Revolution in America (1969-1997)
The "Agent of History"
The Municipality as Ground of Social Being
The Social and the Political
Bookchin is at his weakest when he attempts to be the most philosophical. This is the case with one of his most ambitious theoretical undertakings : his articulation of the concept of "the political." Much as Aristotle announced his momentous philosophical discovery of the Four Causes, Bookchin announces his Three Realms. He points out that he has "made careful but crucial distinctions between the three societal realms : the social, the political, and the state.It is largely because of the complexity required by such an analysis that a less-objectifying, more holistic and process-oriented regional approach to being is more adequate than is a territorial view. See Max Cafard, "The Surre(gion)alist Manifesto" in Exquisite Corpse 8 (1990) : 1, 22-23.  In his own eyes, this discovery has won him a place of distinction in the history of political theory, for the idea "that there could be a political arena independent of the state and the social . . . was to elude most radical thinkers . . . ."  For Bookchin, the social and statist realm cover almost everything that exists in present-day society. The statist sphere subsumes all the institutions and activities—the "statecraft," as he likes to call it—through which the state operates. The social includes everything else in society, with the exception of "the political." This final category encompasses activity in the "public sphere," a realm that he identifies "with politics in the Hellenic sense of the term."  By this, he means the proposed institutions of his own libertarian municipalist system, and, to varying degrees, its precursors—the diverse "forms of freedom" that have emerged at certain points in history. For those who have difficulty comprehending this "carefully distinguished" sphere, Bookchin points out that "[i]n creating a new politics based of social ecology, we are concerned with what people do in this public or political sphere, not with what people do in their bedrooms, living rooms, or basements." 
There is considerable unintentional irony in this statement. While Bookchin does not seem to grasp the implications of his argument, this means that, whatever we may hope for in the future, for the present we should not be concerned with what people do anywhere, since the political realm does not yet exist to any significant degree. Except in so far as it subsists in the ethereal realm of political ideas whose time has not yet come, the "political" now resides for Bookchin in his own tiny libertarian municipalist movement—though strictly speaking, even it cannot now constitute a "public sphere" considering how distant it is from any actual exercise of public power. Thus, the inevitable dialectical movement of Bookchin’s heroic defense of the political against all who would "denature it," "dissolve it" into something else, etc., culminates in the effective abolition of the political as a meaningful category in existing society.
There is, however, another glaring contradiction in Bookchin’s account of the "social" and "political." He hopes to make much of the fact (which he declares "even a modicum of a historical perspective" to demonstrate) that "it is precisely the municipality that most individuals must deal with directly, once they leave the social realm and enter the public sphere."  But since what he calls "the public sphere" consists of his idealized "Hellenic politics," it will be, to say the least, rather difficult for "most individuals" to find it in any actually-existing world in which they might become politically engaged. Instead, they find only the "social" and "statist" realms, into which almost all of the actually-existing municipality has already been dissolved, not by any mere theorist, as Bookchin seems to fear, but by the course of history itself. Thus, unless Bookchin is willing to find a "public sphere" in the existing statist institutions that dominate municipal politics, or somewhere in that vast realm of "the social," there is simply no "public sphere," for the vast majority of people to "enter."
While such implications already show the absurdity of his position, his theoretical predicament is in fact much worse than this. For in claiming that the municipality is what most people "deal with directly," he is condemned to define the municipality in terms of the social—precisely what he wishes most to avoid. Indeed, in a moment of theoretical lucidity he actually begins to refute his own position. "Doubtless the municipality is usually the place where even a great deal of social life is existentially lived—school, work, entertainment, and simple pleasures like walking, bicycling, and disporting themselves . . . ."  Bookchin might expand this list considerably, for almost anything that he could possibly invoke on behalf of the centrality of "the municipality" will fall in his sphere of the "social." The actually-existing municipality will thus be shown to lie overwhelmingly in his "social" sphere, and his argument thus becomes a demonstration of the centrality of that realm. Moreover, what doesn’t fall into the "social" sphere must lie in the actually-existing "statist" rather than the non-existent "political" one. In fact, his form of (fallacious) argumentation could be used with equal brilliance to show that we indeed "deal most directly" with the state, since all the phenomena he lists as lying within a municipality are also located within some nation-state. Indeed, this anarchist’s argument works even more effectively as a defense of statism, since even when one walks, bicycles, "disports oneself," etc., outside a municipality one almost inevitable finds oneself within a nation-state.  Bookchin shows some vague awareness that his premises do not lead in the direction of his conclusions. After he lists the various social dimensions of the municipality, and as the implications of his argument begin to dawn on him, he protests rather feebly that all this "does not efface its distinctiveness as a unique sphere of life."  But that, of course, was not the point in dispute. It is perfectly consistent to accept the innocuous propositions that the municipality is "distinctive" and that it is "a unique sphere of life" while rejecting every one of Bookchin’s substantive claims about its relationship to human experience, the public sphere, and the "political."
Bookchin’s entire project of dividing society into rigidly defined "spheres" belies his professed commitment to dialectical thought. One of the most basic dialectical concepts is that a thing always is what it is not and is not what it is. However, this is the sort of dialectical tenet that Bookchin never invokes, preferring a highly conservative conception in which the dialectician somehow "educes" from a phenomenon precisely what is inherent in it as a potentiality.  Were he an authentically dialectical thinker, rather than a dogmatic one, he would, as soon as he posits different spheres of society (or any reality), consider the ways in which each sphere might be conditioned by and dependent upon those from which it is distinguished. In this connection, even those post-structuralist theorists of difference whom he dismisses with such uncomprehending contempt are more dialectical than Bookchin is, since they at least take the term "differ" in an active sense that implies a kind of mutual determination. In this, they work from the insight of Saussurian linguistics that the meaning of any signifier is a function of the entire system of significations. Bookchin, on the other hand, adheres to a dogmatic, non-dialectical view that things simply are what they are, that they are different from what they are not, and that anyone who questions his rigid distinctions must be either a dangerous relativist or a fool.
