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CLARK, John. A Social Ecology. 09. Eco-Communitarian Politics
Article published on 31 May 2004
last modification on 25 April 2015

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1. The Social and the Ecological

2. A Dialectical Holism

3. No Nature

4. The Ecological Self

5. A Social Ecology of Value

6. An Ecology of the Imagination

7. An Ecological Imaginary

8. Freedom and Domination

Eco-Communitarian Politics

A social ecology seeks to restore certain elements of an ancient conception of the political, and to expand the limits of the concept. According to a classic account, if ethics is the pursuit of the good life or self-realization, then politics is the pursuit of the good life in common and self-realization for the whole community. A social ecology affirms the political in this sense, but reinterprets it in ecological terms. It seeks recover our long-obscured nature as zoön politikon and to explore new dimensions of that nature. By this term is meant not simply the «political animal» who participates in civic decision-making processes, but the social and communal being whose selfhood is developed and expressed through active engagement in many dimensions of the life of the community.

A social ecology investigates the ways in which we can encourage the emergence of humane, mutualistic, ecologically-responsible institutions in all areas of social life. It sees not only «politics,» but all areas of social interaction, including production and consumption, personal relationships, family life, child-care, education, the arts, modes of communication, spiritual life, ritual and celebration, recreation and play, and informal modes of cooperation to be political realms in the most profound sense. Each is an essential sphere in which we can develop our social being and communal individuality, and in which a larger communitarian reality can find much of its basis. Such a conception of the political requires that practices and institutions be humane in spirit and scale, life-affirming, creative, decentralized, non-hierarchical, rooted in the particularity of people and place, and based on grassroots, participatory democracy to the greatest degree practically possible.

The social ecological tradition has long emphasized the importance of local democracy. Reclus and Kropotkin both wrote extensively about its history, and Mumford argues that

«the neighborhood . . . must be built again into an active political unit, if our democracy is to become active and invigorated once more, as it was two centuries ago in the New England village, for that was a superior political unit. The same principles apply again to the city and the interrelationship of cities in a unified urban and regional network or grid.» [1]

This conception of regional democracy based in local democracy is a corollary of the general social ecological conception (expressed by Geddes) of regional and larger communities growing out of household, neighborhood, and local communities.

Bookchin has carried on this tradition in arguing for the liberatory potential of the town or neighborhood assembly, and has given his libertarian predecessors’ ideas of social and political decentralization a more specific and concrete expression. He and other social ecologists point out the ways in which such an assembly offers the community an arena in which its needs and aspirations can be formulated publicly in an active and creative manner, and in which a strong and vital citizenship can be developed and exercised in practice. The community assembly offers a means through which a highly-valued multiplicity and diversity can be unified and coordinated, as the citizens engage practically in the pursuit of the good of the whole community. It is also on a scale at which the community’s many-sided relationship to its specific ecological and bioregional milieu can be vividly grasped and achieve political expression.

What is debated vigorously among social ecologists is the validity of a «libertarian municipalism» that would make a program of creating local assembly government and federations of libertarian municipalities into a privileged politics of social ecology. In this ideology, the citizens (as Bookchin defines them) and the municipalist movement assume much of the historical role of the working class and the party in classical Marxist theory, and are endowed with a similar mystique. Yet, it seems clear that the municipalist program and Bookchin’s new «revolutionary subject» cannot be uniquely deduced from the general premises of social ecological analysis, nor can they be shown to be the only plausible basis for an ecological politics. It is therefore not surprising that most activists influenced by social ecology do not direct most of their efforts into municipalism, but rather work in many political, economic and cultural realms. [2]

A social ecology recognizes that political forms, as important as they may be, are given meaning and realize whatever liberatory and communitarian potential they may have within a larger political culture. The political culture is thus both historically and theoretically more fundamental. Consequently, when contemplating a promising political form, a social ecology will consider the ways in which the political culture may limit or liberate the potentials in that form. The institution of the assembly, for example, possesses not only the potential to foster freedom, authentic democracy, solidarity and civic virtue, but also a considerable potential for the generation of elitism, egotism, domineering personality traits, and power-seeking behavior. Such dangers are avoided not only through procedures within assemblies themselves, but above all by the creation of a communitarian, democratic culture that will express itself in decision-making bodies and in all other institutions. For assemblies and other organs of direct democracy to contribute effectively to an ecological community, they must be purged of the competitive, agonistic, masculinist aspects that have 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» that should «encompass the affective as well as the cognitive mode.» [3] 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, a social ecology will 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 sensibility.


10. Social Eco-nomics

11. The New Leviathan

12. The Future of Social Ecology

Notes :

[1Mumford, «The Human Prospect,» p. 471.

[2Bookchin’s reduction of eco-communitarian politics to libertarian municipalism is a deeply flawed, undialectical and fundamentally dogmatic political problematic, and it is not possible to discuss most of its shortcoming here. For a detailed critique, see John Clark, «Municipal Dreams : Murray Bookchin’s Idealist Politics» in Andrew Light, ed., Social Ecology After Bookchin (New York : Guilford Publications, forthcoming).

[3Benjamin Barber, Strong Democracy : Participatory Politics for a New Age (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1984), p. 176.

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