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libertarian municipalism

Murray Bookchin’s Legacy: A Syndicalist Critique

By Tom Wetzel - Ideas And Action, January 14, 2021

January 14th is the 100th anniversary of Murray Bookchin’s birth. Perhaps it is worth looking at his contribution to radical politics.

Bookchin had been involved in the communist youth movement in the 1930s. He eventually abandoned official Marxist organizations for a turn to libertarian socialism. A central feature of Bookchin’s politics from the Sixties to the end of his life was his opposition to the worker struggle orientation that was central to syndicalism and many anarchists — as well as Marxists — in the late 19th century and early 20th century.

After World War 2, the general strikes and pitched street battles of workers in the Thirties were a fading memory. The post-war years saw a consolidation of a conservative bureaucracy in the unions. The American working class by the 1960s no longer had the large “militant minority” of radical workers that had been a feature of American workplaces from the early 1900s through World War 2. This led certain radicals to seek out a new “agent” of revolutionary change. Bookchin was an example of this way of thinking:

“Contrary to Marx’s expectations, the industrial working class is now dwindling in numbers and is steadily losing its traditional identity as a class….Present-day culture [and]…modes of production…have remade the proletarian into a largely petty bourgeois stratum….The proletarian …will be completely replaced by automated and even miniaturized means of production….Class categories are now intermingled with hierarchical categories based on race, gender, sexual preference, and certainly national or regional differences.”

This quote is from Bookchin’s last book, The Next Revolution: Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy. This shows a certain lack of understanding of how syndicalists — and other socialists — view the working class. The basis for the revolutionary potential of the working class lies in its position as both the majority of the population and its objectively oppressed and exploited situation. Workers do not have their own means to obtain a livelihood. Thus we are forced to seek jobs from employers, to obtain the wages we need to live. And this arrangement forces workers to submit to autocratic managerial regimes where workers are denied control over the decisions that directly affect them day to day in the labor process and the running of the workplaces. Employers own the products of our labor and use this to suck down profits — an inherently exploitative situation.

Living As If Another World Were Possible: Goodbye, David Graeber!

By Daniel Fischer - New Politics, September 9, 2020

Having grown up hearing his father recount experiences in Anarchist-run Barcelona as a Lincoln Brigade volunteer, David Graeber, a renowned anthropologist and organizer, lived according to a lifelong belief that a far fairer world was possible. His father and his mother, a garment worker who was briefly the lead singer in the union-produced Broadway musical Pins and Needles, were Jewish working-class bookworms who filled their shelves with books about radical possibilities. Graeber, born in 1961, recalled:

“There were a lot of books around the house when I was growing up, but almost no books of critique. I mean I’m sure my parents had Capital, at least volume one, but very few books about how awful the world was. They had lots of science fiction, lots of history, and lots of anthropology. I think their attitude was ‘I spent my nine to five working, experiencing how this system sucks for myself; I don’t need to read about that; I want to read about what other ways of existing might be like.’”

This is interesting, because as a public intellectual (who taught at Yale and London School of Economics), Graeber was probably most well known for his social critiques. Heavily influenced by the autonomist Marxist tradition, Graeber viewed neoliberalism as primarily a political project masquerading as an economic one, and he exposed the system’s convoluted methods of keeping people demoralized, resentful, and hopeless about building a better world. These instruments of hopelessness included debt (Debt: The First 5,000 Years), corporate bureaucracy (The Utopia of Rules) and pointless work (Bullshit Jobs: A Theory). Graeber aptly described that last book as “an arrow aimed at the heart of our civilization.” It argued that most of our working hours are not producing anything useful, and that the workweek could easily be reduced to fifteen or even twelve hours if it weren’t for capitalists’ drive to keep us perpetually busy. “The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger,” he wrote, “Think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the sixties.”

To me, however, Graeber’s more inspiring works focused on discovering and building alternatives. He had a keen eye for spotting utopia in seemingly unlikely places. During field work in highland Madagascar in 1989 to 1991, he found that the IMF-weakened state performed only nominal functions, and communities actually governed themselves with consensus decision-making on most matters. His study of the Iroquois League’s Constitution challenged notions that democracy, feminism, and anarchism are of exclusively European origin. And in contrast to the mass media’s dismissal of “incoherent” U.S. protesters, Graeber’s Direct Action: An Ethnography and The Democracy Project explained how the horizontal structure of the alter-globalization and Occupy Wall Street movements prefigured the world they sought to build. Over the last few years, Graeber championed the direct democracy experiments in Northen Syria (Rojava). And, with co-author David Wengrow, he dismantled the widespread assumption that early civilizations were uniformly hierarchal. To the contrary, “Egalitarian cities, even regional confederacies, are historically quite commonplace.”

