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Municipal Dreams:
A Social Ecological Critique of Bookchin's Politics

by John Clark

The article can be used if you note that it is forthcoming in Social Ecology After Bookchin, ed. Andrew Light (New York : Guilford Press, 1998).

In the following discussion, Murray Bookchin's libertarian municipalist politics is analyzed from the perspective of social ecology. This analysis forms part of a much larger critique, in which I attempt to distinguish between social ecology as an evolving dialectical, holistic philosophy, and the increasingly rigid, non-dialectical, dogmatic version of that philosophy promulgated by Bookchin. An authentic social ecology is inspired by a vision of human communities achieving their fulfillment as an integral part of the larger, self-realizing earth community. Eco-communitarian politics, which I would counterpose to Bookchin's libertarian municipalism, is the project of realizing such a vision in social practice. If social ecology is an attempt to understand the dialectical movement of society within the context of the larger dialectic of society and nature, eco-communitarianism is the project of creating a way of life consonant with that understanding. Setting out from this philosophical and practical perspective, I argue that Bookchin's politics is not only riddled with theoretical inconsistencies, but also lacks the historical grounding that would make it a reliable guide for an ecological and communitarian practice. [1]

One of my main contentions in this critique is that because of its ideological and dogmatic aspects, Bookchin's politics remains, to use Hegelian terms, in the sphere of morality rather than reaching the level of the ethical. That its moralism can be compelling I would be the last to deny, since I was strongly influenced by it for a number of years. Nevertheless, it is a form of abstract idealism, and tends to divert the energies of its adherents into an ideological sectarianism, and away from an active and intelligent engagement with the complex, irreducible dimensions of history, culture and psyche. The strongly voluntarist dimension of Bookchin's political thought should not be surprising. When a politics lacks historical and cultural grounding, and the real stubbornly resists the demands of ideological dogma, the will becomes the final resort. In this respect, Bookchin's politics is firmly in the tradition of Bakuninist anarchism.

Democracy, Ecology and Community

The idea of replacing the state with a system of local political institutions has a long history in anarchist thought. As early as the 1790's, William Godwin proposed that government should be reduced essentially to a system of local juries and assemblies, which would perform all the functions that could not be carried out voluntarily or enforced informally through public opinion and social pressure. [2] A century later, Elisée Reclus presented an extensive history of the forms of popular direct democracy, from the Athenian polis to modern times, and proposed that their principles be embodied in a revolutionary system of communal self-rule. [3] Today, the most uncompromising advocate of this tradition of radical democracy is Murray Bookchin, who has launched an extensive and often inspiring defense of local direct democracy in his theory of libertarian municipalism. [4] Bookchin's ideas have contributed significantly to the growing revival of interest in communitarian democracy. For many years, he was one of the few thinkers to carry on the tradition of serious theoretical exploration of the possibilities for decentralized, participatory democracy. Perhaps the only comparable recent work has been political theorist Benjamin Barber's defense of "strong democracy." While Barber offers a highly detailed presentation of his position, and often argues for it persuasively, he undercuts the radicality of his proposals by accepting much of the apparatus of the nation-state. [5] Thus, no one in contemporary political theory has presented a more sustained and uncompromising case for the desirability of radical "grassroots" democracy than has Bookchin. Furthermore, he has been one of the two contemporary theorists of his generation (along with Cornelius Castoriadis) to raise the most important philosophical issues concerning radical democracy. [6] This critique recognizes the importance of Bookchin's contribution to ecological, communitarian democratic theory and investigates the issues that must be resolved if the liberatory potential in certain aspects of his thought are to be freed from the constraints of sectarian dogma.

One of the strongest points in Bookchin's politics is his attempt to ground it in ethics and the philosophy of nature. In viewing politics fundamentally as a sphere of ethics his political theory carries on the Aristotelian tradition. Aristotle saw the pursuit of the good of the polis, the political community, as a branch of ethics, the pursuit of the human good as a whole. He called this ultimate goal for human beings eudaimonia, which is often translated as "the good life." Bookchin expands this concept of the larger good even further to encompass the natural world. Beginning with his early work, he has argued that the development of a political ethics implies "a moral community, not simply an 'efficient' one," "an ecological community, not simply a contractual one," "a social praxis that enhances diversity," and "a political culture that invites the widest possible participation." 1968

