It’s time for a Great Reclamation in the face of collapse

A free audio recording of the Introduction to ‘Breaking Together: a freedom-loving response to collapse’ is now available. It is an extensive introduction in which I seek to encapsulate the full argument of the book, albeit without the detail in the following chapters. Below is an excerpt which introduces a few of the terms and ideas.

Excerpt from Breaking Together (Jem Bendell, 2023, Good Works).

“The people I am describing as ‘ecolibertarians’ have concluded that societies destroy their own eco-social foundations because the self-interests of the powerful are institutionalised to then coerce or manipulate people to experience life as unsafe and competitive, so that more people cope by becoming more unthoughtful, uncaring and acquisitive. Therefore, today, those same institutionalised patterns of establishment power are distorting public awareness of the breakdown of societies and the best means of responding to that (Chapter 13). In response, ecolibertarians believe less-oppressive ways of being and behaving need to be restored and applied to obtaining greater control of capital and state organisations, thereby funnelling resources into commonly-owned organisations, resources, platforms and currencies so that a gentler and fairer collapse of societies might be possible. The agenda is about reclaiming our power from the manipulations and appropriations of our lifeworld by the systems of Imperial Modernity. Around the world, various parts of this ‘Great Reclamation’ agenda are being pursued but, apparently, not yet with an overarching framework that enables integration and amplification of efforts.[i] Although the pace of collapse might be so fast that we do not have much time for updating our strategies for social change, I believe it is worth sharing such ideas while international communications still exist in their current form—so please read on!

The approach I am labelling as ecolibertarianism points towards a ‘post-progress progressive politics’. That sounds like an oxymoron and yet refers to the importance of upholding the universal values of freedom and fairness as the existing systems of modern societies break down. Rather than arguing that authorities and powerful groups should do whatever they decide to try to save the world, ecolibertarianism seeks the freedom to care for each other and nature in the present moment. Rather than focusing mostly on planting the seeds of what comes next, after a collapse, or prefiguring the values, processes and technologies of a future civilization, instead it brings us to the here and now, and how we are treating each other, and nature, during periods of turmoil. Although some people believe they need a story of a future where everything is better, my experience in the activist world is that can be a distraction from action right now. An emphasis on vision and hope can be related to consequentialist ethics, where we do things because we think, or say we think, that a particular result will be achieved, as I explain in Chapter 8. Rather than naïve utopian thinking, or its variants, we can work towards an ‘evotopia’ where the majority of humanity appreciate the reality we live within and thereby end unnecessary destruction and unleash beauty (something I explore in Chapter 11).

As a political philosophy, I suggest that ecolibertarianism includes a return to a balance between consequentialist ethics and virtue ethics, where the latter approaches mean we act because we believe it to be right. Passion for the work but non-attachment to the outcome is key. Bishop Oscar Romero was murdered at the altar by a US-backed death squad. I still remember staring at the bullet-holed and blood-stained tunic in a glass case in the small museum about his life. He had been fully aware of the risks he was taking by continuing to criticise the government and elites for the exploitation of the El Salvadorean people. Staring at the glass case on the wall I realised, in one moment, both the potential brutality of the global capitalist system when it has been resisted by people with influence, and also what it means to put living one’s principles of love, truth and fairness above one’s own safety and wellbeing.

Doing what’s right with what’s left will face opposition from the harsh reactions of elites and the people they manipulate (Chapter 13). It means we need to identify what is right, no matter what inducements there might be to do otherwise, or whether we think it will succeed. To do what is right without attachment to outcome will allow ourselves a more fulsome engagement with reality. That means acting while knowing there might be certain failure, individually or collectively. That is not doing what’s right only because of a slim chance of succeeding. Of course, knowing what is right to do in any given circumstance requires some wisdom. As part of societal breakdown, many people no longer know where to look for credible information, let alone good analysis and opinion. In Chapter 8, I explain the nature and need for ‘critical wisdom’ to escape the manipulations of our thoughts and emotions that are pervasive in modern societies.

Various ideas for personal, professional and political life can emerge from an acceptance of unfolding breakdowns, some of which I discuss in Chapter 12. Over the last few years, I have witnessed people responding positively to their own conclusion that societies will be breaking down. Their positive pessimism, where they seek to contribute to others, has encouraged me that we can at least attempt a more gentle and just collapse of industrial consumer societies. Although the harms caused everyday by the current system may lead some to wish such societies to collapse sooner, I do not advocate trying that but rather focus on avoiding further harm from propping up a failing system now riddled with panic and dysfunction. Instead, we can abandon the ideology of progress and move into a period where we reclaim more aspects of our lives. Switching to an agenda of a great reclamation, rather than progress, will involve the active retirement of various aspects of modern societies, so will not be easy. Indeed, it will not even be considered until the ‘not too late’ taboo is broken in mass media so that the situation humanity faces can be discussed more honestly. For us to be useful, in that process of modern societies retreating rather than fraudulently progressing, will require each of us to lessen our dependence on various aspects of modern society. The more profligate forms of consumption are the most obvious habits to change. Will it happen?”

Listen to the audio of the introduction here.

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You can also listen to Chapter 1 on economic collapse, here.

[i] I explain more about the Great Reclamation agenda in Chapter 13, with examples in the work of people profiled in Chapter 12.