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Imagining the city: Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism
05 set 2015
Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism challenges a variety of forms of anarchist activism and politics by insisting on the need to take and create political power and the institutions required for the government of freedom. There are echoes here of Hannah Arendt’s distinction between liberation and the politics of liberty that lies at the centre of her reflections on revolution. Liberation does not amount to political freedom; it but inaugurates a new history, the possibility of novel political agency, which without a subsequent proper institutional framework collapses into arbitrary power. The failure to make this distinction in practice underlies the tragedy of the french revolution, in contrast to the revolution of the united states. And the inability or refusal to think the distinction through in all of it implications risks condemning to oblivion the noble heritage of revolution. (Hannah Arendt, On Revolution)
Bookchin’s criticism of what he calls communitarianism moves within similar territory. By “communitarianism”, he understands the “movements and ideologies that seek to transform society by creating so-called alternative economic and living situations such as food cooperatives, health centers, schools, printing workshops, community centers, neighbourhood farms, “squats,” unconventional lifestyles, and the like”; a tradition within anarchism and libertarianism inspired by the work of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. According to Bookchin, communitarianism “seeks to gently edge social development away from privately owned enterprises – banks, corporations, supermarkets, factories, and industrial systems of agriculture – and the lifeways to which they give rise, into collectively owned enterprises and values.” “It does not seek to create a power center that will overthrow capitalism; it seeks rather to outbid it, outprice it, or outlast it, often by presenting a moral obstacle to the greed and evil that many find in a bourgeois economy. It is not a politics but a practice.” The political fragility of such an activism is that the communities that it gives rise to are invariably forced to submit to logics of capitalist economic accumulation and existing political powers. They thus fail to “become centers of popular power – partly because they are not concerned with addressing issues of power as such, and partly too because they have no way of mobilizing people around visions of how society should be controlled.” Even though such communities may “imbue individuals with collectivist values and concerns, they do not provide the institutional means for acquiring collective power.” Consequently, any oppositional or anti-capitalist virtues that can be attributed to such communities are ultimately illusory.

Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, by contrast, “is decidedly a confrontational form of face-to-face democratic, antistatist politics. Looking outward to the entire municipality and beyond, it is decidedly concerned with the all-important question of power, and it poses the questions: Where shall power exist? By what part of society shall it exist?” To the question, “what institutions can make the exercise of nonstatist power possible and effective?”, Bookchin answers with the municipality. Between amorphous communities and the institutions of the nation State, the municipal offers a sphere of political activity and a domain for the exercise of power that can politiclly structure the former, while undermining and displacing the latter. For this aim, organisation is necessary, even a vanguard, “that itself has its own rigorous paideia; that creates a responsible membership of informed and dedicated citizens; that has a structure and a program; and that creates its own institutions, based on a rational constitution.”

“… no major social change will ever occur without a well-organized vanguard movement that is structured by a constitution and places clear-cut requirements on the right of the people to join it.”

Such an orgnisation can be conceived of as a “polis-in-the-making”, that “while building a libertarian municipalist movement, can safeguard its basic principles from cooptation (the usual fate of good ideas these days), nourish their development, and apply them in complex and difficult situations. Without a clearly definable organization, a movement is likely to fall into the tyranny of structurelessness.” And to translate what is prefigured into political reality, the organisation should “run candidates in city council elections.” We “cannot hope to establish any kind of truly libertarian society without creating a public sphere, beginning with a grassroots electoral politics based on the creation of popular assemblies.”

The great merit of Bookchin’s work is that it does oblige anarchists to confront the question of power: how are existing power relations to be contested? is a counter-power necessary? how might the latter itself be organised? and once revolutionary power supplants class power, how is the new power to be institutionalised? Such questions cannot be simply dismissed, and recent debates in spain (for example, the initiatives Procés Embate and Construyendo pueblo fuerte) regarding the need to organise anarchism, revolve around similar concerns to those of Bookchin. Where they part company with Bookchin however is on his emphasis on the municipal as the proper space for the creation of “collective, communal power.” If what Bookchin proposes is to take “class struggle” into the “municipal arena”, it is by no means clear why or how this space should be given priority or be privileged, for municipal politics is as much defined by Capital as any other sphere of political-social life. The municipal politics of cities of five, ten, even twenty million people, function along lines that render any libertarian municipalism , as conceived by Bookchin, a contradiction in terms. Such that a taking of power in such urban spaces would have very little to do with “libertarian institutions of directly democratic assemblies tht would oppose and replace the State.” Municipal authority is a State. The advocacy of libertarian municipalism then amounts to what very much looks like old-fashioned Leninism, though on a smaller scale: one takes the State, now at the level of the city, to then dismantle the State.

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Re: Imagining the city: Murray Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism
05 set 2015
si teneis la amabilidad de traducir el texto os estaremos profundamente agradecidos.