Gunderson, in The Environmental Promise of Democratic Deliberation, suggests how a more dialectical approach might be taken to questions dealt with dogmatically by Bookchin. Gunderson discusses in considerable detail the significance of deliberation as a fundamental aspect of Athenian democracy, the most important historical paradigm for Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism. He notes that while the official institutions of democracy consisted of such explicitly "political" forms as the assembly, the courts, and the council, the "political" must also be seen to have existed outside these institutions, if the role of deliberation is properly understood. As Gunderson states it, "much of the deliberation that fueled their highly participatory democracy took place not in the Assembly, Council, or law courts, but in the agora, the public square adjacent to those places."  The attempt to constrain the political within a narrow sphere through the magic of definition is doomed to failure, not only when one begins to think dialectically, but also as soon one carefully examines real, historical phenomena with all their mutual determinations. In the same way that Bookchin’s non-dialectical approach flaws his theoretical analysis, it dooms his politics to failure, since it systematically obscures the ways in which the possibilities for "political" transformation are dependent on the deeply political dimensions of spheres that he dismisses as merely "social."
Bookchin also demonstrates his non-dialectical approach to the social and the political in his discussion of Aristotle’s politics and Greek history. He notes that "the two worlds of the social and political emerge, the latter from the former. Aristotle’s approach to the rise of the polis is emphatically developmental . . . . The polis is the culmination of a political whole from the growth of a social and biological part, a realm of the latent and the possible. Family and village do not disappear in Aristotle’s treatment of the subject, but they are encompassed by the fuller and more complete domain of the polis."  But there are two moments in Aristotle’s thought here, and Bookchin tellingly sides with the non-dialectical one. To the extent that Aristotle maintains a sharp division between the social and the political, his thought reflects a hierarchical dualism rooted in the institutional structure of Athenian society. Since the household is founded on patriarchal authority and a slave economy, it cannot constitute a political realm, a sphere of free interaction between equals. This dualistic, hierarchical dimension of Aristotle is precisely what Bookchin invokes favorably.
There is, on the other hand, a more dialectical moment in Aristotle’s thought, which, though still conditioned by hierarchical ideology (as expressed in the concept of "the ruling part") envisions the polis as the realization of the self, family and village. Aristotle says that the polis is "the completion of associations existing by nature," and is "prior in the order of nature to the family and the individual" because "the whole is necessarily prior [in nature] to the part."  Implicit in this concept is the inseparable nature of the social and the political. Later, more radically dialectical thought has developed this second moment. An authentically dialectical analysis recognizes that as the political dimension emerges within society, it does not separate itself off from the rest of the social world to embed itself in an exclusive sphere. Rather, as the social whole develops, there is a transformation and politicization of many aspects of what Bookchin calls "the social" (a process that may take a liberatory or an authoritarian, and even a totalitarian, direction). In Hegel’s interpretation of this process, for example, the state emerges as the full realization of society, yet it is also the means by which each aspect of society is transformed and achieves its fulfillment.
In a conception of the political that is less ideological than Hegel’s, but equally dialectical (if we take the political as the self-conscious self-determination of the community with its own good as the end), the emergence of the political in any sphere will be seen both to presuppose and also to imply its emergence in other spheres. For Bookchin, on the other hand, the political remains an autonomous realm, and other spheres of society can only be politicized by being literally absorbed into that realm (as in the municipalization of production). This non-dialectical approach to the political is central to Bookchin’s development of an abstract, idealist and dogmatic conception of social transformation.
Paideia and Civic Virtue
One of the more appealing aspects of Bookchin’s politics is his emphasis on the possibilities for self-realization through participation in political activity. His views are inspired by the Athenian polis, which "rested on the premise that its citizens could be entrusted with ’power’ because they possessed the personal capacity to use power in a trustworthy fashion. The education of citizens into rule was therefore an education into personal competence, intelligence, moral probity, and social commitment."  These are the kind of qualities, he believes, that must be created today in order for municipalism to operate successfully. We must therefore create a similar process of paideia in order to combine individual self-realization with the pursuit of the good of the community through the instilling of such civic virtues in each citizen.
But there are major difficulties for this conception of paideia. The processes of socialization are not now in the hands of those who would promote the programs of libertarian municipalism or anything vaguely related to it. Rather, they are dominated by the state, and, above all, by economic power and the economistic culture, which aim at training workers (employees and managers) to serve the existing system of production, and a mass of consumers for the dominant system of consumption. Municipalism proposes that a populace that has been so profoundly conditioned by these processes should become a "citizenry," both committed to the process of self-rule and also fully competent to carry it out.
This is certainly a very admirable goal for the future. However, Bookchin’s formulations sometimes seem to presuppose that such a citizenry has already been formed and merely awaits the opportunity to take power. He states, for example, that "the municipalist conception of citizenship assumes" that "every citizen is regarded as competent to participate directly in the ’affairs of state,’ indeed what is more important, encouraged to do so."  But the success of the institutions proposed by Bookchin would seem to require much more than either an assumption of competence or the encouragement of participation in civic affairs. What is necessary is that the existing populace should be transformed into something like Bookchin’s "People" through a process of paideia that pervasively shapes all aspects of their lives—a formidable task that would itself constitute and also presuppose a considerable degree of social transformation.
