Social Ecology London

A Social Ecology Reading List
January 6, 2008, 5:51 pm
Filed under: Articles and reviews, Texts

This is an attempt to provide a resource of books and essays on social ecology and libertarian socialism. We are only able as a group to read a small number of books and we feel there is a need for suggestions on further reading for people who want to examine different aspects of social ecology in more depth. This is not a definitive list and will be added to periodically as SEL members read more widely themselves


The Ecology of Freedom, Murray Bookchin
Remaking Society, Murray Bookchin
Social Ecology and Communalism, Murray Bookchin
Includes the essay, ‘What is Social Ecology’ which is the best short introduction to social ecology
The Philosophy of Social Ecology, Murray Bookchin
The Modern Crisis, Murray Bookchin
Which Way for the Ecology Movement? Murray Bookchin
Earth for Sale: Reclaiming Ecology in the Age of Corporate Greenwash, Brian Tokar
Mutual Aid, A Factor of Evolution, Peter Kropotkin
Classic work in which Kropotkin demolishes the Social Darwinist claim that both nature and human society are based on an unending ‘war of all against all’ in which only the most ruthless survive. He argues that the most successful species are those that co-operate and that the mutual aid principle has been the dominant force in human development from primitive societies to the present-day, despite the ideology of capitalist competition.

Organic/Primitive Society

The Ecology of Freedom
Mutual Aid
The World of Primitive Man, Paul Radin
The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Erich Fromm
In this work from the mid-seventies, Fromm, a radical psycho-analyst, attempts to show that an instinct for destruction is not inherent in human nature, but a result of society’s thwarting of natural needs and creative impulses. Interesting psycho-analytical biographies of Hitler and Stalin.

Pre-capitalist Society

From Urbanization to Cities, Towards a New Politics of Citizenship, Murray Bookchin
Tedious title but ground-breaking work from Bookchin. He traces the history of the ‘political realm’ – the authentic democracy of community self-management – from Ancient Athens through to the Medieval Communes, and the demise of the political realm at the hands of the State and market. Concludes with a call for a new political movement to re-empower citizens through direct democracy.
Mutual Aid
The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi
Written at the end of the Second World War, this classic work demonstrates how the liberal market system was forcibly imposed on European and colonial societies, causing social and cultural immiseration. A renowned economist but one with a far wider understanding than most denizens of the ‘dismal science’, Polanyi is the perfect antidote to Hayek and Adam Smith.
The City in History, Lewis Mumford
Time, Work and Culture in the Middle Ages, Jacques Le Goff
Late Victorian Holocausts, Mike Davis

Communalism and Confederalism

Social Ecology and Communalism, Murray Bookchin
Mutual Aid
See chapters on ‘Mutual Aid in the Medieval City’
The Death of Communal Liberty, Benjamin Barber
Cities and the Rise of States in Europe, AD 1000-1800, edited by Charles Tilly and Wim P Blockmanns
The World we have lost, Peter Laslett


Capital, Karl Marx
Marx’s Capital, Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho
The Great Transformation
Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, RH Tawney
Late Victorian Holocausts
From Urbanization to Cities
The Ecology of Freedom
The Corporation, Joel Bakan
Wall Street, What it is and How it works, Doug Henwood
Economic Justice and Democracy, Robin Hahnel
Includes a systematic critique of Milton Friedman’s apologia for the market, ‘Capitalism and Freedom’
Consumed, How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantlize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, Benjamin Barber
The market economy becomes the market society. Interesting book that unfortunately pulls its punches in searching for a solution.

Future Society

The Politics of Social Ecology, Janet Biehl
If “Parliamentary Democracy” is an oxymoron, what would a genuinely democratic alternative look like?
Remaking Society
‘Market Economy or Moral Economy’, in The Modern Crisis
Parecon: Life after Capitalism, Michael Albert
Or ‘Participatory Economics’ to give it its full name. An attempt to devise a libertarian socialist economic model – neither central planning nor market economy.
Equality’, in The Chomsky Reader, Noam Chomsky


Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left, Murray Bookchin
Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism, Murray Bookchin
Social Ecology and Communalism, Murray Bookchin
Fields, Factories and Workshops, Peter Kropotkin
Chomsky on Anarchism, Noam Chomsky
Facing the Enemy, A History of Anarchist Organisation, Alexandre Skirda
Journey Through Utopia, Marie Louise Berneri
Demanding the Impossible, A History of Anarchism, Peter Marshall


Marx’s Capital

‘Reflections on Marx and Marxism’ in Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left
Marx’s Concept of Man, Erich Fromm
Unorthodox Marxism, Michael Albert & Robin Hahnel


The Greeks, H.D.F Kitto
Democracy, Ancient and Modern, M.I. Finley
‘Communalism: the Democratic Dimension of Anarchism’ in Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left
Beyond Adversarial Democracy, Jane Mansbridge
Contrasts two contradictory ideas of democracy. Representative ‘adversarial’ democracy and face to face ‘unitary’ democracy

Building a Movement

Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left (see the interview on ‘movement building’)
Social Ecology and Communalism
Includes Bookchin’s last essay, ‘The Communalist Project’ in which he calls for “a new radical organisation to change the world”.
The Politics of Social Ecology
The Ecology of Everyday Life, Chaia Heller
Develops the idea of ‘illustrative opposition’.
Liberating Theory, Michael Albert, Holly Sklar, Noam Chomsky etc
The Trajectory of Change, Michael Albert
A practical attempt to bridge the “disconnection between many of our most informed activists and the bulk of people who are dissatisfied with the status quo but inactive”.

Revolutionary History

The Third Revolution, (Four volumes), Murray Bookchin
A mammoth history of revolutionary popular movements from the Levellers of the English Civil War to the Spanish Anarchists. An education in itself. Last two volumes are obscenely expensive and only available in hardback. Try ordering them from the library.
To Remember Spain, the Anarchist and Syndicalist Revolution of 1936, Murray Bookchin.
The Bolsheviks and Workers’ Control, Maurice Brinton

English Radical History

The Levellers and the English Revolution, H.N Brailsford
Brilliant and hugely readable account of the radical democrats of the English Civil War who opposed both King and Cromwell’s Puritan totalitarians.
The World Turned Upside Down, Christopher Hill
The Making of the English Working Class, E.P Thompson
The Blood Never Dried, A People’s History of the British Empire, John Newsinger


Women’s Consciousness, Man’s World, Sheila Rowbotham
Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics, Janet Biehl
Liberating Theory

Review of Social Ecology and Communalism
December 13, 2007, 5:44 pm
Filed under: Articles and reviews, Uncategorized

‘Social Ecology and Communalism’ by Murray Bookchin

A review by SEL member Emily Kenway

This is a new publication of four essays by Murray Bookchin, intended to give an overview of his ideas. The four essays are well chosen; the book would be ideal as an introduction to anybody unfamiliar with Bookchin’s theories. These seem especially apt in current times, when corporate power shows no signs of stalling and the Marxist notion of capitalism collapsing from within is utterly archaic, leaving the traditional radical left floundering.

Bookchin will accept no accommodation with the tyrannical grow-or-die principles of capitalism and the corporate domination of nature. He argues that the only way towards a more rational society and to allay the catastrophe of global warming is through altering these fundamental economic and political tenets of our current society. His answer is the concept of ‘communalism’, a participatory political system comprised of directly democratic municipalities which then join together as federations. Central to this premise is that power flows from the bottom up and not the top down. His focus is on the intention behind social institutions. He advocates an economy that serves human needs rather than a runaway train of capitalist profit.

Bookchin is adept at explaining what his theories are not; he rails against primitivism, oxymoronic “green capitalism”, and the characterisation of humans as “intelligent fleas” by Gaian theorists or as “natural aliens” by those subscribing to what he calls a “naïve biocentrism”. He expounds his distaste for the current “goulash” of ideas that he describes as “antirational, atavistic”; the mysticism growing in popularity with the disillusioned, over-consuming bourgeoisie. There is the usual peppering of polemic that those familiar with Bookchin will have come to expect – he describes the academic presses as “pornographers” and refers with a gothic flourish to the “darkness of capitalist barbarism”- but underlying his sometimes dogmatic tenor are some seriously good, seriously applicable ideas. He reiterates throughout the essays the pillars of his theory; civic self-governance, healthy interdependence between communities to stem parochialism, humanly-scaled bodies of people working on bottom-up democratic principles; a focus on ‘craftpersonship’, employing eco-technologies and bridging the dislocation between work and leisure, rather than mechanised, automaton production. He speaks of nature not as the static vista that we have become accustomed to in our urbanised age, but as a constantly developing, fluid entity that we are both a physical part of and able to complement and nurture with our technologies, rather than ransack.

Murray Bookchin thought, wrote and was involved in radical politics for most of his eighty-five years. He described social ecology as an “uncompromising critique” of the current situation, and frequently explained that, as with nature, a rational reasoning to find an ethical and democratic society could not come from a static ideology. With this in mind, this book is a fantastic starting point for any leftist movement, implying a dynamic development away from the “co-optative wiles of capitalism” and towards a more ethical, localised and democratic society. In his words, “humanity is too intelligent not to live in a rational society. It remains to be seen whether it is intelligent enough to achieve one”.

Democratizing the Municipality,The Promise of Participatory Budgeting. By Sveinung Legard
June 25, 2007, 5:09 pm
Filed under: Articles and reviews

This article was first published in ‘Communalism: International Journal for a Rational Society’

Any new political movement striving to achieve another type of society, has to enter into a battle for the “hearts and minds” of the public. We have to convince people that our demands are just, and that a free, ecological and cooperative society – based on direct and participatory democracy – is both desirable and necessary. That, however, is not enough. We must also show how our ideas can be applied in practice. People have to see that the new social arrangement we are advocating can actually work under real-life circumstances. This might seem like a banal statement, but after all we are advancing a new radical project that will challenge people to revolutionize their way of thinking. We would therefore be well advised not to expect a majority, or even a sizable minority, to join us unless we have examples to highlight and draw inspiration from. Nor is it only enough talk about future social changes, we have to work for concrete changes in the here and now that might move us in the direction of the society we desire implying, among other things, building up an alternative power structure that eventually will have to confront and try to replace the present oligarchic one.
In short, any new political movement striving to achieve another type of society must concentrate its efforts in three different areas. It has to convince people of both the desirability and practicality of its ideals, it has to fight for concrete social changes in today’s society, and it has to strive to establish a skeleton of potentially liberatory institutions. In arguing for the desirability and necessity of social change, contemporary social movements might seem strong. They provide a critique of capitalist society, and advocate values and visions in magazines, movies and on the web challenging those of the elites. However, they have a great weakness. Even though a wide specter of social movements organize under the slogan “Another world is possible!,” few have concrete answers as to how it is actually possible to organize society in another way. The confusion over how another society can be attained – the long-term political strategies – is immense. Present day radicals seldom have ideas on how they can connect their ideals and vision with their everyday political practice. Instead of being proactive they mostly end up being reactive, often defending social arrangements that they in reality detest.(1) Still others are stuck in a form of puritan insurrectionism, where almost any engagement with present social realities is deemed as “conformism” or “class-betrayal.”
To fill this void an increasing number of people have begun to look to Brazil for examples. Since the late 1980s a number of Brazilian towns and cities have developed a system of municipal government based on direct participation of citizens in the budgetary process. This is known as participatory budgeting (or orçamento participativo in Portuguese). It has caused a major change in traditional municipal structures, not only by opening the city finances to public deliberation, but also by spurring changes in other areas like city-planning, schooling, gender-relations and the local economy. Because of the high level of attendance in slums and working-class neighborhoods, and the redistributive effect of the process itself, participatory budgeting has often been hailed by prominent writers on the so-called participatory Left. “A remarkable city” and the “site of a new kind of developing democracy,” writes Ignacio Ramonet, editor-in-chief of the French Le Monde Diplomatique, about Porto Alegre – the city that used to be the center of participatory budgeting in Brazil.(2) Writer and editor of Red Pepper magazine in Britain, Hilary Wainwright, has praised participatory budgeting for its “radical distribution of wealth” through “people power.”(3)
The aim of this article is not to discuss whether Porto Alegre is a “remarkable city,” nor to judge the specific achievements of participatory budgeting. Neither is it my objective to criticize confused reformists who do not have coherent ideas about how to change society, nor to pick on their insurrectionist counter-parts.Rather, what I would like to do is assess participatory budgeting from a Communalist perspective, to see what potentialities or limits it has as a democratized municipality and challenge the assumptions about participatory democracy on the “participatory Left.”(4) Communalism already has its views on how to move from “here” to “there,” and does in fact believe that it is possible to achieve concrete and liberatory changes in present society, and I will try to show how Communalism provides better answers than do other radicals writing about participatory budgeting, on the central questions for any new political movement: How to convince people of the practicality of our ideals, how to fight for concrete social changes today, and how to set up a skeleton of democratic institutions for tomorrow.

The Municipality Does what the People Decide
Recife is a city on the coast line of North-Eastern Brazil. It is known to international tourists for of its long, white beaches and its proximity to the picturesque city of Olinda, one of the first colonial settlements in Brazil. To Brazilians it is known as the country’s “Africa,” home to vast slums where most of the city’s fifty percent poor live in makeshift housing under appalling conditions. Few global cities, however, can boast of having the same amount of its inhabitants participating in municipal decision-making processes. Out of the 1.6 million people living in Recife, more than 70 000 annually attend the participatory budget.(5) This system is coordinated by a forty-people strong municipal office, that in 2006 organized nearly sixty plenary and thematic assemblies and close to 800 smaller forums and meetings where the citizenry stepped up to make the city-budget.
Participatory budgeting in Recife basically works in the following manner: From April until June the municipality organizes plenary assemblies in the city-districts. These are open for all citizens above 16 years of age, and the assemblies might be attended by a few hundred locals to more than a thousand, depending on the needs of the neighborhoods and how well organized its dwellers are. The participants vote on which measures they think are most important for their neighborhood, and can prioritize between sectors like health, culture, renovation, education, employment, sports and more. In addition, to avoid local parochialism, the municipality facilitates theme-based assemblies across district-lines that works in a likewise manner.
Delegates are then elected by associations in the neighborhoods, and given a clear mandate to make a budget based on the priorities of the people. If they do not follow the priorities made at the popular assemblies, they might be recalled and replaced by others. From July until December close to 2500 delegates meet to negotiate a result with the municipal administration. A council of delegates is responsible for collecting all proposals and priorities, and makes a budget document. This document is in turn handed over to the city-council of elected representatives which make the final decision in December. In the same month, the result of the process is debated in the delegate-forums and in the neighborhood-assemblies, and in January the budget-cycle starts again by citizens and coordinators preparing for the priorities of the following year.
Although many of the cities practicing participatory budgeting often do so in their own fashion, the results have often been strikingly similar. A wide range of studies has shown that more public revenue has been redistributed from the affluent sectors of the population to the poorer neighborhoods, after the introduction of participatory budgeting. Porto Alegre, a city in the far south of Brazil, where participatory budgeting first was initiated by the Brazilian Workers Party, Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), in 1988, and where the model was practiced for sixteen straight years, was long used as a showcase for the PT. Its achievements were stunning in comparison to other more “normal” corruption-ridden Brazilian municipalities. Marion Gret and Yves Sintomer sum up the effects on the areas that were targeted by participatory budgeting in the city:
The first is that of basic infrastructural work in working-class neighborhoods. […] Considerable emphasis was put on asphalting roads – a key factor for undertaking further improvements in public transport, household garbage collection, and increased mobility for residents […]. Some 99 per cent of the population now have running water in their homes. The proportion of residents on the main sewage system has doubled […], and household garbage collection in working-class neighborhoods has increased on a similar scale. […] The second realm is that of education. The number of municipal daycare centres tripled in ten years, and some hundred city-approved community daycare centres were created. The number of children attending municipal schools almost tripled, and adult education was encouraged. […] The same goes for the health sector, which received sustained investment, particular focus being put on healthcare for children and infants.(6)

This is a result of two intertwined forces. First, the budgetary process itself has led to a pressure to raise tax-levels, harness tax-collection and widen the tax-base (to include industrial and commercial activities, and property). Gret and Sintomer describe the outcome of this in Porto Alegre as “dramatic” because it quickly opened up “new scope for investment, which made it possible to boost the administrative machinery and popular participation.”(7)
Secondly, a policy called “inversion of priorities,” an expression used by PT-led administrations to describe redistribution of resources, has resulted in redistribution of public funds. The “inversion of priorities” consists of a set of social and demographic criteria, by which funds are allocated to neighborhoods according to their size and shortcomings. This means that neighborhoods that have the fewest schools, most open sewers and least access to affordable healthcare – and in addition have more inhabitants – will receive more money through projects than others. The number of citizens in a certain area attending their budget assembly also affects how many delegates the neighborhood can elect, and thus the likelihood of funds being allocated to the neighborhood. This has proved a significant incentive for the poorer segments of the population to participate. As Rebecca Abers writes, a survey in Porto Alegre in 1995 “showed that, contrary to expectations, middle-class and wealthy residents did not dominate the budget assemblies. [Particularly] at the regional level, […] the vast majority of participants were poor and less-educated.”(8)
There is evidence that participatory budgeting has strengthened the civic culture in the cities where it has been introduced, and even cultivated new involvement in places where it hardly could have been said to exist before. Observers point to a new mentality developing where people increasingly see themselves as active citizens with a certain set of social rights, and not as passive recipients of favors from paternalistic politicians. The growth-rate of community associations and new institutions like popular councils and cooperatives in cities applying participatory budgeting, is testament to this. In a vivid and extraordinarily honest study of Porto Alegre, Gianpaolo Baiocchi shows how such civic processes have been taking place as new arenas have been opened for public congregation:
Many, having originally come to the [participatory budget] to discuss a specific problem, have stayed on to take part in organizations like the [popular council] if not in local neighborhood associations, which have come to thrive. In fact, the [participatory budget] has become a central feature of community life in the city´s sixteen districts, and many voluntary organizations like the [popular council] receive a powerful impetus from it.(9)
Hence, communal demands for increased public participation in local politics seem to follow in the wake of the participatory budget. In Belém, the biggest city in the Amazon jungle, the PT administration has established an annual city-congress, where the most pressing issues in the city are debated and resolved. The congress itself is based on a system of deliberation at various geographical levels, where a wide range of public associations are encouraged to send their delegates. The congress is viewed as complementary to the budgetary process, and representatives from the PT administration in the city claim that as many as thirty percent of the total population participate in both of the processes.(10)
The administration of Recife conducts its affairs under the slogan “The Municipality Does. The People Decide.” Herein lies the promise of participatory budgeting. In participatory budgeting, the role of the municipal administration is not to enforce the decisions of the elected politicians onto the city-inhabitants, but rather to facilitate the participation of the inhabitants, and seeing to the realization of the budget in partnership with their delegates. This participatory system has in turn fostered politicized communities and progressive demands for increased distribution and participation in other decision-making processes. However, although the slogan of the municipality of Recife, as we shall soon see, should be regarded more as a vision than a concrete reality, it still points towards a new form of participatory democratic municipal government that fundamentally breaks with our present forms of authoritarian government.

