Assessing Libertarian Municipalism
On a recent speaking tour to
I decided I should educate myself about both. In Libertarian Municipalism I found a serious attempt to develop a political vision and associated strategic implications. My reactions to that, and to the question regarding rejection of Participatory Economics as well, follow. I hope they can engender some useful interaction between advocates of different but perhaps ultimately hopefully complimentary views. This essay evolved into extensive debate linked here.
In The Politics of Social Ecology (Black Rose, 1998), Janet Biehl and Murray Bookchin report that libertarian municipalism aims to "construct and expand local direct democracy, such that ordinary citizens make decisions for their communities and for their society as a whole... through face-to-face processes of deliberation and decision-making."
Why are noted anarchists proposing political institutions? Isn't that contrary to abolishing the state? Only if you accept "the interchangeability of politics with Statecraft," replies Bookchin, and advocate throwing out the baby with the bathwater. So libertarian municipalism instead proposes "large general meetings in which all the citizens of a given area meet, deliberate, and make decisions on matters of common concern." And it notes that "if the political potential of the municipality is to be fulfilled, community life must be rescaled to...a manageable size." The decision-making assemblies must contain everyone in the municipality and "meet at regular intervals, perhaps every month at first, and later weekly, with additional meetings as people [see] fit." Given their modest size, these assemblies "could meet in an auditorium, theatre, courtyard, hall, park, or even a church-indeed in any local facility that was sufficiently large to hold all the concerned citizens of the municipality."
Insofar as libertarian municipalism is a vision for a new type polity, in addition to wondering why the authors don't discuss mechanisms for adjudicating disputes (the kind of thing that now leads to law suits) and handling difficult problems of enforcement-I also wonder why they feel that each citizen needs to be directly involved, face-to-face, in all decisions. While the general thrust of the assembly vision seems positive, why must it be exclusive? Why is it unwise to use other decision-making mechanisms as well, when assemblies aren't optimal? I am not sure, for example, why libertarian municipalism feels that no means of representation can ever be designed to function compatibly with popular assemblies, preserving democracy but functioning better in situations that transcend small group concerns.
At any rate, Biehl and Bookchin report that the assemblies will use methods suited to furthering the participation and empowerment of all actors-a very desirable commitment. They also report that "in advance of each meeting an agenda would be drawn up, made up of items and issues that citizens have asked the assembly to consider," though we don't learn who draws these agendas up, and according to what criteria, and with what logic guiding the structural choice. "The agenda would be announced well before the meeting, at least several days in advance, in order to give citizens the time to marshal whatever contributions they would like to make to the discussion of a specific issue." But how can a citizen participate in every political debate based on a few days head start, and why it is necessary or even desirable that everyone participate in every exchange? How can we all get up to speed on everything, and why would we want too? Put differently, how can every citizen be even as responsible as
At any rate, assemblies seem to be the only important organs of political activity envisioned in libertarian municipalism, and so, "at a given meeting, each issue on the agenda would be debated in the presence of the assembled citizens. All sides of an issue, arguments and counter arguments, would be aired as thoroughly as possible." Another defining aspect that emerges from Biehl and Bookchin discussing the operation of these assemblies is that "the vote would be taken by majority rule-that is, if as little as 51% of the citizens favored a measure, it would be passed."
While emphasis on face-to-face local assemblies of all citizens in a municipality dominates Biehl and Bookchin's presentation, it is offset to a degree by important caveats. Biehl tells us that universities, theatres, and other such institutions could still service larger regions than only a single small municipality, but "they would be removed from private ownership and returned to the control of the community where they are located." And, likewise, Bookchin notes that, "...although libertarian municipalism emphasizes enhancing local political power, it is not strictly a localist philosophy. It recognizes that some kind of transmunicipal form of organization is needed if citizens are to create and manage a free, democratic, society. A thorough-going localism and decentralism has consequences at least as unsavory as those raised by statists."
Bookchin's warning seems correct to me, but I am not sure how the insight is incorporated in the libertarian municipalist vision. Why does libertarian municipalism take for granted (a) that all decisions should be taken by a majority vote, and (b) that the control of each institution in the society, regardless of how wide a constituency it affects, should be entirely in the hands of the assembly for the particular municipality in which it happens to reside. Put less abstractly: Why should a majority decide aspects of my life that affect only me? And why should a university or the Grand Canyon be totally under the auspices of those who happen to live where it sits?
