Libertarian Municipalism: An Overview


Perhaps the greatest single failing of movements for social reconstruction — I refer particularly to the Left, to radical ecology groups, and to organizations that profess to speak for the oppressed — is their lack of a politics that will carry people beyond the limits established by the status quo.

Politics today means duels between top-down bureaucratic parties for electoral office, that offer vacuous programs for “social justice” to attract a nondescript “electorate.” Once in office, their programs usually turn into a bouquet of “compromises.” In this respect, many Green parties in Europe have been only marginally different from conventional parliamentary parties. Nor have socialist parties, with all their various labels, exhibited any basic differences from their capitalist counter parts. To be sure, the indifference of the Euro-American public — its “apoliticism” — is understandably depressing. Given their low expectations, when people do vote, they normally turn to established parties if only because, as centers of power, they cart produce results of sorts in practical matters. If one bothers to vote, most people reason, why waste a vote on a new marginal organization that has all the characteristics of the major ones and that will eventually become corrupted if it succeeds? Witness the German Greens, whose internal and public life increasingly approximates that of other parties in the new Reich.

That this “political process” has lingered on with almost no basic alteration for decades now is due in great part to the inertia of the process itself. Time wears expectations thin, and hopes are often reduced to habits as one disappointment is followed by another. Talk of a “new politics,” of upsetting tradition, which is as old as politics itself, is becoming unconvincing. For decades, at least, the changes that have occurred in radical politics are largely changes in rhetoric rather than structure. The German Greens are only the most recent of a succession of “nonparty parties” (to use their original way of describing their organization) that have turned from an attempt to practice grassroots politics — ironically, in the Bundestag, of all places! — into a typical parliamentary party. The Social Democratic Party in Germany, the Labor Party in Britain, the New Democratic Party in Canada, the Socialist Party in France, and others, despite their original emancipatory visions, barely qualify today as even liberal parties in which a Franklin D. Roosevelt or a Harry Truman would have found a comfortable home. Whatever social ideals these parties may have had generations ago have been eclipsed by the pragmatics of gaining, holding, and extending their power in their respective parliamentary and ministerial bodies.

It is precisely such parliamentary and ministerial objectives that we call “politics” today. To the modern political imagination, “politics” is precisely a body of techniques for holding power in representative bodies — notably the legislative and executive arenas — not a moral calling based on rationality, community, and freedom.

A Civic Ethics

Libertarian municipalism represents a serious, indeed a historically fundamental project, to render politics ethical in character and grassroots in organization. It is structurally and morally different from other grassroots efforts, not merely rhetorically different. It seeks to reclaim the public sphere for the exercise of authentic citizenship while breaking away from the bleak cycle of parliamentarism and its mystification of the “party” mechanism as a means for public representation. In these respects, libertarian municipalism is not merely a “political strategy.” It is an effort to work from latent or incipient democratic possibilities toward a radically new configuration of society itself-a communitarian society oriented toward meeting human needs, responding to ecological imperatives, and developing a new ethics based on sharing and cooperation. That it involves a consistently independent form of politics is a truism. More important, it involves a redefinition of politics, a return to the word’s original Greek meaning as the management of the community or polis by means of direct face-to-face assemblies of the people in the formulation of public policy and based on an ethics of complementarily and solidarity.

In this respect, libertarian municipalism is not one of many pluralistic techniques that is intended to achieve a vague and undefined social goal. Democratic to its core and nonhierarchical in its structure, it is a kind of human destiny, not merely one of an assortment of political tools or strategies that can be adopted and discarded with the aim of achieving power. Libertarian municipalism, in effect, seeks to define the institutional contours of a new society even as it advances the practical message of a radically new politics for our day.

Means and Ends

Here, means and ends meet in a rational unity. The word politics now expresses direct popular control of society by its citizens through achieving and sustaining a true democracy in municipal assemblies — this, as distinguished from republican systems of representation that preempt the right of the citizen to formulate community and regional policies. Such politics is radically distinct from statecraft and the state a professional body composed of bureaucrats, police, military, legislators, and the like, that exists as a coercive apparatus, clearly distinct from and above the people. The libertarian municipalist approach distinguishes statecraft — which we usually characterize as “politics” today — and politics as it once existed in precapitalist democratic communities.

Moreover, libertarian municipalism also involves a clear delineation of the social realm — as well as the political realm — in the strict meaning of the term social: notably, the arena in which we live our private lives and engage in production. As such, the social realm is to be distinguished from both the political and the statist realms. Enormous mischief has been caused by the interchangeable use of these terms — social, political, and the state. Indeed, the tendency has been to identify them with one another in our thinking and in the reality of everyday life. But the state is a completely alien formation, a thorn in the side of human development, an exogenous entity that has incessantly encroached on the social and political realms. Often, in fact, the state has been an end in itself, as witness the rise of Asian empires, ancient imperial Rome, and the totalitarian state of modern times. More than this, it has steadily invaded the political domain, which, for all its past shortcomings, had empowered communities, social groupings, and individuals.

Such invasions have not gone unchallenged. Indeed, the conflict between the state on the one hand and the political and social realms on the other has been an ongoing subterranean civil war for centuries. It has often broken out into the open — in modern times in the conflict of the Castilian cities (comuneros) against the Spanish monarchy in the 1520s, in the struggle of the Parisian sections against the centralist Jacobin Convention of 1793, and in endless other clashes both before and after these encounters.