You can read in other obituaries how much of an intellectual giant he was. Within his field, Maurice Bloch called him “the best anthropologist of his generation” and his advisor Marshall Sahlins called him “the most creative student I ever had.” When Yale decided to end his contract in 2004, it was clearly due to his involvement in radical direct action, not the quality of his scholarship and teaching.

Municipalist Syndicalism: From the Workplace to the Community

By Alexander Kolokotronis - ROARMag, October 2019

Union membership in the United States is at its lowest level in decades. Nonetheless, unions have hit a 50-year high in public approval. Enthusiasm for unions is not manifesting solely in polls, but also in shop floor organizing by young and lower middle-aged workers.

Simultaneously, the 2010s have seen a proliferation of social movements focused on race, gender and other forms of identity. Despite this simultaneity, it is unclear if present-day union structures and leadership are capable of learning from and incorporating the insights of such social movements.

At a national scale, unions have been slow to diversify their leadership, with continued underrepresentation of women and people of color. Even where there is such representation, it is unclear if unions are positioned to convert this newfound mass approval into an inclusive rising tide for the entire labor movement — let alone for, and towards, socialism.

In this context, what should socialists opposed to all forms of domination and exploitation be doing about labor unions? Through what framework might insights and personnel offered by social movements be learned from and incorporated into unions?

A partial answer has come from a broad swath of socialists: rank-and-file power. This means union members exercising control over their unions, rather than union bureaucrats or officials doing so. The 2018 re-release of Kim Moody’s “The Rank-and-File Strategy” has most widely propagated this approach. Moody’s rank-and-file strategy has become the terms of debate within Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and a point of discussion for socialists in general.

However, this strategy overlooks the potential for rank-and-file interventions on various forms of structural racism. Such interventions translate into a rank-and-file strategy that does not consign itself to a simplistic focus on bread-and-butter and the point of production but rather points itself towards the interwoven wealth issues of racialized housing and education. This brings us to a modified union position that accounts for and immediately acts upon the dynamics of an immediate and racialized lived-space: municipalist syndicalism.

Municipalist syndicalism broadly means democratizing unions as a means to democratizing local and regional public power. This is done through advancing an anti-racist dual power agenda for the labor movement by building and acting with communities of color on issues beyond the job. Jobs are simply not enough, even as unions often exclusively focus on them as a means of community empowerment while harmfully conceding total control over land use. Yet, as Marnie Brady notes, “Pitting decent jobs against decent housing is a false dilemma,” particularly where the legacy of “redlining” (housing discrimination and wealth differentiating residential segregation) is still with us.

Thus, a municipalist syndicalist rank-and-file strategy begins with pluralistic “militant minorities” democratizing unions so as to include the rank-and-file of neighborhood, housing and other municipal struggles. It means reorienting labor unions towards funneling resources into constructing and sustaining vibrant tenant unions that in the long term seek to democratize residency and bring about a housing and homes guarantee and reducing harmfully long commutes.

Just as Big Capital increasingly controls real estate, making the lives of workers more precarious, One Big Union is needed to combat this. It means One Big Union includes not just labor unions, but tenant unions and those struggles addressing structural racism head on — and this One Big Union finally takes municipal and regional power and democratizes it.

When labor fails to do this, it fails surrounding communities and fails itself in the process, as shown by the case of 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville.

Public Transport Can Be Free

By Wojciech Kębłowski - Tribune, August 22, 2019

If we are to believe transport experts and practitioners, abolishing fares for all passengers is the last thing public transport operators should be doing. For Alan Flausch, an ex-CEO of the Brussels public transport authority and current Secretary General of International Association of Public Transport, “in terms of mobility, free public transport is absurd.”

According to Vincent Kauffmann, a professor at University of Lausanne and one of key figures in sustainable mobility, “free public transport does not make any sense.” Getting rid of tickets in mass transit is judged “irrational,” “uneconomical” and “unsustainable.”

