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Not Freedom But Community

By Tom Holzinger
Serowe, Botswana
21 June 2009 (mid-year solstice)

We begin with “we.” How do we perceive and understand ourselves? For most of human history the question made little sense. We were of course members of an extended family, a community, a clan, a tribe. We had no independent social identity other than that conferred on us by our own community. Only quite late in this history did social differentiation, economic specialisation, and ethnic mixing bring about an alternative identity, that of a unique individual.

The development of capitalism has, among its multitude of ills, alienated us from our extended families, our community, our work, the products of our work, our houses, our recreation—indeed, almost everything with which we once felt naturally intimate and integrated. In their place capitalism offers its captive members the ever-greater material consumption of (alienated) goods and services. Under these conditions, the ideology of the unique, supreme individual, especially as sovereign consumer, has swept all before it.

Left-biocentrists know better. The natural world is everywhere organised into overlapping communities of families, species, ensembles of species, ecosystems. Alienation is impossible—can there be any special value for an individual of a species? Nature celebrates mothers, fathers, offspring, leaders and followers, but not one would survive long if stripped of its community. Intimacy, connectedness, and community are Nature’s organising principles, just as they were, over eons past, for us.

Return to communities

I suggest that for left-biocentrists, the ultimate social goal is the turn or return of our human species to social and ecological communities as our primary form of organisation. This is not nostalgia for the past, as these will be voluntary communities. The replacing of capitalism then becomes a necessary means to this end, an intermediate goal. For these reasons I often think of our social program as “Communitarianism,” even while regretting its historical associations and unnecessary length. I will continue to use it here, but with the hope that left-biocentric comrades and colleagues will soon discover a more serendipitous word.

We have not yet finished with “we.” Having set the goal, we turn to agency. What forces change history? Natural geological and environmental forces change history. Man-made environmental destruction changes history. Social and economic development changes history, as does population growth and movement. Conscious social movements change history (even if less than we would like). However, what has clearly brought about the most profound changes in recent centuries has been the engagement of whole social formations, i.e. castes and classes, in the pursuit of their perceived self-interest. We may note that religious, cultural, and household upheaval has often accompanied this class controversy; to touch any part of the social order is to touch it everywhere.

It is a given that our communitarian revolution, if it is to succeed, must be welcomed by the great majority of the people as a whole; thus it follows that the agents of this revolution, in general, must be those broad social formations whom it directly benefits. Although a tough-minded examination has yet to be made, I believe that class will prove to be a useful analytical category, as will race, gender, status in family, religious practice, perhaps sexual self-restraint, and other factors still to be identified.

Identify common themes

In trying to engage as many of our fellow citizens as seems reasonable, we need to identify common themes that resonate widely. In my variegated experience, frustration of aspiration, alienation from any community, lack of spiritual touchstones, and sickness at heart at ever-greater consumption and debt are all widely experienced and deeply felt. What links them together is the condition of perceived powerlessness, that we are on our knees before a vast omnipotent machine. It is here that we activists can show the opposite to be true: through organisation, solidarity, and flexing our collective strength, we can overcome most of these social and personal ills.

Our revolutionary voice, then, is strongest if attuned to our agency. We should speak broadly as “we the powerless soon to be powerful” or “we the little people soon to be big.” At specific times in specific places we may speak as “we the workers,” “we the unemployed,” “we the harijans” and so forth. What dedicated communitarians must not do is to speak as a group of advanced thinkers above or ahead of the rest of us, as many Marxists did for six futile generations. The intelligentsia are, on the whole, also powerless and often marginalised. At the risk of igniting a firestorm, I believe that those left-biocentrist activists who think of themselves as intellectuals—somehow apart from us workers—perhaps they are not many—have a duty to remake themselves and their self-view to become workers like the rest of us.

This is not to say that we working people can leave ourselves unchanged! I believe if we looked more closely at the “freedom” and “choice” being sold to us, we would see that these are meaningless. What we seek at a deep level is in fact community and connectedness, and we will sooner or later have to alter our lives accordingly.

Tom Holzinger
Serowe, Botswana


A letter to fellow eco-revolutionaries

My old friend and comrade David Orton recently referred me to Dandelion Times. Amid the pleasure of finding kindred souls, I was reminded of direct-action friends years ago in Philadelphia who published a people’s newsletter called Dandelion and a more analytical one called Dandelion Wine. I wonder if Dandelion Times could be an indirect descendant?

I also remember quite different days in 1981 in Mexico City when I wrote my first brief paper on the necessary convergence of Red and Green. It seemed audacious then, but would be a commonplace today. Since then I have eagerly followed the rapid inflorescence of Green, Deep Green, and Deep Ecology theory and practice, encouraged in recent years by David’s work and by the slow but steady adoption of the biocentric (ecocentric) paradigm. I note that its ever-spreading ripple now extends to agriculture, forestry, artisan industry, landscaping, architecture, art, music, and literature and is poised to touch science itself. All this, of course, is a source of cautious hope and joy, an offset against the daily alarm of climate change and the likely scarcities of water, energy, and food.

