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

by John Clark

The Social and the Political

Bookchin is at his weakest when he attempts to be the most philosophical. This is the case with one of his most ambitious theoretical undertakings : his articulation of the concept of "the political." Much as Aristotle announced his momentous philosophical discovery of the Four Causes, Bookchin announces his Three Realms. He points out that he has "made careful but crucial distinctions between the three societal realms : the social, the political, and the state. [62] In his own eyes, this discovery has won him a place of distinction in the history of political theory, for the idea "that there could be a political arena independent of the state and the social . . . was to elude most radical thinkers . . . ." [63] For Bookchin, the social and statist realm cover almost everything that exists in present-day society. The statist sphere subsumes all the institutions and activities--the "statecraft," as he likes to call it--through which the state operates. The social includes everything else in society, with the exception of "the political." This final category encompasses activity in the "public sphere," a realm that he identifies "with politics in the Hellenic sense of the term." [64] By this, he means the proposed institutions of his own libertarian municipalist system, and, to varying degrees, its precursors--the diverse "forms of freedom" that have emerged at certain points in history. For those who have difficulty comprehending this "carefully distinguished" sphere, Bookchin points out that " [i]n creating a new politics based of social ecology, we are concerned with what people do in this public or political sphere, not with what people do in their bedrooms, living rooms, or basements." [65]

There is considerable unintentional irony in this statement. While Bookchin does not seem to grasp the implications of his argument, this means that, whatever we may hope for in the future, for the present we should not be concerned with what people do anywhere, since the political realm does not yet exist to any significant degree. Except in so far as it subsists in the ethereal realm of political ideas whose time has not yet come, the "political" now resides for Bookchin in his own tiny libertarian municipalist movement--though strictly speaking, even it cannot now constitute a "public sphere" considering how distant it is from any actual exercise of public power. Thus, the inevitable dialectical movement of Bookchin's heroic defense of the political against all who would "denature it," "dissolve it" into something else, etc., culminates in the effective abolition of the political as a meaningful category in existing society.

There is, however, another glaring contradiction in Bookchin's account of the "social" and "political." He hopes to make much of the fact (which he declares "even a modicum of a historical perspective" to demonstrate) that "it is precisely the municipality that most individuals must deal with directly, once they leave the social realm and enter the public sphere." [66] But since what he calls "the public sphere" consists of his idealized "Hellenic politics," it will be, to say the least, rather difficult for "most individuals" to find it in any actually-existing world in which they might become politically engaged. Instead, they find only the "social" and "statist" realms, into which almost all of the actually-existing municipality has already been dissolved, not by any mere theorist, as Bookchin seems to fear, but by the course of history itself. Thus, unless Bookchin is willing to find a "public sphere" in the existing statist institutions that dominate municipal politics, or somewhere in that vast realm of "the social," there is simply no "public sphere," for the vast majority of people to "enter."

While such implications already show the absurdity of his position, his theoretical predicament is in fact much worse than this. For in claiming that the municipality is what most people "deal with directly," he is condemned to define the municipality in terms of the social--precisely what he wishes most to avoid. Indeed, in a moment of theoretical lucidity he actually begins to refute his own position. "Doubtless the municipality is usually the place where even a great deal of social life is existentially lived--school, work, entertainment, and simple pleasures like walking, bicycling, and disporting themselves . . . ." [67] Bookchin might expand this list considerably, for almost anything that he could possibly invoke on behalf of the centrality of "the municipality" will fall in his sphere of the "social." The actually-existing municipality will thus be shown to lie overwhelmingly in his "social" sphere, and his argument thus becomes a demonstration of the centrality of that realm. Moreover, what doesn't fall into the "social" sphere must lie in the actually-existing "statist" rather than the non-existent "political" one. In fact, his form of (fallacious) argumentation could be used with equal brilliance to show that we indeed "deal most directly" with the state, since all the phenomena he lists as lying within a municipality are also located within some nation-state. Indeed, this anarchist's argument works even more effectively as a defense of statism, since even when one walks, bicycles, "disports oneself," etc., outside a municipality one almost inevitable finds oneself within a nation-state. [68] Bookchin shows some vague awareness that his premises do not lead in the direction of his conclusions. After he lists the various social dimensions of the municipality, and as the implications of his argument begin to dawn on him, he protests rather feebly that all this "does not efface its distinctiveness as a unique sphere of life." [69] But that, of course, was not the point in dispute. It is perfectly consistent to accept the innocuous propositions that the municipality is "distinctive" and that it is "a unique sphere of life" while rejecting every one of Bookchin's substantive claims about its relationship to human experience, the public sphere, and the "political."