However, if we turn to commentators from outside the field of transport, the perspective on fare abolition changes radically. Social scientists, activists, journalists and public officials—often speaking from cities where fare abolition has actually been put to the test—fervently defend the measure.

For Judith Dellheim, a researcher at Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in Berlin, providing free access to public transport is the “first step towards socio-ecological transformation.” For Michiel Van Hulten, one of the earliest proponents of free public transport in Europe, “it is about returning to the commons.” Finally, according to Naomi Klein, this is precisely what cities around the world should be doing —“to really respond to the urgency of climate change, public transport would have to become free.”

Public Finance for the Future We Want (Lavinia Steinfort and Satoko Kishimoto)

By Lavinia Steinfort and Satoko Kishimoto (editors) - Transnational Institute, June 2019

Do you wish to see regenerative, equitable and democratic economies, built with collective power? We believe it is not only necessary but also very possible.Today’s economic system, fueled by an extractivist logic and prone to crises, has reignited and enflamed old monsters of racism, misogyny and other forms of fear and hate. Economic alternatives are needed now more than ever.

This book is about financial alternatives, drawn from real-world examples. It highlights the kinds of models that could become the new normal, building the basis for a democratically organized and life-sustaining future.Before the 2008 global financial crisis, the mantra was ‘there is no alter-native’ to the extractive economic model that has fostered excessive inequality and ecological destruction. Post-crisis, big banks were rescued and the blame misdirected to public spending.

This justified evermore harsh austerity measures, reinforcing the story that the public sector must rely on private finance to solve these ‘collaterals’.More than 10 years later, we know that private finance has not only failed to address these problems, it has intensified them. Civil society needs to unite behind systemic solutions before another financial bubble bursts.

Read the report (PDF).

Social Ecology

By Emily McGuire - Institute for Social Ecology, 2019

In The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin’s magnum opus, he writes, “our environmental dislocations are deeply rooted in an irrational, anti-ecological society…” he continues, “these problems originate in a hierarchical, class, and today, competitive capitalist system that nourishes a view of the natural world as a mere agglomeration of “resources” for human production and consumption.” Social ecologists seek a deeper analysis that unmasks the roots of environmental degradation, which has its origin in human hierarchies.

Read the report (PDF).

Yellow Vest Movement Struggles To Reinvent Democracy

By Richard Greeman - Popular Resistance, April 13, 2019

Act 21 While Assembly of Assemblies Meets, Macron Cranks Up Propaganda and Repression

After five months of constant presence at traffic circles, toll-booths and hazardous Saturday marches,  the massive, self-organized social movement known as the Yellow Vests has just held its second nationwide “Assembly of Assemblies.” Hundreds of autonomous Yellow Vest activist groups from all over France each chose two delegates (one woman, one man) to gather in the port city of St. Nazaire for a weekend of deliberation (April 5-7).

After weeks of skirmishing with the municipal authorities, the local Yellow Vests were able to host 700 delegates at the St. Nazaire “House of the People,” and the three-day series of general meetings and working groups went off without a hitch in an atmosphere of good-fellowship. A sign on the wall proclaimed: “No one has the solution, but everybody has a piece of it.”

Their project: mobilize their “collective intelligence” to reorganize, strategize, and prolong their struggle. Their aim: achieve the immediate goals of livable wages and retirements, restoration of social benefits and public services like schools, transportation, post offices, hospitals, taxing the rich and ending fiscal fraud to pay for preserving the environment, and, most ambitious of all, reinventing democracy in the process. Their Declaration ends with the phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” I often wonder if they know who coined it.

We Need to Live Differently

By Simon Pirani - ROARMag, February 28, 2019

The bad news about climate change keeps coming: record heat levels in Australia in January, and in the UK in February; increasingly uncontrollable wild fires; shocking leaps in Arctic temperatures. The worst news of all is that the gulf between what scientists say needs to be done and what the international climate talks deliver keeps growing.

