The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Next Revolution – Questions to Murray Bookchin.

Over the last weeks, the Marxism Reading Group (MRG) of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at Nottingham University has read the book The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy (London: Verso, 2015) by Murray Bookchin. In this post, six members of the group critically assess different aspects of the book in their questions to Murray Bookchin.

Is Libertarian Municipalism a Utopia or a Strategy? by Jonathan Mansell

In The Next Revolution Bookchin describes a utopia in which solidarity replaces egoism (P.20), scarcity is abolished and an ethos of complementarity becomes the norm (P.85).  This utopia, however, is not postponed to the distant future, but is rather immanent within a revolutionary strategy of the present whereby ‘means and ends meet in a rational unity’ (P.85).  Libertarian Municipalism thus envisages a utopia-strategy of dual power by which the lived (participatory) politics of utopia increasingly marginalises the reified (representative) politics of the state. 

There is, however, a basic unacknowledged tension between utopia and strategy.  Bookchin’s utopian imaginary involves a ‘transcendence of particular class being(s)’ (P.20) based upon the immanent bringing into existence of a post-scarcity society in which economic antagonisms are evaporated.  The implication for strategy is, therefore, an abandonment of class ‘specific interests’ in favour of the general human interest in averting ecological catastrophe (P.91).  The utopia replaces the political and as such we lose any sense of fundamental struggle between opposed social interests across the complex terrain of capitalist social relations.  Ultimately, therefore, Bookchin’s utopia-strategy seems somewhat reliant on processes of ‘character building’ to forge a new communalist humanity, in which ‘hopefully such prejudices as parochialism will increasingly be replaced by generous co-operation’ (P.90).  Certainly Bookchin touches many important dimensions of a socialism for the twenty-first century. However, ongoing experiences from Venezuela to Greece demonstrate that the utopian future cannot simply be created, but must instead be won through strategic struggle within the conditions of the dystopian present.  

Politics under ecological catastrophe? by Ezgi Pinar.

The eco-communalist utopia of Bookchin, which is expected to be realized through libertarian municipalism, is suggested as a way to replace the grow-or-die market economy. Industrial development has progressed so much that the problem now is not so much the exploitation of labour, but the over- and misuse of natural resources. However, we should still question his premise that ‘the historic domination of human by human has been extended outward from society into the natural world’ (P.31) with respect to its political outcomes. Are we really no more a hierarchical capitalist society? Do we all come together ‘irrespective of our status’ to establish an ‘ecological society’ (P.91)?

It is also questionable what the space is and who are the actors in politics if we are in such a state of emergency. The simple political categories at least for existing society, such as with whom we are in solidarity and act together and also against whom or what, are being lost under the heading of ‘general social interest’. The concept of ‘general interest’ is clearly problematic. Equally, how can such a general interest be realized? What forces the market economy either to grow or die should also be put on the table, so that we can clearly see the obstacles in the establishment of an eco-communalist utopia as alternative to ecological catastrophe.

The end of the working class in view of ‘ecological catastrophe’? - Kayhan Valadbaygi

Bookchin’s utopia-strategy for a future Left rests upon the assumption that industrial workers are no longer revolutionary agents. ‘The industrial working class is now dwindling in numbers and is steadily losing its traditional identity as a class’ (PP.4-5). It sees itself recast into ‘a petty bourgeois stratum’ by today’s capitalism. The myth of working class, according to Bookchin, is based on a misleading concept, which sees workers not as human beings but as simply the embodiment of social labour (P.158). The success of the Left is therefore possible if ‘it addresses the public as a “people” rather than as a class’ (P.176). By focusing on the interclass ecological catastrophe created by the capitalist grow-or-die- imperative as ‘a general interest’, the Left could engender new politics with the effect of toppling the capitalist system.

Even if we concur with Bookchin that the labour movement is dead, his argument for interclass interest is unlikely to galvanize the masses. Apart from the principle of ‘reaching out to the people’, long the dogma of the European centre left, the idea that ecological catastrophe will be the focal point of the next revolution is euro-centric. The real question is whether a class-oriented political system which characterises itself as being against the global exploitation of workers, cognisant of the increasing gap between the rich and poor and concerned with the increasing rate of poverty across the global population is considered by the masses to be ‘café politics advanced by many radicals today’ or a political message with resonance throughout the global public. It is, in my view, highly unlikely that the Left will be able to develop the political and organisational capacity necessary to offer a coherent message to society with its primary basis being ecological catastrophe.

Is Marxism inevitably class reductionist? – Gorkem Altinors.

