What Does it Mean to be a Communalist or Eco-Communalist?

The first paragraphs in this writing reference the article found here:
"The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism" by Murray Bookchin

"Communalism" as an Economic rather than Political Term

I continually deal with the question of defining "communalism" as I lived for 12 years in rural communal communities of up to 100 people, and my intent has been to bring aspects of that culture to the city. Murray Bookchin's article "The Democratic Dimension of Anarchism" equates "communalism" with "libertarian municipalism," and he states in one of his notes that, "9 History provides no "model" for libertarian municipalism, be it Periclean Athens, or a tribe, village, town, or city--or a hippie commune or Buddhist ashram." In contrast, I shall state, as I once tried to tell Murray in person at the Institute for Social Ecology, that the closest "model" to his ideal are indeed the communal societies comprising the Federation of Egalitarian Communities (FEC) in which I've lived. Murray didn't respond to me, and certainly we both could find ways that Federation communities don't perfectly meet his ideal, yet some of them are very close, and provide excellent examples, or at least the best we've got, of communal libertarian municipalism.

The ways that even the largest Federation communities do not meet Murray's "model" could be said to be size of population, and also the question of economic issues, yet still I maintain that they are the closest examples available.

Murray focuses the definition of "communalism" in his article upon political process or governance. He quotes a dictionary definition which I found in my dictionary as well. Murray writes, "Communalism is defined as 'a theory or system of government [sic!] in which virtually autonomous [sic!] local communities are loosely in a federation.' 8 No English dictionary is very sophisticated politically."

That last comment of Murray's reflects my point that the dictionary definition for "communalism" is inadequate as it doesn’t specify a particular political process, neither consensus nor democracy, nor even authoritarianism (although people tend to equate communal with totalitarianism), and nor does the term specify a particular economic dynamic, not private-property ownership nor common-property ownership nor any combination of the two. All that the dictionary definition provides for is an alignment of "communalism" with a decentralized as opposed to a centralized polity, society or government. We may think of the former (decentralism) as democratic and the latter (centralism) as authoritarian, yet neither characteristic is necessarily inherent to the respective term, they are just the most common usages.

In my discussions and writings on this topic of creating a new or alternative or counter-culture, I try to cut through all this confusion by insisting that the term "communal" be defined simply as an economic term referring to common-property ownership, and that when we want or need to refer to political processes that we add a qualifying term such as "democratic communalism," or "egalitarian communalism" (i.e., using a consensus or other participatory process), or "totalitarian communalism." I offer this naming convention, or definition of terms, as one step in responding to the question, "What does it mean to be a communalist?"

The Problem with Consensus Process

At this point I want to interject an aside, in stating that Murray has a good analysis of the problems with consensus process in very large groups, which in some ways is parallel to the problems addressed in the classic article "The Tyrany of Structurelessness."

Murray discusses consensus process in the context of the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance, their largest action in which I participated around 1980 at the Seabrook, New Hampshire nuke, so I appreciate his review of that history. With his Clamshell analysis he states a preference for democracy in his definition of "communalism," yet where I think Murray is weakest is in what I mention above with respect to my view that the most important aspect of the term "communal" needs to be economics in order to carry on a clear and understandable debate.

Further aside, Kat Kinkade, who’s inspiration was in much of the design of at least the larger Federation communities, was also critical of consensus process, preferring instead systems of checks and balances, such as communication before the fact between people empowered to make decisions and the population affected by those decisions, and processes for appealing decisions after the fact for when it becomes apparent that insufficient prior discussion took place.

Economics: Private Property versus Common Property

I think it is fine to start with Murray's assertion that, "It is important to emphasize that libertarian municipalism--or Communalism, as I have called it here--is a developing outlook, a politics that seeks ultimately to achieve the ‘Commune of communes.’ As such, it tries to provide a directly democratic confederal alternative to the state and to a centralized bureaucratic society."

First of all, the network of communities to which I'm comparing Murray's theory of "communalism" to an existing social movement utilizes a federal as opposed to a confederal structure, so that's one issue with regard to methods of coordinating the "commune of communes." To go further, considering "communalism" as a "developing outlook," I maintain that Murray is off the mark in focusing upon defining "communalism" primarily from a political orientation, and I have the same issue with the definition of "anarchism."

I believe that it is essential to focus upon the issue of economics, in both "communalism" and in "anarchism," specifically with regard to the question of private property versus common property ownership. To me this is a more fundamental question than either that of centralism versus decentralism or of consensus versus democracy versus authoritarianism.

Current Financial Crisis

The relationship between private versus common property ownership is essential to all such discussions, and I haven't seen anyone address the topic as I believe it needs to be addressed, neither Murray nor anyone else, from the perspective of radical culture. In the mean time, it is precisely this issue that is being played out today in the global conversation about the monetary economic system; as laced with consternation and panic as it is. Major functions of our economic system are right now being "socialized." It's incredible to see this happening! Capitalism is becoming more socialist at the same time that communism is becoming more capitalist (if not libertarian). This has been discussed since the '60s (one movie in particular had characters stating this; wish I could remember the movie title) and now suddenly all but the most radical right wing is accepting this transformation.

As it is my criticism that a discussion of the role of private and common property ownership in radical culture must be emphasized, I have developed material on the topic, available free for download as PDF files from my website: www.CultureMagic.org If anyone cares to discuss any of that I'd welcome the opportunity. For this message, however, I want to bring in another voice on the topic, following.

