Perspectives on Anarchist Theory

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Vol. 3 - No. 2
Fall, 1999


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The Ecology of Everday Life
Click here for selected 
works and a mini-biography 
of Chaia Heller.

Ecology, Desire and Revolution:
An Interview with Chaia Heller

Chaia Heller is one of the most exciting feminist and utopian intellectuals currently writing in English.  In her  first major work, Ecology of Everyday Life: Rethinking the Desire for Nature, Chaia Heller extends a feminist critique of romantic love to an exploration of alienated perceptions of nature. Heller challenges us to rethink the epistemological basis of our desire for a better world with one of the most challenging and considered examinations of the dialectic of desire and need since Murray Bookchin’s 1967 essay of the same name. Heller brings the subject into the forefront of considerations for social change, rescuing it from the esoteric background of social theory.

I spoke with Chaia about her book, her work, and her experience as a radical theorist in August 1999. ~ Rebecca DeWitt


What was it like to write this book, struggle with these complicated social and political issues, and try to propose solutions within the current political climate?

Writing is the way I deal with the fact that I live in a counter-revolutionary time. It has been an important way for me to do that and helps me keep engaged, inspired and focused on revolutionary ideas and work. I’ve always been in love with ideas, and thinking about utopian or revolutionary ideas gives me a sense of hopefulness and possibilities because you can often think beyond what you can do in a particular historical moment. So, I get a lot of satisfaction and joy out of thinking beyond “what is given” to “what ought to be.”

You articulate a revolutionary project in which need (the realm of necessity) must become desire, where need is transcended by focusing on our collective desire for a better way of life. You state that this desire can and must become politicized. How does desire become politicized?

I think that it entails a dialectic. The dialectic of natural evolution is this movement towards ever greater levels of consciousness, freedom, subjectivity. And, I think that this dialectic is not just analogous to but directly homologous to the dialectic between need and desire.

I think that desire is need becoming increasingly free. It is the subject becoming increasingly free from the realm of necessity, as necessity becomes increasingly subjective. For example, the need for food becomes the conscious, subjective desire for a kind of food. This is a dialectic that marks both history and natural history. And so I think that there is a very compelling relationship between the dialectic of freedom and necessity and desire and need, which inspired Bookchin to write a very important essay in the 60’s called “Desire and Need.”

Any movement toward freedom will have to figure out a way to talk about desire and not just need. I see this as part of evolutionary and revolutionary thinking. I think there was this potential as we moved from the Old Left to the New Left but that the advance will only become fulfilled when we can truly understand this historical dialectic between freedom and necessity. It is not sufficient to only have peoples’ physical material needs met, and it is certainly not acceptable for that to happen within centralized authoritarian state structures. We must not only figure out how to meet peoples’ material needs but also figure out a way to qualitatively transform the way we meet those needs that will be increasingly subjective and conscious and free. The way to do that is to create a political structure that encourages the greatest degree of social complexity, participation, and that structure would be direct democracy.

You state that “focusing solely on need and survival naturalizes conditions of ecological scarcity and destruction…When we lose sight of the qualitative dimensions of life, we lose the ability to contrast the world that is to the world that ought to be.” Implicit in this statement is the idea that we can change our society and therefore have no reason to settle for the unjust society we currently have. Many political trends have turned away from the utopian approach. Why is it important to maintain a utopian ideal?

This goes back to how do you cope with life in a counter-revolutionary time. Utopia can imply some sort of evolutionary vision and progress, and implies not just change but some qualitative progression; a shift from “what is” to “what ought to be.” The whole notion of this shift, within the context of utopian discourse, is seen as a qualitative elaboration of meaning, social relationships, the meaning of freedom, pleasure, etc.

I think that today we have lost our revolutionary and evolutionary nerve. The problem is that the cultural evolutionary theories of Adam Smith, Ricardo and then later Marx were predicated on biological evolutionary theories, which were inherently flawed. We have been coming to terms with those flaws. They had a vision based on the notion of nature and history as the realm of necessity. They believed that biological and cultural evolution was a series of knowable, determined, and necessary stages inevitably moving in a general, universal way towards a knowable, hard telos. This notion really hit its limit at the end of the second World War when it became frighteningly clear that there was not some inevitable linear, knowable, scientific progression of cultural, social and political life that would necessarily end in some good, progressive, rational way. The holocaust, along with Stalin and Hiroshima, is just one of the many horrors that demonstrated this.

