Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Social Ecology Perspective on Local-Global Organising

Local-Global Organising -
A Philosophical Argument from a Social Ecology Perspective

by Tim Barton, with Rob Allen,

from the BLUE Collective


The Making Civil Society conference takes place between the 4th and 7th of November, 2005, in Lancashire. The following is the basis for a workshop delivered by Tim Barton of the European Social Ecology Institute and Bluegreenearth, from work by Tim and by Robert Allen, of the BLUE Collective, An Talamh Glas and Ireland From Below / Island.
When the American eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin first postulated his ideas about a new ecological society based on a process of collective autonomy that was neither authoritarian, nor defined by hierarchy and dominance, he did not imagine the idea would be so difficult for people to grasp. He could not see that communities usually only respond to single-issue campaigns, when their livelihoods, their health and safety, their environment, and their way of life is threatened - and once the campaign is over they go back to their lives. He was to an extent blind to fact that political activists might be motivated by selfish desire, or a need to build a career, rather than by an altruistic impulse to improve society. For all his wonderful ideas, expressed in early books such as Toward an Ecological Society, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, and The Modern Crisis, he did not imagine that he would have to go backwards, producing books on Remaking Society and Re-Enchanting Humanity. Yet the lifestyle activism and lifestyle anarchism that has become dominant in many developed countries since the sixties, has made Bookchin revisit this territory, and in a famously bullish manner.
When the movements against globalisation began he saw the problem from an American perspective - he could not see that his arguments about lifestyle anarchists, and their antipathy towards social anarchism and anarcho-syndicalism, were symptoms of an American disease. America, and a few other developed world consumerist societies, such as Britain, have societies that are defined by profligate resource use, and by strict dominance hierarchies. There, 'alternatives' have been commodified and resistance has been subjugated to middle-class lifestyle oppositional poses. Elsewhere in the world, however, where community is generally stronger, lifestyle activism and lifestyle anarchism get short thrift. Bookchin is an activist who came up through the communist ranks to become an anarchist in the years when it wasn't fashionable, and, in America, could lead to a gaol sentence - so perhaps it is possible to forgive the stridency of his old age, and to acknowledge his earlier, positive, legacy.
In Europe, at least, the realisation that lifestyle activism is flawed is focussing the minds of activists, who understand the relationship between the global and the local, and that the kind of globalisation that fosters an ecological balance between nature and society can only emerge from community.
'Globalisation from above' is corporate globalisation, institutionalised and made a vehicle for continued domination of man by man and nature by man, and it affects everyone, especially in countries where the ruling elites are dependant on the flow of capital produced by this globalisation; in Europe most of us know globalisation as consumerism without ever giving it a thought. Scratch an 'anti-globalisation' campaigner, though, and you will usually find someone who is a firm believer in another kind of globalisation - one that seeks to encourage global co-operation between the peoples of the world, not the elites. Thus the term 'anti-globalisation' is a mistake, as in fact most of us are pro-globalisation - it is corporate neoliberal globalism that we seek to destroy. However, the old left offers another negative globalism, based on top-down imposition of collectivism. This time, scratch an 'anti-globalisation' campaigner and you may find an ideologue of the old left, or you may find someone from a different tradition, but often with little awareness of its historical antecedents or its metaphysical foundations - a globalisation that unites multifarious communities across the globe from the bottom up.
It is, thus, not 'anti-globalisation', but Which Globalisation? It is also, for democrats, Which Democracy? For this, too, is a compromised concept that the neo-liberals have stolen as belonging only to them. However, their 'democracy' is something that often occurs in ill-educated, hedonistic consumerist cultures, where the majority can be relied upon to follow the media manipulations organised for them by the neo-liberals whilst believing themselves to be free. This of course is a dangerous game, as during economic recession these quiescent sheep quickly become an uncontrollable mob - the non-education that kept them voting for the same elitist power-mongers time after time becomes a liability when the pressure is on. Thankfully, for the neo-liberals, this is usually still steerable - towards whatever minority is on hand to persecute. The bottom line is that the populations of the democracies of the developed world do what they are told, engaged in specialist careers that enhance industrial profits, and collapse into deskilled panic stricken mobs when economies fail.
Ironically, the most disempowered rural populations are the ones best fitted to cope in such circumstances. Here in the UK, a recognition of this fact has been one of the drivers behind the recent rise in interest in organic food produce, permaculture, and the revival in allotment culture. This could become one of the most promising of the European anti-globalisation sub-cultures, though much less prominent, as activists, in the media than, say, the anti-war campaigners. It is also, however, a culture hampered by lifestyle anarchists and activists who want to run to the west of Ireland to set up a farm, rather than practising show-and-tell in urban communities. This is one reason why a new shared ethic is useful to guide those who seek to escape the rat race.
Opposition to the neo-liberal globalisation manifests itself in many different ways, often from isolated groups, but it is becoming more organised and more aware of its equivalents in other communities, and thus more of a threat. In many parts of the world, it is met with violence from the state, that leaves communities devastated and their families shattered, their members murdered. In Europe the state violence is more subtle, but it still exists. The biggest threat to neo-liberal capitalism comes from opposition that is self-aware, and that is able to see the importance of acting locally and at the same time thinking globally. The State's greatest ire is reserved for those that achieve this - those who rule appear more fearful of a few self-styled anarchists who wish to live in a bender in the woods, than they do of the newly re-emergent extreme right. Ironically, the most media friendly and high-profile of these 'anarchists' are usually middle class lifestyle anarchists and activists, on sabbatical from their career in the capitalist system.
