Social Ecology

From Anarchy In Action

Social Ecology, a type of libertarian communism first developed by Murray Bookchin, asserts that social hierarchy is the root cause of environmental destruction. The implication, then, is that any solution to environmental crises must involve a struggle against social hierarchy.

Social Ecologists posit an account of the rise of hierarchy, a political strategy for social change (libertarian municipalism, or Communalism), and even a philosophy for understanding evolution (dialectical naturalism). Unusual for an Anarchist, Bookchin advocated running Green candidates for local office to educate the public about Anarchism. Bookchin had heated debates with syndicalists, deep ecologists, primitivists, proponents of consensus decision-making, and many others who disagreed with him. Toward the end of his life, Bookchin broke with Anarchism, advancing Social Ecology as a stand-alone theory.


Bookchin conceptualized freedom based on a study of ecology. He wrote, "My definition of the term 'libertarian' is guided by my description of the ecosystem: the image of unity in diversity, spontaneity, and complementary relationships, free from all hierarchy and domination."[1] Bookchin revolutionized Anarchist theory by making hierarchy a core concept. Formerly, Anarchism explicitly opposed the State and capitalism and implicitly opposed other oppressive structures such as patriarchy, white supremacy, and militarism. Bookchin assigned all these structures to a common category: hierarchy.[2]

Social Ecologists say that while people must self-determine their lives, people can only exercise their full capacities in a socially-engaged life. Freedom, for Social Ecologists, has a social aspect and can not be reduced to individual autonomy alone.

For Social Ecology, environmental crisis made freedom into an urgent necessity. Bookchin warned of a stark choice of "anarchism or annihilation."[3] He asserted that the ideologies enabling environmental destruction have their roots in social hierarchies: "We must emphasize, here, that the idea of dominating nature has its primary source in the domination of human by human and the structuring of the natural world into a hierarchical Chain of Being (a static conception, incidentally, that has no relationship to the evolution of life into increasingly advanced forms of subjectivity and flexibility)."[4] Thus, Social Ecologists insist that an ecological society must be one based on human freedom.


In a Social Ecological society, each neighborhood would self-govern through a "citizen's assembly" held weekly in a public space such as a park or auditorium. Each assembly would make decisions by majority vote and operate according to locally-established written procedures. The agenda for each meeting would get publicized several days in advance so that people would have time to think about and discuss the issues.[5] Through confederation, citizen's assemblies would link together for purposes such as coordinating environmental regulations and sharing resources.


The goal of the economy, for Bookchin, was to satisfy people's desires, not just their needs. Thus, Bookchin advocated a society based on pleasure rather than mere happiness.[6] The Social Ecological economy would be based on usufruct, meaning use rights. This means there would be no permanent ownership but anyone could freely use an available object or unused structure. The vision encompasses communism (to each according to their needs) but arguably goes even further, with the emphasis shifted from a fulfilment of need to a fulfilment of desire.[7]

Theorists of Social Ecology contend that a free society would create "post-scarcity" conditions, with automated technologies replacing almost all work.[8] Due to this post-scarcity contention, Social Ecologists reject the council-based, meticulous economic planning advocated by theories such as Parecon.


The Social Ecological society would harmonize human society with ecosystems, creating a "third nature." Social Ecologists refer to wild areas as "first nature" and human culture as "second nature."[9] Social Ecology seeks to build a "free nature," with human society not only respecting but enhancing ecological diversity and spontaneity: "Humanity, far from diminishing the integrity of nature, would add the dimension of freedom, reason, and ethics to it and raise evolution to a level of self-reflexivity that has always been latent in the emergence of the natural world."[10]


A "civic milita," subordinate to the citizen's assembly, would the neigbhorhood against both internal violent crime and external attacks. The militia would have elected officers.[11]


The basis of Social Ecologists' politics is the affinity group, a group of close friends who theorize, organize, and reflect with other over long periods of time. Bookchin wrote, "Autonomous, communal and directly democratic, the [affinity] group combines revolutionary theory with revolutionary lifestyle in its everyday behavior. It creates a free space in which revolutionaries can remake themselves individually, and also as social beings."[12]

Social Ecologists advocate a strategy of running candidates for local office, with a goal of eventually changing municipal law to replace statist structures with citizen's assemblies. Ultimately, Social Ecologists would create a giant confederation of communes. [13]

Social Ecology has greatly influenced a number of struggles including the US anti-nuclear movement, US Green movement, and Kurdistan democratic confederalists.

Neighboring Societies

As discussed in the Crime section, a democratic civic milita would replace the military and police forces.

  1. Bookchin, Ecology of Freedom, 352.
  2. Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, Introduction.
  3. Murray Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Second Edition (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1986), 62.
  4. Murray Bookchin, "What is Social Ecology?",
  5. Janet Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1998), 57-59.
  6. Murray Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy (Palo Alto: Cheshire Books, 1982), Introduction.
  7. Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom.
  8. Bookchin, "Toward a Liberating Technology" in Post-Scarcity Anarchism.
  9. Murray Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays on Dialectical Naturalism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1996), 119.
  10. Bookchin, The Philosophy of Social Ecology, 136.
  11. Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology, 123-4.
  12. Bookchin, Post-Scarcity Anarchism, 243.
  13. Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology.