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

by John Clark

The Fetishism of Assemblies

While Bookchin sees the municipality as the most important political realm, he identifies the municipal assembly as the privileged organ of democracy politics, and puts enormous emphasis on its place in both the creation and and functioning of free municipalities. "Popular assemblies," he says, are the minds of a free society; the administrators of their policies are the hands." [91] But unless this is taken as an attempt at poetry, it is in some ways a naive and undialectical view. The mind of society--its reason, passion, and imagination--is always widely dispersed throughout all social realms. And the more that this is the case, the better it is for the community. Not only is it not necessary that most creative thought take place in popular assemblies, it is inconceivable that most of it should occur there. In a community that encourages creative thinking and imagination, the "mind" of society would operate through the intelligent, engaged reflection of individuals, through a diverse, thriving network of small groups and local institutions in which these individuals would express and embody their hopes and ideals for the community, and through vibrant democratic media of communication in which citizens would exchange ideas and shape the values of the community. And though in an anarchist critique of existing bureaucracy, administrators might be depicted rhetorically as mindless, it does not seem desirable that in a free society they should be dismissed as necessarily possessing this quality. All complex systems of social organization will require some kind of administration, and will depend not only on the good will but also on the intelligence of those who carry out policies. It seems impossible to imagine any form of assembly government that could formulate such specific directives on complex matters that administrators would have no significant role in shaping policy. Bookchin tellingly lapses into edifying rhetoric and political sloganeering when he discusses the supremacy of the assembly in policy-making. Were he to begin to explore the details of how such a system might operate, he would immediately save others the trouble of deconstructing his system.

The de facto policy-making power of administrators might even be greater in Bookchin's system than in others, in view of the fact that he does not propose any significant sphere for judicial institutions that might check administrative power. Unless we assume that society would become and remain quite simplified--an assumption that is inconsistent with Bookchin's beliefs about technological development, for example--then it would be unrealistic to assume that all significant policy decisions could be made in an assembly, or even supervised directly by an assembly. A possible alternative would be a popular judiciary; however, the judicial realm remains almost a complete void in Bookchin's political theory, despite fleeting references to popular courts in classical Athens and other historical cases. One democratic procedure that could perform judicial functions would be popular juries (as proposed by Godwin two centuries ago) or citizens' committees (as recently suggested by Burnheim)[92] that could oversee administrative decision-making. However, Bookchin's almost exclusive emphasis on the assembly--what we might call his "ecclesiocentrism"--precludes such possibilities.

Bookchin responds to these suggestions concerning popular juries and citizens' committees with what he thinks to be the devastating allegation that what I "am really calling for here" are "courts and councils, or bluntly speaking, systems of representation." [93] While it is far from clear that a "council" is inherently undesirable under all historical circumstances, what I discuss in the passage he attacks is citizens' committees, not councils. [94] What I "call for" is not some specific political form, but rather a consideration of various promising political forms whose potential can only be determined through practice and experimentation. Moreover, Bookchin's comments show ignorance of the nature of the proposals of Godwin and Burnheim that are cited, and unwillingness to investigate them before beginning his attack. Neither proposes a system of "representation." One of the appealing aspects of the jury or committee proposals is that since membership on juries or committees is through random selection (not election of "representatives"), all citizens have an equal opportunity to exercise decision-making power. Some of the possible corrupting influences of large assemblies (encouragement of egoistic competition, undue influence by power-seeking personalities, etc.) are much less likely to appear in this context. Furthermore, such committees and juries offer a way of avoiding the need for representation, since they are a democratic means of performing necessary functions that cannot possibly be carried out at the assembly level. As will be discussed, Bookchin's municipalism does not successfully address the question of how "confederal" actions can be carried out without representation, and proponents of decentralized democracy would therefore be wise to consider various means by which the necessity for representation might be minimized in a less than utopian world.

In discussing his conception of "participatory democracy," Bookchin notes the roots of the concept in the politics of the New Left and the counterculture of the 1960's. One implication of democracy in this context was that "people were expected to be transparent in all their relationships and the ideas they held." [95] He laments the fact that these democratic impulses were betrayed by a movement toward dogmatism, centralization and institutionalization. Yet, the concept of transparency, like that of "the unmediated," requires critical analysis. Bookchin might have achieved a more critical approach to such concepts had he applied a dialectical analysis to them. Unfortunately, the naive expectation that people merely "be" transparent may become a substitute for the more difficult and time-consuming but ultimately rewarding processes of self-reflection and self-understanding on the personal and group levels. Values like "transparency" and "immediacy" often inhibit understanding of group processes, and function as an ideology that disguises implicit power-relationships and subtle forms of manipulation, which are often quite opaque, highly mediated and resistant to superficial analysis.