For Bookchin, politics is an integral part of the process of evolutionary unfolding and self-realization spanning the natural and social history of this planet. Social ecology looks at this history as a developmental process aiming at greater richness, diversity, complexity, and rationality. The political, Bookchin says, must be understood in the context of humanity's place as "nature rendered self-conscious." [8] The goal of politics from this perspective is the creation of a free, ecological society, in which human beings achieve self-realization through participation in a creative, non-dominating human community, and in which planetary self-realization is furthered through humanity's achievement of a balanced, harmonious place within the larger ecological community of the earth. A fundamental political task is thus the destruction of those forms of domination which hinder the attainment of greater freedom and self-realization, and the creation of new social forms that are most conducive to these ends.

This describes "politics" in the larger, classical sense of a political ethics, but leaves open the question of which "politics" in the narrower sense of determinate social practice best serves such a political vision. While Bookchin has always emphasized the importance of such political precedents as the Athenian polis and the Parisian sections of the French Revolution, it was not always clear what specific politics was supposed to follow from this inspiration. Often he expressed considerable enthusiasm for a variety of approaches to political, economic and cultural change. In "The Forms of Freedom" (1968) he envisions a radically transformative communalism rapidly creating an alternative to centralized, hierarchical, urbanized industrial society. In terms reminiscent of the great utopian Gustav Landauer, he suggests that "we can envision young people renewing social life just as they renew the human species. Leaving the city, they begin to found the nuclear ecological communities to which older people repair in increasing numbers," as "the modern city begins to shrivel, to contract and to disappear." [9] The almost apocalyptic and millenarian aspects of Bookchin's views in this period reflect not only the spirit of the American counterculture at that time, but also his strong identification with the utopian tradition.

Several years later, in "Spontaneity and Organization," he sees the "development of a revolutionary movement" as depending on "the seeding of America" with affinity groups, communes and collectives. His ideas are still heavily influenced by the 1960's counterculture (which his own early works in turn theoretically influenced), and he lists as the salient points of such entities that they be "highly experimental, innovative, and oriented toward changes in life-style as well as consciousness." [10] They were also to be capable of "dissolving into the revolutionary institutions" that were to be created in the social revolution that he believed at the time to be a real historical possibility. [11] Indeed, he could write in 1971 that "this is a revolutionary epoch" in which "a year or even a few months can yield changes in popular consciousness and mood that would normally take decades to achieve." [12]

Revolution in America (1969-1997)

Statements like this one express Bookchin's deep faith in revolutionary politics, a faith which, while far from being spiritual, is certainly "religious" in the conventional sense of the term. Like religious faith, it shows great resilience in the face of embarrassing evidence from the merely temporal realm. One of the most enduring aspects of Bookchin's thought is his hope for apocalyptic revolutionary transformation, and his quest to create a body of ideas that will inspire a vast revolutionary movement and lead the People into their great revolutionary future. His exaggerated assessment of the revolutionary potential of American society a quarter-century ago is not an isolated aberration in his thought. It prefigures many later analyses, including his recent discovery of supposedly powerful historical tendencies in the direction of his libertarian municipalism.

Bookchin himself points to his article "Revolution in America" for evidence of his astuteness concerning historical trends in the earlier period. [13] A careful examination of that text indicates instead a disturbing ideological tendency in his thought. In that article, published in February 1969 under the pseudonym "Robert Keller," Bookchin wisely denies that there was at that time a "revolutionary situation" in the United States, in the sense of an "immediate prospect of a revolutionary challenge to the established order." [14] However, he contends, as he reiterates several years later, that we have entered into a "revolutionary epoch." His depiction of this epoch betrays the unfortunate theoretical superficiality that was endemic to the 1960's counterculture, and shows a complete blindness to the ways in which the trends that he embraced so uncritically were products of late capitalist society itself. Furthermore, it hearkens back in the anarchist tradition to Bakuninism, with its idealization of the marginalised strata, its voluntarist overemphasis on the power of revolutionary will, and its Manichaen view of the future.

