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Ursula K. Le Guin: Capitalism is draining the earth, and Occupy isn't going to fix it

Ursula K. Le Guin, image courtesy CNN

Ursula K. Le Guin, the perfect, inspirational 86-year-old science fiction author, has penned a new political essay that also serves as the introduction to political theorist Murray Bookchin’s recent collection of texts published by Verso Books. The text was originally posted online by Motherboard’s Terraform blog, and provides incredible wisdom on subjects ranging from the failures of the Occupy Movement to the march of technological and economic progress under capitalism and its incompatibility with the limits of the earth. My favorite quote: “Every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.”

Our favorite quotes are in bold; the full article can be found on Motherboard here.

“The Left,” a meaningful term ever since the French Revolution, took on wider significance with the rise of socialism, anarchism, and communism. The Russian revolution installed a government entirely leftist in conception; leftist and rightist movements tore Spain apart; democratic parties in Europe and North America arrayed themselves between the two poles; liberal cartoonists portrayed the opposition as a fat plutocrat with a cigar, while reactionaries in the United States demonized “commie leftists” from the 1930s through the Cold War. The left/right opposition, though often an oversimplification, for two centuries was broadly useful as a description and a reminder of dynamic balance.

In the twenty-first century we go on using the terms, but what is left of the Left? The failure of state communism, the quiet entrenchment of a degree of socialism in democratic governments, and the relentless rightward movement of politics driven by corporate capitalism have made much progressive thinking seem antiquated, or redundant, or illusory. The Left is marginalized in its thought, fragmented in its goals, unconfident of its ability to unite. In America particularly, the drift to the right has been so strong that mere liberalism is now the terrorist bogey that anarchism or socialism used to be, and reactionaries are called “moderates.”

So, in a country that has all but shut its left eye and is trying to use only its right hand, where does an ambidextrous, binocular Old Rad like Murray Bookchin fit?

I think he’ll find his readers. A lot of people are seeking consistent, constructive thinking on which to base action—a frustrating search. Theoretical approaches that seem promising turn out, like the Libertarian Party, to be Ayn Rand in drag; immediate and effective solutions to a problem turn out, like the Occupy movement, to lack structure and stamina for the long run. Young people, people this society blatantly short-changes and betrays, are looking for intelligent, realistic, long-term thinking: not another ranting ideology, but a practical working hypothesis, a methodology of how to regain control of where we’re going. Achieving that control will require a revolution as powerful, as deeply affecting society as a whole, as the force it wants to harness.

Murray Bookchin was an expert in nonviolent revolution. He thought about radical social changes, planned and unplanned, and how best to prepare for them, all his life. A new collection of his essays, “The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy,” released last month by Verso Books, carries his thinking on past his own life into the threatening future we face.

Impatient, idealistic readers may find him uncomfortably tough-minded. He’s unwilling to leap over reality to dreams of happy endings, unsympathetic to mere transgression pretending to be political action: “A ‘politics’ of disorder or ‘creative chaos,’ or a naïve practice of ‘taking over the streets’ (usually little more than a street festival), regresses participants to the behavior of a juvenile herd.” That applies more to the Summer of Love, certainly, than to the Occupy movement, yet it is a permanently cogent warning.

But Bookchin is no grim puritan. I first read him as an anarchist, probably the most eloquent and thoughtful one of his generation, and in moving away from anarchism he hasn’t lost his sense of the joy of freedom. He doesn’t want to see that joy, that freedom, come crashing down, yet again, among the ruins of its own euphoric irresponsibility.

What all political and social thinking has finally been forced to face is, of course, the irreversible degradation of the environment by unrestrained industrial capitalism: the enormous fact of which science has been trying for fifty years to convince us, while technology provided us ever greater distractions from it. Every benefit industrialism and capitalism have brought us, every wonderful advance in knowledge and health and communication and comfort, casts the same fatal shadow. All we have, we have taken from the earth; and, taking with ever-increasing speed and greed, we now return little but what is sterile or poisoned.

Yet we can’t stop the process. A capitalist economy, by definition, lives by growth; as Bookchin observes: “For capitalism to desist from its mindless expansion would be for it to commit social suicide.” We have, essentially, chosen cancer as the model of our social system.

Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit. The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other; nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.

Has anyone read Bookchin’s book? I’m curious if it’s as good as Le Guin’s preface.


I’ve read a few essays and I found them to be quite hopeful but not overly idealistic.
His main thrust is the idea of communalism/municipal libertarianism, which is essentially decentralized government run by interested citizens on a local level, tied together through loose confederalism. It comes out of anarchism and is explicitly opposed to the state as well as capital. The clearest present day example is the PKK, Marxist Kurds who have established communities across several international borders without contiguous control of territory or even ideals of eventual statehood.
Overall, the essays are a pretty good elementary critique of 20th century leftist/Marxist theory. It’s a good primer on what went wrong and why. That’s probably the strongest recommendation I can make for this book. It’s easy reading without being dumbed down. Simplification of of theory and of history.
The biggest drawback is that the latest essays were written in 2002, when Bookchin was nearly 80. The one reference to the internet is an admonishment to activists to avoid using electronic communication as much as possible. Which is unthinkable today. And he is coming off the big economic boom of the 90s, where a permanent solid middle class seemed inevitable and the proletariat working class (ie those working in factories) was disappearing. He didn’t see the rise of the precarious service industry and its current attempts to unionize.
Ultimately, he’s a product of his time and fully recognizes that. And makes sure to point out that Marxists of the early 20th century never saw what was coming in the second half of the century. Though he’s an anarchist, he’s not a primativist, and fully accepts rolling with the times. So to criticize him for being old seems shortsighted. He makes a strong point that capitalism is going to consume the earth – and so far it appears to be on track – and that it hasn’t shown any signs of saving itself.
His theory of an alternative is vague, but it’s hopeful, which is more than most leftist theory coming out of the past fifty years or so can say.