Social Ecologists in Local Elections

Picture of boy with megaphone

For social ecologists, participation in municipal political life is essential. To a large extent it defines our political approach. How can we participate in local elections? What are the possibilities?

There are several ways communalists and social ecologists can participate in municipal political life. I will offer a brief sketch of the various possibilities and try to pinpoint some advantages and some shortcomings of each approach.

Essential to all these approaches is the ultimate aim of creating face-to-face democracies, where all citizens are allowed into the political processes as direct participants. We seek to enter municipal institutions in order to change the fundamental character of political life.

Campaigns Organized by Social Ecologists

The first and probably most obvious alternative is to run as a political organization. In this case, social ecologists have gotten together to form a stable organization and stand on a shared political platform, and they have developed a program they present to the public during elections. This approach is, in my view, the best one. Here we can present our full communalist programs with perspectives on a broad range of social, ecological, political, cultural, and economic issues. As long as you have a stable organization, I see no shortcomings in this approach. Here, social ecologists are free to define and develop our specific political demands and enter the public arena with a clear voice.

This would be equivalent to running as a party, it seems, but social ecologists do not seek to enter the state apparatus as other parties do. Nevertheless, it will make a great difference whether our organizations are primarily local or whether they are chapters of a larger regional (or national, statewide, or even international) organization, as it will necessarily affect the way we present our programs and ideas. I think we should strive for strong inter-municipal or regional organizations, but we must acknowledge that politics is always an uneven and combined development. Perhaps it is better to focus locally to generate attention? Or maybe we should build a strong regional organization that can sustain local efforts?

There are no simple answers to these questions. But our program will be affected by our choices, and so will probably the methods in which we choose for accountability and transparency. We should be aware of this in order to maintain the greatest balance between organizational flexibility and unity.

The second alternative is to run as a movement, without the stability and support of an organization but with a somewhat broader appeal. The campaign and the ideas can sometimes benefit from broadening the support base, if there are possibilities for united political fronts locally. Perhaps there already exists a strong environmental movement in the area, and social ecologists are trying to make the movement become more politically focused. Or perhaps there exist a range of, say, autonomist groups, feminist projects, and libertarian initiatives in the city, and social ecologists work to make them realize that they have some common political objectives that can be attained by running candidates for local elections. This is probably best in smaller regions, single municipalities, or cities, as it is very hard to retain some sense of coherence if a movement runs a variety of candidates over a large area, with little direct interaction and no stable organizational framework.

Campaigns for a “Limited Program”

Social ecologists can initiate such campaigns in several ways, but it will probably be based on a “limited program,” presenting less than the full range of social ecology perspectives and analyses. One option is to focus more exclusively on our ideas for democratization, and fully develop these ideas into a program of its own. Such a “limited program” may attract more attention and gain support among broader sectors of the population, and ironically—but more importantly, perhaps—in the radical movement. When we have drawn out our explicit political perspectives in order to provide the bases for a radical democratic movement locally, we can seek to attract more people and groups to help develop the movement further.

We can also structure a “limited program” around a particular issue carried forward by other movements, say, around energy independence and new regional infrastructures, as is suggested by the emerging Transition Towns-movement, for example. Or we could use historical events to spur a movement. For instance, during financial crises—like the one that hit Iceland recently—we could easily bring out our more immediate economic perspectives and present them as political demands. In any case, it is not necessary that we spell out all our perspectives in such a program. What is important is that we provide local platforms that can be used to take further political steps.

These examples assume that social ecologists take the initiative and guide the initial steps and work to coordinate the efforts to draw other groups into the process. Such efforts can be very helpful to create a broader, radical movement in our regions. Even when our primary and most immediate focus is to create a broader movement, it would be greatly beneficial if social ecologists find ways of getting together, whether as an explicit faction, as a loose network, or even just as a study group.  Even in broader movements, we must seek to develop an independent, genuine social ecology voice.

It is imperative that social ecologists evaluate their strengths and the local possibilities in order to not take any unnecessary sidestep. As indicated earlier, I strongly prefer stable social ecology organizations running candidates for clear communalist programs. But we must reach ordinary people. We cannot allow ourselves to remain an eccentric fringe phenomenon—like the many obsolete Trotskyist, Stalinist, and Maoist parties that unfortunately refuse to die. We should definitely aim to be relevant to people and seek broader appeal.

Existing Campaigns and Initiatives

We may even have to enter existing initiatives in order to gain an audience for our ideas. The third alternative, therefore, which may seem less obvious, is when social ecologists join in a larger coalition, into an existing organization or movement. We can join as individuals, as groups, or even as organizations. Perhaps there already exist political “umbrellas,” as coalitions or movements who aim at political change locally? Maybe other movements have initiated some exiting political challenges we can help develop?

Whether we join existing politicized movements or local leftist coalitions, this must never be an aim in itself. We should do it in order to advance a participatory politics and will be active therein only as long as this is beneficial to such an approach. We should never enter in to permanent coalitions, or reduce ourselves to be radical alibis of the major parties.