The Bureaucratic Face of Participatory Budgeting
It is worthwhile stressing the point that participatory budgeting is only pointing to a different form of municipal government. Contrary to the often lofty descriptions of the system as a bold experiment in direct democracy, it should rather be regarded as a type of municipal co-governance. As the Brazilian sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos writes, participatory budgeting is “a model for sharing political power by means of a network of democratic institutions geared to reaching decisions by deliberation, consensus, and compromise.”(11)
To put it another way, participatory budgeting has two conflicting faces: One that is directly democratic – based upon popular assemblies and mandated delegates – and one that is authoritarian – based upon political representation and bureaucratic control. This tension has been present in the project from its very outset, in a strange mix of belief in popular power as a way to achieve a socialist society, and as an instrument for “good governance” and enforcing the power of the PT in municipal government. Soon after the introduction of participatory budgeting to Porto Alegre in 1988, the PT-led administration became fully engrossed in organizing the executive structures of the city as it had been left in a confused state by former administrations. During the first term in office, this led to a controversy initiated by “activists who saw no point in the city-council team devoting its efforts to a reorganization of public policies”:
[They were] arguing that a people’s government was not about public works but rather about the radicalization of participation and mobilization of the citizenry, with the objective of ‘outflanking the bureaucratic and bourgeois state’ […]. The idea that it was [at] once necessary and possible to transform public management took hold only progressively, first within the city-council team, and then in the rest of the party.(12)

Now, the important issue here is not whether is was necessary or not to create order out of the disorder of former administrations, but rather that participatory budgeting was, quite early, shaped for achieving other ends than increasing popular self-management in the neighborhoods. In fact, the model was used by the PT administration in Porto Alegre to increase its own governability (i.e. its ability to make the rest of the municipal organs comply to its whishes). As shown in the historical presentation by Rebecca Abers, it did so by channeling government actions through its central planning agency and the municipal budget council: “Advertising the participatory process as one of the ‘hallmarks of the administration’ helped the mayor’s office to gain more control of decisions throughout the administration because it wielded a ‘moral authority’ when it demanded that the city agencies defer to [the central planning office].”(13)
It is very important, therefore, to keep in mind that participatory budgeting was introduced on the one hand to combat corruption, clientalism and to achieve a fairer distribution of municipal revenues, all main objectives of the PT, and on the other to give ordinary citizens increased control over local government. The system itself has been legitimized and validated because of its ability to achieve these ends. An instrumental view of participatory government has thus become widespread among militants of the PT, and also among those who relentlessly work to mobilize the citizens in their cities. When I visited the region, some of the central organizers of the participatory budget in Recife were stunned when they learned that somebody was trying to implement something similar to participatory budgeting in a country like Norway. Why would anyone need that model in a country where there is basically no official corruption, and where every person has access to basic social services? That it should be a democratic right in itself to have an equal share of power in political affairs, regardless of what this power is used for, is not a view that seemed widespread among central organizers of participatory budgeting in Recife.
Anyone following the budgetary process in a city like Recife would attest to the tight control of the PT administration over both public assemblies and the delegate forums. The neighborhood assemblies are professionally directed by the central participatory budget-office, and at the start of the meetings a 15-minute political commercial is shown on a big screen – hailing the achievements of the current PT administration and painting a heroic picture of the mayor. There is virtually no space for public debate, and invited outsiders – like prominent international guests – are normally put on a panel in front of the participating citizens.
The delegates of the participants at the neighborhood assemblies are closely followed by the administration, and they have few opportunities to advance new projects that have not been prefabricated by the administration. The organizers in the office of the participatory budget themselves often assert their educational role in the process – to enlighten the delegates and assembly participants of their own best interests. Although they may in many situations be right, the problem is the attitude. Indeed, it is very hard to describe participatory budgeting as being in any way a citizens-controlled system. PT administrations all over the country have been very hesitant, if not outright hostile, to inscribing participatory budgeting in municipality constitutions. The claim is that such formalized inscription would make the participatory institutions less flexible, and could be used by the right-wing opposition to hinder further radicalization of the process. However, the hesitancy may be due to the fear of the PT loosing its dominance and position in the budgeting system?
Regardless of how one judges these forms of informal control by the PT, it is still impossible to describe participatory budgeting as a form of direct democracy. Formally, it is the elected politicians in the municipal council, Câmara dos Vereadores, who can ultimately accept or refuse the budget that has been made in the participatory forums. This veto has seldom been used though. One should not underestimate the moral power of the participatory budget. It has proved to be extremely difficult for representatives who are dependent on re-election to go against “the budget of the people,” and to this date that has not happened in Recife.
Still, we have to maintain that the governmental authority of the participatory budget does not lie in the hands of the organized people – neither in their public assemblies, nor with their delegates. After all, many of the PT-executives in Porto Alegre, who introduced participatory budgeting, never seemed to like the idea of direct democracy in the first place. As ex-mayor Olivio Dutra has explained: “We are not selling the illusion of the direct democracy in the Greek Plaza.”(14) Although the vision of an anti-statist Socialism based on a variety of workers assemblies and councils had strong roots in the PT, many leaders in the Porto Alegre branch of the party seem to have started to regard this idea as naïve quite early.

“Good Governance” and International Implementations
As people have been inspired by the advent of participatory budgeting in Brazil, there have been attempts to implement it in different parts of world. But in countries like Chile, Canada, USA, Germany, France, Turkey and England, it is the rule rather than the exception that it is the bureaucratic face of participatory budgeting that has been cherished. Citizen participation is not considered as a good because it fosters public empowerment, but because it strengthen ties between the electorate and the elected, tailor limited municipal resources to the needs of the population, enhances administrative transparency and create a sense of ownership among “stakeholders” in local politics – in other words, it fulfills any Liberal’s dream of “good governance.”
For this reason, Porto Alegre was selected to be one of twenty model-cities at the UN Urban Habitat conference in Istanbul in 1996, and that is also why the World Bank wants to implement participatory budgeting to Sub-Saharan African countries. As the World Bank itself says in an online course for aspiring “participatory democrats” on the international consultancy scene:
The active participation of the beneficiaries in programming public expenditure is transforming passive stakeholders into active stockholders whose voice defines the manner in which local government expenditures are made. […] A second benefit of participatory budgeting is the demand by the public for efficiency in the production of services. […] This demand for efficiency has been institutionalized in local governments as part of performance based budgeting. Municipalities which practice performance based budgeting are in effect carrying out service delivery surveys periodically to assure client satisfaction as well as technical efficiency in the provision of services.(15)

The German city of Emstetten is a case in point. Since 2001 this mid-size municipality has been employing a “participatory budget” of its very own, consulting the population instead of involving them directly in the decision-making process. On the one side, Emstetten puts great emphasis on informing its population by sending brochures to every household at the outset of the budgetary-process. Two thousand randomly selected citizens then receives a “personal” letter from the Mayor, explaining why they have been selected for the participatory budget. About 150-200 inhabitants actually show up in the discussion-forums, where they meet with representatives of the administration to dialogue on a range of subjects in the fields of expenditures, personnel costs and local taxes. There is nothing in Emstetten’s model saying that the citizen-budget has to be translated into real-life budget priorities. Still, according to Carsten Herzberg of the March Bloch Centre in Berlin, the top-representatives of Emstetten are pleased with this system because it has, among other things, improved the “sensitization” of its administrative staff and given the city some degree of local and national “visibility.”(16)
No matter how much the PT in Brazil informally controls the budgetary process, these international participatory expeditions stand in stark contrast to the original spirit of participatory budgeting. As Rebecca Abers shows, the PT was, in its early days, ideologically bent on direct democracy. Learning from the failures of the Soviet Union and the so-called “real existing Socialism,” important tendencies within the party started to talk about a Socialist society based on assemblies and councils in the neighborhoods. Also, the experience of living under a dictatorship deeply affected the Brazilian Left: “[S]ocial movements, union groups, and left-wing militants, which had previously been very much focused on the state as the solution for society’s ills, began, during the military period, to see the state as the problem. There was widespread consensus that the PT should contribute to decreasing the centralized, bureaucratic-authoritarian power of the state and increasing the role of `autonomous´ civil society in public decision-making.”(17) Participatory budgeting was not conceived of as an end-point for a “popular administration,” much less as a means to breathing life into dying representative institutions, but as a first step in creating a new social order based on direct and participatory democracy.

The Inherent Contradictions of “Participation”
If we agree that participatory budgeting has two different faces we have not only to understand why, but also how its bureaucratic aspects can be avoided if we are to engage in similar efforts to democratize our own municipalities. Communalists share many of its goals with the so-called participatory Left, but in understanding the two faces of participatory budgeting the ideological acolytes of the “participatory Left” provide more confusion than clarity. Instead of seeing how two different forms and visions of government are in fact colliding in participatory budgeting, writers like Hilary Wainwright and America Vera-Zavala tend to see participatory and representative institutions as mutually fulfilling.
Vera-Zavala, for example, ignores the question of the tension between the direct and representative levels in participatory budgeting when she writes that “there are big differences between a participatory democracy and a representative parliamentary democracy,” but “this is not about one being better than the other. The differences are in fact so big that the two systems are not comparable.”(18) How is it possible to avoid a comparison between the “two systems” when Porto Alegre and Recife are ridden by the immanent conflicts between the systems? As we have seen, the representative institutions in Porto Alegre or Recife only give the popular assemblies very narrow powers in the decision-making process. The “people’s budget” can even be vetoed at any time by the city council. And whereas the citizens might affect a small portion of the city budget, decisions at many other levels of government affect the economic conditions of the Brazilian municipalities. Although we might look with goodwill at Vera-Zavala’s vision of participatory institutions as a counter-weight to national assemblies and state-bureaucracies, or Wainwright’s insistence on participatory democracy as a form of embedded bargaining power that would strengthen otherwise disempowered community-members – after all, they are engaged in activism to enhance the powers of ordinary people – they miss out the point that Communalists make: Representative institutions always tend to restrict the power of direct democratic institutions, with their authoritarian decision-making tools and bureaucratic structures.
Imagine yourself as a candidate of a party winning the municipal elections. Once in office, you would like to implement the program of your party and you need an administration to execute your policies. What better way to do this than through already existing bureaucratic structures? Participatory institutions, in which these policies could be reverted, sabotaged or exhausted by opposition groups, would just be annoying obstacles to you and your party. The best thing you could do, would be to either restrict the power of these institutions or try to make them work in your favor. This very same tension can be seen in participatory budgeting. The original PT-administration of Porto Alegre boldly proclaimed that their electoral campaign “should be understood as a moment in the accumulation of political, organizational and programmatic forces in the process of constructing socialism,” and that its concrete proposals “although made for administrative structures existing within the capitalist perspective, have the political purpose of denouncing them and changing them, contributing to their overthrow.”(19) But as we saw, not many years later, the PT-administration did not hesitate in using the very same administrative structures to achieve its own ends.
The very framework of participatory budgeting is based on a system of government where the power of the common citizen is very limited, and the “participatory democracy” that Vera-Zavala and Wainwright envision does not seem to go very much further. “Representative institutions,” proposes Wainwright, “set out the broad framework” and the “process of participatory democracy provides ways in which ordinary people, rather than simply officials, can play a decisive role in elaborating the detail of how these broad policy commitments are carried out.”(20) In other words, the real policies are to be formulated by people other than the participants in the process themselves.
The real question here is in what institutions power resides, and what institutions are conditioning the power of other institutions. In this question, spokespersons of the “participatory Left” tend to advocate a system of government where the power residing directly with people is not very much more than executing the orders elected politicians, and hopefully being able to correct them if needed. Compared to a Liberal like Robert Dahl, they differ only in the details. His vision of a democratic society reduces the direct influence of ordinary citizens to simple city-planning and budgeting alongside voting in the parliamentary elections. “The democratic idea is too grand to be trivialized by restricting itself to only one form of authority,” writes Dahl in After the Revolution.(21) But what he, Vera-Zavala and Wainwright have in common is a hard time in seeing how one form of authority undermines another.

The State is Different from the Municipality
The ideals of Communalism, however, go further. We want a new society where we as citizens together hold real and tangible power, and have a decisive impact on the future of its development – where political authority resides in directly democratic institutions. If we are to convince ordinary people of our ideas we have to show how they are applicable in practice, and provide strategies for how we want to achieve another society. There are people seeing the de-radicalization of the municipal administrations of PT as just another version of the same old story: That attempts at entering and reforming government – government of any kind – only leads to the co-optation of social movements and a steady reconciliation with capitalism. Even though this can be said of movements running candidates for parliamentary elections at a state level, this does not necessarily hold true for entering municipal institutions.
The “participatory Left” does not make this distinction.(22) It is quite interesting that both Wainwright and Vera-Zavala justify their views in opposition to the statist ideals of Social Democracy, and that they both seems to think that new Socialist parties based on “participatory democracy” would avoid being absorbed by the dominant social order like the old European workers parties. Wainwright describes the problem of Social Democracy in the following manner:
The presumption behind conventional social democratic thinking was that the state under the control of the party was the prime agency of social change, the engineer of social justice. Moreover, the predominant conception was of the state as an agency for change operating on society, effectively from above, like an engineer fixes a machine. The role of the labour movement, the mass supporters, was to get the social engineers into place so that they could deploy the instruments of state. Implementation of policy was seen as a technical matter, best left to the experts.(23)