Today, with the increasing centralization and concentration of power in the nation-state, a “new politics” — one that is genuinely new — must be structured institutionally around the restoration of power by municipalities. This is not only necessary but possible even in such gigantic urban areas as New York City, Montreal, London, and Paris. Such urban agglomerations are not, strictly speaking, cities or municipalities in the traditional sense of those terms, despite being designated as such by sociologists. It is only if we think that they are cities that we become mystified by problems of size and logistics. Even before we confront the ecological imperative of physical decentralization (a necessity anticipated by Frederick Engels and Peter Kropotkin alike), we need feel no problems about decentralizing them institutionally. When Francois Mitterand tried to decentralize Paris with local city halls a few years ago, his reasons were strictly tactical (he wanted to weaken the authority of the capital’s right-wing mayor). Nonetheless, he failed not because restructuring the Large metropolis was impossible but because the majority of the affluent Parisians supported the mayor.

Clearly, institutional changes do not occur in a social vacuum. Nor do they guarantee that a decentralized municipality, even if it is structurally democratic. will necessarily be humane, rational, and ecological in dealing with public affairs. Libertarian municipalism is premised on the struggle to achieve a rational and ecological society, a struggle that depends on education and organization. From the beginning, it presupposes a genuinely democratic desire by people to arrest the growing powers of the nation-state and reclaim them for their community and their region. Unless there is a movement — hopefully an effective Left Green movement — to foster these aims, decentralization can lead to local parochialism as easily as it can lead to ecological humanist communities.

But when have basic social changes ever been without risk? The case that Marx’s commitment to a centralized state and planned economy would inevitably yield bureaucratic totalitarianism could have been better made than the case that decentralized libertarian municipalities will inevitably be authoritarian and have exclusionary and parochial traits Economic interdependence is a fact of life today, and capitalism itself has made parochial autarchies a chimera. While municipalities and regions can seek to attain a considerable measure of self-aufficiency, we have long left the era when self-aufficient communities that can indulge their prejudices are possible.


Equally important is the need for confederation — the interlinking of communities with one another through recallable deputies mandated by municipal citizens’ assemblies and whose sole functions are coordinative and administrative. 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. Nor has it disappeared in our own time, when the breakup of existing twentieth-century empires raises the issue of enforced state centralism or the relatively autonomous nation. Libertarian municipalism adds a radically democratic dimension to the contemporary discussions of confederation (as, for example, in Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) by calling for confederations not of nation-states but of municipalities and of the neighborhoods of giant megalopolitan areas as well as towns and villages.

In the case of libertarian municipalism’ parochialism can thus be checked not only by the compelling realities of economic interdependence but by the commitment of municipal minorities to defer to the majority wishes of participating communities. Do these interdependencies and majority decisions guarantee us that a majority decision will be a correct one? Certainly not — but our chances for a rational and ecological society are much better in this approach than in those that ride on centralized entities and bureaucratic apparatuses. I cannot help but marvel that no municipal network has been emergent among the German Greens, who have hundreds of representatives in city councils around Germany but who carry on a local politics that is completely conventional and self enclosed within particular towns and cities.

Many arguments against libertarian municipalism — even with its strong confederal emphasis derive from a failure to understand its distinction between policy-making and administration. This distinction is fundamental to libertarian municipalism and must always be kept in mind. Policy is made by a community or neighborhood assembly of free citizens; administration is performed by confederal councils composed of mandated, recallable deputies 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 mayhem is permitted, the majority in a local or regional confederation has every right to prevent such malfeasances through its confederal council. This is not 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. These rights and needs are not asserted so much by a confederal council as by the majority of the popular assemblies conceived as one large community that expresses its wishes through its confederal deputies. Thus policy-making still remains local, but its administration is vested in the confederal network as a whole. The confederation in effect is a Community of communities based on distinct human rights and ecological imperatives.

If libertarian municipalism is not to be totally warped of its form and divested of its meaning, it is a desideratum that must be fought for. It speaks to a time — hopefully, one that will yet come when people feel disempowered and actively seek empowerment. Existing in growing tension with the nation-state, it is a process as well as a destiny, a struggle to be fulfilled, not a bequest granted by the summits of the state. It is a dual power that contests the legitimacy of the existing state power. Such a movement can be expected to begin slowly, perhaps sporadically, in communities here and there that initially may demand only the moral authority to alter the structuring of society before enough interlinked confederations exist to demand the outright institutional power to replace the state. The growing tension created by the emergence of municipal confederations represents a confrontation between the state and the political realms. This confrontation can be resolved only after libertarian municipalism forms the new politics of a popular movement and ultimately captures the imagination of millions.

Certain points, however, should be obvious. The people who initially enter into the duel between confederalism and statism will not be the same human beings as those who eventually achieve libertarian municipalism. The movement that tries to educate them and the struggles that give libertarian municipalist principles reality will turn them into active citizens, rather than passive “constituents.” No one who participates in a struggle for social restructuring emerges from that struggle with the prejudices, habits, and sensibilities with which he or she entered it. Hopefully, then, such prejudices — like parochialism — will increasingly be replaced by a generous sense of cooperation and a caring sense of interdependence.

Municipalizing the Economy

It remains to emphasize that libertarian municipalism is not merely an evocation of all traditional antistatist notions of politics. Just as it redefines politics to include face-to-face municipal democracies graduated to confederal levels, so it includes a municipalist and confederal approach to economics. Minimally, a libertarian municipalist economics calls for the municipalization of the economy, not its centralization into state-owned “nationalized” enterprises on the one hand or its reduction to “worker-controlled” forms of collectivistic capitalism on the other. Trade-union control of “worker controlled” enterprises (that is, syndicalism) has had its day. This should be evident to anyone who examines the bureaucracies that even revolutionary trade unions spawned during the Spanish Civil War of 1936. Today, corporate capitalism too is increasingly eager to bring the worker into complicity with his or her own exploitation by means of “workplace democracy.” Nor was the revolution in Spain or in other countries spared the existence of competition among worker-controlled enterprises for raw materials, markets, and profits. Even more recently, many Israeli kibbutzim have been failures as examples of nonexploitative, need-oriented enterprises, despite the high ideals with which they were initially founded.

