Ecology and Counter-Culture. A Personal Account

[The shot was taken on the south coast of NSW just before sunset. WordPress has not allowed the original essay references to be listed.]

Ecology and ‘Counter-Culture’. A Personal Account

The revolution which is beginning will call in question not only capitalist society but industrial society. The consumer society must perish a violent death. The society of alienation must disappear from history. We are inventing a new and original world. Imagination is seizing power.
graffito at the Paris Sorbonne, May 1968

al socialismo se puede llegar solo en bicicleta
(socialism can only be run on bicycles)
Jose Antonio Viera-Gallo, Chilean State Secretary of Justice under Salvador Allende

In 1972-74 in Germany where I was living and studying there was a general turn away from the well-worn strictures and mind cages of the contemporary student left. While the Marxist-Leninist student sects continued with their helpless power-seeking idiocies, many anti-authoritarian student radicals like myself found a renewed interest in all things counter-cultural. The lobster-mind outgrew and discarded another constricting shell, yet kept, at least initially and for most, the important essence of its redness.

It was, to a large degree however, also a spiral movement of return, the etymological meaning of the word ‘revolution’ itself. A return to the utopian, the body and ‘the natural’. A return to the critically hedonist youth- and counter-cultural roots of the early New Left. These had been again lost in the so-called ‘organisational’ or ‘proletarian turn’ after 1968-69, a turn of frustration, denial and hardening in which large sections of the New Left unfortunately again became the Old Left. It was as if our rebellion (like so many others before it) could not really understand itself and thus live up to its own transient but deeply utopian promise. Or as if, overwhelmed perhaps, people had briefly glimpsed but then drawn back fearfully from their own potential depth. (Perhaps in a similar way I had drawn back my gaze from ‘falling down’ into the yawning depths of that beach towel’s blueness when under the influence of my first and last LSD on those seaside rocks in Brittany in 1972).

History did not seem ready for itself, as it were. For, originally, not ‘Karl Marx’ or ‘socialism’, but the diffuse promise, or almost ‘whole-body sense’, of some kind of an existential, radical sexual and/or cultural revolution had been the primal ‘turn-on’ for many young people. We felt subtle currents, we sniffed the wind, and there was something indefinable that excited us in our modern or post-modern air. We were, after all, in a stock French phrase of the time, les enfants de Marx et Coca Cola.

This incipient, and then self-aborted, holistic revolution always seemed both psychologically and socially deeper, historically more appropriate and thus also existentially more authentic than any tired, traditional and statist notions of ‘proletarian revolution’ inherited from earlier, now to a large extent obsolescent stages of society and class struggle. My own RK and sponti milieu in Frankfurt – in contrast to the ‘other’ of the authoritarian, dogmatic and disciplinarian (and objectively reactionary) Marxist-Leninist sects against which we also defined ourselves – had, albeit more in external style than in internal substance, maintained at least some of those original connections to the ‘underground’ or ‘counter-cultural’ scene (in Germany called ‘Subkultur’/sub-culture). In the mid-70s, after the end of the militant, street-fighting and ultimately unsuccessful Häuserkampf (radical squat) period in Frankfurt, many of us turned to the non-violent ‘alternative scene’ and counter-culture which at that time had just started engaging with the newly surfacing notion of ecology and, in some cases, actually ‘getting back to the land’ and founding land communes.

The return to ‘counter-culture’ is also a return from heady over-abstractions to the realities of the body and its needs. The body, that intimate interface of nature and culture that we also are, seemed to be reasserting its needs through all the engaged headiness and word-drunkenness. Mind and body needed to re-connect.

A personal vignette: one day in 1974 I am standing in the Hektor bookshop in Gräfstrasse near the university leafing through books, perhaps not coincidentally looking for environmental material for my new eco-dissertation on Natur und Herrschaft (Nature and Domination). I find very little, the topic being not yet fashionable. The ceiling neon lights are blaring down onto the page. I suddenly notice that my breathing is very shallow, the breath only going down a short way into the top of the lungs. The breath seems to be expressing the state of the soul: it is literally too ab-stracted, too much pulled away and upwards, too ‘heady’, superficial. The general feeling is an unpleasant, slightly anxious one. I decide I have to somehow learn to deepen the breath, to consciously get back into my body, to actively do something for my physical well-being. My partner and I join a hatha yoga course running in the basement of the local alternative scene centre and tea rooms Siddartha near the university.

Putting the ego back into the body/ the body back into the environment… The healing return to the body, soul and the environment ‒ after the over-abstractions of high Marxist scholasticism and over-identifications with old heroes and stages of class struggle ‒ is in itself holistic, of a piece. There is a turning back from the exclusively German and historical to the American and contemporary, from exclusively economic and social revolutionary Marxism to the cultural revolutionary perspectives of the counter-culture and ‘Alternativszene’ (as it is mostly known in Germany at the time).

