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Listen Libertarian Municipalist!

Murray Bookchin. The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies & the Promise of Direct Democracy. Foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin (New York and London: Verso, 2015).

This book is a collection of Bookchin’s essays on libertarian municipalism and communalism, extending from the period when he still considered himself an anarchist until his final post-anarchist phase.

In the first, “The Communalist Project,” he depicts the near future as a choice among “several intersecting roads of human development” that “may well determine the future of our species for centuries to come.”

Whether the twenty-first century will be the most radical of times or the most reactionary… will depend overwhelmingly upon the kind of social movement and program that social radicals create out of the theoretical, organizational, and political wealth that has accumulated during the past two centuries of the revolutionary area.

Lest these remarks seem too apocalyptic, I should emphasize that we also live in an era when human creativity, technology, and imagination have the capability to produce extraordinary material achievements and to endow us with societies that allow for a degree of freedom that far and away exceeds the most dramatic and emancipatory visions projected by social theorists such as Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, Karl Marx, and Peter Kropotkin.

But Bookchin neglects a third possibility: that the next few decades will be both the most radical and most reactionary of times. And as the crisis unfolds, both the negative and positive aspects will be intensified until the contradiction is resolved. The crisis has a dual character. Both the growing ills of the system and the hopes for something better result from different aspects of the same material causes. Political corruption reflects the increasing dependence of capitalism on ever larger scales of state intervention to enable the accumulation and realization of capital; but this is paralleled by the growing unenforceability of the monopolies that corporate rule depends on. Disparity of income is accompanied by a crisis of the production models that create that disparity. And the ecological crisis is accompanied by a crisis of Peak Oil and a general crisis of the state’s ability to provide subsidized production inputs of all kinds.

Bookchin on Technology

My favorite part of Bookchin’s body of work is his monumental contribution to the analysis of technology and decentralist economics. It was that analysis, in Post-Scarcity Anarchism (and particularly “Towards a Liberatory Technology,” which is appended to the C4SS edition of Kropotkin’s Fields, Factories and Workshops), that first brought him to my attention.

Bookchin’s economic analysis is the basis for his critique of the Old Left’s workerism. The classical Marxist two-class model (bourgeoisie and proletariat), never realized in fact, is now more obsolete than ever. The industrial working class is “dwindling in numbers and is steadily losing its traditional identity as a class, which by no means excludes it from a potentially broader and perhaps more extensive conflict of society as a whole against capitalist social relations.”

Meanwhile, the lumpenproletariat and precariat are growing at the expense of the traditional proletariat. So Bookchin’s argument dovetails with that of radical labor scholar Guy Standing: pre-Old Left models of socialism centered on abundance and reduced work are becoming relevant once again.

Against this background, it’s a bit odd that Bookchin states the need for “a socialism… that is neither an extension of the peasant-craft ‘associationism’ that lies at the core of anarchism nor the proletarianism that lies at the core of revolutionary syndicalism and Marxism.” Actually it’s more than a bit odd, considering that it’s precisely the technologies he foresaw in “Towards a Liberatory Technology” that are enabling a return to that craft associationist model.

I do find one fault with Bookchin’s critique of the Old Left: He telescopes the Old Left of the twentieth century together with the earlier nineteenth century left as a single “industrial age” phenomenon, and conflates Marx and Lenin at the same time. This is entirely wrong-headed. The Old Left was a phenomenon of the 20th century mass-production revolution, not of the industrial age as such. In neglecting the fact that the “Old Left” was once new, he also neglects its nature as a departure from an earlier left — and in so doing obscures the value of his own model as a return to the promise of earlier models of socialism, like Kropotkins, based on leisure and abundance.

Bookchin’s view of advanced technology as the only possible basis for a successful environmentalist agenda is a much-needed antidote to primitivism both hard and soft, and to collapsitarianism of the John Michael Greer variety.

Contrary to the simplistic ideology of “eco-anarchism,” social ecology maintains that an ecologically oriented society can be progressive rather than regressive, placing a strong emphasis not on primitivism, austerity, and denial but on material pleasure and ease. If a society is to be capable of making life not only vastly enjoyable for its members but also leisurely enough that they can engage in the intellectual and cultural self-cultivation that is necessary for creating civilization and a vibrant political life, it must not denigrate technics and science but bring them into accord with visions of human happiness and leisure.

His technological views are an antidote, likewise, to the kinds of managerialist technocrats who defend centralism and hierarchy as indispensable, for technical reasons, for a high standard of living. That their assumptions are more a matter of religious faith and reason can be seen in their reflexive appeals to “economies of scale,” in much the same tone with which young earth creationists appeal to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Their understanding of technology, to the extent that they have one, is an obsolete mid-20th century one filtered through the lens of Galbraith, Schumpeter and Chandler.

