The Historical Importance of the City

Flowers in the City of Venice

I have long argued that libertarian municipalism constitutes the politics of social ecology, notably a revolutionary effort in which freedom is given institutional form in public assemblies that become decision-making bodies.

It depends upon libertarian leftists running candidates at the local municipal level, calling for the division of municipalities into wards, where popular assemblies can be created that bring people into full and direct participation in political life. Having democratized themselves, municipalities would confederate into a dual power to oppose the nation-state and ultimately dispense with it and with the economic forces that underpin statism as such.

Libertarian municipalism is above all a politics that seeks to create a vital democratic public sphere. In my From Urbanization to Cities as well as other works, I have made careful but crucial distinctions between three societal realms: the social, the political, and the state. What people do in their homes, what friendships they form, the communal lifestyles they practice, the way they make their living, their sexual behavior, and the cultural artifacts they consume—all these personal as well as materially necessary activities belong to what I call the social sphere of life. Families, friends, and communal living arrangements are part of the social realm.

However much all aspects of life interact with one another, none of these social aspects of human life properly belongs to the public sphere, which I explicitly identify with politics in the Hellenic sense of the term. In creating a new politics based on social ecology, we are concerned with what people do in this public or political sphere, not with what people do in their bedrooms, living rooms, or basements.

Let me state from the outset that I have never declared that libertarian municipalism is a substitute for the manifold dimensions of cultural or even private life. Yet even a modicum of a historical perspective shows that it is precisely the municipality that most individuals must deal with directly, once they leave the social realm and enter the public sphere. Doubtless the municipality is usually the place where even a great deal of social life is existentially lived, which does not efface its distinctiveness as a unique sphere of life.

As a project for entering into the public sphere, libertarian municipalism calls for a radical presence in a community that addresses the question of who shall exercise power in a lived sense; indeed, it is truly a political culture that seeks to re-empower the individual and sharpen his or her sensibility as a living citizen.

The Erosion of Citizenship

Today, the concept of citizenship has already undergone serious erosion through the reduction of citizens to “constituents” of statist jurisdictions or to “taxpayers” who sustain statist institutions. To further reduce citizenship to “personhood”—or to etherealize the concept by speaking of an airy “earth citizenship”—is nothing short of reactionary. It took long millennia for History to create the concept of the citizen as a self-managing and competent agent in democratically shaping a polity. During the French Revolution the term citoyen was used precisely to efface the status-generated relegation of individuals to mere “subjects” of the Bourbon kings. Moreover, revolutionaries of the last century—from Marx to Bakunin—referred to themselves as “citizens” long before the appellation “comrade” replaced it.

We must not lose sight of the fact that the citizen, as he or she should be, culminates the transformation of ethnic tribal folk, whose societies were structured around biological facts like kinship, gender differences, and age groups, and should be part of a secular, rational, and humane community. Indeed, much of the National Socialist war against “Jewish cosmopolitanism” was in fact an ethnically (völkisch) nationalistic war against the Enlightenment ideal of the citoyen. For it was precisely the depoliticized, indeed, animalized “loyal subject” rather than the citizen that the Nazis incorporated into their racial image of the German Volk, the abject, status-defined creature of Hitler’s hierarchical Führerprinzip. Once citizenship becomes contentless as a result of the deflation of its existential political reality or, equally treacherously, by the expansion of its historic development into a “planetary” metaphor, we have come a long way toward accepting the barbarism that the capitalist system is now fostering with Heideggerian versions of ecology.