To equate this paideia primarily with the institution of certain elements of libertarian municipalism hardly seems to be a very promising approach. Indeed, to the extent that aspects of its program are successfully implemented before the cultural and psychological preconditions have been developed, this may very well lead to failure and disillusionment. A program of libertarian municipalism that focuses primarily on decentralization of power to the local level might indeed have reactionary consequences within the context of the existing political culture of the United States and some other countries. One might imagine a "power to the people’s assemblies" that would result in harsh anti-immigrant regulations, extension of capital punishment, institution of corporal punishment, expanded restrictions on freedom of speech, imposition of religious practices, repressive enforcement of morality, and punitive measures against the poor, to cite some proposals that have widespread public support in perhaps a considerable majority of municipalities of the United States. It is no accident that localism has appealed much more to the right wing in the United States, than to the Left or the general population, and that reactionary localism is becoming both more extremist and more popular. The far right has worked diligently for decades at the grassroots level in many areas to create the cultural preconditions for local reactionary democracy.
Of course, Bookchin would quite reasonably prefer to see his popular assemblies established in more "progressive" locales, so that they could become a model for a new democratic, and indeed, a libertarian and populist, politics. But far-reaching success for such developments depends on a significant evolution of the larger political culture. To the extent that activists accept Bookchin’s standpoint of hostility toward, or at best, unenthusiastic acceptance of the very limited value of alternative approaches to social change, this will restrict the scope of the necessary paideia, impede the pervasive transformation of society, and undercut the possibilities for effective local democracy. 
The Municipalist Program
Libertarian municipalism has increasingly been presented not only as a theoretical analysis of the nature of radical democracy, but also as a programmatic movement for change. Indeed, Bookchin has proposed the program of libertarian municipalism as a basis for organization for the Green movement in North America. However, a serious problem in his political analysis is that it slips from the theoretical dimension to the realm of practical programs with little critical assessment of how realistic the latter may be. His discussions of a post-scarcity anarchist society seemed to refer to an ultimate ideal in a qualitatively different future (even if the coming revolution was sometimes suggested as a possible short-cut to that ideal). While the confederated free municipalities of libertarian municipalism sometimes also seem like a utopian ideal, municipalism has increasingly been presented as a strategy that is capable of creating and mobilizing activist movements in present-day towns and cities. Yet one must ask what the real possibilities for organizing groups and movements under that banner might be, given the present state of political culture, given the actual public to which appeals must be addressed, and not least of all, given the system of communication and information which must be confronted in any attempt to persuade. 
The relationship between immediate proposals and long-terms goals in libertarian municipalism is not always very clear. While Bookchin sees changes such as Burlington, Vermont’s neighborhood planning assemblies as an important advance, even though these assemblies do not have policy-making (or law-making) authority, he does not see certain rather far-reaching demands by the Green movement as being legitimate. He recognizes as significant political advances structural changes (like planning assemblies or municipally-run services) that move in the direction of municipal democracy or economic municipalization, electoral strategies for gaining political influence or control on behalf of the municipalist agenda, and, to some degree, alternative projects that are independent of the state. On the other hand, he seems to reject, either as irrelevant or as a dangerous form of cooptation, any political proposal for reform of the nation state, beyond the local (or sometimes, the state) level.
Bookchin criticizes harshly, as capitulation to the dominant system, all approaches that do not lead toward municipal direct democracy and municipal self-management. This critique of reformism questions the wisdom of active participation by municipalists, social ecologists, left Greens and anarchists in movements for social justice, peace, and other "progressive" causes when the specific goals of these movements are not linked to a comprehensive liberatory vision of social, economic, and political transformation (or, more accurately, to his own precisely correct vision). Bookchin often disparages such "movement" activity and urges activists to focus on working exclusively on behalf of the program of libertarian municipalism.
For example, he and Janet Biehl attack the Left Greens for their demand to "cut the Pentagon budget by 95 percent," and their proposals for "a $10 per hour minimum wage," "a thirty-hour work week with no loss of income," and a "workers’ superfund."  The supposed error in these proposals is that they do not eliminate the last 5% of the budget for so-called "defense" of the nation-state, and that they perpetuate economic control at the national level. Bookchin later dismisses the Left Greens’ proposals as "commonplace economic demands." 
Furthermore, he distinguishes between his own efforts "to enlarge the directly democratic possibilities that exist within the republican system" and the Left Greens’ "typical trade unionist and social democratic demands that are designed to render capitalism and the state more palatable."  It is impossible, however, to deduce a priori the conclusion that every institution of procedures of direct democracy is a historically significant advance, while all efforts to influence national economic policy and to demilitarize the nation-state are inherently regressive, and the empirical evidence on such matters is far from conclusive. It is at least conceivable, for example, that improvement of conditions for the least privileged segments of society might lead them to become more politically engaged, and perhaps even make them more open to participation in grassroots democracy. In his sarcastic attacks on the Left Greens, we hear in Bookchin’s statements the voice of dogmatism and demagogy. 
There is, in fact, an inspiring history of struggles for limited goals that did not betray the more far-reaching visions, and indeed revolutionary impulses, of the participants. To take an example that should be meaningful to Bookchin, the anarchists who fought for the eight-hour work day did not give up their goal of the abolition of capitalism.  There is no reason why left Greens today cannot fight for a thirty-hour work week without giving up their vision of economic democracy. Indeed, it seems important that those who have utopian visions should also stand with ordinary people in their fights for justice and democracy—even when many of these people have not yet developed such visions, and have not yet learned how to articulate their hopes in theoretical terms. Unless this occurs, the prevailing dualistic split between reflection and action will continue to be reproduced in movements for social transformation, and the kind of "People" that libertarian municipalism presupposes will never become a reality. To reject all reform proposals at the level of the nation-state a priori reflects a lack of sensitivity to the issues that are meaningful to actual people now. Bookchin correctly cautions us against succumbing to a mere "politics of the possible." However, a political purism that dogmatically rejects reforms that promise a meaningful improvement in the conditions of life for many people chooses to stand above the actual people in the name of "the People" (who despite their capitalization remain merely theoretical). 