Ultimately, we might ask what is the goal of libertarian municipalism? What is the value or aspiration behind it? It seems to me to be that decisions should be made face-to-face, as locally as possible, with everyone living in the area involved, with each actor having one vote, and with majority rule.
Biehl tells us that because too many people are involved to assemble all at once, when addressing more regional or national matters, "instead of a central government, with a legislature voting to approve or reject laws, a confederation [of assemblies] is typically embodied in a congress of delegates that coordinates policies and practices of the member communities." As to the difference between "a legislature voting to approve or reject laws" and a "congress of delegates that coordinates policies and practices of the member communities," I am unclear. Don't municipalities have laws? If they do, as Bookchin in other passages acknowledges, then the difference would seem to be in the behavior of delegates compared to legislators. To explain, Biehl continues, "In a libertarian municipalist polity, the municipalities would form such confederations by sending delegates," but, she goes on, the "delegates would not be representatives; that is, their purpose would not be to make policies or laws on behalf of their supposedly benighted constituents, in ways that they imagine to be beneficial to them. Instead, the delegates would be mandated by the people in their municipal assemblies to carry out their wishes."
What Biehl urges is not just that the delegates should learn and then apply their knowledge of the preferences of their constituents so as to try to manifest their constituents' preferences - which many would claim is how the system we currently have is supposed to work - but that they are supposed to literally convey their constituents' votes. Thus, "the delegates would be strictly mandated to vote according to the wishes of their home municipalities, which would give them rigorous instructions in writing." The delegates "would not be permitted to make policy decisions without their home municipality's specific instructions." But what sense does it make to send a limited number of folks to a federated congress, if they are only carrying a cumulative vote from their municipality regarding each issue to be raised? On every issue this is just a plebiscite. Even ignoring the impracticality of doing that, what is the reason for the strange feature of counting votes by having a delegate hand carry them to a congress? If the delegates only bring the recorded choices of their constituents to the congress, why do we need the congress, much less folks going off to attend it? Just tally the vote. On the other hand, if the delegates are assembling to expand and combine their views and only then apply what they take to be the desires of their constituents to unfolding problems in light of revealed information and analysis conveyed in the congress, well, that sounds like what current representative institutions claim to be doing right now. While it may be an enlightened aim, it would need considerably more substance about the delegates, their mandates, and their methods to explain how they avoid bureaucracy and authoritarianism, to be compelling aim.
Beyond all these technical concerns, libertarian municipalism seeks to give every actor in every municipality one vote about every decision to be addressed anywhere in the federations above them. But does libertarian municipalism think that if a federation of municipalities decides it wants to tell the Joe Hill municipal assembly in Des Moines Iowa that in Des Moines it has to operate differently than it wishes to on matters that have no effect on anyone outside the Joe Hill municipality, the larger confederation has a right to do so? I bet not. I bet that most libertarian municipalists instead have an intuitive feeling that folks in the Joe Hill municipality should have more say over political choices inside their community than people from outside it, and should have this greater say roughly in proportion as they are more affected by the choices. Thus, my assembly in the Joe Hill municipality doesn't have to get permission from some higher federation about every little choice we entertain, so long as the choices impact mostly ourselves.
But if we accept as a value that people ought to influence political decisions in proportion as they are affected by them, and to me this seems implicit in the effort to conceive a libertarian municipalism:
(1) Why would we mechanically urge that all decisions be decided by majority rule, on the one hand, and
(2) Why would we say that institutions that affect a wide audience or constituency extending beyond the borders of a single municipality should nonetheless be entirely under the purview of the municipality where they happen to be situated?
