written by a white scriptwriter for a movie in the early 1970s?

The last-named speech, with its bountiful ecological metaphors,is often cited in the ecology movement as a way to contrast native Americans' benign relationship with nonhuman nature to that of the whites. But several years ago this speech was exposed as a notorious hoax. As we now know, it was written for a television movie, Home, shown on U.S. television in 1972. (On his part of the continent in 1854, Seattle could hardly have been familiar with the buffalo herds and railroads mentioned in "his" speech.) Amazingly, even "ecological" thinkers such as Joanna Macy and John Seed, who are fully aware of the hoax and admit it, continue to cite the speech for its "usefulness in eliciting a response."

My point, here, is not to impugn native beliefs but to reveal the extent to which Lewis invokes every "argument" he can--even an outright hoax--to impugn my views. If Lewis did not know that the pop-ecology version of Chief Seattle's speech was the product of a modern white scriptwriter and movie producer, he should have taken the pains to find out. The information is easily available in the environmental press. If, like Macy and Seed, he does know that the speech is a hoax but cites it anyway, then he is an outright falsifier as well as a demagogue whose ethical standards should be seriously questioned.

Lewis accuses me of wanting to "forever stamp out the spirituality that was central to all pre-hierarchical culture." We then learn that by disagreeing with his presumably well-informed version of native American spirituality, I am complicitous in (to use his garish language) the "Native culture euthanasia program" (read: the destruction of native cultures). Such statements, again, reflect little more than his own demagogery. Given what we know about the vagaries of myths, religion, and New Age "spirituality," I refuse to defer to the grossly uninformed and dishonest decalogue of an ignoramus like Lewis. What I would actually like to do is get beyond the romanticization that surrounds native belief-systems and examine how tribal peoples really lived and thought. Had Lewis put his hatchet aside long enough to read the second chapter of my book The Ecology of Freedom, he would have found eloquent praise on my part for the communitarian, ethical, and, yes, many of the spiritual practices of aboriginal peoples--albeit not as fodder for the mills of superstition, magic, and New Age mysticism that is so much in vogue today. The abuse of native spirituality by the likes of Lewis, I may add, troubles not only me but many native Americans, who feel that they are being exploited anew by white caricatures of their belief-systems.

Actually, the specific identity of the deity that Chief Seattle, other native Americans, or white New Agers worship seems to matter very little to Lewis. Indeed, he invokes Carl Jung to put nonbelievers on his therapeutic couch and counsel them that a belief in a god is vitally important for their personal tranquility, whereas questioning whether or not a god or gods exist in reality is "dangerous." According to Jung, as Lewis quotes him, "our time is caught in a fatal error: we believe we can criticize religious facts intellectually"--that is, that we can intellectually affirm or deny god. But the truth is, Jung tells us, that if we deny the existence of god, then a state of psychological denial of various forces in the psyche ensues. In such a state, the effects of these forces, "which nevertheless continues, cannot be understood . . . and therefore they cannot be assimilated to consciousness." The reader should carefully note that neither Jung in this passage, nor Lewis himself ever affirms or denies the existence of the Supernatural or divine per se. Rather, what they concentrate on is the alleged need that people have to believe in deities -- presumably for their own sanity--regardless of whether they exist or not. One can only conclude that for Lewis, people are doomed to irrationality. In fact, by Lewis's logic, it is preferable for human beings to believe in a comforting falsehood than to intellectuailly recognize that falsehood for what it really is--for otherwise the falsehood "cannot be assimilated to consciousness," a condition that produces a "dangerous situation."

Exactly what this "dangerous situation" might be, Lewis does not tell us. But we do know that many dangerous situations have been produced when people suspend their critical faculties or surround the reality of their pitiful situations with myths and deities. The strategy of mystifying reality with myths and deities has been the technique par excellence of virtually all absolute rulers, despots, and reactionaries from time immemorial as a means of inducing people to acquiesce to their rule.

No, I have no more reason to kowtow to Lewis's invocation of Jung's defense of irrationalism and theism than I have to kowtow to Jung's own insidious defense of Nazism and racism (which Farhad Dalal and Vincent Brome have recently documented). That Jung could be a culture-hero today, particularly among people who have read little of his work and know Iittle of his past, has shocked me for years. Jung's prejudices, so notorious among those who have read his work objectively, have deep roots in the "archetypal" sociobiolgy, the Platonistic mysticism, and the sinister irrationalism that poisoned so many German minds in the interwar and Nazi periods. For Lewis to fling a confused defense of irrationalism at me as though its lines came from a sacred and unimpeachable text, is as naive as it is fatuous. Am I to be stunned by this thunderbolt? Should I leap to my feet and cry, "Sieg heil!"? Sorry, I'd rather keep a level head than kowtow to the culture heroes of this decade.