Bookchin is no doubt correct in his view that groups like the Left Greens easily lose the utopian and transformative dimension of their outlook as they become focused on reform proposals that might immediately appeal to a wide public. It is true that a Left Green proposal to "democratize the United Nations" seems rather outlandish from the decentralist perspective of the Green movement. Yet it is inconsistent for Bookchin to dismiss all proposals for reform, merely because they "propose" something less than the immediate abolition of the nation-state. Libertarian municipalism itself advocates for the immediate present working for change within subdivisions of the nation-state, as municipalities (and states, including small ones like Vermont) most certainly are. Bookchin has himself made a cause célèbre of a campaign against the extension of Vermont’s gubernatorial term from two to four years. While this is a valid issue concerning democratic control, its implications for the possible transformation of state power cannot be compared to those of a serious debate on the need for the drastic reduction of military expenditures.
Social ecological politics requires a dialectical analysis of social phenomena, which implies a careful analysis of the political culture (in relation to its larger natural and social context) and an exploration of the possibilities inherent in it. The danger of programmatic tendencies, which are endemic to the traditional left and to all the heretical sectarianisms it has spawned, is that they rigidify our view of society, reinforce dogmatism, inflexibility and attachment to one’s ideas, limit our social imagination, and discourage the open, experimental spirit that is necessary for creative social change.
While libertarian municipalism is sometimes interpreted in a narrower, more sectarian way (as it appears especially in Bookchin’s polemics against other points of view), it can also be taken as a more general orientation toward radical grassroots democracy. Looked at in this broader sense, municipalism can make a significant contribution to the development of our vision of a free, cooperative community. Bookchin has sometimes presented a far-reaching list of proposals for developing more ecologically-responsible and democratic communities. These include the establishment of community credit unions, community supported agriculture, associations for local self-reliance, and community gardens.  Elsewhere he includes in the "minimal steps" for creating "Left Green municipalist movements" such activities as electing council members who support "assemblies and other popular institutions"; establishing "civic banks to fund municipal enterprises and land purchases"; and forming "grassroots networks" for various purposes.  In a discussion of how a municipalist movement might be initiated in the state of Vermont, he presents proposals that emphasize cooperatives and even small individually-owned businesses.  He suggests that the process could begin with the public purchase of unprofitable enterprises (which would then be managed by the workers), the establishment of land trusts, and the support for small-scale productive enterprises. This could be done, he notes, without infringing "on the proprietary rights of small retail outlets, service establishments, artisan shops, small farms, local manufacturing enterprises, and the like."  He concludes that in such a system "cooperatives, farms, and small retail outlets would be fostered with municipal funds and placed under growing public control."  He adds that a "People’s Bank" to finance the economic projects could be established, buying groups to support local farming could be established, and public land could be used for "domestic gardening." 
These proposals present the outline of an admirable program for promoting a vibrant local economy based on cooperatives and small businesses. Yet it is exactly the "municipalist" element of such a program that might be less than practical for quite some time. It seems likely that for the present the members of cooperatives and the owners of small enterprises would have little enthusiasm for coming under "increasing public control," if this means that the municipality (either through an assembly or local officials) increasingly takes over management decisions. Whatever might evolve eventually as a cooperative economy develops, a program for change in the real world must either have an appeal to an existing public, or must have a workable strategy for creating such a public. There is certainly considerable potential for broad support for "public control" in areas like environmental protection, health and safety measures, and greater economic justice for workers. However, the concept of "public control" of economic enterprises through management by neighborhood or municipal assemblies is, to use Bookchin’s terminology, a "nonsense demand," since the preconditions for making it meaningful do not exist, and are not even addressed in Bookchin’s politics. 
The Fetishism of Assemblies
While Bookchin sees the municipality as the most important political realm, he identifies the municipal assembly as the privileged organ of democracy politics, and puts enormous emphasis on its place in both the creation and and functioning of free municipalities. "Popular assemblies," he says, are the minds of a free society; the administrators of their policies are the hands."  But unless this is taken as an attempt at poetry, it is in some ways a naive and undialectical view. The mind of society—its reason, passion, and imagination—is always widely dispersed throughout all social realms. And the more that this is the case, the better it is for the community. Not only is it not necessary that most creative thought take place in popular assemblies, it is inconceivable that most of it should occur there. In a community that encourages creative thinking and imagination, the "mind" of society would operate through the intelligent, engaged reflection of individuals, through a diverse, thriving network of small groups and local institutions in which these individuals would express and embody their hopes and ideals for the community, and through vibrant democratic media of communication in which citizens would exchange ideas and shape the values of the community. And though in an anarchist critique of existing bureaucracy, administrators might be depicted rhetorically as mindless, it does not seem desirable that in a free society they should be dismissed as necessarily possessing this quality. All complex systems of social organization will require some kind of administration, and will depend not only on the good will but also on the intelligence of those who carry out policies. It seems impossible to imagine any form of assembly government that could formulate such specific directives on complex matters that administrators would have no significant role in shaping policy. Bookchin tellingly lapses into edifying rhetoric and political sloganeering when he discusses the supremacy of the assembly in policy-making. Were he to begin to explore the details of how such a system might operate, he would immediately save others the trouble of deconstructing his system.
The de facto policy-making power of administrators might even be greater in Bookchin’s system than in others, in view of the fact that he does not propose any significant sphere for judicial institutions that might check administrative power. Unless we assume that society would become and remain quite simplified—an assumption that is inconsistent with Bookchin’s beliefs about technological development, for example—then it would be unrealistic to assume that all significant policy decisions could be made in an assembly, or even supervised directly by an assembly. A possible alternative would be a popular judiciary; however, the judicial realm remains almost a complete void in Bookchin’s political theory, despite fleeting references to popular courts in classical Athens and other historical cases. One democratic procedure that could perform judicial functions would be popular juries (as proposed by Godwin two centuries ago) or citizens’ committees (as recently suggested by Burnheim)  that could oversee administrative decision-making. However, Bookchin’s almost exclusive emphasis on the assembly—what we might call his "ecclesiocentrism"—precludes such possibilities.
