Review: From Urbanization to Cities

Review of From Urbanization to Cities: The Politics of Democratic Municipalism by Murray Bookchin

From Urbanization to Cities The Politics of Democratic Municipalism by Murray Bookchin (AK Press, 2021) 

In this updated version of the late Murray Bookchin’s initial 1987 title The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, now with an introduction by Sixtine van Outryve d’Ydewalle, Bookchin presents democratic municipalism as a defense of cities, and against urbanism. Naturally, this apparent contradiction in terms begins with a thorough examination of what Bookchin means by the city. Bookchin contends, with broad and updated archaeological and anthropological evidence, that cities are not necessarily a reflection of agricultural and economic exploitation. While criticizing the ways in which cities can (and have) urbanized into the sprawling jumble of the modern metropolis, insatiably devouring resources, land, and democratic power, he nonetheless portrays the city square as the vibrant center of cultural life that it has been in various times and places.

Bookchin begins by drawing a distinction concerning the myth of a “war” between cities and countryside. Rather, the city and countryside (or town) have always beneficially coexisted, each with its own valuable and vibrant cultural life, but, with their existence in danger, he warns, from urbanization: 

“The truth is that the city and the country are under siege today — a siege that threatens humanity’s very place in the natural environment. Both are being subverted by urbanization, a process that threatens to destroy their identities and their vast wealth of tradition and variety. Urbanization is engulfing not only the countryside; it is also engulfing the city. It is devouring not only town and village life based on the values, culture, and institutions nourished by agrarian relationships. It is devouring city life based on the values, culture, and institutions nourished by civic relationships. City space with its human propinquity, distinctive neighborhoods, and humanly scaled politics — like rural space, with its closeness to nature, its high sense of mutual aid, and its strong family relationships — is being absorbed by urbanization, with its smothering traits of anonymity, homogenization, and institutional gigantism.” (p. 3)

The city Bookchin promotes is not a cosmopolitan one, in service to global capital and ready to offer up its regional treasures on a silver platter to the trade routes of the world, but rather one of regional interests, of craftspeople and merchants meeting in the vibrance of the public square, inspired by their love for their own city, and taking part in its own interaction with the global world. He presents the vulgarity of the modern attraction to cities as one based purely on pragmatism — a short commute, a convenient location, and all the amenities of “development.” But then what is urbanity, and how is it a danger to democratic culture, in the city or the countryside? Bookchin attests that urban civilization is rather the “by-product” (p. 7) of a city, it is what you see if you soar in a 50-mile radius around any metropolis, (or just as often now, a 150-mile radius). The vast machinery necessary to support the commercial activity of a modern city, the endless stretches of suburbia providing a bedtime retreat from the rush of a city which accommodates only work-life, and the endless stretches of agricultural land subordinated to the needs of this populace, and more importantly its commercial clientele, are all the “byproducts” of the city which now blanket entire regions of physical space. Bookchin’s idea of what the city ought to be is strongly anchored to his critique of the modern “citizen” (in keeping with the latter half of the original title).

Just as the urban city is a merely corporate entity, the modern citizen maintains only an exchange relationship to their city. They follow its laws and pay its taxes or parking fees, not out of moral duty or collective goodwill, but in exchange for quality municipal services. Bookchin mercifully does not go so far as to call the urban dweller a similar “byproduct” of this commercial endeavor of a city, and Urbanization to Cities is not simply a lament for a pre-urban agora or town meeting hall.

Bookchin’s thinking has had a profound influence on modern movements as varied as the Yellow Vests’ protests in France and Kurdish democratic confederalism because of its promise for decentralized power. These practices of democracy-without-institutions are based in a storied tradition. What Bookchin shows, through examining different anthropological and historical sites to understand “the way people commune,” (p. 15) is the ways in which cities have provided (and may still provide) the opportunity for democratic power to take root.

