Sunday Nov 18

Should We Revive Murray Bookchin? Can Anarchism Drive Community Organizing for Urban Decentralization and Direct Democracy?

More than 40 years ago, Professor Warren Haggstrom assigned The Revolutionary Tradition and Its Lost Treasure as required reading for his community organizing class, in which I (ben Asher) was a student. It was eye-opening and inspiring for a would-be organizer to explore the political philosophy, history and potential for grassroots empowerment by direct democracy.

Not long afterwards, my reading of The New State was another mind-bending encounter with direct democracy. But then, in the late 1970s, Lawrence Goodwyn published his history of the populist movement in the United States, which caused me to dial down my optimism about direct democracy. Before the end of the nineteenth century, Goodwyn posited, political reformers had reached a silent consensus that “. . . reform politics need not concern itself with structural alteration of the economic customs of the society [emphasis added]. The reform tradition of the twentieth century unconsciously defined itself within the framework of inherited power relationships.”

What, then, was a newly minted organizer to do with his cognitive dissonance? Seeing the pressing need and possibilities for a new directly democratic state, while simultaneously confronting the deeply held bias among reformers against changing the structure of our existing national state, was disheartening.

Searching for an answer, I began reading the writings of the better-known anarchists. They too favored structural change. But they also wanted to eliminate the national state. Among them was Murray Bookchin, described as “an American anarchist and libertarian socialist author, orator, historian and political theorist.” At his death, he was also viewed as a visionary, teacher and activist in the field of ecology. Could anarchistic thinking, his or that of others, given its nihilistic character, produce a strategic organizing vision to create a new state with a directly democratic foundation?

Advocating Direct Democracy

Recently, we encountered Bookchin’s writing again and, surprisingly, learned of his reputed relevance to the present-day Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). We asked ourselves, is it possible he could become a source of intellectual insight and inspiration for progressive community- and faith-based organizing in the United States?

Reading Bookchin’s more recent writing—an updated critique of capitalism focused on its march to environmental destruction—we thought perhaps he had abandoned anarchism. We learned that in his later years he had become an advocate of decentralization and direct democracy.

We appreciate Bookchin’s views that favor grassroots empowerment. We wholeheartedly agree with him that politics and policy are inadequate to deal with the country’s pronounced structural inequality of power, which is the root of its economic, political and social inequality. And we concur that achieving counterbalancing reform requires a change in the structure of our national state.

We can understand why Bookchin’s vision would have been attractive to the leader of the PKK, who according to some reports has adopted Bookchin’s model of confederated direct democracy. The PKK has claimed at times to have abandoned terrorist violence and armed rebellion against the state—which have not been particularly successful for them—in favor of promoting directly democratic municipalities. Kurdish freedom in this incarnation no longer requires overthrowing the state. With the advent of municipal confederations, the PKK expects the nation state will simply wither away. Whatever their expectations, the typical short and medium-term effects should offer more practical benefits than did the prior violent methods.

Caveat Emptor

But we can’t swallow Bookchin’s notion of replacing the nation-state with a “confederation of free municipalities.” He would have us assume that the United States of America will cease to exist in the foreseeable future. We’re not seers, but we can distinguish between (a) revolutionary change in the form of a nation’s government, which is certainly possible, and (b) the end of a nation as an identifiable state. It’s not that nation states never end—of course they do. But when they do, it’s the result of historical forces or military conquest by a foreign power, not an organized internal political or social movement, although such movements may be present to pick up the pieces.

Is it conceivable that conditions in the U.S. will bring about an incremental disintegration of the country as a nation-state, creating a void eventually to be filled by bottom-up institutions of libertarian municipalism? Neither we, nor we imagine, the billionaire class, are holding our collective breaths in anticipation of that possibility. It’s beyond far-fetched.

When it comes to accepting municipal confederations as the antidote to all government nonfeasance and malfeasance, caveat emptor. Eliminating representative metropolitan-wide government (not to mention state and national governments) would at best introduce mind-boggling economic spillovers and political swings between chaos and rigidity, particularly in industrialized states and their urban centers. The tripartite economic and political interests of metropolitan areas, districts within the metropolitan areas, and neighborhoods within the districts, are not the same, and they cannot be represented politically as if they are the same.

This deals a knockout blow to a basic principle of Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism.

