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

by John Clark

Citizenship and Self-Identity

Bookchin contends that the "nuclear unit" of a new politics must be the citizen, "a term that embodies the classical ideals of philia, autonomy, rationality, and above all, civic commitment." [35] He rightly argues that the revival of such an ideal would certainly be a vast political advance over a society dominated by self-images based on consumption and passive participation in mass society. [36] To think of oneself as a citizen contradicts the dominant representations of the self as egoistic calculator, as profit-maximizer, as competitor for scarce resources, or as narcissistic consumer of products, images, experiences, and even other persons. It replaces narrow self-interest and egoism with a sense of ethical responsibility toward one's neighbors, and an identification with a larger whole--the political community. Furthermore, it reintroduces the idea of moral agency on the political level, through the concept that one can in cooperation with others create social embodiments of the good. In short, Bookchin's concept challenges the ethics and moral psychology of economistic, capitalist society and presents an edifying image of a higher ideal of selfhood and community.

Yet this image has serious limitations. To begin with, it seems unwise to define any single role as such a "nuclear unit," or to see any as the privileged form of self-identity, for there are many important self-images with profound political implications. A notable example is that of personhood. While civic virtue requires diverse obligations to one's fellow-citizens, respect, love and compassion are feelings appropriately directed at all persons. If (as Bookchin has himself at times agreed) we should accept the principle that "the personal is political," we must explore the political dimension of personhood and its universal recognition. [37]

Furthermore, the political significance of our role as members of the earth community can hardly be overemphasized. We might also conceive of this role as an expression of a kind of citizenship--if we think of ourselves not only as citizens of a town, city or neighborhood, but also as citizens of our ecosystem, of our bioregion, of our georegion, and of the earth itself. In doing so, we look upon ourselves as citizens in the quite reasonable sense of being responsible members of a community. Interestingly, Bookchin believes that acceptance of such a concept of citizenship implies that various animals, including insects, and even inanimate objects, including rocks, must be recognized as citizens. [38] This exhibits his increasingly rigid, unimaginative and quite non-dialectical approach to the life of concepts. Just as we can act as moral agents in relation to other beings that are not agents, we can exercise duties of citizenship in relation to other beings who are not citizens. [39] Furthermore, Bookchin himself uses the term "ecocommunities" to refer to what others call ecosystems. By his own standards of rationalist literalism, one might well ask him how human beings could achieve "communal" or "communitarian" relationships with birds and insects--or, more tellingly, how the bird or insect might be expected relate "communally" to (for example) Murray Bookchin.

Bookchin's personal preferences concerning linguistic usage notwithstanding, in the real world the term "citizen" does not have the connotations that he absolutizes. The fact is that it indicates membership in a nation-state and subdivisions of nation-states, including states that are in no way authentically democratic or participatory. While Bookchin may invoke the linguistic authority of famous deceased radicals,[40] the vast majority of actually living people (who are expected to be the participants in the libertarian municipalist system) conceive of citizenship primarily in relation to the state, and not the municipality. The creation of a shared conception of citizenship in Bookchin's sense is a project that must be judged in relation to the actually-existing fund of meanings and the possibilities for social creation in a given culture. [41] The creation of a conception of citizenship in the earth community is no less a project, and one that has a liberatory potential that can only be assessed through cultural creativity, historical practice, and critical reflection on the result. [42]

Bookchin seems never to have gleaned from his readings of Hegel the distinction between an abstract and a concrete universal. While superficially invoking Hegel, he overlooks the philosopher's dialectical insight that any concept that is not developed through conceptual and historical articulation remains "vacuous." Much of the present critique of Bookchin's libertarian municipalism is a conceptual and historical analysis that draws out the implications and contradictions in his position, contradictions that are disguised through rhetorical devices, avoidance of difficult issues, and bombastic but irrelevant replies to criticism. [43] In short, his concepts often lack articulation. But just as often he seems to lack the ability to distinguish between what is and is not articulated. He does not realize that, in themselves, concepts like "citizen of a municipality" and "citizen of the earth," are both "vacuous" and "empty"--that is, they are mere abstractions. Their abstractness cannot be negated merely by appealing to historical usage or to one's hopes for an improved usage in the future. They can be given more theoretical content by an exploration of their place in the history of ideas and in social history, by engaging in a conceptual analysis, and by reflecting on their possible relationship to other emerging theoretical and social possibilities. Yet they remain abstractions, albeit more fully-articulated ones. They gain concrete content, on the other hand, through their embodiment in the practice of a community--in its institutions, its ethos, its symbols and images.