Take majority rule first. Presumably, we don't believe that a majority of the whole population of a country should decide what I am going to have for breakfast tomorrow, and this is so not only on efficiency grounds, but also because it would impose the will of others on acts of mine which don't affect them. And by the same logic, we don't believe a majority of the country's whole population should be required to undertake or even ratify a decision about our local community that affects only us. Rather we think we ought to be able to make such decisions in our local assembly without oversight by others who aren't affected. But if I am right that this is the libertarian municipalist view of the apportionment of political decision-making power, then for purely local matters, what libertarian municipalists actually advocate is one-person one-vote inside the local assembly but zero votes for everyone outside it. Then aren't they saying true democracy means empowering each actor to influence each decision proportionately to the extent that he or she is affected by it, at least to the extent that we can manage to do that? If so, then Libertarian Municipalists shouldn't a priori say that all decisions should be one-person one-vote, because for a great many decisions some constituencies are far more affected than others and should therefore have more say. Nor should a single municipality determine all policies for an institution located in it but which impact people far and wide...because that would violate the right of those distant people to have a fair share of impact on what is affecting them. We wouldn't say, for example, that a local assembly should pass judgment on decisions about my backyard that don't affect anyone beyond it by one-person one-vote. We would instead give me very dictatorial powers over that. So why assert that the entire polity can decide, say, the holidays that all people can celebrate, rather than that different communities can decide this for themselves? And we wouldn't say that the people of Washington DC or even some small district in it, should oversee the Library of Congress or the Supreme Court-so why should we allow a local assembly to oversee a museum or university without decision-making input from those who attend it, work in it, or are served by it in other communities?
I like much of the moral and emotional impetus behind Libertarian Municipalism but I wonder why it lacks insights about political dimensions other than face-to-face voting-where is some discussion of law, adjudication, and enforcement, for example? For that matter, why is there almost no attention to matters of kinship and culture? I hope it isn't that these are deemed automatically solved by defining a political vision, since that would be a large step back in insight. More basic to the underlying logic of libertarian municipalism, I also wonder why 50% voting is elevated from an option to a requirement. Instead, why not regard it as one useful approach to decision-making, and define additional approaches as well for different situations. Why make a tactic into a principle? Why not advocate various decision-making tactics each appropriate in different ways and settings, used in patterns that enable actors to manifest their wills on political outcomes proportionately as they are affected by them? In some situations we choose one-person, one-vote, majority rule. But in some situations we find consensus preferable, or two-thirds majority, or other options. The issue is how do you get the political job done in accord with guiding values and without using up so much time that the rest of life is scuttled? What is a desirable mix of local, regional, and national attention to decisions in light of the reality that some decisions impact overwhelmingly only locally, while others do so largely regionally, and still others primarily nationally? How do you avoid creating a fixed hierarchy of elected officials or permanent bureaucrats above the rest of the population? How do you ensure people proper decision making input in accord with the extent they are affected? It would seem to me that while many municipality level decisions would likely by majority rule, others would be better served by different tallying procedures.
That said about the political heart of the matter, what about economics? Though Libertarian Municipalism emerges from political reasoning and highlights a political vision, in fact, it slides over into the economy as well. And in that venue there arises the question that actually got me looking at Libertarian Municipalism in the first place: why does Libertarian Municipalism reject Participatory Economics?
Participatory Economics, briefly, is an approach to accomplishing economic production, allocation, and consumption while advancing the goals of solidarity, equity, diversity, and participatory self-management. It attains equity of circumstance and reward by remunerating work according to effort and sacrifice and organizing work into "balanced job complexes" that are as much as possible equally desirable and empowering. It gives each actor say over what is to be produced and where it winds up in proportion to how much he or she is affected, and it does this by equally empowering actors in their work roles and then employing workers and consumers councils for decision-making and using what is called participatory planning for allocation. It would seem to me that folks seeking democratic political institutions would like participatory economics, so I had to wonder -- why don't Libertarian Municipalists?
I found that Libertarian Municipalists reject worker's control in any form other than workers participating as citizens in face-to-face, one-person one-vote, municipal assemblies. Not surprisingly, therefore, they also reject Participatory Economics since it has worker and consumer councils and workers and consumers each influencing economic decisions from within workplaces and neighborhoods and in proportion as they are affected by them, rather than only by majority vote as citizens in political assemblies. It can't be, of course, that the decisions that have to be made every day and even every hour in workplaces are going to be made according to Libertarian Municipalists by the whole populace in citizen assemblies. So whom do Libertarian Municipalists see making such timely decisions in the workplace? But more, even beyond the exigencies of practicality, how can any significant economic decision about the operations of a given workplace be sensibly or ethically made solely in a geographically based assembly, especially without input from the workers in the plant who address the matter precisely based on their shared experiences there, or from the consumers of the product, assessing the product in light of their experiences with it?
