Has Harvey Become a Libertarian Municipalist?


In his recent book, David Harvey claims that the Left suffers from fetishizing “horizontality”. What especially bothers him is that this makes it evade questions about how to organize both movements and cities on a larger scale. Harvey himself thinks that such forms of organization require some type of centralized hierarchy.

To put it very briefly, libertarian municipalism, as it is formulated by Murray Bookchin, is a vision of a political system where the power flows from the bottom and up. It rests on an idea of confederated municipalities based on direct democracy on the local level, and councils of recallable delegates with policy mandates on higher levels. It is also a practical politics that seeks to democratize towns and cities, and transfer state authority and economic resources to such a network of democratized communities.

Harvey’s relationship to libertarian municipalism is ambiguous. On one hand he writes that it is “by far the most sophisticated radical proposal” on how to organize democratically on a larger scale. On the other hand he thinks that major inequalities would probably develop within such a system. How well does his praise and critique fit with libertarian municipalism, and what are its strengths and weaknesses? 

Rebel Cities

David Harvey is one of the most influential academics on the international Left today. He’s been seminal in establishing geography as a critical discipline, and in developing a contemporary anti-capitalist analysis of the current economic crisis. But he is not only an academic. Harvey’s also widely read among activists, and his ideas are often developed in a dialogue with oppositional movements. 

Harvey’s written a range of books on topics such as social justice, urbanism, geography and space, neoliberalism, postmodernism and economics. His latest book, Rebel Cities – From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution, is concerned with what role urban movements should play in an anti-capitalist struggle.

As the title indicates, “The Right to the City”-slogan is the red thread that runs through the chapters of the book (which is basically a collection of revised essays that has previously been published). The right to the city does not here merely imply that everyone should have equal access the city – the right to live there and use its various services. Harvey goes a step further and says that it should mean that “all those who labor are engaged in producing and reproducing the city have a collective right not only to that which they produce, but also to decide what kind of urbanism is to be produced where, and how.” (p. 137)

The right to the city, therefore, cannot only be a right to what already exists, but rather a right to “rebuild and re-create the city as a socialist body politic in a completely different image – one that eradicates poverty and social inequality, and one that heals the wounds of disastrous environmental degradation.” (p. 138)

Photo: According to Harvey, the coming together of various urban movements in El Alto in Bolivia is an example of a successful coalition that organized the population behind “a radically different project of urbanization.”

There are many reasons to read Harvey’s book: it sheds a new light on the connectedness of urban development, surplus capital and financial markets – and hence of urban and economic crises; compared to the more lofty visions of thinkers such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, it provides a refreshing and sober amendment to the discussion of “the commons”; and not at least, it also makes a very good case for why class struggles so often also are urban struggles, and vice versa.

How to Organize Cities?

This, however, is not a review. It is a discussion of the parts of Rebel Cities where Harvey interacts with libertarian municipalism. The context of the interaction is what he describes as an absence of answers on how to organize a city or a larger metropolitan area. This question includes both how to organize diverse urban movements into a unified struggle for a “radically different project of urbanization,” and how to manage common issues (such as for example common property resources) once these movements have been successful.

According to Harvey, much of the left is reluctant to answer this question because it means that they will have to move beyond the local community – where principles such as horizontalism and direct democracy relatively easily can be applied. One of the main points of the book, however, is that these principles are not easily transferred to a larger scale:

“The possibilities for sensible management of common property resources that exist at one scale (…) do not carry over to problems such as global warming, or even the regional diffusion of acid deposition from acid stations. As we ‘jump scales’ (as geographers like to put it), so the whole nature of the commons problem and the prospects of finding a solution change dramatically. What looks like a good way to resolve problems at one scale does not hold on another scale. Even worse, patently good solutions at one scale (the ‘local’, say) do not necessarily aggregate up (or cascade down) to make for good solutions at another scale (the global, for example).” (p. 69)

One of the notions that Harvey attacks is that somehow loosely connected communities would be able to solve their issues voluntarily, without some “high-order hierarchical authority”:

“There is the vague and naïve hope that social groups who have organized their relations to their local commons satisfactorily will do the right thing and converge upon some satisfactory inter-group practices through negotiation and interaction. For this to occur, local groups would have to be untroubled by any externality effects that their actions might have on the rest of the world, and to give up accrued advantages, democratically distributed within the social group, in order to rescue or supplement the well-being of near (let alone distant) others, who as a result of either bad decisions or misfortune have fallen into a state of starvation and misery. History provides us with very little evidence that such redistributions can work on anything other than an occasional or one-off basis.” (p. 84)

An Ambiguous Relationship

As already mentioned, Harvey thinks that libertarian municipalism fares better than most other positions on the left. He actually praises Bookchin for having come up with “by far the most sophisticated radical proposal to deal with the creation and collective use of the commons across a variety of scales,” and writes that it is “well worth elaborating as part of the radical anti-capitalist agenda.” (p. 85) Still, Harvey believes that a crucial problem with libertarian municipalism is to figure out how “it might actually work.” 

Video: Harvey talks about his “fantasy” of a league of socialist cities and favorably cites Murray Bookchin in a lecture at the London School of Economics.