Communities who are aware of the impact of globalisation on their environs and on their lives are few and far between, but they are growing. Policies of privatisation and liberalisation, that promote foreign direct investment and 'free' markets increase the conflict between the marginalised and impoverished on the one hand and government and multi-nationals on the other. As the rural-urban divide widens, inequality, and the inherently destructive nature of neo-liberalism, relegating the rural population and urban poor to irrelevance in social development, become increasingly visible and impossible to deny. The relationship between the global and the local has become a marriage of convenience between social activists (often anarchists), and community members - the activists have global knowledge, share this knowledge with the disenchanted community, who in turn become empowered.
On its own, this empowerment is still not a threat to the state and is little more than an irritant to corporate globalisation, which marches on, immune to the skirmishes that take place every day in communities all over the world - after all, our perception of the characteristics and potential of anti-globalisation struggles is skewed by the way the media presents situations to us. However, it is these community-based movements that have the capacity to become the font of a positive 'globalisation from below'. It cannot occur by magic, and is fought by capitalist interests, as such communities further disengage from consumerism and criticise the imposition of corporate structures onto every aspect of their daily lives. However, if informed by a global awareness and sympathy, they may nevertheless grow.
In part, counter summits, demonstrations and social forums can help develop such awareness, though, certainly in the developed world, these are often dominated by middle class student activists who can afford to travel to Seattle or Cancun - this latter tendency does little, on average, to join the dots between local community and global awareness. Similarly, the middle class enclave of 'apolitical' NGO's, who are highly prominent actors in civil society, often marginalises and suffocates popular initiatives to contest 'structural adjustment', as they often seek to competitively control and dominate debate, and are prone to taking decisions determined by their funding requirements. Such entities retain the unequal and corporatised social structures that liberalisation and privatisation programmes create, reproduce and enhance.
Another traditional strand of dissent comes via trade unions and other popular movements, such as the peasant; womens; students; and indigenous peoples' movements. Here, attempts to translate struggle into political action often results in linkages with political parties. Such alliances can be useful - for example, by giving greater publicity. Yet such alliances can lead to the institutionalisation of movements and trade unions and a watering down of demands in order to placate these establishment allies, whose concerns are rarely identical or as radical. This defangs any radicalism, engenders the evolution of an unquestioning submissiveness to authority, and eventually relegates the movement to the sidelines.
More autonomous and less formal organisations also emerge in the field, seeking to oppose, for example, environmental damage, resource misuse and privatisation. These groups often consist of the urban poor; or rural communities under threat, and they often embrace direct action. Such groups have members who are led, through their activities, to a broader understanding of the issues, and tend to seek flexible and decentralised linkage with other similar groupings - if successful, they will go beyond specific campaign issues and rise to promote new forms of solidarity, based around opposition to neo-liberal mega-projects and structural adjustment programmes, and a growing awareness of the global and interdependent nature of social, economic and ecological problems.
Coming together with others that condemn neo-liberalism often sees a hard core coalesce, that allows those who dissent from that core's values to be marginalised and excluded. This process of co-option is not just the preserve of NGO's, but also for example of nationalists and of elements of the old left, who do not value diversity. The extent to which these groups can remain relevant is co-equal with the extent to which they can remain consciously aware of, and opposed to, exclusive concepts of militancy and of ossified and doctrinaire ideology. To achieve this requires shared values and ethics.
To this end, an analysis of the ends that social movements seek, in relation to their position on the means by which this is achievable, is useful. Whether analysing a group of which you are a part, or looking at such a group from the outside, it is helpful to answer questions such as these:
  • What kind of relations does the movement pursue with State and corporate institutions?
  • Do they seek institutional change?
  • Are they merely instrumentalists who consider reformism sufficient to achieve this or do they seek deeper reform?
  • Do they prefer direct action or action through institutions?
  • Do they advocate more radical dismantling of institutional structures?
  • If so, how deeply do they envisage required change to be, in terms of existing social and / or institutional structures and relationships?
  • What positions do they take on global governance; international trade; internationalism; multi-culturalism, etc?
  • How do they articulate the junctures between local, national and global struggles, and between continuity and change?
  • What linkages does the movement seek with wider socio-political processes?
  • What historical baggage does the group carry (perhaps measured in the degree to which it is embedded into other socio-political matrices)?
  • Do individuals working within collectives believe they are able to bring about major widespread, lasting, social, political, economic and ecological change, or are they functioning as activists merely in order to feel comfortable with their own efforts?
  • Subcultures are very exclusive, and prevent many people from feeling welcome, or even taking the process seriously. Can this be overcome?
Answers to such questions allow us to map a group's position in relation to concepts of the common good; social justice and equality; ethics and morality; diversity and difference; centralisation and decentralisation; ruralism and urbanism; self-reliance; volunteerism; and environment (both social and natural). They help us to identify which of the contested definitions of democracy, globalisation and anti-globalisation, they subscribe to. And they also allow us to determine the resilience of the movement to co-option from within and without, and its ability to remain flexible and adaptive.