Ex-officio legislators or administrators serving at the pleasure of neighborhood assemblies, as proposed by Bookchin, are not likely to manage the demands of metropolitan government, let alone the demands of regional, statewide, and national governance. We would expect them instead, naturally enough, to represent disproportionately the narrower interests of their neighborhood constituencies at the expense of essential district and metropolitan missions.

Bookchin argues in Libertarian Municipalism that “In the case of libertarian municipalism, parochialism can thus be checked not only by the compelling realities of economic interdependence but by the commitment of municipal minorities to defer to the majority wishes of participating communities.” It has a hopeful ring to it, but we don’t see any convincing evidence that it’s likely to turn out as he imagined.

Moreover, whatever future we anticipate, we ought to base our expectations on what we know historically about urban civic behavior. That nearby neighbors may at times see their common interests and decide to cooperate for their common good, we may reasonably expect. But because each neighborhood has its own cultural, class, and historical identity, each is far less likely to form political alliances at the district or metropolitan level with other, notably different, non-contiguous neighborhoods. Try to imagine, for example, agreement on urban renewal (which we know as “urban removal” for its effects on low-income neighborhoods) by the residents of the demographically disparate South Central and Westside districts of Los Angeles. Likewise, the neighborhoods of Pacoima and Larchmont have vastly different interests in regard to routing metropolitan rapid-transit.

Regarding the behavior of urban citizens in neighborhood jurisdictions small enough for direct democracy, Bookchin assumed that, “. . . the special interests that divide people today into workers, professionals, managers, and the like would be melded into a general interest in which people see themselves as citizens guided strictly by the needs of their community and region rather than by personal proclivities and vocational concerns.”

But Bookchin’s assumption simply has no foundation in urban history or social science. Another anarchist, John P. Clark, concludes in his book Beyond the Limits of the City, that “Bookchin’s programmatic formulations sometimes seem to presuppose that such a citizenry has already been formed and merely awaits the opportunity to take power.”

Polycentric Public Powers

Resolving the conundrum of the competing and conflicting interests of the three urban arenas and constituencies—neighborhood, district, and metropolitan—requires separating and balancing their powers. We should not assume that the culture and interests of the neighborhood (which at times can be acutely inward-looking) can adequately govern the whole metropolitan area. Nor should we assume, as is assumed now virtually everywhere, that metropolitan-level officials’ ideologies and interests should exclusively govern the application of public powers in the neighborhoods. Resolution can largely be achieved electorally in a polycentric metropolitan government structure, one in which constituencies based on districts (rather than neighborhood assemblies) elect both district and metropolitan officials.

The destructive effects of imposing metropolitan or statewide legislative schemes on powerless neighborhoods can be seen in the City of Los Angeles. Land developers have been allowed to run amok. The City has given priority to their profit-seeking over environmental, esthetic, and ethnic-cultural considerations raised in the public interest. Similarly, by the introduction of Senate Bill 827 in 2018, which would have compelled cities to allow more dense housing near public transit hubs, the State of California threatened to undermine the integrity of powerless neighborhoods. Although the bill died in its first committee hearing, its sponsors intend to resurrect it in the 2019 legislative session, promising that “the battle to increase California’s housing supply has just begun.”

The legislation created vociferous factions among municipal residents and various other interested parties. As one L.A. resident noted: “SB 827 . . . could have a dramatic impact on L.A.’s Jewish community [along with African- American, Armenian, Chicano, Chinese, Ethiopian, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Thai, and Vietnamese communities] by altering the neighborhoods where many of us live.” The State of California should not compel the same development in vastly different neighborhoods; but instead, neighborhoods should have sufficient institutionalized public powers to choose the extent to which they adopt development policies and practices, based on legislation that offers them options.

What’s called for is a polycentric model, which is reflected in our system of national, state, and local governments. Polycentricity can produce an intergovernmental balancing of power between the different levels of government, which is as vital to healthy democracy as the more commonly recognized intra-governmental separation of powers we see within all three levels of government. The balancing of power between governments ensures that the powers of the federal government are somewhat balanced (read, narrowed) by the powers of state governments, and the powers of state governments are somewhat balanced by the powers of local governments. This model enables a strategic organizing vision of directly democratic urban government in which neighborhoods, districts, and metropolitan jurisdictions share the public powers.

