21 Theses for the People’s Ecology in the Twenty-first Century

by the Social Ecology Cooperative (Paris)

The “21 Theses,” dated July 2014 and published in November 2015, marked the birth of the Social Ecology Cooperative in Paris. In May 2016 I had the opportunity to ask Patrick Farbiaz, one of its founders, what the cooperative meant by social ecology. He explained that it views ecology through the eyes of the poor in the global South. It advances an “ecology of liberation” inspired by the “theology of liberation,” a formulation of Christian doctrine seen through the eyes of the poor, especially in Latin America. This form of political ecology has strong overtones with the environmental justice movement that emerged in the United States in the 1970s, which sought to organize those most affected by environmental disasters—the poor, ethnic minorities, women—and with the more recent climate justice movement. These “21 Theses” advance the concept of a people’s ecology (écologie populaire), advanced by movement of the “popular classes,” those dispossessed by capitalist modernity on a global scale.

The affinities with Bookchin’s social ecology are clear, notably the social origins of the ecological crises; the distinction between environmentalism (inherently reformist) and ecology (which in political terms is socially revolutionary); the orientation toward the downtrodden; the concern for localization; and the bitter opposition to green capitalism.

logo-c3a9cologie-socialeThe three founding members of the Cooperative Ecologie Sociale have been associated with the various evolving French Green parties (Les Verts, Ecology Europe, Ecology Europe-Les Verts, or EELV) since the early 1990s. Francine Bavay was elected in 2004 to the regional council for Ile-de-France and became second vice president in charge of social development, the social economy, and solidarity, health, and disability. She has since quit elective office and now organizes around local currency. Patrick Farbiaz works in the office of Noël Mamère, a deputy in the French National Assembly. Serge Coronado, an EELV officeholder, represents French nationals in Latin America and the Caribbean in the assembly.

I am publishing its English translation here out of respect for the cooperative’s effort to bring social ecology into the twenty-first century by casting it in global terms and for its emphasis on environmental justice. For more information about the cooperative, to see its other documents, and to consult the original French for this one, see its website at Ecolgiesociale.org.

21 Theses for the People’s Ecology in the Twenty-first Century

The People’s Ecology is the political response of ecologists who refuse to resign themselves to the domination, exploitation, and alienation of the capitalist system. It renovates ecological thinking by proposing a new narrative of ecology based on a vision of the history of ecology and humanity outside the mainstream. Far from being an abstract model, it offers a concrete alternative in the face of the environmental crisis that threatens humanity. Building the people’s ecology will recast the ecology project by conjoining the historic force of the poor with the defense of the planet and the commons.

This manifesto starts with the simple idea that there are two ecologies, one from above and one from below. The from-above ecology advocates developing an economy based on green growth. It seeks to be, in effect, the spare tire in the globalized capitalist system. The other ecology is the from-below struggle of the popular classes for survival, and for meeting their needs in terms of access to ecological resources. Between these two ecologies, the gap is widening every day, and it is necessary to choose. And considering the shock that is coming, the alternative must be a political ecology.

1) The global crisis that we are experiencing is multidimensional: it is financial, economic, social, cultural, identitarian—and ecological. This last feature is the radically new element that is driving the world toward an existential choice: the barbarism engendered by market fundamentalism or a politics of civilization in the lands of “living well.” The capitalist system, engaged in a logic of destruction, cannot be reformed, even if the green economy is making a final attempt to salvage a solution to its crisis. The “civilizing mission of capitalism,” based on the development of productive forces and defended by liberal thinkers as well as by socialists, has led to disruptions of major balances in the earth system that are poised to render human life impossible.

Capitalism is incompatible with respect for natural limits. The ever more rapid destruction of ecosystems, the disruption of the climate, chemical pollution and diseases it causes, the rapid decline of biodiversity, the degradation of soil, the destruction of the rainforests, global social apartheid produced by the brutal development of inequality, and the rise of identitarian and religious violence are the main symptoms. These crises stem from the mode of production that became dominant over two centuries —capitalism—and the resulting patterns of consumption and mobility. This ecologically and socially unsustainable mode of development is leading the biosphere to collapse.

2) The only force that has anticipated this crisis is political ecology. Political ecology has several currents, but alone among all political families, ecology considers it necessary to change the model of development by reducing our ecological footprint, by defending the ecosystems of the planet against predators, and by protecting the commons while meeting fundamental social needs. Ecology founded on the principles of autonomy, responsibility, and equilibrium calls for embracing universal values of protecting the land and human and non-human rights. The ecology movement became political in the 1980s in Europe and in other wealthy countries when the defense of daily culture converged with the question of the survival of the human species and the inclusion of specific methods of implementing democracy. It was organized by the Green parties, whose social base corresponded to the post-1968 student generation that had grown up during the affluent postwar decades. This social base can be referred to as the middle class, which has high cultural capital at its disposal and lives in the urban centers of large cities; it has configured political ecology in its own image and functions in its own interests. It advocates a politics of greening that sets standards from above and that regards adaptation to capitalism by means of a green economy as the horizon of political ecology.

3) Another ecology, issuing from the historical force of the poor, the ecology from below, arose in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This plebeian ecology, emerging from the large majority of the planet, animates everywhere struggles for the survival of humanity and of biodiversity. Native to the social periphery, it mobilizes millions of women and men against the financial and industrial oligarchy that is destroying the planet and threatening the survival of humanity and the conditions for life among the dispossessed throughout the world: against the destruction of forests, against large dams, against the extraction of oil and mineral resources, and for the survival of their languages and their cultural diversity, against industrial disasters, against environmental racism. … The ecology from below currently has not been translated into a formal politics. When it appears within the green parties, it is most often a minority.

It is expressed in organized social movements (MST in Brazil, Via Campesina, indigenous movements) and in the popular uprisings (the Water War in Bolivia, riots in China, anti-dam movements in India). It is still seeking its references, but already it has become indispensable, especially during such major meetings of political ecology as RIO + 20 or when tens of thousands of ecologists demonstrate against the green economy and its consequences and express through the Climate Justice network the requirements of social ecological movements … Gradually, the people’s ecology is spreading in Western countries, in peasant communities fighting industrial agriculture and the chemical industry, in popular neighborhoods where pollution is invisibly concentrated, and diseases related to the environment, the consumption of junk food and the resulting obesity. Faced with the accumulating social and ecological injustices, a new political ecology is both necessary and possible.

4) These two poles of political ecology have their roots in an earlier story that has been divided since its inception. Since the nineteenth century, a gap has widened between the scientific ecology from above, formed into large part by colonial science, hygienism, conservationism, and social Darwinism. Driven by the positivist ideology and the religion of unlimited progress, ecology from above influenced the first ecologists, often naturalists and environmentalists, in the twentieth century. On the other side, ecology from below is an ecology of transformation, of the people’s ecology, emerging from the struggles of workers, peasants, and anticolonial peoples for survival. Struggles for survival are foundational to the people’s ecology. The popular classes will defend not only their material conditions of life but also their natural environment, as capitalist modernity destroys their civilization.

Capital has destroyed the conditions of life and work of communities of peasants and artisans in the name of Progress, Science, and Reason. In this sense the Right as well as the Left have achieved a historic compromise based on liberal individualism. If we want to stop this process, the first task of the people’s ecology is to decolonize the collective imaginary of the left and of ecology in fighting this religion of Progress and Scientism, which is the basis of middle-class domination over the popular classes. The Terra Nova Foundation calls leftists unconcerned about the future “bobos,” since they have de facto abandoned the popular classes in favor of abstention or the National Front; in so doing, they are following the logic of socialism and scientific ecology in despising the socialism of their origins, of workers, indigenous peoples, and peasant movements, claiming they are now archaic. The decolonization of the imaginary thus contributes to the rediscovery of the values and history of the disinherited, who are the exact opposite of the market society based on profit and competition exacerbated among individuals: they represent consociation, concern for others, the common ownership of land, the gift, mutual aid, cooperation, and civility.

Patrick Farbiaz and Francine Bavay of the Cooperative Ecologie-Sociale in Paris

Patrick Farbiaz and Francine Bavay of the Cooperative Ecologie-Sociale in Paris

5) The people’s ecology was born in the nineteenth-century ecology of workers’ associationism, agrarian populism, Luddism, civil disobedience, and libertarian geography. Workers’ associationism is the taproot of the social and solidaristic economy; Luddism is the root of the critique of industrialism and mechanization; agrarian populism emerged from struggles and wars of rural communities to defend their lifeways and existence against the development of another relation to earth and to commodification; civil disobedience originated in methods of noncooperation in struggles used from Thoreau to Gandhi and passing through the Landless of Brazil; the libertarian geography of Reclus and Kropotkin, countering sociobiology, developed the concept of mutual aid and cooperation.

The official history of ecology recounts its emergence as a passing of the baton from scientific ecologists to environmentalist and naturalist movements with bourgeois sensibilities toward nature. After 1968, a set of currents, born in the 1970s, from a cultural and generational movement nourished by various influences (feminism, Third World, pacifism and nonviolence, libertarian, socialist self-management) came together and gave birth to political ecology and the green parties. This story is false because it deliberately omits the ecology of the poor, which in the 19th and 20th centuries never ceased to fight capitalist modernity and the damage wrought by Progress.

6) The people’s ecology, from its premises, is a rupture with the capitalist system with its limitless exploitation of resources, globalized trade, and capital accumulation. Four key types of globalization underlie the ecological crisis.

The first globalization was the triangular Atlantic trade system, based on human slavery, which resulted in the destruction of indigenous peoples and put in place extractivism, the grabbing of natural resources and raw materials.

The second globalization, based on coal and steam energy, generated wage labor, forced labor, and productivism, that is, the religion of production based on the profits reaped by colonial empires. Meanwhile enclosures put an end to the common ownership of land and transformed millions of peasants into extensions of machines. The destruction of the peasant community coincided with the birth of the industrial proletariat.

The third globalization, generated by oil exploitation, was that of Fordism and electricity, of consumerism and alienation.

The fourth globalization, using nuclear power, peak oil and renewable energy, is contemporary with the planned obsolescence of products and of humanity itself. This era will lead either to barbarism and chaos or to a humanist Renaissance based on global citizenship and empathy. The current globalization threatens the very existence of humanity.

Reading these four globalizations through an ecological prism shows that capitalist modernity has always been based on the exploitation of the working classes and the destruction of their ecosystems. Those who are dominated have never ceased to contest the domination of human and of nature, as evidenced by Indian resistance, runaway slaves, slave revolts, riots and peasant wars, struggles for the rights and the health of workers, and nowadays the resistance to extractivism, huge dams, deforestation, and large unnecessary projects.

What Is the People’s Ecology?

7) The people’s ecology is neither mainstream nor neutral. Ecology is intimately involved with social relations and confrontations from local to global. It places at the center of its thinking the conflict between the popular classes and the political and economic oligarchy, for the simple reason that all parts of humanity do not experience the ecological crisis in the same way. Inequalities in income, power, and cultural fluency, which lie at the root of ecological crises, ensure that some of us lack the capacity to protect ourselves from its effects. The aim of the people’s ecology is to eradicate social inequalities, starting by decommodifying water, air, earth and in general all public goods (health, education, culture).

The financialization of the world is the highest stage of the fetishism of commodities, where the only standard is King Money and the level of material wealth is the index of calculating happiness. The people’s ecology, against the dictatorship of the economic, has taken sides, and its preference for the poor finds strength in defending the living conditions of the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed, the outcasts, and the unseen, to better fight ecological disaster. The crisis in climate, energy, and ecology will not be resolved within the mainstream but in the confrontation between the forces of the global economy and the people who are directly threatened by the crisis.

8) The people’s ecology is a political and ideological current of the Green and international ecology movements. It radically distinguishes itself from other tendencies:

Environmentalism. This tendency reduces political ecology to nothing more than protection of the environment. But political ecology is a comprehensive and systemic approach to the relations among people, society, and nature. An environmentalism that only defends wildlife limits itself to one aspect of ecology and becomes NIMBY-type corporatism when it enters the political field.

Deep ecology. This form of antihumanism emerged from conservationism, which has always excluded human beings from the ecosystem. Founded by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, this school of thought is based on biocentrism, which reduces to antihumanism. Although the people’s ecology criticizes anthropocentrism, it is not to be confused with an ecology that sets human beings outside nature

Liberal ecology, sustainable development, green economics, and in general all those who want to place ecology in the service of greening capitalism. Liberal ecology, which reveres efficiency, is based on the commodification of ecology. It believes that Nature has a price and that its economy can be regulated to preserve Nature for future generations. Supporting a historic compromise with the capitalist system, which it considers invincible, and develops suitable mechanisms like carbon markets ….

The people’s ecology. Pursuing the ecology of transformation, this radical ecology includes supporters of de-growth, social ecology, and eco-socialism. The ecology of transformation believes that capitalism cannot be reformed, and it sets about creating the conditions for overcoming it, through social practices, concrete struggles, and the elaboration of a political project that takes recourse neither to the laws of the market nor to the state as the supreme savior.

9) The people’s ecology is not eco-socialism. It is not a copy-and-paste of the theses of scientific socialism and ecology. It is not a successor of productivist socialism but exists as an alternative to it. So-called “scientific” socialism is based on belief that the development of productive forces desired and supported by the bourgeoisie has created the conditions for its own overthrow by the very class it helped form, the modern industrial proletariat.

This concept was reinforced by the ideology of Progress, the deification of science and technology, the development of technology at all costs regardless of its consequences, the disproportionate importance given to the role of the nation-state, and the negation of community identities. But capitalism went on to destroy peasant communities, the lifeways of artisans and tradespeople, and it enlisted millions of workers in an industrial army with no reference beyond the industrial and productivist revolution itself. In the colonies, it attacked ancestral civilizations based on the lands of the people it claimed to assimilate and civilize. . . .

The critique of technology is another difference between eco-socialism and the people’s ecology. Marxism believes that technology is a neutral instrument that can and must be put at the service of the working class, that technology is a decisive factor for social transformation and progress. By contrast, the people’s ecology considers that technology is becoming ever more autonomous and is endangering the earth and humankind. Nonetheless, eco-socialism is the intellectual tendency closest to the people’s ecology. The overlaps are numerous, and they can work together as part of the same international network.

10) The people’s ecology is not the same as de-growth. Even if the principles of de-growth are applied to the entire world system, the people’s ecology still finds it necessary to guarantee food, education, and health for the popular classes. Fair cultivation in these areas requires a model of eco-development based on social and ecological justice. In the South, in the poorest countries, but also in emerging and Western countries, this can translate into a policy of reparation (such as compensation for financial or ecological debt). The popular classes who have been excluded from the system may then get a boost through the growth of consumption and production in some areas. If decline in the ecological footprint is to be an absolute rule, it must not come at the expense of the popular classes. De-growth cannot mean recession. On the contrary, it must replace the quantitative growth of capitalism and its logic of accumulation with the logic of qualitative growth, which implies significant quantitative de-growth primarily in the dominant capitalist countries.

11) The people’s ecology is an ecology of liberation. It is an ecology of the poor in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Its founding figures are Chico Mendes, Vandana Shiva, and Ken Saro-Wiwa. It holds that the connections between Mother Earth and the poor prohibit the commodification of water, air, and earth. By liberating themselves, the poor liberate all of humanity and preserve the planet and all its components. The ecology of liberation has as a foundational principle that the earth is not to be owned.

The ecology of liberation is an ecology of survival. It demands access to rights as defined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the rights to housing, health, and food.

The ecology of liberation has a spiritual dimension characterized by a rapprochement between Christian liberation theology and the idea of Mother Earth that is found in the peasant communities in the Andean highlands and elsewhere.

12) The people’s ecology is an ecology of environmental justice. This movement, born in the United States in the 1980s, struggles against ecological racism. The ecological crisis does not have the same impact in poor neighborhoods as it does in wealthier ones. Environmental inequalities merge with social and ethnic inequalities to structure a territorial and ethnic-social discrimination. The people’s ecology is anti-discriminatory. In this sense it has a very strong relationship with the social ecology theorized by the libertarian ecological activist Murray Bookchin.

13) The people’s ecology is an ecology of the commons. The commons originated as an achievement of the farming community especially in the fight against “enclosures,” and it is at stake in social and ecological struggles today. Whether it opposes the patenting of life, land grabs, the appropriation of cyberspace, the privatization of culture, or control over natural resources and raw materials, the struggle for the commons is basic to the new ecological struggle of the peoples. The commons is reclaiming common goods, collective intelligence, and ancestral skills such as practical information that resists privatization.

14) The people’s ecology is a transnational and alter-globalizing ecology. It rests on organized social forces such as the peasant movement (La Via Campesina), movements against deforestation and large dams, the movement for Climate Justice, the movement against the imposition of useless large projects, the movements of indigenous peoples for survival, the movement for free software, and eco-unionism. It participates in the alter-globalization movement at social forums.

15) The people’s ecology has affinities with eco-unionism. Workers’ struggles against against social and environmental injustices are part of the people’s ecology. Struggles for occupational health against asbestos, lead poisoning, and toxic products are an essential dimension. The people’s ecology, like eco-unionism, advocates self-management. It advocates the direct management of companies on a federalist and decentralized model but also user-citizen control over production and the environment.

16) The people’s ecology is eco-feminist. The patriarchal capitalist system has oppressed and exploited women as it has land. Eco-feminism holds that protecting of the integrity of life in all its forms against patriarchal domination is a unified fight. Industrialism has turned not only nature but the female body into merchandise. The domination of nature by humans is intrinsically linked to the domination of women by men. Humans cannot establish a new relation with nature without changing human relationships between women and men. Eco-feminism advocates principles such as reciprocity, mutual aid, solidarity, sharing, trust, care for others, respect for the individual, and responsibility with respect to all ecosystems.