Bookchin utterly demolishes their position. He shows that centralism, hierarchy and capital-intensiveness result in most cases, not from any inherent technological requirements, but from the irrational organization of society to serve institutional and class interests. In the existing economy, both scale of production and division of labor exist on scales far, far above their optimal level based on efficiency considerations. From a purely technical standpoint, the most efficient and rational approach is to produce most goods locally using small-scale facilities.

Bookchin on Anarchism

An unfortunate tendency in Bookchin’s writing is his strawman caricatures of anarchism. In earlier work this took the form of a caricature of individualist or “lifestylist” anarchism, as opposed to his own “social anarchism”; in his later writing, where he disavows the anarchist label in favor of “communalist,” he applies basically the same generalization to anarchism as such.

In “Social Anarchism and Lifestyle Anarchism,” he telescoped a wide range of anarchist tendencies he disliked (including a dimly grasped “individualist anarchism” which he apparently had difficulty differentiating from Stirnerism) into the general heading of “lifestyle anarchism.”

By the time he wrote “The Communalist Project” in 2002, he had expanded his original caricature (itself a sloppy amalgamation of everything he didn’t like without regard to actual intellectual history and nuance) to encompass the anarchist movement as a whole, and dismissed anarchism in general in language he once reserved for individualist lifestylism. For example:

Anarchism’s mythos of self-regulation (auto nomos) — the radical assertion of the individual over or even against society and the personalistic absence of responsibility for the collective welfare — leads to a radical affirmation of the all-powerful will so central to Nietzsche’s ideological peregrinations.

Such a simplistic and lazy dismissal of an entire movement — a movement that includes Kropotkin, for Christ’s sake! — is beneath Bookchin.

Another of Bookchin’s faults is taking neoliberal capitalism’s “free market” claims, and its alleged “hypercompetitiveness,” at face value.

Capitalism, he says, advances the maxim that “whatever enterprise does not grow at the expense of its rivals must die.” On the contrary! The large monopoly capitalist enterprise grows at the expense of society, in cooperation with its “rivals.” In the words of former Archer Daniels Midland CEO Dwayne Andreas, “The competitor is our friend. The customer is our enemy.”

Bookchin also confuses the market with capitalism: “Although capitalism became a dominant society only in the past few centuries, it existed on the periphery of earlier societies….” David Graeber, in Debt, is better at grasping the distinction.

Bookchin on Strategy

One aspect of Bookchin’s thought I find especially unsatisfactory is his belief in the need for “One Big Movement” to implement the social ecology/libertarian municipalist agenda.

I fully agree with his general approach of “starving the beast” from below, and “building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.” But he sees this approach as something that can only be carried out by some sort of libertarian municipalist vanguard movement coordinating a dual power strategy across a large number of different communities to eat away global capitalism from the roots. In “A Politics for the Twenty-First Century” he writes:

Where most anarchist communists in the past have regarded the Federation of communes as an ideal to be achieved after an insurrection, libertarian municipalists … regard the federation or federation of communes as a political practice that can be developed, at least partly, prior to an outright revolutionary confrontation with the state — a confrontation which, in my view, cannot be avoided and, if anything, should be encouraged by increasing the tension between the state and federations of municipalities. In fact, libertarian municipalism is a communalist practice for creating a revolutionary culture and for bringing revolutionary change into complete conformity with the goals of anarchist communism.

In “The Future of the Left,” he goes into greater detail on the characteristics of such a movement:

…[C]an we conceive of a popular movement gaining power without an agency that can provide it with guidance? A revolutionary Left that seeks to advance from protest demonstrations to revolutionary demonstrations must resolutely confront the problem of organization. I speak here not of ad hoc planning groups but rather of the creation and maintenance of an organization that is enduring, structured, and broadly programmatic.

Bookchin dismisses the “Proudhonist myth” that “small associations of producers… can slowly eat away at capitalism…”

Either municipalized enterprises controlled by citizens’ assemblies will try to take over the economy, or capitalism will prevail in this sphere of life with a forcefulness that no mere rhetoric can diminish.

Well… no. Bookchin’s mass-based approach — One Big Movement getting everybody on the same page for the final confrontation — is as much a reflection of the mid-20th century mass-production paradigm as was the Old Left workerism he denounces. And most of the “need” for it is as artificial as the need for the giant, complex economic bureaucracies that Bookchin made such short work of.

The overwhelming direction of technological change is towards rendering such coordination obsolete and irrelevant. And exodus from the system, starving the beast and building the structure of the new society within the shell of the old are all processes that can be carried out perfectly satisfactorily on a stigmergic basis, by lots of individuals and groups acting for their own reasons.

Small-scale, decentralized economic activity and networked organization are in process of supplanting the state both because technological and economic changes are making it feasible to do so, and because those same changes are making it necessary to do so.