Libertarian municipalism proposes a radically different form of economy one that is neither nationalized nor collectivized according to syndicalist precepts. It proposes that land and enterprises be placed increasingly in the custody of the community more precisely, the custody of citizens in free assemblies and their deputies in confederal councils. How work should be planned, what technologies should be used, how goods should be distributed are questions that can only be resolved in practice. The maxim “from each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her needs” would seem 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 bourgeois marketplace imperative of “grow or die.”

In such a municipal economy — confederal, interdependent, and rational by ecological, not simply technological, standards — we would expect that the special interests that divide people today into workers, professionals, managers, and the like 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, citizenship would come into its own, and rational as well as ecological interpretations of the public good would supplant class and hierarchical interests.

This is the moral basis of a moral economy for moral communities. But of overarching importance is the general social interest that potentially underpins all moral communities, an interest that must ultimately cut across class, gender, ethnic, and status lines if humanity is to continue to exist as a viable species. This interest is the one created in our times by ecological catastrophe. Capitalism’s “grow or die” imperative stands radically at odds with ecology’s imperative of interdependence and limit The two imperatives can no longer coexist with each other — nor can any society founded on the myth that they can be reconciled hope to survive. Either we will establish an ecological society, or society will go under for everyone, irrespective of his or her status.

Will this ecological society be authoritarian, or possibly even totalitarian, a hierarchial dispensation that is implicit in the image of the planet as a “spaceship” Or will it be democratic? If history is any guide, the development of a democratic ecological society, as distinguished from a commend ecological society, must follow its own logic. One cannot resolve this historical dilemma without getting to its roots. Without a searching analysis of our ecological problems and their social sources, the pernicious institutions that we now have will lead to increased centralization and further ecological catastrophe. In a democratic ecological society, those roots are literally the grass roots that libertarian municipalism seeks to foster.

For those who rightly call for a new technology, new sources of energy, new means of transportation, and new ecological lifeways, can a new society be anything less than a Community of communities based on confederation rather than statism? We already live in a world in which the economy is “overglobalized,” overcentralized, and overbureaucratized. Much that can be done locally and regionally is now being done largely for profit, military needs, and imperial appetites — on a global scale with a seeming complexity that can actually be easily diminished.

If this seems too “utopian” for our time, then so must the present flood of literature that asks for radically sweeping shifts in energy policies, far-reaching reductions in air and water pollution, and the formulation of worldwide plans to arrest global warming and the destruction of the ozone layer be seen as “utopian.” Is it too much, it is fair to ask, to take such demands one step further and call for institutional and economic changes that are no less drastic and that in fact are based on traditions that are deeply sedimented in American — indeed, the world’s — noblest democratic and political traditions?

Nor are we obliged to expect these changes to occur immediately. The Left long worked with minimum and maximum programs for change, in which immediate steps that can be taken now were linked by transitional advances and intermediate areas that would eventually yield ultimate goals. Minimal steps that can be taken now include initiating Left Green municipalist movements that propose popular neighborhood and town assemblies — even if they have only moral functions at first — and electing town and city councilors that advance the cause of these assemblies and other popular institutions. These minimal steps can lead step-by-step to the formation of confederal bodies and the increasing legitimation of truly democratic bodies. Civic banks to fund municipal enterprises and land purchases; the fostering of new ecologically oriented enterprises that are owned by the community; and the creation of grassroots networks in many fields of endeavor and the public weal — all these can be developed at a pace appropriate to changes that are being made in political life.

That capital will likely “migrate” from communities and confederations that are moving toward libertarian municipalism is a problem that every community, every nation, whose political life has become radicalized has faced. Capital, in fact, normally “migrates” to areas where it can acquire high profits, irrespective of political considerations. Overwhelmed by fears of capital migration, a good case could be established for not rocking the political boat at any time. Far more to the point are that municipally owned enterprises and farms could provide new ecologically valuable and health-nourishing products to a public that is becoming increasingly aware of the low-quality goods and staples that are being foisted on it now.

Libertarian municipalism is a politics that can excite the public imagination, appropriate for a movement that is direly in need of a sense of direction and purpose. The papers that appear in this collection offer ideas, ways, and means not only to undo the present social order but to remake it drastically — expanding its residual democratic traditions into a rational and ecological society.


This addendum seems to be necessary because some of the opponents of libertarian municipalism — and, regrettably, some of its acolyte — misunderstand what libertarian municipalism seeks to achieve indeed, misunderstand its very nature.

For some of its instrumental acolytes, libertarian municipalism is becoming a tactical device to gain entry into so called independent movements and new third parties that call for “grassroots politics,” such as those proposed by NOW and certain Labor leaders In the name of “libertarian municipalism,” some radical acolytes of the view are prepared to blur the tension that they should cultivate between the civic realm and the state — presumably to gain greater public attention in electoral campaigns for gubernatorial, congressional, and other state offices. These radicals regrettably warp libertarian municipalism into a mere “tactic” or “strategy” and drain it of its revolutionary content.