17) The people’s ecology is cosmopolitan. The preservation of human diversity is an essential element in the struggle for the defense of the planet. Six thousand peoples compose the planet, and the preservation of their languages, cultures, and identities is a key feature of the ecological struggle. Financial globalization tries to standardize culture by imposing a standardized language and cultural production. The war of civilizations advocated by the American neoconservatives in the 1990s gave rise to a globalized racism against people who reject the new world order. There is no national ecology. The people’s ecology is borderless and fights for global citizenship. Cosmopolitanism is the humanism of the twenty-first century.

The Strategy of the People’s Ecology

18) The people’s ecology fights for the creation of a new historic bloc: the coalition for the commons. The struggle cannot depend on the cultured urban middle classes but must bring together those who represent the modern proletariat: intellectual workers, the precariat, parts of the industrial working class, petty officials, and peasant-workers. The people’s ecology’s allies in this new historical bloc are all the movements that fight for access to rights for everyone and for ecological democracy. This bloc is a coalition for the commons, among those who are fighting for physical common goods (water, earth, air) and so for the survival of humanity and those who fight for intangible common goods (information, culture, cyberspace) against the new enclosures. This bloc is a numerical majority. The great mass of working people share this desire for a revolution for the commons and for access.

19) The people’s ecology seeks an ecological transition based on an alternative model of development that takes into account human needs and the limitations of the planet. It rethinks the social utility of production, ways of consuming, the purpose of our products, and how they are produced. It advocates the relocalization of economic activity and the conversion of useless or predatory activities, and the redistribution of wealth and work. In the fight against productivist agriculture, it highlights agro-ecology and respects the peasantry’s ancestral knowledge. The transitional program includes:

– an energy and industrial policy with a notable tightening of energy conservation, an end to nuclear power, the nonexploitation of unconventional sources of fossil fuels, and the use of local renewable energy

– the relocalization of the economy to avoid forced displacements and to restore control and fair resource sharing at the local level. It supports an informal popular economy and a new post-capitalist economy solidarity economy. . . .

To develop society’s resilience to the ecological crisis, we must collectively prepare to anticipate the impact of peak oil and climate change on energy. … [We must develop] global, continental, national, and regional public policies enabling democratic ecological planning; support struggles for the recovery of natural resources, common goods, and food sovereignty; and construct spaces for economic cooperation by developing a plural economy encompassing the private sector, a social and solidaristic economy, and public services. …

20) The people’s ecology rejects the professionalization of politics and its separation from struggles for social and ecological emancipation. The popular classes do not need specialists in politics. They want to decide on the conditions of their lives, their work, and their environment from local to global. Politics is everyone’s business. It is strong where social and environmental movements exist and express their force for transformation. It is weak where they do not. The people’s ecology cannot be absorbed into a party, although it can become a component of various movements, parties, or fronts. The people’s ecology is based on popular initiatives, self-managed struggles, the construction of democracy from below, and communal relations. So it returns to the origins of utopian and libertarian socialism, which initially wanted a collective, dynamic, and solidaristic response to liberal individualism, to the destruction of trades and rural communities, the dispossession of the popular classes by the industrial revolution, and their enslavement to the capitalist system.

The people’s ecology finds the Charter of Amiens [of 1906] to be outdated. The formal separation between labor unions, associations, and parties was imposed by the industrial revolution. Similarly, the centralized organization of political parties dates to that time. Today social change movements must co-develop a political project and set it in motion. Doing politics differently presupposes practicing democracy thoroughly, abandoning internal competition for paid positions in favor of cooperation. However, faced with this historic task, the people’s ecology movement cannot develop without a forum for political and theoretical elaboration, a capability to combine social forces engaged in the struggle, and the ability to articulate general perspectives and offer them as public policy. The movement that assumes this role must reject the outdated organizational pattern of a vanguard, with a program developed in isolation as a pre-determined model. It must therefore organize itself as an autonomous tendency within the ecology movement.

Our attempt to construct a political cooperative . . . was an advance over the party form, which has become obsolete in the 21st century. The separation between those who are said to be competent and those who are not, between political actors and union militants, belongs to the politics of the industrial revolution, where the popular classes were reduced to carrying out tasks. In fact, for the collective intelligence of the entire party and the society, it substituted the domination of one small group that imposed itself vertically on the rest. The conditions for that type of organization have collapsed. Inventing a party form suitable for the age of the network, of horizontality, is the task of the people’s ecology.

21) The people’s ecology supports the construction of communal democracy. The people’s ecology cannot build an alternative on the basis of elections alone. Without deep involvement of the population at all levels, democracy cannot exist today; otherwise it becomes a de facto census. The oligarchy has a stranglehold on the media, advertising, and polling, and it organizes democratic debate on its own terms. Citizens who want to reclaim politics must do it from the bottom, starting by federating transitional initiatives made by local communities engaging in social transformation and adopting values of the people’s ecology: autonomy, equality, dignity, and mutual aid.

Political ecology seeks not to take power but to change society from below while simultaneously using the path of institutions, protest, and social experimentation. This strategy implies the exercise of power issuing from below, controlled by citizens mobilized in line with the federalist and self-management movement. It continues today in the social movements that want to liberate spaces rather than frontally attack state power. It does not exclude the question of the state from its thinking, but it considers that the transition will give rise to a system of self-government where citizens establish their own power in municipalities, regions, and companies. The political organization must help implement these self-government practices and without replacing them.

Communal democracy presupposes the construction of a federative republic at all levels. The federalist principle will not be applicable to the European continent or to the world system if it does not apply at the national, regional, and local levels.

Regarding political alliances, the people’s ecology holds that the participation of majority coalitions for social transformation is the way for ecologists to become the cultural and political majority, but in countries where social liberalism has destroyed the basis for social democracy, leading to antisocial and anti ecological policies, participation in social liberal governments marginalizes political ecology and makes it an agent for green capitalism. We must participate in the construction of a social and ecological opposition, strengthening the presence of ecologists in all local, regional and European elections where autonomy can be built, and negotiate majority contracts in parliament, but refuse to participate in social-liberal governments that are the most effective instruments of capitalist modernity.

Written (in French) July 2014; issued November 9, 2015. Translated into English by Janet Biehl.

Report on the Lyons Social Ecology Gathering, May 2016

The French « Rencontres internationales d’écologie sociale » recently discussed ways to overcome capitalism. At the center of the discussions: libertarian municipalism as an alternative to the nation-state and the need to renew militancy.Affiche_A3_ecologie_sociale_2016_basse_def

by Les Incontrôlé-e-s

On May 27-29, 2016, radical ecologists, supporters of degrowth, and anarchists gathered in Lyons for the first Rencontres internationales d’écologie sociale (International Social Ecology Gathering). Organized by an international board, it brought together nearly 120 activists, mostly from France, Belgium, Spain, and Switzerland but also from the United States, Guatemala, and Quebec. The official aim was to propose and discuss alternatives to the existing economic and social order. The participants reflected a will to rethink the Left in terms of a radical and resolutely anticapitalist ecology, at a time when the leftist end of the political spectrum has been devastated and deserted and when conservative and far-right thinking is on the rise. In a country marked today by a social turmoil, as labor unions strike against the Loi travail (Work Law) and as the Nuit Debout movement protests a range of issues, these theses couldn’t be more current and accurate.

The alternatives proposed were inspired by libertarian municipalism, a theory developed some years ago by the American political ecologist Murray Bookchin (1921-2006). His last companion and now biographer Janet Biehl spoke about the implementation of those political principles in Rojava, in northern Syria. This mostly Kurdish region has declared political autonomy amid the civil war in Syria. During the gathering’s first evening this theme was developed by two Kurdish militants, after a showing of the documentary Kurdistan: La Guerre des filles (The girls’ war), in presence of its director, Mylène Sauvoy. The film showed the struggles and the political project of the women’s movement in Kurdistan.

The conflicts in Middle East have made evident the failure of the nation-state, showing it to be incapable of integrating cultural, ethnic and religious minorities as well as women. In Rojava, a radical critique of nation-state has brought about a real autonomy of the base units of democracy. The Kurdish freedom movement has abandoned the aim of creating a homogeneous Kurdish nation-state in favor of establishing a federal system that includes all the ethnic and religious minorities of the area—a prodigious political and social achievement. Lacking innovative political and social ideas, the West will soon fall behind an East that is in the process of reinventing itself, a young Kurdish militant from Paris warned us.

In the new political system inspired by libertarian municipalism and known to the Kurds as democratic confederalism, minorities are systematically represented at all institutional levels. The system is as decentralized as possible: Biehl, who went twice to Rojava, explained that decisions are made first in communes at the level of the residential street and then in councils at the neighborhood, district, and canton levels, with each level sending a delegate to the next one up, charged with relaying the positions taken by the base. It aspires to be a direct democracy, with power flowing from the bottom up, not from the top down, reactualizing the ideals of the Parisian sections of 1793 and of the Paris Commune of 1871. Such a political system is also being attempted in several communes in France, Italy, and elsewhere, so tired are citizens of false political debates and the technocratic administration of the State.

Get Inspired by Rojava

During the discussions, everyone agreed that the Rojava system couldn’t be implemented in Europe in the same way, because the context differs greatly. Here too a war is under way, although it remains latent. It’s an ecological and social war that doesn’t bear that name and is attenuated by the existing political system’s numerous safeguards. Social tensions here tend to be easily co-opted or pacified or overwhelmed by the system and by the mass media. Mobilizing its victims will require using other strategies.

Nevertheless, the municipalist and confederal political system that is being constructed in Rojava can be a pertinent alternative in Europe. As a counterpower in the form of a dual political structure, it can take root on the margins of official institutions and develop without trying to initiate an armed revolution. In Turkey as in Syria, Kurdish people didn’t wait to change the constitution before empowering their communes. They put it into practice, and they transformed mayors and their assistants in simple spokespersons for the community.

Libertarian municipalism took center stage at the Lyons meeting because today the Left – and all citizens who fight for greater social equality and more ecological, humanistic and libertarian values in society – must do more than protest. We must create the system that we desire here and now. Political change must accompany social and economic change – and even lead it.

To Create Our Desire

The participants shared a felt need to renew militancy by federating diverse forms of resistance. At this moment movements of workers (labor union struggles) should converge with social movements (neighborhood struggles, site occupations, alternative lifestyles). The links that once united them have been lost as places of residence no longer coincide with the workplaces, isolating people and neighborhoods, making them more vulnerable to an ever more centralized power. It is crucial today to federate our struggles, to explain how they can build on and with one another. To this end we must mobilize ourselves, to share our critiques and our expectations, to recover what we have in common and combine our forces.

But renewing militancy means renewing not only its project but its form. Many participants shared experiences that pointed to the urgent need to go to the people first, to start from them and their needs. A broad and lasting political movement can emerge only from local demands, ones that bring people together around a project that speaks for them, that has touched them in the first place – its spectrum can be enlarged afterward. Rebuilding local groups for struggle means recreating agoras and places of formation that express something besides neoliberal discourse and consumerism. We know from Castoriadis and others that change can be effective only when our own thinking is freed from the lies and the illusions of happiness imposed by the market economy. If humanity is to reassert control over its own destiny, the hypnotic hold of economic myths must be loosened.

Many initiators of alternative experiences insisted that their main role is to speak with people, to explain their ideas and proposals, to present them other possible political and economical systems. The aim of the alternatives, be they food cooperatives, reinvented lifestyles, or self-governing politics, is certainly not to oppose frontally the existing dominating system. The system knows very well how to adapt, how to co-opt experiences that annoy or contradict it and how to create conditions to destroy them. The true aim is to create a counterculture that models that what is proposed to us today is not inevitable but is changeable. What can we do with a system that threatens to ruin us yet to which we contribute anyway, despite ourselves? Capitalism is the end of history only if we believe it to be. To sow doubt, to show that another world is possible – and profitable – means breaking the illusions to which masses of right-thinking people submit, even if today’s world repels them deep inside, and starting to alter the balance of forces.

The workshop on “concrete alternatives” contributed to the discussion by reminding us that capitalism was born in tandem with the modern State and that they grew in perfect synergy, defending each other in order to entrench themselves. In the end, capitalism cannot exist without the State, nor the State without capitalism, and both entities should be confronted together.

The origins of capitalism in the sixteenth century were mentioned during the discussion of the commons. The expropriation of the commons – which started with the enclosure phenomenon – coincided with a war against women, whose resistance was a key component of the resistance of farming communities. That war culminated in witch-hunting. Expropriations and the subjection of women were characteristic of the beginning of primitive accumulation of capital, which continues today in new territories. The specific discrimination of women was invoked many times in Lyons, as was the need for gender parity within the movement itself. This led to heated debates, as some argued that feminism has to be integrated into every viable alternative, while others insisted that categorizing a specific discrimination tends to divide a movement.

Reports on the workshops and discussions will be published on the event’s website, on the website Ecologie sociale, and in a forthcoming book.

The next social ecology meeting will take place in Barcelona in 2017. In the meantime discussions will continue all around us, about how to infuse real democracy where it exists only in name, and how to leave to our progeny something besides a world dominated by a deadly, unjust, and destructive system. The prospects are slight, but offering hope is an important factor in reinventing ourselves and in daring to change.

Mesopotamian Ecology Movement

 The Mesopotamian Ecology Movement recently issued a declaration of social-ecological aims. 

Final Declaration of the First Conference of the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement, April 23-24, 2016, in Wan (Van), North Kurdistan

On April 23 and 24, 2016, the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement (MEM) held its first conference in the city of Wan (Van). One hundred delegates participated, coming from the provinces Amed (Diyarbakir), Dîlok (Gaziantep), Riha (Sanliurfa), Merdîn, Muş, Wan, Elih (Batman), Siirt, Dersîm, and Bedlîs (Bitlis) in Turkey.MEH_1.Konf_Foto_2

Activists from the following movements and groups also participated: Gaya magazine, Anti Nuclear Platform, Green Resistance, Green Newspaper, Green and Left Party, Black Sea in Rebellion, Defense of North Forests, Water Rights Campaign, and Dersîm-Ovacik Municipality; and from the German group International Coordination of Revolutionary Parties and Organizations (ICOR) and the East Kurdistan group Green Chiya.

In addition, representatives of the Democratic Society Congress (DTK), Free Women of Kurdistan (KJA), Peoples’ Democratic Congress (HDK), and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) were present. Taken together, a total of 170 people joined the first large gathering of the MEM assembled since its founding.

The conference was organized during a period of intensive political struggle on the part of people in Kurdistan for freedom and self-governance, a struggle that may significantly change the future of the region but that also demands many victims.

Based on the trinity of city, class, and state and using the method of domination–capital accumulation, capitalist modernity creates a suffocating and unproductive society even as it presents nature with every kind of destruction. On behalf of the existing hegemonic system, the nation-state und its governments disperse the solidaristic character of society and instead impose unemployment, poverty, unhealthy nourishment via industrial agriculture and GMOs, and the cultural-social devastation on the people. Huge destructive projects like the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP), the Ilisu Dam, the Munzur dams, Green Way, and Cerattepe Mining and Kanal Istanbul have been developed with the aim of clearing forests for construction, commercializing the waters, commodifying the land, controlling nature and people, and promoting the consumption of fossil fuels, all of which alienates people from original nature and from social life.

Currently, the ruling regime in Turkey is carrying out a campaign of brutality in Kurdistan that is incomparable in the recent history of the Middle East. In a new, perfidious dimension, it has forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands of people from Sur, Nusaybin, Hezex, Kerboran, Farqin, Şırnak, Gever, Silopi, and Cizre, cities that are systematically being destroyed. Yet the international public remains silent on the destruction of nature and cities and on all the massacres of people.

The nation-state’s monist and denialist mentality and capitalist modernity’s unlimited profit-, competition-, and domination-seeking character have brought the world to its current grave state. Social disasters become ecological disasters, and vice versa. Society and humanity must put a stop to this development, for if it continues, we will reach the point where a turnaround is no longer possible. Therefore the mobilization of an ecological resistance is crucially important.

Despite the mentality and practices of destruction, a turnaround is possible. To achive it, we must mobilize the ecological struggle against wars and against the numerous dams, coal plants, and mines that are poised to eliminate our life-areas and our cultural and social values. We have to spread the ecological struggle using the maxim “Communalize our land, waters, and energy and set up a free, democratic life.” We must defend the democratic nation against the nation-state; the communal economy against capitalism, with its quick-profit-seeking logic and monopolism and large industries; organic agriculture, ecological villages and cities, ecological industry, and alternative energy and technology against the agricultural and energy policies imposed by capitalist modernity.

Since the ecological struggle is the touchstone for the liberation of all humanity, every action may bring us closer to a free individual and a free society. Our struggle to reach our natural and societal truth, the fundamental justification of our existence, is an important contribution to the liberation of people and nature on our planet. With great excitement, which we feel deeply, we assume our role in this struggle.

Our paradigm, which heralds a bright age in the twenty-first century and coming millennia, is a radical democratic, communal, ecological, women-liberated society. The ecological struggle goes beyond any single struggle to encompass the vital essence of the free life paradigm. Without ecology, society cannot exist, and without humanity and nature, ecology cannot exist. Ecology, as the essence and self of the millennia-old universal dialectic of formation, interweaves all interconnected natural processes as like the rings of a chain.

The struggle against capitalist modernity is the struggle to develop a democratic, social, and liberatory mindset, and the struggle against state-sovereignty is the struggle to become a social subject. This can develop only through a social movement, through a struggle for freedom that takes a stand against the system that jeopardizes nature, society, and the individual in the interests of capitalist profit and state hegemony.

