Libertarian Municipalism – Murray Bookchin and Social Ecology

Murray Bookchin (January 14, 1921 – July 30, 2006) was a staunch defender of Enlightenment values (in a time when those values have become, if not reactionary, at least passe), and a harsh critic of the  fringe elements within the environmental movement such as the biocentric philosophies of deep ecology and the deterministic science of sociobiology. Throughout his life he worked toward a libertarian socialist vision, divorced from the more indvidualist ethos of the anarchistic tradition, and more in alignment, and harkening back, to the early communilism of the Paris Commune.

His legacy is his commitment to a vision of life that entailed realignment of social values toward the goal of harmonic balance between human need and natural world. He termed this Social Ecology:

“Social ecology is an ecology not of hunger and material deprivation but of plenty; it seeks the creation of a rational society in which waste, indeed excess, will be controlled by a new system of values; and when or if shortages arise as a result of irrational behaviour, popular assemblies will establish rational standards of consumption by democratic processes. (p. 97 Social Ecology and Communalism).”

Communalism was for Bookchin the integration of Social Ecology in the public sphere of politics, which included libertarian municipalism and dialectical naturalism. He saw this vision as drawing on the older Left ideologies of Marxism and anarchism – the libertarian socialist tradition, and integrating it with an environmental ethic of sustainability and balance with the natural world. He saw it not as a impossible dream but as a fully dialectical enactment of theory and practice that would unite the best of the anarchistic traditions with its commitments to antistatism and confederalism, as well as its fierce antagonism against hierarchichal forms of domination in politics and environmental concerns. Communalism offers us a critique of the market economies, as well as a forward looking vision of what might replace the current economic system that is degrading both human and non-human environments. As he states it, Communalism’s,

“…aim is not to nationalize the economy or retain private ownership of the means of production but to municipalize the economy. It seeks to integrate the means of production into the existential life of the municipality, such that every productive enterprise falls under the purview of local assemblies, which decides how it will meet the interests and needs of the community as a whole (p. 102 ibid).”

Not being a pipe-dreamer, Bookchin, knew that the communalist vision would need to provide an educative as well as political vision, that to change the world we would need a new ‘vocabulary’ “to explain its goals, and a new program and theoretical framework to make those goals coherent (p. 111 ibid).” And, as with most things, he knew that it would need commitment of indviduals, of leadership, as well as a political structure, a set of institutions, with bylaws and a constitution. For as he says, “Without a democratically formulated and approved institutional framework whose members and leaders can be held accountable, clearly articulated standards of responsibility cease to exist (p. 112 ibid).”

His commitment to a free society based on mutual respect and non-hierarchichal principles of government and economy are admirable and to be applauded, but as we now look around the planet and see the power of transnational capital and the superclasses that control it, I wonder if his vision, like many good hearted men of his calibre, is too idealistic in the end. Yet, if we do nothing what shall be our excuse, our justification? As he said just before his death, “…our choices on how to transform the existing society are still on the table of history and are faced with immense problems. But unless present and future generations are beaten into complete submission by a culture based on queasy calculation as well as by police with tear gas and water cannons, we cannot desist from fighting for what freedoms we have and try to expand them into a free society wherever the oppurtunity to do so emerges (p. 116 ibid).”

Let us hope that the present generation will listen to those wise words, and awaken from their ideological sleep, and begin to realize the social dream of a free and open society based not upon market economics and domination of the rich over the poor, but on an egalitarian vision of social justice and equalitarian values that might lead us toward a social ecology that values not growth and mindless capitalism but the harmonic balance between human and environmental needs and creativity.

4 thoughts on “Libertarian Municipalism – Murray Bookchin and Social Ecology

  1. Goodness! I searching out a Bookchin text and found that this post of yours. I’m wanting to review some of Bookchin’s writing in post-scarcity anarchism and the later libertarian municipalism as just the kind of thought that might take from “Lenin” the tactical concerns without ever giving up the radical egalitarianism of the anarchist horizon. Have you ever had a crack at Ecology of Freedom?

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    • Oh yea… I was an anarchistic creature a long way back… I’ve been a fanboy of Bookchin from his first work ages ago… Arran, I’ve been as the proverbial saying goes – “there and back again” as far as reading… I think I’m a sort of smorgsboard of the American psyche… the wounds of hippies grow long! My only skepticism of my old mentor now is the stance on Reason and Enlightenment tradition… he couldn’t see past it and filtered all his thoughts with that blind register.

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      • The feeling I always had, and share with a lot of his critics, is precisely that he is too caught in modernism’s web. To modernise modernism, as Andre Gorz had it, means realising that modernity was still irrational in the sense of believing in progress and teleology. Bookchin even managed to weave that into nature itself, citing man as the highest of animals and complexity as destiny (I always wanted to say…yes, concrete is “simpler” than nature, but is an airport simpler than a coconut? Is it any less beautiful?) Yet his anarchist critics were hardly ever much more than adolescent utopians. At any rate, I like the fact that he was looking at practical problems.

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      • I think this statement by Bookchin is the best summary of his thought:

        “Only the complete substitution of hierarchical society as it has developed over thousands of years with all the moral, spiritual. religious, philosophical, economic , and political paraphernalia that has accompanied that development–by an ecological society can finally bring nature and a fulfilled humanity into harmony with each other. Indeed, it is only in an ecological society, free of all hierarchy and domination, that this fulfilled humanity can find its ecological role in developing a free nature–one in which nature is rendered fully self–conscious by a species of its own creation and by rational faculties that have emerged from its own evolution.”

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