But those who propose to use tenets of libertarian municipalism for “tactical” reasons as a means to enter another reformist party or function as its “left wing” have little in common with the idea. Libertarian municipalism is not a product of the formal logic that has such deep roots in left-wing “analyses” and “strategies” today, despite the claims of many radicals that “dialectics” is their “method.” The struggle toward creating new civic institutions out of old ones (or replacing the old ones altogether) and creating civic confederations is a self formative one, a creative dynamic formed from the tension of social conflict. The effort to work along these lines is as much a part of the end as the process of maturing from the child to the adult — from the relatively undifferentiated to the fully differentiated — with all its difficulties. The very fight for a municipal confederation, for municipal control of “property,” and for the actual achievement of worldwide municipal confederation is directed toward achieving a new ethos of citizenship and community, not simply to gain victories in largely reformist conflicts.

Thus, libertarian municipalism is not merely an effort simply to “take over” city councils to construct a more “environmentally friendly” city government. These adherents or opponents of libertarian municipalism, in effect, look at the civic structures that exist before their eyes now and essentially (all rhetoric to the contrary aside) take them as they exist. Libertarian municipalism, by contrast, is an effort to transform and democratize city governments, to root them in popular assemblies, to knit them together along confederal lines, to appropriate a regional economy along confederal and municipal lines.

In fact, libertarian 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. Since these confederations would exist primarily in opposition to statecraft, they cannot be compromised by state, provincial, or national elections, much less achieved by these means. Libertarian municipalism is formed by its struggle with the state, strengthened by this struggle, indeed defined by this struggle. 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.”

Many heroic comrades who are prepared to do battle (one day) with the cosmic forces of capitalism find that libertarian municipalism is too thorny, irrelevant, or vague to deal with and opt for what is basically a form of political particularism. Our spray-can or ’ alternative cafe” radicals may choose to brush libertarian municipalism aside as “a ludicrous tactic,” but it never ceases to amaze me that well-meaning radicals who are committed to the “overthrow” of capitalism (no less!) find it too difficult to function politically — and, yes, electorally — in their own neighborhoods for a new politics based on a genuine democracy. If they cannot provide a transformative politics for their own neighborhood relatively modest task — or diligently work at doing so with the constancy that used to mark the more mature left movements of the past, I find it very hard to believe that they will ever do much harm to the present social system. Indeed, by creating cultural centers, parks, and good housing, they may well be improving the system by giving capitalism a human face without diminishing its under lying unfreedom as a hierarchical and class society.

A bouquet of struggles for “identity” has often fractured rising radical movements since SDS in the 1960s, ranging from foreign to domestic nationalisms. Because these identity struggles are so popular today, some of the critics of libertarian municipalism invoke “public opinion” against it. But when has it been the task of revolutionaries to surrender to “public opinion” not even the “public opinion” of the oppressed, whose views can often be very reactionary? Truth has its own life — regardless of whether the oppressed masses perceive or agree on what is true. Nor is it “elitist” to invoke truth, in contradiction to even radical public opinion, when that opinion essentially seeks a march backward into the politics of particularism and even racism. It is very easy to drop to all fours these days, but as radicals our most important need is to stand on two feet — that is, to be as fully human as possible — and to challenge the existing society in behalf of our shared common humanity, not on the basis of gender, race, age, and the like.

Critics of libertarian municipalism even dispute the very possibility of a “general interest.” If, for such critics, the face-to-face democracy advocated by libertarian municipalism and the need to extend the premises of democracy beyond mere justice to complete freedom do not suffice as a “general interest,” it would seem to me that the need to repair our relationship with the natural world is certainly a “general interest” that is beyond dispute — and, indeed, it remains the “general interest” advanced by social ecology. It may be possible to coopt many dissatisfied elements in the present society, but nature is not cooptable. Indeed, the only politics that remains for the Left is one based on the premise that there is a “general interest” in democratizing society and preserving the planet Now that traditional forces such as the workers’ movement have ebbed from the historical scene, it can be said with almost complete certainty that without libertarian municipalism, the left will have no politics whatever.

A dialectical view of the relationship of confederalism to the nation-state, an understanding of the narrowness, introverted character, and parochialism of identity-movements. and a recognition that the workers’ movement is essentially dead all illustrate that if a new politics is going to develop today, it must be unflinchingly public, in contrast to the alternative-cafe “politics” advanced by many radicals today. It must be electoral on a municipal basis, confederal in its vision, and revolutionary in its character.

Indeed, in my view, libertarian municipalism, with its emphasis on confederalism, is precisely the “Commune of communes” for which anarchists have fought over the past two centuries. Today, it is the “red button” that must be pushed if a radical movement is to open the door to the public sphere. To leave that red button untouched and slip back into the worst habits of the post-1968 New Left, when the notion of “power” was divested of utopian or imaginative qualities, is to reduce radicalism to yet another subculture that will probably live more on heroic memories than on the hopes of a rational future.

April 3, 1991; addendum, October 1, 1991

“The Meaning of Confederalism” by Murray Bookchin


Few arguments have been used more effectively to challenge the case for face-to-face participatory democracy than the claim that we live in a “complex society.” Modern population centers, we are told, are too large and too concentrated to allow for direct decision-making at a grassroots level. And our economy is too “global,” presumably, to unravel the intricacies of production and commerce. In our present transnational, often highly centralized social system, it is better to enhance representation in the state, to increase the efficiency of bureaucratic institutions, we are advised, than to advance utopian “localist” schemes of popular control over political and economic life.

After all, such arguments often run, centralists are all really “localists” in the sense that they believe in “more power to the people” – or at least, to their representatives. And surely a good representative is always eager to know the wishes of his or her “constituents” (to use another of those arrogant substitutes for “citizens”).

But face-to-face democracy? Forget the dream that in our “complex” modern world we can have any democratic alternative to the nation-state! Many pragmatic people, including socialists, often dismiss arguments for that kind of “localism” as otherworldly – with good-natured condescension at best and outright derision at worst. Indeed, some years back, in 1972, I was challenged in the periodical Root and Branch by Jeremy Brecher, a democratic socialist, to explain how the decentralist views I expressed in Post-Scarcity Anarchism would prevent, say, Troy, New York, from dumping its untreated wastes into the Hudson River, from which downstream cities like Perth Amboy draw their drinking water.