In the Middle East, the history of ecology has not yet been written. To achieve the liberation of women, it has been necessary to learn the history of woman; just so, to achieve an ecological society, it is necessary to know the history of ecology. By opening up ecology academies, we can bring ecological consciousness as an essential component to programs of study in all social spheres and all academic curricula. Bringing ecological consciousness and sensibility to the organized social sphere and to educational institutions is as vital as organizing our own assemblies.

In relation to the construction of a democratic and ecological society, our conference passed several important resolutions that we hope will constitute an intellectual, organizational, and operational contribution for the global ecological movements. Some of the resolutions are:

– To establish a strategic intellectual, organizational, and operational coordination with national and international ecology movements in order to enhance common discussions and actions against ecological destruction and exploitation.

– To struggle against the mental, physical, and ideological destruction of energy, water, forests, soil, cities, agriculture seeds, and technology; and based on the approved policies of the Mesopotamian Ecology Movement, to mobilize a struggle for the construction of a new life.

– To fight the system that demolishes urban settlements and burns forests in Kurdistan; to publicize the ecological devastation experienced in Kurdistan and to map the devastations occurring within the war.

– To plan actions, in coordination with other ecology movements, against the destruction of cities in Kurdistan; to ensure our active participation in solidarity platforms that have been established in these cities.

– To continue struggles to preserve cultural and natural sites in Kurdistan that face extinction—such as Hasankeyf, Diyarbakır-Sur, the Munzur Valley, and “Gele Goderne”—due to the energy and security policies.

– To develop an ecological model suitable for Kurdistan.

– To build a greater and more regular presence in print and digital media and to establish ecology academies.

– To carry out legal struggles parallel to ongoing actions and campaigns.

-To expand the own organizational structures throughout Kurdistan and Middle East.

Lightly edited by Janet Biehl. If your group would like to connect with the MEM, please write to mehdiplo@riseup.net.

 

 

Thoughts on Rojava

Once an assembly and council democracy is in place, in which power flows from the bottom up through confederal councils, the possibility lurks that the councils can become vehicles for top-down rule. How can people in a democracy keep that from happening? This question was on my mind in Rojava last October, so when Zanyar Omrani asked me about it, I explained my ideas and others’ in “Thoughts on Rojava” In ROAR Magazine.

Citizens’ Assemblies: From New England to Rojava

Presentation by Janet Biehl to the conference “Challenging Capitalist Modernity II,” Hamburg, April 3-5, 2015. NetworkAQ_Logo_IPlease visit the conference website, http://networkaq.net/

For a few hundred years now, town meetings have been the local government of towns in northern New England, including the state of Vermont, where I live. On the first Tuesday in March of every year, in all 240 Vermont towns, citizens come together at a local school or other large meeting place to make decisions for their community. It’s the last gasp of winter, and a sure sign that spring will come is the annual flowering of grassroots democracy.

In some important ways the town meetings are like the communes of Rojava. They are face-to-face democratic assemblies. They take place at the most local level: in Vermont the towns are mostly under 2500 people, perhaps the equivalent of villages in Rojava.

But they also differ. In Rojava, commune assemblies also exist in city neighborhoods. But in Vermont they are only in the towns–city neighborhoods do not have assemblies, except in the city of Burlington, where Murray Bookchin helped create them in the mid-1980s.

In Rojava, the communes are the basis of the self-government and thus have sovereign power. The communes share power in a sense, but they share it horizontally, with one another. In Vermont, towns have sovereign power only for local matter; power is divided vertically, among the towns, the state of Vermont, and the federal government in Washington.

In Rojava communes meet frequently, being the basis of the self-government. The town meetings assemble only once a year, although they may meet more often if they wish.

In Rojava, you have several tiers of confederal councils through which the communal assemblies collectively self-govern in broader areas. In Vermont, the town meeting’s don’t confederate, except in loose nongovernmental associations.

In Rojava, decisions made by citizens in the communes move upward through the city, region, and cantonal levels. In Vermont, town decisions don’t, although towns can make nonbinding resolutions about national or international issues if they choose. Most famously, in 1982, more than 150 Vermont towns voted simultaneously in favor of a freeze on nuclear weapons testing. Those decisions were all nonbinding—they had moral force but no legal force. Nonetheless their moral force was strong—it initiated a whole movement across the United States that culminated that June in a million-strong demonstration against nuclear weapons in New York’s Central Park.

* * *

We can trace the difference back to their origins. Rojava’s communes are brand new; the town meetings are centuries old, older than the United States as a country. In Rojava, the communes and their confederations originated in Ocalan’s Democratic Confederalism, and consciously modeled themselves on a specific program. New England’s town meetings date back to the first settlements in Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, by Puritans from England. Notably, Ocalan was influenced by Bookchin, who studied the town meetings closely and was inspired by them to create libertarian municipalism.

In the seventeenth century, Europe was undergoing the Protestant Reformation , and there were different kinds of Protestantism– some groups demanded more reform than others. The Puritans’ version very extreme: they rejected the validity of all ecclesiastical hierarchy, to mediate between the congregation of believers and god. That was very radical at the time.

The result was that Puritan congregations were autonomous religious bodies, claiming that they and only they could interpret Scripture for themselves. Once they settled in New England after 1629, founding towns after, it must be said, driving out the Native Americans, that religious autonomy extended into the civil world and became political autonomy. The god-worshipping congregation became the self-governing town meeting. They made regulations about their religious practices, and they made laws for their communities.

In the years before the American Revolution, town meetings spread outside of New England, as far south as Charleston, South Carolina. And in the 1770s they were engines of revolutionary activity against British rule, especially the Boston town meeting. But after the U.S. gained independence, conservative forces carried out counterrevolution against the institutions of popular power. They ensured that in most places town meetings were replaced by incorporated forms of municipal government, in which urban wards elected city councilors and mayors. Only northern New England towns held on to their democratic assemblies.

* * *

They continue to meet, and can make a few generalizations about them. They meet on first Tuesday in March, starting in the early morning. A moderator runs the meeting. All adult citizens of a town can attend and participate.

The agenda consists of a variety of items, to which citizens can contribute in advance; the agenda is announced thirty days before the meeting. concrete items, like whether to repair a road or buy a new fire truck. The most compelling item is the town budget, inevitably the subject of much discussion, as how much a town spends on something in a given year reflects its priorities—a budget, paradoxically, is a moral document. When the discussion of a particular item is finished, the citizens vote by a show of hands, then move on to the next one. They also elect town officers who will oversee the execution of the decisions over the next year.

The townspeople sit on hard metal folding chairs (as I saw in Rojava!) that become uncomfortable, but they continue anyway, and the meeting usually last for three to four hours. They break for a lunch of home-cooked food.

These features of town meeting are more or less the same as they were a century ago. And historically, we know what decisions they made, and what officers they elected, because they are recorded in the minutes in town records.

Stories about town meeting have passed into Vermont lore. They have been much admired–the philosopher Henry David Thoreau called town meeting “the true congress … the most respectable one ever assembled in the United States.” At other times they have been mocked, by mainstream politicians, as the dithering of uneducated rural dolts. Murray Bookchin argued that they are a rare instance of assembly democracy, in the tradition of ancient Athens, and a tradition that Rojava has recently joined.

But from a social science perspective, we don’t know very much about town meetings historically, because no one really studied them. To know what happens in a town meeting, how the discussion runs, for example, you have to be there in person. But they all meet at the same time, once a year, and you can’t divide yourself into 240 people.

So we don’t know, for example, how many people attended–what proportion of the residents of town actually came to the meeting. How many of them spoke, and how many were silent? Did more of them speak when the meeting was small or large? When it was crowded or sparse? How often did a given speaker speak? How many women participated, and how many spoke, and how many were silent? How has any of this changed over time? Did wealthier communities’ town meeting run differently from poorer communities? What about mixed communities—did the rich and educated speak more than the poor and less educated?

* * *

That is, we didn’t know these things until recently. In 1970 a political science professor at a Vermont university decided to study this very important subject. He had grown up with the town meetings and was frustrated that conventional political science didn’t talk about town meetings when it talked about democracy. Three wasn’t even a single book dedicated to the subject.

In 1970 Frank Bryan had a brilliant idea. He assigned his students—maybe thirty or so– the task of going to the meetings. Each one would sit with a notebook with a grid and count the number of people there, identify gender and perhaps something about socio-economic status. The students would write down when the meeting started and ended. When someone spoke, the student would write on the grid “bald man in plaid shirt.” “Brown-haired woman in green vest.” They would note the agenda item they spoke to, and how many times, and for how long. By the end of the meeting, the student would have all this data and bring it back to Frank Bryan. Being a social scientist, he would put all the data together and crunch the numbers and come up with hard information. He did it for almost thirty years, from 1970 to 1998, and published the results in his 2004 book Real Democracy, which I highly recommend.[1]

He filled in our knowledge. In 2004, on average, around 20 percent of the townspeople participated, which is a decent showing, for a daylong meeting. On average, out of every 100 participants, 44 spoke. The most talkative 10 percent made up 50 or 60 percent of the total speech acts. Usually they speak for a minute or two at a time. Some just state their opinion and that’s it; others are more conversational, with dialogue among several. The smaller the number of people at the meeting, the more equally their speech was distributed among those present.

Wealthier towns and poor towns don’t differ much in meeting length or participation. Back in the eighteenth century, Ralph Waldo Emerson had written that in town meetings in Concord, Massachusetts, “the rich gave council, but the poor also; and moreover the just and the unjust.” The same is true today, Bryan found: within a given community, class status doesn’t make a difference in participation. Educated people and affluent don’t dominate public talk. Everyone has opinions. In fact, participation goes up when there’s a conflict.

As for women: on average, between 1970 and 1998, they made up 46 percent of attendance at town meetings. But they constituted only 36 percent of the citizens who spoke out and were responsible for only 28 percent of the acts of speech. They speak more in small towns than in larger ones.

But women’s participation increased in those thirty years. In 1970, the second wave of feminism was just getting under way, and many women must have felt initially that political participation was a men’s zone. But by 1998, they attended in greater numbers than at the beginning, and they were much more talkative.

Still, even at 46 percent, women’s participation exceeds the 40 percent gender quota at Rojava; and at 46 percent it exceeds women’s participation in other parts of government in the United States. From city councils to the government in Washington, women’s participation is much lower. The U.S. Senate is only 20 percent women. Women’s participation in town meetings documents the importance of assembly democracy for women, and women for assembly democracy.

Towns had been meeting for centuries before Frank Bryan get the idea to record this kind of information. I hope Rojava doesn’t wait that long to document its assemblies. What a grand project it would be for students at the Mesopotamian Academy in Qamislo to document participation in the Rojava communes! How useful that would be, for Rojava to know what’s going on in its own society, and to be able to defend and explain the democratic self-government to outsiders.

 * * *

Beyond the numbers, the town assemblies of northern New England provide important experiences that transcend culture.

First of all, citizen assemblies are not only venues for political participation, they are also schools for political participation. For many people, speaking in public is hard, even frightening. It’s even more frightening in an assembly, because your acts of speech are connected to action—to voting, decision-making—which affects how people will live in your community. It’s even more nerve-wracking for out-groups—women, minorities—who may feel self conscious by virtue of their identity.

But in town meeting you learn to build up the courage to speak. You learn not to be afraid to inadvertently say something trivial or foolish, because everyone else does it from time to time. That gives people confidence, and they develop civic skills and leadership skills.

A second experience: people in town meetings learn civility. It’s easy to criticize someone you disagree with from afar—from the behind your computer over the internet, for example. But in town meeting you sit down with people you disagree with, who are also your neighbors. On the Internet we can just skip the sites we don’t agree with, but in town meeting you have to sit and listen to your neighbors express their points of view. That leads to better information, better understanding. You learn to express your disagreement in civil terms—as Bryan points out, in town meeting you forbearance. You learn not to insult them, or let your contempt or intolerance show, because that person is also your local dog-catcher or emergency medical technician or the parent of your child’s best friend at school. Who knows, you may modify your view, or they may modify theirs after they listen to you. Or maybe you work out a way for both views to be accommodated.

But whatever the outcome, that process is healthier for the community as a whole. It teaches civic cooperation and sociability and trust. And it makes for better decisions.

* * *

Murray Bookchin, who grew up in New York City, was always fascinated by urban processes, by the ways strangers are incorporated into community life, by the rich texture of close-knit neighborhoods as well as towns and villages. He savored sociable discourse among people who live in the same place, in local networks, clubs, guilds, popular societies, associations, and especially cafés—even in neighborhood streets. Such sociability, he thought, was the nucleus of freedom: it provided a refuge from the homogenizing, bureaucratic forces of the state and capitalism and embodied the “material, cultural, and spiritual means to resist.”[2]

That’s why he wanted to revive the citizens’ assembly and multiply it, so that they existed not just in the towns of New England but in urban neighborhoods as well. By proliferating assemblies, then coordinating them in confederations against the centralized state, he said, we can decentralize power into viable community groups.

In most times of social upheaval, Bookchin wrote, “people have turned to assembly forms as a way of . . . taking control of their destiny. … Apparently, we have something at work here that has abiding reality…. Something in the human spirit … demands systems of governance based on face-to-face decision-making, a personalistic as well as a participatory politics. It is as though the need for community and communing … emanates from the human spirit itself.”[3]

[1] Frank Bryan, Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[2] Murray Bookchin, “The American Crisis II,” Comment 1, no. 5 (1980), p. 7.

[3] Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1986), p. 257.

Libertarian Municipalism (1998)

 

Participants at the libertarian municipalism conference in Lisbon, Portugal, 1998

Participants at the libertarian municipalism conference in Lisbon, Portugal, 1998

On August 26, 1998, I delivered the keynote speech to the conference on libertarian municipalism, held in Lisbon, Portugal. I am republishing it here both to document that history and to provide a summary of Murray Bookchin’s political program. —Janet Biehl

 

For two centuries social revolutionaries have cherished the ideal of the “Commune of communes” as part of their vision of a future liberatory society. Ever since the Great French Revolution of 1789, they have dreamed of creating decentralized, stateless, and collectively managed “communes,” joined together in confederations of free municipalities. All three of the major nineteenth-century anarchist thinkers—Proudhon, Bakunin, and Kropotkin—called for a “federation of communes” for an anarchist society. The Paris Commune, in its manifesto to the French people of April 19, 1871—which was greatly influenced by federalist anarchism—called for “communal autonomy [to be] extended to every township in France.”

Libertarian municipalism, the political dimension of social ecology that was developed by Murray Bookchin, is the most recent manifestation of this grand tradition. As a libertarian politics of social revolution, it constitutes both a theory and a practice for building a libertarian communist society organized as a “Commune of communes.”

Libertarian municipalism does not constitute a party program; nor does it advocate the formation of a party machine to attain state power. Rather, it is a program for direct democracy, in which citizens in communities manage their own affairs through face-to-face processes of decision-making.

What Is Politics?

As we all know, the state, with its monopoly of the legitimate means of violence, is a system of domination that, far from empowering the great majority of people as citizens, ensures the general abdication of their power and their subordination to rule by the few. Even though the state designates people in its jurisdiction as “citizens,” it conceives them as something less than citizens: in earlier times it was “subjects,” today it is “voters” or “constituents,” but in either cases it considers them to be too juvenile or too incompetent to manage public affairs and instead takes their power to wield itself presumably in their behalf.

In the late nineteenth century, when social revolution seemed imminent in many parts of Europe, social democratic parties arose that sought to make use of state structures, not to build socialism but to head off revolution and insure that people remained in passive conformity to the social order. Most recently, the state has been reducing people to “customers” or “consumers” of the social services with which it provides them. These dependent “consumers,” as always, function passively and acquiescently, are to perform their limited tasks in a narrow corner of life, drawing salaries, raising families, and looking to the state to provide the rest.

The voting booth--an exercise in isolation

The voting booth–an exercise in isolation

The elites who wield power in the state are actually concerned less with the interests of the large number of people than with the practical exigencies of control and mobilization. Most notably, they form parties to try to gain power- -parties that, in effect, are states-in-waiting. Professionalized and manipulative, in their periodic appeals to ordinary people for votes, these elite systems impersonate democracy, making a mockery of the democratic ideals to which they cynically swear fealty at opportune moments. To label this system politics is a gross misnomer, as Bookchin has pointed out— as an apparatus for rule, it should more properly be called statecraft. Politics, by contrast, concerns the arena and institutions by which people directly manage their community affairs. Unfortunately, confusion between politics and statecraft has been widespread, not only in society as a whole but in the Left as well. Marxists, for example, are notorious for mistaking statecraft for politics. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has recently informed us that “the commitment to politics is what historically distinguished Marxian socialism.” What he means by politics here, however, is actually nothing more than statecraft. By calling for a workers’ state to lead us to a communist society, Marxism failed to consider politics in the sense of civic institutions of the commune by which we manage public affairs. In this sense Marxism lacks any real political theory at all.

Anarchists, most lamentably, have suffered from a similar misidentification. They too have mistaken statecraft for politics—but where Marxists did so in order to practice statecraft, anarchists did so in order to reject it altogether. Bakunin expressed the typical view in 1871 when he wrote that the new social order can be created “only through the development and organization of the nonpolitical or antipolitical social power of the working class in city and country.” Here he made “antipolitical” into a synonym for “antistatist.” Even Kropotkin—who called for the communalization of social life in The Conquest of Bread and described endless kinds of associations and groups that practice mutual aid—omitted to tell us by what specific political institutions people would manage their community in the postrevolutionary society.

In consequence anarchism, like Marxism, has historically given insufficient attention to politics in its fullest meaning. Yet the questions that Aristotle asked two thousand years ago still express the central problem of all political theory, including our own: What kind of polity best provides for the rich flourishing of communal human life?

