J.5.14 What is Libertarian Municipalism?
In his article “Theses on Libertarian Municipalism” [in The Anarchist Papers, Black Rose Press, 1986], Murray Bookchin has proposed a non-parliamentary electoral strategy for anarchists. He has repeated this proposal in many of his later works, such as From Urbanisation to Cities and has made it — at least in the USA — one of the many alternatives anarchists are involved in. The main points of his argument are summarised below, followed by a brief commentary.
According to Bookchin, “the proletariat, as do all oppressed sectors of society, comes to life when it sheds its industrial habits in the free and spontaneous activity of communising, or taking part in the political life of the community.” In other words, Bookchin thinks that democratisation of local communities may be as strategically important, or perhaps more important, to anarchists than workplace struggles.
Since local politics is humanly scaled, Bookchin argues that it can be participatory rather than parliamentary. Or, as he puts it, “[t]he anarchic ideal of decentralised, stateless, collectively managed, and directly democratic communities — of confederated municipalities or ‘communes’ — speaks almost intuitively, and in the best works of Proudhon and Kropotkin, consciously, to the transforming role of libertarian municipalism as the framework of a liberatory society. . . “ He also points out that, historically, the city has been the principle countervailing force to imperial and national states, haunting them as a potential challenge to centralised power and continuing to do so today, as can be seen in the conflicts between national government and municipalities in many countries.
But, despite the libertarian potential of urban politics, “urbanisation” — the growth of the modern megalopolis as a vast wasteland of suburbs, shopping malls, industrial parks, and slums that foster political apathy and isolation in realms of alienated production and private consumption — is antithetical to the continued existence of those aspects of the city that might serve as the framework for a libertarian municipalism. “When urbanisation will have effaced city life so completely that the city no longer has its own identity, culture, and spaces for consociation, the bases for democracy — in whatever way the word in defined — will have disappeared and the question of revolutionary forms will be a shadow game of abstractions.”
Despite this danger, however, Bookchin thinks that a libertarian politics of local government is still possible, provided anarchists get their act together. “The Commune still lies buried in the city council; the sections still lie buried in the neighbourhood; the town meeting still lies buried in the township; confederal forms of municipal association still lie buried in regional networks of towns and cities.”
What would anarchists do electorally at the local level? Bookchin proposes that they change city and town charters to make political institutions participatory. “An organic politics based on such radical participatory forms of civic association does not exclude the right of anarchists to alter city and town charters such that they validate the existence of directly democratic institutions. And if this kind of activity brings anarchists into city councils, there is no reason why such a politics should be construed as parliamentary, particularly if it is confined to the civic level and is consciously posed against the state.”
In a latter essay, Bookchin argues that Libertarian Muncipalism “depends upon libertarian leftists running candidates at the local level, calling for the division of municipalities into wards, where popular assemblies can be created that bring people into full and direct participation in political life . . . municipalities would [then] confederate into a dual power to oppose the nation-state and ultimately dispense with it and with the economic forces that underpin statism as such.” [Democracy and Nature no. 9, p. 158] This would be part of a social wide transformation, whose “[m]inimal steps . . . include initiating Left Green municipalist movements that propose neighbourhood and town assemblies – even if they have only moral functions at first – and electing town and city councillors that advance the cause of these assemblies and other popular institutions. These minimal steps can lead step-by-step to the formation of confederal bodies. . . Civic banks to fund municipal enterprises and land purchases; the fostering of new ecologically-orientated enterprises that are owned by the community. . .” [From Urbanisation to Cities, p. 266]
Thus Bookchin sees Libertarian Muncipalism as a process by which the state can be undermined by using elections as the means of creating popular assemblies. Part of this process, he argues, would be the “municipalisation of property” which would “bring the economy as a whole into the orbit of the public sphere, where economic policy could be formulated by the entire community.” [Op. Cit. p. 235]
Bookchin considers Libertarian Muncipalism as the key means of creating an anarchist society, and argues that those anarchists who disagree with it are failing to take their politics seriously. “It is curious,” he notes, “that many anarchists who celebrate the existence of a ‘collectivised’ industrial enterprise, here and there, with considerable enthusiasm despite its emergence within a thoroughly bourgeois economic framework, can view a municipal politics that entails ‘elections’ of any kind with repugnance, even if such a politics is structured around neighbourhood assemblies, recallable deputies, radically democratic forms of accountability, and deeply rooted localist networks.” [“Theses on Libertarian Municipalism”]
In evaluating Bookchin’s proposal, several points come to mind.
