“The places are hermetically sealed”

For the past few weeks, special forces of Turkish police and military have been cracking down on rebels in the country’s southeast. Journalists are being kept out of the closed-off towns and cities.  Ercan Ayboga, on the scene in Diyarbakir (Amed), was interviewed by Marcus Staiger for Junge Welt, December 30, 2015. Translated by Janet Biehl.

Q. For weeks we’ve been hearing about fighting in Turkey’s southeast and about numerous fatalities. Who is dying in the streets of Cizre, Silopi, Dargecit, and Sur?

A. On one side, Turkish security forces—police, soldiers and special forces. On the other, mainly civilians. It depends on who’s making the statement. The Turkish government says that from the beginning of the operation till now, it has killed more than 200 terrorists. But the Youth Organization YDG-H, which participates in the fighting, says most of those killed have been civilians, and that they themselves have lost no more than ten fighters. I think the YDG-H number is closer to the truth, because otherwise we would have had more public funerals. What I can confirm is that civilians are dying. In Cizre, a woman was shot and lay in the street for several days, severely wounded, and her family couldn’t come and get her because they too would have been shot. The woman finally died, in sight of her family. Such things happen here every day.

Q. The media report that curfews are being imposed on the besieged cities. What does that actually mean?

A. The curfews are in effect indefinitely, until the governor announces something else. No one is allowed to go into the streets, and there are also no times when people can go outside and get supplies. In Sur this curfew has been going on for twenty-eight days. In Cizre and Silopi, for sixteen. After the military coup, in the 1980s, there were also curfews, but only during nighttime. Now the towns and villages are hermetically sealed by the police and the army, so no one from outside can enter.

Q. How are the inhabitants reacting to such a long blockade?

A. People probably stockpiled provisions in advance, expecting something like this to happen. After all, these aren’t the first such curfews. In Cizre and Silopi, they’re on the fourth one this year. Here in the old city of Amed it’s the sixth. Most of the residents here say, We’ll stay here in our neighborhood and resist alongside with the armed units. The officials always say that the fighters are PKK cadres, coming in from outside. That could be true in some cases, but mainly they are people from the affected neighborhoods. So the inhabitants stand with the fighters and support them. The fighters have set up barricades all over and have dug ditches so that the security forces’ armored vehicles can’t enter the quarter. Up to now it all seems to be succeeding in preventing the politic and military from significantly penetrating these neighborhoods—and as a result, the shooting from the government side has become wilder and more indiscriminate.

Q. What are the rebels’ goals?

A. The goals of the Kurdish freedom movement are a democratic Turkey, with autonomous institutions, and a new constitution, and gender equality. It’s trying to achieve those goals legally and politically through organizations like the HDP. The YDG-H, on the other hand, wants the same thing but says that in the cities and neighborhoods where it’s strong, it will create free spaces and defend them, keeping the police out. In the cities, which are now so embattled, people have built grassroots-democratic institutions that are stronger and have now called for self-government and autonomy. All these developments have coincided, and you have to realize that now people themselves decide what to do in these legal and democratic institutions They have their own dynamic—and that begins a whole different discussion.

Q. What chance do they have of achieving these goals?

A. I’d say fifty-fifty. It’s very hard to estimate, but people are willing to fight for them, and if the Turkish state wants to block them, then there will surely be a very large massacre.

 

 

“Ecology or Catastrophe” recent events

BIO book cover

Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin is available from Oxford University Press or your favorite bookstore.

December 18: Akbar Shahid Ahmed’s “America’s Best Allies Against ISIS Are Inspired by a Bronx-Born Libertarian Socialist,” Huffington Post.  The article publishes, for the first time, PDFs of Bookchin’s correspondence with the intermediaries of Abdullah Öcalan in 2004.

December 7: The journal Nature lists Ecology or Catastrophe as a book for the COP negotiator!  In 1965, Barbara Kiser notes, Bookchin presciently foresaw not only climate change but the solution, stepping down from fossil fuels. “Bookchin’s solutions to the crisis were as prescient, not least in integrating social with environmental elements. Working from a vision of urban ecotopias, he inspired and championed community-centred, solar-powered, closed-loop food production as early as the 1970s.”

November 28: “A Dream of a Secular Utopia in ISIS’s Backyard” by Wes Enzinna in The New York Times Magazine. An eloquent article that places the Rojava revolution in the U.S. newspaper of record.

November 28: Interview by Berna Ozgencil for ANF News

November 27: David B. blogged about Bookchin’s influence on the new ideology of the Kurdish freedom movement on Daily Kos.

November 23: Chuck Morse reviews Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin for Perspectives

November 19: “The Flowers of Rojava”: I gave a multimedia presentation at Friends Meeting House, in Burlington, Vt., with a trailer for the forthcoming film “The Flowers of Rojava,” and a slideshow, based on my visits to Rojava in December 2014 and October 2015. Sponsored by the magazine Toward Freedom.

November 17: Interview by Preeti Kaur for ZNet.

November 12: The journal Nature, in reviewing Ecology or Catastrophe, says Bookchin was “incisive, inventive, and pragmatic, a refreshing contrast to today’s environment doom-mongers and technical utopians alike.”

November 10-12: I did three days of book launches in Montreal, Quebec, including one at the Urban Ecology Centre.  Another was at McGill University–Jon Milton wrote about it for a student newspaperThe Link, on November 23.

October 15: “Bookchin a été marginalisé,” an interview for Ballast magazine by Adeline Baldacchino (French).

October 12: “Bookchin: écologie radicale et municipalisme libertaire,” an article in Ballast magazine by Adeline Baldacchino (French).

Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin is available from Oxford University Press or your favorite bookstore.

Democratic Assemblies from Bookchin to Öcalan

Janet Biehl gave this presentation to the New World Summit in Derik, Rojava, on October 16, 2015.

