ATHENE Webtijdschrift voor directe democratie > ARCHIEF > Libertair Municipalisme
  oktober 2002 [2]




by John Clark

The Author is Professor of Philosophy and co-chair of Environmental Studies at Loyola University, New Orleans. He has written many books in social and ecological philosophy, including: The Philosophical Anarchism of William Godwin (1977);The Anarchist Movement: Reflectionson Culture, Nature and Power (1984); Environmental Phylosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology en Liberty, Equality, Geography:The Social Thought of Elis»e Reclus. He has been for many years an activist in the green and bioregional movements in the USA and also works in ecological forestry.

This text contains four paragraphs from John Clark's 'Municipal Dreams': A social Ecological Critique of BookchinŪs Politics in: Andrew Light (red.), Social Ecology after Bookchin, The Guilford Press, New York/London, 1998 pp 137-191 by Ronald de Vries. According to the author this critique, partly is a reply to Bookchin who earlier criticized ClarksŪ ideas [see: Murray Bookchin, 'Comments on the International Social Ecology Network Gathering and the žDeep Social Ecology" of John Clark' in: Democracy and Nature, Vol. 3, nr. 3, 1997, pp 154-197.] John Clark, who was influenced by Bookchins thoughts for many years, as he himself confessed, in this part of his article criticizes particularly the feasibility of BookchinsŪ political program, the libertair municipalisme.



The Municipalist Program

Libertarian municipalism has increasingly been presented hot 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 Bookchin's political analysis is that it slips from the theoretical dimension to the realm of practical programs with little thoughtful consideration of how realistic the latter may be His discussions of a postscarcity 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 shortcut to that ideal). While the confederated free municipalities of libertarian municipalism sometimes also seem like a utopian ideal, this perspective 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 that must be confronted in any attempt to persuade. [1]  
The relationship between immediate proposals and long-terms goals in libertarian municipalism is not always very clear. While Bookchin sees changes such as the neighborhood planning assemblies in Burlington, Vermont, 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 advance 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 same degree, alternative projects that are independent of the state. On the other hand, he seems to reject, either as irrelevant or as a dangerous farm of cooptation, any political proposal for reform of the nation-state beyond the local (or sometimes, the state) level. 
Bookchin harshly criticizes, 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 the 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." [2] 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." [3] 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." [4]  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; 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. [5]
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 workday did not give up their goal of the abolition of capitalism. [6] There is no reason why left greens today cannot fight for a thirty-hour workweek 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 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). [7]  
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 bizarre (to say the least) 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 encouraged municipalists to work actively in a campaign against the extension of Vermont's gubernatorial term from two to four years. While this is a valid issue of degree of democratic control, its implications in regard to the power of the nation-state can certainly not be compared to those of a 95% reduction in national military spending. 
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; they reinforce dogmatism, inflexibility, and attachment to one's ideas; they limit our social imagination; and they discourage the open, experimental spirit that is necessary for creative social change. 
While libertarian municipalism is sometimes interpreted in a narrower, more sectarian war (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, Bookchin's libertarian 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. [8] 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"; creating community-owned enterprises; and forming "grassroots networks" for various purposes. [9] 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. [10] 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 support for small-scale productive enterprises. This could be clone, he notes, without infringing "on the proprietary rights of small retail outlets, service establishments, artisan shops, small farms, local manufacturing enterprises, and the like." [11] 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." [12] 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." [13]
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 his 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. [14]  

