CLARK, John. Municipal Dreams : A Social Ecological Critique of Bookchin’s Politics (4)

FederalismPolitics. DecisionLaw. Majority


Democracy, Ecology and Community

Revolution in America (1969-1997)

Citizenship and Self-Identity

The "Agent of History"

The Municipality as Ground of Social Being

The Social and the Political

The Municipalist Program

The Fetishism of Assemblies

Municipal Economics

A Confederacy of Bookchinists

Anarchist political thought has usually proposed that social cooperation beyond the local level should take place through voluntary federations of relatively autonomous individuals, productive enterprises or communities. While classical anarchist theorists like Proudhon and Bakunin called such a system "federalism," Bookchin calls his variation on this theme "confederalism." He describes its structure as consisting of "above all a network of administrative councils whose members or delegates are elected from popular face-to-face democratic assemblies, in the various villages, towns, and even neighborhoods of large cities." [1] Under such a system, we are told, power remains entirely in the hands of the assemblies. "Policymaking is exclusively the right of popular community assemblies," while "administration and coordination are the responsibility of confederal councils." [2] Councils therefore exist only to carry out the will of the assemblies. Toward this end, "the members of these confederal councils are strictly mandated, recallable, and responsible to the assemblies that chose them for the purpose of coordinating and administering the policies formulated by the assemblies themselves." [3] Thus, while majority rule of some sort is to prevail in the assemblies, which are the exclusive policy-making bodies, the administrative councils are strictly limited to following the directives of these bodies.

However, it is not clear how this absolute division between policy-making and administration could possibly work in practice. How, for example, is administration to occur when there are disagreements on policy between assemblies? Libertarian municipalism is steadfastly against delegation by assemblies of policy-making authority, so all collective activity must presumably depend on consensus of assemblies, as expressed in the "administrative councils." If there is a majority vote on policy issues, then this would mean that policy would indeed be made a the confederal level. Bookchin is quick to attack "the tyranny of consensus" as a decision-making procedure within assemblies in which each member of the group is free to compromise for the sake of the common good. Yet, ironically, he seems obliged to depend on it for decision-making in bodies whose members are rigidly mandated to vote according to previous directions from their assemblies.

Or at least he seems to be committed to such a position until he considers what will occur when some communities do not abide by the fundamental principles or policies adopted in common. Bookchin states that "if particular communities or neighborhoods—or a minority grouping of them—choose to go their own way to a point where human rights are violated or where ecological mayhem is permitted, the majority in a local or regional confederation has every right to prevent such malfeasance through its confederal council." [4] However, this proposal blatantly contradicts his requirement that policy be made only at the assembly level. If sanctions are imposed by a majority vote of the council, this would be an obvious case of a quite important policy being adopted above the assembly level. A very crucial, unanswered question is by what means the confederal council would exercise such a "preventive" authority (presumably Bookchin has in mind various forms of coercion). But whatever his answer might be, such action would constitute policy-making in an important area. There is clearly a broad scope for interpretation of what does or does not infringe on human rights, or what does or does not constitute an unjustifiable ecological danger. If the majority of communities acting confederally through a council acts coercively to deal with such basic issues, then certain state-like functions would emerge at the confederal level.

It appears that the only way to avoid this result is to take a purist anarchist approach, and assume that action can only be taken at any level above the assembly through fully voluntary agreements, with full rights of secession on any issue (including "mayhem"). According to such an approach, a community would have the right to withdraw from common endeavors, even for purposes that others might think unjust to humans or ecologically destructive. Of course, the other communities would still be able to take action against the allegedly offending community because of its supposed misdeeds. They would have had this ability in any case, even if the offending community had never entered into the "non-policy-making" confederal agreement. Should Bookchin choose to adopt this position, he would have to give up the concept of enforcement at the confederal level. He would then be proposing a form of confederal organization in which everything would be decided by consensus, and in which the majority of confederating communities would have no power of enforcement in any area. His position would then have the virtue of consistency, though very few would consider it a viable way of solving problems in a complex world.