Today, we cannot allow flippant diminutions of the uniqueness of citizenship, so pregnant with political meaning, nor can we ignore the factors that can help us develop a general civic interest today. The tendency of physiography among ecomystics and spiritualists to overtake and devour vast socio-cultural differences is nothing less than dazzling. Put the prefix bio before a word, and you come up with the most inane, often asocial body of “ideas” possible, such as bioregionalism, which overrides the very fundamental cultural differences that demarcate one community or group of communities from another by virtue of a common watershed, lake, or mountain range. Bioregionalism, as expressed by John Clark and others, is not only a mystification of first (biological) nature at the expense of second (social and cultural) nature; its irrelevance to improving the human condition is truly incredible. One has only to view the terrible conflict in the former Yugoslavia, which raged in areas that are almost identical bioregionally but are grossly dissimilar culturally, to recognize how meaningless and mystifying are Clark’s expectations of his bioregional “politics.”

The extent to which contemporary mystical ecologists absorb second nature into first nature, the social into the biological, ignores the extent to which the sociosphere today encompasses the biosphere, to which first nature has been absorbed into second nature, and reveals a stunning neglect of the decisive importance of society in determining the future of the natural world. We can no longer afford a naive nature romanticism, which may be very alluring to juveniles but has been contributing a great deal to the strident nationalism and growing ecofascism that is emerging in the Western world.

Oppression and Liberation

A petty complaint that usually gets thrown against libertarian municipalism is that the “Greek polis,” which “advocates of direct democracy have always appealed to,” was marred by “the exclusion of women, slaves, and foreigners.” This is certainly true, and we must always remember that libertarian municipalists are also libertarian communists, who obviously oppose hierarchy, including patriarchy and chattel slavery.

As it turns out, in fact, the “Greek polis” is neither an ideal nor a model for anything—except perhaps for Rousseau, who greatly admired Sparta. It is the Athenian polis whose democratic institutions I often describe and that has the greatest significance for the democratic tradition. In the context of libertarian municipalism, its significance is to provide us with evidence that a people, for a time, could quite self-consciously establish and maintain a direct democracy, despite the existence of slavery, patriarchy, economic and class inequalities, agonistic behavior, and even imperialism, which existed throughout the ancient Mediterranean world.

The fact is that we must look for what is new and innovative in a historical period, even as we acknowledge continuities with social structures that prevailed in the past. Ancient Athens and other parts of Greece, it is worth noting in this postmodern era, was the arena for the emergence not only of direct democracy but of Western philosophy, drama, political theory, mathematics, science, and analytical and dialectical logic. On the other hand, I could hardly derive democratic ideas from the Chinese Taoist tradition, rooted as it is in quietism and a credo of resignation and submission to noble and royal power (not to speak of the exclusion of women from socially important roles).(1)

In fact, short of the hazy Neolithic village traditions that Marija Gimbutas, Riane Eisler, and William Irwin Thompson hypostatize, we will have a hard time finding any tradition that was not patriarchal to one degree or another. Rejecting all patriarchal societies as sources of institutional study would mean that we must abandon not only the Athenian polis but the free medieval communes and their confederations, the comuñero movement of sixteenth-century Spain, the revolutionary Parisian sections of 1793, the Paris Commune of 1871—and even the Spanish anarchist collectives of 1936–37. All of these institutional developments, be it noted, were marred to one degree or another by patriarchal values.

No, libertarian municipalists are not ignorant of these very real historical limitations; nor is libertarian municipalism based on any historical “models.” Neither does anyone who seriously accepts a libertarian municipalist approach believe that society as it exists and cities as they are structured today can suddenly be transformed into a directly democratic and rational society. The revolutionary transformation we seek is one that requires education, the formation of a movement, and the patience to cope with defeats. As I have emphasized again and again, a libertarian municipalist practice begins, minimally, with an attempt to enlarge local freedom at the expense of state power. And it does this by example, by education, and by entering the public sphere (that is, into local elections or extralegal assemblies), where ideas can be raised among ordinary people that open the possibility of a lived practice. In short, libertarian municipalism involves a vibrant politics in the real world to change society and public consciousness alike, not a program directed at navel-gazing, psychotherapy, and “surregionalist manifestoes.” It tries to forge a movement that will enter into open confrontation with the state and the bourgeoisie, not cravenly sneak around them murmuring Taoist paradoxes.

