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Dec 23, 2007 at 12:11 PM
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Reinventing Hierarchy: The Political Theory of Social Ecology

Robert Graham

Anarchist Studies
Volume 12, Number 1, 2004


Proponents of social ecology claim that the human domination of nature arises from the domination of human by human. They argue that to create an ecological society, we must eliminate hierarchy and domination within human societies. This opposition to hierarchy and domination is shared by anarchist doctrines. However, many social ecologists also argue in favour of various forms of democratic government. The question that arises is whether you can have a government without hierarchy and domination. I argue that the political proposals put forward by various social ecologists entail hierarchical structures of political authority incompatible with the social ecological ideal of non-hierarchical, non-dominating community. Anyone committed to that ideal should therefore reject these proposals.


Social ecology as a political theory envisages a free society without hierarchy and domination in harmony with nature. Central to the political theory of social ecology is the argument that the human domination of nature is the result of domination within human societies. Social ecology therefore rejects hierarchy and domination in all their forms.¹ The rejection of hierarchy and domination is something that social ecology shares with anarchist doctrines.
Some social ecologists, such as Murray Bookchin, Janet Biehl and John Clark, have come to endorse various forms of legal government and political authority. Serious questions arise regarding whether legal government and political authority are compatible with and can give expression to the social ecological ideal of nonhierarchical, non-dominating communities. I wish to argue that by endorsing legal government and political authority, social ecologists have reintroduced hierarchy and domination into their vision of a free society, fatally compromising their social ecological ideal.


Murray Bookchin, the founder of social ecology as a political doctrine, was the first to draw the connection between an ecological outlook and anarchist social theory. Both perspectives reject and oppose hierarchy and domination. Ecology rejects the domination of nature by humanity, and anarchism rejects the domination of human by human. Bookchin tied these ideas together by arguing that the `notion that man must dominate nature emerges directly from the domination of man by man' (PSA, p63). Consequently, if we are to eliminate humanity's domination of nature, we must abolish the domination of human by human.

But just as social ecology and anarchism share an opposition to domination in its various forms, they also share a positive vision of a future without domination. As Bookchin wrote, the `integrative, reconstructive aspect of ecology, carried through to all its implications, leads directly into anarchic areas of social thought' (PSA, p58). Bookchin noted the shared emphasis in both ecology and anarchism on spontaneity and differentiation: `Just as the ecologist seeks to expand the range of an ecosystem and promote a free interplay between species, so the anarchist seeks to expand the range of social experience and remove all fetters to its development' (PSA, p78).

Bookchin submitted that 'an anarchist community would approximate a clearly definable ecosystem; it would be diversified, balanced and harmonious' (PSA, p80). Therefore, an anarchist community would be an ecological community, and an ecological community would be an anarchist community, where `social life will yield a sensitive development of human and natural diversity, falling together into a well balanced, harmonious whole' (PSA, p81). Even at this early stage in the development of Bookchin's ideas on social ecology and anarchism, Bookchin conceived an ecological, anarchist community as a community based on `face-to-face democracy'(PSA, p69). The decentralised, human scale of an ecological community would enable the citizens of that community to know one another through direct encounters, so that in their deliberative assemblies they would be in a position to weigh each other's motives as well as their ideas (PSA, p79). Civic, vocational and professional responsibilities would be shared on a rotating basis, thereby preventing political specialisation and fostering 'new dimensions in self-development', as everyone played their part in the community (PSA, p81).


Bookchin focused on mediated relationships as one of the central impediments to a free life. A political relationship is `mediated', from Bookchin's perspective, when policy-making power resides in political leaders or representatives, rather than directly democratic community assemblies. Instead of all members of the community directly deciding and managing their common affairs, decisions and policies are made by small groups of people representing specific social classes. Even so-called `revolutionary' political forms, such as factory councils, `are forms of mediated relationships' because decisions and policy are made by council members representing the workers, not by a broader community assembly in which all members of the community are able to participate (PSA, p146).
Bookchin objected to political decision-making through mediated political forms because, no matter how revolutionary they purport to be, they are `particularistic' and `one-sided', vulnerable to `centralization' and `manipulation', and `can easily be integrated into hierarchical forms of social organization' (PSA, p 155).