The paradox, however, is that much of this more material re-orientation also takes place via the head, via readings. First I am enthused with what I discover in the texts of, or about, the US counter-culture. There is historian N.O. Brown’s speculatively psychoanalytical contrast to and debate with the Frankfurt School’s Herbert Marcuse over the social meaning of psychoanalysis and the deeper psychic meaning of ‘liberation’. There are historian Theodor Roszak’s stimulating and influential interpretations of the US counter-culture (Sources, The Making of a Counter-Culture, Where the Wasteland Ends). There are ex-Beat poet Gary Snyder’s short but radical counter-cultural and Zen-based texts (‘Buddhism and the Coming Revolution’, ‘Passage to More Than India’, ‘Why Tribe?’ and ‘Poetry and the Primitive’, all in Earth House Hold). There are Indian ‘anti-guru’ and radical mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti’s public meditations on ‘awareness’ and the need for deep inner revolution. A great favourite are ‘hippie philosopher’ Alan Watts’ many dazzling, witty texts on Zen, Vedanta, ecological and joyously ‘hippy’ forms of mysticism or spirituality (Zen and the Art of Psychotherapy, The Joyous Cosmology, The Book on the Taboo on Knowing Who You Really Are, Man Woman and Nature)…

All these readings liberate inner strictures, expand, energise, open new doors of the mind, even, in Krishnamurti’s and Watts’ case, seem to provoke bouts of spontaneous meditation that arise during reading and continue for some little time afterwards. This is new.

On a less meditative, more political level, Murray Bookchin’s Post-Scarcity Anarchism becomes a pivotal text between the old radical social theory and the new radical ecology and counter-culture. Bookchin merges the liberatory essences of traditional anarchism and the modern youth culture by way of a socially creative interpretation of the science of ecology:

If humanity is to live in balance with nature, we must turn to ecology for essential guidelines of how the future society should be organized. Again, we find that what is desirable is also necessary. Man’s desire for unrepressed, spontaneous expression, for variety in experience and surroundings, and for an environment scaled to human dimensions must also be realized to achieve natural equilibrium. The ecological problems of the old society thus reveal the methods that will shape the new. The intuition that all of these processes are converging toward an entirely new way of life finds its most concrete confirmation in the youth culture.

Bookchin (an anarchist ex-factory worker and ecological critic already in the early sixties around the time of Rachel Carson’s bestselling and influential Silent Spring) provides a radical critique of the stiflingly dogmatic, ‘workerist’ and obsolescent Marxism of the New Left’s ‘proletarian turn’ from an anarchist and counter-cultural perspective (‘Listen Marxist!’). Like Marcuse, he develops the resurgent libertarian and utopian essence of the 68 phenomenon and introduces the radical new ‘post-scarcity’ notions of ‘social ecology’ and a ‘liberatory technology’. Bookchin’s later distinction between (single-issue, narrowly conservationist, socially conformist) ‘environmentalism’ and (critically systemic, socially radical,) ‘ecology’ becomes a useful mind tool in counter-acting the abundant blind spots, taboos and myopias of conventional ‘environmentalism’. Above all, Bookchin’s insight into the subversive message of ecology with regard to the inner relationship between social and natural domination and industrial capitalism’s ecocidal ‘counter-evolution’ of simplification strikes a deep chord, tallying as it does with the core tenets of the Frankfurt School’s Critical Theory:

The imbalances man has produced in the natural world are caused by the imbalances he has produced in the social world. […] The notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man. […] The only question is whether the earth can survive its looting long enough for man to replace the current destructive social system with a humanistic, ecologically oriented society. […] The point is that man is undoing the work of organic evolution. By creating vast urban conglomerations of concrete, metal and glass, by overriding and undermining the complex, subtly organized ecosystems that constitute local differences in the natural world […], man is disassembling the biotic pyramid that supported humanity for countless millennia. […]If this great reversal of the evolutionary process continues, it is by no means fanciful to suppose that the preconditions for higher forms of life will be irreparably destroyed and the earth will become incapable of supporting man himself.

Concurrently with reading Bookchin I discover the wonderful ‘liberatory’, ‘radical’, ‘soft’, ‘intermediate’ or ‘alternative technology’ texts informed by an excitingly counter-cultural esprit and aesthetic. There are Steward Brand’s encyclopaedic catalogues, book summaries and extracts in his Last Whole Earth Catalogue and Whole Earth Epilogue which provide access to both cognitive and material tools for self-reliance. There is the London-based eco-radical Undercurrents magazine which first appears in an innovative folded loose leaf format enabling easier sharing of articles and A2 size wall pinning.