Bookchin responds to these suggestions concerning popular juries and citizens’ committees with what he thinks to be the devastating allegation that what I "am really calling for here" are "courts and councils, or bluntly speaking, systems of representation."  While it is far from clear that a "council" is inherently undesirable under all historical circumstances, what I discuss in the passage he attacks is citizens’ committees, not councils.  What I "call for" is not some specific political form, but rather a consideration of various promising political forms whose potential can only be determined through practice and experimentation. Moreover, Bookchin’s comments show ignorance of the nature of the proposals of Godwin and Burnheim that are cited, and unwillingness to investigate them before beginning his attack. Neither proposes a system of "representation." One of the appealing aspects of the jury or committee proposals is that since membership on juries or committees is through random selection (not election of "representatives"), all citizens have an equal opportunity to exercise decision-making power. Some of the possible corrupting influences of large assemblies (encouragement of egoistic competition, undue influence by power-seeking personalities, etc.) are much less likely to appear in this context. Furthermore, such committees and juries offer a way of avoiding the need for representation, since they are a democratic means of performing necessary functions that cannot possibly be carried out at the assembly level. As will be discussed, Bookchin’s municipalism does not successfully address the question of how "confederal" actions can be carried out without representation, and proponents of decentralized democracy would therefore be wise to consider various means by which the necessity for representation might be minimized in a less than utopian world.
In discussing his conception of "participatory democracy," Bookchin notes the roots of the concept in the politics of the New Left and the counterculture of the 1960’s. One implication of democracy in this context was that "people were expected to be transparent in all their relationships and the ideas they held."  He laments the fact that these democratic impulses were betrayed by a movement toward dogmatism, centralization and institutionalization. Yet, the concept of transparency, like that of "the unmediated," requires critical analysis. Bookchin might have achieved a more critical approach to such concepts had he applied a dialectical analysis to them. Unfortunately, the naive expectation that people merely "be" transparent may become a substitute for the more difficult and time-consuming but ultimately rewarding processes of self-reflection and self-understanding on the personal and group levels. Values like "transparency" and "immediacy" often inhibit understanding of group processes, and function as an ideology that disguises implicit power-relationships and subtle forms of manipulation, which are often quite opaque, highly mediated and resistant to superficial analysis.
It is important that such disguised power-relations should not find legitimacy through the ideology of an egalitarian, democratic assembly, in which "the People" act in an "unmediated" fashion, and in which their will is "transparent." The fact is that in assemblies of hundreds, thousands or even potentially tens of thousands of members (if we are to take the Athenian polis as a model), there is an enormous potential for manipulation and power-seeking behavior. If it is true that power corrupts, as anarchists more than anyone else have stressed, then anarchists cannot look with complacency on the power that comes from being the center of attention of a large assembly, from success in debate before such an assembly, and from the quest for victory for one’s cause. To minimize these dangers, it is necessary to avoid idealizing assemblies, to analyze carefully their strengths and weaknesses, and to experiment with processes that can bring them closer to the highest deals that inspire them. In addition, there is the option of rejecting Bookchin’s proposal that all political power be concentrated in the assembly, and separating it instead among various participatory institutions.
Whatever the strengths and weaknesses assemblies may have as an organizational form, we must ask whether it is even possible for sovereign municipal assemblies to be viable as the fundamental form of political decision-making in the real world. Bookchin concedes that local assemblies might have to be less than "municipal" in scope. He recognizes that given the size of existing municipalities there will be a need for more decentralized decision-making bodies. He suggests that "whether a municipality can be administered by all its citizens in a single assembly or has to be subdivided into several confederally related assemblies depends much on its size" and proposes that the assembly might be constituted on a block, neighborhood or town level.  Since contemporary municipalities in much of the world range in population up to tens of millions, and neighborhoods themselves up to hundreds of thousands, the aptness of the term "municipalism" for a form of direct democracy should perhaps be questioned.  It would seem that in highly urbanized societies it would be much more feasible to establish democratic assemblies at the level of the neighborhood or even smaller units than at the municipal level, as Bookchin himself concedes.
The problem of defining neighborhood communities often poses difficulties. Bookchin claims that New York City, for example, consists of neighborhoods that are "organic communities."  It is true that there exists a significant degree of identification with neighborhoods that can contribute to the creation of neighborhood democracy. Yet to describe the neighborhoods of New York or other contemporary cities as "organic communities" is a vast overstatement, and one wonders if Bookchin is referring more to his idealized view of the past than to present realities. Contemporary cities (including New York) have been thoroughly transformed according to the exigencies of the modern bureaucratic, consumerist society, with all the atomization and privatization that this implies. Natives of metropolitan centers such as Paris complain that traditional neighborhoods have been completely destroyed by commercialization, land speculation, and displacement of the less affluent to the suburbs. In the United States, much of traditional urban neighborhood life has been undermined by social atomization, institutionalized, structural racism, and the migration of capital and economic support away from the center. Bookchin correctly cites my own community of New Orleans as an example of a city that has a strong tradition of culturally distinct neighborhoods that have endured with strong identities until recent times.  But it is also a good example of the culturally corrosive effects of contemporary society, which progressively transforms local culture into a commodity for advertising, real estate speculation and tourism, while it destroys it as a lived reality. Thus, the neighborhood "organic community" is much more an imaginary construct (that is often entangled with nostalgic feelings and reflects class and ethnic antagonisms) than an existing state of affairs. It is essential to see these limitations in the concept, and then to develop its imaginary possibilities as part of a liberatory process of social regeneration.