Bookchin's entire project of dividing society into rigidly defined "spheres" belies his professed commitment to dialectical thought. One of the most basic dialectical concepts is that a thing always is what it is not and is not what it is. However, this is the sort of dialectical tenet that Bookchin never invokes, preferring a highly conservative conception in which the dialectician somehow "educes" from a phenomenon precisely what is inherent in it as a potentiality. [70] Were he an authentically dialectical thinker, rather than a dogmatic one, he would, as soon as he posits different spheres of society (or any reality), consider the ways in which each sphere might be conditioned by and dependent upon those from which it is distinguished. In this connection, even those post-structuralist theorists of difference whom he dismisses with such uncomprehending contempt are more dialectical than Bookchin is, since they at least take the term "differ" in an active sense that implies a kind of mutual determination. In this, they work from the insight of Saussurian linguistics that the meaning of any signifier is a function of the entire system of significations. Bookchin, on the other hand, adheres to a dogmatic, non-dialectical view that things simply are what they are, that they are different from what they are not, and that anyone who questions his rigid distinctions must be either a dangerous relativist or a fool.

Gunderson, in The Environmental Promise of Democratic Deliberation, suggests how a more dialectical approach might be taken to questions dealt with dogmatically by Bookchin. Gunderson discusses in considerable detail the significance of deliberation as a fundamental aspect of Athenian democracy, the most important historical paradigm for Bookchin's libertarian municipalism. He notes that while the official institutions of democracy consisted of such explicitly "political" forms as the assembly, the courts, and the council, the "political" must also be seen to have existed outside these institutions, if the role of deliberation is properly understood. As Gunderson states it, "much of the deliberation that fueled their highly participatory democracy took place not in the Assembly, Council, or law courts, but in the agora, the public square adjacent to those places." [71] The attempt to constrain the political within a narrow sphere through the magic of definition is doomed to failure, not only when one begins to think dialectically, but also as soon one carefully examines real, historical phenomena with all their mutual determinations. In the same way that Bookchin's non-dialectical approach flaws his theoretical analysis, it dooms his politics to failure, since it systematically obscures the ways in which the possibilities for "political" transformation are dependent on the deeply political dimensions of spheres that he dismisses as merely "social."

Bookchin also demonstrates his non-dialectical approach to the social and the political in his discussion of Aristotle's politics and Greek history. He notes that "the two worlds of the social and political emerge, the latter from the former. Aristotle's approach to the rise of the polis is emphatically developmental . . . . The polis is the culmination of a political whole from the growth of a social and biological part, a realm of the latent and the possible. Family and village do not disappear in Aristotle's treatment of the subject, but they are encompassed by the fuller and more complete domain of the polis." [72] But there are two moments in Aristotle's thought here, and Bookchin tellingly sides with the non-dialectical one. To the extent that Aristotle maintains a sharp division between the social and the political, his thought reflects a hierarchical dualism rooted in the institutional structure of Athenian society. Since the household is founded on patriarchal authority and a slave economy, it cannot constitute a political realm, a sphere of free interaction between equals. This dualistic, hierarchical dimension of Aristotle is precisely what Bookchin invokes favorably.

There is, on the other hand, a more dialectical moment in Aristotle's thought, which, though still conditioned by hierarchical ideology (as expressed in the concept of "the ruling part") envisions the polis as the realization of the self, family and village. Aristotle says that the polis is "the completion of associations existing by nature," and is "prior in the order of nature to the family and the individual" because "the whole is necessarily prior [in nature] to the part." [73] Implicit in this concept is the inseparable nature of the social and the political. Later, more radically dialectical thought has developed this second moment. An authentically dialectical analysis recognizes that as the political dimension emerges within society, it does not separate itself off from the rest of the social world to embed itself in an exclusive sphere. Rather, as the social whole develops, there is a transformation and politicization of many aspects of what Bookchin calls "the social" (a process that may take a liberatory or an authoritarian, and even a totalitarian, direction). In Hegel's interpretation of this process, for example, the state emerges as the full realization of society, yet it is also the means by which each aspect of society is transformed and achieves its fulfillment.