Paradoxically, the Left or Red half of the revolutionary imperative, while not exactly withering away, appears to be adrift almost everywhere.

A current thinker writing recently about Christian humanism seemed to describe Left humanism as well: “[It] has fallen in with the modern conception of freedom that sees human liberty as little more than choice, acquisition, celebrity, distraction and therapy.” I might add that Left humanism also remains preoccupied with the failed socialisms, communisms, and anarchisms of the previous century.

I think all of us are aware that until our Red-Green synthesis catches up on the social side—in analysis, theory, and daily radicalism—we will remain a lively discussion group. When and if our social theory at last enjoys its own exuberant growth of experiment and idea, linked to the experience of left-biocentric social activists—whom I provisionally call Communitarians—at that moment our movement becomes a force that changes the world.

I hope that fellow left-biocentrists will soon examine the history of recent social movements to understand their successes and failures. It will be an important step in avoiding similar pitfalls.

In my own contribution above, however, I skirt this history and jump immediately into the large social questions facing us. I ask for your patience and sympathetic consideration, as some of the ideas may seem novel or quixotic, or even distant from our Earth Ethic. But today’s solstice seems a good omen for advancing fresh thinking. We must begin somewhere.

Tom Holzinger

Author’s note: I have tentatively put forward an ultimate social goal of voluntary ecological communities and, as the principal agency for this transformation, a self-aware social struggle based on shared powerlessness and alienation. It is up to Dandelion Times readers to criticise, correct, and enrich these views. In the meantime I will do my best to prepare the other half of my thesis, Conviviality not consumption, in which I will try to treat political questions such as organising a global Movement, evangelising the unconverted, strategic non-violence, spirituality, relations with reformists, and other contentious topics. If everything goes well, these will soon be collective pieces, and we will write “we” with great satisfaction!

About the author

Tom HolzingerTom Holzinger grew up in America, fled to Botswana during the Vietnam War, raised his family in Montréal, and now lives in Serowe, Botswana. He has been aware of the deficiencies of classical social theory since becoming radicalised as a teenager. Tom believes that a communitarian theory of social change must replace industrial capitalism for humanity to reintegrate into the natural world.

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1 Suzanne Duarte { 08.03.09 at 12:01 pm }

Thank you, Tom, for your broad and deep view of how to become agents of or for ecologically sustainable communities. I agree that “for left-biocentrists, the ultimate social goal is the turn or return of our human species to social and ecological communities as our primary form of organisation…. The replacing of capitalism then becomes a necessary means to this end, an intermediate goal.” I also think that “Communitarianism” is a good enough term for now, as long as we make it clear that human community is interdependent with the Earth community, and don’t burden the term with anthropocentric leftist ideologies of the past.

Thank you noting this point: “What dedicated communitarians must not do is to speak as a group of advanced thinkers above or ahead of the rest of us, as many Marxists did for six futile generations. The intelligentsia are, on the whole, also powerless and often marginalised.” Ain’t that the truth!

But the difficulty, Tom, is in the idea of trying to create a broad social movement, much less a “global movement.” When I take a look at the likely disintegrations of social order that will be brought by declines in fossil fuels, almost all natural resources, economies, and climatic stability, I think we are going to be dealing with a lot of chaos and insanity in the next decades. I don’t think we can count on the prevalence of reason and literacy in our attempts to “engage as many of our fellow citizens as seems reasonable” – except among those who are already allied by ecological values and are reasonably sane and literate.

In a recent interview with Chris Hedges on his new book The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, he makes a convincing case that “a sizeable portion of modern society [has developed] into a post-literate, fantasy-fueled, perma-reality show,” thanks to corporate media. I see evidence of this in Holland, as I described in my article on this site, “Waking Up in a Former Empire.”

In other words, I think we are facing unprecedented and unpredictable conditions in the coming years and decades, and that we cannot assume that the conditions in which relatively recent social movements succeeded and failed will apply. That doesn’t mean that I think there is nothing we can do, but I do think that the scale of successful, ecocentric community activism will be local, personal and based on building trust – in the full, mutual recognition of the challenges our species faces in this century. I think that our appeal needs to focus on those who are already waking up, not those who resist waking up from the bogus dreams and promises of capitalism.

Nevertheless, I look forward to the “other half of [your] thesis, Conviviality not consumption.”

2 Victor Postnikov { 08.19.09 at 2:43 am }

Thank you, Tom, for an article sympathetic to what left bio are up to – i.e., building ecological communities on a deep ecology premise. I agree with your “communitarianism” as the most likely model for the future. In fact, many new forms of communal living are already in progress such as eco-villages, intentional communities, etc. Other forms are in nascent state. And the more varied the forms, the less threat of totalitarianism. I think the world is moving (albeit slowly) to decentralization, and that is the only hope and means to survive in a post-industrial crash. Left bios are keen on learning the ways to (collectively) re-adapt to new circumstances and help others to survive. Conviviality looks a great antidote to pessimism. Looking forward to your new entry,