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

by John Clark

Putting aside the ultimate goals of libertarian municipalism, Bookchin suggests that in a transitional phase, its policies would "not infringe on the proprietary rights of small retail outlets, service establishments, artisan shops, small farms, local manufacturing enterprises, and the like." [114] The question arises, though, of why this sector should not to continue to exist in the long term, alongside more cooperative forms of production. There is no conclusive evidence that such small enterprises are necessarily exploitative or that they cannot be operated in an ecologically sound manner. Particularly if the larger enterprises in a regional economy are democratically operated, the persistence of such small enterprises does not seem incompatible with social ecological values. This is even more the case to the degree that the community democratically establishes just and effective parameters of social and ecological responsibility. [115]

However, Bookchin dogmatically rejects this possibility. He claims that if any sort market continues to exist, then "competition will force even the smallest enterprise eventually either to grow or to die, to accumulate capital or to disappear, to devour rival enterprises or to be devoured." [116] Yet Bookchin has himself noted that historically the existence of a market has not been equivalent to the existence of a market-dominated society. He has not explained why such a distinction cannot hold in the future. He has himself been criticized by "purist" anarchists who attack his acceptance of government as a capitulation to "archism." Yet he rightly distinguishes between the mere existence of governmental institutions and statism, the system of political domination that results from the centralization of political power in the state. Similarly, one may distinguish between the mere existence of market exchanges and capitalism--the system of economic domination that results from the concentration of economic power in large corporate enterprises. Bookchin asserts that the existence of any market sector is incompatible with widespread decentralized democratic institutions and cooperative forms of production. While he treats this assertion as if it were an empirically-verified or theoretically-demonstrated proposition, it is, until he presents more evidence, merely an article of ideological faith. [117]

But whatever the long-term future of the market may be, it is in fact the economic context in which present-day experiments take place. If municipally-owned enterprises are established, they will necessarily operate within a market, if only because the materials they need for production will be produced within the market economy. It is also likely that they would choose to sell their products within the market, since the vast majority of potential consumers, including those most sympathetic to cooperative experiments, would still be operating within the market economy. Indeed, it is not certain that even if a great many such municipal enterprises were created that they would choose to limit their exchanges entirely to the network of similar enterprises, rather than continuing to participate in the larger market. In view of the contingencies of history, to make any such prediction would reflect a kind of "scientific municipalism" that is at odds with the dialectical principles of social ecology. But whatever may be the case in the future, to the extent that municipalized enterprises are proposed as a real-world practical strategy, they will necessarily constitute (by Bookchin's own criteria) a "reform" within the existing economy. Thus, it is inconsistent for advocates of libertarian municipalism to attack proposals for self-management, such as those of the Left Greens, as mere reformism. These proposals, like Bookchin's are incapable of abolishing the state and capitalism by fiat. But were they adopted, they would represent a real advance in expanding the cooperative and democratic aspects of production, while at the same time improving the economic position of the less privileged members of society.

Bookchin has come to dismiss the idea that social ecology should emphasize the importance of developing a diverse, experimental, constantly growing cooperative sector within the economy, and now focuses almost exclusively on the importance of "municipalization of the economy." [118] But while he has been writing about municipalism for decades, he has produced nothing more than vague and seemingly self-contradictory generalizations about how such a system might operate. He does not present even vaguely realistic answers to many basic questions. How might a municipality of about 50,000 people (for example, metropolitan Burlington, Vermont), over one million people (for example, metropolitan New Orleans) or over eight million people (for example, metropolitan Paris) develop a coherent municipal economic plan in a "directly-democratic" way? Would the neighborhood or municipal assembly have even vaguely the same meaning in these diverse contexts (not to mention what it might mean in third world megalopolises like Mexico City, Lagos, or Calcutta, in the villages of Asia, Africa and Latin America, or on the steppes of Mongolia)? Could delegates from hundreds or thousands of block or neighborhood assemblies come to an agreement with "rigorous instructions" from their assemblies? Bookchin's municipalism offers no answers to these questions, and as we shall see, neither does his confederalism. He is certainly right when he states that "one of our chief goals must be to radically decentralize our industrialized urban areas into humanly-scaled cities and towns" that are "ecologically sound." [119] But a social ecological politics must not only aim at such far-reaching, visionary goals but also offer effective political options for the increasing proportion of human beings who live in highly populated and quickly growing urban areas, and who face serious urban crises requiring practical responses.