However we might conceptualize existing urban neighborhoods, the large size of assemblies to be constituted at that level raises questions about how democratic such bodies could be. In Barber’s discussion of these assemblies, he suggests that their membership would range from five to twenty-five thousand.  Bookchin says that they might encompass units from a single block up to dozens of blocks in an urban area, and thus might sometimes reach a similar level of membership. It is difficult to imagine the city block of present-day urban society as the fundamental political unit (though visionary proposals for a radically-transformed future have made a good case for recreating it as a small eco-community). Yet, libertarian municipalism is almost always formulated in terms of municipal and neighborhood assemblies. Therefore, in practical terms it is proposing very large assemblies for the foreseeable future in highly populated, urbanized societies.
Bookchin’s discussion is curiously (and rather suspiciously) vague on the topic of the scope of decision-making by assemblies. He does make it clear that he believes that all important policy decisions can and should be made in the assembly, even in the case of emergencies. He confidently assures us that, "given modern logistical conditions, there can be no emergency so great that assemblies cannot be rapidly convened to make important policy decisions by a majority vote and the appropriate boards convened to execute these decisions—irrespective of a community’s size or the complexity of its problems. Experts will always be available to offer their solutions, hopefully competing ones that will foster discussion, to the more specialized problems a community may face."  But this mere affirmation of faith is hardly convincing. In a densely populated, technologically complex, intricately interrelated world, every community will face problems that can hardly be dealt with on an ad hoc basis by large assemblies.
It seems rather remarkable that Bookchin never explores the basic theoretical question of whether any formal system of local law should exist, and how policy decisions of assemblies should be interpreted and applied to particular cases. Yet his discrete silence is perhaps wise, since his position would seem to collapse were he to give any clear answer to this question. If general rules and policy decisions (i.e., laws) are adopted by an assembly, then they must be applied to particular cases and articulated programatically by judicial and administrative agencies. It is then inevitable that these agencies will have some share in political power. But this alternative is inconsistent with his many affirmations of the supremacy of the assembly. On the other hand, if no general rules are adopted, then the assembly will have the impossibly complex task of applying rules to all disputed cases and formulating all important details of programs. We are left with a purgatorial vision of hapless citizens condemned to listening endlessly to "hopefully competing" experts on every imaginable area of municipal administration. Given these two unpromising alternatives, Bookchin seems, at least implicitly, to choose the impossible over the inconsistent.
There are certain well-known dangers of large assemblies that pose additional threats to Bookchin’s neighborhood or municipal assemblies. Among the problems that often emerge in such bodies are competitiveness, egotism, theatrics, demagogy, charismatic leadership, factionalism, aggressiveness, obsession with procedural details, domination of discussion by manipulative minorities, and passivity of the majority. While growth of the democratic spirit might reduce some of these dangers, they might also be aggravated by the size of the assembly, which would be many times larger than most traditional legislative bodies. In addition, the gap in political sophistication between individuals in local assemblies will no doubt be much greater than in bodies composed of traditional political elites. Finally, the assembly would lose one important advantage of representation. Elected representatives or delegates can be chastised for betraying the people when they seem to act contrary to the will or interest of the community. On the other hand, those who emerge as leaders of a democratic assembly, and those who take power by default if most do not participate actively in managing the affairs of society, can be accused of no such dereliction, since they are acting as equal members of a popular democratic body. 
To say the least, an extensive process of self-education in democratic group processes would be necessary before large numbers of people would be able to work together cooperatively in large meetings. And even if some of the serious problems mentioned are mitigated, it is difficult to imagine how they could be reduced to insignificance in assemblies with thousands of participants, as are sometimes proposed, at least until wider processes of personal and social transformation has radically changed the members’ characters and sensibilities. Indeed, the term "face-to-face democracy" that Bookchin often uses in reference to these assemblies seems rather bizarre when applied to these thousands of faces (assuming that most of them face up to their civic responsibilities and attend).
An authentically democratic movement will recognize the considerable potential for elitism and power-seeking within assemblies. It will deal with this threat not only through procedures within assemblies, but above all by creating a communitarian, democratic culture that will express itself in decision-making bodies and in all other institutions. For the assembly and other organs of direct democracy to contribute effectively to an ecological community, they must be purged of the competitive, agonistic, masculinist aspects that has often corrupted them. They can only fulfill their democratic promise if they are an integral expression of a cooperative community that embodies in its institutions the love of humanity and nature. Barber makes exactly this point when he states that strong democracy "attempts to balance adversary politics by nourishing the mutualistic art of listening," and going beyond mere toleration, seeks "common rhetoric evocative of a common democratic discourse should "encompass the affective as well as the cognitive mode."  Such concerns echo recent contributions in feminist ethics, which have pointed out that the dominant moral and political discourse have exhibited a one-sided emphasis on ideas and principles, and neglected the realm of feeling and sensibility. In this spirit, we must explore the ways in which the transition from formal to substantive democracy depends not only on the establishment of more radically democratic forms, but on the establishment of cultural practices that foster a democratic ethos.
One of the most compelling aspects of Bookchin’s political thought is the centrality of his ethical critique of the dominant economistic society, and his call for the creation of a "moral economy" as a precondition for a just ecological society. He asserts that such a "moral economy" implies the emergence of "a productive community" to replace the amoral "mere marketplace," that currently prevails. It requires further that producers "explicitly agree to exchange their products and services on terms that are not merely ’equitable’ or ’fair’ but supportive of each other."  He believes that if the prevailing system of economic exploitation and the dominant economistic culture based on it are to be eliminated, a sphere must be created in which people find new forms of exchange to replace the capitalist market, and this sphere must be capable of continued growth. Bookchin sees this realm as that of the municipalized economy. He states that "under libertarian municipalism, property becomes "part of a larger whole that is controlled by the citizen body in assembly as citizens."  Elsewhere, he explains that "land, factories, and workshops would be controlled by popular assemblies of free communities, not by a nation-state or by worker-producers who might very well develop a proprietary interest in them." 