  1. Technological advances are making small-scale, high-tech craft production with computerized machine tools far more efficient than high-overhead factory production.
  2. The radical cheapening of such tools is bringing them within the price range of skilled laborers.
  3. Self-provisioning and subsistence production within the household, informal and social economies is becoming increasingly necessary to meet a growing share of consumption needs, because of increasing levels of unemployment and underemployment.
  4. Networked communications technology is destroying most of the transaction costs of coordinating human activity horizontally, and enabling peer networks to run circles around the old bureaucratic hierarchies of corporation and state.
  5. Peak Oil and other resource crises, and the fiscal crisis of the state, are making it impossible for the state to provide the massive and growing levels of subsidized inputs that capitalism depends on.
  6. The plummeting capital requirements for production eliminate the technical basis for the factory and the large corporation, so that the only way they can maintain their relevance is to rely on entry barriers and monopolies (like “intellectual property”) to suppress small-scale production or coopt it within their institutional control; but the hollowing out of the state, and the proliferation of liberatory technologies like file-sharing and encryption, make it increasingly impossible to enforce them.

In short, the new economy is emerging within the interstices of the old one as a spontaneous, emergent phenomenon — no vanguard movement required.

Bookchin on the Restoration of the Polis

At the heart of Bookchin’s communalist project is his distinction between “statecraft” and “politics.” The latter he defines as “the civic arena and the institutions by which people democratically and directly manage their community affairs.”

The Westphalian state, on the other hand, he sees as inherently repressive and exploitative. In one of my favorite passages (in “The Communalist Project”) he points to the impossibility and self-contradiction inherent in the idea of a “workers’ state”:

By emphasizing the nation-state — including a “workers’ state” — as the locus of economic as well as political power, Marx… notoriously failed to demonstrate how workers could fully and directly control such a state without the mediation of an empowered bureaucracy and essentially statist… institutions.

As an anarchist I see even local direct democratic government, equipped with a police power to initiate force on behalf of the community, as an example of authority and domination. But I agree with Bookchin, even so, that the representative principle is a significant watershed in the class nature of the state.

At the same time, I think the line between Bookchin’s vision of local direct democracy and the anarchism he caricatures (e.g. its “opposition to law”) is far more permeable than he presents it. And the line between deontological versions of anarchism based on the non-aggression principle (closely identified with the contemporary American libertarian movement and anarcho-capitalism, of course, but also characteristic of the nineteenth century individualists within the classical anarchist movement) and more mainstream forms of social anarchism is likewise permeable.

Bookchin’s outline of communalism and direct democracy, and his contrast of them to anarchism, are a good jumping-off place for a dialogue on libertarian law.

As one who adheres to the non-aggression principle, I believe the contemporary libertarian and market anarchist movements could benefit from a more nuanced understanding of when the non-aggression principle is applicable. Democratic majoritarianism, obviously, is not a violation of the non-aggression principle in joint enterprises made up of voluntary members, where some basis for agreement is necessary.

And I believe the mainstream right-libertarian vision of a society organized mainly around atomized individuals, nuclear families and business enterprises is highly unsatisfactory. It is far more likely that, as both states and large corporate enterprises hollow out and retreat from social life, that most people will aggregate into various forms of commons or cohousing projects to secure the necessities of daily life, in much the same way that the peasantry of Western Europe turned to communal village institutions as the Roman Empire retreated.

When seen in this light, it becomes a question of where to draw the line between the individual domain of non-aggression, and the communal domain of agreement within voluntary associations. Those from anarchist traditions like Bookchin’s, not based on the non-aggression principle, see no need to draw the line at all. And much of the historic individualist tradition drew the line so as to include most social activity within the realm of discrete individuals whose inter-relations were governed by the non-aggression principle.

Bookchin, on the other hand, exaggerates the extent to which neighborhoods and communities, as territorial units, must be subject to a single majority rule in order for democratic governance to exist.

Neighborhoods as such, in an anarchist society, may not be voluntary associations including every single resident in their political process. Their governance processes may affect only a majority, or even a minority, of residents who choose to participate in the governance body and abide by its decisions. But the infrastructures and resources serving a majority of those who live in a neighborhood or community may well be cooperatives or commons subject to communal governance.

While adherents of the non-aggression principle do not recognize the legitimacy of subjecting everyone in “society as such,” at a neighborhood or community level, to the authority of a single direct democratic body, it is likely that the various infrastructures serving those units will constitute an overlapping series of bodies within that geographical area. And those bodies — governed as cooperatives, or on Ostrom’s common pool resource model — will coexist as parts of a polycentric framework, with a body of common law arising to adjudicate relations between them. This body of common law, worked out by local juries or arbitration bodies, or by agreement negotiated between the various commons and cooperatives, will be binding internally on the members of the associations which agree to them.

Bookchin (in “A Politics for the Twenty-First Century”) argues that anarchist theory lacks a middle ground between the realm of individual and family, and the realm of the state. He posits politics — the governance of the polis — as such a middle ground. But he ignores the potential of a wide array of resource commons and cooperatively governed support infrastructures, overlapping within a polycentric system of governance and functioning according to a common law developed through their mutual relations over the course of time, as such a middle ground.

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