I should perhaps point out that my appeal to a new politics of citizenship is not in any way meant to put a rug over very real social conflicts, nor is it an appeal to class neutrality. The fact is that “the People” I invoke does not include Chase Manhattan Bank, General Motors, or any class exploiters and economic bandits; let me emphasize that I am addressing an oppressed humanity, all of whom must—if they are to eliminate their oppressions—try to remove the shared roots of oppression as such.

I have never argued that we can or should ignore class interests by completely absorbing them into trans-class ones. But in our time particularization is being overemphasized, to the point where any shared struggle must now overcome not only differences in class, gender, ethnicity, “and other issues,” but nationalism, religious zealotry, and identity based on even minor distinctions in status. The role of the revolutionary movement for over two centuries has been to emphasize our shared humanity precisely against ruling status groups and ruling classes—which Marx, even in singling out the proletariat as hegemonic, viewed as a “universal class.” Nor are all “images” that people have of themselves as classes, genders, races, nationalities, and cultural groups rational or humane, or evidence of consciousness, or desirable from a radical viewpoint. In principle, there is no reason why différance as such should not entangle us and paralyze us completely in our multifarious and self-enclosed “particularity,” in postmodernist, indeed Derridean fashion. Indeed, today, when parochial differences among the oppressed have been reduced to microscopic divisions, it is all the more important for a revolutionary movement to resolutely point out the common sources of oppression as such and the extent to which commodification has universalized them—particularly global capitalism.

The deformations of the past were created largely by the famous “social question,” notably by class exploitation, which in great measure could have been remedied by technological advances. In short, they were scarcity societies—albeit not that alone. Of course a new social-ecological sensibility has to be created, as do new values and relationships, and it will be done partly by overcoming economic need, however economic need is construed. Little doubt should exist that a call for an end to economic exploitation must be a central feature in any social ecology program and movement, which are part of the Enlightenment tradition and its revolutionary outcome.

The essence of dialectic is to always search out what is new in any development: specifically, for the purposes of this discussion, the emergence of a trans-class People, such as oppressed women, people of color, even the middle classes, as well as subcultures defined by sexual preferences and lifestyles. To particularize distinctions (largely created by the existing social order) to the point of reducing oppressed people to seemingly “diverse persons”—indeed, to mere “personhood”—is to feed into the current privatistic fads of our time and to remove all possibility for collective social action and revolutionary change.

Reason and History

To examine what is really at issue in the questions of municipalism, confederalism, and citizenship, as well as the distinction between the social and the political, we must ground these notions in a historical background where we can locate the meaning of the city (properly conceived in distinction to the megalopolis), the citizen, and the political sphere in the human condition.

Historical experience began to advance beyond a conception of mere cyclical time, trapped in the stasis of eternal recurrence, into a creative history insofar as intelligence and wisdom—more properly, reason—began to inform human affairs. Over the course of a hundred thousand years or so, as we now know, Homo sapiens sapiens slowly overcame the sluggishness of their more animalistic cousins, the Neanderthals, and, amidst ups and downs, entered as an increasingly active agent into the surrounding world—both to meet their more complex needs (material as well as ideological), and to alter that environment by means of tools and, yes, instrumental rationality. Life became longer, more acculturated aesthetically, and more secure, and, potentially at least, human communities tried to define and resolve the problems of freedom and consciousness at various levels of their development.

The necessary conditions for freedom and consciousness—or preconditions, as socialists of all kinds recognized in the last century and a half—involved technological advances that, in a rational society, could emancipate people from the immediate, animalistic concerns of self-maintenance, increase the realm of freedom from constrictions imposed upon it by preoccupations with material necessity, and place knowledge on a rational, systematic, and coherent basis to the extent that this was possible. These conditions at least involved humanity’s self-emancipation from the overpowering theistic creations of its own imagination (creations largely formulated by shamans and priests for their own self-serving ends, as well as by apologists for hierarchy)—notably, mythopoesis, mysticism, anti-rationalism, and fears of demons and deities, calculated to produce subservience and quietism in the face of the social powers that be.