It is important that such disguised power-relations should not find legitimacy through the ideology of an egalitarian, democratic assembly, in which "the People" act in an "unmediated" fashion, and in which their will is "transparent." The fact is that in assemblies of hundreds, thousands or even potentially tens of thousands of members (if we are to take the Athenian polis as a model), there is an enormous potential for manipulation and power-seeking behavior. If it is true that power corrupts, as anarchists more than anyone else have stressed, then anarchists cannot look with complacency on the power that comes from being the center of attention of a large assembly, from success in debate before such an assembly, and from the quest for victory for one's cause. To minimize these dangers, it is necessary to avoid idealizing assemblies, to analyze carefully their strengths and weaknesses, and to experiment with processes that can bring them closer to the highest deals that inspire them. In addition, there is the option of rejecting Bookchin's proposal that all political power be concentrated in the assembly, and separating it instead among various participatory institutions.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses assemblies may have as an organizational form, we must ask whether it is even possible for sovereign municipal assemblies to be viable as the fundamental form of political decision-making in the real world. Bookchin concedes that local assemblies might have to be less than "municipal" in scope. He recognizes that given the size of existing municipalities there will be a need for more decentralized decision-making bodies. He suggests that "whether a municipality can be administered by all its citizens in a single assembly or has to be subdivided into several confederally related assemblies depends much on its size" and proposes that the assembly might be constituted on a block, neighborhood or town level. [96] Since contemporary municipalities in much of the world range in population up to tens of millions, and neighborhoods themselves up to hundreds of thousands, the aptness of the term "municipalism" for a form of direct democracy should perhaps be questioned. [97] It would seem that in highly urbanized societies it would be much more feasible to establish democratic assemblies at the level of the neighborhood or even smaller units than at the municipal level, as Bookchin himself concedes.

The problem of defining neighborhood communities often poses difficulties. Bookchin claims that New York City, for example, consists of neighborhoods that are "organic communities." [98] It is true that there exists a significant degree of identification with neighborhoods that can contribute to the creation of neighborhood democracy. Yet to describe the neighborhoods of New York or other contemporary cities as "organic communities" is a vast overstatement, and one wonders if Bookchin is referring more to his idealized view of the past than to present realities. Contemporary cities (including New York) have been thoroughly transformed according to the exigencies of the modern bureaucratic, consumerist society, with all the atomization and privatization that this implies. Natives of metropolitan centers such as Paris complain that traditional neighborhoods have been completely destroyed by commercialization, land speculation, and displacement of the less affluent to the suburbs. In the United States, much of traditional urban neighborhood life has been undermined by social atomization, institutionalized, structural racism, and the migration of capital and economic support away from the center. Bookchin correctly cites my own community of New Orleans as an example of a city that has a strong tradition of culturally distinct neighborhoods that have endured with strong identities until recent times. [99] But it is also a good example of the culturally corrosive effects of contemporary society, which progressively transforms local culture into a commodity for advertising, real estate speculation and tourism, while it destroys it as a lived reality. Thus, the neighborhood "organic community" is much more an imaginary construct (that is often entangled with nostalgic feelings and reflects class and ethnic antagonisms) than an existing state of affairs. It is essential to see these limitations in the concept, and then to develop its imaginary possibilities as part of a liberatory process of social regeneration.

However we might conceptualize existing urban neighborhoods, the large size of assemblies to be constituted at that level raises questions about how democratic such bodies could be. In Barber's discussion of these assemblies, he suggests that their membership would range from five to twenty-five thousand. [100] Bookchin says that they might encompass units from a single block up to dozens of blocks in an urban area, and thus might sometimes reach a similar level of membership. It is difficult to imagine the city block of present-day urban society as the fundamental political unit (though visionary proposals for a radically-transformed future have made a good case for recreating it as a small eco-community). Yet, libertarian municipalism is almost always formulated in terms of municipal and neighborhood assemblies. Therefore, in practical terms it is proposing very large assemblies for the foreseeable future in highly populated, urbanized societies.