However, for the present at least, it is not clear why the municipalized economic sector should be looked upon as the primary realm, rather than as one area among many in which significant economic transformation might begin. It is possible to imagine a broad spectrum of self-managed enterprises, individual producers and small partnerships that would enter into a growing cooperative economic sector that would incorporate social ecological values. The extent to which the communitarian principle of distribution according to need could be achieved would be proportional to the degree to which cooperative and communitarian values had evolved—a condition that would depend on complex historical factors that cannot be predicted beforehand. Bookchin is certainly right in his view that participation in a moral economy would be "an ongoing education in forms of association, virtue, and decency"  through which the self would develop. And it is possible that ideally "price, resources, personal interests, and costs" might "play no role in a moral economy" and that there would be "no ’accounting’ of what is given and taken."  However, we always begin with a historically determined selfhood in a historically determined cultural context. It is quite likely that communities (and self-managed enterprises) might find that in the task of creating liberatory institutions within the constraints of real history and culture, the common good is attained best by preserving some form of "accounting" of contributions from citizens and distribution of goods. To whatever degree Bookchin’s anarcho-communist system of distribution are desirable as a long-term goal, the attempt to put them into practice in the short run, without developing their psychological and institutional preconditions, would be a certain recipe for disillusionment and economic failure.
Bookchin attributes to municipalization an almost miraculous power to abolish egoistic and particularistic interests. He and Biehl attack proposals of the Left Greens for worker self-management on the grounds that such a system does not, as in the case of municipalization, "eliminate the possibility that particularistic interests of any kind will develop in economic life."  While the italics reflect an admirable hope, it is not clear how municipalization, or any other political program, no matter how laudable it may be, can assure that such interests are entirely eliminated. Bookchin and Biehl contend that in "a democratized polity" workers would develop "a general public interest,"  rather than a particularistic one of any sort. But it is quite possible for a municipality to put its own interest above that of other communities, or that of the larger community of nature. The concept of "citizen of a municipality" does not in itself imply identification with "a general public interest." To the extent that concepts can perform such a function, "citizen of the human community" would do so much more explicitly, and "citizen of the earth community" would do so much more ecologically.
Under Bookchin’s libertarian municipalism, there is a possible (and perhaps inevitable) conflict between the particularistic perspective of the worker in a productive enterprise and the particularistic perspective of the citizen of the municipality. Bookchin and Biehl propose that "workers in their area of the economy" be placed on advisory boards that are "merely technical agencies, with no power to make policy decisions."  This would do little if anything to solve the problem of conflict of interest. Bookchin calls the "municipally managed enterprise" at one point "a worker-citizen controlled enterprise,"  but the control is effectively limited to members of the community acting as citizens, not as workers.  Shared policy-making seems on the face of it more of a real-world possibility, however complex it might turn out to be. In either case (pure community democracy, or a mixed system of community and workplace democracy), it seems obvious that there would be a continual potential for conflict between workers who are focused on their needs and responsibilities as producers and assemblies that are in theory focused on the needs and responsibilities of the local community.
Putting aside the ultimate goals of libertarian municipalism, Bookchin suggests that in a transitional phase, its policies would "not infringe on the proprietary rights of small retail outlets, service establishments, artisan shops, small farms, local manufacturing enterprises, and the like."  The question arises, though, of why this sector should not to continue to exist in the long term, alongside more cooperative forms of production. There is no conclusive evidence that such small enterprises are necessarily exploitative or that they cannot be operated in an ecologically sound manner. Particularly if the larger enterprises in a regional economy are democratically operated, the persistence of such small enterprises does not seem incompatible with social ecological values. This is even more the case to the degree that the community democratically establishes just and effective parameters of social and ecological responsibility. 
However, Bookchin dogmatically rejects this possibility. He claims that if any sort market continues to exist, then "competition will force even the smallest enterprise eventually either to grow or to die, to accumulate capital or to disappear, to devour rival enterprises or to be devoured."  Yet Bookchin has himself noted that historically the existence of a market has not been equivalent to the existence of a market-dominated society. He has not explained why such a distinction cannot hold in the future. He has himself been criticized by "purist" anarchists who attack his acceptance of government as a capitulation to "archism." Yet he rightly distinguishes between the mere existence of governmental institutions and statism, the system of political domination that results from the centralization of political power in the state. Similarly, one may distinguish between the mere existence of market exchanges and capitalism—the system of economic domination that results from the concentration of economic power in large corporate enterprises. Bookchin asserts that the existence of any market sector is incompatible with widespread decentralized democratic institutions and cooperative forms of production. While he treats this assertion as if it were an empirically-verified or theoretically-demonstrated proposition, it is, until he presents more evidence, merely an article of ideological faith. 
But whatever the long-term future of the market may be, it is in fact the economic context in which present-day experiments take place. If municipally-owned enterprises are established, they will necessarily operate within a market, if only because the materials they need for production will be produced within the market economy. It is also likely that they would choose to sell their products within the market, since the vast majority of potential consumers, including those most sympathetic to cooperative experiments, would still be operating within the market economy. Indeed, it is not certain that even if a great many such municipal enterprises were created that they would choose to limit their exchanges entirely to the network of similar enterprises, rather than continuing to participate in the larger market. In view of the contingencies of history, to make any such prediction would reflect a kind of "scientific municipalism" that is at odds with the dialectical principles of social ecology. But whatever may be the case in the future, to the extent that municipalized enterprises are proposed as a real-world practical strategy, they will necessarily constitute (by Bookchin’s own criteria) a "reform" within the existing economy. Thus, it is inconsistent for advocates of libertarian municipalism to attack proposals for self-management, such as those of the Left Greens, as mere reformism. These proposals, like Bookchin’s are incapable of abolishing the state and capitalism by fiat. But were they adopted, they would represent a real advance in expanding the cooperative and democratic aspects of production, while at the same time improving the economic position of the less privileged members of society.