There are other aspects of Bookchin’s confederalism that raise questions about the practicality or even the possibility of such a system. He proposes that activities of the assemblies be coordinated through the confederal councils, whose members must be "rotatable, recallable, and, above all, rigorously instructed in written form to support or oppose any issue that appears on the agenda." [5] But could such instruction be a practical possibility in modern urban society (assuming, as Bookchin seems to, that the arrival of municipalism and confederalism are not to be delayed until after the dissolution of urban industrial society)? Perhaps Paris might be taken as an example, in honor of the Parisian "sections" of the French Revolution that Bookchin recalls so often as a model for municipal politics. Metropolitan Paris has roughly eight and one-half million people. If government were devolved into assemblies for each large neighborhood of twenty-five thousand people, there would be three-hundred and forty assemblies in the metropolitan area. If it were decentralized into much more democratic assemblies for areas of a few blocks, with about a thousand citizens each, there would then be eight-thousand five-hundred Parisian assemblies. If the city thus had hundreds or even thousands of neighborhood assemblies, and each "several" assemblies (as Bookchin suggests) would send delegates to councils, which presumably would have to form even larger confederations for truly municipal issues, could the chain of responsibility hold up? And if so, how?

When confronted with such questions, Bookchin offers no reply other than that he doesn’t believe in the existence of the kind of centralized, urbanized society in which these problems arise. However, his political proposals are apparently directed at people living in precisely such a world. If municipalism is not practicable in the kind of society in which real human beings happen to find themselves, then the question arises of what other political arrangements might be practicable and also move toward the goals that Bookchin embodies in municipalism. Yet his politics does not address this issue. We are left with the abstract pursuit of an ideal and an appeal to the will that it be realized. Bookchin’s late work in particular expresses a defiant will that history should become what it ought to be, and a poorly-contained rage at the thought that it stubbornly seems not to be doing so. Objections that his social analysis and political proposals lack an adequate relation to actual history are usually met with ridicule and sarcasm, and seldom with reasoned argument.

Municipalizing Nature?

As Bookchin has increasingly focused on the concept of municipalist politics, the theme of ecological politics has faded increasingly further into the background of his thought. In fact, the idea of a bioregional politics has never really been developed in his version of social ecology. Yet, there are two fundamental social ecological principles that essentially define a bioregional perspective. One is the recognition of the dialectic of nature and culture, in which the larger natural world is seen as an active co-participant in the creative activities of human beings. The other is the principle of unity-in-diversity, in which the unique, determinate particularity of each part is seen as making an essential contribution to the unfolding of the developing whole. While Bookchin has done much to stress the importance of such general principles, what has been missing in his discussion of politics is a sensitivity to the details of the natural world and the quite particular ways in which it can and does shape human cultural endeavors, and a sense of inhabiting a natural whole, whether an ecosystem, a bioregion, or the entire biosphere.

If one searches Bookchin’s writings carefully, one finds very little detailed discussion of ecological situatedness and bioregional particularity, despite a theoretical commitment to such values. Typically, he limits himself to statements such as that there should be a "sensitive balance between town and country" [6] and that a municipality should be "delicately attuned to the natural ecosystem in which it is located." [7] In The Ecology of Freedom he says that ecological communities should be "networked confederally through ecosystems, bioregions, and biomes," that they "must be artistically tailored to their natural surroundings," and that they "would aspire to live with, nourish, and feed upon the life-forms that indigenously belong to the ecosystems in which they are integrated." [8] These statements show concern for the relationship of a community to its ecological context, but the terms chosen to describe this relationship do not imply that bioregional realities are to be central to the culture. Furthermore, Bookchin’s discussions of confederalism invariably base organization on political principles and spatial proximity. He does not devote serious attention to the possibility of finding a bioregional basis for confederations or networks of communities.

