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Murray Bookchin’s Legacy: A Syndicalist Critique

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas And Action, January 14, 2021

January 14th is the 100th anniversary of Murray Bookchin’s birth. Perhaps it is worth looking at his contribution to radical politics.

Bookchin had been involved in the communist youth movement in the 1930s. He eventually abandoned official Marxist organizations for a turn to libertarian socialism. A central feature of Bookchin’s politics from the Sixties to the end of his life was his opposition to the worker struggle orientation that was central to syndicalism and many anarchists — as well as Marxists — in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

After World War 2, the general strikes and pitched street battles of workers in the Thirties were a fading memory. The post-war years saw a consolidation of a conservative bureaucracy in the unions. The American working class by the 1960s no longer had the large “militant minority” of radical workers that had been a feature of American workplaces from the early 1900s through World War 2. This led certain radicals to seek out a new “agent” of revolutionary change. Bookchin was an example of this way of thinking:

“Contrary to Marx’s expectations, the industrial working class is now dwindling in numbers and is steadily losing its traditional identity as a class….Present-day culture [and]…modes of production…have remade the proletarian into a largely petty bourgeois stratum….The proletarian …will be completely replaced by automated and even miniaturized means of production….Class categories are now intermingled with hierarchical categories based on race, gender, sexual preference, and certainly national or regional differences.”

This quote is from Bookchin’s last book, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy. This shows a certain lack of understanding of how syndicalists — and other socialists — view the working class. The basis for the revolutionary potential of the working class lies in its position as both the majority of the population and its objectively oppressed and exploited situation. Workers do not have their own means to obtain a livelihood. Thus we are forced to seek jobs from employers, to obtain the wages we need to live. And this arrangement forces workers to submit to autocratic managerial regimes where workers are denied control over the decisions that directly affect them day to day in the labor process and the running of the workplaces. Employers own the products of our labor and use this to suck down profits — an inherently exploitative situation.

Self-Help in the Coronavirus Depression

By Jeremy Brecher - Labor Network for Sustainability, August 11, 2020

The second in a series of Mass Action in the Coronavirus Depression, LNS Research and Policy Director offers this: "Self-Help in the Coronavirus Depression." In the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployed and impoverished workers turned to dramatic forms of self-help to survive. Anti-eviction “riots” led by organizations of the unemployed made it possible to protect hundreds of thousands of families from being evicted from their homes and ultimately forced government in many cities to halt evictions. And the unemployed in hundreds of communities formed mutual aid organizations through which they exchanged food, services, and labor outside the cash economy. These efforts are described in the commentary “Fighting the Great Depression – From Below. This commentary tells how those affected by today’s Coronavirus Depression are using self-help techniques like rent strikes and mutual aid exchange to survive depression conditions.

A Pathway to a Regenerative Economy

By various - United Frontline Table, June 2020

The intersecting crises of income and wealth inequality and climate change, driven by systemic white supremacy and gender inequality, has exposed the frailty of the U.S. economy and democracy. This document was prepared during the COVID-19 pandemic which exacerbated these existing crises and underlying conditions. Democratic processes have been undermined at the expense of people’s jobs, health, safety, and dignity. Moreover, government support has disproportionately expanded and boosted the private sector through policies, including bailouts, that serve an extractive economy and not the public’s interest. Our elected leaders have chosen not to invest in deep, anti-racist democratic processes. They have chosen not to uphold public values, such as fairness and equity, not to protect human rights and the vital life cycles of nature and ecosystems. Rather, our elected leaders have chosen extraction and corporate control at the expense of the majority of the people and the well-being and rights of Mother Earth. Transforming our economy is not just about swapping out elected leaders. We also need a shift in popular consciousness.