Murray Bookchin's utopian idea based on his conceptualisation of ‘libertarian municipalism’ is very central in his recently published book The Next Revolution. The book appears to be a political one with a strong emphasis on urban struggles. For instance he points out that even though capitalism appropriates pre-capitalist institutions and symbiotically lives with them, it has already reached the periphery of cities and non-urban areas with shopping centres and modern factories (P.4). Therefore today's class conflicts cannot be limited to only the factory or workspace. Rather, they have emerged in urban struggles as Bookchin exemplifies with specific examples from France, Russia and Spain (P.55). This strong claim is undoubtedly a very plausible one and is embedded in both anarchist and Marxist theories. He rejects, however, the focus on class. According to Bookchin, Marxism makes two mistakes by vigorously highlighting the working class. First it does not take the petty-bourgeois elements of salaried white-collar workers into account separately from industrial workers. Second, it overlooks that while the service economy is booming, the number of industrial workers has been decreasing (P.158).

It seems to me unfair to blame the whole Marxian thought for class reductionism, because there are numerous Marxist thinkers (such as Gramsci and his concept of ‘hegemony’), who conceptualise class in much more complex ways than Bookchin attributes to Marxism in general. The reason that such criticisms come from Bookchin might be his overemphasis on the state and its evil role in reproducing authority. Although Bookchin gives an outstandingly detailed blueprint of the political side of ‘libertarian municipalism’, the economic aspects of this utopia seem rather weakly articulated.

What about production? – Andreas Bieler

Murray Bookchin is very detailed in his institutional outline of libertarian municipalism and the way these popular, direct democratic assemblies are linked up in larger confederal structures (e.g. P.40). Although he recognises the expansive nature of capitalism as the root of social and ecological problems (P.6, P.57 and P.166), he says rather little about how the economy should be organised alternatively. He regularly refers to the ‘confederated municipalisation of the economy’ and contrasts this with the nationalisation of production as well as a production system based on workers’ control. ‘Confederalism as a principle of social organization reaches its fullest development’, he writes, ‘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’ (P.76). He has great hopes for the civilizational implications of such an economy in the production of a general interest (P.91), but not enough thought is given on how to create such a system and how more precisely to organise it.

His general account of rational beings and a commitment to the ‘enlightenment programme’ based on education, make him overlook the potential of conflicts and struggle involved in changing the current production system (P.101). There is a strong focus on the importance of fighting against statism and state structures of any kind, but the transition in the economic sphere towards a municipal economy seems to be the result of rational reflection by educated, enlightened human beings. 

Does Bookchin over-estimate the possibilities of human rationality? – Pei May Lee

While Bookchin criticises Marx for being overly focused on the working class (P.158), he himself seems to focus overwhelmingly on the absolute power of the state, without any consideration of other actors in the global system. This is a problem, because since the triumph of neoliberalism and associated processes of globalisation beginning in the 1970s, state power has been deeply undermined.  As such, non-state actors particularly multinational companies and transnational agencies should be given at least some consideration in this book. 

The positive dimensions of Bookchin’s argument are perhaps more convincing, in particular his account of participation in popular assemblies.  Acknowledging the practicality that not ‘everyone can, will, or even wants to attend popular assemblies’ (P.51) Bookchin believes the fundamental thing is to preserve the spirit of true democracy by ensuring ‘the door of the assemblies remain open for all who wish to attend and participate’ (P.54).  Bookchin should be commended on his great efforts to conceive of a rational model of ‘egalitarian and directly democratic ecological society’ (P.XI). However, other practical questions are left unanswered, for example: does everyone have adequate knowledge or experience to participate in every particular decision-making process?  Bookchin appears to be perhaps overly optimistic about our rational capacities, and does not adequately acknowledge that in many cases citizens would vote for policies which seem to favour them at the time without considering the greater consequences in the long run. Moreover, I am curious to know what would follow after a successful revolution? Would people be purely generous and the world be purely co-operative, or would new divisions emerge that lead to a new fragmentation?

Gorkem Altinors is PhD candidate at the School of Politics and International Relations and member of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham.

Andreas Bieler is Professor of Political Economy and Co-Director of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at Nottingham University.

Pei May Lee is first year Doctoral Researcher in the School of Politics and International Relations and member of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at The University Nottingham.

Jon Mansell recently completed his PhD on Displacement and the history of international theory at the University of Nottingham.

Ezgi Pinar is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Political Sciences at Istanbul University. She was a Visiting Research Fellow at CSSGJ from January to July 2015.

Kayhan Valadbaygi is MA student in International Relations and member of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ) at the University of Nottingham.

This post was first published on the Progress in Political Economy blog at Sydney University.

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