The Pnyx in Athens, where in ancient times the assembly (ekklesia) met

The Pnyx in Athens, where the assembly met in ancient times

As libertarian municipalists, we reply that the best polity is one that builds on the traditions of direct democracy. Indeed, we use the very word politics in its original Greek sense, to refer to the self-managing activity of empowered citizens in participatory civic institutions. In the politics we advance, citizens would manage their community affairs through face-to-face democratic institutions, especially popular assemblies and confederations of municipalities.

However remote this notion of politics may seem in today’s era of nation-states, it has historically found lived expression in a variety of places. It first arose in ancient Athens, where citizens—limited, unfortunately, only to free Athenian males—nevertheless attained a remarkable degree of self-management. At later points in Western history, direct democracies have recurred, in the town centers of many medieval European communes after A.D. 1000, in the town meetings of eighteenth-century New England, and in the sectional assemblies of revolutionary Paris of 1793, among other places.

Each of these democracies was deeply flawed by class and hierarchical stratification, yet in each of them people successfully congregated for a time, sometimes even as free citizens, to directly manage the communities in which they lived. Generally, even as popes, princes, and kings developed overarching structures of power, people in villages, towns, and neighborhoods maintained control over much of their own community life.

The State and Urbanization

The rise and consolidation of centralized nation-states did much to stifle public participation and strip towns of their power and independence. Monarchs and their henchmen first brought nearby areas under their subjection, then later subordinated even distant localities to state control. Initially they carried out this invasion in the name of a privilege to rule that was said to be sanctioned divinely, but in later centuries the builders of republican states cast aside religious justifications and appropriated the terminology of “democracy” to sanctify their strictly representative institutions—parliaments, chambers of deputies, and congresses—cloaking the elitist, paternalistic, class-based, and coercive nature of those systems in the language of “popular sovereignty.”

At the same time the state itself was dramatically eroding municipal freedoms—as it continues to do today, eviscerating neighborhood life and municipal power in favor of professionalized institutions of administration and coercion. The Second World War further strengthened the state in relation to the cities, siphoning municipal power to allocate scarce resources upward to the national level, to military planners, and to bureaucrats, rendering cities ever more dependent on state planning. Today European cities are managed in great part by battalions of statist civil servants who administer it on a day-to-day basis. If the nation-state did much to suppress municipal power, another phenomenon is wreaking even further havoc on the municipality today.

The megalopolis of Guangzhou

The megalopolis of Guangzhou

Urbanization, that immense, formless capitalist blight, is swallowing up the definable, humanly scaled entities that once were authentic cities, absorbing small communities into larger ones, cities into metropolises, and metropolises into huge megalopolitan belts. Europe’s extended regions of urbanization cross the boundaries of cities and even states, as suburbs are swallowed up and absorbed into a sprawling metropolitan octopus. So intimately have urban settlements now converged that the English Channel and the Alps are no longer barriers to their amalgamation: a single north-south metropolitan region extends from Lancashire to central Italy, while another runs east-west between Valencia and Vienna.

In the United States a corresponding trend has moved economic life away from the traditional urban centers of the Northeast and toward the Sunbelt, so that the Far West is now the most urbanized part of the country. As the megalopolis spreads, sprawl, condominium subdivisions, highways, faceless shopping malls, parking lots, and industrial parks are sweeping ever deeper into the countryside.

This spread of the market economy serves nothing but the expansionist imperatives of capital. By corroding the public sphere in favor of the market, capitalism has accelerated the demolition of municipal freedoms to the point that they may very well disappear entirely from our societies. So avidly have centralized European governments accommodated the needs of capital that many municipalities are becoming little more than agencies for the delivery of social services originating in the state.

A municipal government building in Taiwan

A municipal government building in Taiwan

Perhaps the most extreme instance of this process occurred in Great Britain, where throughout the decade of the 1980s Thatcher’s Tory government instituted a series of local government acts that aggressively and systematically stripped local government of many of its powers, appropriating some for itself but leaving others to private companies, culminating in the outright abolition of the Greater London Council in 1985. A new, distinctly nonpolitical model of municipal government has since emerged in Britain, in which it is expected, not to provide a democratic arena for policymaking by citizens, but to perform according to market and efficiency principles in the delivery of services. In the United States, in conjunction with the capitalist economy, municipal governments are not only privatizing public services but are blatantly pandering to corporations, doling out tax breaks to companies willing to locate within their borders.

Today the forces of capitalism cross national boundaries as well, and I sometimes think that the only place where people still sing “The Internationale” with conviction (albeit with significantly altered lyrics) must be the corporate boardroom. As the Third World or South sinks into chaos and misery, much of the world is being arranged to meet the needs of the transnational corporations and the bond market.

As these larger social forces corrode neighborhood and community life, the authentic meaning of politics is gradually being forgotten. People in Western societies are losing their memory of politics as an active, vital process of self-management, and as they do so they participate in the idea that citizenship consists of nothing more than voting and paying taxes and passively receiving state-provided services.

In the United States political activity has migrated from neighborhoods, unions, wards, and civic associations to television, where even statecraft is becoming a spectator sport. Indeed, in this “nation of spectators,” the passive consumption of media entertainment fills the void of desocialized consciousness. Moreover, the prevalent American social desideratum is not to enrich the commonality but to acquire things for oneself. Rampant egotism, an overabundance of dishonesty, and celebrity worship pervade the culture of Dollarland.

The Civic Response

To a great extent, however, the hollowness, the meaninglessness of this system has become evident to people in the street, who understand that the pervasive influence of money and manipulation is undermining even statecraft’s outward veneer of democracy. If they are passive in relation to state and party activities, it is often because they regard them as futile and untrustworthy, and because social and economic pressures have forced them to narrow their concerns to material survival.

A town meeting in Connecticut

A town meeting in Connecticut

Yet in many parts of the European and American world, local political life remains alive to a degree that is remarkable, considering the social forces arrayed against it. Even in communities that have been stripped of their former proud powers, formal and informal political arenas still abide—civic associations, town meetings, forums, issue-oriented initiatives, and the like— as arenas for face-to-face public processes. In the cities of Europe, self-government has a long and venerable tradition, and for many Europeans the municipality is still a significant locus of political identification. In the United States, a relatively decentralized system, a deep distrust of government dating back to the colonial era still persists, while a nostalgia for small-town life expresses a desire for a mutually nurturing community where people are no longer held hostage to market forces but are free to practice mutual aid and cooperation. Even in the Information Age, when asked what “community” is, people most often think of their town or neighborhood.

Nor has the city as a site of political resistance been entirely obliterated. Submerged as it is within an urbanized nation-state beholden to capitalism, it nonetheless lingers as a historic presence, a repository of long-standing traditions, sentiments, and impulses. Within itself it harbors memories of ancient civic freedoms, of self-management, on behalf of which the oppressed have struggled over centuries of social development. Cities like Paris and Lyons, St. Petersburg and Barcelona, carry repressed memories of revolutionary activity that was based at least as much in the city neighborhood as it was in the workplace. Said the program of the Friends of Durruti, as published in Los Amigos del Pueblo, “The municipality is the authentic revolutionary government.” A self-conscious municipal political life thus perseveres as a latent prospect, a cherished goal of human emancipation. Power, having been taken from the people, can be recovered by them once again, and the potentially of the city as an irrepressible site for political self-management haunts the state like a bad dream. Despairing of the meaninglessness of their lives, ordinary people—at the level of the municipality—may once again begin to look outward to politics as the medium of empowerment and rediscover its communalistic joys.

Town meeting in Huntington, Vermont

Town meeting in Huntington, Vermont

Democracy potentially works best in urban communities where a long-standing commitment to the urban polity is expressed in flourishing civic associations and in a history of self-government. But that does not exclude from self-government those urban communities that lack such a history. Where the latent political realm no longer exists, a self-conscious movement for municipal direct democracy can and should revive it, so that over time it gains strength. Such a movement could enlarge the municipality’s democratic content beyond the limitations of previous eras, building it into a living arena for change, education, empowerment, and revolutionary confrontation with the state and capital.

Our project, as libertarian municipalists, is to build precisely such a movement: to resuscitate a local political realm and expand local direct democracy. We aim to institutionalize this direct democracy in citizens’ assemblies—in neighborhood and town meetings—where citizens of a given municipality may meet, deliberate, and make decisions on matters of common concern. Where such assemblies already exist, we aim to expand their democratic potential; where they formerly existed, we aim to revive them; and where they never existed, we aim to create them anew. We seek to build that democracy into a strong force, by which citizens may manage society as a whole. In the end, we aim to evict both the capitalist system and the nation-state in favor of humane and cooperative social relations—a rational, ecological libertarian communist society.

To bring the nascent political realm of the municipality to this fulfillment, we need to place the management of the city entirely in the hands of its competent adult community members. Shedding their artificially induced personae as passive spectators, as consumers, and as isolated monads, citizens would recognize their mutual interdependence and as such work to advance their common welfare. In the political realm they would create the institutions that make for broad community participation and sustain them on an ongoing basis, finally regaining the power that the state has usurped from them.

Movement Building

Citizens

Citizens

To begin this long and complex process, we must start with the basic seed kernels of the political sphere: the crowded city sidewalk, the square, the park, the town hall—the public spaces where private life shades into public life, where the personal becomes, to one degree or another, the communal. Frequent and repeated encounters among community members in these spaces are the germs of the political realm, and the issues of common interest that people discuss here are the its primary subjects of concern. Our urban and social environment, as Lewis Mumford once rightly argued, should be one that, instead of shutting people off from one another, encourages them to encounter and interact with each other most often and most immediately.

Before we begin to cultivate these seeds, we need to form study groups, to educate ourselves and those sympathetic comrades who wish to work with us about the nature of the libertarian municipalist project. We must offer an alternative vision, a utopian vision—to use an unpopular word today—of what is socially desirable, in order to open up a concrete consideration of alternative possibilities. We need to commit ourselves to putting that vision into practice. As social anarchists and libertarian communists, we need to ground ourselves not only in our own familiar literature but in social ecology, in left-libertarian history and theory, in the history of democratic traditions and communalist practices, both in our own areas and in other parts of the world, and in democratic and political theory.

As our study groups become political groups, it is crucial that we commit ourselves to the development of libertarian municipalist theory. Some anarchist circles today are deeply suspicious of the very notion of theory, regarding it as inherently authoritarian, confusing theory with dogma, and confusing groups that advocate a theory with political sects. But if it is impossible to have a correct position, then it is also impossible to reject an incorrect position. Adhering to a theory is crucial for maintaining our political direction, for as we build a movement, we will inevitably be called upon to make political choices, and in order to make the best choices, we will need an end vision—a theory—to guide us. Unless we have an end in view, we cannot intelligently choose our means. Our theory should be based on our understanding of the strengths and failures of past revolutionary experiences, as well as our analysis of present social forces. It should not be fixed and inalterable—if we discover that part of it is wrong, then we should change it. But if we are not to be swept to the right along with most of the rest of society, we need a theory to keep ourselves mindful of what is rational.

As the Friends of Durruti repeatedly emphasized, there is no revolutionary movement without revolutionary theory. What went wrong with the CNT, they said, was that it “was utterly devoid of revolutionary theory.” The July 1936 revolution failed, they said, because “we did not have a concrete program. We had no idea where we were going. We had lyricism aplenty; but when all is said and done, we did not know what to do with our masses of workers or how to give substance to the popular effusion which erupted inside our organisations. By not knowing what to do, we handed the revolution on a platter to the bourgeoisie and the Marxists.”

As our study group commits itself to this theory and becomes a political group, it should adopt a constitution and a statement of principles, to give the group clear political definition. Having educated ourselves, we then need to go on to educate others and become an active presence in our communities. We should study local political and ecological issues of concern and produce a literature that clearly links them with our theoretical ideas. We need to publish community newspapers, make posters and leaflets. We need to distribute this literature in local bookstores and neighborhood centers and cafés. We need to get people talking with each other about the deep systemic roots of seemingly local problems.

Murray Bookchin in 1994

Murray Bookchin in 1994

We need to hold lecture series in public spaces. We should organize actions around immediate issues. We should be a continual presence in community politics. When issues of concern come before the local city council or planning commission, we should testify at public hearings—clearly identifying our movement. As we work on these immediate issues, we should always tie them to our demand for citizens’ assemblies in the municipality, always call for a direct democracy and a cooperative society as a long-term solution to the issue at hand. The most important political point in our public education efforts should be the call for direct democracy.

If the citizens’ assemblies are to constitute a significant public sphere, they must eventually become arenas of substantive political power, and the decisions that citizens make there must become binding on the community. Our paramount demand to the existing local government should therefore be that these assemblies be instituted legally. We should demand that the municipal government change its governing charter to establish them, recognize their existence, and spell out their powers. Where citizens’ assemblies already exist, we should call for strengthening their powers at the expense of statist institutions.

Local Elections

It is highly unlikely, of course, that existing municipal governments would yield easily and willingly to this demand, that they would voluntarily surrender their powers to citizens’ assemblies. After all, in all too many respects current municipal institutions resemble miniature nation-states themselves. Indeed, existing city councils will almost certainly try to block any effort to establish effective citizens’ assemblies. In this situation our libertarian municipalist group may do two things.

First, we may take the initiative to create assemblies ourselves on an extralegal basis. We may convene them, then appeal to all citizens in our community to attend and participate in them. These assemblies would meet on a regular basis and debate local, regional, national, and even international issues, issuing resolutions and public statements as they see fit. Even though these assemblies will have as yet no legal power, what they can do is exercise enormous moral and exemplary power. In time, to the extent that more and more citizens see their moral significance and attend their meetings, existing municipal governments may well have no choice but to give them varying degrees of legality, an opening that we can then proceed to further expand and magnify.

Second, to advance the creation of assemblies on a legal basis, our group may run candidates for local elective office. Some anarchists today object to libertarian municipalism on the basis of just this notion, rejecting such electoralism as a form of parliamentarism or “city-statism.” Here a clear distinction must be made between parliamentarism and electoralism. Electoral activity in a municipality can be qualitatively different from statecraft, since the city and the state themselves are potentially qualitatively different from each other and even have a history of antagonism and even conflict. Bakunin himself favored anarchists’ undertaking local political activity, because he saw that municipal politics is basic to people’s political lives. The people, he wrote, “have a healthy, practical common sense when it comes to communal affairs. They are fairly well informed and know how to select from their midst the most capable officials. This is why municipal elections always best reflect the real attitude and will of the people.”

In the short term, our electoral campaigns will be educational efforts, intended to school citizens in the basic ideas of libertarian municipalism. They will be occasions for us to publicize our ideas and to spark public discussion. At every opportunity—in interviews, debates, and speeches—our candidates should call for the creation of citizens’ assemblies and advocate direct democracy as forums for an authentic democracy.

Before our group engages in municipal elections, however, we should write an electoral platform that states the aims for which we are fighting—especially the radical democratization of municipal government. The platform should also contain a series of clearly specified immediate demands—what socialists have long called a minimum program—concerning issues of housing, transportation, environment, welfare, education, and the like. If another political group in our community demands similar reforms, we should escalate these immediate demands, always demanding ever more radical changes and popular institutions. Our program should place these immediate demands in a radical context by tying them to the longer-term goal of fundamentally transforming society. If many people in our communities are not yet prepared to reject capitalism, we may use more palatable phrasing, referring, instead of “capitalism,” to “the market economy.” If the words “libertarian communism” are too frightening for some, then we may use the phrase “cooperative society” to refer to our ultimate vision. In any case we should speak in the idiom of our distinctive tradition even as we retain the substance of our libertarian communist ideals. Finally, when our efforts at public education have borne fruit and our community is radicalized, we may press for the achievement of our maximum program in all its magnificence—for libertarian communism in a rational, ecological anarchist society.

In the present period of political reaction, it is not likely that our movement will grow rapidly or meet with immediate electoral success. In fact, setbacks are to be expected. Only in a community whose political and democratic consciousness has been raised by the movement would it even be desirable for one of our candidates to actually win an election. If we are to avoid being demoralized by the inevitable setbacks, we must be prepared for our movement to grow slowly and organically, and we must be willing to explain our ideas over and over again, if necessary, with great patience, until the political climate finally becomes more radicalized and hence more amenable to our ideas. When the citizens of a municipality do elect our candidates to office, it should be because they have come to agree with our platform. Immediately upon taking office, the new city councilors should begin to press, in public forums as well as the city council, for fully empowered citizens’ assemblies at the expense of existing city institutions. Where citizens’ assemblies do not exist, the councilors should aggressively introduce charter changes to create them; where they do exist, they should press for changes that give them increased power, including the legal power to formulate binding policies for the municipality as a whole.

Assemblies at Work

Voting in a town meeting in Massachusetts

Voting in a town meeting in Massachusetts

Once we establish an assembly, by whatever means, its first action should be to constitute itself—to draw up procedural bylaws specifying how it will conduct its proceedings. These bylaws should establish the assembly’s decision-making procedures and define its offices, as well as its procedures for selecting individuals to hold those offices and for holding them accountable to the assembly as a whole.

The decisions that the assembly makes should be taken according to majority vote. Although this process will require the minority to conform to the results of a decision it opposes, the minority nonetheless will retain the crucial freedom to try to overturn the decision. It is free to openly and persistently articulate its reasoned disagreements to other members of the community, order to try to persuade them to reconsider the decision. By dissenting in an orderly and civil fashion, the minority keeps an issue alive and lays the groundwork for becoming the majority in its own right, hopefully advancing the political consciousness of the community in the process.

