Communalism as an evolutionary path


Social ecology is typically connected to Murray Bookchin, an American, and I will discuss his ideas in this article. According to Bookchin, nearly all ecological problems are social problems. Ecological crisis is caused by  capitalist society, but it has deeper roots in social hierarchies. Social ecology proposes replacing  the state and capitalism with an ecological society, that is based on relations without hierarchy, geographically decentralized communities, ecotechnology, organic agriculture and human scale production facilities.

Social ecology denies a clear division or a inevitable opposition between nature and humanity or society. Movement from nature to society is gradual and basic problems that pit society against nature are growing within social evolution – not between nature and society.

Under this thinking features typical to humanity and human communities, such as reason, technology and science cannot be declared destructive without taking in to account the social factors that have an effect on them. Ecological problems are also not simply, or primarily caused by, religious, spiritual or political ideologies. To understand modern ecological problems we have to find their social causes and solve them using social methods.

Diversity, engagement and spontaneity

In his writings about ecosystems and evolution, Bookchin emphasises the principle of  “unity in diversity”. Lifeforms and diverse organic interactions give evolution new pathways to travel and are the basis for  ecosystems’ fertility and stability. Because this diversity is created spontaneously in nature and our knowledge of complex internal relations within ecosystems is limited, humanity should try to protect nature’s diversity and leave as much room as possible for its natural spontaneity instead of trying to control it.

To Bookchin, the most significant factors in evolution were symbiosis and reciprocity, where different lifeforms complement each other by creating biotical ecocommunities between different organisms living within the same sphere. These biotical ecocommunities are by their nature participatory, so all of their very different members participate in evolution and creation of life.

Similar principles of diversity, participation, spontaneity and non hierarchical relations within ecosystems exist in anarchist social theories. According to Bookchin, applying these ecological principles to social organization would remove the division between nature and society and replace it with a continuum that would combine biotical and social ecocommunities.

Hierarchy and domination as an ecological threat

Possibly the most central part of social ecology is the critique of hierarchies and various forms of domination. According to Bookchin, our attempts to control nature are caused by forms of domination among humans. Men didn’t think of dominating nature before they had started dominating young people, women and each other.

Hierarchies and domination are in addition to political and economic institutions. They are rooted so deeply in our families and between age groups, genders and ethnic groups that they affect even how we experience reality which also includes nature and other lifeforms. To counteract this, social ecology emphasizes diversity without placing differences in a hierarchical order.

According to Bookchin, we cannot remove the aim of controlling nature and create an ecological society before we remove from society all hierarchical structures. He also emphasizes that social hierarchies are an institutional phenomena, not biological. They are results of organized and carefully built power relations and we cannot find justification for them from nature.

Urbanization and state as detriments to democracy

One of the most central hierarchical structures is the state. According to Bookchin the state takes both spiritual and material power away from communities and limits their potential  by taking away their power and right to create their own fate. The state – and in our time the nation-state – representatives and institutions have also eviscerated the individual as a public creature, a citizen, who has an participatory role in social life. This development has been helped by urbanization, that transforms cities from clear, human scaled and democratically governable entities to enormous marketplaces and centers for mass production and consumption.

The ethical content of city life as a space where you can learn civic skills, responsibility and acting on the ideals of democracy, is wiped out. A modern city is run like a business, that is guided by profit, expenses, growth and employment. This kind of corporate spirited city depends on and helps the simplification of an active citizen to a receiver and customer of public services. “A Good Citizen” obeys the law, pays taxes and votes ritualistically among preselected representatives and “minds his own business”. Democracy becomes purely formal instead of being participatory. Power is bureaucratized and centralized to the state and quasi-monopolistic economic actors.

Modern gigantism places an enormous burden on nature, waters and air in the areas that have been conquered. Urbanization has spread across the countryside, as well, disturbing its ecological balance. The culture of the countryside and its  rich traditions have been displaced by city life and mass culture, unifying and urbanizing the lifestyles of the countryside. Industry and city-based economic forms and techniques have conquered agriculture. Cities seem to have taken full control of the countryside.

Capitalism and weakening communality

Central to the decline of vitality and communality of local communities is also the development of modern capitalism. In addition to weakening traditional economic forms like small-scale agriculture, craftsmen and simple barter, capitalism also threatens to destroy all the features of organization of communities – the appreciation of cooperation, autonomous structures and local cohesion, that were typical of  societies before capitalism. It has spread competition to all levels of society, not only between capitalists in their competition to control the market.

An economic system that is based on competition and the selfishness that it emphasizes also invades the family and neighbourhood and threatens to destroy even the smallest feelings of communality, ecological balance and diversity of social life. Citizens become mere buyers and sellers and the simplifying of social life and surrounding nature leads, in the end, even to the simplification of the human mind. Capitalism erodes people’s self-confidence and sense of community that would help participation in social life.

