Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Social ecology and the techno trap

Corin Bruce penned a nice essay providing a cogent definition of green anarchism and situating green anarchism in relation to other anarchist perspectives. All forms of anarchism share a fundamental antagonism toward hierarchy. For classical anarchism, oppressive subordination to the bureaucratic state was the target. For more recent forms of “social anarchism,” the target has broadened to include all potentially oppressive hierarchical relations among people, including those based on race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. Social anarchism holds that all relations should be fundamentally egalitarian. Green anarchism takes the logical next step and applies this principle to the nonhuman world as well. Green anarchism thus represents the most developed form of anarchist thinking, according to Bruce.

Bruce then describes a variant of green anarchism that has been called social ecology, which takes all of the ideals of social anarchism and extends them to all sentient beings. Domination is wrong whether the target is a human being, a domestic pig, or an old growth forest.

So far so good. But then Bruce dismisses primitivism with a simple wave of the hand, and rows the boat right off the edge of the map.

Social ecology is not anti-technology, Bruce cautions, and should not be confused with those muddle-headed primitivist anti-civilization critiques that—although they “certainly come infused with interesting anarchist currents”—apparently don’t fit within anarchism proper. Social ecology is a perspective that happily embraces “the most desirable aspects of modern society, such as its alleged focus on reason, science, and technology.”

Wait a minute now, Corin. The problem for all anarchists is the oppressive operation of hierarchy. Social ecology extends this anti-hierarchy focus to the nonhuman world, and presumably rejects all forms of domestication. What is primitivism other than a call to adopt non-domestic lifestyles? But let’s take reason, science, and technology in order.

Reason should not be a problem for any form of anarchism. Reason is not an invention of civilization. Nor is it limited to humans. Several other species clearly operate on their environment in rational ways.

Science, too, at least in terms of core notions about the importance of systematic observation, was practiced by the very first humans. However, science as a category of civilized activity that includes the partitioning and sanctioning of authority and expertise is a paradigmatic application of hierarchy in the social world, and is plainly inconsistent with the ideals of social ecology.

But it’s the tolerance of complex technology that makes social ecology—and all other non-primitivist anarchist perspectives—incoherent. Technology is the direct application of hierarchy. Hierarchy is the single dominant feature shared by all forms of technology, from the simple hand loom to the international corporation. If green anarchy—and more specifically, social ecology—rejects the subordination of the natural world though the application of hierarchy, then all forms of technology are potentially suspect, and anything much more complex than a hand loom is rendered off limits.

In addition, and most importantly, it is simply not possible to have complex technology without the hierarchical subordination of human beings. This basic fact is what renders classical anarchism and all other forms of anarchism that limit their focus to economic considerations incoherent. An egalitarian sharing of control over the means of production turns to millimeter thin ice when it comes to questions about who gets to work in the coal mines.

I think that Bruce is on the right track in terms of placing classical, social, and green versions of anarchism in order of progressive coherence. And I really like the idea that the increasing coherence of anarchist perspectives is tied to an increasingly generalized rejection of hierarchical relationships. But the dismissal of primitivism is clearly unjustifiable. By Bruce’s own logic, primitivism represents the most highly developed form of anarchist thought because it casts the broadest anti-hierarchy net and takes the rejection of hierarchy to its logical extreme.


  1. Hi there, Old Dog.

    Thanks for the review!

    I'd like to clarify that this essay was not attempting to refute primitivism, and I only mentioned it in order to clarify that - as far as I am concerned - one need not reject technology in order to accept green anarchism.

    Although, having said that, it should be explained why I think that green anarchism is compatible with technology.

    You claim that: "Hierarchy is the single dominant feature shared by all forms of technology, from the simple hand loom to the international corporation." My challenge is that it is not an inherent quality of technology that it must be hierarchical. Rather, the fact that technology is so often hierarchical is more a reflection of our current system, which instills hierarchical divisions into every sphere of its influence, including the technological sphere. My hope, which is no doubt one that you would disagree with, is that we might create a society - a green anarchist society - in which the application of technology is thoroughly egalitarian.

    I do not think that technology is inherently hierarchical, which is a view that I find it quite difficult to make sense of. How can inanimate objects be hierarchical?

    Rather, I think it is the desire to dominate that is inherently hierarchical. Technology is a means that can be applied towards promoting this desire, and that can maximise one's capacity to destroy. However, technology is not the root of the problem, it is the desire to dominate that is at the root of the problem. Merely getting rid of technology is not sufficient to abolish hierarchy, or to achieve genuine anarchism, because the desire to dominate others - which would merely manifest itself in another form if technology was not accessible - would still be there. In order to abolish hierarchy, that very desire to dominate must be gotten rid of - this is what is crucial. Insofar as we are successful in doing so, abolishing technology would be superfluous, because the desire to use technology - or anything else - as a means for maximising one's potential to dominate would no longer be there.


    1. Hey Corin!

      First, I want to be clear that I really liked your essay. I’ve been struggling with sorting out the varieties of anarchist thought in ways that make sense. Your piece helped to clarify things for me—even the small part I disagree with.

      And maybe especially that.

      In terms of technology being inherently hierarchical, it could be that we are defining (or applying) the idea of hierarchy somewhat differently. I see hierarchy as any situation where you have the functions of one set of things being structured by (or driven by or subsumed under) the purposes or functions of others. In this sense, even relatively simple technology involves a hierarchical arrangement of component parts.

      What you say about technology’s role in magnifying the capacity to dominate others is spot on. But it seems to me that many of the reasons we are motivated to dominate others are directly related to our relationships with technology. Complex technology involves division of labor and the need to interact with each other, not as fellow human beings, but according to the roles we are forced to play within a bureaucratic structure. I have several previous posts here that deal with some of the specific problems with technology in the social world (and my latest book explores these issues some detail). Here is an example of one of the more insidious problems:http://anarcho-primitive.blogspot.com/2012/08/reverse-adaptation.html

      As far as an innate drive to dominate others, humans as social primates are no doubt prone to sort themselves according to shifting patterns of social dominance, but that is something entirely different from the immensely oppressive situation we have now.

      Like you, I am optimistic that it is possible to achieve increasingly egalitarian modes of life. I just can’t see it happening as long as we are forced to interact with each other from within an industrial template—even if that template is somehow designed to accommodate the needs of the natural world.