The American social theorist Murray Bookchin was a profoundly original thinker, fertilizing the left with ideas about assembly democracy, ecology, and opposition to hierarchy, long before those ideas were popular, and providing it with new bases for opposing capitalism and the nation-state. He grew up as a young Communist in New York in the radical 1930s, but in the late 1940s he rejected Marxism-Leninism as not only authoritarian but fallacious—the proletariat was not revolutionary after all. But rather than abandon radical politics, as many of his friends did, Bookchin stayed on and chose to rethink the revolutionary project for a new era.

By the 1950s he realized that a new left would have to be democratic and ecological. His study of ancient Athens taught him people are capable of governing themselves in democratic face-to-face citizen assemblies. Inspired, he concluded that the present nation-state could be eliminated and its powers devolved to citizens in such assemblies. If people had governed themselves that way in the past, they could do so again.

He also realized early on that that capitalism’s fatal flaw was its conflict with the natural environment, which would ultimately result in a crisis; he wrote the first manifestos of radical ecology, advocating that cities be decentralized, so people could live at a smaller scale and grow food locally and use renewable energy and manage their own affairs. Over the next decades Bookchin would elaborate these ideas into a program for an ecological, democratic, nonhierarchical society called “social ecology.”

In the 1960s he tried to persuade the New Left—the revolutionary student and black and antiwar movements—to call for citizens’ assemblies. But the movements were more interested creating an international proletarian revolution, in solidarity with Castro, Guevara, Ho, and Mao.

The 1970s saw the flowering of an ecology-minded counterculture that created cooperatives and organic farms, stood for peace, and protested nuclear power. Anarchism was newly popular, largely thanks to Bookchin himself, and he tried to persuade anarchists that citizens’ assemblies were their natural political institution. But anarchists didn’t like democracy because it involved voting and accepting the will of the majority.

In the 1980s, despite these setbacks, Bookchin elaborated his democracy program, now called libertarian municipalism. The urban neighborhood and the town, he said, could become a revolutionary arena. He advocated democratizing municipalities into citizen assemblies and then mounting a municipalist revolt against the nation-state and capitalism. The city’s physical form could be decentralized as well. By rescaling cities into neighborhood communities and rescaling technological resources along ecological lines, libertarian municipalism proposes to bring town and country into a creative balance.

Over broader areas, Bookchin recommended that the assemblies confederate, at the municipal and regional levels and beyond. They would send delegates to confederal councils to coordinate and administer the policies. Power would flow from the bottom up. The confederations would expropriate major economic assets and “municipalize” the economy—place it under community ownership. Economic life would be part of the public business of the confederated assemblies, which would distribute the material means of life for the benefit of all.

As more municipalities democratized and confederated, they would become powerful enough to constitute a dual power to the state and to the capitalist system. Expressing the people’s will, the confederations would become levers for the transfer of power.

In the 1980s as Green movements emerged in North America and Europe, Bookchin tried to persuade them to accept this program. But they turned out to be more interested in forming conventional top-down political parties.

Finally, late in life in the 1990s, he appealed once again to anarchists, arguing that the ideal of collectively self-managed communes, joined together in confederations, was part of their history. But once again they rejected the idea, saying that municipal governments were nothing more than nation-states writ small, and there was nothing potentially liberatory about them. Bookchin didn’t belong in their movement, he was told–he was a “square peg in a round hole.”

Feeling his powers failing, Bookchin retired from political life, hoping that sometime in the future a movement would emerge that would take seriously the idea of citizens’ assemblies. If it ever did, his writings would be ready and waiting.

It was at that moment that Abdullah Öcalan wrote to him from his solitary prison on Imrali island.

#

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Öcalan had been concluding that the Kurdish people had to respond to the historical moment and reassess their hitherto Marxist program. In 1999, at his trial, he called for the democratization of the Turkish republic, ensuring every citizen the right to participate equally in Turkish political life, regardless of ethnicity. His call was ignored, and he was convicted of treason.

In solitary confinement, he was permitted visits only by his lawyers for an hour a week. During those visits in the early 2000s Öcalan would often ask the lawyers to ask friends for recommendations on books to read. The lawyers brought him books on social theory and much else, and Öcalan was soon generating manuscripts based on his studies.

One of the lawyer’s associates in Istanbul, Oliver Kontny, translated some of the new manuscripts and “discussed some of the philosophical and political implications.” They tried to think of more books to recommend to Öcalan, such as Foucault. “Then somebody came up with a book by Murray Bookchin that had been translated into Turkish,” Kontny recalled. It’s unclear which one it was.

The lawyers brought the book to Imrali, and reading it, Öcalan seems to have recognized in its author a kindred spirit. In 2002, in his prison notes, he wrote, “I recommend this book for the municipalities.” Thereafter Öcalan asked for more books by Bookchin, and got them. Soon it became clear that he was working on “a paradigm change” based on social ecology and libertarian municipalism. He initiated a discussion within the PKK, and the new ideas were not initially accepted.

In 2004 Kontny and his then-colleague Reimar Heider wrote an email to Bookchin, expressing Öcalan’s interest in his work and soliciting an exchange of ideas. Bookchin was surprised to be approached by the convicted PKK leader. But responding a few days later, he expressed pleasure at hearing from Öcalan and recommended his books that had been translated into Turkish, not realizing that Öcalan had already read them.

The two intermediaries transmitted this letter to Öcalan. About a month later, in May 2004, Kontny and Heider wrote a second letter to Bookchin, saying that Öcalan “emphasized that he thought he had acquired a good understanding of your ideas” and “spoke of himself as ‘a good student’ of yours.” He “elaborates on the concept of an eco-democratic society and the practical implementation of libertarian municipalism in Kurdistan.” And he said that “the Kurdish freedom movement was determined to successfully implement your ideas.”

A few days later, Bookchin responded, telling the intermediaries: “I am pleased that he finds my ideas on libertarian municipalism to be helpful in thinking about a future Kurdish body politic. . . . I am not in a position to carry on an extensive theoretical dialogue with Mr. Ocalan, as much as I would like to. . . . My hope is that the Kurdish people will one day be able to establish a free, rational society that will allow their brilliance once again to flourish. They are fortunate indeed to have a leader of Mr. Ocalan’s talents to guide them.”