The establishment of a citizens’ assembly is not in itself a fulfillment; until its participating citizens develop radical content, it will be only an institutional structure. As such, it is a battleground for social struggles— especially the class struggle, which will be extended beyond the factory into the community at large. Clearly, conflicting class interests will appear in the assembly: Real estate developers and business people, state bureaucrats and party functionaries, proprietors and reactionaries, will all come to assembly meetings and try to advance their own interests or those of the institutions they represent. It will be the responsibility of our group and our allies to counter the self-interested and reactionary arguments of these people and persuade our fellow citizens that the system they represent should be vigorously opposed in favor of the larger community interest.

Once the minimum step of creating an assembly is taken, we may advance a transitional program of expanding the assembly’s power. As the popular democracy matures, with increased attendance at the assemblies—indeed, as citizens make these institutions their own—the assemblies can hope to acquire ever greater de facto power. Ultimately city charters, where they exist, would have to be changed to affirm that the assemblies hold substantive power in civic affairs.

Thereafter the assemblies could work toward achieving the maximum demands of a libertarian municipalist polity: the confederation of municipal assemblies and ultimately the creation of a rational, ecological, libertarian society.

The Formation of Citizenship

Creating a new society depends on changing not only political structures and social relations but consciousness as well, including the character qualities of the individual citizens who embody that society. Libertarian municipalism stands in the tradition of “civic humanism,” which places the highest value on the active, responsible participation of citizens in the management of their common affairs. Where modernity leaves us directionless and uprooted, civic humanism would seek to re-embed us in ethical lifeways and democratic institutions.

We believe that politics is too important to be left to professionals—it must become the province of ordinary people, who have attained a high degree of political maturity, rather than the province of elite “specialists.” We believe that every adult citizen is potentially competent to participate directly in democratic politics. By rationally deliberating together, making decisions peacefully, and implementing their choices responsibly, citizens can be expected to develop a set of personal strengths and civic virtues—a character structure—commensurate with democratic political life.

Of these civic strengths and virtues, the most important are solidarity and reason. By any definition, citizenship presupposes solidarity, or a commitment to the public good. In contrast to the cynicism that prevails today, mature active citizens should understand that the perpetuation of their political community depends on their own active support for and participation in it. A mature identification with the community should bring with it a sense of responsibility. Each citizen can be expected to understand that, like all the others, they not only enjoy rights but owe duties to their community, and they should fulfill these responsibilities with the knowledge that everyone else was making the same effort.

Second, the faculty of reason should be of crucial importance in a direct democracy. Reasoned restraint and decorum are needed to keep a civic assembly orderly, tolerant, functional, and creative. Reason should allow citizens to weigh the possible courses of action that their community should take and select the best one. Indeed, reasonable evaluation—in contrast to emotion-laden partisanship—is a prerequisite for constructive discussion and deliberation. It is indispensable for overcoming personal prejudices, leading us to treat our fellow citizens not with bigotry or vindictiveness but with fairness and generosity. It is also necessary to the survival of the community: Some citizens, for example, might attempt to revive private property and an entrepreneurial, profit-seeking spirit. In an attempt to gain our support for this end, they may well make appeals to our cupidity and greed. To resist these highly emotional appeals, we will need reason—as well as personal strength of character—to reject them in the interest of preserving the cooperative nature of the community.

Such a “civilizing” process should transform a group of self-interested individuals into a deliberative, rational, ethical body politic. This is not to say that a libertarian municipalist society would require individual men and women to be wholly self-sacrificing and subordinate themselves to the collectivity. On the contrary, each individual would enjoy a personal life as well, with intimate family members and with the friends and fellows they choose as companions, and with co-workers in productive activities. But as participants in a bold experiment, citizens would rely on one another to share responsibilities—and as they become more worthy of one another’s trust, they could place ever more trust in one another. Indeed, the individual and the community, rather than be subordinate one to the other, could mutually create each other in a reciprocal process.

Historically, the societies that participated in the development of direct democracy have been ethnically homogeneous. But direct democracy does not depend on ethnic homogeneity, since neither its practices nor its virtues are the exclusive property of one ethnic group. Thanks to international travel and communication, the world is shrinking, and municipalities today are becoming ever more ethnically heterogeneous; the mixing of cultures and ethnicities in cities will only grow in the coming years. In the school system of Vancouver, to cite just one example, Mandarin Chinese is now spoken more often than French, one of Canada’s official languages. Latino and Asian immigration is a central fact of life in Los Angeles. Under the present social order, it may well happen that neighborhoods will define themselves by ethnicity or national origin rather than shared civic space. Should particularistic emotions intensify beyond a certain point, the result could well be interethnic antagonism.

A rational democratic polity, however, would provide the public spaces where mutual understanding among people of different ethnic origin could grow and flourish: the citizens’ assembly would provide the neutral procedural structures by which ethnic groups could articulate their specific problems in the give-and-take of discussion, leading to greater mutual understanding. In this shared context people of all cultures could develop modesty about their own cultural assumptions. At the same time the community would share a common recognition of a general interest, based on environmental and communal concerns, that transcended particularistic concerns. A shared commitment to the development of solidarity and the practice of reason in public affairs would make our multicultural municipalities into havens of mutual aid and gardens of cultural creativity.

Our movement will thus offer more than its distinctive political platform; it will also offer a moral alternative to the vacuity and triviality of life today, in the form of radical solidarity and freedom. Like the great manifestos advanced by socialist movements in the last century, it would call for moral as well as material transformation. It would generate a cultural and artistic life to enhance the community’s political aims. It would be accompanied by communitarian institutions, like cooperatives, however limited and short-lived, that would help accustom people to the practices of cooperation. It would offer a meaningful life, with social roles far more satisfying than the never-ending buying and selling of useless goods.

Decentralization

If the democratic potential of the municipality is to be fulfilled, city life must ultimately be rescaled to the dimensions suitable for a democratic political realm. That is, even as municipalities undergo a process of democratization, existing large cities will have to be structurally decentralized into smaller municipalities of a manageable size. Even the very largest of urban belts comprise within them smaller communities that share a distinctive cultural heritage or tradition. Most large cities today encompass smaller cities or boroughs, most famously London, which is a congeries of neighborhoods. The five-borough city of New York is actually a very recent phenomenon, dating back only to 1897. As recently as 1874, New York City consisted solely of the borough of Manhattan. A city that is only a hundred-odd years old has certainly not yet become eternal. At the same time, what one urban affairs specialist calls an “urban confederacy movement” is now under way in many American urban centers, such as St. Louis, Denver, and Orange County: here the citizens of what began as suburbs are finding that the large city is too big to work, and they are trying to redefine it as a league of smaller, incorporated, often multicultural pieces.

In large cities, citizens’ assemblies may at first be established in only few neighborhoods; they could then serve as models for other neighborhoods. The democratized neighborhoods that arise could then interlink with each other and form confederations that would coordinate transportation, sanitation, and other services. Neighborhoods that are in the process of being institutionally decentralized in this way could ultimately transform not only the political life of the city but its physical form as well.

Localism and Interdependence

As essential as decentralization is to libertarian municipalism, however, local self-reliance is not essential. No locality—not even a municipality that practices direct democracy—can be sufficient unto itself, nor should it be, in order to avoid local parochialism. Municipalities of all sorts are necessarily dependent upon one another and thereby share many common issues. Least of all should individual communities seek to be entirely autonomous in their economic life. Any given individual community needs more resources and raw materials than it can derive from its own land. Economic interdependence is simply a fact—it is a function not of the competitive market economy, of capitalism, but of social life as such.

To allow for the full participation of citizens in political life, our libertarian communist society must rest on a sound technological as well as economic base that affords them sufficient free time; otherwise the demands of survival and personal security will overtake all other concerns and activities. Today productive technologies have been developed sufficiently to make possible an immense expansion of free time, through the automation of tasks once performed by human labor. The basic means for eliminating toil and drudgery, for living in comfort and security, rationally and ecologically, for social rather than merely private ends, are potentially available to all peoples of the world.

Not even in the wealthiest existing societies, however, has this promise of post-scarcity—of a sufficiency in the means of life and the expansion of free time—been fulfilled. The reason lies not in the productive technologies themselves but in the social relations that determine their use—social relations drive ever greater corporate profits and expansion. In the present society, for example, automation has very often created social hardships, like the poverty that results from unemployment, because corporations prefer machines to human labor in order to reduce production costs and increase profits. In a rational anarchist society, however, organized along cooperative lines, the social relations that drive the profit motive would be eliminated.

Under such a system, productive technologies—as part of a new economic order— could be used to create free time rather than misery. A post-scarcity society would retain much of today’s technological infrastructure—including automated industrial plants—but it would use them to meet the basic needs of life and remove onerous toil rather than serve the imperatives of capitalism. Men and women would then have the free time to participate in political life as well as enjoy rich and meaningful personal lives. At the same time, rather than perpetuate the gross forms of concentration and centralization that we have today, we could rescale and retool our technological resources along ecological lines, decentralize them to meet a regional, even confederal division of labor and production, and thereby bring town and country into a creative balance. The fruits of the productive forces would be distributed according to individuals’ need for them. Such distribution would be institutionalized through a system of organized cooperation, emanating from the interdependence of the democratized municipalities.

Confederalism

The type of political and social organization for institutionalizing such interdependence is the confederation.

A confederation is a lateral union in which several political entities combine to form a larger whole. Although in the process of confederating, these smaller entities form a larger entity, they do not dissolve themselves into it but retain their freedom and distinct identity. In the society we are seeking, the municipalities that have undergone democratization by forming citizens’ assemblies would form confederations on a regional basis to address shared transmunicipal or regional problems.

In a republican state, a parliament or legislature of representatives determines social policy by voting to approve or reject specific laws. In a confederation, by contrast, a congress or council of delegates acts to administer the policies that have been established by the assemblies of the member communities. In our new polity, the libertarian municipalities of a given region would send delegates to a confederal council. These delegates would not be policymaking representatives; rather they would individually be accountable to the assemblies that chose them, and they would be imperatively mandated by those assemblies. They would not be permitted to make policy decisions without first gaining the assent of their home assemblies, and they would be immediately recallable at the assemblies’ discretion.

Indeed, rather than making policy decisions itself, the confederal council would exist primarily for administrative and adjudicative purposes—that is, for the purpose of coordinating policies formulated by the assemblies, reconciling (with base approval) differences among them, and carrying out their administration. It is the citizens, deliberating in their democratic assemblies, who would make policy. They would develop possible various courses of action on a particular issue, deliberate their various strengths and weaknesses, then make their decision according to majority vote. Free citizens in assemblies alone have the right to make policy. The functions of the confederal council, by contrast, would be purely administrative and coordinative—executing policies that the municipalities have already adopted.

Would ordinary citizens in assemblies be capable of making decisions about a society that is as complex as ours? Today and every day, parliamentarians— commonly lawyers—make decisions about a multitude of various complex and difficult subjects. Even when an issue involves great technological complexity, however, these parliamentarians rarely need extensive technical knowledge in order to weigh the alternatives. Few parliamentarians today, for example, would know how to technically engineer a road, yet they frequently make policy decisions about the need for, location, and size of roads. In a free society, in cases where specific technical knowledge is actually needed to make a decision, those who have that expertise would present it clearly and accessibly, so that ordinary citizens of reasonable competence can make the best policy decision.

When a policy decision must be made on a matter that affects the entire confederation, the confederal council would coordinate confederation-wide voting by majority rule. The final outcome of the voting would be determined by tallying not the votes of individual towns voting as units, but the aggregate votes of all the citizens of all the municipalities in the confederation. The confederation would thus possess, by majority vote of its citizens, the power to prevent a particular municipality from inflicting moral or physical damage on its own members or on other towns or cities.

At the same time the aggregated municipalities would have ultimate power within the confederation, in that they embody direct democracy of free citizens and in that their separate assemblies engage in rational discourse before making decisions. The principles of assembly sovereignty and free discourse decisively distinguish our approach from statism: where statism allows, at best, for the illusory liberty of isolated monads in mass plebiscites, confederal democracy encourages citizens to frame possible approaches to an issue in their own terms and explore them thoroughly before deciding among them. Consciously formed to accommodate interdependencies, then, a confederation of municipalities would unite face-to-face democratic decision-making with transmunicipal administration. Confederations of municipalities could be formed on a global basis, thereby fulfilling the longstanding dream of revolutionary movements past, to achieve a rational “Commune of communes.”

The Municipalized Economy

The type of economic life that we advance is neither nationalized (as in state socialism), nor placed in the hands of workers by factory (as in syndicalism), nor privately owned (as in capitalism), nor reduced to small proprietary cooperatives (as in communitarianism). Rather, it is municipalized—that is, placed under community “ownership” and control in the form of citizens’ assemblies.

This municipalization of the economy means the “ownership” and management of the economy by the citizens of the community and its coordination with other municipalized economies through confederation. Property—including both land and factories—would come under the overall control of citizens in their assemblies, coordinated by confederal councils. The citizens would become the collective “owners” of their community’s economic resources and would formulate their economic policies in the interest of the community as a whole. Citizens would thus make economic decisions not for their individual workplaces but for the entire community. Those who work in a particular factory, for example, would participate in formulating policies not only for that factory but for all other factories as well. They would participate in this decision-making not as workers, farmers, technicians, engineers, or professionals, but as citizens. The decisions they make would be guided not by the interests of their specific enterprise or vocation, which may be very parochial or trade-oriented, but by the needs of the entire community.

Where resources are distributed very unevenly, popular rule cannot be sustained. Without a rough economic equality, democracy of any sort is ephemeral, giving way sooner or later to oligarchy or worse. In our free society, economic inequality would be eliminated by turning wealth, private property, and the means of production over to the municipality. Through the municipalization of the economy, citizens in assemblies would ultimately expropriate the riches of the possessing classes and place them in the hands of the community, so that it can be used for the benefit of all.

The assembly would also make decisions about the distribution of the material means of life, fulfilling the communist promise of post-scarcity. “From each according to ability and to each according to need”—the demand of all nineteenth-century communist movements—would become a living practice, with levels of need rationally determined by the assembly. Everyone in the community would thus have access to the means of life, regardless of the work he or she was capable of performing. A rough economic equality would emerge, based on morally and rationally formulated criteria established by its citizens’ assembly.

Economic life as such would be brought under the control of the political realm, which would absorb it as part of the public business of the assembly. Neither the factory nor the land could ever again become a separate competitive unit with its own particularistic interests.

The assembly’s decisions, it is to be expected, would be guided by rational and ecological standards, and the economy would become a moral economy. An ethos of public responsibility could avoid a wasteful, exclusive, and irresponsible acquisition of goods, as well as ecological destruction and violations of human rights. Citizens in assemblies could consciously insure that economic entities adhered to ethical precepts of cooperation and sharing. Classical notions of limit and balance could replace the capitalist imperative to expand and compete in the pursuit of profit. The community would value people, not for their levels of production and consumption, but for their positive contributions to community life.

Over the wider geographical range, citizens would make economic policy decisions through their confederations. The wealth expropriated from the property-owning classes would be redistributed not only within a municipality but among all the municipalities in a region. If one municipality tried to engross itself at the expense of others, its confederates would have the right to prevent it from doing so. A thorough politicization of the economy would thereby extend the moral economy to a broad regional scale.

Dual Power

Barricades in Paris, 1871

Barricades in Paris, 1871

We do not believe that a “Commune of communes” can be achieved in a single revolutionary upsurge. Rather, as our movement grows over the long term, more and more municipalities would democratize themselves and form confederations. Eventually, when a considerable number of municipalities are democratized and confederated, their shared power would constitute a clear threat to the state and to the capitalist system.

The existing power structure would hardly tolerate the existence of such confederations, with their democratic politics, empowered citizenry, and incipient municipalized economy. In defense of capitalism and its own power, the state would almost certainly move against the confederations. If our movement is serious about opposing the state, we must work to divest the state of its monopoly of armed force, by creating a civic guard or citizens’ militia for the protection of our freedom and rights.

For a century and a half, the international socialist movement recognized the necessity of a citizens’ militia as an alternative to the standing army. The anarchist and syndicalist movements considered an armed people to be a sine qua non for a free society. Bakunin wrote in 1866: “All able-bodied citizens should, if necessary, take up arms to defend their homes and their freedom. Each country’s military defense and equipment should be organized locally by the commune, or provincially, somewhat like the militias in Switzerland or the United States.”

A citizens’ militia is not merely a military force whose purpose is to defend major social change. It is also a symbol of the power of a free citizenry, their popular will, their resolve to assert their rights, and their commitment to build a new political dispensation based on face-to-face democracy. Moreover, the very presence of a civic militia is an appeal to the rank and file members of the state’s armed forces to support the establishment of such a democracy.

We therefore include in our program the formation of a civic militia or guard, under the strict supervision of the citizens’ assemblies. It would be a democratic institution in itself, with officers elected both by the militia and by the citizens’ assembly.

The larger and more numerous the municipal confederations become, the greater would be their latent power, and the greater would be their potentiality to constitute a counterpower to the nation-state. As they realize this potentiality, tension would likely grow between themselves and the state. Citizens must clearly recognize that this tension is highly desirable—indeed, that their confederated municipalities constitute a potential counterpower to the state.

In fact, the confederated municipalities may eventually gain enough support to constitute a dual power to the state. This situation would likely be highly unstable, and resolving it could well involve a confrontation. It is possible, too, that our direct democracy will institutionally “hollow out” the state power itself, delegitimating its authority and winning a majority of the people over to the new civic and confederal institutions. With or without a confrontation, however, power will have to be shifted away from the state and the professional practitioners of statecraft and entirely into the hands of the people and their confederated assemblies.

Paris 1871

Paris 1871

In Paris in 1789 and in Petrograd in February 1917, state authority collapsed in the face of a revolutionary confrontation. So hollowed out was the power of the seemingly all-powerful French and Russian monarchies that when a revolutionary people challenged them, they merely crumbled. Crucially, in both cases, the ordinary rank-and-file soldiers of the armed forces went over to the revolutionary movement, to the armed people. What happened in the past can happen again, especially with an effective, conscious, and inspired revolutionary movement and program.

