The political philosophy of Communalism, first conceived of by the Marxist-turned anarchist-turned ‘social ecologist’, Murray Bookchin, represents a peculiar economic middle point, nestled between free market society and centrally planned society. Communalism, places the ‘confederal council’ at the forefront of society, structuring the economic system around communal ownership. Now, the initial charm of this philosophy is undeniable. Socialists, who have witnessed the extreme inefficiency and atrocities of centrally planned society, are given an enticing alternative to capitalism; and contemporary anarchists who are intellectually discerning enough to realize the severe complications that would accompany an ultimate ‘smashing of the state’ are presented with an appealing, seemingly feasible option of societal reconstruction in Communalism. But, as it seems to turn out with every alternative to capitalism, there are some major conceptual and practical flaws. In the following few paragraphs I will spell out these flaws in relative detail, beginning with some organizational and practical issues and then transitioning to some ethical and conceptual issues.
In Communist, centrally-planned society, the ‘problem of allocation’ was one major component of its downfall. Simply, the extreme amount of information needed to accurately assess what people would buy, where they would buy it, and how much of it they buy relative to other consumer goods was far too much for the planners to assess and implement. In Communalism, we don’t have to hassle with any central planning but we do have to wrestle with the notion of ‘communal ownership’. We will be endowed with an entirely new political decision making apparatus, a network of municipalities and a confederal council, to accompany this shift in economic decision making. Now, Bookchin himself never formulated a viable political or economic framework within which his Communalism could operate. But, the more practically minded progressive thinker, Michael Albert has. Albert is the author of the book, Parecon: Life After Capitalism. Within this economic system he terms “parecon”, he proposes a system of worker councils and consumer councils. At the beginning of each year, consumers will draw up a list of “projected purchases”, that is, all of the items that they intend to buy for the upcoming year. Then, these lists will be sent to the worker council, which will determine how many hours of work and how many workers will be needed to produce the items. If there is sufficient convergence between the consumers and workers, then that is that, and the production and consumption processes will commence in pseudo-market fashion. But, if there is not sufficient convergence, then another iteration will be necessary. “In [Albert’s] example of ‘a typical planning process’, the iteration process goes back and forth five times, i.e., all 100 million of us are asked to redo our calculations five times.”
Now this tedious process in itself presents a major practical hurdle but there is an additional issue that would arise: the limitations upon consumer desires that would be inherent in this system of production. For example, let’s say that, out of a municipality consisting of three-thousand people, there are only ten people who desire good A. And if certain materials required to produce good A are relatively tough to procure and/or it takes many hours or much man power to produce A, it is unlikely that the consumers will receive it. I won’t begin to address this here, but I do have a few ideas as to how this dilemma could be amended. So, this is one ( though there are no current competing theories) example of how a society structured around communal ownership could operate economically.
Vocationally, Albert envisions a society in which workers are compensated in accordance with the amount of effort that they exert. He imagines that an employee’s fellow workers could assess the intensity with which he works. The issues inherent within this process are myriad. What would incentivize the workers to make accurate assessments of their coworkers? Would there not be a convergence towards a certain “norm” of compensated effort? This issue seems quite similar to the aforementioned “issue of motivation” inherent in the centrally planned society.
Enforced Community, Spontaneous Communities or Porous Communities?
Bookchin initially conceived of Communalism as embodying a “communal ethic”, or a collective state of mind in which one’s own community would be viewed as the ideal place to live. But how could this actually happen? It seems that various forms of technology that connect society would have to be either tampered with or abandoned altogether in order for this “communal ethic” to come to fruition. For example, let’s imagine that the structural form of Communalism was implemented, while all modern technological communication systems have been unaltered. Let’s assume that all citizens have had the freedom to chose their respective municipalities and that they are all initially content with their choices. But how can knowledge and information be freely transmitted between municipalities, all while maintaining a cohesive communal ethic within each municipality? It seems that a society attempting to conflate Communalism and modern communications technology would likely dissolve into a Porous Communalism, in which movement amongst municipalities were commonplace. But, it is unclear whether or not this permeability would hamper the possible benefits of a Communalist political structure.
Another alternative dynamic that could arise within this techno-Communalism scenario would be Spontaneous Communalism, in which all citizens, though aware that there may be better opportunities for them in other municipalities, are perfectly content to remain within their initial municipality. But it seems exceedingly unlikely that this spontaneous Communalism would remain intact for more than one generation, if it could remain intact at all.
And, if it were determined that a porous Communalism were a greater threat to personal freedom than were restriction of freedom of movement and/or freedom of free communication, then there could be a sort of enforced Communalism, in which either the confederal council were the “enforcer” or the municipalities themselves adopted anti-immigration as a norm and/or policy. This variety of Communalism seems at once the most implausible and the most restrictive form of Communalism that could take shape. It also seems implausible that an enforced form of Communalism could occur without the abolition or extreme modification of the currently existing communications technologies. This would either turn each municipality into an internally-deceptive, authoritarian cell or it would institute a sort of anarcho-primitivist society, erasing all progress.
There is also another element in play: the “confederal council”. In a porous Communalist society, would a constant stream of periodically recycled, cosmopolitan delegates not lead to inter-municipal coalitions? And in an enforced or a spontaneous society, would a constant stream of parochial, municipally-minded delegates not either lead to a porous society or a complete collapse of the Communalist system altogether?
So, ethically, in order for a Communalist society to function, we must find a way for the community to take the forefront of human value. This much, Bookchin was aware of and ardently preached. But, it is unclear how exactly citizens will resist extra-municipal opportunities that may arise. Will they, by convention, delude themselves into thinking that their best opportunities always lie within their own municipality? Will they be coerced into thinking this by their respective municipal governments? Or will citizens roam freely, from municipality to municipality, while the political and economic structure of Communalism remains fully functional?
Summary and Speculation
Economically, the main issue of Communalist organization–excluding the hassle of drawing up “consumption lists”–is that of availability of goods. As was mentioned before, the communal ownership structure, as does the central ownership structure, hampers the consumers’ selection of goods. One possible solution to this, would be to add a third nexus onto the structural chain: a “confederal economic body”. These economic bodies could be uniformly distributed throughout the society, such that each economic body could serve one or more municipalities. The position of confederal economic body member could be grouped with confederal council member or it could be an entirely separate position. But either way, the position would have to be an elective, periodically “rotated” position. In addition, this position would need to be incentivized in some manner, as members would engage in rather menial work.
Ethically, the main issue is one of balancing personal opportunity with personal obligation. However, it may instead be the case that personal opportunity and obligation can be balanced in much the same manner as they are in contemporary, democratic society, leaving the Communalist system intact.
David Schweickart, Nonsense on Stilts: Michael Albert’s Parecon , January 16, 2006