Still, New Age mysticism is flooding the environmental movement as a whole. The reason for this deluge, to be sure, are understandable. Rarely have people felt so powerless as they do today; rarely have they felt that their lives and the very world in which they try to function is so beyond their control. Not surprisingly, they tend to do what people in the distant past did in similar situations: they create a surrogate reality into which they can take refuge. The current explosion of Christian revivalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and bogus Asian religions is matched by New Age spiritualism and various forms of goddess worship that preach messages of a redemptive identity, preferably based on a misty return to Neolithic "spirituality" or a lusty return to a Pleistocene "sensibility" (regardless of what people in the Neolithic or Pleistocene may have really thought. Yet when I criticize ecofeminists who, in my opinion, structure their beliefs around goddess worship, around the self-serving male myth that "woman equals nature," or around the patricentric image of women as mere caretakers or custodians, Lewis virtually accuses me of rejecting the relationship of ecology to feminist issues.

As well-meaning as many acolytes of biocentrism may be, religion is not the only alternative we have to anthropocentrism. In fact, we do not need any kind of "centrism" at all. Why can't we think instead of an alternative such as the wholeness that comes with a rounded life based on a rounded, truly ecological society? If mysticism in its various forms is a refuge from the world -- one with which the present social order, incidentally, can comfortably accept and even merchandise in its own "green" shopping malls -- the appeal for a healthy naturalism based on wholeness truly merges the political with the personal and challenges the present social order's very foundations.

It is this appeal to wholeness rather than any one-sided "centrism" that social ecology tries to express. It advances the message that in changing the present society, people simultaneously change themselves, that in going out into the real world, they also discover their own powers as creative human beings. Unlike Lewis, who regards people (including his readers, apparently) as so deficient that they need to believe in myths and deities, I affirm that we can and must count on people to develop their powers of reason, even "the probability that normal people have the untapped power to reason on a level that does not differ from that of humanity's most brilliant individuals" Yes, social ecologists do believe in the potential of human beings to be rational, to create a rational, ecological society, and to develop a spirituality based on a respect and sense of wonder for the fecundity of natural evolution -- not a belief in contrived deities that will calm their troubled psyches and defer to authority. Stated in terms of a new politics, this is the message that libertarian municipalism offers to the public.


Much as Lewis distorts my views on spirituality, he even more crudely distorts my views on abundance and the material preconditions for an ecological society. Ineed, "the clearest reason to question Bookchin," he writes, "comes over his idea of abundance." He quotes me as saying that "there is not the remotest chance that [an ecological society] can be achieved today unless humanity is free to reject bourgeois notions of abundance precisely because abundance is available to all."

Yes--he is correct, albeit for reasons he barely understands. To Lewis, this means that I am a believer in limitless growth, even to the point of expanding the system "outwards into the universe in all directions at the speed of light"-- no less! "My dear Bookchin and your nonhierarchical non-followers," - he intones, "your ideal system must stabilize the planetary life support systems, and if you can't do it until after a dramatic expansion of what is already going on now, forget it. Absolutely everybody else in politics on the planet is calling for dramatic expansion of industrial civilization even as vital planetary life support systems crumble. Greens are looking for another way."

Lewis seems to think that I favor the limitless production of frivolous commodities and a senseless vision of life that does not extend beyond the confines of a shopping mall, that I demand that the biosphere be torn up so that those who are now poor can have all the middle-class comforts of suburban life. He never apprizes his readers that in Remaking Society, as in all my work, I level a basic critique against capitalism precisely because, organized around limitless growth and a "grow or die" law of life produced by competition and a lust for profit, it is destroying the biosphere. In fact, I recently inveiged against the destruction produced by growth in a lead article in The Progressive, and this kind of critique fills virtually all of my earlier writings.