The Problem of Revolutionary Transition

Despite their historical antagonism, anarchism and Marxism share in the last instance a common social goal: a stateless communism. Where they perhaps have differed most fundamentally is on the question of the revolutionary transition: the nature of the institutions that will struggle against counterrevolution and construct a new social and political order. Marxist movements thought it would be necessary to create a workers’ state to carry out the transition; once the state carried out this function, they expected it to wither away.

As anarchists rightly pointed out, this expectation was absurd—the “workers’ state” would merely become a new tyranny and, if anything, would have to be overthrown by another revolution. Further, they objected, the wide discrepancy between Marxism’s revolutionary means and its revolutionary end was so wide as to be intrinsically immoral. Let the means and ends be the same, anarchists demanded; let a free, cooperative society be created by a free, cooperative movement on the part of the people.

Their criticism of the Marxist transition was more than justified, but on the other hand, by depending on changes of consciousness and spontaneous upsurges to enact the revolution, anarchists too often left unanswered the question of the revolutionary transition: How would the struggle against a counterrevolution be carried out? In many cases they seemed to assume that the initial spontaneous upsurge would be sufficient to eliminate the state and capitalism, and that establishing the new social order would simply be a matter of finally permitting existing cooperative institutions to rise to the surface. Bakunin was typical when he wrote: “With the abolition of the State, the spontaneous selforganization of popular life, for centuries paralyzed and absorbed by the omnipotent power of the state, will revert to the communes.”

But clearly in our day, when the state and capitalism have done so much to damage the ability of ordinary people for spontaneous self-organization; when most people are hypnotized into pursuing never-ending consumption and the maximization of their own self-interest; and when they have been reduced to passive spectators in relation to everything beyond their personal concerns—in such circumstances the new communal order will not be created by a spontaneous upsurge. The process, now if not in Bakunin’s day, will require preparation. Civic politics is threatening to drift out of memory, and if people are to fully recover that historical memory, they will need education.

Most important, the revolution will require an institution to carry out the revolutionary transition. Certainly the revolutionary institution that the Marxists chose, the workers’ state, was nothing short of disastrous. But what, then, is an appropriate transitional institution? We reply that it is the confederal democracy itself, the Commune of communes, the rudiments of which we can work for now, and that will both educate the citizenry and make the revolutionary transition. And in accordance with anarchism’s demand for the unity of means and ends, our transitional institution, the counterpower against the state, is the same as our final institution, the polity that, as Aristotle described it so long ago, best provides a rich flourishing of human life.

Today’s Agenda

As capitalism creates deeper and deeper inroads into social and political life, we cannot stand back and watch the process happen with resignation. Many of the appalling changes that society is undergoing at century’s end are not fated to take place but may be aborted, or turned to the good, or their evil delimited; together as we create a movement to transform society, we will decide how we can curtail them.

Nor can the nation-state and the capitalist system survive indefinitely. Not only is this system widening the divisions between rich and poor around the world into a yawning chasm, but it is also on a collision course with the biosphere. Capitalism’s grow-or-die imperative, in particular, which seeks profit for capital expansion at the expense of all other considerations, stands radically at odds with the practical realities of interdependence and limit, both in social terms and in terms of the capacity of the planet to sustain life. In the next century global warming alone is expected to wreak havoc with the climate, causing rising sea levels, catastrophic weather extremes, epidemics of infectious diseases, and diminished arable land and hence agricultural capacity. At the very least, hunger and disease will soar. It is reported that, at a U.S. cabinet meeting in September 1997, Robert Rubin, the U.S. Treasury secretary, exclaimed to Vice President Al Gore: “This damn global warming issue could send the economy into a death spiral!”

If such a death spiral does develop, however, its social outcome will by no means necessarily be the rational, ecological, libertarian society that social anarchists desire. It is certainly possible that states will attempt to become even more authoritarian in order to repress social unrest. If the crisis is to result in human emancipation, the liberatory alternative will have to already be in place at least to some extent. Increasingly, our choice seems clear: Either people will establish a democratic, cooperative, ecological society, or the ecological underpinnings of society will collapse. The recovery of politics and citizenship is thus not only a precondition for a free society; it may very well be a precondition for our survival as a species. In effect, the ecological question demands a fundamental reconstruction of society, along lines that are cooperative rather than competitive, democratic rather than authoritarian, communal rather than individualistic—above all by eliminating the capitalist system that is wreaking havoc on the biosphere.

Capitalism will not provide us with the popular democratic institutions that we need if we are to eliminate it. On the contrary, it will fight to the bitter end to preserve itself, its social relations, and its state institutions. If we are to gain emancipatory institutions, we must create them ourselves, with our well-organized libertarian municipalist movement. Prerevolutionary periods are usually quite short. Once revolution is on the horizon, we are unlikely to have a great deal of time to perform the painstaking, molecular work of education and organization that the situation will require. Left libertarians should be building such a movement now, showing people how they can take their political and economic lives into their own hands, how they can coordinate and institutionalize those arenas to build a society that will restore their humanity. It will require endless patience, but it must be done, lest the coming crisis result in tyranny.

The social problems that compel us to act are quite concrete and in many cases transcend strictly class issues, as important as class issues are. The desire to preserve the biosphere is universal among most rational people. The need for community is abiding in the human spirit, welling up repeatedly over the centuries, especially in times of social crisis. As for the capitalist economy, let us recall that it is little more than two centuries old; in the mixed economy that preceded it, culture restrained acquisitive desires, and it could do so once again, reinforced by a post-scarcity technology. It is impossible to predict when social crises will take place, or what social conditions will result from them. What is clear, however, is that the demand for a rational society summons us to be rational beings—that is, to live up to our uniquely human potentialities and construct the Commune of communes to fulfill our very humanity.

In many places old democratic institutions linger within the sinews of today’s republican states. The commune lies hidden and distorted in the city council; the sectional assembly lies hidden and distorted in the neighborhood; the town meeting lies hidden and distorted in the township; and municipal confederations lie hidden and distorted in regional associations of towns and cities. By unearthing, renovating, and building upon these hidden institutions, where they exist, and building them where they do not, we can democratize the republic and then radicalize the democracy to create the conditions for a degree of social freedom unprecedented in history.

Radicalizing a direct democracy would impart political fulfillment to the institutions that our movement has created. Hence the slogan for our movement: “Democratize the republic! Radicalize the democracy!”

[end]

The Left Green Network (1988-91)

In the 1980s in many countries, ecological, feminist, antinuclear, and other movements give rise to Green parties. In inspired by the then-radical German Greens, these “anti-party parties” were not yet entirely coopted by the mainstream; for several more years they would retained a degree of their original movement orientation. Late in the decade the U.S. Greens (founded in 1986) were still in flux, grappling with an existential question: would they would they remain a movement, or would they become a conventional political party? Influential members of the U.S. Greens were fixated on becoming a normalized party as a positive good and even on eventually running U.S. presidential candidates.

Photographer: Janet Biehl

Bookchin in the Pacific Northwest, 1988

In 1988, disturbed by this development, Murray Bookchin and Howie Hawkins collaborated to found the Left Green Network (LGN) as a radical alternative to U.S. Green liberals. Where the mainstream Greens wanted a conventional party, the LGN called for continuing the Greens as a decentralized movement. Where the mainstream Greens wanted to enter the existing system, the LGN rejected that system and called for replacing it with a confederation of democratic assemblies. Where mainstream Greens focused heavily on environmental issues, the LGN insisted that environmental issues were inseparable from social justice issues. Where mainstream Greens were entranced by eco-spirituality as a worldview, the LGN recognized naturalism and science as the rational basis for averting ecological ruin. And where mainstream Greens tended to blame “overpopulation” for ecological destruction, the LGN pinned the blame squarely on capitalism and the nation-state.

That summer of 1988, Hawkins and Bookchin drafted a “call” for the LGN, stating its purpose, and a set of principles based on social ecology and libertarian municipalism. They would use these documents as the basis for organizing an ecological, democratic, antiracist, feminist, multicultural, anticapitalist movement.

For a few years, thanks in great part to Hawkins’s energetic organizing, the network expanded, slowly gaining adherents among Green groups around North America. The LGN participated in the Wall Street Action of 1990, along with the affiliated Youth Greens. Left Greens worked with the Diné (Navajo) in New Mexico and Arizona to prevent uranium mining on their ancestral lands. They conducted educational workshops at the Nevada nuclear test site. The local group to which Bookchin and I belonged, the Burlington Greens, ran candidates for city council on a platform to decentralize city government and replace it with neighborhood assemblies; groups in Iowa and New Haven ran similar campaigns. The LGN published an organizing bulletin and a journal. It nurtured relations with Green leftists and ecologically oriented socialists internationally.

But in the early 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the left declined quite precipitately, and many leftist groups simply disappeared. The Left Green Network lost momentum and gradually passed out of existence as well.

Howard Hawkins, c. 1987

Howard Hawkins, c. 1987

A period of reaction had set in. In the next decades, the ecological crisis would only worsen, and capitalism would become ever more consolidated.

Now, in 2015, calls for an egalitarian renewal of anticapitalist grassroots-democratic movements are once again being heard. Perhaps the time has come to take another look at the LGN’s founding documents. At the very least, as a programmatic formulation of Bookchin’s ideas (with influence by Hawkins), they constitute a historical record of this part of this important thinker’s political journey, Hence I am republishing them here. While some of their topical references are out of date, in many respects they seem prescient. Perhaps their basic structure will become relevant for organizing a similar movements today.

Call for a Left Green Network

The existing world system is based on an economic structure with a “grow-or-die” imperative that threatens to destroy life as we know it. Buttressed by militaristic nation-states organized to protect ruling elites, the present system—in both its capitalist and bureaucratic manifestations—is increasingly irrational. This irrationality is demonstrated not only by the continued and increasing oppression and dehumanization of people and their communities around the world, but by the vast destruction of the biosphere. It is manifested in Chernobyl and Bhopal, by toxics in food and contaminated water, by rainforest destruction and by acid rain, by the greenhouse effect and by ozone depletion, and recently by drought in the central United States and by the total inundation of the Ganges delta. The ruling elites’ answer to global starvation and the destruction of the very foundations of human life is war, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua. To global corporations and state managers, the critical problems are interest-rate levels and the “food glut.”

A political force is needed to stop this destruction of the living earth, including humanity itself—a force organized locally and linked confederally up to the global level. Such a movement is already growing in many forms today—from Greens in Europe to communities of indigenous peoples fighting the destruction of their rainforest homes. As North American radicals, many of whom were involved in the New left of the ‘60s and the environmental movements of the ’70s, we see this emergence of the international Green movement as a major step toward creating an alternative to this destructive system.

In the United States, elements of such a new political force exist in the independent socialist and anarchist left; among Blacks and Latins for whom the promise of the Rainbow Coalition is not fulfilled; among Native American traditionalists; among feminists; in the gay and lesbian liberation movement; in the nonaligned peace movement; among workers resisting the corporate assault on living standards and fighting to control their work environments; among students and other young people facing a bleak future; in the growing Green movement; and among many people who are realizing for the first time that they are oppressed by this destructive system.

These groups now have an opportunity to converge into a force that can challenge the destruction of our humanity. We are calling for the formation of a Left Green Network in North America as a step toward that end.

1989 LGN founding meeting

At the founding meeting of the LGN, Ames, Iowa, 1989

Many of us have worked in the Green movement. We hold the concept of “Green” to be explicitly radical, inherently anti-capitalist, and completely wedded to the New Left’s commitment to participatory democracy. We believe the Green movement should carry forward the anti-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian themes of the New Left, while advancing a social-ecological perspective as the basis for new independent political movement.

We see the Left Green Network as an organized educational tendency for activists who share our perspectives within the left, within the Green movement, and within grassroots movements of resistance. We encourage U.S. participants in the Left Green Network to remain in—or join—the Green Committees of Correspondence, the principal nationwide Green political organization. But we also welcome participants from other Green and leftist organizations throughout North America, as well as unaffiliated Greens and leftists.

Independent leftists and Greens in the United States need to offer an alternative to the concerted efforts currently being made to steer radicals into the Democratic Party, a party whose purpose is to implement only those reforms necessary to reproduce the capitalist system and to smother those that would conflict with it. It is vital to begin providing a serious alternative for radicals who disclaim both the orthodoxies of the Old Left and the unprincipled compromises that come with seeking piecemeal forms through the Democratic Party in coalition with the corporate and military interests that dominate it. In the name of a ”lesser evil” policy, too many activists are supporting “progressive” capitalist politicians who are hardly distinguishable in substance from the “greater evil” supposedly being opposed.

This damaging trend has created a vacuum where once there was radicalism, making the rebirth of a New Left more important today than at any time since the ’60s. Such a movement must be capable of advancing principled, independent, and anti-capitalist position that addresses current realities and is unencumbered by support either for the western bloc’s corporate capitalism or the eastern bloc’s bureaucratic statism.

While so many activists have been disappearing to the Democratic Party, the U.S. Green movement has failed to live up to its promise. Often, the consensus-seeking process is abused to prevent debate on controversial questions, affirmation of majority positions, and decisions to act on them. An equation of accountable structures with hierarchy is fostering an irresponsible revolving membership and a tyranny of structurelessness. The radical potential of the Green movements is being compromised by tendencies that are fostering an anti-intellectual irrationalism, a proselytizing religiosity, and a liberal “tolerance” of an intolerant, mean-spirited Malthusianism.

Instead of advancing a coherent alternative to global destruction, the Greens are mired in a contradictory mix of orientations—peace, justice, and ecology activism along with nonpolitical mysticism and “deep ecological” misanthropy; independent leftism along with opportunistic liberalism and outright anti-leftism. Thus, in spite of the U.S. Greens’ claimed openness, the resulting absence of a clear commitment to a convergence of environmental movements with movements for economic justice, racial equality, women’s liberation, and other emancipatory movements is deeply offensive to activist Greens and many of the people they are trying to reach.

A New England affiliate of the LGN protests nukes

A New England affiliate of the LGN protests nukes

In this atmosphere of conciliation with the Democrats, on the one hand, and with anti-leftist mysticism on the other, we find it necessary to avow our commitment to the New Left tradition of a radical struggle for human emancipation. By forming a Left Green Network, we hope to advance a programmatically coherent leftist policy within the Green movement.

We take this step in a constructive spirit. We want to persuade others of our views, while functioning in a manner completely open and transparent to the movement at large, and by scrupulously abiding by the democratic processes of broader organizations. By organizing the Left Green Network, we hope to reach out to other currents of the independent left and to popular movements for peace, justice, and the environment. We want to greatly enhance the vitality, social diversity, and political coherence of the North American Green movement.

While we favor the appropriate use of consensus process by tightly knit local groups if they so choose, we oppose its abuse in newly forming groups and in large, diverse regional and national meetings. Nor are we opposed to a “spirituality” that means mutual care, respect, and a sense of community to nurture the human spirit and sustain us for political struggle. We want to foster an ecological sensibility that rests on a healthy naturalism with a sense of wonder and respect for natural evolution, and a sense of experiential communion with nature—not a supernaturalism that promotes the separation of humanity from nature and that ultimately justifies domination and hierarchy.

We do not believe that humanity’s present collision course with nature is inevitable, nor that reason excludes intuition and emotion, nor, above all, that the ecological crisis can be separated from the social crisis and dehumanization and spiritual impoverishment from oppression and material impoverishment. Green politics, therefore, are left politics—and are incompatible with the competition, alienation, exploitation, and endless accumulation that characterize capitalism.

Protesting nukes in New Hampshire

Protesting in New Hampshire

We wish to establish organizational forms for the Left Green Network that embody the Green principle of social responsibility, as well as that of grassroots democracy. Accordingly, we plan to develop an educational and organizational literature that will advance our views, including an organizing bulletin and a discussion journal for in-depth theoretical analysis. We plan to organize Left Green conferences to exchange views and set our policies; to participate in others’ conferences by sponsoring workshops, co-sponsoring forums, and the like; to develop international ties; and to promote political action in pursuit of Left Green goals. We will have a clearly defined membership with voting rights, a realistic common commitment to finance the Left Green Network, and local, regional, national, and continental organizational forms based on a confederal system of association. We call for accountability at every level of organization and in every kind of structure—both in the Left Green Network and in the other groups of which we are a part. We will seek consensus on decisions, but when differences cannot be ironed out in discussion, the majority will have the right to take and implement decisions, while the minority will have the rights to abstain from implementation and to publicly dissent.

The appended draft proposal for a Left Green body of principles provides a philosophical framework the Left Green Network based on social-ecological, anti-capitalist, independent politics. It is put forth not as a dogma but as a first step toward the ultimate creation of a Left Green program. It calls for democracy based on equality and solidarity, instead of political rule based on economic power; for social justice as a necessary part of an ecologically sustainable society; for economic justice and material well-being as a necessary part of caring for the world of life as a whole, rather than regarding nature as a resource to be raped for the sake of a “grow-or-die” capitalist economy; and for the harmonization of human with human—the elimination of violence and domination in all its forms—as a necessary part of harmonizing society with nature.

We call upon activists who share these principles to join us in building the Left Green Network in North America within the Green movement and the independent left.

 

Principles of the Left Green Network

[August 13,1988]

1. Ecological Humanism

Left Greens stand for the creation of a society of human liberty, equality, and solidarity in ecological harmony with nature. We seek to realize the highest democratic and libertarian ideals of the American Revolution and to create the social conditions for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We share the Revolution’s humanistic premise: that all humans are endowed by nature with the capacity for reason, empathy, and free choice and therefore have a natural right to democratic self-government and to basic freedoms, as well as economic rights.