On the surface of things, arguments like Brecher’s for centralized government seem rather compelling. A structure that is “democratic,” to be sure, but still largely top-down is assumed as necessary to prevent one locality from afflicting another ecologically. But conventional economic and political arguments against decentralization, ranging from the fate of Perth Amboy’s drinking water to our alleged “addiction” to petroleum, rest on a number of very problematical assumptions. Most disturbingly, they rest on an unconscious acceptance of the economic status quo.

Decentralism and Self-Sustainability

The assumption that what currently exists must necessarily exist is the acid that corrodes all visionary thinking (as witness the recent tendency of radicals to espouse “market socialism” rather than deal with the failings of the market economy as well as state socialism). Doubtless we will have to import coffee for those people who need a morning fix at the breakfast table or exotic metals for people who want their wares to be more lasting than the junk produced by a consciously engineered throwaway economy. But aside from the utter irrationality of crowding tens of millions of people into congested, indeed suffocating urban belts, must the present-day extravagant international division of labor necessarily exist in order to satisfy human needs? Or has it been created to provide extravagant profits for multinational corporations? Are we to ignore the ecological consequences of plundering the Third World of its resources, insanely interlocking modern economic life with petroleum-rich areas whose ultimate products include air pollutants and petroleum-derived carcinogens? To ignore the fact that our “global economy” is the result of burgeoning industrial bureaucracies and a competitive grow-or-die market economy is incredibly myopic.

It is hardly necessary to explore the sound ecological reasons for achieving a certain measure of self-sustainability. Most environmentally oriented people are aware that a massive national and international division of labor is extremly wasteful in the literal sense of that term. Not only does an excessive division of labor make for overorganization in the form of huge bureaucracies and tremendous expenditures of resources in transporting materials over great distances; it reduces the possibilities of effectively recycling wastes, avoiding pollution that may have its source in highly concentrated industrial and population centers, and making sound use of local or regional raw materials.

On the other hand, we cannot ignore the fact that relatively self-sustaining communities in which crafts, agriculture, and industries serve definable networks of confederally organized communities enrich the opportunities and stimuli to which individuals are exposed and make for more rounded personalities with a rich sense of selfhood and competence. The Greek ideal of the rounded citizen in a rounded environment – one that reappeared in Charles Fourier’s utopian works – was long cherished by the anarchists and socialists of the last century.

The opportunity of the individual to devote his or her productive activity to many different tasks over an attenuated work week (or in Fourier’s ideal society, over a given day) was seen as a vital factor in overcoming the division between manual and intellectual activity, in transcending status differences that this major division of work created, and in enhancing the wealth of experiences that came with a free movement from industry through crafts to food cultivation. Hence self-sustainability made for a richer self, one strengthened by variegated experiences, competencies, and assurances. Alas, this vision has been lost by leftists and many environmentalists today, with their shift toward a pragmatic liberalism and the radical movement’s tragic ignorance of its own visionary past.

We should not, I believe, lose sight of what it means to live an ecological way of life, not merely follow sound ecological practices. The multitude of handbooks that teach us how to conserve, invest, eat, and buy in an “ecologically responsible” manner are a travesty of the more basic need to reflect on what it means to think – yes, to reason – and to live ecologically in the full meaning of the term. Thus, I would hold that to garden organically is more than a good form of husbandry and a good source of nutrients; it is above all a way to place oneself directly in the food web by personally cultivating the very substances one consumes to live and by returning to one’s environment what one elicits from it.

Food thus becomes more than a form of material nutririent. The soil one tills, the living things one cultivates and consumes, the compost one prepares all unite in an ecological continuum to feed the spirit as well as the body, sharpening one’s sensitivity to the nonhuman and human world around us. I am often amused by zealous “spiritualists,” many of whom are either passive viewers of seemingly “natural” landscapes or devotees of rituals, magic, and pagan deities (or all of these) who fail to realize that one of the most eminently human activities – namely, food cultivation – can do more to foster an ecological sensibility (and spirituality, if you please) than all the incantations and mantras devised in the name of ecological spiritualism.

Such monumental changes as the dissolution of the nation-state and its substitution by a participatory democracy, then, do not occur in a psychological vacuum where the political structure alone is changed. I argued against Jeremy Brecher that in a society that was radically veering toward decentralistic, participatory democracy, guided by communitarian and ecological principles, it is only reasonable to suppose that people would not choose such an irresponsible social dispensation as would allow the waters of the Hudson to be so polluted. Decentralism, a face-to-face participatory democracy, and a localist emphasis on community values should be viewed as all of one piece – they most assuredly have been so in the vision I have been advocating for more than thirty years. This “one piece” involves not only a new politics but a new political culture that embraces new ways of thinking and feeling, and new human interrelationships, including the ways we experience the natural world. Words like”politics” and “citizenship” would be redefined by the rich meanings they acquired in the past, and enlarged for the present.

It is not very difficult to show – item by item – how the international division of labor can be greatly attenuated by using local and regional resources, implementing ecotechnologies, resealing human consumption along rational (indeed, healthful) lines, and emphasizing quality production that provides lasting (instead of throwaway) means of life. It is unfortunate that the very considerable inventory of these possibilities, which I partly assembled and evaluated in my 1965 essay “Toward a Liberatory Technology,” suffers from the burden of having been written too long ago to be accessible to the present generation of ecologically oriented people. Indeed, in that essay I also argued for regional integration and the need to interlink resources among ecocommunities. For decentralized communities are inevitably interdependent upon one another.

