Radical Cities and Social Revolution: An Interview with Janet Biehl

[From Perspectives on Anarchist Theory  * * *  Vol. 2 – No. 1 Spring, 1998]

The abstractness and programmatic emptiness so characteristic of contemporary radical theory indicates a severe crisis in the left. It suggests a retreat from the belief that the ideal of a cooperative, egalitarian society can be made concrete and thus realized in actual social relationships. It is as though – in a period of change and demobilization – many radicals have ceded the right and the capacity to transform society to CEO’s and heads of state.

Janet Biehl’s new book, The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism, is an affront to this. It challenges the politically resigned with a detailed, historically situated anti-statist and anti-capitalist politics for today.

I asked Biehl about her new work in the fall of 1997 by email.
~ Chuck Morse

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Your book is essentially programmatic: you set libertarian municipalism in a historical context and offer concrete suggestions for practice. What political circumstances made it seem especially important to produce this book now?

As the political dimension of social ecology – the body of ideas developed by Murray Bookchin since the 1950s – libertarian municipalism is a libertarian politics of political and social revolution. It constitutes both a theory and a practice for building a revolutionary movement whose ultimate aim is to achieve an equal, just, and free society. My book is intended as a simple articulation of these ideas, which Bookchin himself has expounded elsewhere.

Briefly, for readers who do not know, libertarian municipalism calls for the creation of self-managed community political life at the municipal level: the level of the village, town, neighborhood, or small city. This political life would be embodied in institutions of direct democracy: citizens’ assemblies, popular assemblies, or town meetings. Where such institutions already exist, their democratic potential and structural power could be enlarged; where they formerly existed, they could be revived; and where they never existed, they could be created anew. But within these institutions people as citizens could manage the affairs of their own communities themselves – rather than relying on statist elites – arriving at policy decisions through the processes of direct democracy.

To address problems that transcend the boundaries of a single municipality, the democratized municipalities in a given region would form a confederation, sending delegates to a confederal council. This confederation would not be a state, since it would be controlled entirely by the citizens’ assemblies. The delegates that the assemblies send would have the power only to advance decisions made by their assemblies; they would be mandated and easily recallable.

As the libertarian municipalist movement grew and as ever more municipalities became democratized and confederated in this way, the confederations would hopefully become powerful enough to constitute themselves into dual power, one that could finally be pitted in opposition to the nation-state. At that point either a confrontation would ensue, or the citizenry would defect to the new system that gave them full control over their lives, “hollowing out” the power of the nation-state. At the same time the municipalities would take control of economic life from private corporations, expropriating the expropriators. A rational, libertarian, ecological society could then be formed, where structural power would reside in directly democratic assemblies inhabited by an active, vital citizenry.

My book lays out concrete steps by which a movement could be formed to create such a direct democracy. It emphasizes the crucial role of an educated group of committed individuals who, through study groups and local municipal electoral campaigns, build a movement by spreading these ideas in their communities.

The book has been needed for a long time, and I only regret that we didn’t have it back when we were working in the Left Green Network.(1) Just how much it’s been needed is indicated by the fact that within only a few weeks of its publication, comrades in other parts of the world made arrangements to translate it into five European languages, and discussions are under way for several others.

You place libertarian municipalism in the anarchist tradition and embrace its anti-statist and anti-capitalist goals. However, your emphasis on the conflict between the municipality and the state (as opposed to the conflict between labor and capital) is a departure from several dominant tendencies in the anarchist tradition. Why is this departure important?

First let me clarify that Bookchin does not oppose libertarian municipalism to the conflict between labor and capital. His intention is, rather, to broaden class struggle by connecting it to the municipality-state conflict; to introduce transclass issues – especially hierarchical domination and ecological dislocations – into formulations of class struggle; and to give class struggle a direct democratic base, grounded in a self-managed civic political culture. Libertarian municipalism is an effort to make class conflict a civic issue as well as an industrial one. It’s actually not so unusual: after all, revolutionary class struggles have historically been based in municipalities. The uprisings in Paris in 1848 and in 1870-71 were fought around barricades that were located in neighborhoods. Both in Red Petrograd in 1917 and in Barcelona in 1936-37, strong neighborhood civic cultures were crucial arenas for their respective revolutions.