Bookchin's discussion is curiously (and rather suspiciously) vague on the topic of the scope of decision-making by assemblies. He does make it clear that he believes that all important policy decisions can and should be made in the assembly, even in the case of emergencies. He confidently assures us that, "given modern logistical conditions, there can be no emergency so great that assemblies cannot be rapidly convened to make important policy decisions by a majority vote and the appropriate boards convened to execute these decisions--irrespective of a community's size or the complexity of its problems. Experts will always be available to offer their solutions, hopefully competing ones that will foster discussion, to the more specialized problems a community may face." [101] But this mere affirmation of faith is hardly convincing. In a densely populated, technologically complex, intricately interrelated world, every community will face problems that can hardly be dealt with on an ad hoc basis by large assemblies.

It seems rather remarkable that Bookchin never explores the basic theoretical question of whether any formal system of local law should exist, and how policy decisions of assemblies should be interpreted and applied to particular cases. Yet his discrete silence is perhaps wise, since his position would seem to collapse were he to give any clear answer to this question. If general rules and policy decisions (i.e., laws) are adopted by an assembly, then they must be applied to particular cases and articulated programatically by judicial and administrative agencies. It is then inevitable that these agencies will have some share in political power. But this alternative is inconsistent with his many affirmations of the supremacy of the assembly. On the other hand, if no general rules are adopted, then the assembly will have the impossibly complex task of applying rules to all disputed cases and formulating all important details of programs. We are left with a purgatorial vision of hapless citizens condemned to listening endlessly to "hopefully competing" experts on every imaginable area of municipal administration. Given these two unpromising alternatives, Bookchin seems, at least implicitly, to choose the impossible over the inconsistent.

There are certain well-known dangers of large assemblies that pose additional threats to Bookchin's neighborhood or municipal assemblies. Among the problems that often emerge in such bodies are competitiveness, egotism, theatrics, demagogy, charismatic leadership, factionalism, aggressiveness, obsession with procedural details, domination of discussion by manipulative minorities, and passivity of the majority. While growth of the democratic spirit might reduce some of these dangers, they might also be aggravated by the size of the assembly, which would be many times larger than most traditional legislative bodies. In addition, the gap in political sophistication between individuals in local assemblies will no doubt be much greater than in bodies composed of traditional political elites. Finally, the assembly would lose one important advantage of representation. Elected representatives or delegates can be chastised for betraying the people when they seem to act contrary to the will or interest of the community. On the other hand, those who emerge as leaders of a democratic assembly, and those who take power by default if most do not participate actively in managing the affairs of society, can be accused of no such dereliction, since they are acting as equal members of a popular democratic body. [102]

To say the least, an extensive process of self-education in democratic group processes would be necessary before large numbers of people would be able to work together cooperatively in large meetings. And even if some of the serious problems mentioned are mitigated, it is difficult to imagine how they could be reduced to insignificance in assemblies with thousands of participants, as are sometimes proposed, at least until wider processes of personal and social transformation has radically changed the members' characters and sensibilities. Indeed, the term "face-to-face democracy" that Bookchin often uses in reference to these assemblies seems rather bizarre when applied to these thousands of faces (assuming that most of them face up to their civic responsibilities and attend).

An authentically democratic movement will recognize the considerable potential for elitism and power-seeking within assemblies. It will deal with this threat not only through procedures within assemblies, but above all by creating a communitarian, democratic culture that will express itself in decision-making bodies and in all other institutions. For the assembly and other organs of direct democracy to contribute effectively to an ecological community, they must be purged of the competitive, agonistic, masculinist aspects that has often corrupted them. They can only fulfill their democratic promise if they are an integral expression of a cooperative community that embodies in its institutions the love of humanity and nature. Barber makes exactly this point when he states that strong democracy "attempts to balance adversary politics by nourishing the mutualistic art of listening," and going beyond mere toleration, seeks "common rhetoric evocative of a common democratic discourse should "encompass the affective as well as the cognitive mode." [103] Such concerns echo recent contributions in feminist ethics, which have pointed out that the dominant moral and political discourse have exhibited a one-sided emphasis on ideas and principles, and neglected the realm of feeling and sensibility. In this spirit, we must explore the ways in which the transition from formal to substantive democracy depends not only on the establishment of more radically democratic forms, but on the establishment of cultural practices that foster a democratic ethos.