With texts such as these it is as if Herbert Marcuse’s philosophical ideas on a liberatory technology and utopian society – informed by the Adorno and Horkheimer’s 1940s and 50s critique of bourgeois-industrial ‘instrumental reason’ (instrumentelle Vernunft) and the ‘achievement principle’ (Leistungsprinzip) ‒ have now left the academic ghetto and are becoming socially concrete and intensely practical. There is a strong aesthetic element to all this. Geodesic domes, cheap but beautiful homemade houses, solar collectors, wind turbines and ‘energy-autonomous’ or ‘urban integral’ homes striving for managed energy and material flows, food production and maximum self-reliance, the technological striving for minimal use of non-renewable resources and minimal environmental impact, the stresses on personal and/or regional self-sufficiency, the elimination of personal alienation and exploitation… All this seems to practically, imaginatively, often almost poetically incarnate the first material beginnings of a self-managed social utopia that maverick writers like Aldous Huxley or some of the non-dogmatic and anarchist old left had only abstractly theorised about. (The noble exception being old turn-of-century anarchists like the Russian Count Peter Kropotkin and German Gustav Landauer – both of these authors’ texts re-appearing again in new English and German editions and keenly read for their contemporary relevance).

David Dickson’s Alternative Technology and the Politics of Technical Change, E.F Schumacher’s influential Small Is Beautiful and ex-Jesuit Ivan Illich’s seminal works (Medical Nemesis, Tools for Conviviality, Energy and Equity) open up a radical, post-Marxist perspective on energy, technology and questions of social scale and centralisation/decentralisation.

Traditional Marxism’s un-dialectical belief in technological progress and large industry is questioned from a radical ecological and ethical/spiritual perspective. Like its capitalist opponent, Marxism operated on the prevalent ‘use-abuse model’ (Dickson) of technology (Marxist: ‘forces of production’): i.e. technologies were socially and ethically neutral. While they were currently being used or abused to make profits for a minority class, they could be simply taken over as they were and used for public welfare in a socialist society. This new ‘socialist’ use thus usually implied a mere change in legal ownership (nationalisation) and regulation by the centralised (and oxymoronic) ‘socialist state’, leaving both hierarchical management structures and huge, centralised, energy-intensive technologies themselves intact. Thus centralised (State-)Socialism would also include atomic power stations and huge, energy-intensive factories run on top-down authoritarian lines. Lenin declared an anti-proletarian, state capitalist enthusiasm for Hitler-fan Henry Ford and the supreme oppressions of his Taylorist piece work system and assembly line.

In contrast, from a both socially libertarian and radically ecological perspective, a post-capitalist society that intended to somehow ‘liberate’ the potential of existing technologies had to now not only encompass a revolutionary change in the proprietary and managerial relations of production. In contrast to classical Marxism, this society had to now also radically question and then either reject, modify or transform the socially repressive and ecologically destructive forms of many of those technologies developed by industrial capitalism, forms that faithfully mirrored or incorporated the hierarchical, authoritarian and oppressive nature of capitalism itself. A post-capitalist society would also need post-capitalist technologies.

Like the most advanced consciousness of Paris May 68 itself, radical ecology thus questioned not only capitalism but the prevalent forms of industrial society itself. It questioned not only capitalist ownership (as revolutionary Marxism had) and managerial prerogatives (as anarcho-syndicalism had) but the very infrastructure and energy-intensive technologies of centralised industrialism. Its radical new message: certain technologies were destructive no matter who formally owned or ran them, whether capitalist corporations, a ‘socialist state’ or even self-managed workers’ collectives.

Over-centralized and energy-intensive technologies were, in general, inherently incompatible with a free eco-society that had, to a large degree, to be organised in a decentralised fashion for both energetic, ecological and social reasons. In contrast to often small-scale ‘intermediate’ (Schumacher) or ‘convivial’ (Illich) technologies like local renewable energy technologies, small farms, community gardens or bicycle transport, technologies like nuclear power stations, agro-industrial monocultures and private car transport systems were inherently not only energy- and resource-intensive and inefficient (and thus anti-ecological) but also socially discriminatory or ‘un-convivial’. They could not, by their very natures, be democratically run by decentralised, autonomous workers’ cooperatives or local communities. ‘Socialism can only be run on bicycles’. An alternative, post-capitalist society would also need alternative technologies, i.e. ‘the tools, machines and techniques necessary to reflect and maintain non-oppressive and non-manipulative modes of social production, and a non-exploitative relationship to the natural environment.’