There are moments of clarity that allow for society to challenge popular thinking and status quo solutions. Within all the challenges that this pandemic has created, it has also revealed what is wrong with the extractive economy while showcasing the innate resilience, common care, and original wisdom that we hold as people. Environmental justice and frontline communities are all too familiar with crisis and systemic injustices and have long held solutions to what is needed to not only survive, but also thrive as a people, as a community, and as a global family. We cannot go back to how things were. We must move forward. We are at a critical moment to make a downpayment on a Regenerative Economy, while laying the groundwork for preventing future crises.

To do so, we say—listen to the frontlines! Indigenous Peoples, as members of their Indigenous sovereign nations, Asian and Pacific Islander, Black, Brown and poor white marginalized communities must be heard, prioritized, and invested in if we are to successfully build a thriving democracy and society in the face of intersecting climate, environmental, economic, social, and health crises. A just and equitable society requires bottom-up processes built off of, and in concert with, existing organizing initiatives in a given community. It must be rooted in a people’s solutions lens for a healthy future and Regenerative Economy. These solutions must be inclusive—leaving no one behind in both process and outcome. Thus, frontline communities must be at the forefront as efforts grow to advance a Just Transition to a Regenerative Economy.

A People’s Orientation to a Regenerative Economy offers community groups, policy advocates, and policymakers a pathway to solutions that work for frontline communities and workers. These ideas have been collectively strategized by community organizations and leaders from across multiple frontline and grassroots networks and alliances to ensure that regenerative economic solutions and ecological justice—under a framework that challenges capitalism and both white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy—are core to any and all policies. These policies must be enacted, not only at the federal level, but also at the local, state, tribal, and regional levels, in US Territories, and internationally.

Read the text (PDF).

Going Slowly to 100% Renewables … by 2025?

By Dan Fischer - Peace News, April 5, 2020

It has been 55 years since the social ecologist Murray Bookchin argued that “wind, water, and solar power” (hereafter, WWS) could “amply meet the needs of a decentralized society” and eventually replace all fossil, nuclear, and bioenergy sources. The alternative, he warned, would be a future of “radioactive wastes,” “lethal air pollution,” “rising atmospheric temperatures,” “more destructive storm patterns,” and “rising sea levels.” Having declined to tear down its smokestacks, society has entered Bookchin’s dreaded scenario and, according to today’s scientists, accelerates toward “hothouse Earth,” “doomsday,” and even an “annihilation of all life.”

The urgency for reaching 100% WWS can’t be overstated. Leading climate scientists report that “tipping points could be exceeded even between 1 and 2°C of warming,” and today’s level is already at 1.2° and rapidly climbing. Moreover, society has pushed Earth past four other “planetary boundaries.” While all energy sources have an impact, small-scale WWS sources are by far the cleanest option available, and they also doesn’t involve nuclear power’s existential weapons proliferation risks.

It’s no wonder, therefore, that many Green New Deal supporters call for 100% WWS by 2030 or sooner. Activists in the United States and the United Kingdom are calling for zero emissions nationally by 2025, a stringent deadline that requires a very rapid phase-out of fossil and bioenergies and that necessarily excludes the lengthy construction of new nuclear power facilities and large-scale hydroelectric dams. The journalist Hazel Healy has even written about achieving zero emissions worldwide by 2025. To be sure, these targets are mind-bogglingly ambitious compared to, say, Joe Biden’s mid-century target. But if anything, 2025 is already pushing our luck from a climate and ecological perspective.

Wondering about the potential for rapidly reaching 100% renewable energy, I reached out to two of the most optimistic and two of the most pessimistic scholars on the technologies. Based on these conversations, I offer the following suggestion. Achieving 100% WWS within five to ten years, if it can be done at all, would likely require slowing down the industrialized world. It would mean abandoning what Michelle Boulous Walker calls today’s “culture of haste” and “relentless demand to decide, respond and act.” Instead of a frantic construction of hydrogen-powered airplanes and concrete-intensive high-speed rail, it would mean making most production local and most travel leisurely-paced. It would mean switching from full-time jobs to part-time crafts and hobbies, from patenting technology to sharing it, and from GDP to something like the Indigenous Environmental Network’s proposed “Index for Living Well.” While it’s common to read of “roadmaps” to WWS, we would probably get to the destination sooner with maps of biking trails and bus routes.