We sent the email to Kontny and Heider. When Kontny got it, he told me, he was in a hotel in Jordan, en route to the Kurdistan People’s Congress in the Qandil Mountains. While awaiting his flight to Baghdad, he printed out Bookchin’s letter. When he reached the mountains, he showed it to the congress’s steering committee, suggesting that the letter be read aloud to the delegates. A heated discussion ensued. One man objected, saying, “We have much more powerful potential allies in the US. Who cares about some marginal anarchist with 50 followers?“ Kontny responded that Öcalan himself had asked Kurdish activists to read Bookchin, so why not read Bookchin’s message to the congress?

Then a women’s movement delegate took the initiative to translate Bookchin’s message into Kurdish and Turkish. She happened to be chairing the opening session, and so when the moment came, she read the letter aloud. The delegates’ applause was warm and enthusiastic.

A few months later, on October 27, Öcalan wrote again in his prison notes, “For the municipalities, I suggested that Bookchin must be read and his ideas are practiced.” On December 1, he wrote, “The world view for which I stand is close to that of Bookchin,” and recommended that his adherents read Urbanization and Remaking Society.

Öcalan went on to develop a base-democratic program for the Kurdish movement. In March 2005, he issued the “Declaration of Democratic Confederalism in Kurdistan” that called for “a grass-roots democracy … based on the democratic communal structure of natural society.” It was to “establish village, towns and city assemblies, and their delegates will be entrusted with the real decision-making, which in effect means that the people and the community will decide.” These democratic institutions would spread, he proposed, so that all of Turkey would undergo democratization. The assemblies would then cross national borders, bringing democratic civilization to the region and producing not only freedom for the Kurds but a democratic confederal union throughout the Middle East.

When Bookchin died in July 2006, the PKK assembly saluted “one of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century,” saying that Bookchin “showed how to make a new democratic system into a reality.” The resolved to “put this promise into practice this as the first society that establishes a tangible democratic confederalism.”

In 2007,in Syria, the PYD issued its “Project of Democratic Self-Governance in Western Kurdistan,” and began to organize clandestinely to put democratic confederalism into practice. In July 2011 an extraordinary congress at Diyarbakir declared “democratic autonomy.” Soon in Kurdish towns and cities democratic institutions and civil society organizations were emerging: assemblies, councils, committees, and cooperatives. It amounted to emergent self-government on the local level, an incipient dual power to the Turkish state.

Four years later, in March 2011, the Syrian uprising began, and the Kurdish movement plunged ahead, creating councils in neighborhoods, villages, districts, and regions. By the time the Assad regime evacuated in July 2012, a system of assemblies and confederal councils was in place and had gained popular support.

I think Bookchin would have been gratified to see these developments in both parts of Kurdistan, as I was when I visited Rojava in December 2014. Be it in the Middle East or anywhere else, the assembly, for Bookchin, was an ethical process. As he wrote in Urbanization Without Cities in the mid-1980s, “Our freedom as individuals depends heavily on community support systems and solidarity. . . . What distinguishes us as social beings, hopefully with rational institutions . . . are our capacities for solidarity with each other, for mutually enhancing our self-development . . . and attaining freedom within a socially creative and institutionally rich collectivity.”

 

For more information: 

For a full account of Bookchin’s life, see Janet Biehl, Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

For more on the overlapping ideas in Bookchin’s and Öcalan’s writings, see “Bookchin, Öcalan, and the Dialectics of Democracy,” New Compass, Feb. 2012.

Bookchin’s books translated into Turkish in the mid- to late 1990s include:

  • Toward an Ecological Society (1980), translated as Ekolojik bir topluma doğru (Istanbul: Ayrinti, 1996);
  • The Ecology of Freedom (1982), translated as Özgürlüğün Ekolojisi (Istanbul: Ayrinti, n.d.);
  • The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (1987), translated as Kentsiz Kentleşme (Istanbul: Ayrinti, 1999);
  • Remaking Society (1989), translated as Toplumu Yeniden Kurmak (Istanbul: Metis, n.d.); and
  • The Philosophy of Social Ecology (1990, 1994), translated as Toplumsal Ekolojinin Felsefesi (Istanbul: Kabalci, 1996).

 

Paradoxes of a Liberatory Ideology

Since 2014 solidarity activists, independent leftists, and others have been crossing the Tigris to study the developments in Rojava, the independent multiethnic enclave in northern Syria. Here the Kurdish people, whose aspirations have been stomped on for generations throughout the Middle East, are building a society structured institutionally around an assembly / council democracy and a commitment to gender equality. Most remarkable of all, they do so under conditions of brutal war (defending their society against the jihadists Al Nusra to Daesh) and economic and political embargo (from Turkey to the north).

Anyone searching for a utopia on earth is bound to be disappointed, given the nature of human beings. But Western visitors who admire the remarkable accomplishments they witness in Rojava quickly also notice something that many find disquieting: seemingly every interior space (a notable exception being the self-government buildings) features an image of Abdullah Öcalan, the imprisoned PKK leader, affixed to the wall. The disquiet arises from memories of assorted twentieth-century dictators—Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong—whose images, in the many nations they long tormented, were similarly ubiquitous.

Visitors with personal experience of tyrannies may be especially uneasy. A Cuban-born delegate, on my October 2015 visit, said the images called to her mind those of Castro, while a delegate from Libya was rudely reminded of the omnipresent images of Gaddhafi.

Visitors’ unease may deepen as their visitors frequently praise the charismatic Öcalan. The Tev-Dem co-leader Aldar Xelil notes that “the philosophy of our administration is based on the thought and philosophy of the leader Öcalan. His books [are] the basic reference for us.” Pamyan Berri, co-headmaster of the Kurdish Literature and Language Academy in Qamislo, told my recent delegation, “Öcalan is the most important person. We depend on his books to teach history, language, everything.” His writings are integral to the curriculum there and in the other academies, as the local educational institutions are called. (And terms at these academies last only a few weeks or months—not long enough for in-depth research and evaluation and critique, but long enough to inculcate a belief system. Is this education or indoctrination? one begins to wonder.) One of the delegates took to calling the many invocations of Öcalan’s ideas “received pronouncements.”

