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Communalism (spelled with a capital C to differentiate it from other forms) is a libertarian socialist political philosophy coined by author and activist Murray Bookchin as a political system to complement his environmental philosophy of social ecology. Communalism proposes that markets and money be abolished and that land and enterprises - i.e., private property - be placed increasingly in the custody of the community – more precisely, the custody of citizens in free assemblies and their delegates in confederal councils. (However, Communalists retain respect for personal property.) The planning of work, the choice of technologies, the management and distribution of goods are seen as questions that can only be resolved in practice. The maxim "from each according to ability, to each according to need" is taken as a bedrock guide for an economically rational society, where all goods are designed and manufactured to have the highest durability and quality, a society where needs are guided by rational and ecological standards, and where the ancient notions of limit and balance replace the capitalist imperative of "grow or die".
In such a municipal economy – confederal, interdependent, and rational by ecological, not only technological, standards – Communalists hold that the special interests that divide people today into workers, professionals, managers, capitalist owners and so on would be melded into a general interest (a social interest) in which people see themselves as citizens guided strictly by the needs of their community and region rather than by personal proclivities and vocational concerns. Here, it is hoped, citizenship would come into its own, and rational as well as ecological interpretations of the public good would supplant Class (social) and hierarchical interests.
While renowned as an influential thinker of social anarchism for much of his life, beginning in 1995, Bookchin became increasingly critical of political anarchism, and in 1999 took a decisive stand against anarchist ideology. He had come to recognize his political beliefs as a genuinely new form of libertarian socialism, and positioned its politics firmly in the framework of a new political ideology. While originally conceived as being within the existing framework of social anarchism, he developed Communalism into a separate ideology which incorporates what he saw as the most beneficial elements of left anarchism, Marxism, syndicalism, and radical ecology.
Starting in the 1970s, Bookchin argued that the arena for libertarian social change should be the municipal level. In a 2001 interview he summarized his views this way: "The overriding problem is to change the structure of society so that people gain power. The best arena to do that is the municipality — the city, town, and village — where we have an opportunity to create a face-to-face democracy." In 1980 Bookchin used the term "libertarian municipalism", to describe a system in which libertarian institutions of directly democratic assemblies would oppose and replace the state with a confederation of free municipalities. Libertarian municipalism intends to create a situation in which the two powers — the municipal confederations and the nation-state — cannot coexist. Communalists hold that this is a method to achieve a liberated society.
Libertarian municipalism is seen not merely as an effort to “take over” city and municipal councils to construct a more “environmentally friendly” government, but rather an effort to transform and democratize these structures, to root them in popular assemblies and to knit them together along confederal lines to appropriate a regional economy. Bookchin summarized this process in the saying "democratize the republic, then radicalize the democracy".
It is a dual power that contests the legitimacy of the existing state power. Communalists hold that such a movement should be expected to begin slowly, perhaps sporadically, in communities here and there that initially may demand only the ability to alter the structuring of society before enough interlinked confederations exist to demand the outright institutional power to replace the centralized state. The growing tension created by the emergence of municipal confederations would represent a confrontation between the state and the political realms. It is believed this confrontation can be resolved only after Communalism forms the new politics of a popular movement and ultimately captures the imagination of society at large.
Communalists see as equally important the need for confederation – the interlining of communities with one another through recallable delegates mandated by municipal citizens’ assemblies and whose sole functions are coordinative and administrative. This is similar to the system of "nested councils" found in participatory politics.
According to Bookchin, "Confederation has a long history of its own that dates back to antiquity and that surfaced as a major alternative to the nation-state. From the American Revolution through the French Revolution and the Spanish Revolution of 1936, confederalism constituted a major challenge to state centralism". Communalism is seen to add a radically democratic dimension to the contemporary discussions of confederation (e.g. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) by calling for confederations not of nation-states but of municipalities and of the neighborhoods of large cities as well as towns and villages.
Policy and administration
Communalists make a clear distinction between the concepts of policy and administration. This distinction is seen as fundamental to Communalist principles.
Policy is defined by being made by a community or neighborhood assembly of free citizens; administration on the other hand, is performed by confederal councils a level up from the local assemblies which are composed of mandated, recallable delegates of wards, towns, and villages. If particular communities or neighborhoods –or a minority grouping of them– choose to go their own way to a point where human rights are violated or where ecological destruction is permitted, the majority in a local or regional confederation would have the right to prevent such practices through its confederal council. This is explained not as a denial of democracy but the assertion of a shared agreement by all to recognize civil rights and maintain the ecological integrity of a region.
Policy-making remains local, but its administration is vested in the confederal network as a whole. The confederation is intended to be a community of communities based on distinct human rights and ecological imperatives.
Participation in currently existing political systems
One of the core distinctions between left anarchism and Communalism is that Communalists are not opposed in principle to taking part in currently existing political institutions until such a time as it is deemed unnecessary. Communalists see no issues with supporting candidates or political parties in mainstream electoral politics—especially municipal elections—as long as prospective candidates are libertarian socialist and anti-statist in policy. The particular goal of this process is to elevate Communalists (or those sympathetic to Communalism) to a position of power so as to construct face-to-face municipal assemblies to maximize direct democracy and make existing forms of representative democracy increasingly irrelevant.
Communalism proposes a radically different form of economy – one that is neither nationalized nor collectivized according to syndicalist precepts. It proposes that markets and money be abolished and that land and enterprises be placed increasingly in the custody of the community – more precisely, the custody of citizens in free assemblies and their delegates in confederal councils. How work should be planned, what technologies should be used, how goods should be distributed are seen as questions that can only be resolved in practice. The maxim "from each according to ability, to each according to need" is taken as a bedrock guide for an economically rational society, provided to be sure that goods are of the highest durability and quality, that needs are guided by rational and ecological standards, and that the ancient notions of limit and balance replace the capitalist imperative of "grow or die".
In such a municipal economy – confederal, interdependent, and rational by ecological, not simply technological, standards – Communalists hold that the special interests that divide people today into workers, professionals, managers, and so on would be melded into a general interest in which people see themselves as citizens guided strictly by the needs of their community and region rather than by personal proclivities and vocational concerns. Here, it is hoped, citizenship would come into its own, and rational as well as ecological interpretations of the public good would supplant Class (social) and hierarchical interests.
- Brown, L. Susan. 'The Politics of Individualism,' Black Rose Books (2002)
- Brown, L. Susan. Does Work Really Work?
- The Institute for Social Ecology
- Murray Bookchin's overview of Libertarian Municipalism
- New Compass.net Communalism political activist group.
- The politics of social ecology: libertarian municipalism, by Janet Biehl and Murray Bookchin, Black Rose Books Ltd., 1998, ISBN 551641003, 9781551641003
- Paul F. Downton, Ecopolis: architecture and cities for a changing climate: Volume 1 of Future City, Springer, 2008, p. 157, ISBN 1-4020-8495-1, ISBN 978-1-4020-8495-9