The humanism that the Left Greens stand for, however, is an ecological humanism. We reject the antinaturalism of traditional humanisms that have sought to create a social “realm of freedom” by means of dominating a natural “realm of necessity.” We also reject the antihumanism of ecophilosophies that, in reaction to the destruction of the environment, seek to protect nature by constricting human freedom.

Left Greens oppose all forms of domination, of both human and nonhuman nature, and believe that human liberation and ecological harmony are inextricably connected. We call for a reharmonization of humanity with nature on the basis of a new harmonization of human with human. We seek a social and ecological ethics for a society in which each individual is free to reach his or her full potential; free, egalitarian, nonhierarchical society of self-governing communities that are humanly scaled, bioregionally integrated, and cooperatively confederated; a society that is a partner with the rest of nature.

2. Social Ecology

Humanity has reached a point in history where the boldest concepts of utopia are possible, yet we remain mired in the legacy of domination, and even the very survival of humanity is now in question. The ecological provision of material security for every human being is readily achievable, yet we remain trapped in a social megamachine that pits humans against each other and that devours both people and nature for its own purposes.

Left Greens are social ecologists. We root the ecological crisis in its systemic social causes—capitalism in particular and hierarchy and domination in general. The present competitive society’s war on the natural world is an extension of the war of each against all that it fosters among humans—as well as a war of each against his or her own nature. Left Greens oppose the misanthropic orientations that blame human nature, human rationality, or “overpopulation” for the ecological crisis. We believe that a radical transformation of this society is not only possible but imperative for survival as well as to continue natural and social evolution.

Human liberation and the protection of nonhuman life are not merely compatible—both are necessary. The Left Greens seek to unite social and environmental movements in order to change society. As social ecologists, we stand with every struggle for human freedom, equality, and solidarity, for the liberation of women, people of color, gays and lesbians, working people, young people, old people, peoples dominated by foreign powers, and ordinary people in all walks of life who are weighed down by the institutions and culture of domination.

Left Greens also stand with every struggle for the protection of nonhuman life. As social ecologists, we embrace the conservation of species diversity, habitats, and ecosystems and the expansion of wilderness areas. We call for ecotechnologies based on renewable, organic, and nontoxic materials, energy sources, and production processes that harmonize community-controlled economies with the ecology of their bioregions.

3. Racial Equality

Left Greens oppose any compromise with racism in any form. We support affirmative action to create substantive equality and every effort of racially oppressed groups to achieve community empowerment and self-determination. We seek to help an independent “rainbow” movement develop from below in which independent community-based organizations in all of North America’s diverse ethnic and social communities join together on the basis of substantive equality, mutual aid, and grassroots control of the movement.

4. Social Ecofeminism

Left Greens are committed to the liberation of women, to their basic reproductive rights as well as to their full participation all realms of social life. We believe in a social ecofeminism that seeks to understand and uproot the social origins of patricentric structures of domination. Unlike other ecofeminisms that accept patriarchal myths and cultural definitions of women as more” natural” than men and as existing outside culture, social ecofeminism regards women as cultural beings, as well as biological beings, and seeks to understand and change the social realities of the relationships between women, men, the political realm, the domestic realm, and all of these to nature.

5. Gay and Lesbian Liberation

Left Greens demand the sexual and social emancipation of people of all sexual preferences. We support every effort by lesbians and gay men to achieve substantive equality and civil rights in all areas, such as jobs, housing, and child custody, as well as anti-AIDS funding. We recognize that lesbians and gay men are demanding not only their own freedom and dignity but that of all people, for as long as sexuality is not free, people are doomed to thwart their most basic desires for love, pleasure, and creativity.

6. Grassroots Democracy

A society in which human beings cooperatively control their own destinies must be the product of the self-activity of a popular majority of the people. Because this kind of society cannot, by its very nature, be legislated from the top down, Left Greens do not want to get elected into the existing power structure. Rather, we want to restructure political institutions along lines that will replace the centralized state with a confederal participatory democracy. Our goal is base democracy, in which public policy at all jurisdictional scales is determined by community assemblies, such as town meetings, that are open to all citizens. Confederations of these community assemblies will coordinate public policy from below. Representatives to the larger scales of confederal self-government will receive ongoing instructions from the base assemblies and will be subject to immediate recall by the base.

7. Cooperative Commonwealth

The Left Greens seek to bring the economy under the control of the grassroots democracy. We call for a cooperative commonwealth—a fundamental alternative both the private-corporate-market system of the West and the state-bureaucratic-command system of the East. The world economy today, under both corporate capitalism and state-“socialism,” is an interconnected system based on the exploitation of the many. Its goal is not to meet human needs in harmony with nature, but the investment of capital to create more capital in order to satisfy the profit and power motives of the elite few that control the means of production and militaristic nation-states. Endless growth-for growth’s-sake is thus structured into this economic system, making it deadly to the planetary biosphere. It is inherently anti-human and anti-ecological.

The LGN at the Wall Street Action, 1990 (note the banner in the upper left)

The LGN at the Wall Street Action, 1990 (note the banner in the upper left)

It degrades social and moral bonds into depersonalized, amoral market and bureaucratic relationships. It calls upon the basest of human attributes to motivate economic activity. To attempt to humanize and ecologize this system is like asking a plant to stop photosynthesizing.

Society’s common wealth—the land and natural resources; the banks and the material infrastructure of production—is the creation of natural evolution and the labor of millions, not of the ruling elites that now control most of it. As our common heritage, Left Greens believe that this social wealth should be held in common and used cooperatively or the common good of people and their ecological context.

In a cooperative commonwealth, people democratically and cooperatively own and control their economy. Global corporations and centralized state enterprises should be broken up and replaced by individual and family enterprises, cooperatives, and decentralized publicly owned enterprises. Basic industries and services would be socialized through municipalization into community ownership and control, not nationalized into bureaucracy. Confederations of communities would own larger facilities regionally, and confederations of regions would coordinate the economy from below at still larger jurisdictional scales.

This kind of democratized economic system will uncouple the exploitative growth dynamic of today’s economic megamachine and make possible an ecological economy in dynamic equilibrium with the environment. It will empower people to define their own needs and then produce what is needed to satisfy them in harmony with nature. It will enable society to replace the growth-oriented exploitative economy that blindly devours the environment with a need-oriented moral economy that consciously establishes a dynamic equilibrium with the biosphere.

8. Human Rights

Left Greens envision a world where each individual is free to develop his or her full potential because each individual enjoys basic political, economic, and individual human rights. Left Greens make no compromises in the defense of civil liberties. But formal civil liberties are undermined as effectively by the burdens of economic deprivation as they are by overt political repression. Left Greens therefore call for the creation of a moral economy that ensures that every person’s basic material needs are met as a human right. We call for a guaranteed income sufficient to support decent standard of living and for a just distribution of available work for all willing and able. We demand shorter work weeks and call for the free provision, under community control, of education, health care, public transportation, and other basic goods and services. These social responsibilities would be funded through steeply progressive taxation, revenues from public enterprises, and voluntary contributions to public funds.

9. Non-Aligned Internationalism

Left Greens support human rights according to one universal criterion—freedom—without regard for national boundaries or the military blocs of the Cold War. They actively solidarize with nonaligned peace, ecology, democracy, worker, feminist, anti-racist, anti-militarist, and anti-imperialist movements in every country—East bloc, West bloc, Third World.

Janet Biehl prepares for a Burlington Greens action, c. 1989

Janet Biehl prepares for a Burlington Greens action, c. 1989

They envision a world without borders, a world of decentralized regions composed of confederations of self-governing communities.

Left Greens demand that every nuclear power initiate immediate unilateral nuclear disarmament and conversion to nonprovocative, home-based defense based on both voluntary conventionally-armed militia and nonviolent social defense. These forms of defense should be strictly accountable to civilian authority. Left Greens demand that every country recall all armed forces from stations abroad and use the savings from military spending for social and ecological reconstruction. Only such measures can create the just, democratic, and ecologically sustainable conditions necessary for a durable peace.

10. Independent Politics

Grassroots movements for fundamental change need an independent political vehicle. The Democratic Party has been the graveyard for every popular movement for fundamental change in the United States, from the early workers’ parties and the populist movement of the nineteenth century to the labor movement of the 1930s and, increasingly, the new social movements since the 1960s. Left Greens reject the dependent politics of lobbying and compromising inside the establishment parties, the Democrats and Republicans, which are dominated by the vested interests connected to big business and the military. We oppose any support for their candidates, including “progressive” Democrats who run against more moderate elements of the party establishment. Instead, Left Greens seek independent organization and action outside ruling-class structures. We support Greens who run on an independent Green ballot line as mandated and recallable representatives who are fully accountable to the program and membership of the Green political organization. Left Greens cooperate with and seek to develop unity with other independent political organizations on the basis of compatible political principles

11. Direct Action

Voting is not enough. Global corporations hold a private economic veto over public policy through threats of disinvestment. The bureaucratic and military structures of the stale can veto radical legislative initiatives through bureaucratic inertia and, as a last resort, military repression. Broad, popular direct action is thus needed to counter private corporate power, bureaucratic inertia, and ultimately violent repression by the military. Movements from below are the basis for Green political organization. Left Greens help build independent direct action movements that can lay the basis for an independent electoral alternative. Left Green direct action takes many forms: from nonviolent resistance to existing abuses to reconstructive action to build alternatives. The Left Greens call for extending the extra-parliamentary movement into electoral/legislative arenas, not for the purpose of getting into the existing power structure, but to restructure that power fundamentally. We seek to create direct action in its highest form—direct democracy.

Left Greens do not limit their goals to the “left wing of the possible.” We aim to change what is possible. We refuse to compromise our program in order to achieve short-term “influence” inside the establishment. Capitalism and hierarchical society generally cannot be transformed incrementally from the top down. Although Left Greens may enter legislatures to advance their program, they refuse the formal executive power of government until the majority of people not only vote for a program of basic social change but are ready to take direct action to ensure that the program is implemented

12. Radical Municipalism

Left Greens “think globally” to understand the large-scale social forces that must be transformed, while we “act locally” to create a local framework through which grassroots people can participate directly in democratic transformation. For Left Greens, community empowerment does not mean electing better representatives to govern us, but literally the empowerment of every community to practice self-government.

Left Greens call for a radical municipalist strategy that will run independent Green candidates in cities and towns across the continent on a program of building up a popular counterpower based on movements from below, on democratizing municipalities, and on creating municipal confederations that bring increasing political and economic power under community control. We hold that community empowerment must be created throughout the land in order to build up a dual power in society that can initially resist and ultimately replace nation-states and global corporations.

13. Strategic Nonviolence

Left Greens are committed to a strategy of nonviolent revolution, but we affirm the right of self-defense. We practice critical solidarity with legitimate freedom struggles, although we may not agree with every tactic or programmatic goal of such movements. Left Greens work toward a society in which political disputes are solved nonviolently. We understand that this is not currently the case, and that the central reason for this fact is the existence of social hierarchies based on racial domination, patriarchal authority, class exploitation, and an unjust world order maintained by militarist in nation-states. The inevitable instances of violence arising from the conflicts between these structures and their subjects are to be blamed on the structures of domination, not on those who resist domination. Such structural violence will be eliminated only by the elimination of these structures of domination.

14. Democratic Decentralism

Left Greens believe in democratic decentralism. On organizational forms demand strict accountability of representatives, spokespeople, candidates, and elected officials to policies set by the membership. At the same time, we believe in pluralism among the membership, including the freedom to dissent and full ongoing discussion of all positions taken by the organization. Outside of the binding agreements on the Principles and Bylaws that constitute conditions for membership, members are free to abstain from the implementation of majority decisions with which they disagree and to publicly dissent from them. Although Left Green representatives, spokespeople, candidates, and elected officials are required to act in a manner consistent with imperative mandates from the membership, they are free to publicly express their own dissenting views when they differ from such mandates. Left Greens believe in seeking to arrive at decisions by consensus if possible. But when differences exist, majorities should be accorded the right to make decisions in the name of the organization. Minorities remain free to abstain from the implementation of majority decisions with which they disagree and to publicly dissent from them.

 

[end]

 

Message to Amed Ecology Assembly

I was invited to participate in the Ecology Assembly in Amed (Diyarbakir), which met on February 28. The organizers wanted me to explain Bookchin’s thinking about ecology.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to attend personally, but I wrote a message to that effect and added some of my own thinking about cities as an ecological issue.  –Janet

Congratulations on the creation of the Amed Ecology Assembly—I wish I could be there with you, to speak about ecology and Murray Bookchin. Thank you for inviting me to send this message. I will summarize his work on ecology and then make some concrete suggestions that may be useful for you toward the creation of ecological Democratic Autonomy in Bakur and Rojava in the coming years.

Bookchin, as you know, was a social ecologist, which means that he saw ecology in social terms and he stated writing about it in the 1950s. Unlike other nature-minded people who revered wilderness, he thought ecology was indissolubly tied to social organization and proceeded on that premise.

Murray Bookchin in 1989

Murray Bookchin in 1989

He started writing about ecology just after the Second World War, when large-scale, industrialized agriculture was just emerging. He saw that small farms were giving way to large factory farms; that traditional farmers with a connection to the land were being replaced by capitalist enterprises that employed farm laborers—employees; that traditional agricultural lifeways, which valued the local rural community, were giving way to the drive for profit; that diverse crops, farmed in rotation, were giving way to monocultures, subject to pest infestation; that as a result pesticides were being used widely; that local farms, where crops were consumed by people living nearby as needed, were giving way to long-distance food transport; that that required chemicals to be added to food like preservatives and coloring agents, to store it when it wasn’t immediately consumed. Many of those chemicals, it was just being discovered, cause illnesses in human beings, including cancer.

Now, sixty years later, all these problems are familiar, and much of great usefulness to you has been written about the problems of capitalist, chemicalized agriculture and need for organic farming. Bookchin argued starting in the 1950s the solution was to decentralize agriculture and indeed all of society, to get break up the large industrial farms and replace them with many small farms. That way farming could be small scale, integrated to the society; crops would be grown close to where they would be consumed, so that no preservatives would be needed; that crops should be diverse and rotate again, so that monocultures could be eliminated; and farming should be restored as a respected practice, with farmers feeling an affinity to and pride in working the soil.

I don’t know how much you are being invaded by industrialized capitalist agriculture, but if you are, it’s important to resist it and hold out for small-scale organic farming and traditional practices. I think you have some ideas about how to do so with the creation of sustainable eco-villages.

Just as Bookchin wrote about agriculture, he also wrote about a parallel development in cities. He argued that cities, too, were becoming too large and industrialized, dehumanizing people who lived there with anonymous office work, the stress of harried city living, and depoliticization. He thought that in the large new metropolises, the diverse communities and neighborhoods that give cities vitality and liveliness were being eliminated by centralization. The urban social fabric was being torn to make way for highways and parking lots for automobiles. Driving cars was more important than walking, and the needs of cars were more important than the needs of people, so cars were accommodated. Gigantic new cities, like gigantic new farms, were monocultures, dehumanized. And much as the chemicals in capitalist agriculture were damaging human health, so too were gigantic cities polluting the air and water, harming people’s health as much as chemicals in food did. He thought people would soon reach the limit of what they would tolerate, in terms of these insults to their health and environment, both in agriculture and in urbanization, and would rebel.

They would demand that the gigantic cities of industrialized urbanism be broken up into human scaled neighborhoods so that a rich ethnic diversity would once gain make up an urban tapestry. In neighborhoods and villages, people could feasibly create the kind of democratic self-government through citizen assemblies. And in those assemblies they could make decisions to create a healthy society, one that didn’t use food chemicals that cause cancer, and didn’t pollute the air and water through other kinds of chemicals.

Furthermore, cities consumed enormous amounts of energy, which meant they required power plants that ran on fossil fuels: coal and natural gas, as well as petroleum. But in 1965 he wrote that that was producing a crisis called “the greenhouse effect” (what we call global warming today). In a few hundred years, he wrote back in the 1960s, the greenhouse effect would make the planet too hot for life as we know it. Since fossil fuels were creating this greenhouse effect, he said, we have to get off fossil fuels, and use renewable energy—solar, wind, and thermal power. And if those technologies can’t power gigantic cities, then we have to decentralize cities, to break them up into small-scale neighborhoods and villages, which are more suitable for renewable energy.

Decentralization was imperative, then, he argued, for these energy reasons; for health reasons (chemicals and pollution); and also for a broader moral reason: that people are more important than the profit of a few. That people’s well-being is more important than profit of a few. And that democratic self-government, taking power away from the greedy economic elites and put it in the hands of people, is an ethical good in its own right. It’s an end in itself, a fulfillment of natural evolution toward complexity and freedom. That’s why he called his big book “The Ecology of Freedom.”

**

In Bakur and Rojava, you too could find your traditional cities becoming gigantic. You could find your neighborhoods homogenized and disempowered, your city government centralized, your workplaces capitalized, your vibrant political culture reduced to docile employees punching clocks at boring jobs day after day. The change can happen little by little, without people even noticing it. So it’s important to stay alert and to prevent it, even little by little, and build an ecological society even with small steps.

Solar panels atop the Mesopotamian Academy in Quamislo

Solar panels atop the Mesopotamian Academy in Quamislo

Rojava runs on diesel, from its oil wells, and it’s dirty and sooty. Right now, due to the embargo, Rojava lacks the resources to develop solar. And maybe you have similar problems in Bakur. As one part of democratic autonomy, you could think about adopting solar energy. You have plentiful sun. Solar panels are inexpensive these days—they could power single buildings or entire neighborhoods. I think you should consider embedding it into your infrastructure as much as you can.