Bookchin dismisses the view that civilizations arose to command vast economic resources or in response to technological development, such as agriculture, as the bias of a materially-obsessed modern eye. Instead, he poses a view of civilizations primarily concerned with meeting spiritual needs, developing “bigness” as a consequence of their own search for cultic demands, rather than as a result of some preexisting machinery of oppression, pointing out that:

“Here, I would like to emphasize that the earliest cities were largely ideological creations of highly complex, strongly affiliated, and intensely mutualistic communities of kin groups, ecological in outlook and essentially egalitarian and nondomineering in character.” (p. 25)

“We assume that a coercive strategy was followed by oppressive elites at the inception of city life because we read our literary accounts of Mesopotamian and Egyptian forced labor back into city lifeways in a misty preliterate era. It is easy to overlook the fact that any literary tradition of urban life, even the very early Gilgamesh epic from 2100 BCE which dates back to the beginnings of Mesopotamian city life, is already evidence of a technically advanced, often coercive, society.” (p. 25)

Traditional historical thinking may be overly sensitive to directly observable records, he argues, and in doing so impart oversized importance to that direct physical evidence. Thus, the historical record may be unjustly saturated with those remnants which bureaucratic urbanity leaves behind in abundance, namely commercial records and large buildings — evidence of their extractive prowess, maybe, but not their actual prevalence.

Within this examination of early societies, Bookchin begins the search for the proto-citizen. He finds in these ancient cities, so small that we would hardly call them towns today, the structures and social groupings that we associate today with a strong civic life — the meeting places and centers of community that evidence an engaged public. The cultural value of the city, in Bookchin’s view, is the movement from a congregation based on blood ties to one based on social kinship. In developing an idea of the citizen, Bookchin relies heavily on an examination of Athenian society, bringing his distinct ecological understanding of the interplay between city and citizen into an understanding of “processual” (p. 62) politics by which a person is socialized into the full citizen through their own interaction with public affairs.

Bookchin’s processual politics directly parallels the anarchist concept of prefigurative politics. People learn to responsibly manage their own affairs by exercising power over their own affairs and, simply enough, by managing them. In his examination of Athenian society Bookchin draws most cleanly upon his vision for city life embodied by democratic municipalism. Citified (but not urban) public spaces provide the location for meaningful and sustained interaction between the citizenry.

“In its emphasis on direct, almost protoplasmic contact, full participatory involvement and its delight in variety and diversity, there is a sense in which the agora formed the space for a genuine ecological community within the polis itself.” (p. 63)

Bookchin argues that these public spaces of informal contact between vastly different parts of even a stratified society allowed vibrant social ecologies to develop and mature. The central location of political life is this public square and not in the traditional centers of state power, represented by the formal assembly.

Therefore, the city, at least one with adequately available public spaces that allow for this “direct, almost protoplasmic contact” between social classes, offers its people the place to practice citizenship. The engaged citizen, within a proper city, can take part in the formation of public consensus, engage in public commerce, and contribute to establishing this citizenry. By taking part in the process of political action, they produce the citizenry, and in turn, their city.

Where Bookchin’s work shines is in bringing together the breadth of anthropological and historical information that helps bring to life his vision of the city. Acknowledging that attempting to find historical evidence for “how people commune” may be more difficult than a survey of impressive architectural feats or warehouses, he tackles the task quite ably. He examines Greek tragic dramas to show the ways in which tragedy, for the Greek citizen, is a means by which the citizen grows into a more dignified being. Athenian political society grew through crises and its own responses to them, and likewise, the city provides the space for processual growth of the engaged citizen taking part in forming city consensus.

While these ancient cities may have provided the garden that cultivated the first citizenries, how did the city become disconnected from citizenship? Bookchin points out a transition from the city wherein each city-dweller remained attached to their country home, or at least their ancestral village, to a particularly new, wholly urbane city.