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 democratic politics and puts enormous emphasis on its place in bath the creation and functioning of free municipalities. "Popular assemblies," he says, "are the minds of a free society; the administrators of their policies are the hands." [15] But unless this is taken as an attempt at poetry, it is in same wars 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 share the values of their community. And although 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 same 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 farm 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 thereafter 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 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) [16] 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." [17] 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. [18] What I "call for" is not same specific political farm, but rather a consideration of various promising political farms 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. Same 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 war 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; 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 1960s. One imp1ication of democracy in this context was that "people were expected to be transparent in all their relationships and the ideas they held." [19] 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 critica1 approach to such concepts had he app1yed 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 de bate 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 ideals that inspire them. In addition, there is the option of rejecting Bookchin's proposal that all political power should be concentrated in the assembly and separating it instead among various participatory institutions. 
And whatever the strengths and weaknesses of assemblies as an organizational form, we must also 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 1ess 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 "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 he proposes that the assembly might be constituted on a block, neighborhood, or town level. [20]  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. [21] 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." [22] 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 City or other contemporary cities as "organic communities" is a vast overstatement; indeed, one wonders if Bookchin is referring more to his idealized view of the past than to present realities. Contemporary cities (including New York City) 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 uses 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. [23] However, 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" seems to be much more of an imaginary construct (that is often entangled with nostalgic feelings and that 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. 
The apparently large size of assemblies (even at the neighborhood level) proposed for urban areas raises questions about how democratic these bodies could be. In Barber's discussion of such assemblies, he suggests that their membership would range from five to twenty-five thousand. [24] Bookchin says that they might encompass units of 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 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 ecocommunity). And, in tact, libertarian municipalism is almost always formulated in terms of municipal and neighborhood assemblies. Therefore, in practical terms, it is proposing rather 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." [25] 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. 
Amazingly, Bookchin never explores the basic theoretical question of whether any formal system of local law should exist, and how the policy decisions of assemblies should be interpreted and applied to particular cases. However, his position seems to collapse were he to give any 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 programmatically by judicial and administrative agencies. It is then inevitable that these agencies will have some share in political power. 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 to choose the impossible over the inconsistent.  
Furthermore, there are certain well-known dangers of large assemblies that would presumably threaten neighborhood or municipal assemblies too. Among the problems that often emerge 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 same 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 wilt 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 nothing, since they are acting as equal members of a popular democratic body. [26]
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 same of the serious problems mentioned here are mitigated, it is difficult to imagine how they could be avoided entirely in assemblies with thousands of participants, as are sometimes proposed, at least until institutions other than assemblies have radically changed personality structures. 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 alt 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 have 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" that should "encompass the affective as well as the cognitive mode." [27] Such concerns echo recent contributions in feminist ethics, which have pointed out that the dominant moral and political discourse has exhibited a one-sided emphasis on ideas and principles and neglected the realm of feeling and sensibility. In this spirit, we must explore the wars in which the transition from formal to substantive democracy depends not only on the establishment of more radically democratic farms, but also on the establishment of cultural practices that foster a democratic sensibility. 

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. Further, it requires that producers "explicitly agree to exchange their products and services on terms that are not merely 'equitable' or 'fair' but supportive of each other." [28] 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 gentlemen, which people find new farms of exchange to replace the capitalist marker, and this sphere must be capable of continued growth. Bookchin sees this realm as that of the municipalized economy. He states "under libertarian municipalism, property becomes part of a larger whole that is controlled by the citizen body in assembly as citizens." [29] Elsewhere, he explains "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." [30]  
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 light in his view that participation in a moral economy would be "an ongoing education in forms of association, virtue, and decency" [31] 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." [32] 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 clearing 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 is desirable as a long-term goal, the attempt to put it into practice in the short run, without developing its 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." [33] 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" [34]  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." [35] 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", [36] but the control is effectively limited to members of the community acting as citizens, not as workers. [37] 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, not to mention those of the entire earth community, of which their own community is but a part. 
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." [38] The question arises, though, why this sector should not continue to exist in the long term, alongside more cooperative farms 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. 
However, Bookchin dogmatically rejects this possibility. He claims that if any sort marker 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 riyal enterprises or to be devoured." [39] 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 marker 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 marker sector is incompatible with widespread decentralized democratic institutions and cooperative farms 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 (his) ideological faith. [40]
But whatever the long-term future of the market may he, 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 the 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 if they were 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 increasingly downplayed 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." [41] 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 fifty thousand people (e.g., metropolitan Burlington, Vermont), over one million people (e.g., metropolitan New Orleans) or over eight million people (e.g., the Parisian region) develop a coherent municipal economic plan in a "directly democratic" war? 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 such as 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 will see, neither does his confederalism. He is certainly light when he says 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. [42] 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 as soon as possible. 
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" [43] 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; socialists, communists, anarchists, and utopians have all devoted much attention to them (not to mention liberals such as Rawls). 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 find his invocation of the famous slogan concerning abilities and needs "problematical." 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." [44]  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 same general war, 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 farm of mysticism were the correct standpoint toward same 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 "nondetermined") 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, bath of which have appeared many times in the Bookchinian oeuvre. 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" [45] 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 lunar fallacy, same proposal, the feasibility of which in no war follows from a moon landing, is argued 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 tact that previous societies have adhered to these rules that same future society can get along without rules of distribution, quantitative or otherwise.  
In his second argument, Bookchin Dates 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 farm 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." 