Bookchin has come to dismiss the idea that social ecology should emphasize the importance of developing a diverse, experimental, constantly growing cooperative sector within the economy, and now focuses almost exclusively on the importance of "municipalization of the economy."  But while he has been writing about municipalism for decades, he has produced nothing more than vague and seemingly self-contradictory generalizations about how such a system might operate. He does not present even vaguely realistic answers to many basic questions. How might a municipality of about 50,000 people (for example, metropolitan Burlington, Vermont), over one million people (for example, metropolitan New Orleans) or over eight million people (for example, metropolitan Paris) develop a coherent municipal economic plan in a "directly-democratic" way? Would the neighborhood or municipal assembly have even vaguely the same meaning in these diverse contexts (not to mention what it might mean in third world megalopolises like Mexico City, Lagos, or Calcutta, in the villages of Asia, Africa and Latin America, or on the steppes of Mongolia)? Could delegates from hundreds or thousands of block or neighborhood assemblies come to an agreement with "rigorous instructions" from their assemblies? Bookchin’s municipalism offers no answers to these questions, and as we shall see, neither does his confederalism. He is certainly right when he states that "one of our chief goals must be to radically decentralize our industrialized urban areas into humanly-scaled cities and towns" that are "ecologically sound."  But a social ecological politics must not only aim at such far-reaching, visionary goals but also offer effective political options for the increasing proportion of human beings who live in highly populated and quickly growing urban areas, and who face serious urban crises requiring practical responses.
Bookchin’s most fundamental economic principle also poses questions that he has yet to answer. He contends that with the municipalization of the economy, the principle of "from each according to his abilities and to each according to his needs" becomes "institutionalized as part of the public sphere."  How, one wonders, might abilities and needs be determined according to Bookchinist economics? Should a certain amount of labor be required of each citizen, or should the amount be proportional to the nature of the labor? Should those who have more ability to contribute, or whose work fulfills more needs, be required to work more? Of course, these questions can only be answered by specific communities through actual experiments in democratic decision-making and self-organization. However, debate over these issues has a long history within ethics and political theory, and socialists, communists, anarchists and utopians (not to mention liberals such as Rawls) have all devoted much attention to them. If the theory of libertarian municipalism is to inspire the necessary experiments, municipalists must at least suggest possible answers that might convince members of their own and other communities that the theory offers a workable future, or at least they must suggest what it might mean to try to answer such questions.
Bookchin finds it quite disturbing that I could judge "problematical" his invocation of the famous slogan concerning contribution according to abilities and distribution according to needs. One can almost hear his annoyance, as he explains that "the whole point behind this great revolutionary slogan is that in a communistic post-scarcity economy, abilities and needs are not, strictly speaking, ’determined’—that is, subject to bourgeois calculation," which is to be replaced with "a basic decency and humaneness."  Once more one is tempted to ask how Bookchin can present himself as a staunch opponent of mysticism and yet orient his thought toward a final good that is an inexpressible mystery, not to mention a logical contradiction. It is clear that many of the revolutionaries who adhered to Bookchin’s beloved slogan actually believed that needs and abilities could, at least in some general way, be "determined." However, Bookchin himself believes that certain acts should be performed and certain things should be distributed "according to" that which cannot be "determined." This may be an edifying belief, but it is also an absurdity, pure idealism, and an abdication of the "rationality" that Bookchin claims to value so highly.
But even if this particular form of mysticism were the correct standpoint toward some ultimately utopian society, it would not give us much direction concerning how to get there. Can anyone really take seriously a "libertarian municipalism" that proposes a municipalization of all enterprises, after which conditions of work and distribution of products would be determined (or perhaps we should say "non-determined") by "basic decency and humaneness"? Once again, the problem of Bookchin’s lack of mediations between an idealized goal and actually-existing society becomes apparent. And this is not to say that his utopian goal is itself coherent. For despite his self-proclaimed role as the defender of "Reason," he scrupulously avoids consideration of the role of rationality in utopian distribution, in this case falling back instead on mere feeling, dualistically divorced from rationality according to the demands of ideological consistency. This is, of course, his only option short of a fundamental rethinking of his position. For reason, unfortunately for Bookchin, expresses itself in determinations, as tentative and self-transforming as these determinations may be.
Bookchin presents two additional arguments for his position, both of which have appeared many times in the Bookchinian oeuvre. And both reduce essentially to an appeal to faith. First, he claims that if "’primal’ peoples" could "rely on usufruct and the principle of the irreducible minimum," then his ideal society could certainly do without "contractual or arithmetical strictures."  But this is merely a variation on the famous "if we can put a man on the moon, then we can do X" argument. According to this popular lunar fallacy, some proposal, the feasibility of which in no way follows from a moon landing, is held to be a viable option because the latter achievement proved possible. What is true of tribal societies is that they have usually followed distinct rules of distribution and, indeed, often quite strict and complex ones based on kinship and the circulation of gifts. Whatever the content of these rules (which have often been very humane, ecological, etc.), it certainly does not follow from the fact that previous societies have successfully followed these rules that some future society can get along without rules of distribution, quantitative or otherwise.
In his second argument, Bookchin notes that neither he nor I will make decisions for any future "post-scarcity society guided by reason," but only those who will actually live in it. This statement is undeniably true (assuming neither of us ever lives in it). However, this fact lends absolutely no support to Bookchin’s position, since it is quite possible that these rational utopians might look back on his analysis of such a society and find it to be unconvincing or even absurd. If he wishes merely to express his faith that in his final rational utopia people will achieve things that we can hardly conceive of in our present fallen state, it would be difficult to argue with his position. However, if he intends to argue that a specific form of organization is a reasonable goal for a movement for social change, then he must be willing to offer evidence for this view, rather than the merely edifying conception that "in utopia all things are possible"