SOCIETY & NATURE, Vol. 1, No. 3 (1993)



The crucial question that has historically divided the Left and still divides the new social movements that have succeded it (to the extent that most of the Left today takes the present social system for granted) is the issue of the form a new (ecological) society should take and the implied by this vision strategy and tactics. Particularly important, in any attempt to develop a new liberatory project, is the issue of the relationship between the state and the new society as well as the state’s role in the transition process, including the vexed question of the radical movements’ participation in national elections, state institutions etc. As social ecology is the only current today in the Green movement ― and the Left generally ― that proposes a comprehensive new vision of society, the first part of this issue is devoted to an exploration of the form that an ecological society could take, on the basis of the type of social organisation proposed by social ecologists: confederal municipalism, i.e. a form of society that aims to replace today’s capitalist “democracy” with a face-to-face political and economic democracy.

In my contribution (Takis Fotopoulos), starting from the fact that up to now only the general guidelines of a community-oriented model of the economy have been developed, I attempted to trace an economic model of confederal munipalism for an ecological society, as well as the transition strategy that will lead us from “here” to “there”. The dominant characteristic of this model, which differentiates it from similar models of centralised or decentralised Planning, is that the creation of an economic democracy, where the satisfaction of human needs is not at the expense of consumer’s freedom of choice, does not depend on the prior (mythical) abolition of scarcity.

Murray Bookchin, in defining confederalism, challenges the assumptions on which the case for representative democracy is based and rejects both the local parochialism that some ecologists suggest and the global division of labour, which was the inevitable outcome of the “grow-or-die” dynamics of the market economy. For Bookchin, the “sublation” between centralism and decentralism can only come about through confederalism, if an ecological society, in the form of a face-to-face participatory democracy, is to be established. There is therefore an inherent tension between confederalism and statism, as the two cannot co-exist over the long term. However, confederalism is not only a crucial element of the ecological society but, within the context of liberatarian mucipalist politics, it could also play a vital part in the transition to it.

Howard Hawkins discusses the traditional left’s case of workers’ control versus the community control proposed by confederal municipalism. The significance of his contribution lies in the fact that, first, it shows why community control is the only type of social control that could meaningfully express the general interest and satisfy the autonomy project’s demand for direct democracy. Second, that it shows why community control is much more relevant than workers’ control to today’s phase of capitalist development, as far as it concerns the issues of the subject of change, power and transitional strategy. However, the problem in moving from today’s economic structure to tomorrow’s eco-communities and bioregions is how to find the proper relationship between workers’ control and community control. His proposal is that the libertarian municipalist approach offers the best framework for integrating the two types of social control in a process of radical social change leading to an ecological society and a cooperative commonwealth.

The articles in the second part develop a dialogue on the strategy of transition to an ecological society. The views expressed here cover almost the whole range of ecological politics, from “pragmatic reformism” and deep ecology to eco-socialism and social ecology. Thus, James O' Connor, first, attempts to set the foundations for an eco- marxist strategy of transition to the ecological society. Starting with the hypothesis that the green movement has an objective referrent in natural conditions and given that it is the state which regulates capital’s access to these conditions, the author concludes that the political strategy that strongly suggests itself is neither to reject the liberal democratic state in favor of direct democracy (as social ecologists suggest) nor to reform it (as “realist” ecologists and environmentalists propose) but to democratise it. That is, to sublate local direct democracy, liberal democratic political forms and bureaucracy into a new and unknown third term.

Murray Bookchin, on the other hand, in a wide-ranging interview given to Society and Nature, takes up the strategy issue and argues that the eco-marxist approach of sublating the local with the central is self-defeating because it ignores the dialectics of statism which inevitably leads to a steady corrosion of local democratic institutions by an increasingly bureaucratic status apparatus. The effective undermining of local government at the hands of British neoliberalism is a clear illustration of the limits of the strategy to “democratise the state”. By the same token, the ecosocialist position in favor of a plurality of alternative economic models was correctly shown, by Marx himself (and historical logic), to be untenable, as the market and capitalist forms of production will eventually dominate over any kind of cooperative forms, whereas “workers’ control” has a tendency to devolve into a form of collective capitalism.

The transition strategy was, also, one of the main topics of “The Great Debate” between social ecology theorist Murray Bookchin and deep ecology activist Dave Foreman. Linda Davidoff introduced this part of the debate by putting the case for a pragmatic reformist strategy and questioning the relevance of Bookchin's and Foreman's strategies. Dave Foreman, though not rejecting reformist tactics, finds a strategy, which is based exclusively on such tactics, as limited and counter-productive. He therefore argues in favour of a strategy which, while rejecting reformist co-optation and compromise, will give priority to non-violent direct action. Finally, Murray Bookchin powerfully counterposes “realist” reform environmentalism, which inevitably leads to co-optation and containment within the existing destructive system, to a truly radical ecology movement that could initiate, through a libertarian municipal strategy and other forms of community action, the fundamental changes that are needed for the transition to an ecological society.

The articles in the third part provide an analysis and historical account of the evolution of the new social movements, with particular reference to the green movements. Thus, Andre Gunder Frank and Marta Fuentes start with a theoretical analysis of the characteristics of the new social movements compared to the “classical” working class movements. The particular interest of this important contribution arises from the fact that although the authors firmly base their analysis on the socialist problematique and stress the importance of the new social movements in the transition process to a socialist society, still, they share several important insights with social ecologists: from the recognition that the “new” social movements have in fact existed through the ages, (in contrast to the recent and temporary character of working-class movements) up to the increasing irrelevance of the state to deal with many social and individual concerns (bacause of the drastic reduction of its ability to control the forces that condition them) and the fact that participation in state institutions negates the very essence of social movements. However, whereas Gunder Frank and Fuentes propose a process of enhancing civil society at the expense of the state and of sublating participatory civil democracy with parliamentary democracy, confederal municipalism proposes a process of tension between the state and the confederation of municipalities that would eventually lead to the replacement of the former by the latter.

Janet Biehl, taking further the points raised in Murray Bookchin’s interview to Society and Nature, provides a detailed account of the degradation of Green Politics in Europe. As the main European green movements were gradually transformed into “normal” parliamentary parties, their vision for radical social change was abandoned in the process of electoral manipulation and coalition-making, that power politics and the parliamentary game requires. The inevitable outcome of this cooptation was that the European green movement has ceased to be a possible agent of social change and it has either been marginalised (Britain) or has become, as in France, the collector of protest votes against the mainstream parties. A radical transformation of green politics, in terms of Libertarian Municipalist politics, could therefore lead to the revival of the vision of an ecological society and transcend the pseudo-dilemma of having to choose between the pitfalls of parliamentary statecraft and the limitations of direct action.

The focus of the debate between the “realos” and the “fundis” in the European Greens was the issue of transforming the movement into parliamentary party versus concentrating on non-parliamentary forms of action (direct action, local politics etc). Thus, a clear municipalist strategy that could create a new politics of direct action in its highest form ― direct democracy and confederal forms of organization ― never developed in Europe. In contrast with the European Greens, as Howard Hawkins shows, the major problem polarizing the US Greens, since their very first steps in the early eighties, has been (under the influence of the strong Social Ecology movement) the issue of municipalist vs Statist strategies of  social change. Hawkins provides a detailed historical account of this conflict, as well as of its ramifications in the debate about organizational structure.-


Takis Fotopoulos, Editor