The phrase 'act locally, think globally' has been devalued through overuse, but the concept has great importance and deserves to be taken seriously. No long-term community can expect to survive unless it is in balance with other human communities; nor can it survive unless it is in balance with its local environment. And that environment cannot be in balance unless it is also in balance with the global environment. If the global ecology, whether natural or social, is threatened, then the local cannot survive either. No natural ecology can be in balance that does not prize diversity; and no human community can be in balance (either within itself; with it's neighbours; or with it's natural environment) that does not prize diversity.
Ecologically resilient systems have the characteristics of interconnectedness, interdependence, dynamic balance, redundancy and unity in diversity - if a social or political system does not have similar characteristics it cannot survive, any more than our global commons can survive the extreme assault on its integrity that is delivered by the grow-or-die ethic of the neoliberals, and, though this is rarely articulated overtly, the old left. The principles that underpin these ideologies include a number shared by each - for example, outmoded models of class; productivism; scientism; domination and hierarchy. Both are built to some extent on shared philosophical foundations, such as atomism; solipsism; and a Hobbesian view of the human condition and the stinginess of Nature.
It is my view that the right and the neo-liberals are wholly defined by such out-dated values and viewpoints, along with acquisitive hedonism as exemplified by the consumer culture that dominates today. The left, too, is compromised by these values, as exemplified in the UK by worker selfishness and the National Lottery culture. The industrial productivist model differs only in so far as the right see the proceeds as for the rich with a minimal trickle-down to the workers, just to keep them quiet, and organised by many privately owned companies, whilst the left would share the proceeds more equably, organised by state capitalist entities - both are based upon non-sustainable global pillage of the environment and of their neighbours' resources.
However, the left also has a long, if frequently suppressed, history of more positive values that run counter to these trends. These include egalitarian and communitarian ideals, and a spirit of solidarity with others in similar straits far away. A conflation of these and other embattled but positive ethical values in the left, with those held by the ecology movement, and the anarchist movement, meet in Murray Bookchin's social ecology.
In a time when we appear to have returned to the stream of history, with industrial pollution causing a runaway global warming process; with over-consumption accelerating resource depletion, responded to with military action aimed at stealing others' resources; with crashing fish stocks, unprecedented extinctions, and failing harvests; with the oil that fuelled the productivism of the last 150 years being definitively past it's peak flow and declining fast; with developed countries paying host to bloated urban populations that their own land cannot feed, the old methods of dealing with crises - insularity, hierarchy, domination, war, and piracy - can only destroy us. An alternative approach is needed, with different values, that favours tools that are fitted to our modern world, rather than the testosterone drenched competition of the past.
All growth models pander to economic precepts that exclude the fact that resources are finite and will run out - they are thus fundamentally unsustainable. In medical terms, our behaviour is like that of a metastasising cancer, and will inevitably kill the host - our planet. The rise of cybernetics in the early years of the twentieth century, and ecology, in the sixties and seventies, has allowed a new awareness of environmental realities - one that has slowly come to recognise the flaws of the nineteenth century positivist ideologies, whether right or left. The philosophical foundations of these modes of thought have not only been altered by the rise of cybernetics and ecology, but also by the evolution of the nature-nurture debate (which has suggested that our nature is more malleable and culturally determined than the Hobbesian worldview would have it); the private language argument of Ludwig Wittgenstein (which undermines the Cartesian project that led to the cogito and, corrupted, to the solipsism that coloured the nineteenth century); and the destruction of Newton's atomistic determinism by the rise of chaos theory, complexity theory and quantum mechanics. Thus the foundations of statism and the neo-liberal agenda have been refuted on the most basic level - their logical foundations have been ripped out. These new foundation stones of our metaphysical understanding of the world have yet to work their way through to the super-structure of our society, but, though time is short, the fruits are increasingly visible.