Problems of Decentralism

If many pragmatic people are blind to the importance of decentralism, many in the ecology movement tend to ignore very real problems with “localism” – problems that are no less troubling than the problems raised by a globalism that fosters a total interlocking of economic and political life on a worldwide basis. Without such wholistic cultural and political changes as I have advocated, notions of decentralism that emphasize localist isolation and a degree of self- sufficiency may lead to cultural parochialism and chauvinism. Parochialism can lead to problems that are as serious as a “global” mentality that overlooks the uniqueness of cultures, the peculiarities of ecosystems and ecoregions, and the need for a humanly scaled community life that makes a participatory democracy possible. This is no minor issue today, in an ecology movement that tends to swing toward very well-meaning but rather naive extremes. I cannot repeat too emphatically that we must find a way of sharing the world with other humans and with nonhuman forms of life, a view that is often difficult to attain in overly “self-sufficient” communities.

Much as I respect the intentions of those who advocate local self-reliance and self-sustainabilty, these concepts can be highly misleading. I can certainly agree with David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, for example, that if a community can produce the things it needs, it should probably do so. But self-sustaining communities cannot produce all the things they need – unless it involves a return to a back-breaking way of village life that historically often prematurely aged its men and women with hard work and allowed them very little time for political life beyond the immediate confines of the community itself.

I regret to say that there are people in the ecology movement who do, in fact, advocate a return to a highly labor-intensive economy, not to speak of Stone Age deities. Clearly, we must give the ideals of localism, decentralism, and self-sustainability greater and fuller meaning.

Today we can produce the basic means of life – and a good deal more – in an ecological society that is focused on the production of high-quality useful goods. Yet still others in the ecology movement too often end up advocating a kind of “collective” capitalism, in which one community functions like a single entrepreneur, with a sense of proprietorship toward its resources. Such a system of cooperatives once again marks the beginnings of a market system of distribution, as cooperatives become entangled in the web of “bourgeois rights” – that is, in contracts and bookkeeping that focus on the exact amounts a community will receive in “exchange” for what it delivers to others. This deterioration occurred among some of the worker-controlled enterprises that functioned like capitalistic enterprises in Barcelona after the workers expropriated them in July 1936 – a practice that the anarcho-syndicalist CNT fought early in the Spanish Revolution.

It is a troubling fact that neither decentralization nor self-sufficiency in itself is necessarily democratic. Plato’s ideal city in the Republic was indeed designed to be self-sufficient, but its self-sufficiency was meant to maintain a warrior as well as a philosophical elite. Indeed, its capacity to preserve its self-sufficiency depended upon its ability, like Sparta, to resist the seemingly “corruptive” influence of outside cultures (a characteristic, I may say, that still appears in many closed societies in the East). Similarly, decentralization in itself provides no assurance that we will have an ecological society. A decentralized society can easily co-exist with extremely rigid hierarchies. A striking example is European and Oriental feudalism, a social order in which princely, ducal, and baronial hierarchies were based on highly decentralized communities. With all due respect to Fritz Schumacher, small is not necessarily beautiful.

Nor does it follow that humanly scaled communities and “appropriate technologies” in themselves constitute guarantees against domineering societies. In fact, for centuries humanity lived in villages and small towns, often with tightly organized social ties and even communistic forms of property. But these provided the material basis for highly despotic imperial states. Considered on economic and property terms, they might earn a high place in the “no-growth” outlook of economists like Herman Daly, but they were the hard bricks that were used to build the most awesome Oriental despotisms in India and China. What these self-sufficient, decentralized communities feared almost as much as the armies that ravaged them were the imperial tax-gatherers that plundered them.

If we extol such communities because of the extent to which they were decentralized, self-sufficient, or small, or employed “appropriate technologies,” we would be obliged to ignore the extent to which they were also culturally stagnant and easily dominated by exogenous elites. Their seemingly organic but tradition-bound division of labor may very well have formed the bases for highly oppressive and degrading caste systems in different parts of the world-caste systems that plague the social life of India to this very day.

At the risk of seeming contrary, I feel obliged to emphasize that decentralization, localism, self-sufficiency, and even confederation each taken singly – do not constitute a guarantee that we will achieve a rational ecological society. In fact, all of them have at one time or another supported parochial communities, oligarchies, and even despotic regimes. To be sure, without the institutional structures that cluster around our use of these terms and without taking them in combination with each other, we cannot hope to achieve a free ecologically oriented society.

Confederalism and Interdependence

Decentralism and self-sustainability must involve a much broader principle of social organization than mere localism. Together with decentralization, approximations to self-sufficiency, humanly scaled communities, ecotechnologies, and the like, there is a compelling need for democratic and truly communitarian forms of interdependence – in short, for libertarian forms of confederalism.

I have detailed at length in many articles and books (particularly The Rise of Urbanization and the Decline of Citizenship) the history of confederal structures from ancient and medieval to modern confederations such as the Comuneros in Spain during the early sixteenth century through the Parisian sectional movement of 1793 and more recent attempts at confederation, particularly by the Anarchists in the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s. Today, what often leads to serious misunderstandings among decentralists is their failure in all too many cases to see the need for confederation – which at least tends to counteract the tendency of decentralized communities to drift toward exclusivity and parochialism. If we lack a clear understanding of what confederalism means – indeed, the fact that it forms a key principle and gives fuller meaning to decentralism – the agenda of a libertarian municipalism can easily become vacuous at best or be used for highly parochial ends at worst.