Eco-Communalism and Global Transitions

For another focus in the definition of "communalism" consider another set of concerns as presented in the very interesting context of the "Great Transition" in which it is suggested that we are currently in the midst. More about the Great Transition in a minute, first however, let’s review the term "eco-communalism." My issue with the use of the term "communalism" in this context is similar to my issue with Murray's context of libertarian municipalism, which is that the economic issue of commonly-owned property versus privately-owned property is totally and completely ignored. The problem which results is that the assertion, as seen in the following quote that, "the economic system of capitalism is replaced," is misleading and insufficient when all they mean is that some form of decentralism is affirmed by the term "eco-communalism."

I maintain that as long as the emphasis is upon private-property ownership any move toward decentralism will always end up re-centralizing into the "capitalist" system. I simply do not believe, based upon my experience as I've developed into my theory of political-economic systems, that the issue of decentralism versus centralism with regard to governance can be adequately addressed without considering the economic issue of private versus common property ownership.

The following paragraphs are from:

"Eco-communalism is an environmental philosophy based on ideals of simple living, local economies, and self-sufficiency (often associated with the ideologies of socialism, communalism, and sustainability). Eco-communalists envision a future in which the economic system of capitalism is replaced with a global web of economically interdependent and interconnected small local communities. Decentralized government, a focus on agriculture, and “green economics” are all tenets of eco-communalism.

Eco-communalism finds its roots in a diverse set of ideologies. These include the “pastoral reaction to industrialization of William Morris and the nineteenth-century social utopians (Thompson, 1993); the Small Is Beautiful philosophy of E.F. Schumacher (1972); and the traditionalism of Gandhi (1993)” (Great Transition, Pg. 18).

The term eco-communalism was first coined by the Global scenario group (GSG), which was convened in 1995 by Paul Raskin, president of the Tellus Institute. The GSG set out to describe and analyze scenarios for the future of the earth as it entered a Planetary Phase of Civilization. The GSG's scenario analysis resulted in a series of reports [1]. Eco-communalism took shape in 2002 as one of six possible future scenarios put forth in the GSG’s 99-page essay entitled "Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead." This founding document describes eco-communalism as a “vision of a better life” which turns to “non-material dimensions of fulfillment – the quality of life, the quality of human solidarity and the quality of the earth” (GT, Pg. 42)."

Global Scenario Group

Great Transitions Initiative

"Visions and Pathways for a Hopeful Future
The Great Transition Initiative envisions and advances a future of enriched lives, human solidarity, and environmental sustainability.

Global scenarios honed by a formidable network of scholars and activists offer rich descriptions integrating the historic roots, current dynamics and future perils of world development. At once rigorous and inspiring, the Great Transition story brings the message that a better world is possible if we shift our values and transform our institutions.

Critical to this hopeful transition is growing public awareness of the dangers ahead and the need to revise our ways of living – and living together – on this planet. In this, our time of choice, a vast movement of global citizens can carry forward a Great Transition.

Key Perspectives
A long view...
history has entered the planetary phase of civilization
A global community...
humanity and Earth are bound in a common destiny
A fear...
looming crises portend a time of troubles
A choice...
we can shape the future by imagining what it could be"

This is a fascinating website, offering six different alternative scenarios for the future:
* Market Forces [note: I'd call this the Libertarian strategy]
* Policy Reform [note: this may be essentially the current response to the financial crisis]
* Fortress World [note: this is essentially what happened after the fall of Rome]
* Breakdown [note: I recognize this as what some people refer to as "anarcho-primitivism"]
* Eco-Communalism [note: see my criticisms of this above]
* New Paradigm [note: see following]

The work of the Global Scenario Group is commendable for bringing all these issues into context, yet for all their great work they tend to be rather vague on a lot of issues, not the least of which being my concern about their omission of the issue of private versus common property in their presentation of "eco-communalism." I rather see their view of eco-communalism as being much like the role of Catholic monasticism in the Dark Ages, serving to preserve aspects of civilization after the fall of Rome, until the world can get back on the track of capitalist globalization. I see nothing in the definition of eco-communalism that would sustain decentralist ideals over the long term, against the imperative of capitalist centralism.

I also find that their explanation of the "New Paradigm" is similarly inadequate. They define New Paradigm as: "The New Sustainability Paradigm, the variant embraced by GTI, sees globalization not only as a threat but also an opportunity to construct new categories of consciousness – global citizenship, humanity-as-whole, the wider web of life, and the well-being of future generations – alongside a governance architecture that balances the twin goals of global unity and regional pluralism."

That sounds really nice yet I'd like to see more discussion on how to actually do that!

Answering the question of how to build the culture that we would most prefer is my goal with focusing upon the issues of private versus common ownership of wealth as one of the most fundamental issues. To me, this has to be the primary focus of discussions with regard to intentional cultural design, social innovation, and political-economic-spiritual radicalism. I present discussions of aspects of these issues on my website, and am developing further presentations for going beyond ideals and goals to the discussion of basic steps toward a culture that respects the common good through affirming the essential value of commonly-owned property, from the gifts of nature as accessed through resource extraction (minerals, oil, gas, water, forests, fisheries, electro-magnetic spectrum, etc), to the creations of human ingenuity adding value to natural resources as measured by their utility in responding to human needs and wants, and balancing this against the parallel desire and drive for personal control over our lives through privately-owned wealth.

Politics and spirituality each also relate to this basic economic dichotomy of opposing forms of the ownership of wealth, and it is in the consideration of these issues in all their inter-related complexity that we may work to create the culture that we most desire through the tribulations that are now upon us.

For further detail see: www.CultureMagic.org

October, 2008

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