Harvey repeats the objection made by Iris Marion Young that a confederation would not be able to prevent large-scale inequalities and injustices to develop in between poorer and richer communities. “The only way to avoid such outcomes,” he writes, “is for some higher authority both to mandate and enforce those cross-municipality transfers that would roughly equalize at least opportunities, and perhaps outcomes as well”:

“This is what Murray Bookchin’s confederal system of autonomous municipalities would almost certainly be unable to achieve, to the degree that this level of governance is barred from making policy and firmly restricted to the administration and governance of things, and effectively barred from the governance of people. The only way that general rules of, say, redistribution of wealth between municipalities can be established is either by democratic consensus (which, we know from historical experience, is unlikely to be voluntarily and informally arrived at) or by citizens as democratic subjects at different levels within a structure of hierarchical governance. To be sure, there is no reason why all power should flow downwards in such a hierarchy, and mechanisms can surely be devised to prevent dictatorship or authoritarianism. But the plain fact is that certain problems of, for example, the common wealth, only become visible at particular scales, and it is only appropriate that democratic decisions be made at those scales.” (p. 152-153)

Moreover, Harvey also thinks that libertarian municipalism might possibly “mask something very different” (p. 81), and that Boochin’s solution looks “suspiciously like a state, sounds like a state system, and will almost surely act like a state system no matter what the intent of its proponents might be” (p. 152). This rather strange statement contradicts what he writes above. If I were to interpret this contradiction, it looks to me as if Harvey believes that any practical implementation of libertarian municipalism would require a form of hierarchical organization above the community level – and that this would come about whether the libertarian municipalists would approve of it or not.

Harvey’s own stance is that some forms of “nested” hierarchical structures are necessary to deal with issues on levels above the community. Instead of claiming that horizontalism and direct democracy are the only legitimate principles of organization, he believes in a mixture of organizational forms to create democratic and socialist cities: “Not only public and private, but collective and associational, nested, hierarchical and horizontal, exclusionary and open – will all have a key role to play in finding ways to organize production, distribution, exchange and non-consumption in order to meet human wants and needs on an anti-capitalist basis” (p. 87).

Video: David Graeber (Occupy activist and author of Debt – The Last 5000 Years) and Harvey discusses Bookchin. Starts at 1:13:00.

So, has Harvey Become a Libertarian Municipalist?

I think it’s quite safe to say that Harvey hasn’t become a libertarian municipalist. For this, his insistence on “nested” hierarchical structures and the necessity of the state (although he never says this explicitly) is too great. Still, I don’t think that this rests on a misunderstanding of libertarian municipalism. Throughout his book, Harvey demonstrates a remarkably clear understanding of its core principles, even though he sometimes twists the words (like “municipalist libertarianism”). His treatment would probably have been a little more nuanced, however, if he had read the texts in which Bookchin insists on the need for constitutions and dismisses the idea of local autonomy.

Still, this wouldn’t change the core of Harvey’s objections, and I actually think that Harvey’s touched a soft spot in social ecology – namely an overtly simplistic conceptualization of organization on a larger-scale. Consult any text of Bookchin on this issue (there hasn’t been very much theoretical development on this issue besides Bookchin’s writings) and you’ll basically find a presentation that reads more or less like this:

“Confederalism is above all a network of administrative councils whose members or delegates are elected from popular face-to-face democratic assemblies, in the various villages, towns, and even neighborhoods of large cities. The members of these confederal councils are strictly mandated, recallable, and responsible to the assemblies that choose them for the purpose of coordinating and administering the policies formulated by the assemblies themselves. Their function is thus a purely administrative and practical one, not a policy making one like the function of representatives in republican systems of government.” (From The Meaning of Confederalism)

This presentation raises several questions that beg to be answered, but that largely go undiscussed in Bookchin’s own work: How could for example the tasks of delegates only be administration, if negotiations and reformulation of common solutions would happen on a higher level when hundred or thousands of municipalities would be involved in making a common policy?  Or what’s the point of sending delegates if all decisions are already predestined by the delegates’ mandates? Or how is it even possible to formulate mandates that cover all alternative options of choice on a confederal level?

What I think that Harvey’s trying to get at, is that our questions to these answers would imply that there also will be significant elements of policy making involved in the work of delegates. Furthermore, confederal levels would also need powers to implement its decisions. Such a system, to be sure, would require particular forms of checks and balances – that go beyond mandates and recallability – to prevent it from developing into an autonomous force.

Whether this should be called “hierarchy” is a different discussion. My biggest problem with Harvey is not his objections against libertarian municipalism, but rather the lightness by which concludes that hierarchy is necessary. He does not, for example, discuss possible conflicts in between the local horizontal and the nested hierarchical level, nor does he seem very bothered by the possibility that the hierarchical level might actually overpower and completely undermine any form of democratic community organization.

In my opinion, Harvey doesn’t quite seem to understand why some parts of left have “fetishized organization,” as he puts it. More than anything, it is the experiences with dictatorships and authoritarian regimes who have claimed to act on behalf of the working class or “the people,” that has led libertarian socialists to be particularly concerned with organizational form. If we are to avoid authoritarian regimes to develop once again, we have to understand how certain organizational forms tend to subjugate others and what the dangers of hierarchies really are. 

Harvey has pointed at an important problem in libertarian municipalism, but I don’t think he has come up with a very compelling alternative himself. In fact, also his solution raises several questions that go unanswered in the book.

One of the main strengths of Rebel Cities, however, is Harvey’s emphasis of the class dimension of urban struggles. This is a dimension that often disappears in the libertarian municipalist literature in favor of an emphasis on ecological issues, and it can therefore be worthwhile to end with an illustration on how Harvey thinks these issues are intertwined:

“Practices of accumulation by dispossession, rental appropriations, by money- and profit-gauging, lie at the heart of many of the discontents that attach to the qualities of daily life for the mass of the population. Urban social movements typically mobilize around such questions, and they derive from the way in which the perpetuation of class power is organized around living as well as around working. Urban social movements therefore always have a class content even when they are primarily articulated in terms of rights, citizenship, and the travails of social reproduction.” (p. 129)