The general reverence is particularly startling because of Rojava’s commitment to democratic self-government. But then, the source of this grassroots democracy was Öcalan himself, who conceived it in prison and recommended it to the Kurdish freedom movement, which after several years of debate committed itself to it and began to implement it, both in Syria and in Turkey A bottom-up system generated from the top down: by now the paradox is enough to have the visitor’s head spinning.

* * *

Hadiya Yousef (photo by Joost Jongerden)

Hadiya Yousef (photo by Joost Jongerden)

But the earnest high-mindedness of the people of this tiny, beleaguered society gives the visitor pause as well. No signs of dictatorship, of gulags, are in evidence—on the contrary, the prevailing ideology, the one prescribed by Öcalan, abhors the state as such. At the New World Summit in Derik in October, the Cizire canton co-governor Hadiya Yousef summarized the dominant ideology for us: it rejects capitalist modernity because it values money and power over people and because its overlord class enslaves the majority, replacing community with exploitation and domination. It imparts messages of “anti-community, individualism, money, sex, power. It is Leviathan, she told us, the monster.

On the premise that human life is indelibly social, Yousef continued, Rojava seeks to build an alternative. Against Leviathan, it mobilizes people for self-empowerment. Against Western individualism and anomie, it prizes communal solidarity; against colonial rule and racism, it supports the self-determination of peoples and inclusiveness. Against the state (including constitutional republics and allegedly representative “democracies”), it teaches the practices of democratic deliberation and decision-making; against capitalist competition, it teaches economic cooperation. Against the capitalism’s “enslavement” (as she put it) of women, it teaches gender equality.

Sheikh Humeydi Denham (photo by Joost Jongerden)

Sheikh Humeydi Denham (photo by Joost Jongerden)

And indeed women play an extraordinary role in the revolution, socially, politically, organizationally; leadership is dual, one male and one female in every position, and meetings have a 40 percent gender quorum. Women’s centers in villages and cities show all women in this society that they are not doomed to patriarchal domination. the system (which has three official languages, Kurdish, Arabic, and Assyrian) embraces Muslims and Christians, Arabs and Kurds and Syriacs and others. Sheikh Humeydi Denham, co-governor of Cizire Canton, wearing the red and white Arab headgear, told the summit that he accepts “cultural and religious diversity” and that “this administration is our salvation and that of the region.”

At the root of this emancipatory dispensation in a highly circumscribed society is the Öcalan-derived ideology, which is the driving force of the revolution. Given that Rojava is all but cut off from the world by the embargo and by war, the revolution itself is a triumph of will over circumstances. It is a testament to what the sheer force of will can accomplish. What Rojava lacks in an economy, it makes up for in consciousness, will, and ideology—or the Philosophy, as Yousef calls it.

The image and the Philosophy embody the society’s shared commitment to the new system. “Portraits in other countries aren’t like with us,” says Yousef. “For us, it’s not a link to him as a person or as an individual. It’s a link to the Philosophy, the mentality to re-found the society.” Certainly the people respect Öcalan’s individual struggle, she said, but it was also because of him “that we have been able to advance our society and defend ourselves, our autonomy. It’s been possible only with his ideas.”

And the very strength of the society’s ideological conviction, as Cambridge lecturer Jeff Miley pointed out recently, gives power to its military mobilization. YPG commander Hawar Suruc affirms that in the defense of Kobanê in 2014-15, the US-led coalition’s “airstrikes helped, but . . . the philosophy and spirit of Leader Apo is the biggest accomplishment of the Kobanê resistance. It was the loyalty of the martyrs to the movement and its leader Apo that enabled” the defense forces to defeat of Daesh.

* * *

But then, consciousness is a prerequisite for any revolution. Generations of Marxists to the contrary, no inevitable, historically determined social forces will necessarily propel fundamental social change while people sit back and wait. “The most important developments in history,” as Öcalan himself observed, “have come about as a result of effective thoughts and mentalities.”

The consciousness that makes the Rojava revolution possible is moreover an ethical consciousness, one that seeks to reshape the people’s ways of thinking and behaving in accordance with the Philosophy’s high social and political aspirations. The Philosophy is thus necessarily a moral force as well, as Yousef told us, providing “standards by which all issues are to be decided.” Here she echoes Öcalan, who recognized, in the book called Roots of Civilization in English, that “a new ethics” is necessary for “a new beginning. . . . New ethical criteria have to be formulated, institutionalized and entrenched in law” (p. 256).

Most notably, the Philosophy is an ethical force against capitalism. Murray Bookchin, the American radical social theorist who influenced Öcalan, once called for a “moral economy” against the market economy and identified ethics with socialism. Öcalan concurs: “socialism [is] to be seen as something to be applied in the moment as the ultimate ethical and political lifestyle. . . . Socialism . . . is the ideology of an ethical and collective freedom.”

Hence in Rojava, as Yousef puts it, “the common, communal life constitutes the moral basis of the society.“ The education system, she told us, “aims to establish community spirit.” At the Kurdish Literature and Language Academy in Qamislo, I saw a schoolbook for eight-and-nine-year-olds that instills the communal values of the society—the importance of caring for each other, of nature, of women. Obviously to remake people along moral lines, you have to start with children.

But a few days after I left Rojava, while I was in London, I met a young Byelorussian named Boris and mentioned this schoolbook to him. He told me that he had grown up with morally instructive books like that in the early 1990s, left over from Soviet Union days—and they made him determined to be the exact opposite of what they intended.

* * *

For human nature is intricate and complex, and conscious purpose easily goes awry. High-minded programs to remake people have foundered, as Boris’s story reminded me, on the shoals of unintended consequences. Indeed, social orders constructed according to political ideologies have more often than not diverged from the founding vision, even becoming the opposite. Witness the various tyrannical outcomes of Marxism’s original emancipatory vision; witness how the idea of individualism, which was liberatory in the time of John Locke, today takes the form of amoral rapacious selfishness; witness how Adam Smith’s ideal of a free market embedded within moral constraints has resulted in a yawning cleavage between rich and poor.