Then, too, if we’re going to have directly democratic metropolitan government, it is not enough to have models that are theoretically
coherent. They must also fit within the cultural experience of our diverse urban citizenry. Tellingly, Bookchin’s vision does not go beyond the vague ideological conviction that we need directly democratic municipalities, which in turn will name deputies to be responsible for metropolitan governance.

What, in Bookchin’s scenario then, would serve as a system of local law? Should we assume that he imagined the populations of directly democratic assemblies operating without laws, or with laws that each assembly would devise for itself, or that the assemblies would evolve a “common law” that would be binding on all? If there is to be law, assuming that humankind will not have reached the kind of perfection that precludes conflicts and crimes, will each municipality have its own civil and criminal courts to adjudge every legal matter, from causing a nuisance to mass murder? And if, on the other hand, all the libertarian municipalities within a region share a common law in the absence of any higher authority, who will be responsible for legislating and enforcing the common laws and procedures governing civil conflicts and alleged criminality? To what judicial authority would appeals be directed? And if there is no common law, how would commerce and social integration among the various municipalities be possible? The anarchist vision, for all its ideological purity, turns out to be institutional nonsense and a harbinger of social chaos.

By way of contrast, we proposed in “Public Powers for the Commonweal: A Challenge to Faith-based Organizing” (Social Policy, 2015) open, directly democratic New England town government as the ideal model for urban neighborhood governance. We have also proposed two-tier metropolitan government as the model for overall metropolitan governance. Our expectation that these models will be acceptable to the citizenry reflects their well-tested functionality, their historical and widespread adoption in this country, and their suitability for institutional integration in a polycentric structure of governance.

On the subject of economics, Bookchin proposed “municipalizing” the economy, which is attractive in some respects. But it loses credibility when proposed as a replacement for virtually all private industry. Consider his proposal from an organizer’s perspective. How might we expect it to play at the door in an organizing drive or campaign? Should we expect that citizens will understand and support confiscating all private industry and placing it under the authority of a confederation of municipalities? Then, too, we wonder if Bookchin seriously considered how the major stockholders and managers of private industries would respond to the idea that their enterprises would be commandeered by libertarian municipalities.

Bookchin paid a great deal of attention to the hoped-for future, including how the progressive grassroots forces should transform themselves to attain it. But he mostly ignored what the billionaires and their enablers would do to prevent that, the limitless resources they would devote to maintain the status quo or even to widen the existing inequality of power. Insofar as we can tell, his writing ignores one of the guiding principles of social strategy—to wit: carefully assess the opposition, especially vis-à-vis the resources of your own organization or movement.

Ideological & Utopian Bias

We are not surprised by this strategic insufficiency, because Bookchin was much more devoted to ideological insight than to its institutional counterpart. He seemingly didn’t understand that knowing what people do institutionally is at least as important as what they think ideologically. Our experience is that action leads to understanding much more often than understanding leads to action.

While Bookchin had a populist streak a mile wide, he also had utopian inclinations a mile deep. They led him to promote direct democracy without a practical organizing strategy to bring it to life within the framework of metropolitan, state, and national governments.

Bookchin recognized that changing the structure of the state requires a popular movement. He claimed readiness to wage war against the “cosmic forces of capitalism.” But he had virtually nothing to say practically about the funding needed to sustain professional movement-organizing; so, his war against capitalism sounds like “pie in the sky in the by and by”.

Similarly, he failed to address how the newly emerging municipalities would acquire public powers. Is it possible he believed that every aspect of political, economic, and social life should be entirely voluntary? Clark’s thoughtful critique of Bookchin notes that libertarian municipalism is “. . . distant . . . from any actual exercise of public power.” In our view, he simply didn’t address the subject of acquiring municipal public powers, which are indispensable to organized society. Notably, public powers are under the ultimate control of state legislatures which are much more conservative (read, beholden to the donor class) than urban governments. What, then, should we assume about how libertarian municipalism would overcome those conservative forces to become more than voluntary associations of individuals with various shared interests?

Given Bookchin’s preoccupation with vision and ideology, we’re not optimistic about the prospects for empowered libertarian municipalism. We doubt that his knowledge and experience of movement-building is of the kind that can survive the four or five decades needed to achieve its objectives; or that it can master the challenges of funding, recruiting, educating, and training a corps of dedicated professional organizers. A grassroots vision of direct citizen-empowerment that fails to carefully assess and strategically respond to institutional forces that will do all in their power to undermine decentralization and direct democracy, deserves the name “utopian.”