Thus, even physics and the iron law of entropy seemed to support decentralisation, participatory democracy and anarchist self-management rather than centralised private or state capitalism. The core laws of thermodynamics and attendant hard ecological realities (energy and materials efficiencies or wastes) seemed to, subversively, prescribe this decentralised direction. Ethically based libertarian and radical democratic theory had found a hard material underpinning, as it were, in the newly discovered facts of ecology and energetics. An eco-libertarian ‘utopia’, as Marcuse had long theorised, was now no longer wishful thinking or subjectivist ‘pie-in-the-sky’ but a quite objective necessity for humane survival.

Kropotkin’s early (1898) anarchist vision of a decentralised society (in his Fields, Factories and Workshops) that had overcome the urban-rural split by integrating farms and factories now seemed not only of ongoing social but of new ecological relevance. So did Gustav Landauer’s early 20th century attempts to build socialism from below via the practical founding of village communes in Germany, attempts that, through the neo-Hassidic philosopher Martin Buber, also influenced Israel’s early socialist kibbutzim. So did Gandhi’s later similar attempts at self-reliance (swaddesh) in India during the independence struggle against the British Empire. The works of influential liberal historian and cultural critic Lewis Mumford from the 1920s onwards and those of writer, urbanist, educational reformer, public intellectual, politely mature anarchist and Gestalt psychotherapist Paul Goodman from the 1940s onwards continued this utopian, ‘eco-organicist’ and decentralist tradition in the US, initially influencing the American SDS (Port Huon statement) and New Left of the early sixties.

Enthused by all this exciting new material and theoretical perspectives, I decide to change my PhD topic in political science at Frankfurt with social democrat and Marx-expert Professor Iring Fetscher from ‘German Council Communism and Interwar Western Marxism’ to one entitled ‘Nature and Domination. Philosophical Implications of the Ecological Critique of Progress’. Mirroring my own intellectual development, I intended a theoretical dialogue between the Frankfurt School’s historically informed re-conceptualisation of nature, progress and reason in the forties and fifties (especially in Adorno and Horkheimer’s seminal Dialektik der Auklärung and Marcuse’s later works of the fifties and sixties) and the new ecologically informed theories and visions of the late sixties and seventies. With all their significant historical differences, both shared a radical critique of the prevailing ‘instrumental reason’ of bourgeois society and capitalist ‘economic man’.

New historical and ecological realities seem to be breaking through the shiny surface of affluence. 1973 is the time of the first Oil (OPEC) Crisis. I enjoy the sight of people roller skating and pushing prams down the autobahns that have been emptied of cars by governmental fuel-saving fiat for several Sundays. A new global consciousness, stimulated and symbolized by the first image of the whole planet taken from the moon probe in 1969, seems to be arising. 1972 had seen the first UN global Environment Conference in Stockholm and the seminal globalist publications like the corporatist Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth and the British Ecologist group’s Blueprint for Survival.

On the one hand, the new globalist (systems-view) and radically ecological critiques of industrial capitalism’s threats to the planet – albeit from completely different perspectives – seem to reinforce our leftist prophecies of and hopes for the final demise of capitalism. These studies are couched in the language of The System itself: they can be read as The System’s swan song to itself. On the other hand, this critique for the most part not only (of course) ignores inherent capitalist economic dynamics and reduces the capitalist social and spiritual problem of accumulation, oppression and alienation to one of abstract economic, industrial and demographic ‘growth’ but also prophesises the eventual end not of capitalism but of industrial society itself (or of an energy-and resource-intensive form thereof).

Such abstract global notions may tie in with my self-education in the 68 movement and the emancipatory philosophy of history embedded in critical social theory, but are a long way from ecological realities. On a visit back to Australia in 1979 (between a post-graduate Dip Ed and a rather reluctant start to high-school teaching), I discover two volumes entitled Permaculture, Books One and Two in Jura Books, a little anarchist bookshop in Sydney. I am greatly excited to find these books full of practical ecological ideas and highly innovative design proposals for gardens, farms and settlements. The emphasis is on ecologically sound and sustainable food, fuel and fibre production and greater individual and communal self-reliance. Moving beyond the sometimes narrow technical or ‘hardware’ focus of much of the alternative technology movement, Permaculture’s inventors, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren seemed to have developed an exciting, creative and yet systemic fusion of applied ecology, landscape design, the older organic farming and agro-forestry traditions and the wider counter-cultural spirit of the seventies. Permaculture is, in essence, ‘radical gardening’. Food growing and a radical counter-culture have found a creative, productive synthesis. Beet the System.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on September 17, 2012.

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