I think that all of these events pointed to the unbearable irrationality of what is erroneously called “western civilization.” The problem is that instead of realizing that the model of evolution and revolution we were using was inherently flawed and based upon an understanding of evolution as a determinable unfolding of necessary stages, [many radical theorists] decided to renege completely on the project of articulating evolutionary and revolutionary theory and practice. If you renege on this project, you can basically give up any discussion or vision of “what ought to be”. So, basically, you can have a post-structuralist response, which is to analyze, describe, problematize the particular “what is” that surrounds us or you can protest, reform and try to destroy the “what is”. But you will continually eschew the question of “what ought to be” and how to move from the “what is” to the “what ought to be.”

I believe the utopian question is inherently predicated on that movement between “what is” and “what ought to be” or at the very least some willingness to posit a “what ought to be” that is qualitatively better than the “what is.” I think that until we can go back and rethink the premises that were the foundations for biological and cultural evolutionary theory, until we can firm up our critique and transcend those limitations (which I believe social ecology does), we will remain in a counter-revolutionary period where we will only be able to react to the “what is” through protest, reform, nihilism, or endless description.

You are currently pursuing a Ph.D. in anthropology at a major university, yet the post-structuralist intellectual environment of the university is marked by a disregard for a radical politics focusing on a revolutionary universal theory and instead focuses exclusively on the post-structuralist project of describing, analyzing, and problematizing, focusing almost exclusively on the particular. How are you able to pursue a revolutionary universal project?

The particular is the obsession of post-structuralism and I am in a very post-structuralist department. I find this approach methodologically useful as an anthropologist and ethnographer. If you want to go into a molecular biology lab in Paris, for instance (that’s what I’ve been studying), you want to understand the local site-specific culture of that lab and practices of those scientists. It is very useful to be attentive to the multi-layered relationships between the people and the instruments that constitute those science institutions. Ethnography is a meditation on the particular, a phenomenological approach that asks you to walk into a situation and, as best you can, get inside the heads of the people you are trying to understand.

Where post-structuralism is extremely un-useful is its inability and disinterest in bringing some sort of universal or, dare I say, objective set of criteria to bear upon judging the ethics of the practices in those institutions. I find this highly problematic because, for example, when I go into the molecular biology lab and talk to people who are doing fundamental research for agricultural biotechnology. I need to be able to understand the particular nature of their work and thinking and I also need to make some judgements about that and I feel responsible as a radical theorist to say “this is the stable, universal, and very general set of ethical criteria I now appeal to when I’m going to make judgements about these practices.” So, I make a judgement about the fact that private corporations are increasingly taking over public research institutions, that capital driven institutions are now increasingly taking over public science research institutions. I also make a judgement about the implications of this for agricultural economy and for science practice in general. I’m now moving from the particular to some wider, more general or universal analysis and judgement of these events. This is where I feel the academy is currently falling very short.

People are not encouraged to take that next step. People are, in a certain, very quiet way, discouraged from making those judgments (for example, by simply not seeing any articles that voice those concerns published in the recognized academic journals). It’s made very clear to people in the academy - particularly within the post-Marxist, post-structural left - that you’re not supposed to draw revolutionary implications from the judgements that you make about the particular events you study. I find this to be highly problematic but not at all surprising.

Social ecology is your major influence yet social ecology, as a more general theory of oppression, lacks attention to social issues such as feminism, which you deal with in your book. Does your attention to social issues pose any difficulties in terms of writing as a social ecologist?

I’m dealing with a tension that exists between the Old and New Left and I see social ecology as a New Left response to the Old Left, by an Old Leftist. What marked the Old Left was an emphasis on the universal subject, on a revolutionary universal theory. That universal revolutionary subject was the worker and the revolutionary project focused around the issue of labor. Within the New Left we saw the emergence of social issues, such as ecology, the Vietnam War, civil rights, and anti-nuclear movement, and particular social identities such as gender and race.