As for teaching morality, it seems not to be a simple proposition. Some people will accept it enthusiastically, as True Believers, some will endorse it, some will passively accept it, some will disagree but keep quiet, and some will actively dissent. Even in a utopian society, some people just will not agree with consensus reality, and to my mind that is their right.

So any society organized according to a communal ideology must address the question of individual autonomy with respect to the community as a whole. How does the collective society handle individual free will and dissent?

Obviously societies consciously constructed according to emancipatory ideologies have turned out to be profoundly illiberal. The twentieth-century Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski once even commented that “the devil . . . invented ideological states, that is to say, states whose legitimacy is grounded in the fact that their owners are owners of truth.” Because “if you oppose such a state or its system,” he continued, “you are an enemy of truth” (in Modernity on Endless Trial, p. 189).

In Rojava, if Öcalan ideology is held to be the truth, we must ask, what happens to those who dissent? Yousef, for one, places the community over everything else, presumably including individual autonomy. “Nothing in human life is more important than community,” she said, sounding like one of the True Believers. “Giving up community means giving up our humanity.” For her, “individuals join the commune with their free will as long as it has moral value.” For her, free will seems to mean freely choosing to give oneself over to the community.

Berivan Xalid

Berivan Xalid (photo by Janet Biehl)

I encountered another moment of doubt during a discussion of book publishing, which is just now getting under way in Rojava. The new publisher produced one book last year, a book of Kurdish poetry hat never could have seen the light of day under the regime. Two more books are in press, Cizire’s culture minister Berivan Xalid told us, and quite a few more are planned for next year, with print runs of a thousand copies each.

But while I was reading a book of recent statutes (which I got at the office of Cizire’s legislative council), I came across a new law on book publishing. It says that all publishers have to be licensed; that a committee from the Culture Ministry must decide which books are published; and that this committee will determine a book’s “suitability for deployment and its compatibility with the general legal system and its suitability to the morals of society.” What did “the morals of society” mean? I wondered, recalling that the Philosophy upon which Rojava has been built is a moral one.

Culture Minister Xalid was nearby, so I asked her what the phrase meant. She said it means that no book can be published that promotes teen sex before marriage. “That’s our culture,” she explained. But the phrase doesn’t explicitly say teen sex, so I asked whether someone could publish a book that argues that “the state is good” or “capitalism is good.” She said (through our translator, of course), “We should respect traditions in our society. Teenagers can’t sleep with each other. Nothing promoting sex between teens before marriage.”

Setting aside the question of teen sexuality, I think it would strengthen the Rojava revolution to clarify the meaning of that clause or else remove it. It’s potentially a loophole for suppressing the individual autonomy of writers and hence individual autonomy and dissent. Criticism, in my view, should be allowed to flourish. Let books about capitalism be published—as well as books criticizing those books. Let dissent be recognized and acknowledged. Paradoxically, the path to democratic solidarity lies in upholding the legitimacy of dissent. Let Rojava embrace pluralism and diversity not only at the ethnic level but at the granular level of the individual.

***

But perhaps I am being self-righteous, and my concern is overblown. Öcalan himself, in his prison writings, has written favorably of individualism. In Roots of Civilization, he laments that since time immemorial religions have persecuted and killed off freethinkers. “Strengthening the individual—and thus effecting a just balance between individual and society—can release considerable power. This power can play a revolutionary and liberating role in times when conservative and reactionary societies, societies which suffocate the individual, are dissolving. This is the progressive and justified position of individualism in history” (p. 191).

Nor is Öcalan’s Philosophy always consistent. Over the years he has been in prison, he has changed his mind about various things. In Roots, for example, he even praised capitalism: “Despite these negative characteristics, we have to acknowledge the superiority of capitalist society. Its ideological and material framework ahs surpassed all past systems” (p. 197). And: “In spite of all its visible deficiencies, capitalism as clearly preferred to socialism [meaning real socialism] exactly because of its sensitivity towards individual rights and its established standards of individual freedom” (p. 238).

I think the presence of inconsistencies in Öcalan’s Philosophy is beneficial for Rojava as a society,. An ideology that is self-contradictory is less likely to become Kolakowski’s devil, since different views can find endorsement there, and since both sides can reflexively quote scripture people have to think about issues and discuss them and hash out their differences themselves.

I can’t help but observe that some in prominent participants in Rojava’s democratic self-government don’t in entirely accordance with the Philosophy as Hadiya Yousef presents it. During my two visits, I’ve heard two official people talk about the economy in ways that are not wholly anticapitalist. In December 2014, Abdurrahman Hemo, then Cizire’s economic development adviser, told the academic delegation that the cantons needed outside investment in order to survive. Legally, he explained, that investment would have to conform to the rules of the social economy and be channeled into cooperatives. But would that work in practice? I wondered.

Akhram Hesso (photo by Janet Biehl)

Akhram Hesso (photo by Janet Biehl)

And this past October Akhram Hesso, Cizire’s prime minister, told the New World Summit delegation that Rojava has a “mixed economy,” with “private and general economics at the same time.” It’s like the “social market economy” in Germany, he said approvingly, but with equality between owners of factories and workers. Curiously, this ideologically anticapitalist society has at least one leader who dissents from the anticapitalist program. That Hesso is a member of the opposition coalition ENKS rather than the Philosophy-oriented PYD is also testimony to Rojava’s political diversity.

Doubtless in the years to come, Rojava’s economy and many other issues will be much discussed, both internally and abroad. My hope is that the society’s esteem for Öcalan will always include esteem for remarks like this one: “One of the important elements of contemporary democracy is individuality—the right to live as a free individual, free from dogmatism and utopias, while knowing about their strengths” (Roots p. 260). And I hope that as people in Rojava, as well as visitors, consider the images of Öcalan on the walls, they also think of his call for “an ongoing discussion about the contradiction between the individual and society,” without which “the growing crisis of civilization cannot be solved,” and his affirmation of the necessity to “achieve a balance between these two poles” (p. 207).