Although a usefully descriptive critique, her approach is deeply problematical. She reduces the disintegration of Social Democracy to an ideological question, and argues as if social-democratic parties already had a well-developed bureaucratic ideology at hand before they gained state power. But Wainwright seems to be reading history from the end to the beginning, instead of the other way around. As has been emphasized by Robert Michels and others, social-democratic parties started out with an ideal of creating a participatory social system in which ordinary working people were the main agents. As these movements gained more state-power, ideas of social engineering increasingly gained prominence within the parties and their internal party structures became increasingly hierarchical. Once in power, Social Democrats embraced ideas that were suited for their need of managing the state and to create “socialism from above.”
This story is not unique to Social Democracy, but can also been found in the trajectories of the “alternative parties” of the 1970’s and 1980’s such as Die Grünen in Germany or Sosialistisk Venstreparti in Norway. The reason for this is not ideological, but rather institutional. First, entering the state makes it necessary to participate in an almost permanent electoral race, where a highly professional leadership is continually asked to state the view of the party on issues put forth in the press on a day-to-day basis. The need for such a flexible leadership undermines internal party democracy. Second, and most importantly, by entering the state one enters a highly bureaucratic and professionalized apparatus that – whether controlled by “socialists” or not – is founded on the basic principle of managing the population. Such a top-down apparatus can never be democratized in any meaningful sense of the word. The state is based on taking over tasks that formerly used to be taken care of in the civic sphere or by the family (and even in some instances in the market-place), however incompletely, and putting them in the hands of a professional bureaucracy. These state agencies are, in turn, supposed to be subject to the authority of a national assembly established by a popular vote – a structure that must consist of professional decision-makers, if they are to be able to manage the administrative apparatus.
Communalism draws a line between statecraft and politics, and is consequently much better equipped to understand the difference between entering the state and the municipality. Politics, writes Janet Biehl, “means the activity of citizens in a public body, empowered in shared, indeed participatory institutions,” whereas statecraft is a system of elites and masses that “presupposes the general abdication of citizen power. It reduces citizens to ‘taxpayers’ and ‘voters’ and ‘constituents,’ as if they were too juvenile or too incompetent to manage public affairs themselves. They are expected to function merely passively and let elites look out for their best interests.”(24) To get the full picture we have to add that statecraft does not exclude popular participation per se, only popular power. Inhabitants in a city might be directly involved in effecting, and even administrating, state policies on a community level. However, as the international implementations of participatory budgeting all too clearly show, “participation” might be used to increase the “governability” of elites.
For Communalism entering the municipality is fundamentally different from entering the State. In the words of Janet Biehl, ”the most important common feature [of municipalities] is that they are all potentially sites of a nascent political realm where the tradition of direct democracy […] may be reviewed and expanded.”(25) The local community has always been a locus of a public sphere, where people have met as citizens in order to deliberate on the issues that are most pressing for their societies. This holds true in most parts of the world, as well as in Scandinavia where rural “municipalities” were established under the name of the Ting in order to solve conflicts in between tribal societies, and city affairs were governed by public assemblies called Mót. Communalism asserts that it is possible to transform municipal administration under the supervision of direct democratic institutions and elected, mandated delegates, by de-bureaucratizing it and replacing it with empowering social institutions and organizations. The most promising elements of participatory budgeting do point in this direction. One of the principal arguments of any opponent of direct democracy, the “participatory Left” notwithstanding, is how decisions would be taken on a city-wide or even regional and international level. The answer to this lies partly in participatory budgeting itself, namely that a confederal system of assemblies of recallable and mandated delegates that can work pretty much as delegate forums in Porto Alegre or Recife do.
The Anarchist argument against engaging with the municipality is that this is equal to engage with the State. But Communalism is not as myopic as Anarchism and is able to discern social arrangements from one another. It rightly draws the line – unlike the anarchists – between a government and a state. As Murray Bookchin writes, every society needs a type of government, but it does not necessarily have to be a state: “While the state is the instrument by which an oppressive and exploitative class regulates and coercively controls the behavior of an exploited class by a ruling class, a government – or better still, a polity – is an ensemble of institutions designed to deal with the problems of consociational life in an orderly and hopefully fair manner. Every institutionalized association that constitutes a system for handling public affairs – with or without the presence of a state – is necessarily a government. By contrast, every state, although necessarily a form of government, is a force for class repression and control.”(26) The fear of “taking power” that lies behind so much of the reflexive reactions against participatory budgeting because it is assumed to be taking State power, normally leads to a flight away from “society” into smaller social centers, squats, eco-villages and the like. But by trying to create small communities on the fringe of today’s societies, one has no chance of being a threat to the existing power-structures and tends to leave them alone. The puritan insurrectionism that mark so many of these anarchist circles not only underestimates the need for building an alternative power-structure, but also the need to show people how alternative and democratic ways of governing society are possible.

The Expansion of Municipal Democracy
As shown earlier in this article, the paradoxes of participatory budgeting stem from its position in a conflicting sphere of different forms, of new and old. On the one hand a new set of political institutions based on direct citizen-participation, and on the other an administrative extension of the management of the people by the State. We have to enter this troublesome arena of contesting forces of politics and statecraft, but we have to do so in a conscious way. Unlike the “participatory Left” we do not believe that direct democratic and representative institutions can complement each other, as they eat heavily into the power of the other. Nor do we believe that we can use the state as an instrument to facilitate participatory democracy. We enter the municipality because we believe it is there that a democracy in the original meaning of the word – the people governing – can be established.
In cases where participatory forms of local government already exist we have to enter them, and where they still do not exist we have to enter the municipal politics in order to create them. Our goal is to continuously expand the scale and outreach of direct democracy in these participatory aspects of municipal government. If we in the first instance only manage to achieve popular assemblies with an advisory role in the budgetary process, we continue to work to give these popular assemblies decision-making powers over the budget itself. We thereby proceed by demanding that taxation, and other means of financing public spending, be put under direct citizens control, as well as extending the outreach of the assemblies to encompass other areas like planning, health, education and more.
But in seeking this we find ourselves in a minority. The forces that advocate a form of mixed democracy, like Dahl and the “participatory Left” – or even think that today’s society is democratic enough – are in a great majority. We have to be acutely aware that the social situation in which we operate is not one of our own choosing, and act accordingly. We should not eschew making alliances with other groups, like those from the “participatory Left,” who are working for a more direct form of democracy. One example of such an alliance was the campaign for participatory budgeting in Oslo, Norway where the Communalist organization Democratic Alternative was one of the principal organizers. Initiated by a citizen-alliance consisting of non-party political groups and community-organizations in 2004, the campaign advanced a citizen-petition(27) to the city council arguing that the municipality of the capital should launch a trial of participatory budgeting in a minimum of one of its sixteen districts. Although losing, only gaining the support of a minority of the elected politicians in city hall, it managed to set municipal democracy on the agenda again. As we work to radicalize our demands and the participatory institutions in local government, these alliances will probably fall and new ones will be forged. We have to expect that many of people talking of participatory democracy today – not excluding the “participatory Left” – will reveal their real faces, and fall off as we demand the expansion participatory government.
Sure enough, even this road has pitfalls of reformism. Most importantly, because forms of direct democracy can to a certain extent co-exist with statist forms of government, and as participatory budgeting all too clearly shows, some degree of “popular power” can be granted in today’s society. There are no guarantees that this strategy will succeed, but there are a few things we can do to work for its realization. First of all, we have to ensure that we have an organization with clear principles that states where we want to go. This organization would have to control the members that make alliances or enter municipal government through local elections, by establishing mechanisms of permanent scrutiny and the possibility of recall. It is the organization that should decide when its members or local groups should withdraw from a certain campaign, and judge whether its delegates have expressed the right opinions and vote in the best possible way in a city council. A great threat is that our movement could become completely entangled in the day-to-day realities of local government, or that it becomes satisfied with its own achievements and does not want to strive further. I cannot see any other way than to maintain our revolutionary vision of a Communalist society, and the knowledge that in order to achieve this we have to divest the State and capitalist institutions of their power.
This strategy might seem reminiscent of André Gorz’ idea of “non-reformist reforms,” or “gains in the way people live, in laws, in structures, in consciousness, in our own organization, which improve peoples lives but also create a new platform from which to fight for still further improvements.”(28) But our strategy must be far more sophisticated than this. Whereas Gorz’ strategy does not distinguish between gains that might enforce structures of government that we in reality fight and gains that might create a platform for achieving ever more rights and freedoms, communalists want to develop programs to ensure that our demands today correspond with our ends for the future. As Eirik Eiglad explains “our maximum demands require fundamental social change to be actualized, our minimum demands can be achieved within the existing society – in fact, immediately – and it is essentially the task of the transitional demands to provide the programmatic link between what is possible today with what is desirable for tomorrow. They are meant to illustrate the transition from today’s realities to our ultimate social visions, and comes to life through a programmatic commitment in political practice.”(29) Achieving a democratic form of government based on popular assemblies and mandated delegation is part of our maximum program. The initiation of participatory budgeting could be part of our minimum demand, and expanding the participatory system by steadfastly empowering the popular assemblies and their delegates would be part of our transitional demands. Needless to say, this program would have to include a host of other demands that express the richness of our vision. In addition, many other areas of present day society will have to be changed before our political, economic, social and cultural goals are to be actualized.
If we are to realize our vision, it is not enough to propagate our dreams. We must convince people of the practicality of our ideals; how to fight for concrete social changes today, and how to set up a new skeleton of democratic institutions for tomorrow. Participatory budgeting is thus an example to be inspired by, and learn from, but not to automatically import to our societies. Former Mayor of Porto Alegre, Raul Pont, was right when he said “that the [participatory budget] cannot be automatically copied: only the method can be emulated. How to act in order to set it up elsewhere depends on the degree of political experience and knowledge of its peculiarities that each reality possesses. Every municipality has its own story and its own tradition.”(30) But this is only half the argument, the Brazilian methods should not even be emulated in their totality. Participatory budgeting, after all, both shows how a process of democratization of municipalities can be initiated, and how it can be aborted. We should develop our own examples of municipal government to convince people that a direct democratic polity is realistic, fight for concrete changes in our own municipalities in a programmatic fashion, and finally set up a new skeleton of democratic institutions by confederating these emerging examples.
Some say that we are too small to be able to do anything else than dream of another world, but in fact we are too small to be hoping that our dreaming by itself will have an impact on broad segments of the people. We cannot afford to discard the idea of entering into alliances with movements who are less radical than ourselves, or the idea of entering city-councils to democratize municipal institutions. But this rests on our capability to create an organization that can work to expand such experiments in direct democracy and popular participation into a powerful and truly political movement. The promise of participatory budgeting is that it envisages a future where the administration does what the people decide, our task is to ensure that this becomes a living reality in our societies.

1. The international movement Attac, for example, is with its focus on introducing taxes on currency-speculation accepting the logic of current financial markets.
2. Ignacio Ramonet, “ The promise of Porto Alegre,” Le Monde Diplomatique, France, January 2001.
3. Hilary Wainwright, ”People Power,” The Guardian, 18.07.2003.
4. For two excellent expositions of Communalism, see “The Communalist Project” (Communalism: International Journal for a Rational Society # 2, November 2002) by Murray Bookchin, the originator of Communalism as a political philosophy , and “Communalism as Alternative” (Communalism: International Journal for a Rational Society # 1, October 2002), the editorial statement of the journal Communalism, drafted by Eirik Eiglad.
5. Official information from the Municipality of Recife (
6. Marion Gret and Yves Sintomer, The Porto Alegre Experiment – Learning Lessons for Better Democracy (New York: Zed Books, 2005), pp. 64 –65.
7. According to Gret and Sintomer, “local taxes went from 85 million reis (about half the sum in US dollars) in 1988, to 163 million reis in 1991, before climbing to 246 million reis in 1999.” Gret and Sintomer, The Porto Alegre Experiment, p. 54.
8. Rebecca Abers, Inventing Local Democracy: Grassroots Politics in Brazil (London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2000), p. 121.
9. Gianpaolo Baiocchi, Militants and Citizens: The Politics of Participatory Democracy in Porto Alegre (California: Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 3.
10. Although this figure should be met with some degree of commonsensical skepticism, there is no reason to doubt that the participatory budget has extended effects in fostering increased activity at a neighborhood level. Luiz Arnaldo Campos, “On the City-Congress in Belem do Para, Brazil,” lecture at the International Conference on Participatory Democracy in Stockholm, October 9 –10, 2004.
11. Abers, Inventing Local Democracy, p. 491.
12. Gret and Sintomer, The Porto Alegre Experiment, p. 22.
13. Abers, Inventing Local Democracy, p. 88.
14. Boaventura de Sousa Santos, “Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre: Toward a Redistributive Democracy,” in Politics and Society, Vol. 26, No. 4, December 1998, p. 487.
15. The World Bank Group, online course on “Accountability and Transparency in Municipal Governments” (, accessed 07/10/06).
16. Carsten Herzberg, “Participatory Budgets in Germany and Europe: A Report on the Process and Results,” presentation for the Norwegian Commission on Local Democracy, 11.01.06, Centre March Bloch, Berlin (E-mail:
17. Abers, Inventing Local Democracy, pp. 50-51.
18. America Vera-Zavala, Deltagande demokrati (Stockholm: Agora, 2003), p. 34 (my translation from Swedish).
19. Platform of The Mayorship of Porto Alegre, 1988, cited in Abers, Inventing Local Democracy, p. 67 (emphasis added).
20. Hillary Wainwright, Reclaim the State : Experiments in Popular Democracy (London: Verso 2003) p. 186.
21. Robert Dahl, After the Revolution: Authority in a Good Society (New Haven: Yale University Press 1990), p. 52.
22. The title of Wainwrights book, Reclaim the State, is telling. What is there really to reclaim, when the State was never possessed by the people in the first place?
23. Wainwright, Reclaim the State, p. 11.
24. Janet Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism (Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1998), pp. 4 –5.
25. Biehl, The Politics of Social Ecology, p. 54.
26. Bookchin, “The Communalist Project.”
27. According to the Norwegian Municipal Act, an inhabitant of a given municipality may launch a “citizens-intiative” by collecting a certain amount of signatures for a proposal to city-council. The city-council has to debate and vote on the proposal within a year.
28. Michael Albert, “Looking Back, Moving Forward,” on Zmag ( The reason I use a quote from Michael Albert and not André Gorz is merely to show that Gorz’ ideas are still around in the radical movement today. Noam Chomsky’s concept of “expanding the cage,” it should be noted, does not differ very much from the Gorzian concept of “non-reformist reforms.”
29. Eirik Eiglad, “Libertarian Municipalism and the Radical Program,” in Communalism: International Journal for a Rational Society #7 (October 2005).
30. Interview with Raul Pont, former mayor of Porto Alegre, “Informality as a culture of dialogue: Three Mayors of Porto Alegre face-to-face,” unpublished manuscript, by Giovanni Allegretti (E-mail:

London Calling!- Report on a whole day of talks and discussions in London
May 27, 2007, 11:13 pm
Filed under: Articles and reviews

The first organized event on social ecology in London for more than ten years, was a big success. “An Ecology of Freedom – Creating Democratic Alternatives” was a day of talks and discussions exploring the relevance of social ecology. It happened on Saturday the 17th of March and was organized by the one year old London study and action group Social Ecology London.

The group Social Ecology London had invited mainly people from London but also people from other parts of Britain and persons from their sister organisation Democratic Alternative to participate in workshops and talks addressing local democratic organising, dismantling hierarchies, what a post-capitalist society would look like and building for change in the here and now.
The one day event was successful, with a turnout of about 35 people throughout the day. As well as friends, family, and interested individuals, participants included people from A World to Win, Alliance for Green Socialism, Rainbow Family and a new reading group starting in Cardiff. It was a diverse range of people in age, background, and level of prior knowledge about Social Ecology which gave the discussions a good scope and liveliness .
The organizers felt that there was a great deal of interest and generous input from the participants and the participants expressed their gratefulness for the opportunity to meet and develop their thoughts on ways to see and aim for societal change. The discussions were productive and stimulating intellectually and also provided valuable insight into the approaches taken by different groups (such as those above) and philosophies and their relation to Social Ecology.
The first set of workshops was divided between a talk on Communalism and Confederation by Sveinung Legard from Democratic Alternative, Oslo, and a very interactive discussion on hierarchy and domination led by Social Ecology London members.
The second workshop session contained a more in-depth look at Social Ecology – particularly it’s ethical and philosophical foundations – by Eirik Eiglad (also of Democratic Alternative) and a talk and discussion on building a movement for change or, “how to get from here to there”, led by Social Ecology London members. The latter also included a short account of Democratic Alternative’s experiences by Sveinung.
At the end, though the programme was running a little late, there was time set aside for participant-suggested workshops. It resulted in a division into 4 small groups which discussed economics and Social Ecology more widely. One focused particularly on the compatibility of Michael Albert’s Participatory Economics and Social Ecology while another examined anarcho-syndicalism and workplace organizing in relation to the programs of Social Ecology.

The day got good feed back, with many comments on a good and inspiring atmosphere throughout the day. After the event many joined up to go to the park to continue the good spirit of the day and then continued to the pub. Many new connections were made that day.

The group Social Ecology London is now one year old, started in April 2006. At the beginning it was a study group consisting of three people and has since then steadily grown into a study and action group of 7 active people before the event. At the present, one month after, they are 10 active people and more people who attended the seminar have expressed their interest. The group meets once a week, discusses a text, plan their activities and have a good time together. The plans of the group are now, inspired from Democratic Alternative, to develop basic principles as a good foundation to stand on when they organize activities about local democracy. As a result of the positive experience of the seminar we are considering regularly organizing talks and discussions on different, more specific subjects, once every second month to continue the open discussion and inflow of people.

The group Social Ecology London got a lot of motivation and inspiration from the day, new people coming along, contact with Democratic Alternative, other similar groups and with the new group in Cardiff that they wish to support.

The organized activities of Social Ecology are back in London to stay and prosper, working towards an Ecology of Freedom and Creating Democratic Alternatives.

Malin Widehammar, member of Social Ecology London and Democratic Alternative and Sharlyn Grace, member of Social Ecology London

* Social ecology, n: a politics and philosophy placing the roots of
ecological problems in unequal social relations; an attack on
hierarchy and domination; a search for a new society based on local
face-to-face democratic self-management.

