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New collection proposes bold ideas on systemic urban change

Reviews

This collection, published last year by Black Rose Books, is based on the theme of a conference held in Greece in 2017—“The Right to the City and Social Ecology: Towards Ecological and Democratic Cities”—and organized by the Transnational Institute of Social Ecology (TRISE). The Institute has been inspired primarily by the work of Murray Bookchin.

The Introduction points out that, “Cities today represent one of the major causes of the aggravation of the ecological and social crises, but also a potential solution to them.” By 2050, 66 percent of the global population will live in cities.

Bookchin’s overall philosophy—social ecology—has three primary sources: anarchism, Marxism, and ecological science. He argued that ecological crises are directly tied to the nature of capitalism, and that the domination of the majority by the economic elite was also the main reason for the destruction of nature.

Bookchin called the political aspect of his philosophy “communalism”, and emphasized that, while the capitalist class was still the main source of oppression, resistance had to go beyond just workplace issues and include wider social problems like patriarchy, racism, and the quality of day-to-day life. He stressed that technology has given us the potential to construct a “post-scarcity” society: a participatory democracy that could provide the material basis for a fulfilling life for everyone, without destroying our environment, and one in which the work week would be dramatically reduced.

If humanity is going to have any chance to create a better world, not to speak of avoiding catastrophe (ecological or nuclear, among others), then the most important site of social struggle will be where most people live today—in cities.

Bookchin presented the idea of “unity in diversity” as a key to solving the problem. The ecosystems that are the healthiest and most stable are the ones with the most variation of lifeforms and which are mutually supportive.

In their introduction, the editors point out some of the economic problems with modern capitalism, particularly inequality. They cite the French economist Thomas Piketty, who shows that, in the United States over last 30 years, there has been no economic growth for the bottom 50 percent of the population, while the top one percent saw their wealth grow three hundred-fold. More recently, as 22 million American workers lost their jobs in March and April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “U.S. billionaires increased their cumulative wealth by $282 billion.” Similarly, Canada’s 100 richest CEOs earned as much by 10:00 am on the first working day of January as the average Canadian makes in an entire year.

In a chapter entitled “The Legacy of Murray Bookchin”, Brian Morris covers some core principles of social ecology, beginning by noting that the roots of the ecological crisis are found in global capitalism and its “grow or die” logic.

Morris adds that, “Bookchin consistently argued that co-operation, self-consciousness, subjectivity, and freedom are inherent tendencies in the natural world.” These ideas were, of course, championed in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, a 1902 essay collection by Russian naturalist and anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin. (I once had the chance to ask renowned primatologist, Frans de Waal, what he thought of the revival of interest in Kropotkin’s anthropological work, and he replied: “Kropotkin cherry picked some of his data, but he was right about everything!”)

Like Kropotkin, Bookchin emphasized two sides of human history—the legacy of domination reflected in the emergence of hierarchy, state power, and capitalism, and the legacy of freedom, reflected in the history of ever-expanding struggles for emancipation. He described the many forms of popular assembly that have emerged in the course of European history, from the Athenian polis to the anarchist collectives during the Spanish Civil War.

Morris notes that, when Bookchin dropped the label of anarchism, he did so partly because it had become too individualistic and too much a simplistic “lifestyle” anarchism. “Bookchin never repudiated the importance of class analysis,” he writes. “As a fervent anti-capitalist, he always acknowledged the crucial importance of the working class in achieving any form of social revolution, and categorically affirmed the importance of the class struggle.” He also saw a much wider arena of struggle than merely the point of production.

Bookchin emphasised the need to establish popular democratic assemblies based on municipalities, neighbourhoods, towns, and villages. Such local assemblies rely on face-to-face democracy to make decisions relating to the management of community affairs. Municipalities would be linked together through a confederation, eventually becoming a global system with power ultimately deriving from the grassroots.