Invoking Öcalan in favor of the individual’s freedom to dissent: it’s one more head-spinning Rojava paradox. So be it.

2006: PKK’s salute to Bookchin

After Murray Bookchin died on July 30, 2006, the PKK (“PKK assembly”) saluted him in a moving tribute. It was forwarded to me by two intermediaries. It’s been on my hard drive ever since. Here it is in its entirety, edited slightly for spelling and syntax.

“One of the greatest social scientists of the 20th century, Murray Bookchin, has passed away. We extend our condolences to his family and friends together with all those who struggle for freedom and democracy. His thoughts, struggle, and passion for freedom shall continue through the freedom and democracy struggle of humanity.

Murray Bookchin, c. 1989

Murray Bookchin, c. 1989

“Bookchin broadened the consciousness of humanity: the ecological consciousness. He introduced us to the thought of social ecology, and for that he will be remembered with gratitude by humanity. Through his thesis a great service has also been provided to humanity to achieve a better understanding of itself.

“Social ecology is not only a product of ecological consciousness, it is also a philosophical and an ideological method which helped to overcome the shortcomings of socialist theory. Therewith important shortcomings of the 19th and 20th century socialism have been completed.

“Bookchin was an intellectual who was militantly devoted to his ideals of freedom, equality and democracy. He will be remembered as an intellectual who has completed his militancy with science. It is precisely this characteristic that enabled him to continuously approach things that are wrong and/or incomplete. Hence he was an intellectual from revolutionary circles who criticized the shortcomings and the errors/mistakes of Marxism as well. Through his critical method he made a great contribution to the ideals of freedom, democracy, and socialism.

“He showed the ability to analyze capitalism, which has brought humanity to the point of possible extinction, in great detail; demonstrating that it is the worst of all systems in the history of humanity thereby opening new horizons in the struggle against capitalism. His definition of capitalism, as a cancerous disease effecting humanity and nature, proved without doubt that the struggle for the development of freedom, democracy, and socialism was an obligation and not a matter of choice.

Abdullah Öcalan

Abdullah Öcalan

“Contrary to those who claim that serious criticism of Marxism and socialism was an attack on Marxism and/or has weakened socialism, we believe that he helped to develop socialist theory in order for it to advance on a firmer basis. Hence socialists owe a lot to Bookchin for the ideas he developed. Despite certain shortcomings of his theoretical thesis and repetitions of ‘real socialism’s’ errors, nothing minimizes the importance of his contribution.

“One of Bookchin’s most important findings is that democracy, freedom, and socialism can only be realized in a system outside of the state machine. This may have been said before by others, especially the anarchists; however Bookchin showed how this will become reality and hence opened up new horizons. In order to establish a nonstate formation and democracy, he proposed the concept of ‘confederalism,’ a model that we believe is creative and realizable.

“He held a revolutionary theory which says that without a proper analysis of state, power, and hierarchy one cannot struggle for democracy, freedom and socialism. He showed that this was one of the biggest mistakes of Marxism and hence helped to improve our understanding of this issue, in order for socialists not to fall into the same trap in future. Those who hold to the ideals of democracy and socialism should take seriously his analysis and thesis if they want to avoid falling victim to another denomination of oppressive systems.

“Bookchin was not only an intellectual but at the same time an organizer and an activist. He has also aspired to practice the important work he had done on ecology and local administration. His contribution to the development of such work around the world through his thesis and efforts are immense.

“It is well known that Bookchin went through difficult and adverse periods of struggle throughout his life. The general dogmatic and incorrect approaches of Marxists, together with their intolerance to alternative thinking, impeded Bookchin from expressing himself and those who have freedom, democracy and socialism ideals to benefit much earlier from his thoughts.

“Ecological movements not able to detach themselves from the system and being integrated into the system is another factor why the importance of his ideas and actions have not been understood well. The experience of his struggles has shown him how human beings can be integrated simply by the capitalist life style hence keeping them away from the struggle. At the same time his personal experience taught him that not being organized is equivalent to not being able to struggle and thus surrender to the system. And that is why he always focused on the theoretical and practical measures against it.

“Bookchin’s theoretical thesis and struggle shall be discussed even more and become a part of the history of freedom in the future. His devotion to the scientific method, his principles and sincerity and morality, which failed to corrupt his mind, are some of his personal characteristics that could be taken as an example.

“Bookchin has made his contribution for the 21st century to become the century of socialism. Those who struggle for freedom and democracy will continue to gain strength from his life and morals. His thesis advances the development to freedom, democracy, and socialism more than ever.

“The PKK has also learned from Bookchin. His contributions to our leader’s thesis on social ecology will always be remembered. To attain the democratic socialism that we envisage, his contributions to the ideas of “confederalism”, his thesis on the state, power and hierarchy will be implemented and realized through our struggle and hence will continue to make its impact.

“We undertake to make Bookchin live in our struggle. We will put this promise into practice this as the first society which establishes a tangible democratic confederalism.

“We hope that all social scientists and revolutionaries will attain the characteristics of Bookchin; principles, consciousness, revolutionary moral values, and most of all that they practice this in life.

“Bookchin has not died, he will live through his work and through the work of others.

“PKK ASSEMBLY

“August 2006”

 

 

 

 

 

Oxford University Press blogpost

I’m delighted to announce that the book Ecology or Catastrophe: The Life of Murray Bookchin will finally be published this fall, from Oxford University Press! The release date (for review copies) is September 1, and publication date is October 1. In the meantime, the OUP Blog has run a post from me, based on the book. More to come soon!

The Revolutionary Moment

by Janet Biehl

Today Rojava has become the epicenter of popular desires for radical democratic change. Like Paris in 1789, St. Petersburg in 1905 and 1917, and Barcelona in 1936-37, it crystallizes an era’s aspirations for social and political revolution.