Social Ecology: Basic Principles, Future Prospects
May 26, 2007, 12:03 pm
Filed under: Articles and reviews

An interview with Murray Bookchin by Richard Evanoff, originally published in the Japan Environmental Monitor, 1996

In this interview from 1994 Bookchin presents a summary of his ideas on social ecology and libertarian municipalism. Although intended for a Japanese audience it is one of the best general introductions to his thought

Part 1

Evanoff: For people in Japan who might not be so familiar with the concept of social ecology, could you talk about what social ecology is and what some of its basic principles are?

Bookchin: Social ecology is an attempt to get to the roots, both historically and currently, of the ecological problems we face today – problems of such immense dimensions that the very survival of our species is really in question.

It was very easy to try to deal with this monumental issue by simply talking about living in “friendly” way with the natural world, living ecologically by recycling, saving energy, dealing with toxic wastes, trying to diminish the use of harmful chemicals, and the like. On this score, in fact I have been very deeply involved as far back as 1951 when I completed an article (published in 1952) called “The Problems of Chemicals in Food” in Contemporary Issues , an Anglo-American periodical published by an international group with which I worked for a large number of years. So I do not challenge the need to conserve, to prevent the building of nuclear reactors, the building of roads, the destruction of soil, the use of chemicals, and the like – these common, important issues that have to be faced every day, if only to keep our anti-ecological society from simply racing off the precipice and landing us and coming generations in a hopelessly irrevocable crisis.

But in dealing with these problems I personally found that I had to go deeper than just lifestyles, an ecological sensibility, and, if you like, a spiritual attitude that was “nature-friendly”, depending on what is meant by the word nature. Today it’s become a commonplace to advocate these step-by-step immediate remedies – which are not remedies but just attempts to hold back a headlong drive to who knows what type of abyss lying before us. I felt I had to look behind these very important attempts, attempts which I designate as “environmentalism”, and examine what were the causes that have produced the ecological crisis. I don’t believe, speaking from my own life experience, that it comes from mere consumerism. I’m a man of the twentieth century. I was born in 1921 and lived in a major city, New York, for a very large portion of my life, through the entire pre-war/World War Two period, and for the large part of the post-World War Two period. And I know that people are not simply born consumers and that they are filled with stupid, often meaningless wants that have to be satisfied by industry, which industry claims it is trying to do. I find, in looking deeper into what seem to be the causes of the present environmental crisis – and certainly the more formidable one that will be emerging over the years – that I have to examine the social causes that have produced this crisis and that are magnifying it continually.

It’s very noble to want to protect wilderness – a word, by the way, that I believe has to be defined. It’s very noble to try to foster a species’ diversity and prevent the destruction of many life-forms that are so beautiful and so, in fact, necessary for ecological stability and ecological development. But what about the social forces that produce a mentality that advocates dominating nature? That is what intrigues me. Because that is today, or was until recently, the prevalent mentality. So far as modern society is concerned, particularly the economy, the notions that we have to grow and grow and grow and structured into the very nature of modern social thinking, particularly in the profit-oriented business world, where the maxim “grow or die” – I use a very common quotation – is regarded as a law of life.

Where did this mentality come from? Where did this ideology come from? What are the social causes that have generated a “grow or die” mentality, that is turning forests into paper, that is turning soil into sand, that is turning the atmosphere and the oceans into a cesspool of toxic wastes that will be with us, in the case of nuclear materials, for tens of thousands of years, poisoning all life forms, including our own, to one degree or another?

So social ecology is an attempt to look deeper into, look fundamentally into, the basic social factors that have generated the present-day ecological crisis and that have created an ideology of dominating nature fuelled by an economy that is definable by, and determined by, its capacity to grow. And in doing so, it is an attempt to search for the forces historically and more contemporaneously that have given rise to this outlook and this practice – which is even more important in a sense than the outlook. I began to work on ecological issues from a different standpoint that one customarily encounters. I wasn’t simply interested in how to live in an environmentally friendly way; I was interested in looking for the causes of and alternatives to the social conditions that have produced and are magnifying the present ecological crisis. Even more fundamentally social ecology is an attempt to understand how the ideology of dominating the natural world stems from the very real domination of human by human. I believe that the ideology of dominating nature did not spring like Minerva from the head of Jove so to speak. Something was going on historically, to some extent for thousands of years and almost certainly within the past four or five centuries, in human relationships and the way in which human beings deal with other human beings, which produced the idea that nature is an object to be dominated. So that approach guided me in developing the ideas of social ecology. These ideas have been presented in a large number of books, of which I can only hope in this discussion to give the briefest possible summary.

Evanoff: What are some of the basic ideas of social ecology?

Bookchin: I would say that going back thousands of years a situation began to emerge, possibly in very early tribal life, where we began to see systems of domination emerging. Initially perhaps these systems of domination were not very striking. For example, I have mentioned the view that one of the earliest forms of domination in a basically egalitarian society, say at the level of bands and the early formation of tribes, was primarily the needs for elders, who always have been situated in a very precarious way due to their failing physical powers and the face that that they are often incapable of providing for their own subsistence, to gain a certain degree of status – hierarchical status – which privileged them amongst the rest of the population. You see this today, most certainly in Japan and elsewhere in the world, in the form of ancestor worship and in the form of an enormous degree of respect toward the elders. One could understand that there was an emerging hierarchy, which oddly enough was rather democratic in the sense that if you grew or lived long enough you would become old enough to become part of that hierarchy.

By degrees, however, one begins to see how the domestic world of women, which was basic to early societies – the nurturing of children, caring for crops, maintaining a household – tasks which primarily fell to women in the early division of labor before cities appeared – would place a great deal of political and social weight to women. I’m not saying that there were matriarchies, the so-called “rule” of women over men. I would say that there existed a complementary relationship between the men who did the hunting and who protected the community – a very important role in a parochialized band and tribal world – and the female world of child caring, food preparation, and food gathering. Women were the ones who mainly gathered the vegetable matter needed by the community, which generally 80 per cent of the biomass of what people ate.

But by degrees, as population began to increase, as conflicts began to occur between these highly parochialized tribal groups, you began to see a civil society emerging, notably a society in which men – initially hunters, but turning more and more into warriors – began to acquire a greater and greater role in the community. And so increasingly the male world of hunting, making treaties, engaging in what at that time would be a form of simple politics, began to edge out and increasingly supplant in significance the role of women – which is not to deny that the role of women was immensely important; it formed the substrate at all times until modern agriculture, plow agriculture, appeared and cattle were used as draft animals as well as sources of food. Men began to take over. And added to the gerontocracy – the rule of the elders which at least privileged them and finally gave them more and more authority – you begin to witness the emergence of a patricentric world oriented toward men, which then began to give rise increasingly, with the development of economic life and the elaboration of culture, particularly of civil society, to male domination, often quite mild, but still as domination over women.

In some cases, where there were pastoral communities, such as existed among Semitic peoples in the Arabian desert or among people in the steppes of central Asia such as the Mongols, even among Nordic peoples in the Northern parts of Europe, as well as Asia, one begins to witness patriarchies – outright patriarchies – in which not only women, but also young men, were subservient to their fathers. As late as classical times a Greek or Roman patriarch still had to right to kill his own son if the son was disobedient. In fact, one of the major functions of the state was to deprive the patriarch of that privilege because it needed the young men as soldiers, bureaucrats, and so forth and wanted to remove them from the disposition of their fathers. Patriarchy, in other words, seems to combine at once a system of domination of the elder male, often side by side with the elder female, such as one finds in the Judeo-Christian religion, as, for example, in the case of Abraham and Sarah. She has as much to say as he does – but it is a patriarchy nonetheless.

Gradually, with the emergence of warriors, you begin to see the chieftains and so on, and finally you have a whole scale of domination. Now this domination of human by human begins to give rise very slowly to the idea of dominating the natural world. Just as human beings are being increasingly reduced to subjects, and ultimately to objects in the case of slavery or serfdom, so the natural world is reduced to objects to be used and to be exploited. I use the word “exploitation” in a very qualified way because I don’t think what we call “nature” knows that it is being exploited or dominated. But these human attitudes are projected outward to the nonhuman world. In fact, it remains ironical that to the extent that the natural world is seen in a highly animistic way, the more social forms of domination become feasible. We begin to treat outer nonhuman phenomena “as though” they are human, such as in Disney cartoons. That’s the flip side of the idea that we are disenchanting the natural world.

With the emergence of modern capitalism, all of these relationships are exacerbated to a breaking point. Whatever you can say about the past, there at least existed the ideal, whether it was Buddhist, Taoist, Christian, Jewish – it makes no difference what religion you’re talking about – that people should live cooperatively. It’s with modern capitalism that the ideal of cooperation is replaced with the ideal of competition. Each individual is urged to go out into the world on his or her own and to make his or her own fortune at the expense of everyone else. This leads to unrestricted transgressions of what could basically be called ecological tenets for development.

Society now begins to run riot, as we can see. No matter how well-intentioned anyone may be – be it a corporation or an individual, a property owner or a wealthy person – in trying to facilitate our relationship with the natural world and trying to behave in an ecologically sound way, the capitalist market drives corporations and entrepreneurs like an engine. It is not they who exercise any control over this engine. It is the system as such – the imperative to grow or die, compete or be destroyed, expand or be devoured – that ultimately governs everyone’s behaviour. Thus, to emphasize consumption as such, as though it were autonomous, and to contend that people autonomously devoured the earth because they want more of this or more of that – whatever the commodities may be is grossly misleading. That such a mentality can exist does not explain how it came to be and how to remove it.

Evanoff: You’ve talked about social ecology as a critique of past and existing social relations, but I think within social ecology there is also a strong emphasis on imaginative thinking about the future. I’d like to hear a little about the positive vision of social ecology.

Bookchin: If we can demolish hierarchy, if we can create an atmosphere in which we live in a friendly way with what we call the natural world – I’m using the language that seems to be coming into vogue these days: in an “environmentally friendly way” with the natural world – then we can conceive of a society where it would be possible to take all our enormous knowledge of science and our enormous knowledge of technology and bring it to the service not only of meeting our own needs but in fact in creating, and improving upon, the natural world itself. We can begin to develop techniques that do minimal, if any, damage to the environment. We can in fact develop sciences and technologies that will improve the natural world, for example in fostering biological diversity.

Where ordinarily we might have very inhospitable areas for life, the soil can be enriched within a few years – a process that would take ten or twenty thousand years to achieve under natural conditions. We can prevent, or at least mitigate, the impact of natural catastrophes that have been visited upon the natural world by what we broadly call “nature” itself. We can create a cooperative society, living on the land and sharing it with other life forms, in such a way that we not only improve the human condition and sensitize people to the natural world, but also deal with problems that our whole biosphere confronts, such as the situations that arise from earthquakes, volcanic activity, storms, and the like, fostering life in places which even “nature” would render life impossible. Finally, we can create a society, non-hierarchical and nonclass in character, in which we, living in cooperation with each other and creating entirely new institutional forms of direct democracy, would produce a garden in the best sense of the word, necessary both of our own well-being and for other life forms.

Evanoff: How would you distinguish social ecology from some of the other forms of environmentalism that have come up in the last two decades or so?

Bookchin: The kind of “Al Gore” environmentalism that I encounter generally – the good-natured benign idea of living within the limits of the planet – is certainly to be welcomed as long as we recognise that these limits are not set by an abstract law or by murky, well-intentioned attitudes. Limits to growth can hardly be determined in advance by a system whose very nature, notably capitalism, is structured around growth. Capitalism is defined as a growth society. It is defined as a competitive society. You might as well ask an elephant to fly or a whale to talk. It’s absurd. Such intentions may be well-meaning but they don’t go to the roots of the problem, which is the reason why environmentalism generally today takes the form of cost-benefit analyses. Environmentalists negotiate with lumber companies, mining companies, and developers, not on whether or not there should be lumbering, mining or development as such, but merely how much.

Usually this negotiation involves the surrender of pristine areas, or fertile areas, or what are euphemistically called “natural resources” in which the environmentalist gets one-tenth and the developer/miner/lumberer gets the other nine-tenths. We keep whittling down the amount that we get all the time when we function merely as environmentalists.

In other words, we’re always being placed in the position where we, if we are environmentalists, have to work on the terms and according to the rules of those who are degrading the environment. They set up the rules and then afterward we who are trying to negotiate with them really adopt the rules. We offer no basic challenge to the rules themselves, to the whole system itself, or any basic alternative to them.

Thus, should we leave it up to General Dynamics in the United States or Mitsubishi in Japan to give us solar energy? Are we naïve enough to suppose that these giant multinational corporations are going to give us anything that would be unprofitable to them – in fact, that they must do that if they want to stay in existence? If it isn’t General Dynamics or Mitsubishi then it will be another corporation, be it in the US, in Japan, or elsewhere, that will supplant them if they happen to be too generous. Capitalists can’t afford, under capitalism, under a market economy based on bitter competition, and guided by the rule “grow or die”, to be generous – assuming they even care. It isn’t a question of what the personal attitude of an entrepreneur or the leading members of a corporation may be; they are forced no less than we are forced to grow or die. Thus we are told, if there is no growth we will not have jobs. Well, one should welcome the possibility of not having jobs if we lived in an economy that was guided by “from each according to his or her ability, and to each according to his or her needs.” The fewer jobs there are, the more free time we would have in such a society. And the more free time we have, the more we can cultivate ourselves as individuals. The more we can cultivate ourselves as individuals, the more democratic our society hopefully will become, the richer it will become culturally, and the more ecologically sensitive it will become.

So notice the trap in which we’re placed. We are told that we must have jobs. If we must have jobs we have must economic growth. Now why are the two co-related except for the fact that we live in a world based on private property, organized around corporations, which in turn have to grow or die? At that point, by playing according to these insane rules, we are always going to be the losers, because there can’t be enough growth to supply enough jobs to supply enough means of life within the framework of this kind of setup.

And environmentalists generally miss the point. They think that if they personally don’t throw any trash on the ground or recycle everything they get, they, like devout Christians in the Middle Ages, will create a new Eden. Well, we’ve had 2,000 years of this message – this spiritual message, this self-help message, this plea for doing the good thing – by the Catholic Church throughout medieval Europe and into early modern times with absolutely no real consequences for human progress. That there has been progress in civilization is something I do not deny. In fact, I would affirm this against most anti-social people nowadays who claim that humanity is a cancer on this planet.

Which brings me to the so-called deep ecologists, who tell us that we have to change our outlook. Good – but if everyone changed his or her outlook today, and went no further than doing that, there be a tremendous economic crisis. Given the kind of economy we have today, people are obliged to consume if the wheels of industry are to keep turning. And before long, former deep ecologists would be banging on the doors of banks and corporations looking for jobs and the wherewithal by which to live. If we all decided as the result of a miraculous sweep of an angelic wand to stop buying, except what we strictly need, does anyone in his or her right mind believe that this would transform the global corporations that exist today, that they would somehow say, “Here, take over the society. We want to dispossess ourselves of our wealth, our means of life, and our resources that belong to you.” I would say such a viewpoint is incredibly naïve.

What we have to do then is to form social movements, and more precisely political movements, that directly challenge the market society, the competitive imperatives that guide it, and the grow-or-die consequences that flow from it and that give rise to the ecological crisis we face today. I’m not going to go back again to the Middle Ages and the spirituality involved there, in which converting people one by one is supposed to produce an Edenic world. I’m very blunt in saying that well-meaning as many of these people may be – either environmentalists or deep ecologists (and I’m not saying we shouldn’t do anything in the meantime to try and stop as much damage as we can) – we must ultimately create a social ecology movement that directly confronts the sources of hierarchy, the ideologies of domination, systems of private property, class rule, competition, and the like which have given rise to the present ecological crisis. And in turn we must offer an alternative – politically, socially, economically and technologically – to the existing society.

That’s why I call the ecology I adhere to “social” ecology. It would be very cheap and easy for me to call it “spiritual” ecology. But I’m saying that a good deal of the so-called spiritual that abounds everywhere has yielded futile results and has, in a sense, become more of an introverted, privatistic indifference to the suffering of those who can’t afford to hold such lofty attitudes, such as people in the South, people in the so-called “Third World”. I’m particularly irritated by the extent to which many so-called environmentalists or deep ecologists are indifferent to the human condition, as though human beings were less victims of the existing social order and its values, than, let us say, bald eagles, dolphins, whales, seals, wolves and the like. Indeed much of what today passes for deep ecology and to a great extend even environmentalism is merely conservation. This conservation movement has existed for over a hundred years in the United States, and it has yielded very limited results indeed.

Part 2

Evanoff: On the one hand, there are people who would say that the only way to improve our quality of life is by more economic growth. On the other hand, there are those who would say that since economic growth is not ecologically sustainable we need to go back to some kind of primitive lifestyle. But social ecology seems to offer a third alternative. Could you elaborate on what kind of alternative that is?