Regenerative & Just 100% Policy Building Blocks Released by Experts from Impacted Communities

By Aiko Schaefer - 100% Network, January 21, 2020

The 100% Network launched a new effort to bring forward and coalesce the expertise from frontline communities into the Comprehensive Building Blocks for a Regenerative and Just 100% Policy. This groundbreaking and extensive document lays out the components of an 100% policy that centers equity and justice. Read the full report here.

Last year 100% Network members who are leading experts from and accountable to black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and frontline communities embarked on a collective effort to detail the components of an ideal 100% policy. The creation of this 90-page document was an opportunity to bring the expertise of their communities together.

The Building Blocks document was designed primarily for frontline organizations looking to develop and implement their own local policies with a justice framework. Secondly, is to build alignment with environmental organizations and intermediary groups that are engaged in developing and advocating for 100% policies. The overall goals of the project are to:

  • Build the capacity of BIPOC frontline public policy advocates, so that impacted community groups who are leading, working to shape or just getting started on 100% policy discussions have information on what should be included to make a policy more equitable, inclusive and just
  • Align around frontline, community-led solutions and leadership, and create a shared analysis and understanding of what it will take to meet our vision for 100% just, equitable renewable energy.
  • Create a resource to help ensure equity-based policy components are both integrated and prioritized within renewable energy/energy efficiency policies. 
  • Build relationships across the movement between frontline, green, and intermediary organizations to create space for the discourse and trust-building necessary to move collaboration forward on 100% equitable, renewable energy policies. 

Power to the People: Winning public control of electric utilities

By Juliana Broad - Next System Project, January 10, 2020

The devastation wrought in recent years by preventable wildfires, targeted power shutoffs, and exorbitant rate hikes—with their hefty cost to life, health, and livelihoods—has made it clear that the for-profit model of electric utility provision has definitively failed. However, alternatives to this broken system have not only been proposed, but are gaining substantial traction. In the past few years, we’ve witnessed an eruption of support for taking back public control over electric utilities from absentee investors. With the public in charge, we can provide cheaper services—across the board, publicly owned utilities provide lower rates than investor-owned ones—and push for renewable energy to address the economic, environmental, and racial justice issues that are necessarily intertwined with how we meet our energy needs. 

But wresting control of our utilities from powerful corporate interests is not easy, and the community organizations and elected officials pushing for these changes have pursued a variety of strategies not only to change the narrative around public ownership⁠—long denigrated and vilified by profit-hungry private interests⁠—but to win the concrete, systemic changes we need to have an economy that serves our communities. Here, we highlight some of the wins, losses, and ongoing fights for public control of power that are playing out across the country at the city and state level.

Disasters Spark Public Ownership Campaigns

Municipalist Syndicalism: From the Workplace to the Community

By Alexander Kolokotronis - ROARMag, October 2019

Union membership in the United States is at its lowest level in decades. Nonetheless, unions have hit a 50-year high in public approval. Enthusiasm for unions is not manifesting solely in polls, but also in shop floor organizing by young and lower middle-aged workers.

Simultaneously, the 2010s have seen a proliferation of social movements focused on race, gender and other forms of identity. Despite this simultaneity, it is unclear if present-day union structures and leadership are capable of learning from and incorporating the insights of such social movements.

At a national scale, unions have been slow to diversify their leadership, with continued underrepresentation of women and people of color. Even where there is such representation, it is unclear if unions are positioned to convert this newfound mass approval into an inclusive rising tide for the entire labor movement — let alone for, and towards, socialism.

In this context, what should socialists opposed to all forms of domination and exploitation be doing about labor unions? Through what framework might insights and personnel offered by social movements be learned from and incorporated into unions?