At the negotiations in December at Katowice, Poland — which, grotesquely, were sponsored by Europe’s biggest producer of coking coal, among others — the main outcome was agreement on proposals to monitor governments’ actions, albeit in a watered-down version. Delegates did not discuss, let alone improve on, voluntary targets for cutting emissions, agreed on in Paris in 2015; scientists reckon that these put the world economy on course for a potentially disastrous increase in global average temperature to three degrees above pre-industrial levels. The gathering even declined to welcome the latest diplomatically honed report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on the insistence of the US, Saudi Arabia and other oil producing nations.

Katowice was the latest round of talks that began at Rio de Janeiro in 1992, where it was acknowledged that fossil fuel use is the main driver of global warming and needs to be reduced. Since then it has risen, globally, by more than 60 percent. Governments have signed agreements with one hand and poured tens of billions of dollars per year in subsidies into fossil fuel production and consumption with the other.

The first step to dealing with climate change is to reject the illusion that governments are dealing with the problem. Society as a whole must act.

How to put flesh on the bones of that generalization is not so simple. Should we protest? Try to force governments to invest in renewable energy projects? Take direct action against new power plants? Focus on community energy? All of the above?

Energy Democracy: Taking Back Power

By Johanna Bozuwa - Next System Project, February 27, 2019

Executive summary

Electric utility (re)municipalization is gaining popularity as a strategy to shift away from a reliance on fossil fuel extraction in the context of combating climate change. Across the world—from Berlin to Boulder—communities have initiated campaigns to take back their power from investor-owned (private) utilities and create publicly owned and operated utilities. Moreover, such efforts are increasingly taking on the perspective and language of energy democracy.

Energy democracy seeks not only to solve climate change, but to also address entrenched systemic inequalities. It is a vision to restructure the energy future based on inclusive engagement, where genuine participation in democratic processes provides community control and renewable energy generates local, equitably distributed wealth (Angel, 2016; Giancatarino, 2013a; Yenneti & Day, 2015). By transitioning from a privately- to a publicly owned utility, proponents of energy democracy hope to democratize the decision-making process, eliminate the overriding goal of profit maximization, and quickly transition away from fossil fuels.

Utilities are traditionally profit-oriented corporations whose structures are based on a paradigm of extraction. Following the path of least resistance, they often burden communities who do not have the political or financial capital to object to the impacts of their fossil fuel infrastructure. Residents living within three miles of a coal plant, for instance, are more likely to earn a below-average annual income and be a person of color (Patterson et al., 2011); similar statistics have been recorded for natural gas infrastructure (Bienkowski, 2015).

These utilities are in a moment of existential crisis with the rise of renewables. From gas pipelines to coal power plants, their investments are turning into stranded assets, as political leaders and investors realize that eliminating fossil fuels from the energy mix is paramount to creating healthy communities and stemming climate change.

Unfortunately, often publicly owned utilities in the United States have similar energy generation profiles to their privately owned counterparts (American Public Power Association, 2015). This paper explores the extent to which publicly owned utilities are reticent to take on the new energy paradigm and evaluates their ability to provide energy democracy compared to investor-owned utilities.

It's EcoSocialism or Death

An interview with Kali Akuno - Black Agenda Report, February 20, 2019

Cooperation Jackson leader Kali Akuno on the Green New Deal, the need for mass civil disobedience, and the necessity of building an internationalist movement for eco-socialism.

We have to articulate a program that concretely addresses the class’s immediate and medium-term need for jobs and stable income around the expansion of existing “green” industries and the development of new ones.”

The Green New Deal (GND) is now part of the national conversation. But for decades, social movements have been doing the on-the-ground work to resist fossil capitalism and envision a different future. Such grassroots social mobilization — but at a massive scale — is vital to ensuring the GND catalyzes transformative social change.

Cooperation Jackson is at the forefront of eco-socialist organizing to create a new society and economy from the bottom up. Cooperation Jackson encompasses a network of worker cooperatives and supporting institutions fighting to build a solidarity economy in Mississippi and beyond. Jacobin’s Green New Deal editorial team spoke with Kali Akuno, the cofounder and executive director of Cooperation Jackson, and coeditor of Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, MS .

In this wide-ranging interview, we discussed the links between local eco-socialist action, national movement-building, and an internationalist orientation; tactics and strategies for interacting with electoral politics to radicalize the GND — and much more. Throughout, Akuno draws on a long history of environmental justice activism in the United States and around the world, providing key lessons about how to move forward — and quickly — to generate a militant, mass movement for a just planet.

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