It is possible that an underlying concern that discourages Bookchin from focusing on bioregional culture (and quite strikingly, on communal traditions also) is his mistaken perception that these realities somehow threaten the freedom of the individual. A bioregional approach places very high value on human creative activity within the context of a sense of place, in the midst of a continuity of natural and cultural history. Bioregionalism is based on a kind of commitment that Bookchin steadfastly rejects; that is, a giving oneself over to the other, a choosing without "choosing to choose," a recognition of the claim of the other on the deepest levels of one’s being. Bookchin describes his ideal community as "the commune that unites individuals by what they choose to like in each other rather than what they are obliged by blood ties to like." [9] But when one affirms one’s membership in a human or natural community, one is hardly concerned with "choosing what to like and not to like" in the community (though one may certainly judge one’s own human community quite harshly out of love and compassion for it). The community becomes, indeed, an extension of one’s very selfhood. Individualist concepts of choice, rights, justice and interest lose their validity in this context. It seems that Bookchin does not want to take the risk of this kind of communitarian thinking, and is satisfied with the weak communitarianism of libertarian municipalism, assembly government, and civic virtue.

Sometimes Bookchin seems to touch on a bioregional perspective, but he does not carry his thinking in this area very far. He says that in an ecological society, "land would be used ecologically such that forests would grow in areas that are most suitable for arboreal flora and widely mixed food plants in areas that are most suitable for crops." [10] Culture and nature would seemingly both get their due through this simple division. Yet a major ecological problem results from the fact that, except in the case of tropical rain forests, most areas that are quite well suited for forests (or prairies, or even wetlands) can also be used in a highly-productive manner for crop production. A bioregional approach would stress heavily the importance of biological diversity and ecological integrity, and have much less enthusiasm for the further development of certain areas on grounds that they are "suitable for crops," [11] in cases in which such development is not necessary to provide adequately for human needs.

Bookchin comes closest to an authentically bioregional approach when he explains that "localism, taken seriously, implies a sensitivity to speciality, particularity, and the uniqueness of place, indeed a sense of place or topos that involves deep respect (indeed, ’loyalty,’ if I may use a term that I would like to offset against ’patriotism’) to the areas in which we live and that are given to us in great part by the natural world itself." [12] These admirable general principles need, however, to be developed into a comprehensive bioregional perspective that would give them a more concrete meaning. This perspective would address such issues as the ways in which bioregional particularity can be brought back into the town or city, how it can be discovered beneath the transformed surface, and how it can be expressed in the symbols, images, art, rituals and other cultural expressions of the community. Bioregionalism gives content to the abstract concept that the creation of the ecological community is a dialectical, cooperative endeavor between human beings and the natural world. A bioregional politics expands our view of the political, by associating it more with the processes of ecologically-grounded cultural creativity and with a mutualistic, cooperative process of self-expression on the part of the human community and the larger community of nature. Libertarian municipalism tends to focus on politics as communal economic management, and political processes as policy-making and self-development through collective decision-making in assemblies. Unlike bioregionalism, it constitutes at best a rather "thin" ecological politics.

Continued: Conclusion

[1Bookchin, "The Meaning of Confederalism" in Green Perspectives 20 (1990), p. 4.



[4Bookchin, "Libertarian Municipalism," p. 3. Emphasis added

[5Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization, p. 246.

[6Bookchin, Remaking Society, p. 168.

[7Ibid., p. 195.

[8Bookchin, The Ecology of Freedom, p. 344.


[10Bookchin, Remaking Society, p. 195.

[11One of the challenges of a social ecological and bioregional perspective is to overcome one-sided approaches that undialectically focus on either production for human need or limiting production for the sake of ecological sustainability. Bookchin’s social ecology has tended toward the former, especially as exhibited in his dogmatic, unrealistic statements concerning population, while some versions of deep ecology have tended toward the latter, as manifested in equally uncritical, reductionist analysis of population and "carrying capacity." In the resulting "debate," population is either the root of all evil, or no problem at all.

[12Bookchin, The Rise of Urbanization, p. 253.