“From the thirteenth century onward, particularly in Italy and the lowlands of modern Belgium and Holland, city-states began to emerge that were structured around uniquely urban tasks — artisan oriented, financial, commercial, and industrial — that slowly loosened urban life from its traditional agrarian matrix and provided the town with an authentic civic life and momentum of its own.” (p. 96)

Bookchin holds the development of the merchant classes and “princely” estates as a phenomenon arising out of urbanity. As Roman society collapsed, unable to draw the tributes necessary to support its vast expenditures, cities pared down to size so they could more reasonably extract their resources from the neighboring geography, and thus decaying cities and parochial fiefdoms became the norm in Europe. In this space, however, Bookchin notes the growth of a diverse array of communes and artisanal towns “marked by a rich social life, and with it a popular politics rooted in guilds, systems of mutual aid, a civic militia, and a strong sense of community loyalty.” (p. 135)

Despite this, the age also marks the rise of nation-states, but Bookchin warns: “[t]he reader who looks for a compact development toward a modern urban society will not find one here.” (p. 140) His chronicling of the rise of states is refreshingly level-headed, readily accepting that states existed in “degrees” rather than absolutes, and that most of these states did not resemble, in their relations to their people, what we expect today when we think of nation-states. He further notes the interplay between commercial development and state development, neither as opposed, nor wholly united, goals. For instance, in examining the ambivalence of Spain’s Charles V to capitalist whims, he centers how the municipal revolutions of the Comuneros are not so easily described by class analysis at a time before industrial classes have formed in the Marxian sense. Instead, Bookchin uses his formulation of the citizen as a means to describe this conflict between the socialized citizen and the bureaucratic state.

“Centralization becomes most acute when deterioration occurs at the base of society. Divested of its culture as a political realm, society becomes an ensemble of bureaucratic agencies that bind monadic individuals and family units into a strictly administrative structure or a form of ‘possessive,’ more properly acquisitive, individualism that leads to privatization of the self and its disintegration into mere egoism.” (p. 179-180)

Thus, Bookchin brings us to his definition of urbanization as a distinctly social, rather than a technological or materialist phenomenon. While he lauds economic relations in the city square of the pre-capitalist era for enhancing human interaction and enriching the social space, he marks the domination of the capitalist form as a major driver of expansive urbanity. The tendency of capitalism to accumulate indefinitely is why urbanity is now most recognizable by its detritus. In contrast to the monstrous bigness of the urbane, Bookchin puts forth a model for “human-scale” societies centered around cultivating engaged citizenship.

The site of engaged citizenry, Bookchin claims, is municipal participation. “Municipal freedom, in short, is the basis for political freedom, and political freedom is the basis for individual freedom.” (p. 234) The municipality acts as a countervailing force against nation-state domination and allows workers the ability to effect their will upon those who run social and economic affairs. Here, Bookchin relies on his distinction between statecraft — the affairs of nation-states to maintain or bolster their bureaucracies — and politics — people’s collective exercise of power. A confederation of democratic municipalities provides a balance against the interests of the nation-state in subordinating its people to statecraft.

But if Bookchin’s municipalism stopped here, it would doom workers to “simply ‘participate’ in planning their own misery.” (p. 272) Instead, Bookchin argues that confederated municipalism provides the means for municipalities to exert their citizens’ will over the most complex issues while the political process of democratic municipalism forms an active citizen, ready and able to take on this responsibility. To Bookchin, this act of participating in confederated democratic municipalism creates a citizenry capable of entirely removing state power. Critically, there are no fantasies here of the state withering away; instead, building a strong citizenry of capable and critical actors lays the foundation for power outside of, and opposed to, the state.

Bookchin’s municipalism is not provincial, nor patriotic. It is not a vision of neurotic individualism, and it is not one of thoughtless internationalism. His stated purpose was to understand the relations of how people commune; his exhaustive historical and anthropological analysis attests to his success. Bookchin deftly lays out a vision for democratic municipalism that can address modern problems and finds support for the ability of complex societies to be oriented towards the “human-scale” while meeting the needs of their citizens. More interestingly, in his emphasis on building an ethic based on active citizenship, Bookchin’s prescription for the discontents of a modern civilization takes on a comprehensive social, or even spiritual, aim. The call for creating human-scale “city” spaces (both in the town and in the country) warns against urbanity but cherishes the frenetic social fabric of the town hall, arrondissement, and agora. Bookchin’s democratic municipalism, even reprinted some forty years on, paradoxically remains a breath of fresh air and a reminder of the historical power of free and engaged association. 

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