What we began to appreciate in the New Left was the particular nature of the effects of hierarchy and the fact that hierarchies are not just universal but that they are particularized in culture-specific ways. If we’re ever going to be able to move towards some sort of universal revolutionary movement, it can only be done through an understanding of the particular ways hierarchy is practiced and reproduced. Murray [Bookchin] pointed this out in Post-Scarcity Anarchism, which he wrote at the beginnings of the New Left. He saw in some of the social movements the potential for the particular to become universalized, for people to uncover and understand some common universal humanity amd thus reconcile humanity’s relationship to the natural world and to each other. He saw within feminism the potential for a trans-class social movement; women of all classes would be able to understand their particular relationship to male-dominated hierarchy and also to an ecological struggle. You see in the first moments of social ecology a tremendous understanding of and appreciation for the particular.

What happens is the inability of a social movement to take the next step towards the universal and towards the political – the classical sense of the political as the citizen and subject acting within a citizens assembly to manage his and her everyday life within a community. The inability of the social movements to get there and to flesh out the social to reach the political, has been such a source of disappointment that social ecology has often dismissed some of those movements as being inevitably co-optable, particularistic, ensconced within a social sphere and thus unable to really play an important role in propelling a revolutionary political movement. What I’m trying to do in this book is draw out the revolutionary implications of what is particular, subjective, social, and cultural. I don’t think the solution is to reject what is subjective, social, and particular; as it is literally, ontologically, historically, and existentially impossible to do so. We are marked by all the particular social, cultural, historical events that shape and define us. The challenge is to fulfill that potential reconciliation between the Old and New Left. We need to go back and understand what was emerging in the new social movements and understand how we can elaborate on that dialectic between the particular and the universal, between the social and the political. Social ecology emerges out of that logic, out of that attempted reconciliation.

You state “I believe that social ecology, feminism, and social anarchism can help illuminate a definition of desire that is profoundly social, rather than purely romantic or individualistic.” Considering that each of these tendencies can subsume the others in importance, how are we to relate them to each other in a complimentary way?

It depends on how you define anarchism, feminism or social ecology. I locate them within what I call the social tradition, which was the response to the shift from feudalism into capitalism, marked by a striving towards a greater sociality rather than a greater individualism. Within the social tradition, peasants, workers, women, and African Americans have tried to cultivate an understanding of the social that had emancipatory and even utopian implications. I see feminism, social ecology and anarchism as being particular ways of talking about different dimensions of the social project. Feminism would be a way to talk about the particular expression of hierarchy in its masculinist form and women’s attempts to articulate the nature of that oppression and create ways to overcome it. Anarchism, social-anarchism, has been a way to talk about the emergence and transcendence of hierarchy in its most general sense. Social ecology is the attempt to talk about the emergence of and solutions to ecological problems and to talk about that within social and revolutionary political terms. Potentially, I see all three discourses as being resonant with one another when placed within what I’m calling the social tradition.

They start to compete with each other when we become unable to understand the dialect between the universal and particular; when we feel we have to choose between being an anarchist who is interested in the general liberation of humanity and a feminist interested in the particular liberation of women. When we don’t understand the dialectic between those two kinds of liberation and when we don’t understand feminism as an attempt for women to recover their humanity in a particular way, then we set up an oppositional tension between the two. The same could be said of social ecology, which tends to focus more on the universal than the particular. You could set up an opposition between social ecology’s attempt to liberate humanity in the form of the citizen, and women who are trying to emancipate themselves from particular forms of oppression. However, I believe that when we can understand the dialectic between the particular and the universal; when we can finally understand that the universal liberation of humanity happens in particular ways by particular people in particular times, the tension between those discourses can be resolved. It can actually be a creative and dynamic tension where we can start to encourage and expect ourselves to always be asking how we can further generalize the revolutionary struggle by understanding the particular.