In contrast, community assemblies are meant to embrace all of the concerns of the community because everyone in the community has a direct role in decision-making through face-to-face participation in the assembly. Community assemblies are not `one-sided' because all of the members of the community participate in the decision-making process, rather than a select few who are at best representative of only specific groups or classes. Community assemblies are not as vulnerable to centralisation because they are by their very nature decentralised. They are not as vulnerable to manipulation because their human scale enables their participants to assess directly the motives, perspectives and very personalities of the other members of the assembly.' They cannot be as easily integrated into hierarchical forms of social organisation because they foster self-awareness, self-empowerment and local autonomy.
Bookchin himself recognised that mediated relationships cannot be completely eliminated by the use of community assemblies, but argued that mediated political relationships can be minimised and subject to various constraints. Policy-making is to be the responsibility of the people in assembly. Other bodies, such as factory committees and neighbourhood councils, are to restrict their activities to administrative functions. To safeguard against these administrative bodies usurping political power, they are to be `answerable at every point to the assembly' and `under continual review by the assembly' with their members being `subject to 'immediate recall by the assembly' (PSA, p168).

Whether these various `administrative' bodies can be successfully excluded from policy-making functions is a question I shall come back to. What is clear is that Bookchin's then proposals for direct democracy do not completely eliminate `mediated' political relationships, such as administrative councils. If the mechanisms Bookchin proposes, such as constant supervision and recall by the assembly, are effective in ensuring that political relationships that are not `face-to-face' do not become hierarchical and authoritarian, then Bookchin himself has provided us with examples of mediated political relationships that are not inherently hierarchical and authoritarian. This would suggest that it is not the indirect nature of these relationships that is problematic, but the kind of authority and power tha may be exercised by the people who have been delegated administrative responsibilities, hence Bookchin's insistence that policy-making remain the sole prerogative of the assembly.


The question which then arises is whether face-to-face political relationships are inherently libertarian and non-hierarchical. Certainly, there are many direct relationships that are neither libertarian nor non-hierarchical, for example master-slave and master-servant relationships, and patriarchal familial relationships. In Bookchin's proposed community assemblies, it will still be possible for some members of the assembly to engage in domineering and manipulative behaviour. That the members of the assembly will know each other personally is no guarantee against that, as anyone involved in familial relationships can attest.
While manipulative and domineering behaviour may be incapable of elimination from social and political life, Bookchin would argue that the assembly remains non-hierarchical, with each member having equal voice and vote. However, policy decisions will ultimately be made by majority vote. If factions develop, as they invariably do, the very real possibility arises that some people will find themselves in the minority on many issues. Unable to marshal a majority in favour of their policy proposals, and against those of their political opponents, they will find their votes ineffective. This may in turn cause them to cease participating in the assembly or even to rebel against it, due to their lack of real decision-making power.

The majority may very well be placed in the position of having to enforce their decisions against a recalcitrant minority. The minority will have to decide whether to abide by the majority decision or face the consequences of disobedience. In either case, the majority will hold political authority over the minority. Whenever there is a lack of unanimity on a policy decision, or someone later decides the policy was mistaken, a hierarchical relationship will arise. That individual members of the assembly will sometimes be with the majority, sometimes not, does not change the fact that, with respect to the adoption and implementation of majority policy decisions, the majority on a particular issue will be in a position of authority over the minority on that issue. Hierarchical relationships will be created and recreated with every vote.

With respect to the so-called administrative functions to be performed by the various workplace and neighbourhood committees and councils, one of those functions will be the implementation of the majority decisions of the community assembly and, presumably, their enforcement, including the monitoring of compliance by community members with the policies adopted by the assembly. The various committees, councils, boards and tribunals will exercise authority over the individual members, associations and groups comprising the community.

The authority and power relationships between these administrative bodies and the individual members and groups in the community are a kind of hierarchical relationship, even if the alleged legitimacy of the authority and power exercised by these administrative bodies is based on policy-making functions being reserved to the community assembly. The fact remains that these administrative bodies will have the authority and the power to implement and enforce the policies adopted by the assembly, and the individual members and groups in the community will have an obligation to comply with these policies, and to abide by the administrative decisions of the administrative bodies delegated the responsibility of implementing and enforcing them.