Municipal Economics

One of the most compelling aspects of Bookchin's political thought is the centrality of his ethical critique of the dominant economistic society, and his call for the creation of a "moral economy" as a precondition for a just ecological society. He asserts that such a "moral economy" implies the emergence of "a productive community" to replace the amoral "mere marketplace," that currently prevails. It requires further that producers "explicitly agree to exchange their products and services on terms that are not merely 'equitable' or 'fair' but supportive of each other." [104] He believes that if the prevailing system of economic exploitation and the dominant economistic culture based on it are to be eliminated, a sphere must be created in which people find new forms of exchange to replace the capitalist market, and this sphere must be capable of continued growth. Bookchin sees this realm as that of the municipalized economy. He states that "under libertarian municipalism, property becomes "part of a larger whole that is controlled by the citizen body in assembly as citizens." [105] Elsewhere, he explains that "land, factories, and workshops would be controlled by popular assemblies of free communities, not by a nation-state or by worker-producers who might very well develop a proprietary interest in them." [106]

However, for the present at least, it is not clear why the municipalized economic sector should be looked upon as the primary realm, rather than as one area among many in which significant economic transformation might begin. It is possible to imagine a broad spectrum of self-managed enterprises, individual producers and small partnerships that would enter into a growing cooperative economic sector that would incorporate social ecological values. The extent to which the communitarian principle of distribution according to need could be achieved would be proportional to the degree to which cooperative and communitarian values had evolved--a condition that would depend on complex historical factors that cannot be predicted beforehand. Bookchin is certainly right in his view that participation in a moral economy would be "an ongoing education in forms of association, virtue, and decency" [107] through which the self would develop. And it is possible that ideally "price, resources, personal interests, and costs" might "play no role in a moral economy" and that there would be "no 'accounting' of what is given and taken." [108] However, we always begin with a historically determined selfhood in a historically determined cultural context. It is quite likely that communities (and self-managed enterprises) might find that in the task of creating liberatory institutions within the constraints of real history and culture, the common good is attained best by preserving some form of "accounting" of contributions from citizens and distribution of goods. To whatever degree Bookchin's anarcho-communist system of distribution are desirable as a long-term goal, the attempt to put them into practice in the short run, without developing their psychological and institutional preconditions, would be a certain recipe for disillusionment and economic failure.

Bookchin attributes to municipalization an almost miraculous power to abolish egoistic and particularistic interests. He and Biehl attack proposals of the Left Greens for worker self-management on the grounds that such a system does not, as in the case of municipalization, "eliminate the possibility that particularistic interests of any kind will develop in economic life." [109] While the italics reflect an admirable hope, it is not clear how municipalization, or any other political program, no matter how laudable it may be, can assure that such interests are entirely eliminated. Bookchin and Biehl contend that in "a democratized polity" workers would develop "a general public interest," [110] rather than a particularistic one of any sort. But it is quite possible for a municipality to put its own interest above that of other communities, or that of the larger community of nature. The concept of "citizen of a municipality" does not in itself imply identification with "a general public interest." To the extent that concepts can perform such a function, "citizen of the human community" would do so much more explicitly, and "citizen of the earth community" would do so much more ecologically.

Under Bookchin's libertarian municipalism, there is a possible (and perhaps inevitable) conflict between the particularistic perspective of the worker in a productive enterprise and the particularistic perspective of the citizen of the municipality. Bookchin and Biehl propose that "workers in their area of the economy" be placed on advisory boards that are "merely technical agencies, with no power to make policy decisions." [111] This would do little if anything to solve the problem of conflict of interest. Bookchin calls the "municipally managed enterprise" at one point "a worker-citizen controlled enterprise," [112] but the control is effectively limited to members of the community acting as citizens, not as workers. [113] Shared policy-making seems on the face of it more of a real-world possibility, however complex it might turn out to be. In either case (pure community democracy, or a mixed system of community and workplace democracy), it seems obvious that there would be a continual potential for conflict between workers who are focused on their needs and responsibilities as producers and assemblies that are in theory focused on the needs and responsibilities of the local community.


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