Sunday, 24 November 2013

Communalism and Libertarian Municipalism

"Perhaps the greatest single failing of movements for social reconstruction — I refer particularly to the Left, to radical ecology groups, and to organizations that profess to speak for the oppressed — is their lack of a politics that will carry people beyond the limits established by the status quo."

"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.”

Communalism as a political philosophy was first coined by the well-known libertarian socialist author and activist Murray Bookchin as a political system to complement his environmental philosophy of social ecology. This primary method used to achieve this is called Libertarian Municipalism which involves the establishment of face-to-face democratic citizens' assemblies in towns and urban neighborhoods which are to grow and expand confederally with the goal of eventually replacing the nation-state. Politically, Communalists advocate a stateless, classless, decentralized society consisting of a network of directly democratic citizens' assemblies in individual communities/cities organized in a confederal fashion. The assemblies in these free municipalities join together to replace the state with a directly-democratic confederation. Bookchin tied libertarian municipalism to a vision for decentralizing cities into small, human scaled eco-communities which could operate on the same scale as rural villages.

Dating back to the days of his 1930s disillusionment with Stalinism, Murray had a lifelong fascination with revolutionary institutions — the various committees, councils, assemblies, soviets, and so on that were historically created during the revolutionary process. There must be no more Robespierres, he resolved, no more Stalins, no more Maos. There must be no more guillotines or gulags. Revolutionaries must learn the lessons of history. If a new revolution were to succeed in creating a liberatory, ecological society, and not devolve into just another brutal power grab, revolutionary institutions would have to be in place that would control and the ruthless desires of some individuals for domination. The only kind of institutions that could both liberate people and at the same time keep the power-hungry in check, he believed, were democratic ones that could hold revolutionary leaders accountable. Indeed the sine qua non of any revolutionary institution must be its ability to facilitate democracy. And by “democracy” Murray did not mean the system practiced by nation-states today, with representatives and legislatures and parliaments, which he considered to be republicanism, a form of statism. He meant, rather, face-to-face democracy.

Libertarian municipalist activists would therefore create groups to run candidates in municipal elections, on platforms calling for the creation of face-to-face democracy in popular assemblies. When the citizenry elected enough such candidates to office, the new city councilors would fulfill the one purpose for which they had been elected: they would alter city and town charters to create popular assemblies. Thus the assemblies would come about as a result of a conscious devolution of power from existing statist municipal institutions: The assemblies, so empowered, would take over the functions of municipal governments. They would municipalize the economy, taking over the ownership and management of local economic life, allowing the people of community to make decisions about economic activity in their area.

Libertarian municipalism uses the strategy of dual power to create a situation in which two powers—the municipal confederations and the nation-state—cannot coexist. 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. While Bookchin long placed libertarian municipalism within the framework of political Anarchism, in the late 1990s he broke with anarchism and in his final essay, The Communalist Project (2003), identified libertarian municipalism as the main component of Communalism. Communalists believe that libertarian municipalism is both the means to achieve a rational society and structure of that society.

"If libertarian municipalism is not to be totally warped of its form and divested of its meaning, it is a desideratum that must be fought for. It speaks to a time — hopefully, one that will yet come when people feel disempowered and actively seek empowerment. Existing in growing tension with the nation-state, it is a process as well as a destiny, a struggle to be fulfilled, not a bequest granted by the summits of the state. It is a dual power that contests the legitimacy of the existing state power. Such a movement can be expected to begin slowly, perhaps sporadically, in communities here and there that initially may demand only the moral authority to alter the structuring of society before enough interlinked confederations exist to demand the outright institutional power to replace the state. The growing tension created by the emergence of municipal confederations represents a confrontation between the state and the political realms. This confrontation can be resolved only after libertarian municipalism forms the new politics of a popular movement and ultimately captures the imagination of millions."

Libertarian Municipalism: An Overview; Murray Bookchin

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