Community or Consumption: Social Ecology in Greater Manchester

A guest article, by anon

Photo description: A brown-orange wall. There’s a Manchester bee painting on the left-hand side and MCR, written in black block letters, on the right.

Photograph by Chris Curry – Free to use under the Unsplash License

It’s an inevitability for anything written on the topic of Manchester to mention or make even the most minute reference to the city’s past as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. From the worker bee iconography stencilled through the streets to the cranes and scaffolding sprinkled liberally throughout the city centre, production and labour have been at the forefront of this hardworking city’s aesthetic and ethos.

A lot has changed since the days of cotton factories and mills. However, one unwavering consistency that remains is the outright disregard for the wishes of the Mancunian population itself. Whilst business elites and corporations pontificate pushing Manchester further into being a “second London“, many of us would simply like a long overdue improvement to Piccadilly Gardens.

Here lies a very unfortunate trap. There are two major city plans for Manchester that are often proposed. First is the plan to turn it into a bustling metropolis with further businesses and tourism. The second is the promise to make Manchester “eco-friendly“, with parks and green spaces alike. Whilst these initiatives may produce great campaign slogans – and a greener city is certainly not a bad thing- they fail to grasp at the root of our ecological crisis. Furthermore, neither plan places the people of Manchester in the driver’s seat of change.

What would Manchester look like if people had direct say? What would our communities be like if we weren’t beholden to a council, surveys or authorities, but rather we worked together directly and cooperatively to create a Manchester for the people, not just for businesses?

The answer lies within the philosophy of social ecology and communalism. Spearheaded by American philosopher Murray Bookchin in the early 1970s and continued on by several social theorists, most notably Modibo Kadalie, the crux of social ecology is the belief that our ecological crisis stems from a deep-rooted social one. It’s the belief that so long as our current society is organised through hierarchy and domination, the planet and our environment will continue to be dominated, commodified and at the bottom of the pecking order. This is largely due to the misconception of nature being seen as separate from humanity.

This line of thinking is very specific and in contrast to mainstream environmentalism. Whilst some writers and activists in the green movement see humans as parasitic to nature, social ecology asserts that we are in fact a part of nature itself. Modern technology may be seen as an inherent evil to some environmentalists, however social ecologists view technology as a neutral entity that can be used for liberatory means.

Lastly, social ecology is the belief in achieving what Bookchin described as “third nature”. First nature refers to the untouched organic wilderness; second nature as in what we are now (towns, cities, parks etc.). Third nature refers to a society in which humanity reestablishes harmony with the planet and environment, thus blurring the lines between urban and rural. This can manifest itself in community gardens, food distribution, clothing swaps, repair cafes, tool libraries etc.. Many of these elements are actually already being seen throughout Greater Manchester.

So, how do we transport ourselves from our current state to a reality without hierarchies and domination of the environment? The answer is found through the praxis of communalism.

It is my personal belief that there is no better place to practise the principles of social ecology than that of Greater Manchester. Communalism starts out small, by establishing blocks or streets of highly participatory, leaderless neighbourhood groups, and then combining them into larger confederations, so on and so forth until we have a Greater Manchester made up of decentralised, directly democratic communities ready to tackle whatever is thrown our way. As complicated and complex as some of these words may sound, it can be summarised as simply as talking to your neighbours and organising the community away from hierarchy and institutions.

Older Mancunians, often nostalgic for past decades, have attested that the sense of close-knit “village-like” solidarity achieved through social ecology used to be naturally prevalent in British life. Neighbours knew each other’s names, borrowed what they needed and asked for help when required. This is still the case on certain streets and in certain areas, but largely, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic, we remain an incredibly isolated and lonely population, due in no small part to the direction in which we’ve been steered by a select few global companies. All of this persists, and yet our cynicism is pointed at each other as humans. In a way, elites of the industrial period achieved an incredible PR makeover by taking a city with a heavily overworked population, as well as a violently handled labour force, and flipping its narrative into an aesthetic of ‘busy worker bees’ all playing their part.

Through an individualist lens, changing Manchester may seem like an out of reach and idealistic task reserved only for the “decision makers” at the top. Through a collective lens, however, there’s a power within the Mancunian population outside of electoral politics that has yet to be fully realised. Corporations and politicians continue to advertise their promise of a “Northern powerhouse” with parks and greenery, but they can’t promise an organic community. They can’t provide a life outside rigid consumerism and the commodification of our natural world.

It’s not enough to have pockets of parks with flowers or private businesses with greenery in their aesthetic – not when our lives are otherwise stripped down to clocking in and out of work and having our city re-sold to us a commodity to use on the weekends or on days off.

The methodology used to further the philosophy of social ecology has undergone many different labels, from communalism to democratic confederalism to libertarian municipalism. Regardless of which “-ism” it is described as, I envision Manchester in particular as the perfect place for it to be practised. This is not because I think of the city as horrible and in desperate need of change – on the contrary, it’s because since immigrating from the US, I’ve seen the Mancunians’ grit, and determination to achieve goals and work together through whatever hardships arise. From wars, terrorism, Brexits and pandemics, in a city with such a historic industrial past, there lies potential for an amazing ecological future.

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5 Responses to Community or Consumption: Social Ecology in Greater Manchester

  1. Pete Somerville says:

    Really good critique of Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism in John P Clark’s The Impossible Community, in the final chapter. Technology is not neutral and this kind of approach has never led to major social change.

    • AJB says:

      Hi Pete, Really appreciate the critique. I’ll be adding that book to my list of reads.

      In response to your two points:

      1.) I’d assert that technology is a product/extension of thought and innovation. Some thoughts and ideas can be perverse and damaging – some thoughts and ideas can be liberating and helpful, thus technology (inherently) can go both ways as well. The PRODUCTION of technology, however, is not neutral, as it’s resources are largely controlled by elites and operated through the vehicle of capitalism.

      2.) Bookchin’s style of municipalism most notably influences the current Rojava resistance in North Eastern Syria, and continues to grow throughout North America, particularly with the onset of communities such as Cooperation Jackson, Cooperation Tulsa, Cooperation Denton etc.. Whilst the approach is by no means flawless, it’s a material and concrete tool for grassroots communal resistance that empowers those of us at the bottom to do more than wait around for saviours.

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