The American Crisis, II

By Murray Bookchin (1980)

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(1921 - 2006)

Father of Social Ecology and Anarcho-Communalism

: Growing up in the era of traditional proletarian socialism, with its working-class insurrections and struggles against classical fascism, as an adult he helped start the ecology movement, embraced the feminist movement as antihierarchical, and developed his own democratic, communalist politics. (From: Anarchy Archives.)
• "...real growth occurs exactly when people have different views and confront each other in order to creatively arrive at more advanced levels of truth -- not adopt a low common denominator of ideas that is 'acceptable' to everyone but actually satisfies no one in the long run. Truth is achieved through dialogue and, yes, harsh disputes -- not by a deadening homogeneity and a bleak silence that ultimately turns bland 'ideas' into rigid dogmas." (From: "The Crisis in the Ecology Movement," by Murray Bo....)
• "Or will ecology groups and the Greens turn the entire ecology movement into a starry-eyed religion decorated by gods, goddesses, woodsprites, and organized around sedating rituals that reduce militant activist groups to self-indulgent encounter groups?" (From: "The Crisis in the Ecology Movement," by Murray Bo....)
• "We are direly in need not only of 're-enchanting the world' and 'nature' but also of re-enchanting humanity -- of giving itself a sense of wonder over its own capacity as natural beings and a caring product of natural evolution" (From: "The Crisis in the Ecology Movement," by Murray Bo....)

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The American Crisis, II

This article appears in Anarchy Archives with the permission of the author and publisher.

P.O. BOX 158

--New Perspectives in Libertarian Thought--

EDITOR: Murray Bookchin     Vol. 1, No. 5     Price: 80 cents

The American Crisis II
NOTE: The following issue of COMMENT No. 5 is a continuation of No. 4. Please note that the publication of COMMENT has been moved to Burlington, Vermont, where it will be published for at least the next year. Readers who have subscribed to COMMENT will continue to receive it. Those who have not done so -- or do not intend to do so in the near future -- will cease to receive future issues owing to our very considerable print and mailing costs.

 Photo by Bill Green, CC BY-NC License

Photo by Bill Green,
CC BY-NC License

The sophisticated accumulation of capital, together with the sweeping re-industrialization of America, necessarily has far reaching social and political consequences. Multinational conglomerates, a corporatized economy, an all-pervasive market society and a largely uprooted underclass -- all are completely inconsistent with republican institutions that were developed in a mercantile and largely agrarian period of history. The "Founding Fathers" are slowly becoming the moribund grandfathers of what is now a qualitatively new social order. To entrust issues like the election of legislative, judicial, and executive representatives to the people, however meager their political liberties and preselected the candidates, is regarded as erratic and potentially laden with danger.

The "Federal Constitution" -- itself a centralistic and nationalistic reaction to the regionally and locally oriented Articles of Confederation of the 1780s -- advanced the doctrine of a "separation of powers" that placed the national legislature, executive, and judiciary in an offsetting relationship to each other. Montesquieu, following from a long tradition on this issue, created the basis in French and American political theory for legal checks and balances that served to diminish governmental power and bureaucratic usurpation. The balancing of power came to mean a balancing of interests, a legal framework for checking the tendency of the market to preempt all other economic forms and interests. It is ironic that bourgeois interest was not always well-served by the political theorists who have since been so smugly classified as "bourgeois democrats." The principal republican theorists of the 17th and 18th centuries were not merchants or industrialists but rather enlightened aristocrats like Harrington, Montesquieu, and Jefferson. Granting the privileges they consciously or unconsciously accepted as their social heritage, they nevertheless feared the dominance of bourgeois interest (indeed, of interest itself) as a matter of principle. The separation of powers was meant to contain the impact of private interest, bureaucratic manipulation, and "monocratic" power, to use the language of the day, from subverting republican institutions, however deeply these institutions were infiltrated by aristocrats with enlightenment views of government.

