A priori, there’s nothing that links the political philosopher, social ecology theorist and anarchist Murray Bookchin, and blockchain technology. Nothing but decentralization. Nothing but Rojava. Nothing but a certain vision of anarchy.
I learned that [Trotskyism] were no different from the Stalinists, and they expelled me, which is the typical Marxist-Leninist way of dealing with dissenters. From that point on, I migrated by the 1950s into anarchism, increasingly emphasizing decentralization. Also, I made the all-important step of bridging my social philosophy with ecology. I did that in 1952 and went on to write a whole series of books developing an anarcho-ecological approach.
Murray Bookchin, 1979.
Bookchin is the author of nearly twenty books ; as an activist, he also founded the Institute for Social Ecology. His political and philosophical work is increasingly recognized and read all across the world - because of the ecological stakes, of course, but above all, because he has developed a coherent, rigorous and evolving programmatic thinking. Its social ecology is based on a broad definition of -eco, oïkos (which originally means house, habitat) ; ecology here means living in the world in harmony with the environment, not only nature, but men, women, or the Other generalized, the whole society. That’s why Bookchin exposed and practiced his libertarian municipalism and also defended direct democracy.
We would like to focus here on the relationship between Bookchin's thinking and technology; to draw the contours of an improbable harmony between blockchain technology, social ecology and libertarian municipalism. Improbable? The blockchain is often accused of being an ecologically harmful technology; and of recreating the foundations of a new technocracy/plutocracy based on development and cryptomony. In any case, not to be compatible with either social ecology or libertarian municipalism. By challenging this prejudice, we will see that the blockchain is currently crossed by internal tensions that a thinker like Bookchin can nourish in a positive sense. Conversely, a truncated picture of both ecology and anarchy may lead to a certain technophobia. Bookchin, in a reasoned way, knew how to avoid the alas too recurrent pitfall of technophilia and technophobia.
Technology isn’t neutral
1951. Rachel Carson starts writing Silent Spring, which is considered now as one of the first contributions to ecological movement in the Western world. 1952. Bookchin publishes The Problem of Chemicals in Food, which denounced the effects of pesticides, by establishing from the outset a link between capitalist production systems and ecological destruction, which he then sought to demonstrate through his entire work. This criticism of the chemical industry could have led him from the outset to a direct rejection of the technology, at least of its development. However, Bookchin writes, in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, a text named “Towards a Liberatory Technology”.
In this essay, Bookchin leads an archaeology of the relationships that Marxism, communism, socialism and anarchism have with technology - through the concept of scarcity. Until the Second World War, the problem of scarcity,, whose resolution would bring freedom for humans, led these political movements and organizations to define their relationship with technology in a positive way. In brief, technology was life-saving. Socialism even sublimated workers' labour and industrial machinery. Marxist communism sees in the provisional stage of dictatorship of the proletariat, the reason for creating classless society. Anarchists refuse any subordination to the state, even if it is communist, but do not reject the use of technology. This long period of technophilia will essentially find its cultural and artistic expression in avant-gardes such as futurism, expressionism or constructivism.
The technological surge of the Second World War - particularly nuclear power - altered the relationship between populations and technology. Bookchin, in his 1965’s text “Towards a Liberatory Technology”, writes:
Except perhaps for the technicians and scientists who design the"hardware," the feeling of most people toward techno-logical innovation could be described as schizoid, divided into a gnawing fear of nuclear extinction on the one hand, and a yearning for material abundance, leisure and security on the other. Technology, too, seems to be at odds with itself. The bomb is pitted against the power reactor, the intercontinental missile against the communications satellite. The same technological discipline tends to appear both as a foe and a friend of humanity, and even traditionally human-oriented sciences, such as medicine, occupy an ambivalent position—as witness the promise of advances in chemotherapy and the threat created by research in biological warfare.
In a similar but different way, the American novelist Don DeLillo expresses a same opposition in his fiction Underworld: “There is a curious connection between weapons and waste. May be one is the mystical twin of the other. The fusion of two streams of history, weapons and waste. We destroy contaminated waste by means of nuclear explosion”. Bookchin highlights the schizophrenic nature of people's relationship with technology. However, he does not choose to reject technology; on the contrary, he makes it an essential part of any human endeavour :
The emphasis in the above remarks should be placed on the word "potential." I make no claim that technology is necessarily liberatory or consistently beneficial to man's development. But I surely do not believe that man is destined to be enslaved by technology and technological modes of thought (as Juenger and Elul imply in their books on the subject). On the contrary, I shall try to how that an organic mode of life deprived of its technological component would be as nonfunctional as a man deprived of his skeleton. Technology must be viewed as the basic structural support of a society; it is literally the framework of an economy and of many social institutions.