Whether administrative bodies can limit their functions to strictly administrative ones, without engaging in any policy-making, is open to question. If administrative bodies must engage, at least to some extent, in policy-making, then one of the central bases for the legitimacy of the authority of the community assembly, namely that all policies are made directly by the members of the community in assembly will be undermined.
John Clark has argued that it is impossible for community assemblies to formulate policies with sufficient specificity `that administrators would have no significant role in shaping policy' (`Municipal Dreams', p41). The idea is that in applying general policies to specific cases, administrative bodies are themselve engaging in policy-making by giving general policies specific content. This is similar to arguments that conventional courts, in interpreting and applying the law to specific cases, are in reality creating law, a function that is supposed to be reserved to the legislature.

Clark suggests that administrative power can be kept in check by popular juries and citizens' committees randomly selected from among the members of the community (`Municipal Dreams', p42). In contrast, Bookchin has proposed tha administrative bodies be kept in check by the community assembly itself (TE; p216).

Even if Clark were right that administrative bodies must engage in polcy making at some level, creating yet more administrative bodies to oversee them is not a particularly attractive solution. That will simply create yet another level of political authority with which individual citizens will have to deal. In addition these supervisory bodies will themselves presumably have to be overseen by the community assembly or some other, higher, level of government, in which case the assembly or yet another level of authority will still be faced with what Clark believes to be the impossibly complex task of overseeing all administrative activity (`Municipal Dreams', p47). Bookchin's proposal that administrative bodies be overseen directly by the community assembly is at least more democratic.


Both Clark's and Bookchin's schemes entail a hierarchical structure of authority. In implementing and enforcing the policies adopted by the assembly, the firsl level administrative bodies endorsed by Bookchin exercise authority over individual community members. In supervising the exercise of this authority, the popular juries and citizens' committees proposed by Clark exercise authority over the first-level administrative bodies and, indirectly, over the individual community member. In both cases the highest authority, at least at the community level, remains the assembly of all community members based on majority vote.
If individual members of the community are also members of the governing authority, then how can it be said that there is a hierarchy of authority? Bookchin goes so far as to say that `the self that finds expression in the assembly and community is literally, the assembly and community that has found self-expression - a complete congruence of form and content' (PSA, p 167, fn.). Yet this would only be the case if the assembly always spoke in one voice. However, when decisions are made by majority vote, this often may not be the case. The minority on an issue will be subject to the authority of the majority and to the derivative authority of the administrative and supervisory bodies charged with implementing, interpreting, applying and enforcing the policies adopted by the assembly by majority vote.


The question that naturally arises is whether or not any properly political relationship can be non-hierarchical. It may be that Bakunin was right when he wrote, `whoever talks of political power talks of domination' (The Anarchist Reader, p109). How is it possible to create political relationships that are truly non-hierarchical? Can there be such a thing as non-hierarchical political authority?

These are questions to which Bookchin has never provided satisfactory answers. To critics of majoritarian direct democracy, Bookchin has responded that the majority `could hardly "dictate" to anyone. The minority would have every opportunity to dissent, to work to reverse that decision through unimpaired discussion and advocacy' (AMFL, p147). This response ignores the fact that unless and until the minority is able to reverse the decision (thereby creating yet another dissenting minority, unless unanimous agreement is reached), it remains subject to the decision, and the authority, of the majority.

The feminist political theorist, Carole Pateman, has proposed a model of direct, participatory democracy that is non-hierarchical and anti-authoritarian. To give substantive recognition to the freedom and equality of all citizens, Pateman argues, one must give practical recognition to `the right of minorities to refuse or withdraw consent, or where necessary, to disobey' majority decisions (PPO, p162). Political relationships remain non-hierarchical, because the majority does not exercise institutional power over the minority. The minority is free to decide `whether or not they ought to consent to, or comply with', majority decisions (PPO, p137). Direct democracy conceived in these terms is compatible with a social ecological and anarchist conception of non-dominating, non-hierarchical community.