Bookchin: First, I’m realistic enough to realize that since mere persuasion will not induce multinationals to surrender their strangling control over what we call “natural resources”, growth rates, and the lifeways that exist today, I would call for the organization of a movement to oppose them. And I don’t mean a movement that consists of a lot of well-meaning people holding rallies and demonstrations, putting signs on their cars protesting against this or that. I would call for a political movement that tries to empower people at a grass roots level. We have tried political parties in the past, only to find that they almost invariably become corrupt. They are structured, as Robert Nichols once wrote, to turn into bureaucracies that become ends in themselves. Moreover, they work within the existing social order – or the “political” order, to use the word political in a conventional sense. They go into parliaments working within the framework of what parliamentary activity allows, notably negotiation within the existing social system, as in the case of the German Greens. The Green Party in Germany has turned into servants of the existing social order, providing that order with a patina of being Green, so that “Green” in Germany – even France and elsewhere – today often means little more than beautification of city streets, preservation of certain recreation areas that go under the name of “wilderness”, using automobiles that are less polluting, and doing what one can without inhibiting industrial growth.

What I’m speaking of, therefore, is a movement that tries to do what I would call a genuine new politics, operating on the neighbourhood, municipal, town level, in which people try, not only through education but political activity, to create, even in the largest cities, neighbourhood assemblies based around compact, or at least definable, groups of individuals who can meet and discuss and then, if possible – and I believe it is possible give enough time – elect city councils in which the people in these various neighbourhoods will make the decisions and the deputies of these people in the city councils will try to execute these decisions.

This involves creating a tension, frankly, between the local level – more precisely the municipal level – and the nation-state. Needless to say, the nation-state will say that everything you’re doing is illegal. So what you do may take on an extralegal form, say by building up counter-institutions, not just a counterculture, to the highly concentrated power of the nation-state. Now, if you did that in only one community, it would obviously be inadequate. So I would like to introduce again a very old, a very traditional, and in my opinion a potentially democratic form of association between communities, namely “confederalism”. Instead of speaking in terms of a centralized state in which people surrender their power to a representative who meets in parliament and who functions as an executive or judge, people would elect deputies to confederal councils, whose main goal is to negotiate all the different views that exist in different municipalities, given a certain region, and bring back to the assemblies a shared proposal or anything that involves an approximation to a shared proposal to the assemblies. Then, by a majority vote the region would decide what positions to take on specific issues.

Today the nation-state penetrates almost every aspect of life. It penetrates provinces in Canada, states in the US, and prefectures in Japan. It’s also a presence through funding and taxes in the life of municipalities. I’m only too cognizant of the fact that it would do everything it can to prevent such a development, a confederal development, from taking place in Japan, as it would in the United States. But let’s start out with the idea that such an attempt begins first as a moral movement. Such an effort would try to organize these assemblies, which as yet did not have legal power, and these assemblies would send deputies to municipal councils, who as yet cannot executive these policies.

But they would, in making demands for a change to democratize and gain legitimacy for neighbourhood assemblies and to confederal councils produce a tension between confederated municipalities and the nation-state. I would regard such a tension as absolutely necessary. If the nation-state gave in to the municipal councils and then tried to coopt them – as I’ve seen this in Burlington, Vermont where the city council made it possible for neighbourhood planning assemblies to exist primarily so that they could be used by a liberal city government – then I would say that any movement that tries to form them is not practicing a libertarian or confederal municipalist policy – the names that I give to the political approach that I have. I want to see confrontation! That’s the name of the politics in which I believe. In other words, I am trying – and I will make no denial about this – to pit the great majority of the people organized through municipal councils and neighbourhood assemblies against the nation-state. As long as the nation-state exists we will never have a true democracy in which people directly manage their own affairs.

So the political solutions that I advocate are actually very developmental. They must be seen as a formative and transformative process that involves profound social and structural changes in municipal life. They start with a minimum program of electing social ecologists to municipal councils, establishing neighbourhood assemblies in various districts of various communities, even in parts of a larger city or megalopolis such as Tokyo, without the consent of municipal governments. I believe that we can institutionally break down controls and devolve power to the people even in at least part of the most gigantic of urban areas. Why? Because we’re talking about institutions. I’m not talking at this moment about physical decentralization, which must ultimately occur.

Thereafter, a transitional program would consist of developing this activity, first by spreading it as much as possible through the United States and Japan, and second by demanding more and more and more, such as demanding city charters if they don’t exist. Where they do exist or when they are given, we would demand that greater legality and power be given to neighbourhood assemblies. And finally, ultimately, I believe that there would have to be a confrontation with the nation-state. How that would be resolved is not anything I can envision. It’s something that would be the result of a long process, depending on the traditions of a particular country and the power of the nation-state itself. More than one nation-state has simply been hollowed out by developments similar to what I’m talking about and thereby lost the ability to effectively demolish alternative forms of democratic political structure.

Note well that when I talk about politics here I’m not talking about statecraft. Statecraft should be seen exactly for what it is: the techniques used by the state as a professional body of men and women who have been plucked out of society, so to speak, given jobs as policy, as military, as judges, as deputies in various parliaments, as executives, as administrators, and as bureaucrats. That is the state. The state is notable in that it is not part of society. Rather, it is a kind of corporate mechanism in its own right. When I talk of politics, I’m using the word in its original Greek meaning, which suggests a polis, controlled by the community itself. That is to say, I define politics in its original sense, not in the conventional sense today of politicians, which generally means parliamentarians, bureaucrats, or appointed administrators.

So I draw a distinction between the political sphere and the state. And then, of course, there is the social sphere – my view is tripartite – in which one has children, belongs to a family, has friends, engages in economic activity and so on. What I’m trying to emphasize as a political solution is the creation of a new kind of politics and a new phenomenon call the “citizen” which today is basically a meaningless word. At present, most people, even in so-called democracies – really republics, let’s be quite frank, because democracy means direct rule by the people – are basically “constituents” or “taxpayers”. They’re not citizens in the active sense that this word meant thousands of years ago and indeed meant throughout a good deal of the Middle Ages and certainly in many parts of the West. To re-create citizens involves the development of individuals who now see themselves as members of the community, not as members of a specific profession, or of a specific class, or of a specific ethnic group, or of a specific geographical area. Citizens are people who – freed of the concerns that modern capitalism has imposed on them, are reflective and engaged in self-management – are in a position to make judgments that are not guided by any special interests, including their own special interests. As citizens they are concerned with their communities, not with their particular professions or personal interests.

It is for this reason that I am not a great advocate of workers’ control of industry, because what often happens in such cases is that where the workers even control a particular factory, they tend to become a separate interest, even under socialist or communist concepts of society. I’m not interested in multiplying the number of professional associations among doctors, teachers, lawyers – as if lawyers would be needed any more! – because these would all become separate interests, which if brought into a neighbourhood assembly, would pit their interests against others’. So I’m talking of a new kind of human being, a truly civic human being, a communal human being. I would call many of my ideas basically communalist, in the sense they include but go beyond socialism, anarchism and communism, while drawing the best out of Marxist and anarchist theories. A communalist theory, I think, is more encompassing than the nineteenth century radical theories that are at our disposal today.

Evanoff: How do you feel about the word “communalism”?

Bookchin: I would use the word “communalist” politically and I would explain my ideas as being rooted in “social ecology”. There’s nothing new about that. One’s specific designation, whether one wants to call oneself an anarchist, a libertarian socialist, a libertarian communist, or in my case a libertarian communalist, denotes a distinct politics. Social ecology denotes a philosophy, an outlook. So one can say that social ecology represents a form of communalism that is more radical than many people who are even likely to call themselves “communalists”. I can think of writers today who would call themselves “communalists” but would have a more restricted concept of what constituted a libertarian or confederal municipalist politics than I have. They might believe, for example, that we should have more organic food stores, more community centers, more democratically controlled cooperatives of one sort or another, that patients should have more of a say in the medical community than they have today, and so forth. I would distinguish my views – libertarian communalism if you like – from these restricted concepts of community and often reformist concepts of “community control”.

Additionally, I believe that municipalities should begin increasingly to take over the means of life – land, workshops, factories – and place them under control of popular assemblies, knitted together by city, town and village councils, or municipal councils. In other words, I believe in a libertarian communalism that is not only political, but also economic. And here we face a very interesting series of choices. We can either believe in the nationalization of the economy, Soviet-style, Leninist-style, or even social democratic style, which in my opinion has patently proved to be a failure. What the nationalization of the economy has produced in the twentieth century has been immense industrial bureaucracies. One can believe in workers’ control of industry, which often leads to competition between collectively owned shops by workers. This happened in the Spanish Civil War among the anarchosyndicalists.

Evanoff: You’re talking about employee ownership and the like?

Bookchin: Employee ownerships and even workplace democracy. Regrettably, such forms of ownership or democracy have never prevented workplaces from becoming little collective capitalistic entrepreneurs competing with similar workplaces in the same industry. This actually occurred in Barcelona in 1936, when workers took over the factories and in many cases, even though they were members of anarchosyndicalist trade unions, competed with each other in the same industry until the anarchosyndicalist unions took over control of the workshops, and very pathetically, established trade-union bureaucracies, merging together with the Catalan government (Catalonia, I should add, was the province most significantly peopled by anarchists – indeed the Spanish homeland in 1936 of anarchosyndicalism, together with Aragon). So we have the alternative of either nationalized industries with their huge bureaucracies or so-called workers’ control of shops, which can easily turn into collectivized forms of capitalist enterprise, each competing with others. Or we have the choice of private property – which has produced the mess we have today. So almost by a form of elimination the idea of a citizens’ controlled municipal economy, confederated with other economies, also municipally controlled within a given region, provides for me the most disinterested solution to the social problems generated by the other three forms of property ownership or control.

To achieve municipal control of the economy in a confederated way, in my opinion, is part of a transitional program in which municipalities try step by step, and hopefully through the control o f neighbourhood assemblies, to take over more and more of the local economy. If we think this solution through, and work it out, and if there is a movement devoted to achieving the two goals of genuine participatory democracy on the political level and a genuine municipalized economy on the material level – then, I believe, there is a potential answer to the global crisis we face today. If municipalities begin to generate their own means of life through confederations – I don’t believe that one municipality can do anything at all by itself – and to utilize an ever greater number of material resources in their own localities or regions, we can begin to circumvent the mobility of capital, notably its ability to simply take off when it doesn’t like a situation and go to some other part of the world.

Evanoff: Which really is the big problem in the world right now.

Bookchin: But it hasn’t been answered, from my point of view, by socialists or, for that matter, by many people who call themselves anarchists in any of the literature I’ve encountered.

Part 3

Evanoff: You see a very active participatory form of citizen developing, but when we look at the situation now it seems that people tend to be fairly passive and inactive politically. Do you think that there’s a need for a kind of psychological transformation of consciousness for people to become this new type of citizen?

Bookchin: A movement cannot be a substitute for the fact that there are historical forces that must converge with ideas. A Robespierre, a Danton, a Jacques Roux, or whoever you like in the French Revolution , would simply be lost in the crowd if the revolution wasn’t brewing. A Bakunin would have had no influence if he had been confined to the Peter and Paul Fortress by Nicholas I for the rest of his life. He had to get out of there, and there also had to be an International Workingmen’s Association to which he could present his views. Similarly, a Lenin needed the stormy year 1917, a time of tremendous social upheaval in Russia, to try to realize his goals, which, tragically became increasingly limited by virtue of the waning of the revolutionary forces toward the end of his life. I would say that at least history has to cooperate, so to speak, with any movement – as seemed to be the case toward the end of the First World War, and as seemed to be the case in the 1930s, or in the 1960s (although there was more theatre in the sixties than reality). It is my personal conviction that history is not stagnant and that one does not simply recycle the same old ideas again and again.

But by degrees forces may eventually converge that will create a period of social transformation. These are not entirely dependent upon movements. What movements can best do is bring to consciousness what is already going on subterraneanly as a result of historical and social forces in what we might call the collective unconscious. When Lenin cried “Land, Peace and Bread” and “All Power to the Soviets!” he was merely articulating in simple words what people were feeling in varying degrees during the months leading up to the famous October Revolution of 1917. That is true of all great revolutionary movements.

At the same time, I don’t believe that without developing – and I’m going to be very explicit about this – a vanguard, by which I do not means a highly centralized general staff whose orders have to be followed as though one were in the military but people who are an avant-garde – a term that seems quite acceptable when we speak of art and I don’t know why it isn’t any more acceptable when we speak of politics – an avant-garde, notably of those who have a higher level of consciousness as a result of more education, experience, training, reflection, and discussion – without such an avant-garde emerging I doubt that people will inevitably, spontaneously, and miraculously arrive at a solution to their problems. They’ll go in many different ways.

So I believe that it is very important to establish a political movement and specifically an organization that advocates, hopefully, the views that I have tried to advance and that is continually educating itself, partly through study groups, exploring old and new ideas, and to produce an increasingly creative political program and outlook. I believe in movements. I believe in institutions. I believe in organizations. It’s in this sense that I think a vanguard is necessary.

Let me stress that I’m not talking of a vanguard party that’s running for parliament. I’m not talking of a vanguard that trying to command people the way a general staff commands an army. I’m talking of people who are educators and mobilizers, who are more advanced in their thinking and consciousness than most, just as we would like to think more mature people are ahead of adolescents and children in knowledge and experience. Why that grouping necessarily has to become an elitist force in any domineering sense is beyond my understanding. If its main thrust is to empower the great majority of people in a country, and specifically in a municipality; if it is trying to create forces, such as popular assemblies, that would countervail any attempt on its part to become literally a commanding force – what do we have to fear?

Evanoff: Do you see the various types of alternative institutions that are developing, such as cooperatives and worker-owned companies, as being stepping stones towards the society you envision or do you feel we need to go directly from our present situation to into libertarian municipalist point of view? Put differently, do alternative institutions give people a foretaste of what might be possible in the future? Do they help to prepare people psychologically, so to speak, for the future?

Bookchin: To some degree, yes – but they are not substitutes for a political movement. Insofar as people learn methods of self-organization – good, but in terms of their ultimate effects, my response would be that no food co-op can ever compete in the United States or Japan with giant shopping centers. I don’t believe that any worker-owned factory is likely to make workers more libertarian in their outlook. If anything it’s likely to make them more “proprietarian” although the attempt to organize a factory may seem, on the surface of it, a more democratic way of proceeding economically. On the whole, many of these institutions, insofar as they last – and most do not last; they’re amazingly ephemeral – tend to provide a patina for the existing social order.

The existing social order is only too glad to create a myth of workplace democracy so that it can exploit workers more effectively. It’s only too glad to adopt an “environmentally friendly” face and a seemingly humane demeanor, for the express purpose of preserving what is basically an oppressive society. In other words, there is an enormous intellectual industry today, fostered in great part by various managerial types who advocate “worker participation,” even using anarchist terms such as “affinity groups,” who advocate a more “personalistic” relationship between the boss and the worker. But the boss still remains the boss. The worker still remains the worker. And this seemingly more humane relationship is more easily capable of exploiting and manipulating workers by bringing them into complicity with their own exploitation. So I have a very jaundiced view towards such attempts. More often they tend to dissolve into lifestyle forms of “politics”. People go into the countryside and form co-ops, but what does it all turn out to be? They’re living nicely or they’re living as comfortably as they can. And sooner or later, as with the kibbutzim in Israel, they begin to hire employees if they’re successful or they break up over who should wash the dishes, who should paint the rooms, or how the furniture should be arranged. So I tend not to have a very positive view about the outcome of such endeavors.

I believe the system is covered by a whole series of masks, if I may use postmodernist language, and we have to peel away these masks. One of these masks is that the system is more humane, that it is concerned with human welfare – this is especially true of Japan I’m sorry to say; less so in the United States – and therefore one should go along with it. And there are more than enough social democrats and liberals who are prepared to find this the best possible approach for dealing with the ills of the existing society. Environmentalists are very striking in this respect. We have a real problem in California where it’s impossible for the Green party, which is not exactly anything to celebrate, to run candidates against Democrats, because they and the Democrats are so much in agreement with each other. That is to say, Greens are so reformist and so willing to work within the system that they have no reason to run against the Democrats.

Evanoff: How do you assess the direction that the Green movement is going in the United States now?

Bookchin: I’m sorry to say that I regard most of the Green movement that I know of as being failures, mainly because they are so politically uneducated, so theoretically anaemic, and made up so much, particularly in the United States, of pure activists – because, you know, in the United States to do things is more important than to think about things. The Greens fail to recognise the need to maintain principled positions against the social order as such. They thus tend to work within the existing irrational system as “rationally” as they can, which, as I said, simply makes an irrational system seem less irrational. But it remains irrational and continues to get worse and worse.

Evanoff: How do you view the formation of Green parties at the state level?

Bookchin: You mean running for governors and their equivalent in Japan? I bitterly oppose that. My whole point about libertarian or confederal municipalism is that I want to increase the tension between confederated localities and the state, and by the state I don’t mean they nation-state alone; I also mean all its intermediate structures and even within the municipality itself.