Suppose we work in a ball bearing plant. It is time to figure out how much steel we need, how to apportion our tasks among ourselves, and how to organize our day. Yes, these decisions affect on people beyond our workplace so that consumers of our product, producers of products we use, and also citizens in the vicinity impacted by our byproducts, should all have a say-by all means. But should we workers in the plant wait for authoritative instructions from municipal assemblies who are neither knowledgeable about our plant nor use the ball bearings that we produce, and should we influence the outcomes ourselves only via our participation in those local assemblies, separated from our jobs and co-workers, as if we had no greater stake than other folks? Should those who actually use the ball bearings have no greater say than those who don't? This seems to me so overwhelmingly odd a proposal to entertain that the pressure causing the Libertarian Municipalists to rule out workers in workplaces having any direct power over workplace outcomes via their own workers councils, and to rule out consumers having impact via consumers' councils as well, must be very compelling indeed.
To get at the reasoning, Biehl responds to the idea that workers coops have merit by noting that "unfortunately, the competitive marketplace makes it difficult for any such alternative economic units to remain alternatives for very long.... Little by little the imperatives of competition will refashion the cooperative into a capitalistic enterprise, albeit a collectively owned and managed one." The problem implicit in this accurate recognition of the tendency for markets to undermine cooperation is that Biehl, Bookchin, and seemingly Libertarian Municipalism take as a given that the only kind of economic allocation institution that could impact workplaces and mold their behaviors from beyond their plant doors would have the same competitive implications as markets. In other words, in practice Libertarian Municipalists wrongly equate economics with competition, a mistake rather like that of the anarchists who Bookchin chastises for wrongly equating political behavior with statism. The only way to have something other than competition, Bookchin wrongly reasons, is to utilize something political. By making this leap, even though doing so for meritorious reasons of trying to avoid the ills of economic competition, it seems to me that Bookchin is throwing out the baby (economic allocation institutions per se, including good ones) with the bathwater (markets)-just like some anarchists do in the political realm, throwing out the baby there (political institutions per se, including good ones) with the bathwater (the authoritarian state).
According to Bookchin, "If we are to create an alternative, cooperative society, profit-seeking must be restrained or, better, eliminated. Since economic units are incapable of restraining their own profit seeking from within, they must be subjected to restraint from without." In other words, if workers in each unit in an economy make decisions independently of other workers and of consumers, there will emerge the kind of destructive competitive dynamics that we all abhor. I agree, but to deal with this, why not define methods of allocation in which instead of buyers and sellers each seeking to fleece the other or be fleeced, all actors instead cooperate in defining aims and actions that are socially desirable? Bookchin continues, "an alternative economic unit that is to avoid assimilation must exist in a social context that curtails its profit-seeking externally." Again, I couldn't agree more which is why participatory planning was conceived to provide just such a context. Bookchin continues by arguing that each economic unit "must be embedded in a larger community that has the power not only to bridle a specific enterprise's pursuit of profit but to control economic life generally." Well, I agree that we need institutions that cause economic life to be other than profit-seeking insular competition. But why is it that the larger social context that causes economic units to operate in a social fashion and that fosters rather than tramples solidarity, that propels rather than undermines equity, that causes producers to respond to true and full social costs and benefits rather than to misvaluations arising from narrow competitive pressures, and that gives each unit and actor a proportionate impact on outcomes rather than accruing to a few vast power and allotting to many harsh subordination, has to be a political structure and cannot be an economic one? Such economic structures are precisely what Participatory Economics is about envisioning.
Further, and ironically, this " transcend economics" stance of Libertarian Municipalism is almost exactly the reciprocal of the extreme "transcend politics" stance of the syndicalist program Libertarian Municipalists are implicitly combating. That is, Libertarian Municipalists seem to me to imagine a syndicalist advocate of workers' organization and rule saying, wrongly, that politics is intrinsically Statist, that we should therefore have no polity. And thus we must have workers in workplaces and industry syndicates decide not only all economic outcomes, but all political ones as well. Indeed, Libertarian Municipalists envisioning such "anti-political" opponents fear that any ground given to worker's having a say from where they work leads toward this dissolution of polity into economy.