Bookchin's most fundamental economic principle also poses questions that he has yet to answer. He contends that with the municipalization of the economy, the principle of "from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs" becomes "institutionalized as part of the public sphere." [120] How, one wonders, might abilities and needs be determined according to Bookchinist economics? Should a certain amount of labor be required of each citizen, or should the amount be proportional to the nature of the labor? Should those who have more ability to contribute, or whose work fulfills more needs, be required to work more? Of course, these questions can only be answered by specific communities through actual experiments in democratic decision-making and self-organization. However, debate over these issues has a long history within ethics and political theory, and socialists, communists, anarchists and utopians (not to mention liberals such as Rawls) have all devoted much attention to them. If the theory of libertarian municipalism is to inspire the necessary experiments, municipalists must at least suggest possible answers that might convince members of their own and other communities that the theory offers a workable future, or at least they must suggest what it might mean to try to answer such questions.

Bookchin finds it quite disturbing that I could judge "problematical" his invocation of the famous slogan concerning contribution according to abilities and distribution according to needs. One can almost hear his annoyance, as he explains that "the whole point behind this great revolutionary slogan is that in a communistic post-scarcity economy, abilities and needs are not, strictly speaking, 'determined'--that is, subject to bourgeois calculation," which is to be replaced with "a basic decency and humaneness." [121] Once more one is tempted to ask how Bookchin can present himself as a staunch opponent of mysticism and yet orient his thought toward a final good that is an inexpressible mystery, not to mention a logical contradiction. It is clear that many of the revolutionaries who adhered to Bookchin's beloved slogan actually believed that needs and abilities could, at least in some general way, be "determined." However, Bookchin himself believes that certain acts should be performed and certain things should be distributed "according to" that which cannot be "determined." This may be an edifying belief, but it is also an absurdity, pure idealism, and an abdication of the "rationality" that Bookchin claims to value so highly.

But even if this particular form of mysticism were the correct standpoint toward some ultimately utopian society, it would not give us much direction concerning how to get there. Can anyone really take seriously a "libertarian municipalism" that proposes a municipalization of all enterprises, after which conditions of work and distribution of products would be determined (or perhaps we should say "non-determined") by "basic decency and humaneness"? Once again, the problem of Bookchin's lack of mediations between an idealized goal and actually-existing society becomes apparent. And this is not to say that his utopian goal is itself coherent. For despite his self-proclaimed role as the defender of "Reason," he scrupulously avoids consideration of the role of rationality in utopian distribution, in this case falling back instead on mere feeling, dualistically divorced from rationality according to the demands of ideological consistency. This is, of course, his only option short of a fundamental rethinking of his position. For reason, unfortunately for Bookchin, expresses itself in determinations, as tentative and self-transforming as these determinations may be.

Bookchin presents two additional arguments for his position, both of which have appeared many times in the Bookchinian oeuvre. And both reduce essentially to an appeal to faith. First, he claims that if "'primal' peoples" could "rely on usufruct and the principle of the irreducible minimum," then his ideal society could certainly do without "contractual or arithmetical strictures." [122] But this is merely a variation on the famous "if we can put a man on the moon, then we can do X" argument. According to this popular lunar fallacy, some proposal, the feasibility of which in no way follows from a moon landing, is held to be a viable option because the latter achievement proved possible. What is true of tribal societies is that they have usually followed distinct rules of distribution and, indeed, often quite strict and complex ones based on kinship and the circulation of gifts. Whatever the content of these rules (which have often been very humane, ecological, etc.), it certainly does not follow from the fact that previous societies have successfully followed these rules that some future society can get along without rules of distribution, quantitative or otherwise.