Let me stress that if people adopt the approach that I am advocating and some are beginning to do that, they must be prepared to be in a minority until the time has come to change things, until the opportunity exists to make basic transformations. They will be in the minority in the very neighbourhood assembly that they call for. They will in the minority in the very town meetings that they have helped to create. There will always be tendencies even within a libertarian or confederal municipalist movement that want to make concessions to the system, and they will have to fight that attempt to compromise a libertarian municipalism. I’ve seen this in Canada, very painfully, where people who avowed a libertarian or confederal municipalist position entered in a coalition with social democrats, denaturing their own position so that they could form an electoral coalition in a given city. I regard that as reprehensible, and disassociate myself from any such attempts to do so. If we are not willing as libertarian municipalists to stand in the minority and fight and be guided by principles that are uncompromising in relationship to the nation-state and in relationship to strictly reformist movements that wish to work within the framework of the nation-state and may need our help – if they agree to accept these coalitions and these compromises, then I would disassociate myself from them, and I would do so very critically.

Evanoff: One of the objections that often comes up when I try to explain the concept of libertarian municipalism to students in Japan is what happens in the case when, for example, one small community decides that they want to build factories and cause a lot of pollution and the pollution is going to be carried over into another local area. Isn’t there a need for some type of centralized organization to be able to handle these kinds of interregional problems? How are these problems resolved in libertarian municipalism?

Bookchin: They are resolved in every practical way that is necessary to prevent them from doing it, neither more nor less. First of all, I believe in majority votes, not consensus. This separates me from anarchists who are strictly individualists and say that society is merely a collection of individuals. That sounds very much like Margaret Thatcher’s statement that there is no society, there are only individuals. There are many anarchists who believe that – I’m not including socialists or communists because they don’t believe it. There are also anarchists who say that you have to operate by consensus, even if you have institutions (the individualist anarchists don’t even believe in institutions) and I totally separate myself from that. Majority votes must exist.

I believe that one cannot separate ideas, values, and practices from the kind of movement one has been creating. If a libertarian municipal society is brought about as a result of a movement and people who are ecologically oriented, it would be utterly incongruous if suddenly a portion of that society decided it wanted to go around and freely pollute – additionally, pollute because it wanted to expand industry! We would have to enter into consultation with either such a municipality or such a region and say, “You have to stop this. By trying to pollute and by trying to develop entirely on your own, you’re acting in the same manner as the very society we tried to eliminate.” And if they say, “Well, we demand our sovereign right (either as individuals or as communities) to do what we want, or to secede,” we would answer, “You can secede. You can do whatever you like provided it doesn’t affect other people. And if you’re polluting an area, damaging the planet or even part of it, a planet that should be the common heritage of all living forms including human beings, then we’re going to stop you.” Suppose they defiantly answer, “We refuse!” Well, if things come to such as point, we’ll come in with armed militias and we’ll put an end to it – unless one assumes that society is made up of “autonomous individuals” who are free to veto anything, who are free to do whatever they want – to “do your thing” as Jerry Rubin said.

This individualistic point of view is simply ridiculous. I do not believe that individuals can ever be completely “autonomous”. From birth onward, we always depend on numerous collective efforts to sustain us and to permit us to mature and become functional beings. I flatly reject a so-called individualism of this nature – and if this is anarchism, I’m not anarchist. I’m a socialist. Let me add that a tremendous schism is opening up in anarchism between individualistic extremes on one side – “lifestyle” anarchists – and social anarchists, who hold views similar to my own. I would prefer in some respects to use the word “communalist” because it focuses more clearly on what I believe. Without any adjective to describe it, anarchism is a negative term; it means no authority, no archon, no rule. I’m not a “negative” libertarian. The negative liberty advocated by Isaiah Berlin is not enough for me. I have a substantive notion of what constitutes liberty; in fact I would prefer the word freedom, because liberty is much too closely associated with the personal autonomy that characterizes liberalism. Freedom has a more collective meaning, and in my view, more radical implications.

Now in that case I definitely oppose, as petty bourgeois at best and perhaps even simply bourgeois, “individuals” who tell me, “I oppose democracy because democracy is the rule of the majority over the minority.” First of all, I do not like their use of the pejorative word “rule”. A minority should be given every opportunity to transform popular opinion or to transform the ideas of the majority. But at least let us agree that there are certain institutions without which any society would be impossible, that there are ways of making decisions without which any decision-making would be impossible. And that must be by a majority. In fact, I don’t even want a homogeneity of opinion that one encounters in a graveyard. Dissension is very important, first of all because it stimulates people to think. It keeps them in a developmental stance and makes them into developmental beings. A minority is needed to egg things on, to stimulate.

But that doesn’t mean that the minority has a right to do whatever it wants on the basis of negative liberty. “I’m free to do whatever I want as long as I don’t harm anyone”. Hogwash! There are a lot of things one can do that initially do not seem to harm anyone but ultimately do harm people in the long run. We are living in a society. No individual can be free of some type of collective responsibility. It’s interesting to note that the anarchosyndicalists had a very great slogan, which incidentally was borrowed from the First International, the International Workingmen’s Association: “No rights without duties; no duties without rights.” Whoever wants to abdicate from the society, well, let them build a raft and go out into the Pacific or Atlantic Oceans and build their own little society there, if society it can be. To me society is much more than a collection of individuals.

Now, I’ve heard this from anarchists who oppose organization, who call for total individual autonomy – “Do your own thing”. No single person, according to one recent anarchist writer L. Susan Brown, can be obliged by a majority to do what he or she disagrees with. Well, in that case step out of society and see how well you do – if you can even find a way to step out of society. There is one lunatic in Finland who has recently stepped out of society – or he thinks he has. But of course he has axes and other tools that were acquired from a hardware store. Such implements do not grow on trees. He has decided that World War III should come, remove most of the world’s population so we can then live more harmoniously with “nature.” He lives by fishing, gathering berries, and has turned into a total misanthrope. I do not remember his name but his book is a rage in Finland today. This to me is not self-sufficiency. It’s the dissolution of selfhood and, what I regard as an important component of selfhood, of responsibility to a community of people. The individual who so separates himself from society wanders off into a dreamland of his own, and his opinions aren’t worth a damn.

Part 4

Evanoff: In Japan decisions often are made on a consensus basis – it seems to be part of the culture of Japan. The idea of deciding things by majority is pretty much alien to Japanese culture. These types of differences exist between different cultures. One of the things you’ve tried to do is to show the fact that rationality as such is potentially universal. How does this work out in light of the fact that there are various cultural differences which exist between peoples?

Bookchin: Well, I have due respect for cultural differences – aesthetically speaking. This involves a respect for musical traditions, which may be alien to my ear but which may be very meaningful or desirable to another ear. This may involve painting which may be alien to my eye but which may be very congenial to another people. Dress … traditions … belief systems. But when it comes to how people are going to share this world together, I am frankly universalistic. I am much more concerned with human beings as human beings than I am with their specific cultural, national, and ethnic background. I’m in this respect, however unecological it sounds, a cosmopolitan. I believe this accords with social ecology in a very special way. One may love one’s locale. One may treasure the habitat in which one lives. But I believe that human beings are also more than animals that live in a habitat and merely adapt to it. I believe that human beings are constituted by their own natural evolution, which in their later development, is always intertwined with a certain measure of cultural evolution, notably a collective evolution, participatory evolution.

This view isn’t an ideology that someone created in the West or elsewhere. This is the way we are structured. The Japan that may seek consensus is one that has been so greatly modified by human beings as to be only vaguely and remotely related to what it was before human beings appeared there. And this is true, I believe, of every part of the world, including the most remote fastnesses of the Amazonian forest. As human beings we all descend from one species called Homo erectus. Our ancestors used fire to radically transform so-called “original nature”. We have created a “second nature” which involves not only the modification of non-human nature but also the elaboration of human nature through cultural, institutional and historical experiences.

So the question that arises in my mind when you ask about a people’s proclivity for consensus is, “How are they going to develop without dissent?” – and the need to preserve dissent, not to erode it by seeking a low common denominator on which everybody can agree. If people in Japan arrive at a decision only if everyone agrees with each other, they run the risk of precluding disagreements that may ultimately turn out to be stimuli for a better decision or for a more creative act or for further development later in time. I therefore feel that this is an issue that should be debated in Japan. The wisdom of arriving at consensus is very arguable, unless one assumes that a society is so perfect and homogenous that everyone will hold the same opinion automatically if they are reasonably intelligent.

I would say that there’s no such thing as a completely perfect society, an “end to history,” or a “last man”, to use the language of Hegel and Nietzsche. So I think that dissent is terribly important. I think what we have to work out is how to accommodate a minority and to give it all the freedom of expression it requires to provoke us, until ultimately the minority through the give-and-take of dialogue changes the majority’s view. Imagine having to agree on everything, including whether or not one wants to go out for a walk, whether or not to use green paint for a room and someone else wants to use yellow paint. I know I’m caricaturing the position. But the situation becomes very serious when we’re talking about a major course of action, such as, in a rational and ecological society, whether or not to build a road, whether or not to deal with recalcitrants who want to pollute the air. At that particular point we get into major debates. Debates that arrive at the lowest common denominator, which often happens with consensus, may involve no lasting solution whatever.

I’ve seen this in practice in the Clamshell Alliance, an anti-nuclear movement that reached mass proportions in New England, where I live. Their attempt to arrive at consensus led them to adopt the most minimal, least stimulating, and insignificant decisions that they could reach in order to achieve consensus. Worse still, it led to tyranny by a minority over the majority, and indeed the manipulation of that majority by a handful or well-organized people who in the name of seeking consensus actually imposed their own will over a much larger and more passive majority. So I’m very suspicious of consensus in practice and I’m very alienated from it in theory.

But how do you deal with it? Well, this is something that I do not have to deal with, as a Westerner or an American, but something Japanese people will have to deal with. I have a suspicion that when historical forces begin to collect to shake Japan, and pose major alternatives to the Japanese people, there will be a great deal of dissent. That apparently happened even in the recent decision to install a socialist prime minister in Japan, although I can’t say that I know enough about Japanese politics to make any further comment. I’m positive right now that in the trade war that might develop between Japan and the United States there are many Japanese businessmen who feel very uncomfortable and whether in the name of consensus or just by abstention would like to see things otherwise – and that sentiment may very well act against the existing policy of the Japanese government, despite the myth that consensus is supposed to exist everywhere.

Evanoff: In the West we might have more of tendency to speak, as
Roderick Nash does, of the “rights of nature” whereas in Japan there may be more of a tendency of think in terms of “obligations towards nature”. Is there a way for us to reason out this apparent cultural difference?

Bookchin: Nature has no “rights”. It does not have “intrinsic rights”. Like it or not, we confer rights on the natural world, just as we create rights among ourselves as human beings. There may be an objective basis for these rights. One might say, for example, that freedom, self-consciousness are potentialities that imply the existence of latent rights. I wouldn’t call them “rights,” however, but “norms” or ethical standards which people would ultimately want to achieve. The whole toil of history, I would like to think (insofar as I identify history exclusively with progress in ever-greater developments of freedom, technology and self-consciousness) consists of the unfolding of latent rights which history will actualize one day in a rational and ecological society. One can even trace the potentiality for self-consciousness and freedom in the ever-greater subjectivity that occurs over the course of evolution in increasingly complex animals, that at certain levels begin to make seemingly intelligent choices. They are intelligent to one degree or another, though let’s not exaggerate the extent to which they are so. But we know that chimpanzees don’t know what death is. We know that because they cannot speak and cannot create symbolically formed concepts; they are very limited in the range of their intelligence and their level of consciousness. These abilities are minimal by comparison with those of human beings. Humanity has made a quantum leap over all other forms of life.

So one can trace the potentiality for freedom and self-consciousness in natural evolution. That is the way I define the word “nature.” “First” nature, or biological nature, for me is the cumulative evolution of life toward ever-greater subjectivity and nascent forms of freedom, such as choice. But to speak of rights in a meaningful, recognizable, acknowledged, and clearly formulated sense is something that only human beings can do. I would take issue with the title of Roderick Nash’s book, The Rights of Nature, as though there were intrinsic rights in the natural world that existed in the absence of human beings. I believe that the words “intrinsic worth,” which are so commonly used by deep ecologists, simply beg the question of how did they ever become “intrinsic” in the first place and what kind of “worth” one is talking about. Kant has allowed himself the liberty of speaking that way, but he did that at the expense of any kind of contact with the “real” thing-in-itself and talked essentially about how the human mind formulates and structures a system of rights. At various points, particularly in the Critique of Practical Reason and the Critique of Judgment, he fell back on intuition.

From my viewpoint we merely beg the question when we say that there are rights intrinsic in “nature.” “Nature” is not a realm of ethical judgment. Apart from human beings, there is no subject in “nature” that is making such ethical judgments. Animals have no notion of each other’s “rights”. When we start talking about their rights it’s what we endow them with, just as we begin to formulate rights during the course of our own social development in “second” nature, hopefully to a point where we finally reach a synthesis of both “first” and “second” nature in what I have called “free” nature, namely a nature as expressed through human beings that is self-conscious and free. But without human beings there are no rights.

Let me say furthermore, at the risk of being very provocative, that my interest in this planet would be minimal if I were a space traveller from another planet who visited earth and saw no evidence of human beings. I would find a lot of greenery and protoplasm. Splendid! But I would have to undergo a whole process of acculturation to say that elephants are “beautiful,” that lions are “sleek,” and that deer are “graceful”. Do these words mean anything if there were no human beings and society around to celebrate them?

In social ecology you’ve developed what I think is one of the most comprehensive theoretical approaches towards ecology. At this time, there are a number of conflicting views of how we should be thinking about ecology. How do you balance a need for theoretical coherence with an acceptance of the face that in the environmental movement in general there are a variety of different perspectives? How important do you feel it is to keep that theoretical coherence and unity, even if it’s at the expense of perhaps alienating people who are coming at ecology from other perspectives?

Bookchin: I couldn’t give a damn about who I alienate! If I am ever concerned about popular opinion, I’m doomed. I’m doomed subjectively speaking. At this time in particular, popular opinion couldn’t interest me in the least. I am now approaching my seventy-fifth year. I have a very limited amount of lifespan left, and I am not trying to benefit from anything I do in any personal sense. I’m going to be as truthful as I can possibly be. I should make that very plain.

Nor do I find that it will do any movement that seeks to get to the roots of any question any good by trying to compromise my views. There are enough liberals who stand between me and the rest of the public who do more compromising than is good for the public. Let me take over that job. Someone has to come out and speak for what, to me in any case, is a tremendous tradition, the grand tradition of social emancipation – and very ecumenically in a sense that could be shared by Marx, Engels, Bakunin, Kropotkin, in short socialism, which, as Kropotkin said, lies at the core of anarchism.

Coherence is vital. I’m not saying that coherence means dogma. But coherence is vital insofar as we have to have an ordered sense of our relationship with the world – or else we will have no real relationship with the world. If we do not have coherence, if we do not see the connections between things, if we do not know how to order a future reality rationally as well as imaginatively, we will have no meaningful and creative relationship to reality. We will be “free” vendors of any kind of tripe that comes along. Therefore I’m not impressed by people who say, “I have no answer to this question”. I’m not suggesting that they should lie. I’m not suggesting that if they don’t have an answer to a question they shouldn’t be honest enough to say so – and there are many questions I have no answer to. I’m suggesting this as a bad credo, this celebration of ignorance and indecision. Socrates was a liar when he repeatedly declared: “I know nothing”. He knew a great deal indeed. And his statement was merely a form of posturing. Admittedly it was an expression of his critical mind. But it was posturing nonetheless. So consequently, I’m not overly impressed by liberal views that claim they are “wide open” When I’m “wide open” I’m shapeless, I’m formless, I’m lacking in perspective, and I’m not fit to have an opinion until I work desperately and hard enough to formulate one, or at least formulate a hypothesis to test one.

Today one of our biggest problems is lack of coherence. I saw this very dramatically in the 1960s. You see, I’ve come out of and was very deeply immersed in the left of the 1930s. I was immensely conscious of the entire left tradition going back to the French Revolution – and in my opinion, as far back as the English Revolution of the 1640s. I was immensely conscious of the enormity of this tradition and its desperate attempt to create an ordered world based on reason and freedom.

In the 1960s, this tradition was mindlessly abandoned. Suddenly history was supposed to being all over again with the Free Speech Movement of 1964, say, or the Civil Rights Movement of 1963. Well, that was rubbish. We can now look back in retrospect, after witnessing this whole parade of “holier-than-thou” revolutionaries who sprang up like mushrooms after a rain between 1965 and 1969, and see with what wanton abandonment they have fled back into the present social order and are busy in academies, or as publishers and writers, continually trying to efface the real meaning of the ‘60s were, a meaning that I think, alas, was in some respects far more limited than I believed at the time. The ‘60s was a period of great potentialities, but these were not actualized in the years that followed, not even by the ecology movement.