This is not to say that we should never evaluate the possibility of joining any of the established organizations and parties, if we seriously believe they can be pulled in our direction. In fact, I think we should consider this, although I certainly have my doubts we can do this in any meaningful sense on the national level, even if we focus on local campaigns and concerns. We are more likely than not to melt into the old party casts and our radical message will be lost to the public, and our work would be next to irrelevant. To be honest, this seems to be impossible everywhere without compromising our communalist ideals. But I would hate to see it dismissed offhand, particularly when the alternative is passivity and political oblivion.
Sometimes citizens locally bypass the established parties and present independent community lists to the elections, often with some success. The lists have usually been formed with a limited aim of preserving, say, a local school or industry, sometimes for purely pragmatic reasons, but often its initiators are expressly disgusted with local party politics. If these initiatives exist, and social ecologists are too weak to stage independent political campaigns, we may deem it suitable to join such community initiatives. This, however, may be a slippery slope, as there is nothing inherently progressive about being disgusted with the established system, or even in preserving local services, and often these initiatives are just arbitrary agglomerations of people from the right and the left as well as the center—with no focus beyond their narrow issues that granted its formation. If social ecologists can add some clear demands for democratization, this may be a fruitful approach, although we must be careful not to waste too much resources on initiatives that do not share our fundamental ambitions.

Not Just “Concerned Citizens”

The last alternative I will sketch here is to run as a single individual. In some places this may be necessary, when the municipality is too small or the established political tendencies are too entrenched, or when we deem it more important to gain attention to the ideas than to wait for a critical mass of supporters willing to build an organization to support these efforts. Running as an individual can be a necessary first step, but I would strongly encourage seeing if other options are available first.

Here, and indeed in all other circumstances, it is important to note that we cannot present ourselves just as “concerned citizens,” as honest individuals—with better ideas on ecology and social responsibility—as so many have tried before. We must not nurture the false belief that only getting good, uncorrupt people in the right positions would alleviate the shortcomings of this system, which is premised on excluding the great majority from political processes. No, in all these cases we need a clear political program with a range of specific political demands, if only for public educational purposes. The electoral campaign is above all an educational campaign. In each case, we wouldn’t run as a just single individual or even as a just group of citizens; we would be running for a program.

Various Preconditions

So, how should we run candidates for local elections? Unfortunately, there is no one answer to this. Probably, there are many preconditions that will affect our choices. Not only are there varieties in local traditions, but also in constitutional regulations. Running candidates for small municipalities will certainly be different from entering the institutions of a modern megalopolis, and organizing rural municipalities will be different from organizing urban neighborhoods. There are other important cultural and political variations as well.

To be sure, the strength and experience—as well as the character—of existing radical movements will heavily influence our decisions. Above all, social ecologists must decide whether to work inside a larger movement or focus on becoming an independent voice. There is not one single answer to this, particularly not today, when our movement is so weak.

As we grow, many of the communalist organizations we establish may run along established national lines, but many social ecology initiatives will still face peculiar local challenges and find a variety of expressions. Whether communalists should work on a regional level must too be decided on the basis of the strength of the organization and, again, on the actual local conditions.

Another challenge altogether we need to face even at the local level is the need to raise money and resources, to even be able to compete with the established parties—with their professionalized and commercially greased electoral apparatuses—working through well-established channels. Obviously, we need “something else” to mobilize around: we cannot function on the same level as the heavily subsidized parties. In order to have a modicum of success, we need to find out what this “something else” is. Yes, our “something else” is a participatory politics, but how to get this message through? In an age where PR companies debase every meaningful social concept, how can we get any meaningful political message across? When commercials manage to sell cars as “ecological,” furniture collections as “democratic,” and shaving machines as “revolutionary,” where is the space for a truly ecological, democratic, and revolutionary politics? We simply cannot outmaneuver the established party machines and the media hegemony if we compete strictly on their terms. We have to touch people from a different angle, and we desperately need this “something else.” There is no blueprint here: How we choose to emphasize this will probably also vary according to regional conditions and social currents.

I must also mention that those of us who live under dictatorships, in war zones, or with strong local mafias, will face different challenges altogether; I will not exclude the possibility that communalist initiatives may even find other expressions here, in order to make even rudimentary political participation possible.

This seemingly infinite range of choices and challenges may seem paralyzing, but our choices cannot be but choices of preferred emphasis and they must not overwhelm us. After all, social ecologists are animated by higher ideals than the uncertainties and precariousness of local politics. What counts is how we are able to implement our ideals into our political practice.

A Civic Duty

Social ecologists seek to run candidates for office, to gain key positions and to win important political victories. There is nothing wrong in hoping that our ideas will prevail and in seeing municipal elections as excellent arenas to advance our libertarian agenda.

Still, libertarian municipalism is not just a strategic approach, neither is it just a developmental process. As I see it, it is also a civic duty. If we believe in such a new kind of participatory politics, we must work to make it happen: we then have a responsibility to run candidates and present programs to transform our municipalities. After all, we do believe that the municipalities—democratized and confederated, to be sure—can provide a libertarian political alternative to the nation-state. In other words, while it may be a violation of our anti-state principles to present candidates to the national parliament or government, I think it can easily be argued that not to run candidates in municipal elections is as much a violation of these anti-state principles. Basic to our ideas is the belief in the creative powers of an active and responsible citizenry and the belief in our municipalities as potential embodiments of radically new forms of face-to-face democracy.

Some may argue we have to wait for the right moment, and that a whole series of preconditions have to be met before we engage in local politics. But there will never be a perfect moment, and there is no such thing as a pure politics. We may make mistakes along the way, indeed we certainly will: this is unavoidable and not something that should scare us. Mistakes are what we can learn from. To not try—with all the means that are available to us—is the greatest mistake of all.