Bookchin's strategy could be summed up as follows: without subscribing to technological messianism, it aims to safeguard the profoundly human and life-saving dimension of technology. In a way, for Bookchin, technology is never neutral. Technophobia and technophilia presupposes an external position to technology - a prejudice. But, for Bookchin, only a “technical imagination” can ultimately reinvest a technology politically and make it viable both for the ecology and for a fair organization of society. There is no technology alone, autonomous, extra-human. There is always, as he says, a “social matrix of technology”.
Political and technological decentralization
Decentralization is a key notion in Bookchin’s work. It operates at several levels. Obviously, at a political level. In fact, for Bookchin, political decentralization aims to offer new modes of governance, equitable and gender balanced. But for Bookchin as for many anarchists, this decentralization should operate on human scale - translation: in a municipalist organization (first core) then confederal (second core).
We know blockchain is a decentralized, transparent, immutable technology - translation: there is a decentralized network, without central server, within users can exchange data or make transactions in a perfectly secure manner. Code is the law - translation : Each form of exchange is permanently and transparently recorded in a tamper-proof register. Bitcoin was created in 2008 to do without the intermediary of banks. The blockchain aims to eliminate intermediaries. That’s why blockchain uses cryptocurrency. The creation of Ethereum in 2015 has led to the creation of several tools, including DAO, Decentralized Autonomous Organization.
To a certain extent, Bookchin’s anarchism - to be more accurate, libertarian municipalism - and blockchain-based technology look alike. Eliminate intermediaries, dispense with the state, organize itself into an autonomous and decentralized organization: these are the programmatic and superficial lines of these two projects. But blockchain ecosystem is far from being homogeneous and is in no way a technological libertarian-municipalism protocol. There’s something anarchist in blockchain-based technology ; but this anarchism is not monolithic; it corresponds more to a-arkhi, the absence of authority, of a leader. This is why blockchain is crossed as much by anarcho-capitalist, libertarian or, conversely, libertarian political thoughts as by a purely apolitical approach. In itself, the blockchain is no one's flag bearer - and this could be welcomed. In another sense, the great difference with Bookchin's thinking and the blockchain comes from the fact that the latter is based on a decentralization of a technological nature, and not a political-social one.
Bookchin will think of ecology as a new paradigm for thinking about the organization of society. Ecology will give rise to a new relationship between man and nature, but also between man and man. In fact, the technology for Bookchin equips this project: it is correlated to a social and political organization of society. There is an isomorphism between technical-administrative decentralization and political-social decentralization.
That may by why the political system of Rojava, a libertarian enclave in Northern Syria, was inspired by the democratic confederalism of Bookchin, via Abdullah Ocalan, the ideological leader of the PKK, and now wishes to use the blockchain for two reasons: to use cryptocurrency to avoid the use of the Syrian pound and economic sanctions of neighbouring countries; and to base its mode of governance on the transparent and secure technology of the blockchain. In this case, technological decentralization and political decentralization meet, probably because Bookchin's thinking and the Rojava political system are still based on agrarian and territorial ambition.
This political and technological coexistence is self-evident for Rojava, as the leader of Rojava's technology development program claims : "Decentralized institutions can be supported by parallel, decentralized technologies". But this is an isolated case in the blockchain ecosystem. For the moment, decentralization is most of the time strictly technological. While it is not apolitical, it has no particular social matrix. If we look closely at the problems that are currently affecting the blockchain ecosystem, we realize that they are related to governance. So to speak, there is no isomorphism between political decentralization and technological decentralization. Who governs, to put it simply? The developers: and we’re in a technocracy. The token-holders: and we’re in a plutocracy.
Bookchin was right to say there’s no bad or good technologies, just bad or good uses of technologies. As many thinkers did, Chomsky too: “Its true that contemporary technology permits decentralization, it also permits centralization. It depends on how you use the technology”. At the same time, how can we prejudge the good or bad use of technology? Similarly, importing libertarian municipalism into the blockchain consists in falling into ideology. The main challenge of the blockchain is undoubtedly to determine what political decentralization is - and how to conduct it. So to solve the problem of governance.
Of course, we will immediately object that Bookchin and the blockchain are incompatible on a crucial point: ecology. The question of ecology was first subsidiary in the blockchain ecosystem. We even know that mining and proof-of-work are not ecological; it is also for this reason that proof-of-stake has appeared, without totally solving the problem of governance. However, several ecological projects based on blockchain technology exist, such as Terra0. For a blockchain to become perfectly compatible with ecology, it would surely be necessary, as in Bookchin's thought, for ecology, and not politics or technology, to determine the way forward. That's why there's no need for a blockchain for Bookchin, but maybe ultimately Bookchin for the blockchain.