Bookchin apparently confuses this historical concreteness with relatedness to concrete historical phenomena of the past. When he finds certain political forms of the past to be inspiring, they take on for him a certain numinous quality. Various models of citizenship become historically relevant today not because of their relation to real historical possibilities (including real possibilities existing in the social imaginary realm), but because they present an image of what our epoch assuredly ought to be. It is for this reason that he thinks that certain historical usages of the term "citizen" can dictate proper usage of the term today.

Of course, Bookchin is at the same time aware that the citizenship that he advocates is not a living reality, but only a proposed ideal. Thus, he notes that "today, the concept of citizenship has already undergone serious erosion through the reduction of citizens to 'constituents' of statist jurisdictions or to 'taxpayers' who sustain statist institutions." [44] Since he thinks above all of American society in formulating this generalization, one might ask when there was a Golden Age in American history when the populace were considered "citizens" in Bookchin's strong sense of "a self-managing and competent agent in democratically shaping a polity." [45] What has been "eroded" is presumably not the unrealized goals of the Democratic-Republican Societies, and other similar phenomena outside the mainstream of American political history. This remarkable form of "erosion" (a phenomenon possible only in the realm of ideological geology) has taken place between discontinuous historical models selected by Bookchin and the actually-existing institutions of contemporary society.

In addition to defending his concept of citizenship as the "true" meaning of the term, he also contends that its realization in society is a prerequisite for the creation of a widespread concern for the general good. He argues that "we would expect that the special interests that divide people today into workers, professionals, managers, and the like would be melded into a general interest in which people see themselves as citizens guided strictly by the needs of their community and region rather than by personal proclivities and vocational concerns." [46] Yet this very formulation preserves the idea of particularistic interest, i.e., that defined by whatever fulfills the needs of one's own particular "community and region"-- needs which could (and in the real world certainly would) conflict with the needs of other communities and regions. There will always no doubt be communities that have an abundance of certain natural goods, all of which might fulfill real needs of the community, but some of which would fulfill even greater needs of other communities entirely lacking these goods or having special conditions that render their needs more pressing.

Of course, one might say that in the best of all possible libertarian municipalisms, the citizens would see their highest or deepest need as contributing to the greatest good for all--"all" meaning humanity and the entire planet. Bookchin does in fact recognize that such a larger commitment must exist in his ideal system. But he does not recognize that its existence implies a broadened horizon of citizenship : that each person will see a fundamental dimension of his or her political being (or citizenship) as membership in the human community and, indeed, in the entire earth community.

There is a strong tension in Bookchin's thought between his desire for universalism and his commitment to particularism. Such a tension is inherent in any ecological politics that is committed to unity-in-diversity and which seeks to theorize the complex dialectic between whole and part. But for Bookchin this creative tension rigidifies into contradiction as a result of his territorializing of the political realm at the level of the particular municipal community. In an important sense, Bookchin's "citizenship" is a regression from the universality of membership in the working class, whatever serious limitations that concept may have had. While one's privileged being qua worker consisted in membership in a universal class, one's being qua citizen (for Bookchin) consists of being a member of a particular group--the class of citizens of a given municipality.

Bookchin will, however, hear none of this questioning of the boundaries of citizenship. From his perspective, the concept of citizen "becomes vacuous" and is "stripped of its rich historical content" [47] when the limits of the concept's privileged usage are transgressed. Yet he is floundering in the waters of abstract universalism, since he is not referring to any historically-actualized content, but merely to his idealized view of what the content ought to be. Citizenship is not developed (richly or otherwise) through some concept of "citizen" that Bookchin or any other theorist constructs. Nor can it be "developed" through a series of historical instances that have no continuity in concrete, lived cultural history. It becomes "richly developed" when concept and historical precedent are give meaning through their relationship to the life of a particular community--local, regional, or global. Bookchin, like anyone concerned with the transformation of society, is faced with a cultural repertoire of meanings that must be recognized as an interpretative background, from which all projects of cultural creativity must set out to recreate meaning. We cannot recreate that background, or any part of it (for example, the social conception of "citizenship") in our own image, or in the images of our hopes and dreams. Yet our ability to realize some of our hopes and dreams will depend in large part on our sensitivity to that background, and our capacity to find in it possibilities for extensions and transformations of meaning.

The "Agent of History"

Bookchin asks at one point the identity of the "historical 'agent' for sweeping social change." [48] In a sense, he has already answered this question in his discussion of the centrality of citizenship. However, his specific response focuses on the social whole constituted by the entire body of citizens : "the People." Bookchin has described this emerging "People," as a "'counterculture' in the broadest sense," and stipulated that it might include "alternative organizations, technologies, periodicals, food cooperatives, health and women's centers, schools, even barter-markets, not to speak of local and regional coalitions." [49] While this concept is obviously shaped and in some ways limited by the image of the American counterculture of the 1960's, it reflects a broad conception of cultural creativity as as the precondition for liberatory social change. This is its great strength. It points to a variety of community-oriented initiatives that develop the potential for social cooperation and grassroots organization.