Bookchin does not consider this alternative, but appears to believe that the only real alternative to majority rule is decision-making based on consensus, or unanimous agreement. The important difference between consensus-based decision-making and the kind of direct democracy advocated by Pateman, is that only in the former can a `minority of one' prevent the rest of the community from adopting a policy or deciding on some collective action (Bookchin, AMFL, p147). This does give the dissenters their own kind of de facto authority over the majority because their refusal to consent to a proposal governs the outcome of the decision making process. However, under Pateman's proposal, the majority can adopt policy and act on it despite minority dissent, although they may decide not to in the face of such dissent. What the majority cannot do is force the minority to obey its decisions, which is different from a minority being able to force the majority act in accordance with its wishes. This kind of political `authority' does not legitimise the exercise of `power over others' but rather gives `citizens collective power to, or the ability to, act for themselves' (PPO, p136).

Bookchin himself proposed a kind of non-dominating authority as a means o undermining the authority of existing, statist political institutions in The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship (RUDC). Neighbourhood assemblies are to elect mandated, recallable delegates to municipal and state councils assembly delegates, creating a parallel moral authority to oversee and influence the legal, civic and state governments (pp271-273). Although these municipal statewide councils of neighbourhood assembly delegates would not exercise and official political power, they would `function as the popular voice of the citizenry articulated into communities rather than anonymous voters' (p273). Through this process, `governance by legislative command, with its panoply of penalties an coercion, would begin to yield to governance by moral suasion, with its evocation of public responsibility and individual probity' (p274).

If councils of neighbourhood assembly delegates can, through moral suasion, influence the exercise of political power by existing institutions, then one would think they would be able to exert an even more powerful influence over th! individual members of the community for whom the councils would be providing a voice, without resorting to the `panoply of penalties and coercion' upon which existing political institutions and governments depend. If majority rule is ultimately upheld by the use of coercive sanctions, the focus of political activity will be on mobilising majority support instead of achieving mutual understanding, cooperation and agreement by rational persuasion. Bookchin's `vision of community life as an ethical compact' will be seriously, if not fatally, undermined if the community assembly must ultimately resort to coercive measures in order to maintain its authority (RUDC, p274).


In distinguishing his conception of municipal politics from 'statecraft', Bookchin himself has emphasised that the authority of the state is premised on `its ultimate recourse to violence' (RUDC, p274). The ultimate reliance on the threat any imposition of coercive sanctions impedes and distorts political debate and behaviour. Instead of following a policy because one has been rationally persuaded that that is the proper course of action, people may comply with a policy out of fear of coercive sanctions being imposed upon them. Instead of evaluating the intrinsic merits of a particular policy, people will engage in a sort of costs/benefits analysis regarding the personal consequences of disobedience and non-compliance. In order to have an appreciable effect on these self-interested calculations, the community will have to maintain a credible threat of detection of non-compliance and the imposition of coercive sanctions in response to such non-compliance or disobedience. A coercive policing apparatus will have to be created, an apparatus whose full brunt will be borne by minority groups within the community who find themselves chronically unable to marshal majority support for their positions.
Coercive legal government is fundamentally incompatible with the notion of a non-dominating, non-hierarchical community.² One of its defining characteristics is the compelling of obedience to the law and the punishment of the disobedient through a coercive legal apparatus. Administrative personnel charged with the responsibility of enforcing the policies adopted by the majority of a community assembly can attempt to persuade potentially disobedient citizens to comply with a policy in only very limited circumstances, for example when those citizens openly indicate that they will be disobeying a policy that they strenuously oppose. Even in these circumstances, the degree to which the administrative personnel can engage in a genuine debate with potentially disobedient citizens will be limited, because it is the outcome of the previous debates in the community assembly that will govern. Administrative personnel will not have the option of excusing non-compliance or disobedience, otherwise they would be engaging in de facto policy-making contrary to the will of the majority.

In cases where administrative personnel are unable to anticipate disobedient or non-compliant behaviour, they will have to enforce majority policies by imposing some sort of coercive sanctions (these sanctions would have to be determined by the community assembly, otherwise the administrative personnel would again be engaging in de facto policy-making). Any attempt at rational persuasion would be limited to persuading the non-compliant or disobedient citizens to comply with the community policies in the future. However, one of the most obvious reasons for compliance would be the possibility of getting caught again and being subject to further coercive sanctions. Any debate regarding the merits of the policies being enforced would have to be restricted to the community assembly as the only legitimate policy-making body.