Elsewhere, a chapter entitled “Social Ecology: A Philosophy for the Future” by Dan Chodorkoff, an anthropologist who has been central to the development of social ecology, stresses the connection between theory and practice. “The real soul of social ecology is praxis—an ongoing process of putting our ideas into practice, analyzing our experience of putting them into practice, revising our ideas in relation to that analysis, and taking those revised ideas and applying them again in the real world.”

In other words, it should be a non-dogmatic approach that essentially uses the scientific method to understand, and change, the world. Chodorkoff quotes Bookchin: “Every revolutionary project is an educational project.” Chodorkoff calls for a “new Enlightenment”; this is especially relevant, since, near the end of his life, Bookchin was feeling pessimistic about social change. He told me that, “These days, I’m not trying to make a Revolution, I’m just trying to defend the Enlightenment.”

Chodorkoff is right to emphasize the need for a radical vision: we need to be utopian and think beyond the given and understand that there are, within our current situation, potentialities that can be actualized.

Finally, Chodorkoff rightly stresses that we need to create local institutions (cooperatives, community gardens, housing), as well as new forms of mutual aid, cooperation, and “the idea of confederation”.

In “A Critique of The Limits of Growth from a Social Ecology Perspective”, Emet Değirmenci, one of the books editors, explores the limits to growth and the idea of de-growth, and, as an ecofeminist, also ties in issues of gender. This contribution underlines that a steady-state economy is possible through de-growth strategies based on libertarian municipalism (“communalism”).

“Moving Beyond the Right to the City: Urban Commoning in Greece”, by Theodoros Karyotis, uses Lefebvre’s idea of “moving the locus of revolution from the capitalist workplace to the field of everyday life”, in order to understand modern urban struggles.

He notes that in Greece in 2008, “the murder of a teenager by the police sparked the first wave of struggles to reclaim the urban space on the part of students, immigrants and the disenfranchised urban youth.” Later, “thousands of collectives were born, ranging from political groups to art ensembles to grassroots trade unions.” These social movements included people of all ages and backgrounds (including immigrants), and took many forms, such as urban farming on the grounds of an abandoned military base; the creation of an extended network of self-managed solidarity clinics, workers’ cooperatives, and solidarity kitchens.

Federico Venturini’s chapter, “Reconceptualising the Right to the City and Spatial Justice Through Social Ecology”, uses these concepts to explore ideas such as citizenship, justice, and freedom. He does an impressive job of reframing them for contemporary situations. “In their positive affirmation,” he writes, “both spatial justice and the right to the city are demanding fulfilment for humans in the urban environment”, which can only occur as the result of “active citizenship”.

In “The Kurdish Answer: Democratic Confederalism”, Havin Guneser and Eleanor Finley explore the journey of the Kurdish people in their quest for freedom over the last half-century. They rightly emphasize the crucial role of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, who, even though imprisoned by the Turkish state, discovered social ecology. In his, “Do We Need a New Theory of the State?” Metin Guven points out that it is necessary to explore what kind of transformation we are going through, to explain the historical differences of domination among the ‘main’ civilizations, and the need to “develop a new theory of the State that includes the various state evolutions, especially in Asia.”

Guven explains that the state “can easily become a self-generating and self-expanding force for its own sake.” In particular, “the state has evolved in China for over four thousand years. Confucian traditions have provided this state an authoritarian rationalism with a secular ethic … a struggle for freedom against such a rational State poses a much more difficult challenge than a struggle against an irrational capitalism.”

Overall, this volume provides essential ideas that are critical in overcoming the multi-faceted challenges that threaten humanity, especially the ecological crisis, racism, and pandemics. Organizing in cities can help us to be democratic and provide the groundwork for the national and international cooperation that is needed if humanity is to have any hope.

Peter G. Prontzos has taught for over 25 years at Langara College in Vancouver, receiving the 2017 Instructor Emeritus in Political Science and Interdisciplinary Studies.

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