But just as problems arise from privileging a particular self-image, so do they stem from the privileging of any unique "historical agent," given the impossibility of analytical or scientific knowledge of the processes of social creativity. It is likely that such agency will always be exercised in many spheres and at many overlapping levels of social being. It is conceivable that in some sense "the person" will be such a historical agent, while in another "the earth community" will be. In addition, as will be discussed further, alternatives deemphasized in his view of what contributes to forming such agency (such as democratic worker cooperatives) may have much greater liberatory potential than those stressed by Bookchin. From a dialectical holistic viewpoint, it is obvious that there will always be a relative unity of agency and also a relative diversity, so that agency can never have any simple location. While political rhetoric may require a reifying emphasis on one or the other moments of the whole, political thought must recognize and theorize the complexity of the phenomena. Bookchin's concept is a seriously flawed attempt to capture this social unity-in-diversity.

The idea of "the People" as the preeminent historical agent is central to Bookchin's critique of the traditional leftist choice of the working class (or certain other economic strata) for that role. Bookchin, along with other anarchists, was far ahead of most Marxists and other socialists in breaking with this economistic conception of social transformation. Indeed, post-modern Marxists and other au courant leftists now sound very much like Bookchin of thirty years ago, when they go through the litany of oppressed groups and victims of domination who are now looked upon as the preeminent agents of change. Bookchin can justly claim that his concept is superior to many of these current theories, in that his idea of "the People" maintains a degree of unity within the diversity, while leftist victimology has often degenerated into incoherent, divisive "identity politics."

But perhaps Bookchin, and, ironically, even some contemporary socialists go too far in deemphasizing the role of economic class analysis. Bookchin notes that while "the People" was "an illusory concept" in the 18th century, it is now a reality in view of various "transclass issues like ecology, feminism, and a sense of civic responsibility to neighborhoods and communities." [50] He is of course right in stressing the general, transclass nature of such concerns. But it seems clear that these issues are both class and transclass issues, since they have a general character, but also a quite specific meaning in relation to economic class, not to mention gender, ethnicity and other considerations. The growing concern for environmental justice and the critique of environmental racism have made this increasingly apparent. Without addressing the class (along with ethnic, gender and cultural) dimensions of an issue, a radical movement will fail to understand the question in concrete detail, and will lose its ability both to communicate effectively with those intimately involved in the issue, and more importantly, to learn from them. The fact is that Bookchin's social analysis has had almost nothing to say about the evolution of class in either American or global society. Indeed, Bookchin seems to have naively equated the obsolescence of the classical concept of the working class with the obsolescence of class analysis.

While "the People" are identified by Bookchin as the emerging subject of history and agent of social transformation, he also identifies a specific group within this large category that will be essential to its successful formation. Thus, in the strongest sense of agency, the "'agent' of revolutionary change" will be a "radical intelligentsia," which, according to Bookchin, has always been necessary "to catalyze" such change. [51] The nature of such an intelligentsia is not entirely clear, except that it would include theoretically sophisticated activists who would lead a libertarian municipalist movement. Presumably, as has been historically the case, it would also include people in a variety of cultural and intellectual fields who would help spread revolutionary ideas.

Bookchin is certainly right in emphasizing the need within a movement for social transformation for a sizable segment of people with developed political commitments and theoretical grounding. However, most of the literature of libertarian municipalism, which emphasizes social critique and political programs very heavily, has seemed thus far to be directed almost exclusively at such a group. Furthermore, it has assumed that the major precondition for effective social action is knowledge of and commitment to Bookchin's theoretical position. This ideological focus, which reflects Bookchin's theoretical and organizational approach to social change, will inevitably hinder the development of a broadly-based social ecology movement, to the extent that this development requires a diverse intellectual milieu linking it to a larger public. Particularly as Bookchin has become increasingly suspicious of the imagination, the psychological dimension, and any form of "spirituality," and as he has narrowed his conception of reason, he has created a version of social ecology that is likely to appeal to only a small number of highly-politicized intellectuals. Despite the commitment of social ecology to unity-in-diversity, his approach to social change increasingly emphasizes ideological unity over diversity of forms of expression. If the "radical intelligentsia" within the movement for radical democracy is to include a significant number of poets and creative writers, artists, musicians, and thoughtful people working in various professional and technical fields, a more expansive vision of the socially-transformative practice is necessary.