Administrative personnel could present reasons in support of the policies but ultimately would have to rely on the general policy of majority rule in support of compliance, regardless of the intrinsic merits of a particular policy. Potentially or actually disobedient or non-compliant citizens would be precluded from engaging administrative personnel in any genuine discussions regarding the merits of the policies themselves. This is because no matter how persuasive citizens' reasons may be for opposing a policy, the administrative personnel will be required to enforce the policies of the community assembly unless and until the policies are changed by majority vote. People may be faced with a choice between compliance or disobedience, which raises questions regarding the place of direct action in an ecological society.


When Bookchin still accepted the label of `eco-anarchism' with enthusiasm (TE p92), he extolled the virtues of a politics of direct action, which he saw at the time as `a decisive step toward recovering the personal power over social life that centralised, overbearing bureaucracies have usurped from the people' (TES, p47). By acting directly, `we not only gain a sense that we can control the course of social events again; we recover a new sense of selfhood and personality without which a truly free society, based on self-activity and self-management, is utterly impossible' (TES, p47). Direct action `is the means whereby each individual awakens to the hidden powers within herself and himself, to a new sense of self-confidence and self-competence; it is the means whereby individuals take control of society directly, without "representatives" who tend to usurp not only the power but the very personality of a passive, spectatorial "electorate" who live in shadows of an "elect"' . Direct action is not a mere tactic then, but `a moral principle, an ideal, indeed, a sensibility. It should imbue every aspect of our lives an behaviour and outlook' (TES, p48). While a politics of direct action may find its institutional counterpart in directly democratic assemblies, if it is to imbue every aspect of our lives, behaviour and outlook, it will also continue to find expression in a variety of other social forms and activities. Direct action cannot be reduced to participation in the assembly. That is only one means of acting directly, a means which will only be successful in those cases where someone finds him or herself in the majority.
People can directly manage their own affairs by a variety of means and in variety of capacities, as individuals, as members of various groups and associations, and as members of an assembly. They will develop their capacity for self-management by making their own decisions, by taking control over their daily lives and activities.

Sometimes conflicts may arise between individual members of the community, between groups and associations and their members, between individuals, groups and the assembly, and within the assembly itself. Where the assembly enacts a policy opposed by particular individuals, groups and associations, and imposes that policy on those individuals, groups or associations, the latter are no longer in control. They are prevented from exercising their capacity for self-management, and fully developing that capacity through the exercise of their own critical judgement and choice. As Bookchin himself once wrote, without `the personal judgement, moral force, will, and sensibility to be active' in the `full and direct sense of the term', the `self would atrophy and its activity would be reduced to a relationship based on obedience and command (TES, p120). That the commands may emanate from a community assembly does not obviate these concerns.


These concerns can only be heightened by an examination of Bookchin's more recent writings on libertarian municipalism, confederalism and communalism. Bookchin has become increasingly hostile not only to so-called `lifestyle anarchism', but to anarchism in general (see in particular, `The Communalist Project'). He has come to advocate a structured form of confederated municipal government in which the concepts of individual freedom and autonomy, and therefore the very `self' Bookchin once saw as central to a self-managing, non-hierarchical ecological society, have become increasingly attenuated.
Perhaps it is appropriate now for Bookchin to reject the anarchist label, because his vision of an ecological society can no longer be described as non-hierarchical. However, if that indeed is the case, then Bookchin is faced with his own prior argument that only a non-hierarchical society can be an ecological society, in which case anyone truly committed to the creation of an ecological society will have to reject Bookchin's municipal politics. The difficulty of articulating a politics of social ecology that remains true to its vision of a non-hierarchical, non-dominating ecological community confronts other advocates of social ecology as well, such as John Clark, despite his many disagreements with Bookchin on other issues.³


In The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship, Bookchin emphasizes the distinction between a civic political sphere, the municipality, and national politics, or `statecraft', by which he means the exercise of state power through `its monopoly of violence, its control of the entire regulative apparatus of society in the form of legal and ordinance-making bodies, its governance of society by means of professional legislators, armies, police forces, bureaucracies, and the ancillary professionals who service its operations such as lawyers, educators, technicians, and the like' (p243). In place of 'statecraft' and its institutions, Bookchin proposes a civic or communal politics, `a municipal association of people reinforced by its own economic power, its own institutionalization of the grass roots, and the confederal support of nearby communities organized into a territorial network on a local and regional scale' (p245).

