Tag Archive: socialism

Marx’s insights for ecology are many. The four “informal laws of ecology,” as Levi Bryant points out in his post on John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology, are not one of them (let alone four). These “laws” have been making their rounds ever since biologist and eco-socialist (and one-time Citizens Party candidate for the U.S. presidency) Barry Commoner proposed them around 1970. Numerous iterations afterward have suggested three, four, or five such laws, with Greenpeace’s Declaration of Interdependence being particularly influential. I’m not aware of any scientific ecologists today who think of them as actual scientific laws, though others have been proposed for the science of ecology (see, e.g., here or Pierre Dansereau’s 27 laws of ecology). Foster’s point is that they are “informal,” and therefore intended to provoke thought, not to serve as a foundation for a science.

But let’s look at them, and then at Marx. The first of Foster’s (Commoner’s) “laws,” that “everything is connected to everything else”, is (as Levi points out) a platitude. It’s not wrong, but it doesn’t take us very far. (Except in the mystical experience, which has its place, and an inspirationally important one for many environmentalists; but let’s leave that aside.) The point it makes is intended as a corrective to the common-sense notion that things are simply what they are (people, animals, possessions, units of one thing or another, etc.) and that’s all. The law says that they aren’t just that: everything arises out of its own set of originating conditions, and passes away into other conditions, affecting other things in the process. Not everything directly affects everything else — that would be impossible, since two things that arise simultaneously but in different places don’t normally affect each other (unless by way of some “holographic universe” or superstring-like mechanism that scientists haven’t figured out yet). But if you traced the lines of causal connection from any thing in the universe, you could, in principle, trace it back/forward/across to anything else. That’s what the theory of evolution and the Big Bang both propose, and the science of ecology shares the supposition (though theoretical physicists may not): there is a single universe that has unfolded along a single (branching/diversifying/multiplying/expanding) trajectory, and everything in it is connected through this shared ancestry/descent/line of development. That’s all. The more pragmatic point (which was Commoner’s point) is that our actions have effects and that we normally don’t give them enough thought.

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Now that I’ve taken the time to read the growing list of responses to Lessig’s post, I have to say that I’m much more impressed with the collective hive mind — the network of respondents he’s grown around himself — than with the Queen Bee (Lessig himself) on this matter. (That metaphor is not very rhizomic, I know.) Several respondents play variations on the same themes I argued in my post yesterday, i.e. that Lessig’s use of the word “socialism” is inaccurate, somewhat irresponsible, a little alarmist, and very ethnocentric. Lessig writes in reply that

“We all need to recognize (speaking now to the cross cultural crowd) that different political systems internalize the concepts differently. So I am criticizing an American writing in an American publication about his use of a term — ‘socialism.’ I don’t pretend to understand how well the use fits other cultures, or traditions. I am speaking to one of my own about my own tradition.”

To which Kelly replies that he’s not writing as an American but is “at this point half Chinese, and, as much as possible, a citizen of the world.” He could have added that Wired magazine is read all over the world, especially on-line, and that Lessig is, too. To his credit, Kelly sticks to his guns.

An interesting side-discussion seems to be emerging from Kelly’s challenge to “Give me a better word to describe the type of governance that is emerging”, with the issue being whether what is emerging from Wikipedia, etc., qualifies as governance at all. Of course it isn’t, but it could be considered part of a larger, more diffuse network of governance mechanisms that are evolving in fits and starts at every scale from the local to the national to the global, from peer pressure and the institutionalization of accepted practice to enforceable regulations. These are neither purely capitalist nor purely socialist. They, ideally, should have something to do with nested systems of collective monitoring and adaptive governance, with mixtures of rights and obligations, checks and balances, individual and collective forms of behavior, etc. And if there isn’t an accepted word to describe them, Kevin Kelly’s attempt to test at least one of them (socialism) for its appropriateness seems laudable. At the very least, it’s nice to see this discussion happening in a public forum where political philosophers aren’t huddled together in their own, mutually exclusive camps.

See Lessig’s “On “socialism,” Round II” for continuing discussion of these issues.


“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

– Through the Looking Glass

Lawrence Lessig has written a lengthy retort to Kevin Kelly’s article, which I just wrote about, describing the open-source movement as a form of socialism. Lessig, leading theorist of the open-source movement and a respectable legal scholar (whom I’ve blogged about here), says no way, but his argument, which he admits is a “rant,” is as sloppy as he accuses Kelly of being.

Lessig’s argument is essentially that one cannot redefine a word at will:

“Words have meaning. We don’t get to choose their meaning. If you call something “X” people will hear the equation. They won’t read the fine-print which says (“By X, I mean really not-X).”

and that the word “socialism” has a clear meaning and Kelly’s redefinition of it plays into the wrong hands. Kelly’s “sloppiness” here, as he calls it,

“has serious political consequences. When a founder of the movement which we all now celebrate calls this movement ‘socialist,’ that plays right in the hand of those would attack everything this movement has built. [...] I do think that now is not the time to engage in a playful redefinition of a term that has such a distinctive and clear sense. Whatever ‘socialism’ could have become, had it not been hijacked by revolutions in the east, what it is in the minds of 95% of America is not what Wikipedia is.”

The irony here is that Lessig writes as if he hasn’t a clue of the historical meaning of the word “socialism” beyond its use as an epithet by American conservatives. He is, in effect, choosing the meaning of a word even as he diallows others from doing that. “At the core of socialism,” he writes, “is coercion”:

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