In a conception of the political that is less ideological than Hegel's, but equally dialectical (if we take the political as the self-conscious self-determination of the community with its own good as the end), the emergence of the political in any sphere will be seen both to presuppose and also to imply its emergence in other spheres. For Bookchin, on the other hand, the political remains an autonomous realm, and other spheres of society can only be politicized by being literally absorbed into that realm (as in the municipalization of production). This non-dialectical approach to the political is central to Bookchin's development of an abstract, idealist and dogmatic conception of social transformation.

Paideia and Civic Virtue

One of the more appealing aspects of Bookchin's politics is his emphasis on the possibilities for self-realization through participation in political activity. His views are inspired by the Athenian polis, which "rested on the premise that its citizens could be entrusted with 'power' because they possessed the personal capacity to use power in a trustworthy fashion. The education of citizens into rule was therefore an education into personal competence, intelligence, moral probity, and social commitment." [74] These are the kind of qualities, he believes, that must be created today in order for municipalism to operate successfully. We must therefore create a similar process of paideia in order to combine individual self-realization with the pursuit of the good of the community through the instilling of such civic virtues in each citizen.

But there are major difficulties for this conception of paideia. The processes of socialization are not now in the hands of those who would promote the programs of libertarian municipalism or anything vaguely related to it. Rather, they are dominated by the state, and, above all, by economic power and the economistic culture, which aim at training workers (employees and managers) to serve the existing system of production, and a mass of consumers for the dominant system of consumption. Municipalism proposes that a populace that has been so profoundly conditioned by these processes should become a "citizenry," both committed to the process of self-rule and also fully competent to carry it out.

This is certainly a very admirable goal for the future. However, Bookchin's formulations sometimes seem to presuppose that such a citizenry has already been formed and merely awaits the opportunity to take power. He states, for example, that "the municipalist conception of citizenship assumes" that "every citizen is regarded as competent to participate directly in the 'affairs of state,' indeed what is more important, encouraged to do so." [75] But the success of the institutions proposed by Bookchin would seem to require much more than either an assumption of competence or the encouragement of participation in civic affairs. What is necessary is that the existing populace should be transformed into something like Bookchin's "People" through a process of paideia that pervasively shapes all aspects of their lives--a formidable task that would itself constitute and also presuppose a considerable degree of social transformation.

To equate this paideia primarily with the institution of certain elements of libertarian municipalism hardly seems to be a very promising approach. Indeed, to the extent that aspects of its program are successfully implemented before the cultural and psychological preconditions have been developed, this may very well lead to failure and disillusionment. A program of libertarian municipalism that focuses primarily on decentralization of power to the local level might indeed have reactionary consequences within the context of the existing political culture of the United States and some other countries. One might imagine a "power to the people's assemblies" that would result in harsh anti-immigrant regulations, extension of capital punishment, institution of corporal punishment, expanded restrictions on freedom of speech, imposition of religious practices, repressive enforcement of morality, and punitive measures against the poor, to cite some proposals that have widespread public support in perhaps a considerable majority of municipalities of the United States. It is no accident that localism has appealed much more to the right wing in the United States, than to the Left or the general population, and that reactionary localism is becoming both more extremist and more popular. The far right has worked diligently for decades at the grassroots level in many areas to create the cultural preconditions for local reactionary democracy.