Within the anarchist tradition, the municipality-state conflict goes back at least to Proudhon’s 1863 book on federalism, which called for a federation of autonomous communes. Bakunin absorbed this call and made it a central part of the programs he wrote in the late 1860s. In those same years, communalist ideas were becoming widespread among opponents of Napoleon III’s centralized rule in France. So in 1871, when Prussia defeated France and the French government collapsed, communalist ideas were already in place to infuse the Paris Commune when it sprang up on the ruins of the Second Empire. After only a few weeks’ existence, the Commune met with a disastrous end, yet many radicals – not only anti-statists but also Marx for a while – were inspired by the Commune’s audacious example and regarded the federation of autonomous communes as the model political structure for a free, self-managed society. In the later 1870s the idea passed into the programs of the Jura Federation, which regarded the communal federation as integral to the post-revolutionary society.

Libertarian municipalism draws on historical communalism, both in its anarchist and Marxist theoretical forms, as well as its concrete tradition in revolutionary history, going back to the French Revolution of 1789. At the same time it takes historical communalism further. Where early communalism saw the communes as mainly administrative in function, merely providing “public services,” and gave actual decision-making power over to workers’ associations (whose federation would parallel that of the federated communes), libertarian municipalism envisions the commune as a direct democracy that controls the economy. And where anarchist communalists thought people would form communes spontaneously after the state collapsed by other means, libertarian municipalism provides for a revolutionary transition, in which the federation of communes would become a dual power against the nation-state.

My point is that the communalist tradition, of which libertarian municipalism is a development, isn’t by any means alien to the anarchist tradition – in fact, it was present at the creation.

One way anarchists have distinguished themselves from others in the socialist tradition is by emphasizing the importance of counter-cultures as well as counter-institutions for a general revolutionary strategy. What is the relationship, in your view, between these efforts and the struggle for the radical, directly democratic political institutions described in your book?

It’s been much to the detriment of anarchism and the left generally that so much attention has recently been given to cultural change at the expense of institutional change, to the point that today it overshadows politics altogether. I don’t mean to suggest that cultural work is bereft of political meaning, but it can’t stand on its own – it must be part of a larger political movement. Art and culture and self-expression by themselves pose no threat to the existing social order, because by themselves they can very easily be coopted and marketed. In fact, the alienation and dissent that a radical work of art expresses can sometimes make it all the more marketable, as something with a “dangerously” hip frisson.

Without a political movement that opposes commodification as such – and hence capitalism – as well as hierarchical domination, art too easily becomes just another commodity. The 1960s counter-culture has famously deteriorated into nostalgia merchandising and New Age spirituality, with all their many marketing possibilities, and hip advertising has coopted much of its sensibility (see the recent anthology Commodify Your Dissent). For example, the Beatles’ ‘Revolution’ is now used to sell sneakers and my local bike shop sells Anarchy brand sunglasses. Within anarchism the emphasis on culture and self-expression and lifestyle – at the expense of a revolutionary politics (in the sense of community self-management) – has become so acute that social ecologists have had to distinguish themselves from it, to try to retain for anarchism a core socialist imperative to transform society at the level of social and political institutions as well as sensibility.

You argue that to create a free society we must democratize and expand the political realm. What role does the struggle against hierarchies often relegated to the private sphere – such as patriarchy and white supremacy – play in this effort?