Bookchin's Confederacy

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 such as 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 face-to-face democratic assemblies, in the various villages, towns, and even neighborhoods of large cities." [46] 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." [47] Councils 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." [48] Thus, while majority rule of same sort is to prevail in the assemblies, which are the exclusive policy-making bodies, the administrative councils are strictly limited to carrying out what these bodies decide. 
However, it is not clear how this absolute division between policymaking 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 the 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 at 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 tree to compromise for the sake of the common good. 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 same communities do not abide by he 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 war 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." [49] 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 farms of coercion). But whatever his answer might he, 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 statelike functions would emerge at the confederal level. 
It appears that the only war 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 farm 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 war 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 "rotable, recallable, and, above all, rigorously instructed in written farm to support or oppose any issue that appears on the agenda." [50] 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 he mentions 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 farm 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, seldom with reasoned argument.


[1] Bookchin considers the kind of questions that I raise here "galling in the extreme" (Comments, p. 188). But those who have good answers to questions seldom respond to them with such anguish. In this case, the questions remind him of the troubling fact that a social movement will not succeed (or even emerge as a significant historical force) merely because a small number of proponents espouse some ideal and will vehemently that it be realized. The question of what might lead large numbers of people to share that ideal and to desire its attainment seems like a good one.  

Murray Bookchin and Janet Biehl, A Critique of the Draft Program of the Left Green Network in: Green Perspectives, No. 23, 1991, p. 2. My references to the "left greens" refer in particular to the Left Green Network, a small coalition of eco-anarchists and eco-socialists within the U.S. green movement. Bookchin became disillusioned with the left greens when they failed to adopt his libertarian municipalism as their official ideology.

Bookchin, Comments, p. 174.

Ibid., p. 175; emphasis in original

Hawkins, the primary object of this attack on the left greens, was for years an ally of Bookchin and the latter must he, at least on same level of conceptual thought, aware of the fact that Hawkins's goal is not to bolster the legitimacy of capitalism and the state. But Hawkins has committed the one unpardonable sin: that of embracing the faith and then falling away from it. Conceptual thought therefore cedes its place to irrational denunciations. In a response common to bath leftist sectarianism and religious fundamentalism, the charge is defection to the most hated of enemies. Hawkins now does the work of the Devil, seeking "to render capitalism and the state more palatable."

Bookchin does not, however, accept this example. He replies that the eight-hour demand was made only because it was part of the pursuit of "the goal of insurrection" and "was designed to reinforce what was virtually an armed conflict" ("Comments," p. 175). Even if this were correct, it would not support his argument that reformist demands mean capitulation to the status quo. However, Bookchin's explanation is a simplistic, inaccurate reading of history in support of his attack on the left greens. The goals of the anarchists in the eight-hour-day movement were complex. One aim was indeed the radicalization of the working class. In addition, the achievement of its limited goal as a real advance for the workers was also considered important to many. Finally, an important motivation was a feeling of solidarity with the workers and their struggles, apart from any pragmatic long- or short-term gains. This identification transcended the kind of strategic thinking that Bookchin emphasizes. A notable exponent of the later two justifications was Emma Goldman, who originally followed Johann Most in rejecting the significance of such limited demands as working against the radicalization of workers. She attributes her change in outlook to the moving words of a elderly worker in the audience at one of her lectures. See Living My Life (New York: Dover Books, 1970), Vol. 1, pp. 51-53.

It is noteworthy that almost all of Bookchin's allies over the past several decades who have become heavily involved in grassroots ecological, peace, and social justice movements have discarded narrowly Bookchinist politics, and this aspiring anarchist Lenin has been left stranded at the Finland Station along with hisideological baggage.

Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization, p. 276. 

Bookchin, Libertarian Municipalism, p. 4

It is not always clear why his own endorsement of small businesses is legitimate while others who support them as part of a decentralized; localist, and regionalist economy are condemned for selling out to capitalism. Presumably, the difference is that despite his›› statements in favor of small businesses, he holds the doctrinaire position that all private businesses and indeed every aspect of the market must be eliminated, while those he attacks accept the possibility of experimenting with various combinations of community-owned enterprises, self-management, and small private enterprises in pursuit of a just and democratic economic order. 

Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization, p. 275.


Ibid., p. 276

[14] Social ecological proposals for›› grassroots democracy would appeal more to potential activists (with the exception of some theoretically oriented, politicized leftists) if the rhetoric of "libertarian municipalism" were dropped entirely and replaced with more populist concepts such as "neighborhood power" (in addition to more ecological concepts that will be discussed further). While municipalism is a nonconcept for most North Americans and Western Europeans, identification with one's neighborhood is sometimes fairly strong, and is capable of being developed much further in a liberatory direction. Similar localist tendencies exist in Latin America and many other places in which the urban neighborhood or the village are strong sources of identity. In fact, the idea of the creation of the urban village, incorporated into a larger bioregional vision, would be a social ecological concept that would be both radical and traditionalist in many cultural contexts.

[15] Bookchin, Remaking Society, p. 175.

