An Anarchist Reply to “The New Municipal Movements”

The disciples, it is said, usually end up spoiling the message of their teacher. After Jesus comes Saint Paul, who Nietzsche accused of altering the Nazarene’s message “until nothing in the record even remotely approximated to fact.” After Marx come the Marxists – the Lenins, Stalins, Castros, and Maos of the world (though Marx had famously observed, “I am not a Marxist” long before that). And after Murray Bookchin come the Municipalists, who, in the storied tradition of apostles after the death of their great teacher, manage to strip an already dubious philosophy of its most radical and liberatory aspects. This is made clear by Eleanor Finley’s latest article for Roar! Magazine, “The New Municipal Movements”.

Finley mentions that “the label ‘libertarian’ has been dropped by many of the new municipal experiments,” ostensibly to avoid confusion with the right-wingers (to use a Bookchinism, the proprietarians) that have misappropriated what was at one time a very useful word. This is understandable, but the change in label also seems to perfectly coincide with the quiet withering away of what was even nominally revolutionary, making muncipalism even less libertarian than it was as conceived by Bookchin. There is no mention, for instance, of municipal representatives (the word delegate does not appear in the article) being subject to binding mandate, nor is there any talk about a procedure for instant recall should the representative violate said mandate. Both of these were, to his lasting credit, strongly emphasized by Bookchin even after his break with anarchism.

Likewise, Bookchin continued to entertain a vague notion that revolution would be an eventual necessity if a free society is ever going to be achieved:

“[L]ibertarian municipalism gains its life and its integrity precisely from the dialectical tension it proposes between the nation-state and the municipal confederation. Its ‘law of life,’ to use an old Marxian term, consists precisely in its struggle with the state. The tension between municipal confederations and the state must be clear and uncompromising…. Divested of this dialectical tension with the state, of this duality of power that must ultimately be actualized in a free ‘Commune of communes,’ libertarian municipalism becomes little more than ‘sewer socialism.’“ (Murray Bookchin, “Libertarian Municipalism: An Overview.” Emphasis in the original.)

Whatever one thinks of this, it is much more confrontational than anything posed by the latter-day municipalists.  If such a notion appears in Finley’s article, it is even vaguer than Bookchin’s. Revolutionary potential seems more important than revolution itself, which is mentioned, but only once, as a “patient work.” Very patient. In fact, the municipalist idea of revolution seems to be so patient that those who don’t know any better could easily mistake it for reformism. Municipalist movements are not forming communal councils and dispensing with city officials, they are “creating new forms of encounter between citizens and city officials.” They are not advocating the abolition of police, but oxymoronically advocating their “radical reform.” And little needs to be said about Portland Anarchist Road Care, which in spite of fulfilling a prophetic lyric in Pat the Bunny’s “Proudhon in Manhattan” left many anarchists unenthused. These examples, the last example in particular, are reminiscent of what Bookchin defined in opposition to libertarian municipalism as communitarianism:

“By communitarianism, I refer to 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, neighborhood farms, ‘squats,’ unconventional lifestyles, and the like. [….] Underpinning their social ideas—before these ideas fade into dim memory—is the hope that they can somehow elbow capitalism out, without having to confront capitalist enterprises and the capitalist state.” (Bookchin, “Thoughts on Libertarian Municipalism.” Emphasis in the original.)

Neither communitarianism nor municipalism are revolutionary. However, counter-institutions, if managed correctly, can move beyond communitarianism and either serve a useful educational effect or make revolutionary activity easier. Some of the projects mentioned in the article seem likely to do some good, or at least no harm. Others sound not only harmful but wildly uninteresting; Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition’s campaign seems equivalent to similar ones by organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America or Socialist Alternative, fixated on elections and getting a leftist candidate into office. I agree with Finley that the most promising is Cooperation Jackson, “a federation of worker-owned cooperatives and other initiatives for democratic and ecological production. This economic base is then linked to people’s assemblies, which broadly determine the project’s priorities.” This promise is undercut slightly for me by the fact that Cooperation Jackson also participates in local elections.

I certainly agree with Finley that grassroots, radical movements must be kept out of the hands of those who “humiliated and sapped of credibility, now look hungrily upon city and municipal elections.” In order to avoid cooptation by these power-hungry types, whether they be Democrat, Republican, Green, or Municipalist, I recommend that movements steer clear of elections altogether, as anarchists have always advised. As Bookchin’s collaborator and companion Janet Biehl noted disapprovingly, “Anarchists…. continued to make the same objections: Democracy is rule. Libertarian municipalism is statism.” (Biehl, “Bookchin Breaks with Anarchism”)

Given its extreme emphasis on local elections, in Bookchin’s day and after, it is always a surprise to me that municipalism is given so much credence by many anarchists and libertarian socialists. The article is refreshingly honest by omitting the term delegate; libertarian municipalism is based on the principle of representation, not on delegation, and thus on hierarchy. A few sentences in, the local state is being praised as preferable to the nation state. The reader may wish to reflect that most of the encounters with the state she has on a day to day basis are with its local manifestation. If you are harassed by a cop, it will usually be a local cop, and if you are taken to jail it will usually be the local jail.

In a previous article on municipalism, “Reason, Creativity, and Freedom”, Finley denied the authoritarian nature of municipalism by stressing the “subtle, but crucial distinction between administration and decision-making power.” Administration “encompasses tasks and plans related to executing policy”, whereas power “refers to the ability to actually make policy and major decisions.” Finley is echoing Bookchin, who was echoing Friedrich Engels. All of them are elegantly refuted by the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta:

“When F. Engels, perhaps to counter anarchist criticisms, said that once classes disappear the State as such has no raison d’être and transforms itself from a government of men into an administration of things, he was merely playing with words. Whoever has power over things has power over men; whoever governs production also governs the producers; who determines consumption is master over the consumer.

This is the question; either things are administered on the basis of free agreement of the interested parties, and this is anarchy; or they are administered according to laws made by administrators and this is government, it is the State, and inevitably it turns out to be tyrannical.

It is not a question of the good intentions or the good will of this or that man, but of the inevitability of the situation, and of the tendencies which man generally develops in given circumstances.”

Finley herself seems aware of this danger as she is summing up her article. “We must resist the temptation to impute our faith in benevolent mayors and other personalities, no matter how charismatic or well-intentioned, unless they seek to dissolve the powers they hold.” Unfortunately, while they may be elected sincerely seeking to dissolve the powers they hold, given the opportunity, they are unlikely to. Being a municipalist doesn’t exempt one from the corrupting influence present even in local politics (nor does being an anarchist, or a Marxist, or whatever).

Municipalism is neither fish nor fowl. Exciting projects and real gains are unequally yoked together with the tedium of hierarchy, politics, and reformism; Finley more or less admits this by saying municipalism “blurs the lines between social movement and local governance.” Local governance becomes local government, and the result is a tiny state. The English anarchist magazine Oranise! said municipalism begins with libertarians attempting to capture the local state and ending up captured by it. Such a “blurred” ideology seems incredibly unlikely to ever be the basis of an anti-state, anti-capitalist revolution. Anarchists should avoid municipalism for what it is – federalist city-statism tied to an inherently reformist strategy, which will no doubt continue to lose what little radical content it originally contained as Bookchin’s few remaining disciples water it further and further down.