For Bookchin, the municipality `constitutes the discursive arena in which people can intellectually and emotionally confront each other, indeed, experience each other through dialogue, body language, personal intimacy, and face-to-face modes of expression in the course of making collective decisions' (p249). Bookchin argues that `true citizenship and politics entail the on-going formation of personality, education, a growing sense of public responsibility and commitment that render communing and an active body politic meaningful, indeed that give it existential substance' (p250). Thus, Bookchin uses `the term "politics" to denote not only the direct self-management of the polis or community by its citizens but the educational process of forging a self that is capable of the self-management of the municipals (p215).


Instead of workers' self-management or `collectivization' of the economy, Bookchin now advocates the 'municipalization of the economy' (RUDC, p262). Control of the means of production and the distribution of wealth become the shared responsibility of the citizens of the community to be decided by community assembly. This is supposed to eliminate economic competition wi the community and the class and special interests that prevent the development a truly public interest to which only the community assembly will purportedly be able to give expression.

The community assembly as a whole will decide what will be produced, how it will be produced, the quantities to be produced and the manner in which it be distributed. Not just individual workers, but entire workforces at particular workplaces may disagree with some of these decisions, which can be imposed upon them by the majority vote of the community assembly despite any disagreements. These may be genuine disagreements over what is best for the community, rather than disagreements based on any conflict between the interests of the workers as workers and the interests of the community as a whole. It is unrealistic to expect that on all policy questions there will always be one position that indisputably furthers the public interest or the good of the entire community.

When the workers at a particular workplace fundamentally disagree with a policy adopted by the community assembly and are unwilling to abide by it, the administrative body responsible for overseeing the implementation of the policy, such as a factory committee, will have to take steps to enforce the community policy. The factory committee may have to fire workers for insubordination and replace them with more compliant workers. If the factory committee refuses enforce the community policy, then the community assembly will have to replace the committee with its own administrators. The workers may wish to form their own associations or trade unions to protect their interests. They may even have resort to strike activity. Whether strikes will be permitted is a policy issue that can only be decided by the community assembly. If the policy of majority rule is consistently applied, the majority has already voted in favour of the policy that the striking workers are opposing, then the majority policy will have to be enforced by the threat or imposition of coercive sanctions (such as the termination of the striking workers, and their replacement by workers willing to work in accordance with the majority policy). If the existing policy is not enforced, then the policy will have effectively been repealed or suspended without the required majority vote, giving de facto policy-making power to the workers opposed to the policy. However, according to Bookchin, the only legitimate policy-making body is the community assembly. The community assembly could only permit symbolic and ineffective strike activity without derogating from its supreme policy-making role.

In cases of conflict between a policy adopted by a majority of the community assembly and workers opposed to that policy, the policy of the community assembly must govern and, if necessary, be enforced. This is an institutionalised, hierarchical political relationship that may very well exacerbate class conflict rather than transcend it.


Turning to the feasibility of community assembly forms of governance, limits regarding the size of these assemblies will have to be respected if they are to remain forms of non-mediated, face-to-face direct democracy as Bookchin has proposed. In order for community assemblies to be based on face-to-face, participatory democracy, they must be kept to a human scale. The human scale of a community assembly is meant to ensure that community affairs remain comprehensible to its members, better enabling them to engage in rational decision-making regarding community issues. It is also meant to ensure that human communities form part of, and are in harmony with, the local ecosystems in which they are situated, instead of forming a destructive blight on the environment, the inevitable result of large-scale human habitats, such as modern urban conglomerations.
Although the ultimate goal of social ecology is to create such human-scale ecological communities, very few humans currently live in human-scale groupings. For people living in large-scale urban environments, the issue is what political forms are suitable for the transition from a mass-urbanised society to a decentralised ecological society.