See John Burnheim, Is Democracy Possible? The Alternative to Electoral Politics (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985).

Bookchin, Comments, p. 183; emphasis in original.

The only references to "councils" in the text attacked by Bookchin are in quotations from him or references to these quotations. While I have never "called for" councils, as if they were
another panacea competing with Bookchin's assemblies, I have supported the expansion of the city council in my own city from seven to at least twenty-five members as one element in a comprehensive process of expanding local democracy (along with neighborhood assemblies, municipalized utilities, and other similar ideas). As we will sec later, despite his apparent dislike for the concept, Bookchin himself "call for" a kind of council, though in a form that seems entirely unworkable.

Bookchin, Remaking Society, p. 143.

Ibid., p. 181.

[21] It is not only the size of the modern urban sprawl that brings into question Bookchin's "municipalist" outlook, but the qualitative changes that have taken place. Mumford pointed out in The City in History that what has emerged "is not in fact a new sort of city, but an anti-city" that "annihilates the city when- ever it collides with it" (The City in History [New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961], p. 505). Bookchin recognizes this change on the level of moralism, as an evil to be denounced, but he does not take it seriously as an object of careful analysis and a challenge to ideas of practice formed in previous historical epochs. Luccarelli, in Lewis Mumford and the Ecological Region (New York: Guilford Press, 1995), points out that Mumford's idea of the "anti-city" prefigured recent analyses of a "technurbia" that has emerged out of social transformations in a  "post-Fordist" regime that is "driven by telecommunications and computerassisted design," that produces "forces that tend to disperse and decentralize production," and that results in a "diffused city" (p. 191). Bookchin's municipalism has yet to come to terms with these transformations and their effects on either organizational possibilities or subjectivity

[22] Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization, p. 246

Ibid., p. 102.

Barber, Strong Democracy, p. 269.

Bookchin, Remaking Society, p. 175.

It is certainly conceivable that an assembly of some size could function democratically without succumbing to these threats. Whether or not it does so to a significant degree depends in part on whether it confronts them openly and effectively, but even more on the nature of the larger culture and the war in which the character of the participants is shaped by that culture. But once again, the assembly itself can hardly be called upon as the primary agent of a paideia that would make noncompetitive, nonmanipulative assemblies possible.
[27] Bookchin, Remaking Society, p. 176

Bookchin, Modern Crisis, p. 91. 

Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization, p. 263. 

Bookchin, Remaking Society, p. 194. 

Bookchin, Modern Crisis, p. 93. 

Ibid., p. 92. 

[33] Bookchin and Biehl, Critique of the Draft Program, p. 3; emphasis in original.

[34] Ibid., p. 4. 


Bookchin, Modern Crisis, p. 160. 

It is not clear whether under libertarian municipalism citizens could work in a nearby enterprise that happened to be outside the borders of their municipality. If not, they would then have no voice in decision-making concerning their workplace except as advisors to the citizens. 

Bookchin, Rise of Urbanization, p. 275.

Bookchin, Comments, p. 186. Bookchin calls these dismal consequences of the marker a "near certainty," and by the next paragraph he has convinced himself, if not the reader, that they wilt "assuredly" occur

Although Bookchin usually attacks Marx harshly, in this case he invokes Marx's "brilliant insights" that "reveal" what wilt "prevail ultimately" (Comments, p. 186). Yet despite Marx's insights into the tendencies of historical capitalism, his›› ideas cannot validly be used to prejudge the role a market might play in alt possible future social formations. This is not the first time that Marx's incisive critique has been used on behalf of heavy-handed dogmatism.

Bookchin, Rise of Urbanization, p. 262. He hastens to cite his"calls" for diversity when he is attacked for narrowness, but he then goes on to harshly attack anyone who questions the centrality of municipalism and the sovereign assembly.

Murray Bookchin and Davis Foreman, Defending the Earth: A Dialogue between Murray Bookchin and Davis Foreman, ed. Steve Chase (Boston: South End Press, 1991), p.79. Bookchin says that these communities must be žartfully tailored to the carrying capacities of the eco-communities in witch they are located." Unfortunately, this not only introduces the awkward metaphor of žtailoringž something to a žcapacityž, but, more seriously, utilizes the theoretically questionable concept of žcarrying-capacityž.

Bookchin, Rise of Urbanization, p. 264. 

Bookchin, Comments, p. 185; emphasis in original.


Murray Bookchin, The Meaning of Confederalism, in: Green Perspectives, No. 20, 1990, p. 4.; emphasis added. 



Bookchin, Libertarian Municipalism, p. 3

Bookchin, Rise of Urbanization, p. 246.