That the necessary and sufficient conditions for this emancipation have never existed in a “one-to-one” relationship with each other—and it would have been miraculous if they had—has provided the fuel for Cornelius Castoriadis’s rather disordered essays on the omnipotence of “social imaginaries,” for Theodor Adorno’s basic nihilism, and for frivolous anarcho-chaotics who, in one way or another, have debased the Enlightenment’s ideals and the classical forms of socialism and anarchism. True—the discovery of the spear did not produce an automatic shift from “matriarchy” to “patriarchy,” nor did the discovery of the plow produce an automatic shift from “primitive communism” to private property, as evolutionary anthropologists of the nineteenth century supposed. Indeed, it cheapens any discussion of history and social change to create “one-to-one” relations between technological and cultural developments, a tragic feature of Friedrich Engels’s simplification of his mentor’s ideas.

In fact, social evolution is very uneven and combined, which one would hope Castoriadis learned from his Trotskyist past. No less significantly, social evolution, like natural evolution, is profligate in producing a vast diversity of social forms and cultures, which are often incommensurable in their details. If our goal is to emphasize the vast differences that separate one society from another—rather than identify the important thread of similarities that bring humanity to the point of a highly creative development—“the Aztecs, Incas, Chinese, Japanese, Mongols, Hindus, Persians, Arabs, Byzantines, and Western Europeans, plus everything that could be enumerated from other cultures” do not resemble each other, to cite the naive obligations that Castoriadis places on what he calls “a ‘rational dialectic’ of history” and, implicitly, on reason itself.(2) Indeed, it is unpardonable nonsense to carelessly fling these civilizations together without regard for their place in time, their social pedigrees, the extent to which they can be educed dialectically from one another, or without an explanation of why as well as descriptions of how they differ from each other. By focusing entirely on the peculiarity of individual cultures, one reduces the development of civilizations in an eductive sequence to the narrow nominalism that Stephen Jay Gould applied to organic evolution—even to the point where the “autonomy” so prized by Castoriadis can be dismissed as a purely subjective “norm,” of no greater value in this postmodernist world of interchangeable equivalences than authoritarian “norms” of hierarchy.

But if we explore very existential developments toward freedom from toil and freedom from oppression in all its forms, we find that there is a History to be told of rational advances—without presupposing teleologies that predetermine that History and its tendencies. If we can give material factors their due emphasis without reducing cultural changes to strictly automatic responses to technological changes and without locating all highly variegated societies in a nearly mystical sequence of “stages of development,” then we can speak intelligibly of definite advances made by humanity out of animality, out of the timeless “eternal recurrence” of relatively stagnant cultures, out of blood, gender, and age relationships as the basis for social organization, and out of the image of the “stranger,” who was not kin to other members of a community, indeed, who was “inorganic,” to use Marx’s term, and hence subject to arbitrary treatment beyond the reach of customary rights and duties, defined as they were by tradition rather than reason.

Cities in History

Important as the development of agriculture, technology, and village life were in moving toward this moment in human emancipation, the emergence of the city was of the greatest importance in freeing people from mere ethnic ties of solidarity, in bringing reason and secularity, however rudimentarily, into human affairs. For it was only by this evolution that segments of humanity could replace the tyranny of mindless custom with a definable and rationally conditioned nomos, in which the idea of justice could begin to replace tribalistic “blood vengeance”—until later, when it was replaced by the idea of freedom. I speak of the emergence of the city, because although the development of the city has yet to be completed, its moments in History constitute a discernable dialectic that opened an emancipatory realm within which “strangers” and the “folk” could be reconstituted as citizens, notably, secular and fully rational beings who approximate, in varying degrees, humanity’s potentiality to become free, rational, fully individuated, and rounded.