During the course of a political and social revolution, people’s personalities will doubtless be changed, especially as they experience the solidarity of common struggle, fight on behalf of a common ideal rather than their own particular interests, and socially empower themselves. During such experiences we could expect that racism and sexism would be reduced. But insofar as they persist, either in mindsets or in social arrangements, the community members – in the political realm, in the democratic citizens’ assemblies – would make decisions about how to address them in whatever ways they deem appropriate.

The danger exists that a community could set policies that are racist and sexist, but it would be irrational for a society predicated on the fulfillment of the potentialities of all its members to suppress the potentialities of some. One of the fundamentals of social ecology, of which libertarian municipalism is the political dimension, is a condemnation of all kinds of social hierarchy and class rule and a call for their dissolution.

The idea of potentiality appears throughout your book. You refer to the “political potential of the municipality,” our “uniquely human potentiality” for a rational society, etc. Please tell me more about this concept of potentiality?

This question touches on the philosophical dimension of social ecology, dialectical naturalism, a topic too complex to explore thoroughly here; I’d refer interested readers to Bookchin’s Philosophy of Social Ecology (2nd ed. revised). I’ll merely say, in brief, that as a developmental philosophy (as opposed to an analytical philosophy), dialectical naturalism focuses on processes unfolding in both natural evolution and social history, especially those that tend, however obliquely and tortuously and even abortively at times, toward greater freedom, self-consciousness, and reflexivity.

As a developmental philosophy, dialectical naturalism uses a vocabulary that reflects develop-mental processes: potentiality, emergence, unfolding, growth, actualization, fulfillment. Where analytical philosophy presupposes fixity, dialectical philosophy presupposes movement, and not merely kinesis but directional movement.

By focusing on the potentialities of a situation, dialectical rationality encourages us to examine what kind of future could logically emerge from that situation. Thus, the municipality as it exists today contains the potentiality to become democratized and part of a rational society; the achievement of a libertarian municipalist society would mark the fulfillment or actualization of that potentiality.

You call upon people to overthrow capitalism and the state, and to create a free society informed by reason, solidarity, and an ethos of citizenship. However, your discussion of the colonization of social life by capitalism, the assault on communities, and the dissolution of the political realm seems to describe the destruction of the sources from which we could derive the capacity to build a social alternative. From where, under these conditions, can we find the strength and insight needed to create a free society?

Today’s society of instant gratification perpetually gives us the message that our aim in life is to maximize our personal happiness, within the framework of capitalism. It gives little or no cultural support to subordinating immediate personal needs to the pursuit of a larger goal. It shrivels our imagination from expansively envisioning a better world to submersing itself in matters of practical survival and the consumption of goods and services. It systematically strips us of what earlier centuries would have called our better nature.

Not only does this social order commodify and exploit us, it obscures our historical memory and thereby stupefies us. It would like us to forget that for centuries people participated in efforts for social transformation that did not bear fruit in their lifetimes. Not only did they not need immediate gratification, they did not expect it and were willing to risk exile and punishment, knowing it served the creation of a better society.

We therefore have to recognize that the immediate gratification of desire is part of the system we are fighting. We have to hold on to our historical memory and resist social amnesia. We must be willing, on some level, to put the cause of creating a better society before the cause of putting an espresso machine on the kitchen countertop.

If we don’t find the strength to persist and maintain our ideals, then our lives will be meaningless too, and we will become trivialized. We will, as William James once put it, “relapse into the slumber of nonentity from which [we] had been momentarily aroused.”

So we have to look for other people who, like us, want to uphold human dignity, and who understand that the worst problem our society faces is not El Nino or incompetent nannies but the social order itself. We fight that social order because a diminution of our humanity and our best aspirations would be insufferable.

Marx essentially argued that communism would emerge from the maturation of capitalism’s internal contradictions. Do you regard the creation of a libertarian municipalist society as an act of will or a culmination of a larger historical process?