In his second argument, Bookchin notes that neither he nor I will make decisions for any future "post-scarcity society guided by reason," but only those who will actually live in it. This statement is undeniably true (assuming neither of us ever lives in it). However, this fact lends absolutely no support to Bookchin's position, since it is quite possible that these rational utopians might look back on his analysis of such a society and find it to be unconvincing or even absurd. If he wishes merely to express his faith that in his final rational utopia people will achieve things that we can hardly conceive of in our present fallen state, it would be difficult to argue with his position. However, if he intends to argue that a specific form of organization is a reasonable goal for a movement for social change, then he must be willing to offer evidence for this view, rather than the merely edifying conception that "in utopia all things are possible"

A Confederacy of Bookchinists

Anarchist political thought has usually proposed that social cooperation beyond the local level should take place through voluntary federations of relatively autonomous individuals, productive enterprises or communities. While classical anarchist theorists like Proudhon and Bakunin called such a system "federalism," Bookchin calls his variation on this theme "confederalism." He describes its structure as consisting of "above all a network of administrative councils whose members or delegates are elected from popular fact-to-face democratic assemblies, in the various villages, towns, and even neighborhoods of large cities." [123] Under such a system, we are told, power remains entirely in the hands of the assemblies. "Policymaking is exclusively the right of popular community assemblies," while "administration and coordination are the responsibility of confederal councils." [124] Councils therefore exist only to carry out the will of the assemblies. Toward this end, "the members of these confederal councils are strictly mandated, recallable, and responsible to the assemblies that chose them for the purpose of coordinating and administering the policies formulated by the assemblies themselves." [125] Thus, while majority rule of some sort is to prevail in the assemblies, which are the exclusive policy-making bodies, the administrative councils are strictly limited to following the directives of these bodies.

However, it is not clear how this absolute division between policy-making and administration could possibly work in practice. How, for example, is administration to occur when there are disagreements on policy between assemblies? Libertarian municipalism is steadfastly against delegation by assemblies of policy-making authority, so all collective activity must presumably depend on consensus of assemblies, as expressed in the "administrative councils." If there is a majority vote on policy issues, then this would mean that policy would indeed be made a the confederal level. Bookchin is quick to attack "the tyranny of consensus" as a decision-making procedure within assemblies in which each member of the group is free to compromise for the sake of the common good. Yet, ironically, he seems obliged to depend on it for decision-making in bodies whose members are rigidly mandated to vote according to previous directions from their assemblies.

Or at least he seems to be committed to such a position until he considers what will occur when some communities do not abide by the fundamental principles or policies adopted in common. Bookchin states that "if particular communities or neighborhoods--or a minority grouping of them--choose to go their own way to a point where human rights are violated or where ecological mayhem is permitted, the majority in a local or regional confederation has every right to prevent such malfeasance through its confederal council." [126] However, this proposal blatantly contradicts his requirement that policy be made only at the assembly level. If sanctions are imposed by a majority vote of the council, this would be an obvious case of a quite important policy being adopted above the assembly level. A very crucial, unanswered question is by what means the confederal council would exercise such a "preventive" authority (presumably Bookchin has in mind various forms of coercion). But whatever his answer might be, such action would constitute policy-making in an important area. There is clearly a broad scope for interpretation of what does or does not infringe on human rights, or what does or does not constitute an unjustifiable ecological danger. If the majority of communities acting confederally through a council acts coercively to deal with such basic issues, then certain state-like functions would emerge at the confederal level.

It appears that the only way to avoid this result is to take a purist anarchist approach, and assume that action can only be taken at any level above the assembly through fully voluntary agreements, with full rights of secession on any issue (including "mayhem"). According to such an approach, a community would have the right to withdraw from common endeavors, even for purposes that others might think unjust to humans or ecologically destructive. Of course, the other communities would still be able to take action against the allegedly offending community because of its supposed misdeeds. They would have had this ability in any case, even if the offending community had never entered into the "non-policy-making" confederal agreement. Should Bookchin choose to adopt this position, he would have to give up the concept of enforcement at the confederal level. He would then be proposing a form of confederal organization in which everything would be decided by consensus, and in which the majority of confederating communities would have no power of enforcement in any area. His position would then have the virtue of consistency, though very few would consider it a viable way of solving problems in a complex world.

There are other aspects of Bookchin's confederalism that raise questions about the practicality or even the possibility of such a system. He proposes that activities of the assemblies be coordinated through the confederal councils, whose members must be "rotatable, recallable, and, above all, rigorously instructed in written form to support or oppose any issue that appears on the agenda." [127] But could such instruction be a practical possibility in modern urban society (assuming, as Bookchin seems to, that the arrival of municipalism and confederalism are not to be delayed until after the dissolution of urban industrial society)? Perhaps Paris might be taken as an example, in honor of the Parisian "sections" of the French Revolution that Bookchin recalls so often as a model for municipal politics. Metropolitan Paris has roughly eight and one-half million people. If government were devolved into assemblies for each large neighborhood of twenty-five thousand people, there would be three-hundred and forty assemblies in the metropolitan area. If it were decentralized into much more democratic assemblies for areas of a few blocks, with about a thousand citizens each, there would then be eight-thousand five-hundred Parisian assemblies. If the city thus had hundreds or even thousands of neighborhood assemblies, and each "several" assemblies (as Bookchin suggests) would send delegates to councils, which presumably would have to form even larger confederations for truly municipal issues, could the chain of responsibility hold up? And if so, how?