Firstly, it is clear that Libertarian Muncipalism’s arguments in favour of community assemblies is important and cannot be ignored. Bookchin is right to note that, in the past, many anarchists placed far too much stress on workplace struggles and workers’ councils as the framework of a free society. Many of the really important issues that affect us cannot be reduced to workplace organisations, which by their very nature disenfranchise those who do not work in industry (such as housewives, the old, and so on). And, of course, there is far more to life than work and so any future society organised purely around workplace organisations is reproducing capitalism’s insane glorification of economic activity, at least to some degree. So, in this sense, Libertarian Muncipalism has a very valid point — a free society will be created and maintained within the community as well as in the workplace.
Secondly, Bookchin and other Libertarian Muncipalists are totally correct to argue that anarchists should work in their local communities. As noted in section J.5.1, many anarchists are doing just that and are being very successful as well. However, most anarchists reject the idea that using elections are a viable means of “struggle toward creating new civic institutions out of old ones (or replacing the old ones altogether).” [From Urbanisation to Cities, p. 267]
The most serious problem has to do with whether politics in most cities has already become too centralised, bureaucratic, inhumanly scaled, and dominated by capitalist interests to have any possibility of being taken over by anarchists running on platforms of participatory democratisation. Merely to pose the question seems enough to answer it. There is no such possibility in the vast majority of cities, and hence it would be a waste of time and energy for anarchists to support libertarian municipalist candidates in local elections — time and energy that could be more profitably spent in direct action. If the central governments are too bureaucratic and unresponsive to be used by Libertarian Municipalists, the same can be said of local ones too.
The counter-argument to this is that even if there is no chance of such candidates being elected, their standing for elections would serve a valuable educational function. The answer to this is: perhaps, but would it be more valuable than direct action? And would its educational value, if any, outweigh the disadvantages of electioneering mentioned in sections J.2.2 and J.2.4, such as the fact that voting ratifies the current system? Given the ability of major media to marginalise alternative candidates, we doubt that such campaigns would have enough educational value to outweigh these disadvantages. Moreover, being an anarchist does not make one immune to the corrupting effects of electioneering (as highlighted in section J.2.6). History is littered with radical, politically aware movements using elections and ending up becoming part of the system they aimed to transform. Most anarchists doubt that Libertarian Muncipalism will be any different — after all, it is the circumstances the parties find themselves in which are decisive, not the theory they hold (the social relations they face will transform the theory, not vice versa, in other words).
Lastly, most anarchists question the whole process on which Libertarian Muncipalism bases itself on. The idea of communes is a key one of anarchism and so strategies to create them in the here and now are important. However, to think that using alienated, representative institutions to abolish these institutions is mad. As the Italian activists (who organised a neighbourhood assembly by non-electoral means) argue, “[t]o accept power and to say that the others were acting in bad faith and that we would be better, would force non-anarchists towards direct democracy. We reject this logic and believe that organisations must come from the grassroots.” [“Community Organising in Southern Italy”, pp. 16-19, Black Flag no. 210, p. 18]
Thus Libertarian Municipalism reverses the process by which community assemblies will be created. Instead of anarchists using elections to build such bodies, they must work in their communities directly to create them (see section J.5.1 – “What is Community Unionism?” for more details). Using the catalyst of specific issues of local interest, anarchists could propose the creation of a community assembly to discuss the issues in question and organise action to solve them. Instead of a “confederal muncipalist movement run[ning] candidates for municipal councils with demands for the institution of public assemblies” [Murray Bookchin, Op. Cit., p. 229] anarchists should encourage people to create these institutions themselves and empower themselves by collective self-activity. As Kropotkin argued, “Laws can only follow the accomplished facts; and even if they do honestly follow them – which is usually not the case – a law remains a dead letter so long as there are not on the spot the living forces required for making the tendencies expressed in the law an accomplished fact.” [Kropotkin’s Revolutionary Pamphlets, p. 171] Most anarchists, therefore, think it is far more important to create the “living forces” within our communities directly than waste energy in electioneering and the passing of laws creating or “legalising” community assemblies. In other words, community assemblies can only be created from the bottom up, by non-electoral means, a process which Libertarian Muncipalism confuses with electioneering.
So, while Libertarian Muncipalism does raise many important issues and correctly stresses the importance of community activity and self-management, its emphasis on electoral activity undercuts its liberatory promise. For most anarchists, community assemblies can only be created from below, by direct action, and (because of its electoral strategy) a Libertarian Municipalist movement will end up being transformed into a copy of the system it aims to abolish.
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