The statement Lewis quotes from my book hardly means that I favor limitless capitalist growth. It simply means that any decision on the part of society to adopt an economics of austerity must be made from a position of choice--from a vantage point in which everyone has the possibility of choosing an economics of austerity, or abundance, or--what I would prefer-moderation. But the people's right to choose is fundamental to an economic democracy. I find it fascinating that a message of "simple living" is preached by environmentalists who must have access to such costly and sophisticated technologies like word processors, desktop software, modems, and laser printers to use outlets like Green Multilogue; that others do not hesitate to nourish their ecological consciousness with "green" documentaries, films, and tape casettes over VCRs and tape decks; and that still others watch whales from serene clifftops using costly binoculars -- in the meantime insisting that everyone else, particularly people in the Third World, should all but return to the Pleistocene or live in hovels like serfs in the Middle Ages.

It hardly befits fairly privilegeded white, middle-class Greens to lecture the people of Africa, Asia, and Latin America and, yes, the homeless, poor, and underpriviledged in their own countries about the virtues of austerity and the horrors of abundance. In many environmental books and articles, menacing remarks appear that warn people that they must live according to rules provided by the corporately financed Club of Rome or the Rockefeller Foundation. The fact is that the downtrodden of this planet live grotesquely "austere" lives as it is. If the environmental movement were to try to alleviate the material want of the poor in its own countries, I would say that it would be taking the first step toward showing that it can be human and ethically equipped to deal with growth in a manner that is worthy of respect.

There is already so much fat in the Euro-American world police, military, bureaucratic, managerial, entrpreneurial, commercial, and the lot--that the appalling amount of resources needed to support the unproductive people of the world could easily provide a comfortable way of life for everyone in a rational society without damaging the planet's ecology. In any case, let the poor of this world at Ieast have the right to decide what lifeways they wish to follow. They should not have to bend to the commnds of an arrogant elite or a "philosopher-king" who would prescribe for them a "living standard" that denies them access to the "good things" in life. If I am committed to a participatory democracy, I want participation by everyone, especially in matters that concern how people are to live.

After all, would giving the poor a choice inevitably open the floodgates of consumerism and doon the life-support capacity of our biosphere? I strongly believe that with a reasonably decent standard of living, people in the Third World would choose to recover the best traditions of their past, not try to emulate the sick ones that prevail in Europe, Canada, and the United States. Chico Mendes was not looking for air conditioners when he died fighting for the rubber workers of his area in Amazonia; nor were the peasant folk of India's Chipko movement looking for Cadillacs when they fought the lumber companies in Uttar Pradesh. In both cases, they wanted to preserve their traditional lifeways, not "modernize" them.

The crucial point I wish to make here is that even as we work toward an ecological society, we must lighten the burdens of toil that afflict millions of people everywhere--people whose lives are literally wasted in long hours of work in order to provide us with food, shelter, fuels, minerals, and even the pens, paper, and word processors, without which we could not proclaim the virtues of hard work and the joys of a labor-intensive technology. These goals are not, as Lewis thinks, contradictory. Happily, there are technological alternatives to a labor-intensive technology that would not only diminish toil but resolve the ecological problems that modern capitalism has created. I've explored these alternatives in considerable detail in my writings. For the rest, education, not highhanded authoritarian decisions, will encourage people to make rational and ecological decisions.

If my remarks on this score seem to go against the grain of conventional "ecological" thinking, allow me to note that I have seen the inside of foundries and auto plants and have eaten bitterly of the "fruits" of backbreaking work for years. Indeed, Lewis might more appropriately have called his criticism "The Thoughts of a Foundryman," or "An Auto Worker," or "A Union Shop Steward," for I occupied these "roles" far longer in my life than that of "Director."


When I object to "the resurgence of a new Malthusianism" in the ecology movement as "the most sinister ideological development of all," Lewis calls this "Bookchin at his most ridiculous." The new Malthusianism to which I refer has regrettably become a doctrinal pillar among many environmentalists -- notably, the claim that "growth rates in population tend to exceed growth rates in food production." Again, I confess, Lewis has nailed me -- I stay pinned to the wall with pride. If there is anything that irritates me, it is the message that our ecological problems stem from "overpopulation." Malthusianism is based on a dubious "numbers game" that treats rates of human population increase as though they were equivalent to rates of increase among fruit flies and rodents.

