The Limitations of Libertarian Municipalism

Murray Bookchin is one of the 20th century’s most well known anarchists. His Post Scarcity Anarchism and Social Anarchism and Lifestyle Anarchism are by now anarchist classics. Furthermore, Bookchin played a very important role in the advent and development of the ecological movement. His ideas regarding “social ecology” there too have been very influential. Bookchin was one of the first to articulate the ecological crisis in its true dimensions, and its underlying social causes.

He died in his 80s a pauper, but he lived quite the rich life. Toward the end of his life he became dissatisfied with the anarchist movement, particularly in the United States. He also became quite critical of the role of class struggle in the transformation of capitalist society. One of his key ideas, “libertarian municipalism,” has risen to prominence in recent years; Occupy, Nuit Debout, Indignados, Rojava and so on have emphasised decentralised struggle at the local level and through popular urban assemblies and in each one can discern the influence of Bookchin’s ideas.

There’s a great article on municipalism at Truthout. I highly recommend it.

Bookchin’s ideas regarding the revolutionary potential of municipal politics was distilled in a posthumously published book entitled The Next Revolution. I have read this book. Perhaps I should review it.

I think libertarian municipalists are doing great work, but I don’t think it can led to the transformation of capitalist society. Moreover, I agree with Michael Albert’s, from Znet, critique of libertarian municipalism and broadly speaking I find much to like regarding his and Steve Shalom’s vision of a participatory polity. However, those inspired by Bookchin are surely right that a participatory polity must involve struggle at the local political level.

My views regarding libertarian municipalism are encapsulated in an earlier essay I wrote on Nuit Debout, which I think has held up well. I repeat the key relevant points in the paragraphs that follow.

There exists more than a whiff of Murray Bookchin’s communalism to these uprisings, so it is worth bearing in mind Bookchin’s own words regarding the alterglobalisation movement of the 1990s, “a politics of mere protest, lacking programmatic content, a proposed alternative, and a movement to give people direction and continuity, consists of little more than events, each of which has a beginning and an end but little more.”

Bookchin’s charge applied to the assemblies of North America and Europe are more than a tad unfair, the programmatic content and even the alternative are offered, but there is a sense in which they do have a beginning and an end and that end does not and cannot end in a revolutionary transformation of society.

This weakness exists not only with the current movements, but with Bookchin’s communalist vision itself. Indeed, Bookchin’s approach could be seen as a key source underpinning the weakness of the current movements.

To transform capitalist society requires more than just occupying public space, debating matters of public importance, and passing resolutions. The means of production remain in the hands of capital and so long as they do so there is no transformation of capitalist society no matter how fiery the rhetoric and how far reaching the resolutions.

To be sure the Nuit debout uprisings have been accompanied by a general strike, millions of workers have been mobilised, and they have rocked the “socialist” government of France now offering some concessions to the movement alongside the baton of the gendarmes. Globalisation, based on the free movement of capital around the world, entails a certain logic and any concessions won today will always be under threat tomorrow as the dynamics of globalisation demand that the neoliberal revolution be a permanent one.

For the uprisings to be truly transformative the means of production need to be in the hands of the public or at the very least significantly disrupted. Passing resolutions even to this very affect achieves little if ownership of the means of production, sitting in security behind the protective walls of the coercive state, remain unaffected.

There needs to exist a greater element of class struggle to the uprisings. In Bookchin’s latter, influential, writings class struggle was eschewed. In Bookchin’s vision popular assemblies of citizens will deliberate on economic matters, and it is they that shall make decisions regarding the production, allocation and distribution of resources. There exists no vision for how workers qua workers would own and manage the socialised means of production.

This programmatic gap, quite deliberate as Bookchin in his last years dismissed not only post leftist anarchism but also class struggle anarchism, leads to a gap in praxis or strategy that we can see with Nuit debout and so on. The gap in vision of how it is that workers would own and manage workplaces necessarily leads to a strategy that neglects class struggle.

What is needed, in addition to the popular assemblies that offer a vision in praxis of an alternative non statist politics, are assemblies of workers or workers councils within the existing means of production. These workers councils would deliberate, pass resolutions regarding the governance of the workplaces in which their number work, and in doing so would occupy industry through sit in strikes to give these resolutions affect. Should this happen at enough work places around the world we would be moving toward a genuinely prerevolutionary situation.

It has been said that the Nuit debout uprisings had their genesis in the idea that protestors should not go home after the next protest rather they should stay and occupy space. What if we decided as workers that we would not picket outside the workplace and then go back to work after the next big strike, that we would occupy the factory!

There is another sense in which the communalist vision of Bookchin is lacking. Not only does the neglect of workers qua workers lead to a deemphasis of revolutionary class struggle, it also ignores the powerful revolutionary possibilities opened up through a linkage of the cooperative movement with the assembly movements. Many workers today, more than commonly realised, work in cooperative enterprises.

A networking of cooperative enterprises with popular assemblies into autonomous social zones would create genuinely autonomous, continuous and self sustaining systems of social relations incorporating economic and political forms within the shell of the old, capitalist, society. These autonomous spaces might spread like wildfire as they federate at the local, regional, and global level. To act in this fashion is to build a new libertarian socialist society.

There is no reason why we should emphasise one form of struggle over another for each of them are critical. It might well be that workers councils within the existing means of production are more liable to grow and proliferate when the cooperative movement or the assembly movement or both crystallise from without. We do not know enough about social relations and human beings to make prescriptions for one form of emancipatory praxis over another a priori.