The last book that Murray Bookchin authored before his death in 2006 was a history of such revolutions, with emphasis on the popular movements: The Third Revolution (4 vols., 1996-2004). The book’s title is the key to its meaning. The First Revolution is the preindustrial revolution, in which the people rebel against feudalism, as in 1789, when the French peasantry rose up against the aristocracy and monarchy. In 1792-93, working people in Paris created neighborhood assemblies and all but governed the city through them. But the First Revolution failed to liberate the people, because authoritarian figures (Jacobins) emerged and harnessed the movement for liberty into a dictatorship, destroying the liberatory assemblies and paving the way for Napoleon’s counterrevolution. The bourgeoisie was the ultimate beneficiary of the first revolution.

The Second Revolution is typical of the industrial age, the revolution of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. The working class, as Marx described it, was exploited and when its misery became extreme, it would seize control of the means of production and create socialism. But the Second Revolution, too, failed to liberate the people, as its driving forces were harnessed into a tyranny, which that once again instituted a dictatorship, this time in the name of the proletariat. In 1917 the workers of St. Petersburg demanded democratic soviets, by which they meant soldiers’ and sailors’ councils. They wanted to create a council democracy, with several tiers, in which power flowed from the bottom up. But once the Bolsheviks came to power on the revolutionary wave, they transformed the flow of power through the layers of soviets from bottom up to top down, transforming them from democratic expressions of the popular will into instruments of dictatorial rule. The totalitarian states of Stalin and his imitators were the ultimate beneficiary of the second revolution.

The Third Revolution–the one Bookchin advanced—would be the revolution of the people against dictatorships, a libertarian revolution against domination by the state and capitalism, but also against all social hierarchies, especially sexism and racism. In this anarchistic revolution, once again, people create democratic institutions–neighborhood assemblies and the councils—to empower themselves. But this time they have learned the lessons of history. They know not to let the bourgeoisie capture society’s wealth, or to let vanguards create dictatorships in their name. The assemblies become the institutions of the new society, and by confederating they wage a struggle against the forces of capitalism and the nation-state. For Bookchin, the libertarian revolution was inspired by the Spanish revolution of 1936-37.

Bookchin’s lifelong project was to try to bring the revolutionary tradition into the postwar period. The era of proletarian revolutions was over, he knew, and the new revolutionary agent would be the citizen; the arena of the revolution would be not the factory but the city, especially the urban neighborhood. New social movements—feminism, antiracism, community, ecology—were creating a new revolutionary dynamic. Modern technology was eliminating the need for toil, so that people would soon be free to participate in the democratic process. Hence his ideology of libertarian municipalism—the creation of face-to-face democratic institutions in urban neighborhoods, towns, and villages.

Had Bookchin lived to see the Rojava Revolution, he would surely have considered it emphatically part of the Third Revolution. In July 2012 the Assad regime simply let go of power there. Freed of that brutal yoke, people in the three cantons, following the principles of Democratic Confederalism, went on to create people’s assemblies and tiers of confederal councils, very much as Bookchin envisioned.

Bookchin had not foreseen it happening so nonviolently. In the United States, for example, the federal government in Washington would not simply roll over and abandon New York and Chicago and Los Angeles to people in assemblies. It would fight hard with its powerful high-tech military. So he thought the confederated assemblies would have to form a counterpower to the nation-state, or a dual power (in Trotsky’s phrase). Acting a dual power, the confederation would express the people’s will and constitute a lever to force a transfer of power, initiating a revolutionary conflict. The people would form people’s militias, but it would be crucial, he thought, for the existing armed forces to cross over from the side of the state to the side of the people.

But one thing he emphasized repeatedly in his later years. Revolutionary moments do not come around often in history; for a revolution to succeed, history on must be on the side of the revolution, and such “revolutionary moments,” as he called them, are relatively uncommon. Too often, when a revolutionary moment appears, the people are not ready. A social and political crisis explodes, and people pour into the streets and demonstrate and protest—but they are an angry crowd, wondering what to do. By the time the revolutionary moment occurs, it is too late to create revolutionary institutions.

It was crucial, Bookchin told his students, to begin to create the institutions of the new society within the shell of the old. In the United States, he said, people could create town meetings like those of New England throughout the country, and gradually, as more and more people began to use them to express their will, they could become powerful institutions of self-government, and through confederation could mobilize against the nation-state.

The more I read about the Rojava Revolution, the more I am struck by the fact that its architects understood clearly the need for organizing in advance, even with no foreknowledge of when the moment would come. Yekitiya Star and the PYD began organizing clandestinely under the brutal Assad regime. Then in March 2011 the conflict that began at Dara’a opened up space for more overt organizing, and they plunged ahead in full force. The MGRK and Tev-Dem created councils in neighborhoods, villages, districts, and regions. People began to pour into the institutions, so much so that they a new level was needed, the residential street, which became the home to the commune, the true citizens’ assembly.

By the time the revolutionary moment occurred in July 2012, this process had been underway for over a year, and the movement was more than ready. The democratic council system was in place and had the support of the people. The next challenge will be not only to survive in the war against the jihadists, but to ensure that power continues to flow from the bottom up.

For the rest of the world, the Rojava Revolution offers many important lessons, but the most important may be the one about advance preparation. It is crucial to build popular institutions in advance, long before the revolutionary moment comes around, so that when it does, they will be ready to take power. While Western activists often face repression, they face nothing like the brutality of the Assad dictatorship, and they have the relative freedom to begin to create new institutions now.

Will they be ready, on the day their revolutionary moment comes around?

 

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]

Municipalization of the Economy

As the Rojava revolution continues, the nature of its economy has been much discussed. As I have written previously, Rojava aspires to a social economy based on cooperatives. In recent weeks, several people have asked me for Murray Bookchin’s ideas about the economy: what are the economic aspects of libertarian municipalism? I’ve put together a summary of his thinking here, based on the sources listed at the end of this article. –Janet Biehl

In a capitalist economy, the means of production—industry—as well as land, raw and finished materials, financial wealth are concentrated in private hands. The alternative is a social economy, in which ownership of such property—wholly or in part–is shifted to the society as a whole. The intention is to create an alternative society, to put economic life directly into the hands of the men and women who are vitally involved with it. An alternative system would be one that has both the desire and the ability to curtail or eliminate profit seeking in favor of humanistic values, practices, and institutions. As Murray Bookchin pointed out, a social economy can take several forms.