According to Bookchin , the basics for an safe and enjoyable life could be created for all. Despite this, capitalism has created a stronger sense of scarcity than any social order before it. Needs are created artificially and capitalist exploitation and manipulation makes ordinary life empty and boring. When society has been transformed to a factory and marketplace, the basic reason for living has been simplified to production for the sake of production and consumption for the sake of consumption.

Grow or Die! 

Capitalist society that is based on competition and growth for the sake of growth must eventually destroy nature just like an untreated cancer destroys its host. Personal beliefs, good or evil, do not matter in an economy based on the “grow or die” principle. Accumulating capital to weaken, buy, merge and destroy your competition is a requirement for existing within the capitalist economy, which makes it a system of endlessly growing and centralizing wealth. Capitalism inevitably turns against nature and transforms the environment into something  “unnatural”- inorganic, synthetic or simplified.

The fulfillment of nature become self-conscious

Despite the current state of our societies, Bookchin believes in humanity’s possibility to develop as a moral and ecological actor. Self-consciousness and a capability to systematically generalize their consciousness by philosophy, science, ethics and aesthetics and also to change their selves and their environment with the aid of these things, place humanity in a special place in evolution. These capabilities are creations of evolution itself and make humanity responsible for the progress of organic evolution as well.

Humanity could be the rational manifestation of nature’s creativity and fertility and its involvement in events in nature could be equally creative as the rest of the nature. Ecological society could fulfill one of evolutions grand lines, the trend towards self-consciousness and would extend freedom, reason and ethics as a dimension in nature. Thus nature’s potentiality to realize itself as consciously creative is still unfulfilled: this is proven by hierarchies, class divisions, state and other social phenomena like this.

Communalism as an political alternative

At the political and active level, Bookchin’s social ecological philosophy is concentrated on power and institutions. According to Bookchin, the growing corporate and political system is removing from ordinary people almost all control over their lives. That is why economic needs can force people to work against their best intentions, even against deeply felt values about nature in a way that is destructive of nature. Solving ecological and social problems created by centralized corporations, ownership relations and production’s growing power is absolutely a question of power – who has power and who its denied. To Bookchin, democracy and people’s freedom to control their lives are basic prerequisites for an ecological society.

The nowadays mostly extinct “socialist” world doesn’t provide a better model for failed liberalism. Totalitarian countries are equally responsible for pillaging the earth and a classless society is not necessarily free of hierarchies. As an ecological alternative, Bookchin offers communalism, where social power belongs to democratic general assemblies. According to him, true democracy can only happen if people take part in open, face-to-face assemblies to create social policy. Not a single act is democratically justified if it is not directly proposed, discussed and decided by the people – and not representatives. Administration of these acts can be left to committees and other workgroups that would fulfill the assemblies’ decisions under close public scrutiny.

Politics or statecraft? 

Bookchin thinks the central method in creating communalism is starting local assemblies. Empowering them, formalizing their power and radically democratizing local municipal institutions. To him politics as it is understood nowadays, is an unfit arena for ecological movements. Modern politics mostly means a series of struggles for power, where parties try to occupy the key positions needed to control state functions. Political parties are formed to get power, to rule and control. They mainly build hierarchies and work top-to-bottom like miniature states.

According to Bookchin the concept of politics popular today is mostly statecraft. Statecraft is influencing politicians, lobbying, voting and other parliamentary party-centric activities. It is the functioning of all state institutions. Those who take part in this – both politicians and lobbyists – are unified in a belief that change can only, or primarily, be done by the use of state power. Appealing to state power legitimates and strengthens the existence of the state, and the more power the state has the less the people have directly. In this way Bookchin’s views differ, for example, from [Finnish environmental philosopher] Leena Vilkka’s interpretation, in relation to the Green Party, of social ecology as reformism and her acceptance of the parliamentary way.

As a replacement for statecraft, Bookchin tries to rejuvenate politics in its classical meaning as a domain of self-governance. According to him, politics cannot exist without municipal cooperation brought about by people’s grassroots organization. The genuine unit of politics is the municipality, either as a whole if it is humanly scaled, or divided into units like neighbourhoods. According to Bookchin, practicing politics in assemblies has a crucial meaning also for individual freedom: municipal freedom is the prerequisite of political freedom and political freedom is a prerequisite of individual freedom.

Decentralizing cities

The fulfillment of traditional ideals of civic democracy and whether municipalities and cities can be governed by all their population in assemblies, depends largely on the size of municipalities and cities. Although assemblies can also work as networks on block, neighbourhood and city levels, cities have to be decentralized in the end. Decentralizing power and large cities is also a spiritual and cultural value because it combines community empowerment with individual empowerment.

