Monday, May 14, 2018

Communalism, Libertarian Municipalism, and Confederalism

Once you read books like Murray Bookchin's "The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy", you realize just how authoritarian and right wing nearly all of our political parties and movements are today. Bookchin is a well-known anarchist, an anarcho-socialist flavor similar to Kropotokin's work but with a much stronger emphasis on ecology and the need to create a sustainable economy, not just one that always grows.

Of course, as I discussed in my essay on Kropotkin's "The Conquest of Bread", the term "anarchy" can create a misunderstanding in modern audiences. It isn't the complete absence of rules, but rather the breakdown of hierarchical power in both government and business. In that context, terms like "libertarian socialist" might be a better fit for modern audiences, but even that can create confusion as the Libertarian Party is very different from the libertarianism Kropotkin or Bookchin advocate for. It is effectively an argument of right-wing libertarianism versus left-wing libertarianism.

In any case, Bookchin calls his philosophy of ecologically-focused anarchism "Communalism" to emphasize that it is distinct from typical calls for socialism or communism. Bookchin discusses the inadequacy of Marx's analysis to handle modern problems caused by capitaliss. Indeed, Marx was mostly focused on economic factors and envisioned economic strikes by workers at factories as generating the coming "socialist revolution". However, Bookchin points out this isn't realistic today as by far the large majority of today's workers are not technical workers in factories but rather workers in service jobs that are more easily replaceable. Bookchin also emphasizes that capitalism has hurt more than just our economic needs, but also contributes to racism, sexism, urban decay, and the destruction of the environment, all issues that Marx did not really address.

Bookchin's goal of communalism is to break down all authoritarian power in all spheres of life, not just economic. Hierarchical power structures are by their nature authoritarian since a small group (and sometimes a single individual) sits in a "position of power" over others, and this structure exists in both the private sector (executive board of directors and CEOs) as well as government (governors/president and legislature). Communalism instead calls for the elimination of these positions as positions of power and policy-making, and instead calls for citizen assemblies to make economic and government decisions as a direct democracy. The citizen assembly would debate and deliberate and directly vote on all issues affecting the community, and attempt to achieve consensus whenever possible.

Bookchin makes a distinction between local governments, which are direct democracy citizen assemblies that derive just power directly from the people, and nation-state governments (such as the state or federal government in the US) that can easily become authoritarian when allowed to make decisions on behalf of the people. Bookchin's solution is a combination of what he calls "libertarian municipalism" and "confederalism".

Libertarian municipalism is the concept that the local city government (or municipality, could be a neighborhood or small district within a mega city like New York City) is where all public decisions are deliberated and made. A municipal assembly makes decisions by consensus and direct democracy, the key factor being the municipality is small enough that the assembly can be held with face-to-face discussions. The municipal assembly would also debate economic policy, not just politics, and "own" public resources and industry. In the ideal, private ownership of business would be replaced by public ownership of the industry, democratically-run by the assembly made up of everyone in the community, not just the workers. After all, the effects of industry can impact the entire community, not just the workers themselves, as is the case of pollution and environmental damage.

These municipalities would band together into a confederal state, which is very different from today's state. Pennsylvania today elects representatives that make decisions -- that is, set public policy -- on behalf of citizens, and this often leads to authoritarian abuses of power and corruption. Instead, confederalism proposes that the municipalities vote on policy directly, and once the policy is approved, muncipalities elect representatives to carry out that policy. In effect, state representatives shift from policy-makers to becoming administrators that simply oversee implementation of the policy chosen by the people. These elected officials would be expected to follow the guidelines set by the municipal assembly, and if not followed, could immediately be removed from the role by the municipality. Should a municipality "go rogue" and harm human rights or the environment, the rest of the municipalities would be able to unite in a confederal assembly to take action against the rogue. The confederal assembly would effectively have a previously-agreed-on set of human and ecological rights, defined by popular assemblies and backed by the people. In some sense, it's a return to the original ideas of small government and democracy enshrined in the US's articles of confederation which would establish the basic human and ecological rights to be protected by the confederation.

Bookchin proposes that this set up remains the most democracy and decentralized while also respecting the need for interdependence. The idea that every community can be 100% self sufficient and never need anything from the outside is ridiculous. We definitely take strides to ensure our communities are very self-sufficient, particularly for basic necessities like food, but we also work within a confederal state of peers of set overall policy and share resources. Bookchin cautions against going to far with decentralized self-sufficiency, that it can be just as dangerous as being too centralized. Bookchin sees communalism as effectively the best balance of decentralization with the need to cooperate in larger structures.

Bookchin does however admit that the plan does have some risk. Decentralization to this disagree can easily turn bad if we do not have a majority of people on the same page with a goal of taking power back from hierarchy and using it toward humanitarian and ecological goals. Bookchin therefore emphasizes the need for education. Democracy on its own won't immediately bring out a moral, ecological society. He also criticizes political parties for being too centralized, saying most national parties including the Greens, Labour, and Socialist parties too often become hierarchical when focusing on nation-state politics. He points to the fact that the German Greens, for example, despite having won many parliamentary seats have not advocated for communities and cities with Green elected officials to have more democratic influence and autonomy. He instead advocates Greens to run for local office on a platform of making the local government more democratic, changing the institution and the minds of people to expect direct conversation with the mayor and community leaders and a direct vote in municipal affairs. He asks, rightly so I think -- how can one take down the capitalist system if one cannot reform one's own neighborhood to be more democratic? Rather than taking actions that prop up a capitalist and hierarchical government (in fact, efforts for affordable housing and parks without corresponding pushes for democracy might actually empower the hierarchy more by giving it a "friendly face" that can be used to justify that the system "works"), we need to keep the emphasis on democratic governments to preserve our planet and can build a movement around today's government and slowly overtake it. In fact, Bookchin speculates that this might be the only way for Leftist politics to win again in the face of a long-established hierarchical system that most people have grown used to.

Largely I find myself very strongly agreeing with Bookchin's call for communalism and a much more democratic system. While always wanting to support stronger action for a living wage, affordable housing, healthcare, and fights against imperialism and other issues, I find myself always drawn back to the idea that "if we had more democracy, this probably wouldn't be an issue..." Poll after poll shows the majority of Americans don't want more war. A majority want to raise the wages and ensure healthcare for all. If we had democracy, we would have voted for it, and it'd already be done. The reason we don't have it is precisely our lack of democracy. Our representative government is much more authoritarian and hierarchical than it sounds like, and that concentration of power into legislatures makes it prone to corruption and the interests of the elite rather than the interests of the population as a whole.

It seems clear to me that a major effort of the Green Party and other organizations seeking change must be towards establishing greater democratic control of government and the economy. We must assert the will and power of the people as a whole to get the change we seek from bottom-up movement, not top-down decision making. I think Bookchin's proposals for libertarian municipalism and confederalism are the goals the Green Party needs to set for future elections. We need to run more local candidates set on making this a reality for Pittsburgh and other cities and communities.

We'll have to think a little more on exactly what this looks like -- for example, I suspect the confederal assemblies would be chosen by proportional representation within the municipalities, or ranked choice for specific tasks. But the key idea is to invert what we have today -- we are not subjects being "ruled" by our elected political elite, we hold the power and elect representatives to serve us. Just educating others on that message I think would make a huge difference on our national political conversation.

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