A partial answer has come from a broad swath of socialists: rank-and-file power. This means union members exercising control over their unions, rather than union bureaucrats or officials doing so. The 2018 re-release of Kim Moody’s “The Rank-and-File Strategy” has most widely propagated this approach. Moody’s rank-and-file strategy has become the terms of debate within Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and a point of discussion for socialists in general.

However, this strategy overlooks the potential for rank-and-file interventions on various forms of structural racism. Such interventions translate into a rank-and-file strategy that does not consign itself to a simplistic focus on bread-and-butter and the point of production but rather points itself towards the interwoven wealth issues of racialized housing and education. This brings us to a modified union position that accounts for and immediately acts upon the dynamics of an immediate and racialized lived-space: municipalist syndicalism.

Municipalist syndicalism broadly means democratizing unions as a means to democratizing local and regional public power. This is done through advancing an anti-racist dual power agenda for the labor movement by building and acting with communities of color on issues beyond the job. Jobs are simply not enough, even as unions often exclusively focus on them as a means of community empowerment while harmfully conceding total control over land use. Yet, as Marnie Brady notes, “Pitting decent jobs against decent housing is a false dilemma,” particularly where the legacy of “redlining” (housing discrimination and wealth differentiating residential segregation) is still with us.

Thus, a municipalist syndicalist rank-and-file strategy begins with pluralistic “militant minorities” democratizing unions so as to include the rank-and-file of neighborhood, housing and other municipal struggles. It means reorienting labor unions towards funneling resources into constructing and sustaining vibrant tenant unions that in the long term seek to democratize residency and bring about a housing and homes guarantee and reducing harmfully long commutes.

Just as Big Capital increasingly controls real estate, making the lives of workers more precarious, One Big Union is needed to combat this. It means One Big Union includes not just labor unions, but tenant unions and those struggles addressing structural racism head on — and this One Big Union finally takes municipal and regional power and democratizes it.

When labor fails to do this, it fails surrounding communities and fails itself in the process, as shown by the case of 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Making decentralised electricity work for all of us

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, September 30, 2019.

Decentralised electricity is on its way in, like it or not. Networks managed by “smart” technology, supplied by renewable sources and other small-scale power stations, can only expand.

Systems centred on ever-larger coal-, gas- or nuclear-fired power stations, completely dominant fifty years ago, will decline in many countries from now on – although they will not go quietly.

Social and labour movements had better take notice. If we don’t make this technological change work for people, energy corporations will make it work for profit.

And those corporations are paying close attention. “The centralised model of power production is dying”, Mark Boillot, a senior vice president of Électricité de France, one of Europe’s largest electricity

companies, said recently. It will be “replaced by local solar and wind, supplemented by batteries and intelligent management of supply and demand”.

Labour Party policy

In the UK, the Labour party conference last week called for a Green New Deal; rapid expansion of renewables generation, and taking the “big six” energy companies into public ownership, would be key elements.

This cuts across current Labour electricity policy, set out in the Bringing Energy Home document published earlier this year: to extend public ownership only to the transmission (high-voltage) and distribution (low-voltage) electricity networks, plus networks that supply gas to homes for cooking and heating. Generation of electricity (power stations, wind farms, and so on), and supply (the marketing of the electricity to users) will stay in private hands.

The conference’s stance, if translated into policy, would potentially be much better suited to making electricity decentralisation work for us all.

A US green investment bank for all: Democratized finance for a just transition

By Thomas Marois and Ali Rıza Güngen - Next System Project, September 20, 2019

In ways unimaginable just a few years ago, public banking and its potential for catalyzing a transition to a green and just future have been catapulted to the center of political and economic debate. The reason: The greed-driven excesses of Wall Street and global finance that gave rise to the 2008-09 global financial crisis are now continuing to drive today’s global crisis of climate finance.

The financial sector today offers seemingly limitless access to debt for financing planet-damaging consumption but does not carry its weight in financing solutions to the climate crisis. Of the $454 billion in climate finance invested in 2016, the private investment sector, which controls 80 percent of all banking assets, contributed $230 billion, while the public sector contributed $224 billion. That is, with only 20 percent of total assets, public banks invest nearly as much as all private banks combined. The short-term, return-maximizing horizons of private finance have failed, utterly, to drive anything like a green transition. The future of climate finance must look to the public sphere, not the private.