Bookchin does admit that physical decentralization of large urban entities, such as New York, to genuine municipalities and local communities, takes a long time. But according to him, there is no reason why they couldn’t be decentralized institutionally before that.

Smaller cities are not only prerequisites for fulfilling ideals of freedom, but we also need them to live in balance with the rest of nature. Decentralizing our cities and economic production would make possible the full use of local materials and sources of energy, shorten transportation distances, help prevent pollution and aid the recycling of waste, improve knowledge of earth’s ecology (in agriculture for example) and remove bureaucracy that wastes resources through the management of work.

Human scale and self-sufficiency

Decentralizing, and changing to human scale technology and production would help people to understand their roles in society better. And it would enable them to govern directly without “experts” and leaders. Decentralizing production and creating more self-sufficient local communities would shift the center of gravity of economic power to a local level and would create the economic essentials for local communities’ self-government and sovereignty. The diverse and equal participation that human scale makes possible would create the basis for a new feeling of humanity – a feeling of individuality and community.

Reasonably self-sufficient communities whose dependence on their environment would be clearly visible, would create a new form of reverence to the organic world that sustains them. Even if small industrial complexes would have duplicates in multiple communities, each group’s knowledge of their environment would cause a more intelligent and loving use of it. Single communities should, however, not strive for complete self-sufficiency because mutual dependence among communities and regions is both a cultural and political advantage.


Decentralizing cities and creating humanly scaled communities does not necessarily guarantee the fulfillment of democracy, or ensure an ecological society. Decentralized society is not necessarily free of domination, hierarchies or parochialism. Social organization must be based on larger principles than localism. Bookchin proposes confederation as a democratic and libertarian form of municipal alliance. Confederation means a network of administrative councils, whose members are chosen from face-to-face assemblies. Delegates can be recalled and exchanged at any time and they are responsible to the assemblies that chose them. Assemblies also define carefully the authority of their delegates and provide guidelines for their action. Confederalism includes a clear division between deciding about policy matters and coordinating and executing those policies. Power to decide and create policy would be solely the function of assemblies and administration and coordination would be the responsibility of confederal councils.

Municipalizing economy

To govern production and distribution, Bookchin proposes that the economy would be municipalized and decisions of economic policy would be made among all the citizens of a municipality in assemblies. This would mean bringing the economy to the sphere of political decision-making as a whole, so that individual factories or farms would no longer be competing units. This would create a basis for a moral economy, where people would work more for the benefit of the community than their own benefit and where everyone would give according to their capabilities and take according to their needs.

The principle of confederalism reaches  its fulfillment when communities combine their resources in local confederal networks. A confederal ecological society would share resources and not be based on the selfish and calculating trade of capitalistically-minded local communities. Combining handcraft, small-scale industry and farming through the cooperation of multiple municipalities, confederation would increase the realm of action of individuals and the stimuli that they are exposed to.

Rotating political civic responsibilities and productive work duties would also diversify the experiences people have.  The mixture of intellectual and physical work would stimulate their senses and help the discovery of new dimensions in self-development. Communal life would be created through a sort of school of civic skills, paideia, as the Greeks of the ancient era called it. Giving birth to new citizenship and participation in common matters should become a form of creative art, that would be deeply appealin, in an aesthetic sense, to the human need for self-expression. Meaningful participation in political and communal life can increase richness of skills and  build character. In this way, the largest possible freedom of personal development would be combined with the possibility to work communally and ecologically to bring humanity in harmony with the rest of nature.


• Bookchin, Murray: Toward an Ecological Society, Black Rose Books, Montréal-Buffalo, 1980. 

• Bookchin, Murray: Post-Scarcity Anarchism, Black Rose Books, 1986. 

• Bookchin, Murray: The Modern Crisis, New Society Publishers, Philadelphia, 1986. 

• Bookchin, Murray: Remaking Society. Pathways to a Green Future, South End Press, Boston, 1990. 

• Bookchin, Murray: From Urbanization to Cities. Toward a New Politics of Citizenship, Cassell, London, 1995. 

• Bookchin, Murray: The Murray Bookchin Reader, Cassell, London, 1997. 

• Vilkka, Leena: Mustavihreä filosofia, Elämänsuojelija-lehti, Tampere 1999. (trans. now


Editorial Comment

Another article written by Jyri Jaakkola translated to english. Jyri was killed in Oaxaca, Mexico 26.4.2010.

Edited version of the article was originally published in two parts with the name “Ecological society” in numbers 1-5-16/2003 and 1/2004 of Elonkehä -magazine. 

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