The historic shift from a distributive to a market economy -- a shift that is only now achieving completion -- and the concentration of economic power in corporate elites and bureaucracies has opened a brutal, indeed, explosive tension between the claims of society and the needs of the state. The separation of powers has fuzed with the conflicting "pluralistic" demands of a vast population of increasingly displaced Americans who are confronted by a totally ambiguous future. The family structure, the community, the neighborhood, the attempt to perpetuate a simple material competence (be it a small enterprise, a farm, a professional career, or merely a secure job) are now in question. The very fear of up rootedness and isolation in a precarious world exudes not only an ambiance of fear but of "sedition." Quixotic as it may seem, a ghetto uprising is not dissimilar in principle from the massive support that Proposition 13 in California received from white middle class suburbanites.

The New Constitutionalism

The recasting of the concept of "pluralism" into a derogatory notion of "special interests" yields sinister ideological and political results. Valid conflicting interests that reflect valid differences and contradictions in status at every level of social life are totalitarianized rather than resolved within a framework of equity and reciprocity. A "new constitutionalism" has emerged that finds its most overt expression in the views of Bayard Manning of the Council on Foreign Relations Gregg Guma in a recent article has summarized Manning's views and their implications admirably. According to Guma, Manning, early in 1977, agreeing with the Trilateral Commission's "diagnosis that America's problems stem from an 'an excess of democracy' . . . proposed that new permanent councils be established to handle both domestic and international affairs. They would become the entry point to Congress for executive proposals and would review each bill before it went to a floor vote. The new U.S. Council and its offspring in congress and executive branch would bring together key cabinet officials and the chairmen and ranking minority members of at least seven House and Senate committees. They would have a staff and would be able to short-circuit opposition to new proposals." Vermont Vanguard, July 22, 1980.

The proposal marks a major transition from a republican to a technocratic ideology -- corporative, bureaucratic, and ultimately totalitarian in nature. The "special interests" -- working class, ethnic minorities, feminists, gays, environmentalists, the elderly and anti-nuclear people, not to speak of the massive middle classes -- are dissolved into the new framework. Their own needs and interests are neutralized by a fictive "general interest" (the "new patriotism" generated by the so-called Iranian crisis is only the most recent case in point) that is literally institutionalized as corporate-controlled "councils," the "soviets" of the bourgeoisie. A historic cementing of theoretically independent structures results in one effective structure -- the bureaucratic technocracy. This development has been in the making since Roosevelt's day, when the "Imperial Presidency" became fact under wartime conditions and has been reinforced by its caste of "special advisers" or "viziers" from Harry Hopkins in the thirties and forties to the Kissingers and Brezinskis of today. But the presidency itself has been too person-oriented and eccentric to allow for the predictability and assurance that go with a highly rationalized economy. With Manning's "permanent councils," the administration of the state becomes counciliar, ideologically and "objectively," the product of "information," "scientific management," an expression of political or administrative Taylorism, and the clear voice of corporate authority. For a cybernetic economy, one must have a cybernetic politics. The administered economy spawns the administered state -- a state which is neither republican nor immediately totalitarian but exquisitely "effective."

Nevertheless, there are factors at work in American society that must eventually make "effectiveness" congruent with totalitarianism. The "reindustrialization" of the United States must yield vast unemployment in the long run. This high level of chronic unemployment may not even be clearly visible; its forms are largely "illegal" by present-day juridical standards. The forty-percent unemployment rate among black youth, a condition that threatens to become permanent, has produced a massive crime wave, widespread prostitution, drug-dealing, and theft. This crime wave is also rapidly growing among unemployed white youth, ironically at a higher rate in suburbs than in the inner city. The elderly are simply being warehoused for death in nursing homes and "retirement" communities. Within the cities, an enormous number of the aging and aged live in self-imposed domestic prisons, regulated by self-imposed curfews, and "protected" by a veritable armamentorium of window bars, door locks, and alert systems. Viewed from this perspective, "unemployment" has in fact become a form of employment -- marginal, illegal, fearsome, and socially destabilizing. Apart from the skills obviously required for the existence of any society such as the health professions. maintenance professions, and the basic techniques that service the material and logistical needs of any community, an air of uncertainty surrounds most careers that people can hope to choose. In an era that celebrates futurism, no definable future can be charted by the individual and there is little enough individuality left to take the future in hand.