When confronted with such questions, Bookchin offers no reply other than that he doesn't believe in the existence of the kind of centralized, urbanized society in which these problems arise. However, his political proposals are apparently directed at people living in precisely such a world. If municipalism is not practicable in the kind of society in which real human beings happen to find themselves, then the question arises of what other political arrangements might be practicable and also move toward the goals that Bookchin embodies in municipalism. Yet his politics does not address this issue. We are left with the abstract pursuit of an ideal and an appeal to the will that it be realized. Bookchin's late work in particular expresses a defiant will that history should become what it ought to be, and a poorly-contained rage at the thought that it stubbornly seems not to be doing so. Objections that his social analysis and political proposals lack an adequate relation to actual history are usually met with ridicule and sarcasm, and seldom with reasoned argument.

Municipalizing Nature?

As Bookchin has increasingly focused on the concept of municipalist politics, the theme of ecological politics has faded increasingly further into the background of his thought. In fact, the idea of a bioregional politics has never really been developed in his version of social ecology. Yet, there are two fundamental social ecological principles that essentially define a bioregional perspective. One is the recognition of the dialectic of nature and culture, in which the larger natural world is seen as an active co-participant in the creative activities of human beings. The other is the principle of unity-in-diversity, in which the unique, determinate particularity of each part is seen as making an essential contribution to the unfolding of the developing whole. While Bookchin has done much to stress the importance of such general principles, what has been missing in his discussion of politics is a sensitivity to the details of the natural world and the quite particular ways in which it can and does shape human cultural endeavors, and a sense of inhabiting a natural whole, whether an ecosystem, a bioregion, or the entire biosphere.

If one searches Bookchin's writings carefully, one finds very little detailed discussion of ecological situatedness and bioregional particularity, despite a theoretical commitment to such values. Typically, he limits himself to statements such as that there should be a "sensitive balance between town and country" [128] and that a municipality should be "delicately attuned to the natural ecosystem in which it is located." [129] In The Ecology of Freedom he says that ecological communities should be "networked confederally through ecosystems, bioregions, and biomes," that they "must be artistically tailored to their natural surroundings," and that they "would aspire to live with, nourish, and feed upon the life-forms that indigenously belong to the ecosystems in which they are integrated." [130] These statements show concern for the relationship of a community to its ecological context, but the terms chosen to describe this relationship do not imply that bioregional realities are to be central to the culture. Furthermore, Bookchin's discussions of confederalism invariably base organization on political principles and spatial proximity. He does not devote serious attention to the possibility of finding a bioregional basis for confederations or networks of communities.

It is possible that an underlying concern that discourages Bookchin from focusing on bioregional culture (and quite strikingly, on communal traditions also) is his mistaken perception that these realities somehow threaten the freedom of the individual. A bioregional approach places very high value on human creative activity within the context of a sense of place, in the midst of a continuity of natural and cultural history. Bioregionalism is based on a kind of commitment that Bookchin steadfastly rejects; that is, a giving oneself over to the other, a choosing without "choosing to choose," a recognition of the claim of the other on the deepest levels of one's being. Bookchin describes his ideal community as "the commune that unites individuals by what they choose to like in each other rather than what they are obliged by blood ties to like." [131] But when one affirms one's membership in a human or natural community, one is hardly concerned with "choosing what to like and not to like" in the community (though one may certainly judge one's own human community quite harshly out of love and compassion for it). The community becomes, indeed, an extension of one's very selfhood. Individualist concepts of choice, rights, justice and interest lose their validity in this context. It seems that Bookchin does not want to take the risk of this kind of communitarian thinking, and is satisfied with the weak communitarianism of libertarian municipalism, assembly government, and civic virtue.

