The Ecology of Freedom in the Democratic City

Busy urban streets

In medieval Europe restless serfs in their feudal domains would sometimes flee the onerous lifeways imposed by seigniorial masters and take refuge in a town or city. Built near ancient Roman ruins, these medieval towns allowed the refugees the freedom to build new lives. Just being in a city for a year protected a person from recapture by former masters. “City air makes free” (Stadtluft macht frei) became a watchword.

Today too, cities can be arenas of freedom from restrictive, more rural cultures and lifeways. But if breathing city air makes us free, nowadays it can also make us sick.

Industrial capitalism is destroying the environment at a breath-taking – or breath-destroying – pace. Pollution fouls not only air but water and food and even our body chemistry. People and animals perish from unexplained illnesses. We may not understand entirely why climate change is occurring so quickly, or exactly how technicians can alter the genes that are the basis of life, but one thing is clear: the cause of environmental destruction is a system, industrial capitalism, that is geared to making profits and that has no compunction about poisoning people and the natural world in pursuit of gain. By reducing the complexity of natural processes, by turning soil into sand, argued Murray Bookchin in his great 1982 book The Ecology of Freedom, the environmental damage caused by industrial capitalism is even reversing the course of natural evolution.

What is to be done? Some environmentalists argue that nation-states should pass laws to prevent capitalist enterprises from doing excessive damage – laws to restrict carbon emissions and limit radiation to “safe” levels and prevent too much forest destruction. Since our survival as a species is threatened, we should certainly try to keep going as long as we can, by whatever means will work, however tepid. But no one should be deceived that such remedial legislation is going to solve the basic problem over the long term. Trading credits for carbon emissions, for example, is not going to prevent pollution. At best such reforms will simply be to extend the life span of a destructive system. We will not solve the ecological crisis, argued Bookchin in The Ecology of Freedom, until we address the basic cause and eliminate industrial capitalism once and for all.

That competitive system is wreaking destruction not only on the environment but on human social life. It is turning more and more areas of our lives into commodities, the better to buy and sell them on the marketplace. Commodification is transforming us from people into consumers, reducing our desires to what money can buy, making us selfish, making our better natures something that only “losers” take seriously. It is stripping our cultures of community and fellow-feeling, of solidarity and ethics, consigning community and mutual aid to distant memory. At the same time the nation-state ensures that we remain docile subjects, paying taxes, and casting the occasional vote to endow ruling regimes with legitimacy, so that they may more efficiently advance the interests of capitalist enterprises.

Thus the ecological crisis is inseparable from the social crisis; and their solutions are intertwined. Hence social ecology. To solve the ecological crisis, argued Bookchin, we must put an end as well to all systems of rule, of exploitation, of domination, of hierarchy. For the very idea of dominating nature, as Bookchin showed, arose from the domination of human by human, of women by men, of the young by the old.

What will replace capitalism and the nation-state? Surely no progressive-minded person wants to see the return of Communist totalitarianism. No person who aims at a free, ecological society wants to see another Stalin. We need to find a way to eliminate capitalism that not only avoids dictatorship but creates freedom.

We need an alternative system, Bookchin argued, one that abolishes both Communist authoritarianism and Capitalist exploitation. A society that values community as well as the individual, fellow-feeling as well as the self, and ethics as well as the means of life. A society in which town and country are integrated, that exists in harmony with the natural world, and in which we cooperate with each other, in which sexism and racism and homophobia are tossed into the dustbin of history. An ecological society would be free of domination and exploitation, indeed of hierarchy. For as Bookchin showed, hierarchy is a problem far more ancient than class, and one that runs much deeper.

A social ecological society would be one that people, as active citizens rather than docile taxpayers, manage themselves through face-to-face democracy. In this libertarian polity of communal self-management, adult citizens would make decisions about social life, including the economy. Every urban neighborhood and every rural town would create a popular assembly that meets as often as the people chose; the assemblies’ decisions would have the force of law, because people would have taken the power into their own hands. As citizens, people would make decisions, not simply to benefit their selfish desires, but for the common good of their communities. So empowered, they would be free to make the decisions that would end the ecological destruction of our communities.

One might think that people wouldn’t have enough time for such self-governance because they must spend large parts of their day at work. Bookchin would answer that we now have the technical means to do something unprecedented in human history: to have machines perform most toil. For millennia people’s aspirations to freedom were suppressed by the need to spend their days engaged in drudgery. Today technology has made possible a dramatic reduction of the workday, if only we could agree to produce that which we need and little more, rather than wasteful consumer goods. Production for use, not for profit, would mean enough leisure time to gain control of our lives.

The overriding task, then, is to create an ecological democratic city, one that has ended ecological destruction because it has ended the domination of human by human. Gigantic cities would be broken up, so that our built environment would exist on a manageable, human scale. Manufacturing would be decentralized into smaller plants so that democratic communities could manage them, and basic industries municipalized. Energy sources would be renewable, like solar and wind, bringing the natural world back into urban consciousness.

Such a society may seem an abstract utopia, but such is the urgency of the ecological crisis, Bookchin argued, that utopia is no longer a fantasy. It is a concrete need. In such a way we could once again have a city that does not choke us, whose air once again would make us free.


Editorial Comment

Published in Communalism #1 (December 2009)