In Post Scarcity Anarchism, Bookchin envisaged popular assemblies at the block, neighbourhood and district levels (p 168). Yet he also recognised the limits of assembly forms of government within the confines of existing cities. By their very nature and current structure, cities foster `centralization, massification and manipulation', inhibiting `the development of an organic, rounded community' (p169). Consequently, Bookchin argued that the assemblies `must try to dissolve the city itself', with decentralised, human-scale ecological communities being founded in the countryside to which people would `repair in increasing numbers' as the modern city began `to shrivel, to contract and to disappear' (p169).

In the meantime, neighbourhood assemblies are to be established by the direct action of the people or, as Bookchin has more recently proposed, by committed libertarian municipalists elected to existing civic governments who will `use what real power their offices confer to legislate popular assemblies into existence' (`The Communalist Project', p 16). The neighbourhood assemblies will confederate into larger municipal and regional confederations that will constitute a `dual power' to the state and ultimately displace it (`The Communalist Project', p10). Presumably only then will people have the power to create a truly ecological society of physically decentralised human-scale communities in harmony with their natural environments.


Whether the neighbourhood assemblies are created by the direct action of people themselves or by elected representatives, serious issues arise regarding how democratic this process of transition and these transitional political institutions will be. In his later writings, Bookchin himself has acknowledged that a majority of people in any particular neighbourhood may not even participate in neighbourhood assemblies, either during the revolutionary period of transition to directly democratic neighbourhood assemblies, or after neighbourhood assemb lies have replaced existing forms of government.
During periods of revolutionary transformation, Bookchin notes, `it was always a minority of the people who attended meetings of assemblies that made significant decisions about the fate of their society' (`A Politics for the 21st Century', p9). Parisian sections of the French Revolution that Bookchin referred to in `The Forms of Freedom' as `a rough model of assembly organization in a large city ... during a revolutionary transition from a centralized political state to a potentially decentralized society' (PSA, p 165) were, as it turns out, `poorly attended, except at times when momentous decisions aroused the most revolutionary neighbourhoods' (`A Politics for the 21" Century', p10).

According to Bookchin, in revolutionary upheavals, `the great majority of the people' do not engage in revolutionary activity but `tend to be either active inactive observers' (`A Politics for the 21st` Century', p9). For Bookchin, it is neither likely nor desirable that `the great majority of people or even the oppressed personally participate in revolutionizing society' (p10).

Bookchin goes so far as to write that a `popular democracy, to begin with, is not premised on the idea that everyone can, will, or even want to attend popular assemblies' (`A Politics for the 21st Century', p9). Those who do not attend u assemblies are saying they are not citizens and must `live with the decisions' of the assemblies despite playing no role in the decision-making process (`Interview with Murray Bookchin', p3). They have no `ethical right to refuse to abide by the assembly's decisions, since they could have influenced those decisions by simply attending the assembly' (AMFL, p342).

Some people may not have been able to attend the assembly, for example due to sickness, or because of other pressing commitments. Other people may not attend because they were unaware that a particular policy was going to be debated and decided upon at a particular meeting or that the meeting was even taking place. Still others may not attend because they do not regard the assembly as having any legitimate authority, particularly during the transition phase when the assemblies are trying to supplant existing political institutions.

Even when these people constitute a majority in a particular neighbourhood or community over which an assembly claims authority, they will be bound by the policies adopted by these assemblies despite not having participated in the creation of the assemblies, despite not recognising the assemblies as having any legitimate authority over them, despite never having agreed to be governed by them, despite not having a genuine opportunity to participate in the debates of the assemblies, or for any other reason. It is difficult to conceive in what sense assembly forms of government can claim to exercise legitimate political authority based on majority rule if the majority of the people are not involved in their creation or in their policy-making functions.

What is missing from Bookchin's theory of libertarian municipalism (or `communalism', as he now describes it) is any coherent account of the sort of political obligation upon which legitimate political authority must be based. Despite his acknowledgement that only an active minority of citizens may be involved in the creation of the assemblies and in their deliberations, Bookchin claims that the opportunity to influence policy by participating in the assemblies provides a sufficient basis for the political obligation of all citizens to abide by the policies adopted by the assemblies. However, if the basis of political obligation is the mere opportunity to influence policy, then the same sort of political obligation will arise in representative forms of democracy where citizens also have the opportunity to influence policy, not only by voting but by lobbying elected representatives in order to persuade them to adopt policies these citizens support.

[For the remaining text of this essay, click here]
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