Bookchin on Technology
By Tom McLaughlin
Murray Bookchin's collection of essays, Post-Scarcity Anarchism,
provides an important challenge to Marxists who want a living Marxism.
He argues for a liberatory technology and describes inventions and
scientific advances that make it possible. That it is necessary
is shown by the ecological harm resulting from our present use of
technology. He then argues that only a decentralized society will
be capable of using the technology he proposes and locates tendencies
for such a society in the development of communes, affinity groups,
and other forms of positive opposition to centralized and bureaucratic
society. At the end of the book he gives his impressions of the
French General Strike of 1968 and his analysis of why it did not
advance to the overthrow of the old society and the construction
of a new one.
Let's deal with Bookchin's discussion of technology. First Bookchin
argues that 19th-century technology brought a sense of promise that
scarcity could be ended. "It seemed to the revolutionary theorist
that for the first time in history he could anchor his dream of
a liberatory society in the visible prospect of material abundance
and increased leisure for the mass of humanity" (p.88).
However to bring this about required planning for a long period
of toil. Redistribution of wealth with little to distribute as Marx
and Engels rightly saw would merely return us to the old struggle
Marxism's answer was a transitional proletarian state to plan the
economy. The anarchists hoped without much evidence that this stage
could be avoided and argued with strong evidence that it would be
dangerous. According to Bookchin neither side really won the argument
because the low level of technology would have caused problems for
either a "proletarian state" or "mutual association".
However while the problem was still being argued in such terms technology
sped forward. While socialism was (and still is) glorified as a
society where toil was ennobling, technological advances took place
that allow for a reduction in the amount of labour necessary to
do the world's work. Already the possibility of a greatly reduced
amount of toil finds quantitative expression in proposals for guaranteed
"This quantitative approach is already lagging behind technological
developments that carry a new qualitative promise-the promise of
decentralized, communitarian lifestyles, or what I prefer to call
ecological forms of human association".
According to Bookchin the open-ended development of technology,
the breakdown of tasks to mechanical operations that machines can
perform have occurred along with certain new features of machines.
1. They have the ability to correct their own errors; they are self
regulating, e.g. thermostats and lights that adjust to darkness.
2. Machines now have sensory devices, e.g. X-ray machines and radar.
3. Machines can now exercise judgment, memory, and skill. Computers
can remember facts, perform complicated logical exercises, and can
evaluate routine processes.
Technological advances embodying these principles can be applied
to virtually every form of toil. The present technology could be
used to further existing tendencies toward centralization and bureaucracy.
However it could have an opposite and happier consequence. Computers
that once required miles of wiring and weighed 30 tons have been
replaced by computers roughly as big as a bedside AM-FM radio.
Larger machines have been developed too. Rolling mills can be built
that are a fraction of the size of the huge mills existing in Hamilton
let alone the enormous mill planned for Nanticoke (23,000,000 tons
production per year, more than the entire current Canadian output.)
The present system is geared to an international market. The new
technology could not hope to meet such a demand but it could satisfy
the steel needs of several medium-sized communities.
Multi-purpose machines have been developed as well. Drills can now
use a range of gauges to drill holes of various thicknesses. Thus
a variety of goods can be produced by using them.
An additional aspect of modern technology is the possibility it
offers of a new relationship with nature. "Some of the most
promising technologocal advances in agriculture made since World
War II are as suitable for small-scale ecological forms of land
management as they are for the immense industrial-type commercial
units that have become prevalent over the past few decades".
(p.115) This is true for such processes as the feeding of
livestock and for farm machines.
Agriculture could continue to be agribusiness or it could become
husbandry with the promotion of a variety of flora and fauna.
Regional resources could be used too. Old resources that now exist
only in small amounts could now be of value again.
The present single source energy economy could be gradually abandoned
as solar energy could meet 20 - 30 per cent of our energy needs
and other forms could be applied as well.
The point is that this new technology would be less dangerous but
would require a new society different not only from what exists
but different from most currently envisioned. Such a society or
rather societies would be decentralized using primarily the natural
resources and technology available in the immediate area.
Production would be for smaller markets. Political units could more
nearly approach a size allowing for face to face contact.
Man could regain respect rather than fear of the natural environment
as the daily evidence of his dependence on it would be part of an
ecological society one that encouraged diversity as not merely
the most pleasant but also the most efficient form of agriculture.
If "many ecologists now conclude that we can avoid the repetitive
use of toxic chemicals such as insecticides and herbicides by allowing
for a greater interplay between living things" then the form
of agriculture best suited to our needs requires not the domination
of nature but more of a partnership with it.
What does this mean to Marxists? Marx was the greatest critic of
technology. He wrote unsurpassed analyses of the technology of his
day and revealed modern technology to be an alienated form of human
labour that could be used to reduce toil rather than adding to it.
However this technology required the centralization of production
in his view and the disciplining of the working class and one-man
management. An individual performer of a musical instrument he said
is his own conductor but a symphony requires a conductor. The analogy
between the craftsman and the factory was thus very clearly drawn.
This analogy was not lost on the Leninists who brought one-man management
to its apogee. Unfortunately, while Marx may have had some justification
for his conclusions based as they were on the most advanced research
then existing present-day Marxists have no reason for following
this path. Instead Marxists must take up Marx's task of the critique
of technology and see if it can take a liberatory direction. The
Frankfurt School and Herbert Marcuse especially have criticized
technology under capitalism but always with the assumption that
the closed system of instrumental reason that it tries to create
can succeed or at least prevail indefinitely. There is no hint in
Marcuse or Habermas that systems theory as a means of domination
could be self-defeating. Instead for Marcuse the critique comes
from outside the system. For Haberman the process of rationalization
is checked if at all only by the presuppositions of communication
that imply a normative content to speech. Rather a feeble hope!
An a priori argument for the inviolability of language.
If Marxists want to develop their theory to take account of the
new needs and possibilities of technology, they must admit that
if this theory is not exhausted on this topic it remains to be developed.
As good a place as any for them to start it remains to be developed.
As good a place as any for them to start in gaining knowledge for
their arsenal would be Post-Scarcity Anarchism.
After praising the book a few words of criticism may be in order.
For example Bookchin believes that such a thing as an ecological
breakdown would occur. "Ecologically bourgeois exploitation
and manipulation are undermining the very capacity of the earth
to sustain advanced forms of life". (p. 36). "The
contradiction between the expoitative organization of society and
the natural environemnt is beyond co-optation: the atmosphere, the
waterways, the soil, and the ecology required for human survival
are not redeemable by reforms, concessions or modifications of strategic
policy" (p. 38). While technology can't solve all the
problems it creates it is possible to adjust human expectations
to accept a deteriorating ecology. In Los Angeles there are smog
alerts and the acceptance of an environment that has been barbarized
is already far advanced. Thus an ecological crisis no more than
an economic crisis is purely objectivistic. It depends to a large
extent on political criteria. What do people expect; what can they
be forced or persuaded to tolerate? Further one needn't have a blind
faith in science to expect that some attempts can be made to adjust
us to a worsening environment through technological manipulation.
Moreover Bookchin does not emphasize the possibility of economic
crisis. Not a breakdown: such a thing never happened and never will
happen. The economy is of course no longer the unregulated chaos
that was under competitive capitalism. But now that the state has
to step in to regulate the economy it creates tensions that it may
not be able to resolve. However Bookchin emphasizes the problems
of prosperity and unfulfilled expectations rather than the tensions
due to economic crisis which the state must both regulate and exacerbate.
Black Rose Books, Montreal
Published in Volume 2, Number 2 of The
Red Menace, Spring 1978.
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