It’s both. I have no doubt that our society is heading toward a crisis – the only question is whether its immediate cause will be social or ecological. As Marx pointed out in Capital, capitalist enterprises must either maximize their profits and therefore expand, or else succumb to their rivals and perish – grow or die. Bookchin has added that this imperative puts capitalism on a collision course with the natural world. Even as global warming is poised to wreak enormous havoc in the next century, the discrepancy between rich and poor is widening. To maximize its profits on a global basis, capitalism is rendering whole categories of people useless – by some estimates, about three-fifths of the world’s population.

I also think we might take another look at Marx’s “immiseration” thesis. He argued that the logic of capitalism was to reduce wages to the lowest possible level; when people were pauperized, he thought, they would be impelled to revolt against the bourgeoisie exploiting them. This prediction was not fulfilled, in part because welfare states were created that softened the impact of capitalism somewhat. Now that many of the social welfare benefits upon which the social peace has come to depend are being whittled away, the prediction that immiseration will lead to social revolution may yet turn out to be correct.

Whatever the cause of the crisis, when it does develop, its social outcome will by no means necessarily be a rational, ecological, and libertarian society. Its outcome could be a dictatorship, or chaos. If the crisis is to result in emancipation, at least some degree of consciousness of the liberatory alternative will have to be in place beforehand.

This is where voluntarism comes in. Pre-revolutionary periods are usually quite short. We are unlikely to have a lot of time to do the painstaking, molecular work of education that a liberatory movement will require. That’s the kind of work we should be doing now: especially building a libertarian municipalist movement, showing people how they can take their political and economic lives into their own hands, showing them how they can build a society that will allow them to reclaim their humanity. It requires endless patience, but it must be done. If it is not, then the crisis that comes will result in tyranny.

It’s hard to find a radical theorist these days not ensconced in the university. You are an exception and have deliberately remained outside of academia. Why is this?

The other night I came across a passage in Bakunin, where he talks about “the history of all academes.” “From the moment he becomes an academician,” Bakunin wrote, ” . . . the greatest scientific genius inevitably lapses into sluggishness. He loses spontaneity, his revolutionary hardihood, and that troublesome and savage energy characteristic of the genius, ever called to destroy tottering old worlds and lay the foundations of the new. He undoubtedly gains in politeness, in utilitarian and practical wisdom, what he lacks in power of originality. In a word, he becomes corrupted.”(2) I think this passage is too harsh; many academics from all parts of the political spectrum do try to participate in public political culture, writing books and op-ed pieces and articles for a popular readership. And the research that radical historians in the academy do on revolutionary movements and socialist-anarchist ideas is certainly invaluable to those who are trying to build on those traditions.

But it’s hard for professors to write works that directly advance revolutionary movements, works that will educate and inspire revolutionary activists and intellectuals. In a university, most of the writing one does must help consolidate one’s career, especially by demonstrating scholarship. Writing a movement-building work could jeopardize that career. So academics tend to address each other, more than the general public, and certainly much more than the revolutionary public. In this country, the mass exodus of leftists from public life into the academy has undoubtedly vitiated radical political culture.

Tell me about the future of your work. Do you have new projects planned or new issues you intend to explore?

I’m happy to say that The Murray Bookchin Reader, which I edited, is now available in the U.S. Currently I’m helping Bookchin put together a collection of recent interviews and essays, to be called Anarchism, Marxism, and the Future of the Left (published by A.K. Press next year).

Some of your readers may be interested to know that an international conference on libertarian municipalism will be held in Portugal in August 1998. Its purpose will be to discuss and advance the ideas of libertarian municipalism, as defined by this book and by Bookchin’s own writing. Those interested in advancing libertarian municipalism may contact the conference organizers at P.O. Box 111, Burlington, VT 05401 USA or blakrose@web.net or bookchin@igc.apc.org.

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1. Biehl and Chuck Morse were co-coordinators of the Left Green Network Clearinghouse from 1990 to 1991.
2. Sam Dolgoff, ed., Bakunin on Anarchy (New York, Alfred Knopf, 1972), p. 228.