Moreover, the city has been the originating and authentic sphere of politics in the Hellenic democratic sense of the term, and of civilization—not, as I have emphasized again and again, of the state. Which is not to say that city-states have not existed. But democracy, conceived as a face-to-face realm of policy-making, entails a commitment to the Enlightenment belief that all “ordinary” human beings are potentially competent to collectively manage their political affairs—a crucial concept in the thinking, all its limitations aside, of the Athenian democratic tradition, and, more radically, of those Parisian sections of 1793 that gave an equal voice to women as well as all men. At such high points of political development, in which subsequent advances often self-consciously built on and expanded more limited earlier ones, the city became more than a unique arena for human life and politics, and municipalism—civicism, which the French revolutionaries later identified with “patriotism”—became more than an expression of love of country. Even when Jacobin demagogues gave it chauvinistic connotations, “patriotism” in 1793 meant that the “national patrimony” was not the “property of the King of France” but that France, in effect, now belonged to all the people.

Over the long run, the city was conceived as the socio-cultural destiny of humanity, a place where, by late Roman times, there were no “strangers” or ethnic “folk,” and by the French Revolution, no custom or demonic irrationalities, but rather citoyens who lived in a free terrain, organized themselves into discursive assemblies, and advanced canons of secularity and fraternité, or more broadly, solidarity and philia, hopefully guided by reason. Moreover, the French revolutionary tradition was strongly confederalist until the dictatorial Jacobin Republic came into being – wiping out the Parisian sections as well as the ideal of a fête de la fédération. One must read Jules Michelet’s account of the Great Revolution to learn the extent to which civicism was identified with municipal liberty and fraternité with local confederations, indeed a “republic” of confederations, between 1790 and 1793. One must explore the endeavors of Jean Varlet and the Evêché militants of May 30–31, 1793, to understand how close the Revolution came in the insurrection of June 2 to constructing the cherished confederal “Commune of communes” that lingered in the historical memory of the Parisian fédérés, as they designated themselves, in 1871.

Hence, let me stress that a libertarian municipalist politics is not a mere “strategy” for human emancipation; it is a rigorous and ethical concordance, of means and ends (of instrumentalities, so to speak) with historic goals—which implies a concept of History as more than mere chronicles or a scattered archipelago of self-enclosed “social imaginaries.” The civitas, humanly scaled and democratically structured, is the potential home of a universal humanitas that far transcends the parochial blood tie of the tribe, the geo-zoological notion of the “earthling,” and the anthropomorphic and juvenile “circle of all Beings” (from ants to pussycats) promoted by Father Berry and his acolytes. It is the immediate sphere of public life—not the most “intimate,” to use Clark’s crassly subjectivized word—which, to be sure, does not preclude but indeed should foster intimacy in the form of solidarity and complementarity.

The civitas, humanly scaled and democratically structured, is the initiating arena of rational reflection, discursive decision-making, and secularity in human affairs. It speaks to us from across the centuries in Pericles’ magnificent funeral oration and in the earthy, amazingly familiar, and eminently secular satires of Aristophanes, whose works demolish Castoriadis’ emphasis on the “mysterium” and “closure” of the Athenian polis to the modern mind. No one who reads the chronicles of Western humanity can ignore the rational dialectic that underlies the accumulation of mere events and that reveals an unfolding of the human potentiality for universality, rationality, secularity, and freedom in an eductive relationship that alone should be called History. This History, to the extent that it has culminations at given moments of development, on which later civilizations built, is anchored in the evolution of a secular public sphere, in politics, in the emergence of the rational city—the city that is rational institutionally, creatively, and communally. Nor can imagination be excluded from History, but it is an imagination that must be elucidated by reason. For nothing can be more dangerous to a society, indeed to the world today, than the kind of unbridled imagination, unguided by reason, that so easily lent itself to Nuremberg rallies, fascist demonstrations, Stalinist idolatry, and death camps.