Furthermore, a heavy emphasis on the role of a radical intelligentsia--even in the larger sense just mentioned--threatens to overshadow the crucial importance of cultural creativity by non-intellectuals. This includes those who create small cultural institutions, cooperative social practices, and transformed relationships in personal and family life. The non-hierarchical principles of social ecology should lead one to pay careful attention to the subtle ways in which large numbers of people contribute to the shaping of social institutions, whether traditional or newly evolving ones. Bookchin himself recognizes the importance of such activity when he describes the emergence of a "counterculture" that consists of a variety of cooperative and communitarian groups and institutions, and thereby promotes the all-important "reemergence of 'the People." [52] Why the intelligentsia, and not this entire developing culture is given the title of "historical agent" is not clearly explained. One must suspect, however, that the answer lies in the fact that the majority of participants in such a culture would be unlikely to have a firm grounding in the principles of Bookchin's philosophy. The true agents of history, from his point of view, will require precisely such an ideological foundation.

The Municipality as Ground of Social Being

The goal of the entire process of historical transformation is, of course, the libertarian municipality. Bookchin often describes the municipality as the fundamental political, and, indeed, the fundamental social reality. For example, he states that "conceived in more institutional terms, the municipality is the basis for a free society, the irreducible ground for individuality as well as society." [53] Even more strikingly, he says that the municipality is "the living cell which forms the basic unit of political life . . . from which everything else must emerge : confederation, interdependence, citizenship, and freedom." [54] This assertion of the centrality of the municipality is a response to the need for a liberatory political identity that can successfully replace the passive, disempowering identity of membership in the nation-state, and a moral identity that can successful replace the amoral identity of consumer. The municipality for Bookchin is the arena in which political ethics and the civic virtues that it requires can begin to germinate and ultimately achieve an abundant flowering in a rich municipal political culture. This vision of free community is in some ways a very inspiring one.

It is far from clear, however, why the municipality should be considered the fundamental social reality. Bookchin attributes to the municipality a role in social life that is in fact shared by a variety of institutions and spheres of existence. It is not only the dominant dualistic ideologies of modern societies, which presuppose a division between private and public life, that emphasize the realm of personal life as as central to social existence. Many anarchists and utopians take the most intimate personal sphere, whether identified with the affinity group, the familial group or the communal living group, as fundamental socially and politically. [55] And many critical social analyses, including the most radical ones (for example, Reich's classic account of Fascism and Kovel's recent analysis of capitalist society) show the importance of the dialectic between the personal dimension and a variety of institutional spheres in the shaping of the self and values, including political values. [56]

One might suspect that Bookchin is using descriptive language to express his own prescriptions about what ought to be most basic to our lives. However, he sometimes argues in ways that are clearly an attempt to base his political norms in existing social reality. In his argument for the priority of the municipality he claims that it is "the one domain outside of personal life that the individual must deal with on a very direct basis" and that the city is "the most immediate environment which we encounter and with which we are obliged to deal, beyond the sphere of family and friends, in order to satisfy our needs as social beings." [57]

First of all, these statements really seem to be an argument for the priority of the family and, perhaps, the affinity group in social life, for the city is recognized as only the next most important sphere of life. But beyond this rather large problem, the analysis of the "immediacy" of the city seems to be a remarkably superficial and non-dialectical one. To begin with, it is not true that the individual deals in a somehow more "direct" way with the municipality than other institutions (even excluding family and friends). Millions of individuals in modern society deal more directly with the mass media, by way of their television sets, radios, newspapers and magazines, until they go to work and deal with bosses, co-workers and technologies, after which they return to the domestic hearth and further bombardment by the mass media. [58] The municipality remains a vague background to this more direct experience. Of course, the municipality is one context in which the more direct experience takes place. But there is also a series of larger contexts : a variety of political sub-divisions; various natural regions; the nation-state; the society; the earth. [59] There are few "needs as social beings" that are satisfied uniquely by "the municipality" in strong contradistinction to any other source of satisfaction.

Bookchin has eloquently made points similar to these in relation to the kind of "reification" of the "bourgeois city" that takes place in traditional city planning. "To treat the city as an autonomous entity, apart from the social conditions that produce it" is "to isolate and objectify a habitat that is itself contingent and formed by other factors. Behind the physical structure of the city lies the social community--its workaday life, values, culture, familial ties, class relations, and personal bonds." [60] It is important to apply this same kind dialectical analysis to libertarian municipalism, and thereby to develop it even further (even as certain of its aspects are negated in the process). The city or municipality is a social whole consisting of constituent social wholes, interrelated with other social wholes, and forming a part of even larger social wholes. Add to this the natural wholes that are inseparable from the social ones, and then consider all the mutual determinations between all of these wholes and all of their various parts, and we begin to see the complexity of a dialectical social ecological analysis. Such an analysis allows us to give a coherent account of what it is that we encounter with various degrees of immediacy, and what it is with which we deal with various degrees of directness, in order to satisfy our needs to varying degrees. This dialectical complexity is precisely what Bookchin's dogmatic social ecology seeks to explain away through its rigid and simplistic categories. [61]


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