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The Politics of Social Ecology

Libertarian Municipalism

Published in Social Anarchism #26, 1998


Janet Biehl's, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism, is a concise exposition of Murray Bookchin's theory of political action. Biehl makes it clear that the ideas that appear in these pages are all Bookchin's and that only the articulation is hers. She is uniquely qualified to do this, given that she has been Bookchin's partner for more than ten years as well as a philosopher in her own right. That Biehl is writing in Bookchin's place is one of the book's great strengths. She lends a discipline and clarity to Bookchin's thought that is sometimes difficult to find in Bookchin's own writings. Bookchin has an extraordinary fondness for polemics and for cluttering his books with denunciations of his political opponent of the moment, to the extent that some of his writings are more about what he doesn't believe than what he does. By contrast, this book gets right to the point and anyone unfamiliar with the petty feuds of the anarchist and ecology movements will still find this book highly accessible.

This book also helps to make Bookchin's ideas accessible by collecting material that has so far has only appeared in hard to find journals, particularly Bookchin's newsletter, Green Notes. The ideas in the book have also been extensively treated in Bookchin's From Urbanization to Cities but in that tome it is easy to get bogged down in the mass of historical detail and never arrive at the lessons on how to do libertarian municipalism in today's world.

So what is libertarian municipalism? It is an anarchist theory of democracy. But it is also Bookchin's recommendation as to how we should go about making the revolution.

Libertarian municipalism is essentially anarchist in its principles, drawing on anarchist conceptions of direct democracy but also upon traditions and historical examples not often considered by other anarchists (although some readers will be reminded of Kropotkin's Mutual Aid). Bookchin returns to the Athenian roots of the western tradition, as well as drawing inspiration from medieval cities, the French revolution, the Paris Commune and New England town meetings as some of the many moments of urban direct democracy in our history. The book also includes useful treatments of the ideas of decentralization and confederalism.

Aside from its role as a theory of change, libertarian municipalism probably most closely describes how an anarchist society would actually function. In a post-industrial world, we need to ask ourselves whether the peasant commune and the factory collective are really the models that apply to the next revolution. Bookchin steers us towards ideas of municipality based community control, including control over decisions of what is produced in factories.

Such a shift towards city and neighborhood control is also made necessary by ecological thinking -- the life of both individuals and the community is affected by decisions controlling how energy is produced, the health and environmental impacts of pollution, and what products fill our daily lives. For the social ecologist, we realize ourselves through our life in relation to nature, and through democratic participation, and not through our labor.

As a revolutionary method, libertarian municipalism is more problematic. Bookchin, especially through his work in the Ecology of Freedom, played a major role in moving contemporary anarchism away from a simple opposition to the state and towards an opposition to all forms of domination. By contrast, libertarian municipalism has a clear program for displacing the state, a more indistinct program for displacing capitalism, and almost no contribution to make to the fight against other forms of domination. It would seem that libertarian municipalism has nothing to learn from contemporary left-wing thought and is content to put forward what amounts to a 19th century program of reclaiming the public sphere from the state.

We live in a time of globalization, in which corporations are becoming more powerful than nations. Ours is a time in which sophisticated propaganda and the use of mass media are more powerful weapons for social control than the police apparatus of the state. But there is no attempt in this book to confront these new realities, nor to incorporate the efforts of those who have begun developing effective responses. Certainly there are no examples drawn from today's urban activism, nor to provide a living context which postdates the Paris Commune. This withdrawal from the contemporary scene gives The Politics of Social Ecology a strange tone of detachment and naivete.

One could argue that the absence of any discussion of racism, sexism, identity politics, media activism, etcetera, is due to the limited scope of the book. But in reading the text one acquires the feeling that this exclusion is deliberate, a feeling which is only reinforced by an awareness of Bookchin's attitudes towards other currents of contemporary anarchism and activism. Simply put, they are all rotten, fatally corrupted by lifestyle politics.

It is here that we can find an explanation for the absence of a libertarian socialist movement. These ideas have been in the public sphere for ten years now, but there have only been abortive and tentative attempts to implement them. The ideas Bookchin puts forward are strong enough to merit better but he has made them sterile and moralistic. Worse, he has worked hard at alienating the natural audience for this book by making it clear to activists with the skill and experience necessary to implement these ideas that they are not welcome in his version of libertarian municipalism.

The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism is, nonetheless, an excellent primer and, at 176 pages, a quick introduction to this current of anarchist thought. But it will take thinkers other than Bookchin and Biehl to make it a living current.

 

Bibliography

The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism by Janet Biehl and Murray Bookchin. Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1997. 204 pp. $16.00

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