Human demographic rates, however, are markedly conditioned by factors that have no impact whatever upon nonhuman ones. I refer to human culture, tradition, values, and education. Neo-Malthusiasm has been the reason par excellence for covering up the sources of our ecological problems, namely a growth-oriented capitalist economy. It is the height of naivete to abstract "population" from its social matrix and deal with it arithmetically. Divested of social factors, including those specifically characteristic of market economics, any discussion of alleged "overpopulation problems" serves only to obscure the sources of our ecological problems rather than to clarify them. All too often, the population issue is placed in the service of extremely reactionary social movements. All too often, alas, the overpopulation message is also focused on Third World countries. (This, although the number of people who occupy a square miie in the Third World is actually immensely smaller than the numbers for Europe and the United States

It may well be that a time will come when demographic problems will arise that will require consideration -- and in a democratic manner, not by fiat and coercion. But it is not at all clear that the world's population has exceeded its "carrying capacity." We do know, Lewis to the contrary, that in those parts of the world where capitalism produces the most idiotic commodities and fosters levels of consumption that are wildly extravagant, current rates of population growth, ironically, are the lowest in the so-called "underdeveloped" countries of the world, population growth rates are sizable, although amazingly variable, as the plummeting growth-rates of Brazil attest.

Have the neo-Malthusians of our day ever asked why this should be? Apart from evoking the virtues of AIDS as a means of sending people to an early death in great numbers, as Christopher Manes (a.k.a. "Miss Ann Thropy") of Earth First! proposes, or allowing them to starve outright, as Garrett Hardin proposes, or expelling "genetically inferior" races like Latinos, as the late Edward Abbey proposed, I would earnestly like to believe that Greens and environmentalists generally would explore population growth as a social issue-- not as a mere numbers game, such as Lewis seems to play.

Feminists who are fighting for women's right to choose and, more generally, for a form of self-recognition that transcends the image of women as mere reproduction factories may well be doing more to diminish birth rates than all the claptrap one hears from Manes, Hardin, and for all I know, Lewis. Social activists in the Third World who are fighting for higher living standards may well be eroding a widespread tradition among patriarchal communities in which large families with many working sons are seen by their parents as sources of material support in old age. So meager is neo-Malthusian social perspective -- indeed, so crudely superficial, not to speak of implicitly or explicitly racist, if we are to judge from certain of its spokespersons -- that it is fair to say that it has no place in a Green or environmental movernent.

Finally, looking at the "population problem" in another way: Does anyone suppose that if the population of the world were reduced by a half or even by three quarters, corporate tycoons would really cut their production of commodities significantly and thereby lighten the ecological problems produced by growth? One would have to be utterly oblivious to the nature of the marketplace and its competitive imperative of "grow or die" to believe that the output of junk would decline. If the public's consumption of television sets were to diminish, advertising would encourage people -- probably quite effectively, I might add -- to buy three or four or five more per family. The same can be said for automobiles, appliances, furniture, and food. And if the public failed to respond to appeals to consume, there would always be that "sinkhole of death," to use a Chinese expression, -- the military, both at home and abroad. If civilian consumption were reduced for any reason, trade wars to capture new markets in order to increase production would provide a limitless source of armament "consumption," not to speak of armament markets.


Hopefully, all this should serve to answer what Lewis regards as the primary question he poses to myself and other social ecologists: "Do we face the gravest crisis of history or not, and if so, could we lighten upon all this 'deeper' and 'Greener' and 'less hierarchical' than thou games?" Social ecologists and other municipalists, I hope, will not stop protesting the doings Lewis and his kind, even in the light of the well-recognized seriousness of the ecological crisis. They will protest Green parties and running in provincial and national elections. They will protest attempts by Greens to get elected to provincial office or the House of Commons. They will protest the formation of any Green police force that would intimidate the insufficiently "Green" consumer or prescribe the number of children people should have, not to speak of ecclesiastics who affirm the "social necessity" of a Green divinity. They will not agree that Lewis and his supporters enjoy a monopoly of knowledge on what is the best way to save the biosphere.

Instead, they will work to educate the public and to engage in local efforts to democratize local governments. They will do this not because they are my "followers" but because they share a common belief with me that it is ethically as well as politically the right way to function in this utterly immoral world. Yes, in the name of ecology, I do call for "Liberty!" and "Freedom!" and "Reason!" as Lewis observes--concepts that he finds worth mocking. What does he call for, if you please--"God!" and "the State!"? If the day ever comes when this is "Green," no rhetoric will conceal the fact that a straitjacket of superstition and authority has been imposed on the movement.

July 14, 1991

Afterword: Those who are interested in the ideas advanced here may write to the Confederation of Muncipal Greens, 51 Lee Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4E 2P1 or the Left Green Network, P.O. BOX 366, Iowa City, Iowa 52244.

Subscriptions to Green Perspectives the, newsletter of the Social Ecology Project, are US$10 for twelve issues. Write: P.O. BOX 111, Burlington VT 05402

From : Anarchy Archives


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