Therefore I’m all the more desperately concerned with retaining my identity – I mean this in an intellectual, a subjective, an ideological way – through coherence. Take away coherence and as Paul K. Feyeraband – in my opinion one of the most repellent nihilists to appear in recent memory – said, “Anything goes.” That is the maxim of his Against Method. Jerry Rubin said “Do your thing” and Jerry Rubin was in Wall Street until his recent death. But “anything” does not go. It is very important to find out what “goes” and what does not. If anything goes and one’s relativism is that extreme, one will have no basis for choosing between the validity of anti-Semitism and the validity of humanitarianism. This literally came up in Feyeraband’s book, Science in a Free Society. And do you know what Feyeraband believed determines which decision is sound or correct? Power. Might. He sounds like Thrasymachus in Book I of Plato’s Republic: “Might makes right.” So the answer to anti-Semitism is that humanitarianism will prove to be more powerful than anti-Semitism! But anti-Semitism and humanitarianism, indeed racism and humanitarianism, are, so far as Feyeraband is concerned, in a purely relational situation. One is defined by the other, and relativism is all that prevails in forming a judgment about whether racism or humanitarianism, anti-Semitism or for that matter fascism, are correct or sound views. The functional role that what is going to prevail or not is vicious.

Thus, coherence is absolutely essential in sorting out this vicious relativism, and discarding and replacing it with an objectivism that, on the one hand, is not totalitarian, but that enjoys the validity of truth per se in the most naturalistic and indeed materialistic way. I feel very strongly about this. Coherence is absolutely essential in being able to make a judgment that does not dissolve into relativism and formlessness. And if coherence seems like a tyranny to most postmodernists today, may I suggest that coherence does not mean dogmatism.

On the other hand, their incoherence is one form of dogmatism. When I hear from Nietzsche that all facts are interpretations, I’m getting a dogma. How does he know this? He tries nowhere to validate this maxim. The same can be said for that whole prelapsarian mentality of Heidegger, who spent his time working for the Nazis until 1945. He never seriously tried to account for this relationship to fascism. There have been far too many fascist precursors of postmodernism, people who if they opposed the Nazis did so because they were French nationalists, not because they opposed fascism. One thinks of Maurice Blanchard, the man who gave us the “Great Refusal” – this remark is wrongly attributed to Marcuse. And there is George Batai. So forgive me on this score: I am very emphatically for coherence because that’s the only way I can at least even say that I have an idea that can be subjected to the test of reality. Otherwise, I have to deny reality, and thereby toss out incoherent statements that cannot be tested, which seems to be very common these days.

Major works by Murray Bookchin:

Toward an Ecological Society, Montreal, Black Rose Books, 1980
The Ecology of Freedom, Palo Alto: Cheshire Books, 1982
The Limits of the City, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1986
Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1986
The Modern Crisis, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1987
Remaking Society, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989
The Philosophy of Social Ecology: Essays on Dialectical Naturalism, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1990. Revised 1995
Which Way for the Ecology Movement? Edinburgh and San Francisco: AK Press, 1993
From Urbanization to Cities, London and New York: Cassell, 1995
Re-enchanting Humanity: London and New York: Cassell, 1995
To Remember Spain, San Francisco: AK Press, 1995
Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left: AK Press, 1999
The Third Revolution: Popular Movements in the Revolutionary Era: Cassell and Continuum, 1996-2005 (Four Volumes)

Democratic Alternative is regaining its strength in 2007: Participating in the Oslo elections
April 7, 2007, 12:27 pm
Filed under: Articles and reviews

In February, the Congress of the Scandinavian communalist organisation Democratic Alternative, backed the Oslo local group’s initiative to participate in local elections this autumn. What has for a long time been a subject of discussion in the organisation can now become a practical vision of a democratic alternative in the public realm.

The aim of participating in this election is mainly to promote the group’s and the organisation’s ideas of direct and participatory democracy and establish a broader discussion. The purpose is not at first to win any seats at the present. The focus will be on citizens governing by themselves. The programme will have a clear libertarian socialist and ecological profile. It could build upon the campaign for participatory budgeting that has been advocated over the last few years and maybe push for referenda on certain issues. To stand in the elections the Oslo group needed 300 signatures before the 31st of March, in fact they collected 500. That means that they will be on the election list in September and the campaign will be running during the summer.

The annual Congress, held at the end of the February, saw Democratic Alternative regaining its strength after a 3 year period of decreasing activity. The organisation was formed in 1999 by environmentalist activists and left radicals in Norway tired of a single issue focus and the traditional left’s parliamentary strategies. They were inspired by social ecology (ideas of) communalist politics and the organisation grew substantially between 1999 and 2003. They believe in moving (the) political and economical power to the local level by creating decentralised political institutions in local communities where people can meet, discuss and make decisions.

The plans for 2007 look hopeful. The book “The Politics of Social Ecology – Libertarian Municipalism” by Janet Biehl is being translated into Swedish, Norwegian and Finnish and will be published in the autumn by Democratic Alternative’s own publishing house “Frihetlig Press” (Libertarian Press). A release tour will be organised to launch the book.
The Democratic Alternative website, that has been stagnant for a period of time due to technical problems, is being redesigned and will now be regularly updated. The group also came to the sensible conclusion to let go of some of the high ambitions that they haven’t been able to meet in the last few years. They will not publish a full size magazine but instead a newsletter with articles four times a year and they reduced the number of positions of responsibilities within the organisation.
There was a strong sense of the need and will for good communication and cooperation to inspire and connect the organisation which mainly consists of spread out individuals and is small at present. The aim is therefore that everyone will be part of a group that has regular contact. Material with advice about starting up a local group will be produced to encourage groups to be started. The feminist action plan for participation on equal grounds was reworked to be less diffuse and more based on real activities. There are also plans for study circles and a few other activities that will be reported on during the year.
There is a determination to create a dynamic organisation and the future looks very promising. Not least the participation in the Oslo local elections that is very exciting for everyone and something that brings them together in the hope and burning desire for a future of social freedom.

Malin Widehammar, International Secretary, Democratic Alternative

Social Ecology in the UK
March 11, 2007, 12:12 am
Filed under: Articles and reviews

Some thoughts on the relevance of Social Ecology at the present time

The English nation, Rousseau famously observed, has delusions of freedom. Free only at the moment it is electing members of parliament “as soon as the members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing.”
But the deluded may now be learning to see clearly. Government by mass deception and enforced privatisation has reaped a rational, if cynical, refusal to truck with the system. Its threadbare claims to representation now verge on illegitimacy. The current Labour government was ‘elected’ in 2005 by 35.2 per cent of the 62 per cent of the electorate registered to vote who actually bothered to do so. That amounts to an endorsement of around 18 per cent of British adults. As Gandhi might have said – democracy in Britain? – it’s a nice idea.
But while Labour completes the Thatcherite marketisation of British society and a handful of private equity firms casually trade the livelihoods of millions, where is the alternative? The promise of the millions-strong anti-war movement has been dissipated in a Trotskyite-dominated political party content to confine its attentions to three per cent of the population. The Labour left is impotent and cannot conceive of an alternative beyond a re-hashing of failed social democratic policies. The direct action movement, which once expressed the ‘scream’ that official politics shut out, cannot move beyond protest that, at best, slows the juggernaut of state and corporate power. No matter how militant its poses, it can do no more than extract concessions.
We need a new movement that moves beyond these fatal limitations. One that is not laden with the dogmas of antique Marxism, does not want to seize state power in a repeat of Russia in 1917. But also one that recognises that real social change will not occur without the slow and patient building of a mass movement and democratic institutions in society, open to all, in which people can learn self-management.
The philosophy of Social Ecology could supply an invaluable theoretical grounding for this movement. Social Ecology believes that the roots of our conflict with nature lie in social conflicts and domination by elites. It calls for the dissolution of all hierarchies, not just class divisions. As such it is anti-capitalist. It sees the cause of the ecological and social crisis we face in the market economy, in which profit effaces all other human values and pits economic rivals against each other in a battle for survival which can only be won by expansion and growth, the creation of new desires and the commodification of more aspects of life.
According to Social Ecology, the problems we face are systemic and cannot be solved by exhortations to radically reduce personal consumption habits (which, if by some miracle, were truly heeded would lead to economic collapse and mass unemployment under present arrangements) or the attainment of a more managed form of capitalism. Ironically the more impressive growth rates attained in the social democratic golden age of capitalism, if emulated now, would send us into ecological oblivion quicker than neo-liberalism. A “greenfield” area the size of Leicester is lost to development every year and the government estimates that traffic will increase by a third in the UK by 2015. The more “successful” the economy is, the sooner we will engulf our remaining green spaces in concrete and asphalt.
But if capitalism is destroying the natural world, it shows no signs of destroying itself. All Marxist predictions about its impending demise have proved mistaken. Profit is not falling because of the replacement of living labour by machinery, cyclical downturns in the economic cycle are not becoming more intense and the working class, at least in advanced economies, has more than enough consumption power to assuage any fears of overproduction. In fact the entire system is based on the endless contrivance of new desires.
But most significantly, capitalism does not produce its own gravediggers. The working class is not disciplined by the factory system into an implacable opponent of the social order. In fact, the opposite is true. The more developed capitalism becomes, the more competitive, greedy, distrustful, individualistic, indifferent to suffering and acquiescent to hierarchy people become. As Murray Bookchin has emphasised, the market economy is a school, “forming the moral character of the individual as well as providing major guidelines for his or her behaviour.” We now live in a market society, not just a market economy.
If this is true, then the precondition for the emergence of any serious left movement is the development of what American economist Robin Hahnel has called “prefigurative experiments” – institutions that create a culture of cooperation and self-management in the present society but that are also committed to go beyond it. We have to accept that the Left in Britain has all but disappeared as a source of values and inspiration for ordinary people. Trade unions, once the schools of socialism, are now limited to public sector bastions and have long since abandoned any pretence of challenging capitalist work hierarchies. No movement for social change can exclude them, but on their own they are not enough. The alternative of Social Ecology – neighbourhood assemblies, open to all citizens, is predicated on the idea that if markets are turning us into unsympathetic egotists and destroying ties of solidarity, we need institutions that do the opposite. Institutions that can reach people trade unions can’t – those outside the labour market, and those whom the traditional labour movement has simply neglected or ignored. The Left must start talking to people beyond the confines of its shrivelling ‘natural constituency’.
A democratic and humanistic alternative must also articulate more than material needs. It must also be a movement that espouses qualitatively different values, that brings to the surface the instinctive revulsion many feel for the market system. It has to oppose the twisting of all potentiality, intelligence and skill to serve the demands of a system that exists simply to make profit through the manufacture of wants. It has to express the exasperation with a system that coerces people to work for it by the unending threat to remove their livelihood. It has to expose the irrationality of a system that insanely ties economic well-being and the availability of work to the fanning of unlimited consumption desires and denies its victims the power to consciously choose the balance between leisure and work.
If a Social Ecology movement began to establish local assemblies, what would they do? At one level, assemblies could act as extra-legal ‘ethical’ focal points to express a community’s wishes: against a war, for example, or to lead a campaign for a living wage in a town or city. As they grow in popularity and accrue power from the local council, they could begin to create a dual power and establish their own economic institutions. They could set up community-controlled banks to offer affordable credit as an alternative to loan sharks or moneylenders. They could create co-operatives under the control of the assembly which serve the local community but also act as living embodiments of the aims of the movement and share out empowering and necessary tasks equally, avoiding any permanent division between order givers and order takers. This is not an unattainable dream. A community on the Marsh Farm estate is Luton is already establishing its own publicly-owed cooperatives, from waste collection to a community-owned fast food restaurant.
These institutions of social self-management can also represent a counterpoise to growing state power. Contrary to fantasies of its ideologists, the neo-liberal revolution of the last thirty years has been accompanied by a massive increase in the power of the state. As the economic historian Karl Polanyi has demonstrated, laissez-faire always needs a strong state to enforce the social engineering project that it represents. In Britain, we are witnessing the construction of a security state in which the personal lives of citizens are increasingly surveilled, bureaucratised and controlled. The UK is the most surveilled country in Europe, a “surveillance society” in the words of the UK information commissioner. The process will get yet more invasive with innovations in technology to enable CCTV cameras to listen to conversations, and the introduction of identity cards. There is already huge disquiet about loss of freedoms, the undermining of privacy, and the criminalisation of protest and unless Left libertarians are able to give direction to this mood, it will be channelled in a right-wing, anti-social, privatistic direction.
The ultimate vision of Social Ecology – a confederal direct democracy of local assemblies may seem utopian but the process of slowly accruing power from corporations and the state is gradual and will take decades. If social ecologists appear to be going against the grain of ‘human nature’ it is worth reminding ourselves that face to face democracy has a lineage going back thousand of years to our tribal past. As historian Jane Mansbridge has argued, for more than 99 per cent of our history we lived in hunter-gatherer bands, which in all probability, practiced a form of egalitarian, face to face democracy.
The locus of social change in the 21st century also appears to be shifting away from the factory and into the neighbourhood. At the heart of the movement that brought Evo Morales to power in Bolivia is a communal vision of democracy which challenges representative government’s claims to legitimacy. Neighbourhood assemblies played a crucial role in the “water wars” against privatisation which preceded Morales’ election and now constitute a kind of dual power. According to one activist, “the type of democracy that comes from the streets has to be respected because it is based on the deliberations of communities in assemblies and popular lobbies, where leaders have to observe the debate and make decisions accordingly.” In Argentina, the network of neighbourhood assemblies that sprang up following the IMF economic crisis in 2001 for a time seriously rivalled the discredited ‘democratic’ political system and dealt with issues that it refused to – community purchasing of food, for example, or reconnecting people to the electricity grid when they were cut off for failure to pay their bills. One third of the population participated and many believed they were building a new form of political organisation.
Participatory budgeting, the attempt to give local assemblies the power to determine how a municipality spends its money, is also spreading to Europe from its spiritual home in Brazil. The Spanish city of Seville has allowed 21 assemblies across the city to allocate around half of its budget for the last three years. In 2006 9,000 people participated in the assemblies, which have their own constitution, prioritising improvements for poorer areas, repairs for schools and the creation of a community-owned radio station. “People are empowering themselves, gaining a better understanding of how to fight for their projects and dreams without getting lost in the labyrinth of the state apparatus,” says one organiser. “It is a rewarding experience to see how public officers are questioned by ordinary people.”
These may be the first faltering signs of a new movement that is unsure of its ultimate destination. But for the first time in many years, sizeable minorities in western countries are willing to question both state power and corporate dominance. The libertarian and ecological Left must start thinking seriously about the kind of society it really wants and take the first steps on the long journey ahead.

Mat Little

March 2007

Murray Bookchin 1921 – 2006
January 19, 2007, 10:28 pm
Filed under: Articles and reviews

Andy Price’s obituary for the wiriter, philosopher and inspiration behind Social Ecology.

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Murray Bookchin, 1921-2006

Andy Price, PhD Student/Associate Lecturer, Manchester Metropolitan University

“Perhaps the most compelling real fact that radicals in our era have not adequately faced” wrote Murray Bookchin in 1991, “is the fact that capitalism today has become a society, not only an economy”. Encapsulated in this one sentence is the essence of what drove this autodidactic scholar, activist, and founder of the school of ‘social ecology’, who died on 30 July 2006, aged 85, to a prolific output of writing and research spanning the last 50 years. That essence was a commitment to the belief that analysis of social crises and transformation, and the revolutionary action required thereon, ought to have a much wider focus than a strictly economic one.

This commitment would lead Bookchin into a direct confrontation with Marxism and Marxists that would forever define his thinking. An approach that was based on ‘a more general, social revolution’, as Bookchin described it, something that stretched far outside the traditional class struggle in which Bookchin was active from the 1930s to the 1960s, outside of the strictly economic concerns of worker control, would bring Bookchin not only into deep intellectual and philosophical conflict with Marx’s texts, but also into a more direct conflict with the followers of Marx. And this confrontation would not always be a civil one. In his infamous 1969 essay, Listen, Marxist!, Bookchin opens thus:

All of the old crap of the thirties is back again – the shit about the “class line”, the “role of the working class”, the “trained cadres”, the “vanguard party”, and the “proletarian dictatorship”. It’s all back again, but in a more vulgarized form than ever

A veteran of the class politics of 1930s New York, a student of the lessons learnt from the Spanish Civil War – yet another Communist Party casualty of the Hitler-Stalin Pact – Bookchin railed against the imposition of the older interpretations of Marxism in a decade as fluid as the 1960s; older interpretations whose deadly maladies had been revealed in the Soviet Union only the decade before. But more than this, Bookchin was not only trying to defend revolutionary Marxism from the failings of older interpretations, but was trying to save Marxism from itself, from its own intrinsic failings. For Bookchin, the problems that had beset the revolutionary movement thus far had arisen not from a historical misreading of Marx, but from a Marxist misreading of history.

What had seemed like plausible grounds for explaining revolutionary change to Marx – the wholly economic nature of life under emergent capitalism and the frenetic growth and unparalleled transformation therein – had in fact been only a product of its time, a deep process of change emanating from the transition from feudal society into capitalist society. That is, this social terrain was not the platform on which to base an analysis of how all societal change did, and would, occur. Rather, it was the very specific effects of the process of change from feudalism to capitalism, of the transformation of one form of class society to another form of class society. To later try and use this model to explain the move from capitalism to communism – from a class society to a classless society was Marx’s most fundamental mistake, and the root cause of the communist movement’s deep degeneration over the 50 years that followed Marx’s death. It was thus clear to Bookchin that an alternative explanatory model of social transformation was required.