Of course, Bookchin would quite reasonably prefer to see his popular assemblies established in more "progressive" locales, so that they could become a model for a new democratic, and indeed, a libertarian and populist, politics. But far-reaching success for such developments depends on a significant evolution of the larger political culture. To the extent that activists accept Bookchin's standpoint of hostility toward, or at best, unenthusiastic acceptance of the very limited value of alternative approaches to social change, this will restrict the scope of the necessary paideia, impede the pervasive transformation of society, and undercut the possibilities for effective local democracy. [76]

The Municipalist Program

Libertarian municipalism has increasingly been presented not only as a theoretical analysis of the nature of radical democracy, but also as a programmatic movement for change. Indeed, Bookchin has proposed the program of libertarian municipalism as a basis for organization for the Green movement in North America. However, a serious problem in his political analysis is that it slips from the theoretical dimension to the realm of practical programs with little critical assessment of how realistic the latter may be. His discussions of a post-scarcity anarchist society seemed to refer to an ultimate ideal in a qualitatively different future (even if the coming revolution was sometimes suggested as a possible short-cut to that ideal). While the confederated free municipalities of libertarian municipalism sometimes also seem like a utopian ideal, municipalism has increasingly been presented as a strategy that is capable of creating and mobilizing activist movements in present-day towns and cities. Yet one must ask what the real possibilities for organizing groups and movements under that banner might be, given the present state of political culture, given the actual public to which appeals must be addressed, and not least of all, given the system of communication and information which must be confronted in any attempt to persuade. [77]

The relationship between immediate proposals and long-terms goals in libertarian municipalism is not always very clear. While Bookchin sees changes such as Burlington, Vermont's neighborhood planning assemblies as an important advance, even though these assemblies do not have policy-making (or law-making) authority, he does not see certain rather far-reaching demands by the Green movement as being legitimate. He recognizes as significant political advances structural changes (like planning assemblies or municipally-run services) that move in the direction of municipal democracy or economic municipalization, electoral strategies for gaining political influence or control on behalf of the municipalist agenda, and, to some degree, alternative projects that are independent of the state. On the other hand, he seems to reject, either as irrelevant or as a dangerous form of cooptation, any political proposal for reform of the nation state, beyond the local (or sometimes, the state) level.

Bookchin criticizes harshly, as capitulation to the dominant system, all approaches that do not lead toward municipal direct democracy and municipal self-management. This critique of reformism questions the wisdom of active participation by municipalists, social ecologists, left Greens and anarchists in movements for social justice, peace, and other "progressive" causes when the specific goals of these movements are not linked to a comprehensive liberatory vision of social, economic, and political transformation (or, more accurately, to his own precisely correct vision). Bookchin often disparages such "movement" activity and urges activists to focus on working exclusively on behalf of the program of libertarian municipalism.

For example, he and Janet Biehl attack the Left Greens for their demand to "cut the Pentagon budget by 95 percent," and their proposals for "a $10 per hour minimum wage," "a thirty-hour work week with no loss of income," and a "workers' superfund." [78] The supposed error in these proposals is that they do not eliminate the last 5% of the budget for so-called "defense" of the nation-state, and that they perpetuate economic control at the national level. Bookchin later dismisses the Left Greens' proposals as "commonplace economic demands." [79] Furthermore, he distinguishes between his own efforts "to enlarge the directly democratic possibilities that exist within the republican system" and the Left Greens' "typical trade unionist and social democratic demands that are designed to render capitalism and the state more palatable." [80] It is impossible, however, to deduce a priori the conclusion that every institution of procedures of direct democracy is a historically significant advance, while all efforts to influence national economic policy and to demilitarize the nation-state are inherently regressive, and the empirical evidence on such matters is far from conclusive. It is at least conceivable, for example, that improvement of conditions for the least privileged segments of society might lead them to become more politically engaged, and perhaps even make them more open to participation in grassroots democracy. In his sarcastic attacks on the Left Greens, we hear in Bookchin's statements the voice of dogmatism and demagogy. [81]

There is, in fact, an inspiring history of struggles for limited goals that did not betray the more far-reaching visions, and indeed revolutionary impulses, of the participants. To take an example that should be meaningful to Bookchin, the anarchists who fought for the eight-hour work day did not give up their goal of the abolition of capitalism. [82] There is no reason why left Greens today cannot fight for a thirty-hour work week without giving up their vision of economic democracy. Indeed, it seems important that those who have utopian visions should also stand with ordinary people in their fights for justice and democracy--even when many of these people have not yet developed such visions, and have not yet learned how to articulate their hopes in theoretical terms. Unless this occurs, the prevailing dualistic split between reflection and action will continue to be reproduced in movements for social transformation, and the kind of "People" that libertarian municipalism presupposes will never become a reality. To reject all reform proposals at the level of the nation-state a priori reflects a lack of sensitivity to the issues that are meaningful to actual people now. Bookchin correctly cautions us against succumbing to a mere "politics of the possible." However, a political purism that dogmatically rejects reforms that promise a meaningful improvement in the conditions of life for many people chooses to stand above the actual people in the name of "the People" (who despite their capitalization remain merely theoretical). [83]