Social ecology refuses to allow this vast movement toward citification and the emergence of the citizen to be effaced by decontextualizing the city of its historical development. Nor can we allow the political domain—the most immediate public sphere that renders a face-to-face democracy possible—to be collapsed into the social sphere; we cannot afford to dismiss the qualitatively unique sphere called the civitas, and its history or dialectic.

Quietism or Confrontation?

The cultural and social barbarism that is closing around this period is above all marked by ideologies of regression: a retreat into an often mythic prelapsarian past; a narcissistic egocentricity in which the political disappears into the personal; and an “imaginary” that dissolves the various phases of a historical development into a black hole of “Oneness” or “interconnectedness,” so that all the moments of a development are flattened out. Underpinning this ideological flattening is a Heideggerian Gelassenheit, a passive-receptive, indeed quietistic, “letting things be,” that is dressed up in countervailing Taoist “contraries”—each of which cancels out its opposite to leave practical reason with a blank sheet upon which anything can be scrawled, however hierarchical or oppressive. The Taoist ruler, who John Clark adduces in his writings, who does not rule, who does nothing yet accomplishes more than anyone else, is a contradiction in terms, a mutual cancellation of the very concepts of “ruler” and “sage”—or, more likely, a tyrant who shrewdly manipulates his or her subject while pretending to be self-effacing and removed from the object of his or her tyranny.

The Chinese ruling classes played at this game for ages – just as the pope, to this day, kisses the feet of his newly ordained cardinals with Christian “humility.” What Marx’s fetishism of commodities is for capitalism, this Heideggerian Gelassenheit is for present-day ideology, particularly for deep ecology in all its various mutations. Thus, we do not change the world; we “dwell” in it. We do not reason out a course of action; we “intuit” it, or better, “imagine” it. We do not pursue a rational eduction of the moments that make up an evolution; instead, we relapse into a magical reverie, often in the name of an aesthetic vanguardism that surrenders reality to fancy or imagination. Hence the explosion these days of mystical ecologies, primitivism, technophobia, anti-civilizationalism, irrationalism, and cheap fads from devil worship to angelology.

In fact, we are facing a real crisis in this truly counter-revolutionary time—not only in society’s relationship with the natural world but in human consciousness itself. When John Clark started designating himself as a “social deep ecologist or a deep social ecologist,”(3) he obfuscated earnest attempts to demarcate the differences between a deadening mystical, often religious, politically inert, and potentially reactionary tendency in the ecology movement, and one that is trying to emphasize the need for fundamental social change and fight uncompromisingly the “present state of political culture.”

Instead of retreating to quietism, mysticism, and purely personalized appeals for change, social ecology seeks to think out the kinds of institutions that would be required in a rational, ecological society; the kind of politics we should appropriately practice; and the political movement needed to achieve such a society. Should we fail to initiate new movements, based on new ideas, and advance new programs to mobilize the great mass of humanity, this planet may well be degraded beyond redemption socially even before it is degraded beyond redemption ecologically. It is this terrible prospect social ecology seeks to avert.




1. Elites who studied the Tao Te Ching, for their part, could easily find it a useful handbook for ruling and manipulating a servile peasantry. Depending upon which translation the English reader uses, several interpretations are valid, but what is clear to everyone but the blind is that quietism underlies the entire work.

2. Cornelius Castoriadis, Philosophy, Politics, Autonomy: Essays in Political Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 63.

3. John Clark, “Not Deep Apart,” The Trumpeteer, vol. 12, no. 2 (Spring 1995), p. 104.

Editorial Comment

The Historical Importance of the City
is an abbreviated version of the essay, “Comments on the International Social Ecology Network Gathering and the ‘Deep Social Ecology’ of John Clark,” as it was prepared for Murray Bookchin's Free Cities: Communalism and the LeftThe essay was originally written in September 1995 and published in Democracy and Nature 3, no. 3 (1997).