What, then, is confederalism? It is above all a network of administrative councils whose members or delegates are elected from popular face-to-face democratic assemblies, in the various villages, towns, and even neighborhoods of large cities. The members of these confederal councils are strictly mandated, recallable, and responsible to the assemblies that choose them for the purpose of coordinating and administering the policies formulated by the assemblies themselves. Their function is thus a purely administrative and practical one, not a policy making one like the function of representatives in republican systems of government.

A confederalist view involves a clear distinction between policymaking and the coordination and execution of adopted policies. Policymaking is exclusively the right of popular community assemblies based on the practices of participatory democracy. Administratiom and coordination are the responsibility of confederal councils, which become the means for interlinking villages, towns, neighborhoods, and cities into confederal networks. Power thus flows from the bottom up instead of from the top down, and in confederations, the flow of power from the bottom up diminishes with the scope of the federal council ranging territorially from localities to regions and from regions to ever-broader territorial areas.

A crucial element in giving reality to confederalism is the interdependence of communities for an authentic mutualism based on shared resources, produce, and policymaking. If one community is not obliged to count on another or others generally to satisfy important material needs and realize common political goals in such a way that it is interlinked to a greater whole, exclusivity and parochialism are genuine possibilities. Only insofar as we recognize that confederation must be conceived as an extension of a form of participatory administration – by means of confederal networks – can decentralization and localism prevent the communities that compose larger bodies of association from parochially withdrawing into themselves at the expense of wider areas of human consociation.

Confederalism is thus a way of perpetuating the interdependence that should exist among communities and regions – indeed, it is a way of democratizing that interdependence without surrendering the principle of local control. While a reasonable measure of self-sufficiency is desirable for every locality and region, confederalism is a means for avoiding local parochialism on the one hand and an extravagant national and global division of labor on the other. In short, it is a way in which a community can retain its identity and roundedness while participating in a sharing way with the larger whole that makes up a balanced ecological society.

Confederalism as a principle of social organization reaches its fullest development when the economy itself is confederalized by placing local farms, factories, and other needed enterprises in local municipal hands – that is, when a community, however large or small, begins to manage its own economic resources in an interlinked network with other communities. To force a choice between either self-sufficiency on the one hand or a market system of exchange on the other is a simplistic and unnecessary dichotomy. I would like to think that a confederal ecological society would be a sharing one, one based on the pleasure that is felt in distributing among communities according to their needs, not one in which “cooperative” capitalistic communities mire themselves in the quid pro quo of exchange relationships.

Impossible? Unless we are to believe that nationalized property (which reinforces the political power of the centralized state with economic power) or a private market economy (whose law of “grow or die” threatens to undermine the ecological stability of the entire planet) is more workable, I fail to see what viable altemative we have to the confederated municipalization of the economy. At any rate, for once it will no longer be privileged state bureaucrats or grasping bourgeois entrepreneurs – or even “collective” capitalists in so-called workers-controlled enterprises – all with their special to promote who are faced with a community’s problems, but citizens, irrespective of their occupations or workplaces. For once, it will be necessary to transcend the traditional special interests of work, workplace, status, and property relations, and create a general interest based on shared community problems.

Confederation is thus the ensemble of decentralization, localism, self-sufficiency, interdependence – and more. This more is the indispensable moral education and character building – what the Greeks called paideia – that makes for rational active citizenship in a participatory democracy, unlike the passive constituents and consumers that we have today. In the end, there is no substitute for a conscious reconstruction of our relationship to each other and the natural world.

To argue that the remaking of society and our relationship with the natural world can be achieved only by decentralization or localism or self-sustainabilty leaves us with an incomplete collection of solutions. Whatever we omit among these presuppositions for a society based on confederated municipalities, to be sure, would leave a yawning hole in the entire social fabric we hope to create. That hole would grow and eventually destroy the fabric itself – just as a market economy, cojoined with “socialism,” “anarchism,” or whatever concept one has of the good society, would eventually dominate the society as a whole. Nor can we omit the distinction between policy making and administration, for once policy making slips from the hands of the people, it is devoured by its delegates, who quickly become bureaucrats.

Confederalism, in effect, must be conceived as a whole: a consciously formed body of interdependencies that unites participatory democracy in municipalities with a scrupulously supervised system of coordination. It involves the dialectical development of independence and dependence into a more richly articulated form of interdependence, just as the individual in a free society grows from dependence in childhood to independence in youth, only to sublate the two into a conscious form of interdependence between individuals and between the individual and society.

Confederalism is thus a fluid and ever-developing kind of social metabolism in which the identity of an ecological society is preserved through its differences and by virtue of its potential for ever-greater differentiation. Confederalism, in fact, does not mark a closure of social history (as the “end of history” ideologists of recent years would have us believe about liberal capitalism) but rather the point of departure for a new eco-social history marked by a participatory evolution within society and between society and the natural world.

Confederation as Dual Power

Above all, I have tried to show in my previous writings how confederation on a municipal basis has existed in sharp tension with the centralized state generally, and the nation-state of recent times. Confederalism, I have tried to emphasize, is not simply a unique societal, particularly civic or municipal, form of administration. It is a vibrant tradition in the affairs of humanity, one that has a centuries-long history behind it. Confederations for generations tried to countervail a nearly equally long historical tendency toward centralization and the creation of the nation-state.