Bookchin is no doubt correct in his view that groups like the Left Greens easily lose the utopian and transformative dimension of their outlook as they become focused on reform proposals that might immediately appeal to a wide public. It is true that a Left Green proposal to "democratize the United Nations" seems rather outlandish from the decentralist perspective of the Green movement. Yet it is inconsistent for Bookchin to dismiss all proposals for reform, merely because they "propose" something less than the immediate abolition of the nation-state. Libertarian municipalism itself advocates for the immediate present working for change within subdivisions of the nation-state, as municipalities (and states, including small ones like Vermont) most certainly are. Bookchin has himself made a cause célèbre of a campaign against the extension of Vermont's gubernatorial term from two to four years. While this is a valid issue concerning democratic control, its implications for the possible transformation of state power cannot be compared to those of a serious debate on the need for the drastic reduction of military expenditures.

Social ecological politics requires a dialectical analysis of social phenomena, which implies a careful analysis of the political culture (in relation to its larger natural and social context) and an exploration of the possibilities inherent in it. The danger of programmatic tendencies, which are endemic to the traditional left and to all the heretical sectarianisms it has spawned, is that they rigidify our view of society, reinforce dogmatism, inflexibility and attachment to one's ideas, limit our social imagination, and discourage the open, experimental spirit that is necessary for creative social change.

While libertarian municipalism is sometimes interpreted in a narrower, more sectarian way (as it appears especially in Bookchin's polemics against other points of view), it can also be taken as a more general orientation toward radical grassroots democracy. Looked at in this broader sense, municipalism can make a significant contribution to the development of our vision of a free, cooperative community. Bookchin has sometimes presented a far-reaching list of proposals for developing more ecologically-responsible and democratic communities. These include the establishment of community credit unions, community supported agriculture, associations for local self-reliance, and community gardens. [84] Elsewhere he includes in the "minimal steps" for creating "Left Green municipalist movements" such activities as electing council members who support "assemblies and other popular institutions"; establishing "civic banks to fund municipal enterprises and land purchases"; and forming "grassroots networks" for various purposes. [85] In a discussion of how a municipalist movement might be initiated in the state of Vermont, he presents proposals that emphasize cooperatives and even small individually-owned businesses. [86] He suggests that the process could begin with the public purchase of unprofitable enterprises (which would then be managed by the workers), the establishment of land trusts, and the support for small-scale productive enterprises. This could be done, he notes, without infringing "on the proprietary rights of small retail outlets, service establishments, artisan shops, small farms, local manufacturing enterprises, and the like." [87] He concludes that in such a system "cooperatives, farms, and small retail outlets would be fostered with municipal funds and placed under growing public control." [88] He adds that a "People's Bank" to finance the economic projects could be established, buying groups to support local farming could be established, and public land could be used for "domestic gardening." [89]

These proposals present the outline of an admirable program for promoting a vibrant local economy based on cooperatives and small businesses. Yet it is exactly the "municipalist" element of such a program that might be less than practical for quite some time. It seems likely that for the present the members of cooperatives and the owners of small enterprises would have little enthusiasm for coming under "increasing public control," if this means that the municipality (either through an assembly or local officials) increasingly takes over management decisions. Whatever might evolve eventually as a cooperative economy develops, a program for change in the real world must either have an appeal to an existing public, or must have a workable strategy for creating such a public. There is certainly considerable potential for broad support for "public control" in areas like environmental protection, health and safety measures, and greater economic justice for workers. However, the concept of "public control" of economic enterprises through management by neighborhood or municipal assemblies is, to use Bookchin's terminology, a "nonsense demand," since the preconditions for making it meaningful do not exist, and are not even addressed in Bookchin's politics. [90]


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