With the prospect of massive unemployment or criminalized employment and a growing declasse stratum, massive unrest and soaring criminality, brutality, and social unrest become unavoidable. Despite the rhetoric of New Deal reformism, the basis for a sweeping regimentation of the American people is being prepared by the state power. Draft registration and ultimately military conscription are merely the surface features of a far-reaching militarization and mobilization of all socially dominated sectors of the population. Various approximations of an internal passport system, legislation to restrict civil liberties, gun control, the perfection of electronic surveillance devices, "bills of rights" for the FBI and CIA, the expansion of professional and auxiliary police forces, the use of computers to essentially "register" and "correlate" data on the population -- all taken together are a coherent constellation of social controls to implement the "new constitutionalism." The most important single trend for effecting these measures is the growing centralization of the national state. At a time when so much is being written about the "decline," "withering away," and "breakdown" of the state, the searing fact is that the fusing of separate powers into a single power threatens to produce a state apparatus so commanding in its power and so greatly reinforced by economic corporatism that it surpasses the most despotic state forms of history.

Toward a New Municipalism

Given the growing centralization of the state and the hollowing out of all social forms, the problem of developing popular forms of social organization has become the historic responsibility of a relevant Anarchist movement. The myth of a "minimal state" advanced by neo-Marxists, by "New Age" decentralists, and by right-wing libertarians -- however well-meaning their notions may be -- is ultimately a justification of the state as such. Within the context of the present crisis, any minimal state becomes a naive ideology for the only kind of state that is possible in a corporate, cybernetic society -- a de facto maximum state. It is part of the very dialectic of the present situation that any state can no more be "minimal" than a hydrogen bomb can be turned into a instrument for peace. To discuss the "size" of a state -- its dimensions, degree of control, and functions -- reflects the same wisdom that is inherent in a discussions of the size of a weapon that can only lead to the extermination of society and the biosphere. To the degree that discussions around the state focus on its scope and authority, we remain at a level of discourse that is as rational as discussions on whether our nuclear arsenal will contain weapons that will destroy the world five, ten, or fifty times over. Once is enough -- both for nuclear arsenals and the state.

If a decentralist opposition to the state, indeed, to the regimentation and militarization of American society, is to be meaningful, the term "decentralization" itself must acquire form, structure, substance, and coherence. Words like "human scale" and "holism" become a deadening cliche when they are not grasped in terms of their full revolutionary logic, that is, as the revolutionary reconstruction of all social relations and institutions; the creation of an entirely new economy based not merely on "workplace democracy" but on the esthetisization of human productive powers, the abolition of hierarchy and domination in every sphere of personal and social life; the reintegration of social and natural communities in a common ecosystem. This project entails a total break with market society, domineering technologies, statism, and the patricentric, Promethean sensibilities toward humans and nature that have been absorbed into and heightened by bourgeois society. Every half-step in this direction is grossly untrue to the project and its essence. Inevitably, it yields a total betrayer, an ideological prop for centralization in the guise of "decentralization." Either the project must be carried through to its most radical ends or it will be thrown into sharp conflict with itself and its original goals.

What is the authentic locus of this project? Certainly, it is not the present day workplace -- the factory and office - which itself has to be reconstituted fundamentally from a hierarchical, technologically obsolete arena for mobilizing labor into a creative world that blends richly with the public sphere and transcends the mere conflict of economic interests. In so far as syndicalism and council communism still perpetuate the myth of the workplace as a revolutionary sphere, they become a crude form of Marxism without its overt authoritarian characteristics. Nor can the locus for this project be the isolated commune and cooperative, despite their invaluable features as the gymnasia for learning the arts and resolving the problems of direct action, self-management, and social interaction. No food cooperative will ever replace great food chains such as Shoprite and no organic farm will replace agribusiness without fundamental changes in society at large. As nuclei in an all-pervasive market society, they can scarcely be expected to significantly counter a massive politicized economy based on stupendous material resources and ultimately physical coercion. They may be foci of resistance, indispensable in dealing with the new challenges that confront a revolutionary opposition today. But the Proudhonian notion that they are the material wellsprings of a new society, one that will gradually replace the old, is utterly mythic -- worse, obscurantist. Hence, the subtle viciousness of the Stanford Research Institute's image of a dual society -- one, small and self-indulgent, that will live by the canons of "voluntary simplicity," the other, massive and probably overwhelming in numbers, that will live by the needs engendered by mass production and a mass society. Ultimately, this image serves to deflect any conflict but a personal one with the problem of confronting a massifying media that crushes the very spirit of resistance by the great majority of society.