The intellectual and practical turn-around that Libertarian Municipalists then undertake to counter the admittedly unreasonable view that all decisions should be made by only workers councils, continues for literally 180 degrees. Thus, the Libertarian Municipalist instead says that economics is intrinsically competitive and self-seeking, and that we should therefore have no power granted to economic institutions per se. Thus, we must have our polity not only oversee society's political functions but also its economic ones. In other words, from fearing that economy will crowd out polity by workers councils making all economic and all political decisions too, the Libertarian Municipalists move to proposing that polity should crowd out economy by the local assemblies making all political and all economic decisions too. Ironically, the hypothetical syndicalist and the Libertarian Municipalist agree that economics and politics are immiscible - one must be chosen to dominate the other rather than conceiving each compatibly with the other. In contrast, it seems to me that we ought to envision not either economic or political institutions, but instead both types. And we ought to seek for each type to incorporate proper decision-making input from all affected parties, and that the two realms ought to be guided by shared values and able to work compatibly. Presuming in advance that either economics or politics is intrinsically oppressive and elevating the other to therefore do double duty is a recipe for disaster. Are there instances of it in history? Well, yes, putting politics in charge of economics characterizes both fascism and Stalinism. And putting economics in charge of politics is pretty much what the trajectory of unfettered capitalism and the advocates of "free market ideology" have in mind. This view of improving not only political but also economic structures, rather than of substituting the former for the latter seems to me to be quite in tune with underlying libertarian municipalist values as well as the aspirations of the constituencies who are attracted to libertarian municipalism, and only to conflict with a correctable misconception about economic prospects. I hope that is so, at any rate. And the point seems to me to be so important that we ought to explore it just a bit further.
The libertarian municipalist says, in Bookchin's words, that we need some institution outside the workplace that can "bridle a specific enterprise's pursuit of profit [and also] control economic life generally." The first thing we might note is that this is precisely the argument of the Soviet-style central planner arguing the need for planning boards to replace the dysfunctional market dynamic. Bookchin's argument continues: "Property-including both land and factories-would no longer be privately owned but would be put under the overall control of citizens in their assemblies. The citizens would become the collective `owners' of their community's economic resources and would formulate and approve economic policy for the community." Markets lead to chaotic, anti-social outcomes. We should therefore replace competition among workplaces with planning imposed from without. For the Soviet advocate of outside political control who would argue the same exact need, the agency is the state, and a one party state at that. For the libertarian municipalist, however, the agency is instead the populace acting by way of citizen assemblies. But what the latter gains in being less narrowly authoritarian, it loses in being extremely impractical. But what troubles me more is that the libertarian municipalist approach, like that of the central planner, violates the basic norm indicated earlier about giving actors decision-making input in proportion as they are affected. Thus, workers in a plant who have no inside-the-workplace vehicles for manifesting their preferences have no more say over how they arrange their work, how they team up, or how they pace their efforts, then anyone else does. In fact, in such a view their only impact is as a citizen voting in some assembly where they live. If oversight of their firm is like that for the university or museum mentioned earlier, than they may have no impact at all unless they happen to live in the same municipality as their firm-nor would its distant consumers, for that matter. Or if workplaces are considered more general and therefore subject to the highest federation of assemblies so that everyone has one-person, one-vote impact, then in libertarian municipalism each worker impacts every workplace equally as everyone else, but they would do this in utter ignorance of the actual conditions that they are deciding about for other plants and with insufficient say over conditions in their own plant. That the Libertarian Municipalist vision also says nothing about how goods and services are valued for exchange and about how remuneration occurs indicates either that they assume markets will solve these economic issues, which would undermine everything they are advocating, or they simply don't see economic exchange in accord with accurate valuations as an important aim for which they need to have methods, which would be wrong as well, at least once they go as far as saying the local assemblies must govern the economy.
Libertarian municipalism wants economic decisions to be made socially with actors guided by sensible and solidaritous concerns. I agree. And they say it won't happen in a context in which firms are competing with one another for surpluses or profits. I agree with that too. But it seems to me that it also wouldn't be accomplished by having workers "shed their unique vocational identity and interests" by giving up collectively expressing their specific workplace views much less properly impacting their own circumstances. Isn't it much more consistent with the underlying impetus of libertarian municipalism to assert that workers' views of their own situations as workers and consumers' views of their own situation as consumers are both critical to making just and sensible decisions about economic life, including properly valuing inputs and outputs and determining what should be produced, in what quantities, at what pace, and with what arrangements of labor? If workers in a plant think that a proposal for their efforts is too harsh, the overall process of deciding their plant's operations needs to take that centrally into account, along with other matters, rather than not even having a means to know it is the case. And such information can only come from workers as workers, rather than from workers who have "shed their unique vocational identities." And likewise for the desires of consumers.