Start farming in your urban neighborhoods. Set aside areas for community farms, so that people can farm in the city. Also, trees are very important—not just for beautification. They cool cities in the summertime. They help purify the air. They help keep people sane and calm and civil toward one another. They are one of the best, simplest ways to counteract climate change. Plant trees, everywhere you can, in parks, along streets, in rural areas.

In my opinion, one of the most important ecological issues of all is transportation. Specifically, we have too many cars. People love their cars, probably as much here as in the United States. But they are a real problem. They make city air hard to breathe by generating pollution and smog. And they are an ecological disaster because they produce greenhouse emissions.

But the problems are more than that. When cars are dominant in city streets, they can become harmful to vital, livable, decentralized cities.

They do it by ruining neighborhoods for people. They have to be parked, so people rip up good buildings that could be used for housing or workplaces, and pave over flat areas for parking. And they’re socially isolating. When you’re driving a car, you don’t’ encounter your neighbors and have a conversation. They endanger to pedestrians and bicyclists. And finally, they’re not even efficient as a means of transportation in a city, because they create traffic congestion and then everyone gets stuck in traffic and has to wait. So it’s both a social and an ecological issue to keep cars under control, to keep them from dominating streets.

But people get dependent on cars for a reason. They need them to get from home to work, because there’s no alternative. So it’s an ecological issue to reduce the need for cars

There are several ways to do that. Most important, strengthen your neighborhoods, so that homes and workplaces are within walking distance of each other, and shopping and recreation as well. Don’t centralize workplaces in a downtown—make sure workplaces are spread throughout the city, in the neighborhoods. That way people can walk to them rather than drive a car. And that will help keep your neighborhoods strong and vibrant.

Make it easy to walk. Design streets for people, not for cars, and keep the streets safe for people. Instead of building more roads for cars, build sidewalks. Turn certain streets over to walking and bicycling—ban cars from them. Create car-free zones. Create green networks—interconnected green areas that make it pleasant and easy for people to walk or bike through the city. All these things are being done in other parts of the world now, to reduce the need for cars. You can do it here too, or maybe you are already.

Encourage bicycling. Build bike lanes. Tear up big streets, or transform driving lanes into bike lanes. All this will support decentralization and democratic autonomy. Walkable and bikable neighborhoods are the essence of community—that’s where people meet, where you see each other face to face.

And it’s important to think about public transportation. I didn’t see any in Rojava—everyone drives cars. I know that resources are scarce, because of the embargo, but it’s important to start bringing in buses, and eventually trains, light rail, streetcars. People need cheap or free public transportation, within cities, so they don’t have to drive to the walkable neighborhood on the other side of the city. And crate public transit between cities.

Don’t be afraid of dense population in your neighborhoods. Density is good because it makes public transportation financially possible. It’s better to build up existing areas than create low-density suburbs out in the countryside that make people dependent on cars.

In the United States we have too many, and too many highways, and too many parking lots. We have to undo car dependency. Fortunately young Americans want to move away from car ownership and from driving, but they’re finding it difficult because so much of the American built environment was organized around the automobile.

Build walkability and public transit into your constructed environment from the outset. These are my recommendations for any urban ecology effort. Working with renewable energy, urban farming, walkability, and public transportation will help you support neighborhoods, and decentralization, and ultimately democratic self-government and democratic autonomy. I wish you success.

Thank you for inviting me to contribute. If you need more information about anything I’ve said, please contact me.

Bookchin on Climate Change–in 1965

In the United States in 1965, the environmental crisis was still inchoate. Rachel Carson’s eloquent Silent Spring had raised the alarm about pesticides and herbicides. Smog and soot were choking the cities, and toxic chemicals were polluting the waterways. Congress had passed a few weak pieces of clean air and water legislation, but they were not making much difference. The first Earth Day was five years away.

But in 1965 the prescient author Murray Bookchin was already writing about not only these issues but climate change (or rather, what would later be called climate change, or the greenhouse effect, or global warming—none of those terms were yet in use). “Air pollution is a threat not only to public health but also tho the stability of our weather,” he wrote that year:

Man’s increased burning of coal and oil is annually adding 600 million tons of carbon dioxide to the air, or about .03 percent of the total atmospheric mass. During the past one hundred years, he has contribute 260 billion tons, or 13 percent more of the gas to the earth’s atmosphere.

Bookchin wasn’t a climate scientist—he was an aspiring science journalist. His source was a brief article in a scientific journal: J. M. Stagg, “Atmospheric Contamination and Climatic Stability,” New Scientist 23 [1964], pp. 627-28. But he inferred the consequences:

This blanket of carbon dioxide tends to raise the atmosphere’s temperature by intercepting heat waves going from the earth into outer space.

Rising temperatures would lead to climate disruption:

Meteorologists believe that he immediate effect of increased heat leads to violent air circulation and increasingly destructive storms.

Then Bookchin took a daring speculative leap:

Theoretically, after several centuries of fossil-fuel combustion, the increased heat of the atmosphere could even melt the polar ice caps of the earth and lead to the inundation of the continents with sea water.

The book was called Crisis in Our Cities, published by Prentice-Hall. In chapter 11, he named the problem and warned that ignoring it would be  dangerous:

Remote as such a deluge may seem today, it is symbolic of the long-range catastrophic effects of our irrational civilization on the balance of nature, indeed of the profound problems we are leaving for future generations to solve.

Bookchin specific predictions were remarkably accurate, as it’s almost superfluous to point out. Rising atmospheric temperatures: check. Violent air circulation: check. Increasingly destructive storms: check. Melting of the polar ice caps: check, except for the time frame. Inundation of the continents with sea water: coming.

Actually, I’ve done Bookchin a disservice, reducing his prescience by a year:  he’d actually written almost the same words about global warming in 1964, in an essay called “Ecology and Revolutionary Thought.” The essay circulated around the counterculture for ten or fifteen years and was anthologized in a lot of books (including Bookchin’s own Post-Scarcity Anarchism, published in 1971), but its message was ignored by most.

Nor did Crisis in Our Cities didn’t attract much attention—the world was still barely getting a basic grasp of air and water pollution, after all. Bill McKibben published his epochal The End of Nature in 1989 would climate change become a matter of general awareness.

Bookchin correctly diagnosed the cause of the looming problem: the burning of fossil fuels—indeed, “we could not hope to sustain our fossil-fuel technology indefinitely even if there were ample reserves of coal and oil for millennia to come.” So our agenda, he said (still in that 1965 book), must be to wean ourselves from fossil fuel use in favor of alternative sources of energy. What would those sources be?

He ruled out nuclear power: because of the problems of radiation and hazardous waste, it would be replacing one source of dirty energy with another.

Instead, he proposed shifting clean, renewable energy sources. Solar energy, for one.

Every day, the sun provides heat energy to each acre of the earth’s middle latitudes in amounts that would be released by the combustion of nearly three tons of coal. If we could fully utilize the solar energy the annually reaches the continental United States, we would acquire the power locked in 1,900 billion tons of bituminous coal!

And unlike fuels from coal and petroleum, energy derived from the sun would be “clean and inexhaustible.”

Wind power would be another source. “For thousands of years, farmers use the wind as a source of energy for milling grains, pumping water from the depths of the earth, and draining marshes.” Today, he wrote, we are learning how “to harness the winds for producing electric power at costs that are competitive with fossil fuels.”

And finally he proposed using energy from thermal tidal dams, in which “sea water will be trapped behind the dam as the tide rises and will then be rereleased as needed into generating turbines. The tides, in effect, will create huge reservoirs of water behind the retaining wall and electricity will be generated in much the same fashion as in a conventional hydroelectric power plant.”

From these disparate sources, with solar, wind, and tidal energy, Bookchin suggested piecing together a system “in which the energy load is distributed as broadly as possible.” The type of energy produced and consumed in a locale would be based on its specific attributes: in sunny areas, solar energy; “in regions with a great deal of atmospheric turbulence, we are likely to take greater advantage of wind turbines than in calmer areas.” And along the seacoasts, communities would “rely heavily on the energy potential of the sea—not only the power provided by tides but also by waves and differences in ocean temperatures.”

Perhaps renewable energy couldn’t power an entire industrial civilization, he acknowledged, but we must nonetheless reserve the use of fossil fuels to cases where they were absolutely unavoidable—“always taking care to limit their use as much as possible.”

If we had listened to Bookchin back in 1965, we would likely not be facing a possible four-degree-Celsius temperature rise by the end of the twenty-first century. Still, it’s not too late to undertake the shift that he recommended all those years ago.

 

Book review: “Pioneers of Ecological Humanism” by Brian Morris (2012)

Book Review

Pioneers of Ecological Humanism by Brian Morris (Amazon Digital, 2012), 272 pp.

Morris bookToday the environmental crisis and especially climate change are familiar topics in mainstream political discussions, but in the mid-to-late twentieth century environmentalism was only just emerging. Several thinkers whose names have since faded from memory were, back then, innovators in formulating the ecological critique of industrial capitalism that we take for granted today. Among them were Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), René Dubos (1901-82) and Murray Bookchin (1921-2006).

They have, Brian Morris argues, been forgotten too quickly. At a time when we are still struggling–intellectually, politically, and ethically–to grasp the reality of climate change, to face its implications, and to prevent it from getting worse (and in some cases even acknowledge its existence), the work of these three philosophers contains wisdom that is stimulating and germane. In Pioneers of Ecological Humanism, Morris has taken on task of demonstrating their intellectual stature and reaffirming their continued relevance.

None of the three was a scientific ecologist by profession. Mumford wrote on architecture and cities and technology and literature; Dubos was a microbiologist and experimental pathologist; and Bookchin was a political activist and a historian of social revolutionary movements. But all can be considered ecological philosophers as well, and this is the role upon which Morris focuses in his illuminating new book.

They wrote on the subject for a general audience, as public intellectuals. And in that connection they though across disciplines, integrated ideas from diverse fields of study, and addressed broad, complex themes in Western civilization. All wrote about the degradation of the natural environmental under industrial capitalism: pollution, chemical additives in food, deforestation, soil erosion, and nuclear power. All three wrote about that then-incipient crisis within the framework of humanistic social philosophy, because for all three, the very concept of ecology was indelibly social. Morris probes their common themes and shows that all three were luminaries in an intellectual tradition that he calls ecological humanism.

Morris (born in 1936), an emeritus professor of anthropology at Goldsmiths College, University of London, is himself a transdisciplinary thinker, having written on topics as diverse as anthropology of religion, individual and self, ethnobotany, insects, and anarchist history. Writing in a lucid, accessible style, he explicates the work of his three pioneers, and shows the chains of influence among them.

The ecological crisis, Morris observes, ostensibly presents us with an impossible choice. The driving force behind the crisis is industrial capitalism, turbocharged by science and technology, driven to pursue the Baconian dream of mastering nature. Philosophically that system is underpinned by dualistic Cartesian metaphysics, which presupposes a radical cleavage between humans and other life forms. And that cleavage in turn is associated with anthropocentrism, the idea that humans are superior to the rest of nature and thereby hold the right to pillage it.

The alternative is the neo-Romantic rejection of industrial civilization in favor of wilderness, whose conservation is to be our primary ecological aim. In pursuit of it, we are to cultivate a spiritual metaphysic regarding wilderness as pristine nature, even a mystical one, denigrating reason and technology. And we are to reject anthropocentrism in favor of biocentrism, a principle inhibiting humans from interfering with the vital needs of other organisms.

The first choice, the expanding capitalist order, has proved itself to be unsustainable–it is the very path leading to the ecological crisis. But the alternative, the fetishization of wilderness, is untenable as well, since pursuing it would require a massive reduction in human population (neo-Malthusianism), the subordination of human aims to perceived natural ones, and a regression to a low-tech hunter-gatherer existence. The choice between these two paths, Morris argues, represents a false dilemma. There is a third way: ecological humanism, an affirmation that human beings are capable of transforming their societies so as to enhance the flourishing of both humanity and nature.

Mumford, Dubos, and Bookchin all rejected the idea of a radical dichotomy between humans and the rest of nature. All three enthusiastically embrace the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin, who demonstrated the organic link between people and other life-forms by showing that the nature of nature is evolution. Long before, in ancient times, Aristotle had emphasized the continuity between inanimate matter, plants, and animal life. But Darwin’s theory connected them all by explaining the principles by which new life-forms of life evolve and affirming that human beings are a product of that very process. People, like all other life-forms, organisms, mammals, and primates, are children of natural evolution and hence an intrinsic part of nature’s continuum of life-forms.

That said, homo sapiens is unique by virtue of its dual nature: we are social mammals as well as natural ones. Evolutionary history gave us symbolic faculties, including language, and a capacity for social cooperation and consciousness and choice. We necessarily inhabit that cultural environment as well as our biological one. Hence multiple factors–biology, society, psychology, and culture–condition us. And even though our extra-biological inheritance renders us distinct from other organisms, paradoxically it is itself a natural fact. Moreover, part of our our dual nature is creative agency. We are structured to interact with nonhuman nature, even to modify and transform it, through our labor and our imagination.

This distinctiveness, however, does not give homo sapiens a right to subordinate the rest of nature. All three ecological-humanist philosophers reject anthropocentrism, the idea that humans wield dominion over the earth, which exists for their benefit. All three oppose the treatment of the natural world as a human resource. All are critical of the overreach of modern science and technology. Mumford denounced the “megamachine,” machine technology driven by a Promethean ethic, at the expense of sustaining organic life. Dubos warned that our “Faustian ethic that identifies progress with the conquest of nature” has put us on a suicidal course and is contrary to biology. Bookchin emphasized that the driving force behind the “simplification of nature” was capitalism, with its market economy geared to producing goods for profit rather than need.

But the imperatives that drive this “Faustian” system, like those behind any other social system, are not biological. It is extrinsic to our physiological makeup; we are not somehow intrinsically malignant toward the rest of nature. On the contrary, our ways of organizing our social life are social, including the way that is driving the ecological crisis, and hence they are changeable. We are capable of changing that system and approaching the rest of nature with respect, imagination, and intelligence–even and especially with the use of science. We can orient our use of technology toward humane and life-affirming purposes rather profit and the destruction of the environment. In so doing, we can potentially even improve on it, promoting the flourishing of both people and the biosphere’s landscapes and life-forms.

The choice between anthropocentrism and biocentrism, as Bookchin observed, is facile. We can remove ourselves from ideologies of both domination and submission and cultivate a respect for natural phenomena, a sensitivity to the interdependence of life forms, which he called an “ecological sensibility.” Our cultural adaptability means we can “design with nature,” as Dubos put it. Rather than imposing a schema on a region, we can allow local topography, climate, and biota to influence human landscape and architecture.

All three support the conservation of “wilderness,” or relatively untouched land areas, as places of emotional solace, as biodiversity reserves, and as part of “ecological sensibility” and respecting other life-forms. But Dubos and Bookchin both argue that what we call wilderness is by no means pristine. Humans have been transforming the natural landscape at least since antiquity. Indeed, humans are an intrinsic component of practically all existing ecological systems, and therefore some degree of ecological management is imperative, management that is neither mastering nor dominating but cooperative and symbiotic. We can do this. As Dubos pointed out, creatively symbiotic relationships exist at all level of biological and social existence. Not only competition but mutual aid, reciprocity, and cooperation play a vital role in our relationship with nature. Hence in many regions worldwide, people have enhanced natural ecology through creative interventions, like bridges and canals; hedgerows, gardens, orchards, and vineyards; plowed fields and terracing; meadows and parks and woodlands; and wet-rice cultivations, among many other features. We need to preserve not only “wilderness” but these humanized or cultural landscapes.

All three philosophers reject the gigantic city, the megalopolis, as a zone of concentrated capital, traffic congestion, pollution, and anonymity, but they endorse new forms of urban life that integrate town and country on a human scale. Mumford thought the alternative social-ecological vision would have to be regional, seeing cities and their surrounding rural areas as interconnected. Regional planning would involve a balance between industry and agriculture, landscape and human activities, humans and their environment; it would bring nature into the cities in urban parks and gardens and nature sanctuaries. Dubos affirmed that “the great cities of the world contribute to the richness of the earth.” Bookchin wanted to decentralize cities into their human-scaled neighborhoods.

Not that the three philosophers were identical: Dubos was the most Christian; Mumford was vaguely pantheistic; Bookchin was an atheist. Dubos and Mumford, as Morris points out, were essentially radical liberals, while Bookchin was a social revolutionary. But all three advocated cooperation among humans as well as between humans and nature. They upheld enlightenment values of freedom, social justice, and cosmopolitanism. To varying degrees, Mumford and Bookchin especially emphasized community politics and civic democracy, Mumford as a communitarian socialist, Bookchin as a social anarchist and later as a communalist, favoring small-scale, decentralized industries and assembly democracy.

Morris astutely points out that Bookchin was “to an important degree a moral philosopher,” and that the society he envisaged was “an expression of an ethical socialism,” grounded in potentialities for freedom, consciousness and subjectivity. But all three philosophers cultivated a naturalistic ethics, supporting both unity and diversity. Dubos argued for an “ethic of nature,” one that was justified on economic, ecological aesthetic, and moral grounds. In earlier days, his concept of creative stewardship of the earth was controversial, but in our era of climate change the need for its seems clear. Brian Morris, by unearthing the the tradition of ecological humanism, has identified the framework; the task to which we must apply our faculties for culture, given us by evolution, is to develop the scientific and moral foundation for reorganizing our social system, from one that destroys to one that creates.

Pioneers of Ecological Humanism is essential reading for anyone concerned with these issues. Conversant with the history of ideas, Morris places Bookchin especially in a context that has eluded other authors who have treated his work. His writing style is lucid and accessible. Highly recommended.