According to Bookchin "the period in which we live closely resembles the revolutionary Enlightenment that swept through France in the eighteenth century--a period that completely reworked French consciousness and prepared the conditions for the Great Revolution of 1789." [15] Interestingly, what he sees as spreading through America society in a seemingly inexorable manner is a questioning of "the very existence of hierarchical power as such," a "rejection of the commodity system," and a "rejection of the American city and modern urbanism." [16] He finds symptoms of these trends in the fact that "the society, in effect, becomes disorderly, undisciplined, Dionysian" and that "a vast critique of the system" is expressed for example in "an angry gesture, a 'riot' or a conscious change in life patterns," all of which he interprets as "defiant propaganda of the deed." [17] He praises various social groups for their contribution to the "new Enlightenment," including, "most recently, hippies." [18]

However, what is most interesting for those interested in Bookchin's anarchism are his Bakuninesque statements concerning the transformative virtues of spontaneous violence. He claims that "the 'rioter' and the "Provo' have begun to break, however partially and intuitively, with those deep-seated norms of behavior which traditionally weld the masses to the established order," and that "the truth is that 'riots' and crowd actions represent the first gropings of the mass toward individuation." [19] Elsewhere, he praises the "superb mobile tactics" used in a demonstration in New York, calls for "the successful intensification of these street tactics," and stresses the need for these tactics to "migrate" to other major cities. [20] Overall, he takes a rather mechanistic view of the "revolutionary" movement that he sees developing. According to his diagnosis, the problem is that "an increasing number of molecules" (as the result of what he calls the "seeping down" of the "vast critique" mentioned earlier) "have been greatly accelerated beyond the movement of the vast majority." [21] Switching rapidly from physical to biological imagery, he concludes that the challenge is for radicalized groups to "extend their own rate of social metabolism to the country at large." [22]

Certain tendencies that have always impeded Bookchin's development of a truly communitarian outlook are already evident in his conclusions on the place of "consciousness' in this process. "What consciousness must furnish above all things is an extraordinary flexibility of tactics, a mobilization of methods and demands that make exacting use of the opportunities at hand." [23] In this analysis, Bookchin expresses a Bakuninism (or anarcho-Leninism) that has been a continuing undercurrent in his thought, and which has recently come to the surface in his programmatic municipalism. His conception of consciousness at the service of ideology stands at the opposite pole from an authentically communitarian view of social transformation, which sees more elaborated, richly-developed conceptions of social and ecological interrelatedness (not in the sense of mere abstract "Oneness," but rather as concrete unity-in-diversity) as the primary challenge for consciousness as reflection on social practice.

"Revolution in America" illustrates very well Bookchin's enduring tendency to interpret phenomena too much in relation to his own political hopes, and too little in relation to specific cultural and historical developments. In this case, he fails to consider the possibility that the erosion of traditional character structures and the delegitimation of traditional institutions could be "in the last instance" the result of the transition from productionist ("early," "classical") capitalism to consumptionist ("late," "post-modern") capitalism. For Bookchin, "what underpins every social conflict in the United States, today, is the demand for the self-realization of all human potentialities in a fully rounded, balanced, totalitistic way of life." [24] He asserts that "we are witnessing" nothing less than "a pulverization of all bourgeois institutions," and contends that the "present bourgeois order" has nothing to substitute for these institutions but "bureaucratic manipulation and state capitalism." [25] Amazingly, there is no mention of the enormous potential for manipulation of the public through mass media and commodity consumption--presumably because the increasingly enlightened populace was in the process of rejecting both.

Bookchin concludes with the Manichean pronouncement that the only alternatives at this momentous point in history are the realization of "the boldest concepts of utopia" through revolution or "a disastrous [sic] form of fascism." [26] This theme of "utopia or oblivion" continued into the 70's and beyond with his slogan "anarchism or annihilation" and the enduring message that eco-anarchism is the only alternative to ecological catastrophe. The theme takes on a new incarnation in his recent "Theses on Municipalism," which he ends with the threat that if humanity turns a deaf ear to his own political analysis (social ecology's "task of preserving and extending the great tradition from which it has emerged") then "history as the rational development of humanity's potentialities for freedom and consciousness will indeed reach its definitive end." [27] While Bookchin is certainly right in saying that we are at a crucial turning-point in human and earth history, he has never demonstrated through careful analysis that all types of reformism (and indeed all other alternatives to his own politics) inevitably end in either fascism or global ecological catastrophe. His claims are reminiscent of those of Bakunin, who spent years writing a long work, one of whose major, yet quite unsubstantiated, theses was that Europe's only options were military dictatorship or his own version of anarchist social revolution. [28]

Bookchin claims to be shocked (indeed, "astonished") by such criticism of the Bakuninist aspects of his work. What amazes him is that "a self-proclaimed anarchist would apparently deny a basic fact of historical revolutions, that both during and after those revolutions people undergo very rapid transformations in character." [29] However, while anarchism as a romanticist ideology of revolution might uncritically accept the inevitability of such transformations, anarchism as a critique of domination will retain a healthy skepticism concerning claims of rapid changes in character structure among masses of people.