To see the point by analogy, imagine a hypothetical syndicalist advocate of workers control who rejects political structures on the grounds that they inevitably become statist. He says that it's critical that local political decisions be made only by folks who have shed their unique geographic allegiances and who are acting as members of a class, which is to say collectively, and in light of the interests of all of society. He says the sole sensible venue by which this can occur is workplace councils. I bet most libertarian municipalists would consider this extremely odd. Instead, they would argue that of course we must have means for people to act on matters of politics from their locales, but that the political institutions for their doing so should not be statist and should operate so that decisions are not biased by narrow information or by priorities that elevate the influence of a few. What sense, the Libertarian Municipalist might ask this hypothetical syndicalist, can it possibly make to say that people shouldn't make decisions about their locales taking into account the knowledge that they have of those locales and also acting on the basis of their identity in those locales? None, of course, even if more distant folks should sometimes also have an impact -- so it follows that this hypothetical syndicalist solution to tendencies toward statism is not a solution at all.
And I agree with the rejection of this exclusionist syndicalism. But I think we should be equally perturbed if we simply reverse the roles in the debate. Libertarian Municipalists say that workers (and I suspect also consumers) should not make their decisions about economics from their position in their relevant processes and institutions. Isn't this just as odd as the hypothetical syndicalist's proposal, only turned upside down? If workers or consumers want some new procedure or product, the information can only sensibly come from them as workers or consumers. Also their impact on whether the changes are made will have to be enacted in light of their desires as workers or consumers. It follows that we need economic institutions that provide a context in which producers and consumers will act socially and will not be competing and narrowing their choices in ways that subvert larger priorities and aims, and of course in which all those affected have proportionate say-but surely we can't achieve these aims by subordinating the economy to the polity (any more than the extreme syndicalist could achieve positive political aspirations by subordinating polity to economy). On the one hand such a choice would violate people having a proper proportionate say over their economic lives. On the other hand, ironically, having the polity rule the economy would also quickly subvert the localism and decentralism of libertarian municipalism's political aims. That is, if the economy is going to be overseen politically "from without," (rather than economically overseen by institutions of economic cooperation) the polity will in time become a central planning system due to the necessity of trying to make all economic decisions via institutions above and outside worker and consumer venues, exactly the result libertarian municipalists fear. (For that matter, this political rule over economics would soon require local agents in the workplaces to administer the rules imposed from without - a layer of management, etc., just as was the case with central planning systems.)
Watching markets gobble up everything in their path, Libertarian Municipalists fear that economic institutions per se are imperial and will try to usurp political functions by their very nature, or will at the very least create a context precluding political democracy. I think this is correct about markets, and also about central planning, for that matter, but is wrong about participatory economics. But be that as it may, what is ironic is that as a counter to the imagined inevitable imperial economy, Libertarian Municipalists propose an imperial polity, usurping economic functions not even just implicitly, or as a by-product, but in principle and as a celebrated priority. And, oddly, as a result of taking on this added function, the institutions would not only fail to do economics justly and cooperatively, but would devolve into a centralized hierarchical economic bastardization of their intended decentralized democratic form.
It seems to me that taking just one step back from all this, Libertarian Municipalists and those who like participatory economics each want to conceive society and all its major aspects in a way that fosters people cooperatively and equitably determining their own lives and circumstances, with diversity, and not being anti-social but instead producing solidarity. We all want to avoid parochialism or competition or self-seeking dynamics that swamp justice and fairness. We want, instead, to define ways of doing economic and political and also other social functions that are liberating. With all this in common, there ought to be plenty of grounds for getting together. I hope this brief essay will help that occur. And while I haven't presented Participatory Economics to any great extent here, if we are to embark on a discussion of Libertarian Municipalism, trying to understand, improve, and enrich its features together, I do hope we will do the same for Participatory Economics, as well.