For example, if we are libertarian municipalists attempting to figure out how to reclaim the public sphere, the citizens assembly, we need to think about what are the particular social constraints that inhibit women from reclaiming their full humanity that would be expressed through citizenship. To me, that’s very exciting as a feminist project: women reclaiming their ability to become citizens. This project is one of reclaiming the full range of our potentiality as human beings as rational thinking creatures who can reflect, discuss, debate and decide on important matters. I think it’s sad that that tension between the particular and the universal is reduced to a sort of balkanization of movements and discussion that really doesn’t give us any more insight into how to make this revolutionary vision possible.

How does being a self-conscious member of the radical left affect your experience in academia?

I find that it makes me into a bit of curiosity, an oddity in a way which saddens me and infuriates me. One of the biggest obstacles I encounter in academia when talking to people about revolutionary ideas is the incredible adherence to pragmatism. People are concerned and preoccupied with the question of “how possible is your strategy.” First of all, they reduce your vision to a strategy - asking ‘how realistic is your strategy’ - and if they feel that it’s not realistic or likely to be efficient or successful, they feel it is entirely reasonable to dismiss you.

What I try to emphasize with people, and to remind myself, is that we need to be able to distinguish between ethical rationality and instrumental rationality. Instrumental rationality is the kind of rationality that leads you to look at a given practice as a means to an end and if that particular means brings you to the desired end, then it is rational. So, if you want to have a stateless society and you believe that siezing state power will bring you to your desired ends then that is what you should do. On the other hand, an ethical rationality is a way of thinking in which your practices are always accountable to and answerable to a set of stable ethical criteria that correspond to the kind of world you believe ought to be. If you believe that the state ought to be transcended and that hierarchy is unethical then, even if you think that it is more possible or more realistic or pragmatic to create a hierarchy to undo a hierarchy, you cannot ethically justify creating a hierarchy because you do not believe that a hierarchy constitutes the kind of world you think ought to be. I think that being a self-conscious member of the radical left entails a distinction between ethical and instrumental reason and I think there needs to be a collective commitment towards embracing ethical reasoning and saying: we’re doing what we’re doing and we’re thinking the way we’re thinking because this is the way it ought to be. We believe this is ethical not because we believe this is an efficient means to an ends or we believe it is a necessarily realistic idea. The fact is that we don’t know that our ethical concerns and visions are realizable but we do know (and this is a very key concept with ethical thinking) that there is potential for our ethical visions and ideas to be actualized. Our ethics are drawn out of a set of potentialities that we can derive from a reading of social history and natural evolution as well.

I think that we always need to be thinking about what is potential and what is ethical and not what is merely practical and realizable. For me it is a philosophical and political practice to continually think in ethical terms rather than allowing myself to be appropriated by this highly pragmatic world we live in, the world of capital. Capitalism is instrumental. All decisions made by capitalists are always based on “will this means achieve our ends.” Ultimately, I call this instrumental rationality internalized capitalism. We’re literally embodying the logic of capitalism when we succumb to instrumental reason. It’s very dangerous and linked to the general lack of revolutionary nerve today.

What does the future hold for your work?

I’m very interested in the transition from industrial to informational capital. The transition from industrial to informational capital is predicated on a kind of techno-science practice that is reshaping the biological and cultural landscape of the world. I’m looking at agricultural biotechnology as a case study of a new kind of flexible capitalist production that is information based. I’m looking at how this new technology is transforming agricultural economies around the world and moving towards transitions that will be as great as the transition from feudalism to capitalism.

This transition from industrial to informational capital will be accompanied by increasingly global expressions of capital and governmentality, what I call “meta-states” and “meta-capital structures” like the World Trade Organization. They are extra-capitalistic structures that are providing infrastructure for a new kind of socio-political order, the likes of which we cannot even imagine. I’m interested in why it is that people can only talk about agricultural biotechnology in terms of risk, environmental health risk; intimate discourse of consumption, like labeling. I’m interested in how and why people are able to expand the perimeters of that debate and discussion. I’m looking at the ways that local institutional practices, like farmer unions, cellular biology labs in the French equivalent of USDA, consumers’ associations, and ecology groups can address this issue. How and why do these institutions shape and limit what people can think, say, and do about questions of biotechnology. I think this is enormously important because we need to know what is keeping people from thinking along revolutionary lines.