It is important to take a much more critical approach than does Bookchin toward accounts of the history of revolutions. Revolutionaries have tended to idealize revolutions and explain away their defects, while reactionaries have tended to demonize them and explain away their achievements. For example, anarchists have had a propensity to emphasize accounts of the Spanish Revolution by anarchists and sympathizers, and to ignore questions raised about extravagant claims of miraculous transformations. It is seldom mentioned, as Fraser's interviews in Blood of Spain reveal, that there were anarchists who believed that if the anarchists had won the war, they would have needed another revolution to depose the anarchist militants who were dominating the collectives. [30] Considering the problems of culture and character-structure that existed, this second revolution might have really meant a long process of self-conscious personal and communal evolution. While ideological apologists always contend that revolutionary movements are betrayed by renegades, traitors and scoundrels, a critical analysis would also consider the limitations and, indeed, the contradictions inherent in any given form of revolutionary process itself. [31]

Furthermore, it is necessary to point out that there is an important anarchist tradition that has stressed the fact that the process of "transformation in character" is one that can only progress slowly, and that what some, like Bakunin and Bookchin, would attribute to the alchemy of revolution is really the fruit of long and patient processes of social creativity. This is the import of Elisée Reclus' reflections on the relationship between "evolution and revolution," and even more directly, of Gustav Landauer's view that "the state is a relationship" that can only be undone through the creation of other kinds of non-dominating relationships developed through shared communitarian practice. To overlook the continuity of development and to count on vast changes in human character during "the revolution" (or even through participation in institutions like municipal assemblies) leads to unrealistic expectations, underestimation of limitations, and ideological distortions and idealizations of revolutionary periods.

Finally, it should be noted that Bookchin misses the main point of the criticism of Bakunin's and his own revolutionism. Beyond their idealization of revolutions themselves, both exhibit a tendency to idealize revolutionary movements (and even potentially revolutionary movements and tendencies) so that these phenomena are seen as implicitly and unconsciously embodying the ideology of the anarchist theorist who interprets them (as exemplified by Bookchin's "Revolution in America," his more recent observations on an emerging "dual power," [32] and by almost everything Bakunin wrote about contemporary popular movements in Europe.) Not only revolutions, but these social movements are depicted as producing very rapid changes in consciousness and character that are in reality possible only through gradual organic processes of growth and development. Furthermore, the movements are attributed an inner "directionality" leading them to exactly the position the revolutionary theorist happens to hold, whatever the actual state of the social being and consciousness of the participants may be. Thus, Bookchin conclusion that my analysis "raises serious questions about [Clark's] own acceptance of the possibility of revolutionary change as such." [33] is correct. Indeed, I question his or any uncritical revolutionism that abstractly, idealistically, and voluntaristically conceives of "revolutionary changes" as existing "as such" (an sich) and overlooks the many historical, cultural, and psychological mediations that are necessary for them to exist as self-realized, consciously developed social practices (f?r sich)

Bookchin is much more convincing when he puts aside his revolutionary fantasies and focuses instead on a comprehensive, many-dimensional program of social creation. His vision of an organically-developing libertarian ecological culture has inspired many, and has made an important contribution to the movement for social and ecological regeneration. In "Toward a Vision of the Urban Future," for example, he looks hopefully to a variety of popular initiatives in contemporary urban society. He mentions block committees, tenants associations, "ad hoc committees," neighborhood councils, housing cooperatives, "sweat equity" programs, cooperative day care, educational projects, food co-ops, squatting and building occupations, and alternative technology experiments as making contributions of varying importance to the achievement of "municipal liberty." [34]

While Bookchin has always combined such proposals with an emphasis on the importance of the "commune" or municipality in the process of social transformation, the programs now associated with his program of libertarian municipalism have taken precedence, while other approaches to change have received increasingly less attention. The municipality becomes the central political reality, and municipal assembly government becomes the preeminent expression of democratic politics.


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