We must also ensure that the green transition is just. The costs of the global finance and climate crises have fallen disproportionately onto workers, women, racialized communities, and the most marginalized in society. In the financial crisis, failing corporations got direct bailouts; their low-wage workers and the unemployed got imposed austerity as public support systems were axed. The challenges the climate crisis will impose on both the natural and built environment will also necessarily be faced unequally and unjustly. The most marginalized will bear the brunt of transition by virtue of existing structural barriers and in-built systems of oppression.

What is urgently required is strategy and action on a green and just transition for all. Democratized finance will be key. Low-carbon infrastructure needs constructing, local jobs protecting, fossil fuels need to remain in the ground, the planet needs cooling, and social equity needs action. Yet there is no hope of this type of green and just transition without financial institutions that can be democratically commanded to function in the public interest.

It is for this reason that we propose the creation of a democratized US Green Investment Bank (GIB). A democratized GIB has the potential to catalyze a transition to a socially just and environmentally sustainable future that is otherwise impossible under the short-term, high-return regime of private financiers (regardless of the extent of their financial resources). The GIB’s potential is, of course, only realizable within a grander strategy of socioeconomic transformation, such as is envisioned within the Green New Deal. The proposed design of a new GIB is meant to fit strategically within this evolving framework. Its potential depends on the GIB catalyzing structural change in the public interest.

Read the report (PDF).

Free, Fair, and Alive: The Insurgent Power of the Commons: Excerpt

By David Bollier, Silke Helfrich - Free Fair and Alive, September 5, 2019

Introduction

This book is dedicated to overcoming an epidemic of fear with a surge of reality-based hope. As long as we allow ourselves to be imprisoned by our fears, we will never find the solutions we need to help us build a new world. Of course, we have plenty of good reasons to be fearful — the loss of our jobs, authoritarian rule, corporate abuses, racial and ethnic hatred. Looming above all else is the warming of the Earth’s climate, an existential threat to civilization itself. We watch with amazement as space probes detect water on Mars while authorities struggle to find drinking water for people on Earth. Technologies may soon let people edit the genes of their unborn children like text on a computer, yet the means for taking care for the sick, old, and homeless remain elusive.

Fear and despair are fueled by our sense of powerlessness, the sense that we as individuals cannot possibly alter the current trajectories of history. But our powerlessness has a lot to do with how we conceive of our plight — as individuals, alone and separate. Fear, and our understandable search for individual safety, are crippling our search for collective, systemic solutions — the only solutions that will truly work. We need to reframe our dilemma as What can we do together? How can we do this outside of conventional institutions that are failing us?

The good news is that countless seeds of collective transformation are already sprouting. Green shoots of hope can be seen in the agroecology farms of Cuba and community forests of India, in community Wi-Fi systems in Catalonia and neighborhood nursing teams in the Netherlands. They are emerging in dozens of alternative local currencies, new types of web platforms for cooperation, and campaigns to reclaim cities for ordinary people. The beauty of such initiatives is that they meet needs in direct, empowering ways. People are stepping up to invent new systems that function outside of the capitalist mindset, for mutual benefit, with respect for the Earth, and with a commitment to the long term.

In 2009, a frustrated group of friends in Helsinki were watching another international climate change summit fail. They wondered what they could do themselves to change the economy. The result, after much planning, was a neighborhood “credit exchange” in which participants agree to exchange services with each other, from language translations and swimming lessons to gardening and editing. Give an hour of your expertise to a neighbor; get an hour of someone else’s talents. The Helsinki Timebank, as it was later called, has grown into a robust parallel economy of more than 3,000 members. With exchanges of tens of thousands of hours of services, it has become a socially convivial alternative to the market economy, and part of a large international network of timebanks.

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