Confederal municipalism

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Social ecologist John Clark writes: 'If social ecology is an attempt to understand the dialectical movement of society within the context of a larger dialectic of society and nature, ecocommunitarianism is the project of creating a way of life consonant with that understanding.'47 Although 'confederal municipalism' is Bookchin's preferred term for his programme of anarchist politics, Clark's summary captures well the trajectory of Bookchin's political theory. Bookchin proposes a politics, a critique of contemporary urbanisation, and, moreover, suggests a programme for moving towards municipalism.48

True to his anarchist commitments, Bookchin argues that, although politics is today ordinarily associated with statecraft, politics should instead be associated with a polity organised by direct democracy. To make

46. Ibid., p. 87. 47. Clark, 'Municipal Dreams', p. 137.

48. Through this section, I draw mainly on Bookchin's most recent statement on this topic, Urbanization without Cities: Towards a New Politics of Citizenship (London and New York: Cassell, revised edn 1995). A case could be made, I think, that Bookchin's confederal municipalism represents a narrowing of his politics; nevertheless, here I concentrate on his most recent, substantial statement.

his point, Bookchin distinguishes between three 'realms': the social, the state and the political.49 Arguing that 'politics' is usually understood as the operations of the state, Bookchin argues for the recovery of a genuine polis. Properly understood, the political is independent of the social and the state. The state he characterises as the 'professional apparatus with a monopoly of violence that is used by ruling classes to control meddlesome lower classes'.50 Opposed to this are the face-to-face democratic operations of the municipality. Bookchin identifies certain precursors to this municipal politics: the Athenian polis, of course, but also the Parisian sections of the French Revolution and the tradition of town-hall meetings in New England. Whether or not these precursors have had an ecological component, Bookchin argues that his confederal municipalism includes the attempt 'to achieve a new harmonization between people, and between humanity and the natural world'. Further, 'any attempt to tailor a human community to a natural "ecosystem" in which it is located cuts completely against the grain of centralized power, be it state or corporate'.51 We see how the outworking of the critique of domination together with a critique of statism emerge as a political programme. Any hierarchical society - which for Bookchin must include a statist society - will be unable to tailor itselfto its natural surroundings but will, rather, dominate them. Hierarchical, statist society is anti-ecological.

Confederal municipalism is thereby dedicated to formulating a political programme that is non-hierarchical, opposes the centralising power ofthe state and affirms the values ofdiversity, participation and freedom. Nor is the link between confederal municipalism and dialectical naturalism hard to discern: a statist society - particularly the modern city - secures the 'dissolution of nature and society's evolutionary thrust toward diversity, complexity and community'. And this must be regarded as 'an ecological problem in the sense that diversity, variety, and participation constitute the basis not only for the stability of human consociation but also for the creativity that is imparted to us by diversity, indeed, ultimately, the freedom that alternative forms ofdevelopment allow for the evolution of new, richer, and well-rounded social forms'.52 On account of the dialectical relations between nature and society, a municipalist form of politics is thereby also an ecological politics. We are backat Bookchin's point that nature is the precondition for not only the emergence but also the development

49. Bookchin, 'Comments on the International Social Ecology Network...', 158.

50. Bookchin, From Urbanization to Cities, p. 3.

of society. The development of society is thereby interpreted - in terms of unity in difference - always in relation to the development of nature; both developmental paths are evolutionary. And what is the telos of such development.? Bookchin's answer privileges an ever-increasing richness, diversity, complexity and, in human society, rationality. For such a state to be achieved, the political programme must be one that secures a non-hierarchical, non-dominating polity in which human freedom and participation towards self-realisation are secured, and in which the variety, diversity and fecundity of nature are protected. Hence, Bookchin's municipality is an ecological municipality: it seeks harmonious relations with non-human nature, which is its dialectical ground.

What Bookchin then attempts - perhaps with too little justification - is to deduce his confederal municipality from these premises. In such fashion, Bookchin renews the anarcho-communist tradition of political organisation founded in neighbourhoods, with its principal forum of decision-making being face-to-face discussion in an assembly (in which all citizens of a neighbourhood would be eligible to participate). The governing principle here is unity in diversity: through such assemblies the good of a community can be established and diverse expression of that good can be respected. The small-scale nature of the polity also permits the natural context in which the neighbourhood is situated to be acknowledged: the assembly dialectically includes in its holistic deliberations the content ofits relations with its regional nature. This political programme is confederal as well as municipal: by confederal (earlier anarchist tradition employed the term, federal), Bookchin means 'democratic and truly communitarian forms of interdependence'53 in which localism is rescued from parochialism and by which neighbourhoods interact with one another (which may include a group of neighbourhoods calling to account a fellow neighbourhood for, say, anti-ecological practices).