Resistance and the recolonization of society must flow from the logic of a broad-based conflict between society and the centralized state, not from soloist endeavors that are boxed into isolated communal and personal efforts. Every revolution has been precisely that: a conflict between society and the state. And just as the centralized state today means the national state, so society today increasingly comes to mean the local community -- the township, the neighborhood, and the municipality. The demand for ''local control" has ceased to mean parochialism and insularity, with the narrowness of vision that aroused Marx's fears. In the force field generated by an increasingly centralized and corporatized economy, the cry for a recovery of community, autonomy, relative self-sufficiency, self reliance, and direct democracy has become the last residue of social resistance to increasing state authority. The overwhelming emphasis the media has given to local autonomy, to a militant municipalism, as refuges for middle-class parochialism -- often with racist and economically exclusionary restrictions -- conceals the latent radical thrust that can give a new vitality to the towns, neighborhoods, and cities against the national state. Whether we choose terms like "socialism" or "anarchism" to set in contrast with seemingly parochial terms like "municipalism," it would be well to remember that even "socialism" and "anarchism" have their negative side if we emphasize the authoritarian aspects of the former and the chronic failure of the latter to consolidate itself organizationally in most countries of the world. Truth ultimately remains a very thin line that can easily meander from its course. In this respect, no rules, dogmas, and traditions are substitutes for consciousness .

By the same token, the municipality may easily become the point of departure for a broad-based, directly democratic, truly popular, and humanly scaled constellation of social institutions that by their very logic, stand in sharp opposition to increasingly all pervasive political institutions. This much is clear: the potential for a libertarian radicalism is inherent in the municipality. It forms the bedrock for direct social relations, face-to-face democracy, and the personal intervention of the individual, the neighborhood or commune and cooperative in the formation of a new public sphere. Rescued from its own political institutions such as the mayoralty structure, the civic bureaucracy, and its own organized monopoly of violence, it still preserves the historic materials for a reconstruction (and ultimately, a transcendence) of the polls, the free medieval commune, the New England town meeting system, the Parisian sections, the decentralized cantonal structure, and the Paris Commune.

To be sure, in itself the municipality is as helpless as a social force as a commune and a cooperative. Furthermore, insofar as it preserves the political institutions of the state, it remains not merely a social ineffectual entity but a state in miniature. But insofar as municipalities confederate to form a new social network, insofar as they interpret local control to mean free popular as semblies, insofar as self-reliance means the collectivization of resources, and finally insofar as their administrative coordination of common concerns occurs through deputies -- not "representatives" -- who are openly chosen and mandated by their assemblies, subject to rotation, recall, and their activities severely restricted to the administration of policies that are always decided by popular assemblies they cease to be political or state institutions in any sense of the term. A confederation of such municipalities -- a Commune of communes -- is the only broadly based Anarchist social movement that is envisionable today, one from which to launch a truly popular movement that will yield the abolition of the state. It is the one movement that can speak to the increasing demands by all dominated sectors of society for empowerment and alone pragmatically restates the reconstruction of a libertarian communist society in the visceral terms of our present-day social problematic -- the recovery of an empowered selfhood, an authentic public sphere, and an active, participatory concept of citizenship. Anarchism has raised the vision of the confederation of municipalities for generations, partly in the writings of Proudhon and most notably in the writings of Kropotkin. Tragically, Anarchist theorists of the past have been too acutely sensitive to the political trappings of contemporary municipalities to give full attention to the social anatomy of the municipality that lies beneath its state-like veneer.