Bottom Line

Bookchin’s writing leaves us with insurmountable doubts. Seemingly, he was indifferent to balanced social-change thinking, writing, and action, elements of which include: (a) social criticism, which typically spotlights the shortcomings of existing culture and institutions; (b) social futurism, which uses language that draws detailed images of the desired future; (c) social strategy, which describes how to get to the future; (d) social (action) methodology, which describes the tactics and tools of strategy; and (e) social morality, which defines the moral vision and moral action essential for social progress and change.

Bookchin’s failure to rigorously address these elements led him to unsupportable assumptions and unjustified expectations. He produced an excess of criticism, a tendency toward futurism unconnected to long-range strategy, an absence of proven methodology, a strategy without specific morally driven conviction or constituency, and a morality exclusive to the anarchist ideological cognoscente rather than inclusive of the general citizenry. The best we can say is that Bookchin was an incisive social critic.

Most problematic in Bookchin’s vision is his apparent abhorrence of state or public powers. He implicitly rejected the idea of citizens voluntarily combining their personal power in collective, institutionalized forms that exceed the power of the individual; and which, in turn, can compel individual behavior. To recognize the folly of extending this viewpoint beyond municipalities, one need only imagine modern life without institutions that enable state-legislated motor vehicle codes, federal food and drug regulations, and international aviation flight-rules. We can also imagine—given the current threats to the planet from climate change and global warming—the pressing need for coastal cities to use the best engineering and architectural practices against rising sea levels, which can only be met when those practices are legislated into national, state, and local codes. Bookchin’s vision of a future without higher levels of institutional powers, beyond municipalities, is more aptly characterized not as a utopian dream but a dystopian nightmare.

So, the obvious answer to our earlier question is “No”. We should not revive Murray Bookchin’s vision as a source of insight and inspiration for today’s community—and faith-based organizing. He and his vision should be left behind in the archives of anarchist luminaries, out of the consciousness of the public, activists, and professional organizers.

Institutions of Democracy

The heart of Bookchin’s vision is anarchist antipathy to state institutions per se, as if they are inherently, inevitably, irredeemably malevolent and not necessary. Bookchin seemingly overlooked or dismissed the indispensable role of such institutions in constructing positive social meanings and socialization, which serve to weave the fabric of society.

One of the dangers of wholesale rejection of higher levels of institutional power is that, as Aristotle understood thousands of years ago, but which has not been acknowledged by anarchists in general or Bookchin in particular: nature abhors a vacuum. The collapse of institutionalized state power creates a void, which is often filled by the emergence of malevolent power-seekers, whether the Bolsheviks in Russia or ISIS in Iraq. Ironically, ISIS recognized the value of local institutions for administration, revenue generation, and political rule. In the absence of democratic institutions, city hall and provincial government may become the bailiwick of players hostile to democracy.

Democracy in its origins and its continuation relies upon the enduring behavior of citizens seeking collectively to meet their common challenges and to realize their hopes and dreams for a better life for themselves and their children—which is true even when our institutions are not yet perfected.

Our hope lies not in our rejection of imperfect democratic institutions but in our willingness to challenge them and to support their improvement. It is our sacred obligation as citizens of a democracy, our exclusive responsibility, to hold our institutions to the highest democratic ideals of accountability, equality, equity, efficiency, and economy. The obligation is sacred because the survival of our nation as a freedom-loving democracy depends upon it.

We cannot escape that obligation by promoting an ideologically pure, sweeping rejection of institutional life beyond municipalities. As Milton Mayer put it in a 1953 article in The Progressive :

“I am sovereign here. I hold the highest office of the land, the office of citizen, with responsibilities to my country heavier, by virtue of my office, than those of any other officer, including the president. And I do not hold my office by election but by inalienable right. If I try to abdicate it to the general will, or to my representatives or to my ministers, I am guilty of betraying not only democracy but my nature as a person endowed with certain inalienable rights.”

Moshe ben Asher and Khulda bat Sarah are the founders and Co-Directors of Gather the People (, which provides resources for congregational and community organizing and development, Moshe has organized for ACORN, Citizens Action League of California, and one of the PICO projects (OCCCO); he was Assistant Director for Organize Training Center; and he teaches sociology and social work at California State University, Northridge. Khulda has organized for the North County Community Project and the Marin Congregational Organizing Project.

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