Sometimes Bookchin seems to touch on a bioregional perspective, but he does not carry his thinking in this area very far. He says that in an ecological society, "land would be used ecologically such that forests would grow in areas that are most suitable for arboreal flora and widely mixed food plants in areas that are most suitable for crops." [132] Culture and nature would seemingly both get their due through this simple division. Yet a major ecological problem results from the fact that, except in the case of tropical rain forests, most areas that are quite well suited for forests (or prairies, or even wetlands) can also be used in a highly-productive manner for crop production. A bioregional approach would stress heavily the importance of biological diversity and ecological integrity, and have much less enthusiasm for the further development of certain areas on grounds that they are "suitable for crops," [133] in cases in which such development is not necessary to provide adequately for human needs.

Bookchin comes closest to an authentically bioregional approach when he explains that "localism, taken seriously, implies a sensitivity to speciality, particularity, and the uniqueness of place, indeed a sense of place or topos that involves deep respect (indeed, 'loyalty,' if I may use a term that I would like to offset against 'patriotism') to the areas in which we live and that are given to us in great part by the natural world itself." [134] These admirable general principles need, however, to be developed into a comprehensive bioregional perspective that would give them a more concrete meaning. This perspective would address such issues as the ways in which bioregional particularity can be brought back into the town or city, how it can be discovered beneath the transformed surface, and how it can be expressed in the symbols, images, art, rituals and other cultural expressions of the community. Bioregionalism gives content to the abstract concept that the creation of the ecological community is a dialectical, cooperative endeavor between human beings and the natural world. A bioregional politics expands our view of the political, by associating it more with the processes of ecologically-grounded cultural creativity and with a mutualistic, cooperative process of self-expression on the part of the human community and the larger community of nature. Libertarian municipalism tends to focus on politics as communal economic management, and political processes as policy-making and self-development through collective decision-making in assemblies. Unlike bioregionalism, it constitutes at best a rather "thin" ecological politics.

Conclusion : Social Ecology or Bookchinism?

The questions raised here about libertarian municipalism in no way question the crucial importance of participatory, grassroots democracy. Rather, they affirm that importance and point toward the need for diverse, many-dimensional experiments in democratic processes, and to the fact that many of the preconditions for a free and democratic culture lie in areas beyond the scope of what is usually called "democracy." Communes, cooperatives, collectives and various other forms of organization are sometimes dismissed by Bookchin as "marginal projects" that cannot challenge the dominant system. [135] And indeed, this has often been true (though the weakness of the economic collectives in the Spanish Revolution, to mention an important counter-example, was hardly that they were marginal or non-challenging). However, it is questionable whether there is convincing evidence--or indeed any evidence at all--that such approaches have less potential for liberatory transformation than do municipal or neighborhood assemblies or other municipalist proposals. An eco-communitarianism that claims the legacy of anarchism (as a critique of domination rather than as a dogmatic ideology) will eschew any narrowly-defined programs, whether they make municipalism, self-management, cooperatives, communalism or any other approach the privileged path to social transformation. On the other hand, it will see experiments in all of these areas as valuable steps toward discovering the way to a free, ecological society.

Proposals for fundamentally restructuring society through local assemblies (and also citizens' committees) have great merit, and should be a central part of a left Green, social ecological or eco-communitarian politics. But we must consider that these reforms are unlikely to become the dominant political processes in the near future. Unfortunately, partial adoption of such proposals (in the form of virtually powerless neighborhood assemblies and "town meetings," or citizens' committees with little authority) may even serve to deflect energy or diffuse demands for more basic cultural and personal changes. On the other hand, major cultural advances can be immediately instituted through the establishment of affinity groups, "base" communities, internally-democratic movements for change, and cooperative endeavors of many kinds. Advocates of radical democracy can do no greater service to their cause than to demonstrate the value of democratic processes by embodying them in their own forms of self-organization. Without imaginative and inspiring examples of the practice of ecological, communitarian democracy by the radical democrats themselves, calls for "municipalism," "demarchy" or any other form of participatory democracy will have a hollow ring.

Bookchin has made a notable contribution to this effort in so far as his work has helped inspire many participants in ecological, communitarian, and participatory democratic projects. However, to the extent that he has increasingly reduced ecological politics to his own narrow, sectarian program of Libertarian Municipalism, he has become a divisive, debilitating force in the ecology movement, and an obstacle to the attainment of many of the ideals he has himself proclaimed.


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