In coming to an interim assessment of Bookchin's politics, I focus on two issues: the characterisation of the three realms of the social, the state and the political; and the character of the political relations between nature and the polity.54

54. Plainly, these are not the only criticisms that might be made. Other areas for critique are: the utopian aspects of Bookchin's politics; the concentration on libertarian municipalism as the only form of anarchist politics; the polyvalence of the notion of citizenship; whether confederalism is an adequate response to the range of relations operative between ecocommunities in an age of globalisation.

First, I review the relation between the social, the state and the political. Clearly, the aim of this threefold distinction is to find ways of construing politics as other than statecraft. Rather than, say, operate a distinction between civil society and the state, Bookchin tries to open up a third political front, so to speak, as the realm of true citizenship and authentic political paideia. Furthermore, it must be true that the state can be undermined only by means of a 'shared communitarian practice' that opposes the state.551 fail to see why, however, such shared practice might not emanate from the realm of the social. That is, why should opposition to the state be sourced only to the municipal polity.? May not such opposition also emerge by way of shared communitarian practice in the realm of society? (And, to put my theological cards on the table, the church as community may also, I contend, be a guarantor of, as well as a contributor to, that shared practice towards social and ecological unity in the common realm.) A more dialectical reading would see the variety of society and polity in a unity that is in distinction from (although also dialectically related to) the state.

At the root of this effort to privilege the municipality is, I would argue, a determination to protect the centrality of community. The trajectory ofhis thought therefore begins in community (note the construal of an organic, non-hierarchical past). The community suffers the privations of hierarchy of which the modern city and the modern state are outcomes. To these unhappy developments, municipality as polis is opposed. Such a reading renders intelligible the high significance that Bookchin ascribes to the concept of municipality. Consider this statement: 'Conceived in more institutional terms, the municipality is not only the basis for a free society; it is the irreducible ground for genuine individuality as well.'56 Yet why should the political organisation of a society be its basis and ground? We may agree with Bookchin that the elements of a true society are communal but that is not the same as maintaining that these elements are municipal. A true society must be tested by reference to activities undertaken throughout the social realm rather than only in the municipality. Bookchin seems to grant normative status to the polis but not also to the societas. Thereby he grants prevenient status to the political over the societal. The societal may be described as 'the overall quality of a society which at its best has a supportive and enabling culture, a culture whose root

55. Clark, 'Municipal Dreams', p. 144. Through the next few paragraphs, my thinking is deeply indebted to Clark's essay.

56. Bookchin, From Urbanization to Cities, p. 226.

paradigms are intact and capable of comprehending both differentiation into particularities and universals which hold the human together in the ancestral sense of a religio, a mutual binding informed by a Gospel of grace and truth'.57 By proposing the municipality as the ground and basis of society, Bookchin protects his anarchist presuppositions, but at the expense ofthe societal.

Second, how are the political relations between nature and the municipality to be understood.? For Bookchin, the municipality must operate on the basis of face-to-face democratic procedures in which citizens gather to deliberate and decide on matters that affect the whole community. Forms ofdemocracy that are not based on such direct interaction turn upon systems of representation. Such systems are rejected by Bookchin. However, a difficulty arises when one considers the relations between the municipality and non-human nature. Within a dialectical naturalism, such relations must be attended to: after all, the municipality is the context and agent of a political programme where humanity, as nature rendered self-conscious, seeks both the affirmation ofdiversity, complexity and spontaneity in the human polity and ecologically benign ways of affirming these same tendencies in the natural realm. None the less, how is nature accounted for in the political deliberations ofthe polity. Bookchin says very little about this in his proposal for a confederal municipality.

One reason for this lack of discussion may be that any attempt to conceive the polity and nature holistically will, of course, require some system of representation. For Bookchin, however, all systems of representation are anathema. In a non-representational politics such as Bookchin's, such representation cannot be thought, much less achieved. None the less, a different conclusion is here inescapable: in the political realm (the realm of human deliberation) nature must be represented. Nor should this matter of representation surprise us: as Clark notes, there are many people and entities that are represented in the democratic process: 'Just as we can relate as moral agents to entities that are not agents, we can exercise duties of citizenship in relations to other beings who are not citizens.'58 Indeed, we must effect such representation over, say, water supplies and sewage disposal, not least as these affect 'other beings', if such matters are to be attended to at all as part ofthe political process. So the question returns: in

57. Richard R. Roberts, 'A Postmodern Church? Some Preliminary Reflections on Ecclesiology and Social Theory', in D. F. Ford and D. L. Stamps (eds.), Essentials of Christian Community (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1996), pp. 179-95 (p. 179).

a non-representational system, how is the representation of non-human nature to be achieved.? (And are not many of our ecological problems to be sourced to the fact that the West has not been able to secure in its democratic deliberations a workable system of representation for nature?)

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