The strand of modern political thought represented by social ecology, as presented by Murray Bookchin, seems to me the one best suited to our current metaphysical understanding of the world, presenting the most cohesive and relevant modern attempt to create social principles that may enable man and nature to coexist. Since it's nineteenth century inception, European anarchism has had strands that, ecologically speaking, reflect this 'new' take on the real world. These are represented by, for example, Peter Kropotkin, who posited a non-social Darwinist take on evolution - one that emphasized co-operation over competition as a factor in evolution, especially human social evolution. This has evolved through the early green movement and it's protagonists, such as Rachel Carson and Lewis Herber (aka Murray Bookchin) to the point today where ecologically aware social anarchism is now at the heart of the non-party-political green movement.
This philosophy has the following features - a human scale; face-to-face civic management; decentralisation; citizenship; egalitarianism; mutual aid; sustainability; a communitarian system of production and distribution; and resistance to hierarchy and dominance. It seeks to marry an ecological awareness with the positive potentials of modern technologies, to yield a post-scarcity environment. It seeks to establish an ethical, moral and harmonious relationship between human communities, and between human activities and the natural environment. It sees the possibility of a balanced environmental ecology and that of a balanced human ecology as inextricably linked.
This is a project that requires a community in which participation is encouraged and occurs on equal terms. It is hard work. And its primary features are sometimes hard to see in the lifestyle activist and anarchist movement that we see, primarily in the US and UK today. I don't think that Bookchin was wrong in regarding many of the current oppositional groups as being part of the problem rather than the solution, because few seem able to accept that working within the system is not a possibility, and that we must in fact turn our backs upon it, and those that do seem all too willing to solipsistically head for the hills, after a brief sojourn on Wall Street or The City to line their pockets so that they can pay for their escape.
Actually engaging with local communities to build sustainable forms of consociation, whilst at the same time promoting global and ecological awareness, appears to be a job that is too big for much of the so-called 'anti-globalisation' movement. Perhaps we need to learn more from communities outside the First World, who still are used to living in place, and perhaps we can teach them some of the more global perspectives that they may lack. Between us, perhaps globalisation from below can bear fruit for both humankind and the natural world about us.

First run on the ESEI website, November 2005. This was the template for a seminar delivered at the Making Global Civil Society: (Counter)KnowledgeLab #1, Lancaster University, November 2005.
Book List:


Murray Bookchin: Post-Scarcity Anarchism
Murray Bookchin: Toward An Ecological Society
Murray Bookchin: Anarchism, Marxism & the Future of the Left
Janet Biehl: The Politics of Social Ecology / Libertarian Municipalism
Andre Gorz: Ecology as Politics
Peter Kropotkin: Mutual Aid
Graham Purchase: Anarchism & Environmental Survival
Andrew Simms: Ecological Debt
Francois Polet: Globalizing Resistance - The State of Struggle
Roy Morrison: Ecological Democracy
Ivan Illich: Tools for Conviviality
James Lovelock: Gaia
Herbert Marcuse: One-Dimensional Man
S J Goerner: After The Clockwork Universe
Fritjof Capra: The Turning Point
Jack Cohen & Ian Stewart: The Collapse of Chaos: Discovering Simplicity in a Complex World
Ludwig Wittgenstein: Philosphical Investigations

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