Historically, the municipality itself has been a battleground between society and the state; indeed, it historically antedates the state and has been in perpetual conflict with it. It has been a battleground because the state, until comparatively recently, has never fully claimed the municipality owing to its rich social life -- the family, guilds, the Ecclesia, neighborhoods, local societies, the sections, and town meetings. These richly nucleated structures, despite their own internal divisions, have been strikingly impervious to political institutionalization. Ironically, the tension between society and state on the municipal level never became the serious issue it is today because the internal forces of the town and neighborhood still possessed the material, cultural, and spiritual means to resist the invasive tendencies of political forces. Municipal life -- richly textured by family networks, local loyalties, professional organizations' popular societies, and even cafes -- provided a human refuge from the homogenizing, bureaucratic forces of the state apparatus. Today, the state, particularly in the form of the market economy, threatens to destroy this refuge, and municipalism has become the most significant terrain for the struggle against the state on nonpolitical grounds. The very concept of citizenship, not merely of civic autonomy, is at stake in this conflict.

It is crucial at this time for any Anarchist movement that seeks to be socially relevant to the unique nature of the American Crisis to recognize the meaning and significance of the civic terrain - to explore, develop, and help reconstitute its social bedrock. Urban politics is not foredoomed to become state politics. For an Anarchist to become a Minister of Health or a Minister of Justice in a republican government is unpardonable. But for an Anarchist to help organize a neighborhood assembly, to advance its conscious ness along libertarian lines, to raise demands for the recall and rotation of deputies chosen by the assembly, to draw clear distinctions between policy formulation and administrative coordination, challenge civic bureaucratism in every form, to educate the community in collectivism and mutual aid, finally, to foster confederal relations between assemblies within a municipality and between municipalities in open defiance of the national state -- this program constitutes an Anarchist "politics" that, by its very logic, yields the negation of politics. For Anarchists to stand for election - yes, let us use the word openly -- with a view toward rewriting the civic charters of American cities and towns along the lines of this program -- is no different in principle than -for Anarchists to stand for election in workshops and labor organizations with a view toward creating anarcho-syndicalist unions. The difference in views is not over whether Anarchists are standing for "election" or whether they are engaged in politics. The real difference is whether the terrain of their "electioneering", and their "politics" is in a state sphere or a social sphere. The traditional syndicalist argument that it is perfectly valid for libertarians to stand for elections in workshops and unions is built on the very dubious presupposition that these sphere stand outside the state apparatus and remain within a revolutionary arena. They assume in the face of increasingly questionable realities that workshop and union, as class organizations, are neither state nor bourgeois institutions. To close discourse on these issues by viewing civic activities as a capitulation to bourgeois politics is to ignore very compelling realities about the civic sphere itself -- or to use more traditional anarchistic terms, the communitarian sphere itself. As a result, externalities such as "elections," "deputies," and "coordination" are removed from the context in which they acquire meaning and content. They become free-floating autonomous terms that determine policy without the flesh of reality and insight.

This much is clear: the factories in the United States are virtually quiescent while the cities, particularly the ghettoes and neighborhoods are not. Today, American workers can be reached more readily and receptively as neighbors and citizens than as wage earners in factories -- a situation that brings many issues regard ing the American working class into serious question. Were Anarchist groups in the United States -- resting on their 19th century traditions, their lightly held anti-statism, and their economism -- to ignore the historic conflict between social localities called towns, neighborhoods, and cities on the one side and the state on the other, they will have earned their black flags -- not as banners of protest, but as shrouds. The demarcation between anarchism and statism must always be clear but so, too, must the demarcation between society and the state or else we will never know the terrain on which the battle is to be fought. In the historic crisis that confronts us, which public life itself threatens to fade away, the recreation of the public sphere -- humanly scaled, directly democratic, and composed of active citizens -- is perhaps the most pressing responsibility of our time. For without that public sphere, a sphere that must have civic tangibility and substance if it is to exist as more than a metaphor -- the very conditions and substance for protest will have disappeared.

-- Murray Bookchin
August 15, 1980

Note: The writer is pleased to note that a new book, Toward an Ecological Society is currently in press and will be published shortly by Black Rose Books, 3981 Ste. Laurent St., Montreal H2W 1Y5 (fourth floor), Quebec, Canada. This volume will contain most of the articles he has written in the 70s, including those on ecology, urbanism, and Marxism. The book will be available for $8 (postage free).

Copyright © 1980 by COMMENT PUBLISHING PROJECT. Editor and Publisher: Murray Bookchin. Subscription price: $5 for seven issues. Please address all checks and correspondence to COMMENT at the post office on the mast head.

From : Anarchy Archives


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