Th e Primitiv e
Barrie r t o Politica l Ecolog y by Brian Johnson
Functionalism leads to "paraprimitivism" — the notion that the primitive tribe is the model for a post-industrial society. This notion is unjustified and in any case likely only to be accepted by a small minority. The best way to favour the implementation of ecological policies is by getting them accepted by receptive middle-of-the-road political parties such as the Centre party in
Sweden and the Liberal party in Great Britain.
It is now commonplace to say that the 4'ecological viewpoint'' has become dispersed: that it has run out of steam or evaporated through diffusion among too many substantive areas of policy.
In one sense, this is clearly true. The revivalist phase of the late 1960's and the early seventies, when very diverse views and values allied together against industrial alienation and the enthronement of GNP, has certainly been followed by divisions and regroupings, despite a remarkably high success rate in the Department of Dire Predictions.
The chief cement that bound these very diverse groups and individuals was a deep desire to comprehend biological, social and economic relationships as a whole. A unifying theme which underlay The Ecologist}s 'Blueprint for Survival', and other similar documents, was revulsion from scientific and social reductionism. It was a response to the conquest, not only of Western democracies, but of Marxist state capitalism, by "objective" liberal scientific technology. The holist renaissance naturally favoured comprehensive alternatives to Marxist analysis. It did so, not only because Marxist societies had clearly failed to handle the depredations of scientific reductionism, but because of a belief among environmentalists
that class struggle as a social principle represented a poor basis for the integrated behaviour and cooperation necessary to avoid further environmental destruction.
But what was the alternative? Apart from Marxism, it has been observed1 that there is in fact only one serious candidate for the title of a fully-fledged theory of social science. No one would yet claim that this theory (or technique of analysis) has produced a set of propositions about political behaviour comparable in scope or force to those of Marx. However, many political scientists would claim that an alternative set of general propositions can be formulated which provide a better explanation of the known facts of political behaviour than Marxism has done. The alternative approach, generally known as "functionalism," shares with Marxism the important characteristic of setting out to provide an explanation of all the social processes.
Coming to the social sciences from biology, in the long tradition of organic analogy and of modes of reasoning about the body politic which started with Socrates, the influence of what is nowadr- 3 referred to as "functionalism" on the social sciences dates from the early 1920's, when the impact of the two functionalist classics — Malinowski's Argonauts of the Western Pacific and Radcliffe-Brown's Andaman Islanders was first generally felt. The differences in approach of these two anthropological theorists are so considerable that to lump their thought together inevitably creates some over-simplification. However, their works both contained what is common to functionalist theory in all its forms. For, when studying a given social or political situation, they both adopted the approach of asking not how a pattern of behaviour may have originated so much as what part it plays in maintaining a system as a whole. Perhaps Malinowski provides the classic statement of this approach:
"I n every type of civilization, every custom, material object, idea and belief fulfills some vital function, has some task to accomplish, represents an indispensable part within a working whole."2
As a shift of emphasis from the conjectural evolutionary history which had been the previous anthropological fashion, this apr *oach proved extremely valuable. But it Ecologist Vol . 7. No. 3
came, over the years, to be the adopted analytical method of a large and influential part of the political science profession in the wider sense, and thus became a prime technique of social and political analysis.
The functionalist approach is unquestionably useful in two general areas of political analysis. A study of the component groups and parts of a society or state as they exist at a given moment in time may help the analyst to understand the workings of that society by enabling him to discern what groups or forces serve to keep the essential variables of the system working together within certain pre-defined acceptable limits. Examples of such limits in a developed society might be a slump in the economic system, or civil war or anarchy in the political system.
A second area in which functional analysis is of particular value is where it is possible to speak unambiguously about the "goals" of a society. But functionalism strikes difficulties when applied to a sophisticated modern, as opposed to a simple primitive, society, for in the former case, it is impossible to arrive at an adequate definition of societal "purposes" or "goals".
The Failure of Functionalism
This difficulty is further compounded by the functionalist's problem of confusing social "purposes" with observable results. It is always necessary to say exactly whose purposes we mean. In certain apparently clear-cut cases — Napoleon's France, Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Russia, Churchhill's Britain of 1940, or Mao's China, such purposes may be identifiable. But in the post World War I I Western democracies — and most of all perhaps in the United States — a clear definition of society's criteria of success is impossible.
In such cases as the totalitarian examples just mentioned, the concept on which the functional method is based — the idea that the analysis of what exists helps to explain the nature of that existence — can serve a useful purpose. But this concept clearly produces difficulties when