Cooperatives

Cooperatives are small-scale enterprises that are collectively owned and operated. They may be producers’ cooperatives, or they may be the collectivized and self-managed enterprises such as are advocated by anarcho-syndicalists. Their internal structures of sharing foreshadow the emergence of sharing in the wider society

In the 1970s, many American radicals formed cooperatives, which they hoped could constitute an alternative to large corporations and ultimately replace them. Bookchin welcomed this development, but as the decade wore on, he noticed that more and more those once-radical economic units were absorbed into the capitalist economy. While cooperatives’ internal structures remained admirable, he thought that in the marketplace they could become simply another kind of small enterprise with their own particularistic interests, competing with other enterprises, even with other cooperatives.

Indeed, for two centuries, cooperatives have too often been obliged to conform to marketplace dictates, regardless of the intentions of their advocates and founders. First, a cooperative becomes entangled in the web of exchanges and contracts typical. Then it finds that its strictly commercial rivals are offering the same goods it offers, but at lower prices. Like any enterprise, it finds that if it is to stay in business, it must compete by lowering its prices in order to win customers. One way to lower prices is to grow in size, in order to benefit from economies of scale. Thus growth becomes necessary for the cooperative—that is, it too must “grow or die.” Even the most idealistically motivated cooperative will have to absorb or undersell its competitors or close down. That is, it will have to seek profits at the expense of humane values. The imperatives of competition gradually refashion the cooperative into a capitalistic enterprise, albeit a collectively owned and managed one. Although cooperation is a necessary part of an alternative economy, cooperatives by themselves are insufficient to challenge the capitalist system.

Indeed, Bookchin argued, any privately owned economic unit, whether it is managed cooperatively or by executives, whether it is owned by workers or by shareholders, is susceptible to assimilation, whether its members like it or not. As long as capitalism exists, competition will always require the enterprises within it to look for lower costs (including the cost of labor), greater markets, and advantages over their rivals, in order to maximize their profits. They will tend ever more to value human beings by their levels of productivity and consumption rather than by any other criteria.

Public Ownership

A truly socialized, alternative economy would be one, then, in profit seeking must be restrained or, better, eliminated. Since economic units are incapable of restraining their own profit seeking from within, they must be subjected to restraint from without. Thus alternative economic units, to avoid assimilation, must exist in a social context that curtails their profit seeking externally. They must be embedded in a larger community that has the power not only to bridle a specific enterprise’s pursuit of profit but to control economic life generally. No social context in which capitalism is permitted to exist will ever successfully curtail profit seeking. The expansionist imperatives of capitalism will always try to overturn external controls, will always compete, will always press for expansion.

Such a society must be one that “owns” the economic units itself. That is, it must be one in which socially significant property—the means of production—is placed under public control or, insofar as ownership still exists, public ownership.

The notion of public ownership is not popular today, since its most familiar form is state socialism, as exemplified by the Soviet Union. The nation-state expropriates private property and becomes its owner. State ownership, however, led to tyranny, mismanagement, corruption—to anything but a sharing, cooperative economy.

The phrase “public ownership” implies ownership by the people, but state ownership is not public because the state is an elite structure set over the people. The nationalization of property does not give the people control over economic life; it merely reinforces state power with economic power. The Soviet state took over the means of production and used it to enhance its power, but it left the hierarchical structures of authority intact. The greater part of the public had little or nothing to do with making decisions about their economic life.

Municipalization

Real public ownership would have to be ownership by the people themselves.

That was precisely what Bookchin proposed as an alternative: a truly form of public ownership. The economy is neither privately owned, nor broken up into small collectives, nor nationalized. Rather, it is municipaized—placed under community ownership and control.

Municipalization of the economy means the ownership and management of the economy by the citizens. Property would be expropriated from the possessing classes by the citizens’ assemblies and confederations (acting as a dual power) and placed in the hands of the community, to be used for the benefit of all. The citizens would become the collective “owners” of their community’s economic resources.

Citizens would formulate and approve economic policy for the community. They would make decisions about economic life regardless of their occupation or their workplace. Those who worked in a factory would participate in formulating policies not only for that factory but for all other factories—and for farms as well. They would participate in this decision-making not as workers, farmers, technicians, engineers, or professionals, but as citizens. Their decision making would be guided not by the needs of a specific enterprise or occupation or trade but by the needs of the community as a whole.

The assemblies would rationally and morally determine levels of need. They would distribute the material means of life so as to fulfill the maxim of early communist movements, “From each according to ability and to each according to need.” That way everyone in the community would have access to the means of life, regardless of the work he or she was capable of performing.

Moreover, the citizens’ assemblies, Bookchin wrote, would consciously ensure that individual enterprises did not compete with one another; instead all economic entities would be required to adhere to ethical precepts of cooperation and sharing.

Over wider geographical areas, the assemblies 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.

As Bookchin put it, in a municipalized economy, “The economy ceases to be merely an economy in the strict sense of the word—whether as ‘business,’ ‘market,’ capitalist, ‘worker-controlled’ enterprises. It becomes a truly political economy: the economy of the polis or the commune.” It would become a moral economy, guided by rational and ecological standards. An ethos of public responsibility would avoid a wasteful, exclusive, and irresponsible acquisition of goods, as well as ecological destruction and violations of human rights. Classical notions of limit and balance could replace the capitalist imperative to expand and compete in the pursuit of profit. Indeed, the community would value people, not for their levels of production and consumption, but for their positive contributions to community life.

 

For more on the municipalized economy, please refer to these sources:

Murray Bookchin, “Municipalization: Community Ownership of the Economy,” Green Perspectives 2 (1986)

Murray Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization and Decline of Citizenship (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1987), pages 260-65. (This book was later republished under the titles Urbanization Against Cities and Urbanization Without Cities.)

Janet Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1998), chapter 12.