If the two – confederalism and statism – are not seen as being in tension with each other, a tension in which the nation-state has used a variety of intermediaries like provincial governments in Canada and state governments in the United States to create the illusion of “local control,” then the concept of confederation loses all meaning. Provincial autonomy in Canada and states’ rights in the United States are no more confederal than “soviets” or councils were the medium for popular control that existed in tension with Stalin’s totalitarian state. The Russian soviets were taken over by the Bolsheviks, who supplanted them with their party within a year or two of the October Revolution. To weaken the role of confederal municipalities as a countervailing power to the nation-state by opportunistically running “confederalist” candidates for state govemment – or, more nightmarishly, for governorship in seemingly democratic states (as some U.S. Greens have proposed) is to blur the importance of the need for tension between confederations and nation-states – indeed, they obscure the fact that the two cannot co-exist over the long term.

In describing confederalism as a whole – as a structure for decentralization, participatory democracy, and localism – and as a potentiality for an ever- greater differentiation along new lines of development, I would like to emphasize that this same concept of wholeness that applies to the interdependencies between municipalities also applies to the muncipality itself. The municipality, as I pointed out in earlier writings, is the most immediate political arena of the individual, the world that is literally a doorstep beyond the privacy of the family and the intimacy of personal friendships. In that primary political arena, where politics should be conceived in the Hellenic sense of literally managing the polls or community, the individual can be transformed from a mere person into an active citizen, from a private being into a public being. Given this crucial arena that literally renders the citizen a functional being who can participate directly in the future of society, we are dealing with a level of human interaction that is more basic (apart from the family itself) than any level that is expressed in representative forms of governance, where collective power is literally transmuted into power embodied by one or a few individuals. The municipality is thus the most authentic arena of public life, however much it may have been distorted over the course of history.

By contrast, delegated or authoritarian levels of “politics” presuppose the abdication of municipal and citizen power to one degree or another. The municipality must always be understood as this truly authentic public world. To compare even executive positions like a mayor with a govemor in representative realms of power is to grossly misunderstand the basic political nature of civic life itself, all its malformations notwithstanding. Thus, for Greens to contend in a purely formal and analytical manner – as modern logic instructs that terms like “executive” make the two positions interchangeable is to totally remove the notion of executive power from its context, to reify it, to make it into a mere lifeless category because of the extemal trappings we attach to the word. If the city is to be seen as a whole, and its potentialities for creating a participatory democracy are to be fully recognized, so provincial governments and state governments in Canada and the United States must be seen as clearly established small republics organized entirely around representation at best and oligarchical rule at worst. They provide the channels of expression for the nation-state – and constitute obstacles to the development of a genuine public realm.

To run a Green for a mayor on a libertarian municipalist program, in short, is qualitatively different from running a provincial or state governor on a presumably libertarian muncipalist program. It amounts to decontextualizing the institutions that exist in a municipality, in a province or state, and in the nation-state itself, thereby placing all three of these executive positions under a purely formal rubric. One might with equal imprecision say that because human beings and dinosaurs both have spinal cords, that they belong to the same species or even to the same genus. In each such case, an institution – be it a mayoral, councillor, or selectperson – must be seen in a municipal context as a whole, just as a president, prime minister, congressperson, or member of parliament, in turn, must be seen in the state context as a whole. From this standpoint, for Greens to run mayors is fundamentally different from running provincial and state offices. One can go into endless detailed reasons why the powers of a mayor are far more controlled and under closer public purview than those of state and provincial office-holders.

At the risk of repetition, let me say that to ignore this fact is to simply abandon any sense of contextuality and the environment in which issues like policy, administration, participation, and representation must be placed. Simply, a city hall in a town or city is not a capital in a province, state, or nation-state.

Unquestionably, there are now cities that are so large that they verge on being quasi-republics in their own right. One thinks for example of such megalopolitan areas as New York City and Los Angeles. In such cases, the minimal program of a Green movement can demand that confederations be established within the urban area – namely, among neighborhoods or definable districts – not only among the urban areas themselves. In a very real sense, these highly populated, sprawling, and oversized entities must ultimately be broken down institutionally into authentic muncipalities that are scaled to human dimensions and that lend themselves to participatory democracy. These entities are not yet fully formed state powers, either institutionally or in reality, such as we find even in sparsely populated American states. The mayor is not yet a governor, with the enormous coercive powers that a govemor has, nor is the city council a parliament or statehouse that can literally legislate the death penalty into existence, such as is occurring in the United States today.

In cities that are transforming themselves into quasi-states, there is still a good deal of leeway in which politics can be conducted along libertarian lines. Already, the executive branches of these urban entities constitute a highly precarious ground – burdened by enormous bureaucracies, police powers, tax powers, and juridical systems that raise serious problems for a libertarian municipal approach. We must always ask ourselves in all frankness what form the concrete situation takes. Where city councils and mayoral offices in large cities provide an arena for battling the concentration of power in an increasingly s trong state or provincial executive, and even worse, in regional jurisdictions that may cut across many such cities (Los Angeles is a notable example), to run candidates for the city council may be the only recourse we have, in fact, for arresting the development of increasingly authoritarian state institutions and helping to restore an institutionally decentralized democracy.

It will no doubt take a long time to physically decentralize an urban entity such as New York City into authentic municipalities and ultimately communes. Such an effort is part of the maximum program of a Green movement. But there is no reason why an urban entity of such a huge magnitude cannot be slowly decentralized institutionally. The distinction between physical decentralization and institutional decentralization must always be kept in mind. Time and again excellent proposals have been advanced by radicals and even city planners to localize democracy in such huge urban entities and literally give greater power to the people, only to be cynically shot down by centralists who invoke physical impediments to such an endeavor.

It confuses the arguments of advocates for decentralization to make institutional decentralization congruent with the physical breakup of such a large entity. There is a certain treachery on the part of centralists in making these two very distinct lines of development identical or entangling them with each other. Libertarian municipalists must always keep the distinction between institutional and physical decentralization clearly in mind, and recognize that the former is entirely achievable even while the latter may take years to attain.