When Bookchin first began to write about Marxism’s failings in the 1960s, it wasn’t immediately clear what this explanatory model might be. Quite naturally, as a maturing thinker, he may not have known himself. What is clear is that he knew that there were vast swathes of activity in the social realm that were left on the sidelines by the Marxian analytical model. The New Social Movements (NSMs) of the 1960s – in particular, the feminist, the community, and the ecology movements – were clear evidence to Bookchin of the fundamentally different terrain of revolutionary action of his day, containing developments Marx could simply not foresee. But as should be expected from a thinker as dialectical as Bookchin, there is a sense of an unfolding in Bookchin’s work, a delineated path where one can trace the development of his thought as a product of his further engagement with Marx’s work, fleshing out his own philosophy in the process. Thus, in later writings, the factors he originally saw as mere differences between his own time and Marx’s became something much more – they became the real social factors that had been ever-present but that had been completely missed by Marx and the Marxian analytical model.

The NSM’s thus came to represent the true resting point of revolution for Bookchin, but not because of the particular trends or details of each individual movement, but rather because of the sweeping implications of the shared issues that they all raise. That is, it is not in the particularistic concerns of each of these movements – not a fight against the ecological despoilers, the sexists and the bureaucrats – but the issues they open up as a whole: namely, the concepts of hierarchy and domination which these movements raged against. Crucially, these were concepts of hierarchy and domination that had very little to do with economic exploitation. Bookchin began to see that no matter how full a revolution based on the Marxian model might be, there would be a whole range of hierarchies, and the domination they result in, that would be left untouched. More specifically, the Marxist goal of the abolition of the exploitative capitalist state would only end economic hierarchy and domination, thus, what was required was a fully social revolution that would take on hierarchy and domination wherever they were found.

Clearly, the 1960s Bookchin oeuvre was not completely unique: reformations of Marx’s theory were a deep historical necessity after its failings in practice, so apparent in the 1960s. However, Bookchin was unique in the extent of his critique of Marx: no Leftist theorist, committed to the dialectical transcendence of capitalism, so thoroughly rejected the central premises of Marx (a stance, for example, that was never going to earn him a place in The Frankfurt School). As he argued in 1969, ‘Marxism has ceased to be applicable in our time’, and not because it is too revolutionary, or too visionary, ‘but rather, because it is not visionary or revolutionary enough’. Later, he was to go even further, in an essay entitled Marxism as Bourgeois Sociology (1979), in which he argued that Marx’s main faults stemmed from his embedded position within the mores of bourgeois 19th century thought.

For Bookchin, Marx’s ‘myth’ of the proletariat as revolutionary agents, once sufficiently immizerised, is a glaring example of the thinker’s bourgeois sensibilities. Here, the domination and coordination of the masses in the factory system under capitalism is accepted by Marx as a positive, class-conscious forming process. It is through this process that the ultimate path to communism is to be formed. However, in the meantime, the fact that the masses are coordinated into a pliant, subservient mass was overlooked, if not welcomed. Quite how this co-ordinated mass would change from an organised adjunct to capitalism into a revolutionary movement was never comprehensively covered by the theory of immizerisation. Furthermore, the concept of immizerisation, foretelling a future when the masses would be at the point of revolution, meant that the intervening vicissitudes faced by the generations of working classes under capitalism, industrialisation, and imperialism, while noted as undesirable, were to be accepted in the bigger picture; these things would be difficult, but were to be welcomed as progress wrought by the historical movement of society. In this way, Marx was a clear adherent to maxim of ‘progress’: the domination that had arisen out of the move away from barbarism was an unfortunate but necessary by-product; clearly an commitment he shared with 19th century colonialists, who would justify all manner of atrocities in the name of taking ‘progress’ out to the rest of the world (and Marx’s writing on the British in India is a striking example of this).

Furthermore, for Bookchin, Marx’s bourgeois sensibility stems also from his desire, in keeping with bourgeois thought of the time, to prove uncontrovertibly the objective veracity of his newly discovered laws of society; much like the Victorian natural scientists were advancing the human intellect with their claims to an objective uncovering of evidence, so Marx intended to do in the social sciences. But there is a fundamental drawback to the scientism of Marx’s model, as here the proletariat itself becomes objectified, as does the entire revolutionary project – all ethical and moral content is removed, subsumed by a deeper, grander historical movement. Moreover, any deviation from Marx’s programme could now be labelled as unscientific, as subjective, as a utopianism emanating from the work of dreamers etc (something Marx would do with great determination in his discussions on Fourier et al). For only Marx’s ‘scientific model’ had uncovered the objective forces of social change. Again, with this mindset in place, the room to morally or ethically challenge the realities of life for the proletariat in 19th century capitalism are removed, or at best reduced to a secondary position behind the primacy of the march toward communism.

Bookchin’s rejection of Marxism as a philosophical and political programme, then, marked him off from other ex-Communists of the 1960s, and placed him firmly on the side of the anarchists. Here Bookchin would have stayed – in all probability, indistinguishable from many other anarchist critics – had it not been for the further dialectical development of his thought that occurred as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s. This development can be clearly traced through the two main conclusions Bookchin had reached thus far. First, if revolution was about the abolition of something much wider than class – i.e., hierarchy and domination – then the emergence of these conditions, and the path toward their amelioration, had to be explained; just as Marx had outlined the origin of classes and the state, so Bookchin would have to explicate the emergence of hierarchy and domination. Second, as Bookchin had discounted the proletariat as an agent of revolutionary change, with what could it now be replaced? That is, if not the proletariat, what one factor or agent would be the primary drive toward revolution?

Both of these factors – the need to examine hierarchy and the need to find a replacement for the proletariat as revolutionary agent – would lead Bookchin to the same conclusion: to ecology. In the first instance, ecology would form the basis of Bookchin’s critique of hierarchy: nowhere in the natural world could a similar system to the hierarchy that affected human society be found. Ranking systems amongst animals, yes; individual acts of aggression and domination by the strongest in animal groups, yes – but not the institutionalised and immutable system of hierarchy that develops in human societies. In the second instance, the fragility of the world ecology – i.e. of the world’s ecosystem – brought almost to its knees by capitalism, would now be the main driver of revolutionary change. Humanity now had no choice of whether it wanted to overthrow capitalism or not (or of whether this could be delayed until a future time which would be more conducive to change) for its very survival depended on the immediate transcendence of capitalism. Under the Bookchin model, capitalism’s grave diggers would arise not from the immizerisation of the proletariat, but from the immizerisation of the planet as a whole.

From the confluence of these two conclusions would emerge the complete Bookchin philosophy, that which he would call social ecology. And this confluence of conclusions would give his thought and proposed action a complete unity: for if capitalism was rendering the world uninhabitable, largely because of the existence of hierarchy and not solely economic exploitation, and if hierarchy can be shown to be unnatural, in that it is not found anywhere else in the natural world, then its dissolution must be worked for through an understanding of and adherence to the non-hierarchical laws of natural ecology. Here, Bookchin’s thought comes full circle, and infuses every aspect of his output with a deep holism: the place society wants to get to has to be the place society tries to be now. This entails a re-working of every social structure, within the present society, to accord with principles of a non-hierarchical nature. Crucially though, this re-working must come from human society – the only repository of reflective ethics – and involve the active imposition of human values onto the natural world, not a blind commitment to natural ‘laws’ that are outside human comprehension and action: an aspect of social ecology that would draw Bookchin into conflict with many ecocentrics in the ecology movement.

It is this overarching holism, this grand narrative of the planet as a whole – of human society within its wider ecology – which marks Bookchin off as a stand-out thinker of the last 50 years. Bookchin’s thrashing-out and professing of his vision is even more remarkable in light of the fact that over the same period we have seen the near total rejection of the concept of a ‘grand narrative’, in both the academic and activist world, in favour of a relativism, or an individualism, often as indefinable as it is unworkable. And the Bookchin narrative is as grand as any could be: the full reformation of the human condition to more fully accord with the non-hierarchical, co-operative organisation found in both the natural and social world. Bookchin was fully aware of the scope of his project, of its utopian nature. Indeed, he once wrote of the ‘unabashed messianic character’ of his work, of the striving toward defining an almost objective process toward a utopian freedom. But in keeping with his commitment to dialectic, the messianic Bookchin laid his theory open to the dialectical tension he ‘valued the most’: that between the writer of a book and the reader. In other words, his work was to be taken on by others, to be refined and re-worked.

Unfortunately, in his later years, due to an ever increasing number of disputes with people in activist and academic circles, and Bookchin’s ever-present forthright writing style, many would accuse him of forgetting his commitment to his most valued dialectical tension, and of brooking no dissent. But this overly simplistic view denies the many nuances and contradictions that are present throughout Bookchin’s entire output. Moreover, it fails to recognise the centrality of contradiction in his thought, and of the deeply Hegelian sense in which he used the concept. For Bookchin, contradiction was entirely about struggle, both in thought and in action. From his discussions of the struggle for life in natural eco-systems to the struggle for life of the poorest under capitalism, one gets the sense that not everything will be pleasant in the march toward a better society. So too in the forging of ideas: the need for pleasantries or an over-arching civility in debate and argument was a curiosity for Bookchin in a world where civility and civilisation were themselves at stake.

Furthermore, the abrasiveness often found throughout Bookchin’s writing was a product of his background, schooled as he was in the streets 1930’s New York. Born in 1921 to Russian immigrants, themselves radically politicised by the process of fleeing the social upheavals of Revolutionary Russia, Bookchin cut his teeth as a Communist party activist and public orator at a time when the matters up for discussion – imperialism, fascism, and oppression – were in a very real sense matters of life and death. Moreover, the environment of the debate itself – the street corners of impoverished working class districts of New York City – where the crowds, Bookchin told us in 1997, were ‘savagely hostile’, was to instil a mentality of struggle into the young Bookchin. To be taken seriously in these debates, forthrightness and a street-fighting style were an absolute necessity.

This defining period of a radical mind, backed up later by experiences of the factory floor during his working days in the motor industry, were to instil into Bookchin an urgency to cut though the niceties of debate, to cut through the technicalities – and to be tough in both argument and response. Later still, as most of the developed world moved through varying phases of social democracy, wherein there developed a widely held belief that the instability of the world, the very real dangers of the interwar period were a thing of the past, Bookchin – as early as his 1954 article, The Problems of Chemicals in Food – was writing about the environmental costs of capitalism, and the impending crisis that these would bring. Therefore, the urgency had not dissipated for Bookchin, the crises hadn’t stopped, merely changed realm, from the social to the environmental.

This urgency to explain the entirety of the social condition, the urgency to challenge everything before him, resulted in the great insights Bookchin has left us in his work, insights both social an ecological. And the melding together of these two realms – one of the first writers to do so – would render Bookchin’s work as grand in scope and originality as that of Marx’s a century before him. As for his caustic style, for those of us researching in the field of anarchism and ecology, the world will be a duller place in the knowledge that there will be no more to come from the flashing pen of Murray Bookchin. And despite the polemics that fired around Bookchin’s later output, the characteristics we will miss most are the very human characteristics that shone from the pages of his work – the striving to understand the world, and the striving to make it a better place to live. Bookchin is survived by his long time companion, Janet Bielh, his ex-wife and friend, Bea, and a son and daughter.

Review of Bookchin’s The Third Revolution (Vol 3)
January 3, 2007, 5:15 pm
Filed under: Articles and reviews

Mat’s review of The Third Revolution, Volume 3, by Murray Bookchin

It is curious that the right now seems more interested in the Russian Revolution than the left. A source of righteous horror for conservative historians that proves the inevitable trajectory of radical social change towards totalitarianism and mass murder, the left, by contrast, seems happy to consign the whole enterprise to the dustbin of history.

But veteran American leftist, Murray Bookchin has been rummaging around where others now disdain to look. This book is the penultimate volume in a mammoth history of “revolutions from below” from the Levellers of 17th century England to the anarchist-dominated Spanish revolution of 1936-7. Neither apologia or indictment, it does not deny the incipient totalitarianism or the ruthlessness, of the Bolsheviks under Lenin, but also recovers the radical democratic possibilities of the Revolution, however briefly they were realised before being snuffed out. It is a reinstatement of the Revolution as more than the precursor to Stalin’s terror.

It is a history that the author seems uniquely placed to write. A teenage communist, later Trotskyite and union activist, Bookchin became an anarchist in the ‘60s and one of the first modern ecological thinkers, fusing the two strands of thought in a philosophy known as social ecology. He grew up in the revolutionary tradition. His Russian grandparents even smuggled guns into the country on the eve of the aborted 1905 Revolution.

It is this background, which gives the book its vivid closeness to its subject and almost journalistic, ground-level description of events. It often reads like the Russian epic it is describing, rather than the dry academic tomes of an EH Carr.

The core of the book is the description of the radical democratic revolution Russian underwent after the overthrow of the monarchy in February. Not in government (the provisional government that replaced the Tsar appointed itself) but in the elected factory, neighbourhood and village committees, in the workers’ militia that outnumbered the police, and in the district soviets (or councils) which sprang up across Petrograd and Moscow, quite independently of the Bolsheviks and other socialist parties. “Workers, soldiers, sailors and peasants created a dazzling new social and economic reality that remade the institutional structure of Russian society,” writes Bookchin.

The factory committees, for example, apart from demanding rights such as the eight hour day and vetoing the appointment of unpopular managers, concerned themselves with all aspects of worker’s daily lives: “They saw to the workers’ food supply, opening canteens and establishing co-operatives as hunger set in … in time they took responsibility for the formation of workers’ militias, educational and cultural affairs, and campaigns against gambling and drunkenness … Virtually no aspect of life escaped the attention of the committees. In one instance a committee took it upon itself to decide whether to busy scented soap for the workers.”

This sudden blooming of democracy after centuries of stifling autocracy created a momentum for change that the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet, dominated by orthodox Marxists who wanted to act as handmaidens to a bourgeois revolution, could not control. At a mass demonstration in July 1917, one sailor grabbed hold of the Socialist Revolutionary leader Victor Chernov, screaming: “why don’t you take power, you son of a bitch, when we are giving it to you!”

One revolutionary was prepared to. Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, had a profoundly unMarxist attitude of the power of individuals to change history and a personal maxim of “let’s just do it, then we’ll see” uncannily in tune with the advertising slogan of a modern footwear manufacturer. Bookchin does not condemn the bloodless Bolshevik coup of October 1917 which merely put the unelected Provisional government out of its misery. In fact early Bolshevik rule was distinctly libertarian, resembling the programme of Russia’s anarcho-syndicalists. Workers’ control in the factories was legalised, an immediate end to the war with Germany promised, land pledged to the peasants, equal rights for women and social insurance for workers were introduced, and the army replaced with a militia in which officers were elected.

Tragically it did not last. Whether obsessed by survival after the failure of western Europe to follow Russia into revolution or dominated by Lenin’s inherent authoritarianism, Communist rule gradually descended into dictatorship. Other socialist and revolutionary parties were kicked out of factory committees and soviets and arrested, workers were gunned down when they went out on strike and a secret police or Cheka was established under the Polish poet Felix Dzerhinsky. Lenin was reduced to mouthing doublethink that “there is absolutely no contradiction between Soviet, that is socialist, democracy and the exercise of dictatorial power by individuals.”

But the descent into totalitarianism could have been averted. The Left Socialist Revolutionaries, short-time coalition partners of the Bolsheviks, had a different vision of Russia’s future based on worker’s control in factories, the traditional communalism of the peasantry and freedom for all socialist parties. In July 1918, furious at the German army’s continued incursions into Ukraine after the signing of the Brest Litovsk peace treaty, two members assassinated the German ambassador. Supported by 2,000 soldiers, the Left SRs barricaded themselves into the barracks of the Cheka, took over the telegraph office and declared that Communist rule had been overthrown. Lenin, with only 700 troops to defend his regime, doubted whether he could hold out till morning. But the insurgents’ nerve failed them and their entire party leadership was subsequently arrested.

Finally in 1921, the Kronstadt sailors, ‘the pride and glory of the revolution’ according to Trotsky, rose up and called for a ‘third revolution’ to end the ‘commissarocracy’ and restore democracy to the soviets. But the Petrograd workers, exhausted by years of near famine conditions, did not respond and after a bloody battle the rebels were transported in chains through the streets of the city and then killed. “The Revolution had all but come to an end.”
The Third Revolution rescues from historical amnesia the men and women who fought and often died in revolutions that, however fleetingly, brought into reality radical ideas of freedom and democracy. But they ultimately were defeated. It was the authoritarians – the Cromwells, Robespierres and Lenins who emerged victorious. A lingering questions remains after reading this book – why do revolutions seem to inevitably devour their own ideals?