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Communalism is a political philosophy and economic system that integrates communal ownership and confederations of highly localized independent communities. Murray Bookchin, a prominent libertarian socialist, defined the communalism he developed as "a theory of government or a system of government in which independent communes participate in a federation" as well as "the principles and practice of communal ownership". The term government does not imply acceptance of a state or top-down hierarchy.
This usage of communalism appears to have emerged during the late 20th century to distinguish commune-based systems from other political movements or governments espousing (if not actually practicing) similar ideas. In particular, earlier communities and movements advocating such practices were often described as "anarchist", "communist" or "socialist".
In this primarily religious-based community, the communal principle of Koinonia used by the early Christian Church as described in the Acts of the Apostles (4:32-35), which expressed the broad, general principle of "all things in common" (or, in some translations, "everything in common").
The Marxist theorist Karl Kautsky argued that communalistic tendencies were often present in radical Reformation-era Christian movements in Europe. Some features of Waldensian movement and associated communes in northern Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries followed certain aspects of communal ownership. Famously, Czech Taborites (radical section of the Hussite movement) in the 15th century attempted to build a society of shared property in the city of Tábor in south Bohemia. Certain aspects and streams within the German Peasants' War in German areas of the 16th century, particularly Thomas Müntzer and the so-called Zwickau prophets had a strong social egalitarian spirit. European Radical Reformation of Anabaptist and different groups of Schwarzenau Brethren started processes which later led to communal movements of Shakers, Hutterites and the Bruderhof. Hutterite Colonies and Bruderhof Communities have continued this model into the 21st century. The Anabaptist Münster Rebellion of 1534-1535 attempted to establish a society based on community of goods. All of these post-Reformation attempts were led by biblical literalism in which they referred to previously mentioned passages from the Book of Acts. Radicalism of their social experiments was further heightened by chiliasm and ardent expectation of theocracy.
The Plymouth Colony was established by Separatist Pilgrims who had travelled from Europe in order to flee religious persecution and establish a religious community separate from the Church of England. The social and legal systems of the colony were tied to their religious beliefs as well as English Common Law. The presence of secular planters ("The Strangers") hired by the London merchant investors who funded their venture led to tension and factionalization in the fledgling settlement, especially because of the policies of land use and profit-sharing, but also in the way each group viewed workdays and holidays. This form of common ownership was the basis for the contract agreed upon by the venture and its investors. It was more akin to what we now think of as a privately held corporation, as the common ownership of property and profits was insured by the issuing of stock to the settlers and investors. It was also temporary, with a division of the common property and profits scheduled to take place after seven years. Although each family controlled their own home and possessions, corn was farmed on a communal plot of land with the harvest divided equally amongst the settlers. The secular planters resented having to share their harvest with families whose religious beliefs so sharply conflicted with their own and as a result shirked work and resorted to thievery, whilst the Pilgrims resented the secular planters taking days off for holidays (especially Christmas) and their frequent carousing and revelry which often left them unfit for work. This conflict resulted in a corn production which was insufficient for the needs of the settlement. Because further supplies from their investors were withheld due to a dispute of the agreed upon payments from the settlement, starvation became imminent. As a result, for the planting of 1623, each family was temporarily assigned their own plot of land to tend with the right to keep all that was harvested from that plot, whether it be sufficient or not and all other production responsibilities and the goods produced therefrom would continue to remain as was originally agreed upon.
Communalist experiments throughout history have often developed bitter animosities as the parties disputed about the exact issues underlying the confusion over definitions discussed above. The Paris Commune was one such case.
"Libertarian communalism" is a severe and historically justified attempt to organize the political sphere fundamentally and democratically and to give it an ethical content. This is more than a political strategy. This is the desire to move from hidden or emerging democratic opportunities to a radical transformation of society, to a communitarian society focused on human needs, satisfying environmental requirements and developing a new ethic based on solidarity. This means a new definition of politics, a return to the primordial Greek meaning - the management of the community or the polis through the general meeting, on which the principal policy directions are formed, relying on reciprocity and solidarity.
Communalism as a political philosophy (spelled with a capital "C" to differentiate it from other forms) was first coined by the well-known libertarian socialist author and activist Murray Bookchin as a political system to complement his environmental philosophy of social ecology.
While originally conceived as a form of social anarchism, he later developed Communalism into a separate ideology which incorporates what he saw as the most beneficial elements of left anarchism, Marxism, syndicalism, and radical ecology. Politically, Communalists advocate a stateless, classless, moneyless, decentralized society consisting of a network of directly democratic citizens' assemblies in individual communities/cities organized in a confederal fashion.
This primary method used to achieve this is called libertarian municipalism which involves the establishment of face-to-face democratic institutions which are to grow and expand confederally with the goal of eventually replacing the nation-state. Unlike anarchists, Communalists are not opposed in principle to taking part in electoral politics – specifically municipal elections – as long as candidates are libertarian socialist and anti-statist in policy.
Starting in the 1970s, Bookchin argued that the arena for libertarian social change should be the municipal level. In a 2001 interview he summarized his views this way: "The overriding problem is to change the structure of society so that people gain power. The best arena to do that is the municipality--the city, town, and village--where we have an opportunity to create a face-to-face democracy."
In 1980, Bookchin used the term libertarian municipalism to describe a system in which libertarian institutions of directly democratic assemblies would oppose and replace the state with a confederation of free municipalities. Libertarian municipalism intends to create a situation in which the two powers, i.e. the municipal confederations and the nation-state, cannot coexist. Communalists hold that this is a method to achieve a liberated society.
Libertarian municipalism is not seen merely as an effort to "take over" city and municipal councils to construct a more "environmentally friendly" government, but also an effort to transform and democratize these structures, to root them in popular assemblies, and to knit them together along confederal lines to appropriate a regional economy. Bookchin summarized this process in the saying "democratize the republic, then radicalize the democracy".
It is a dual power that contests the legitimacy of the existing state power. Communalists hold that such a movement should be expected to begin slowly, perhaps sporadically, in communities here and there that initially may demand only the ability to alter the structuring of society before enough interlinked confederations exist to demand the outright institutional power to replace the centralized state. The growing tension created by the emergence of municipal confederations would represent a confrontation between the state and the political realms. It is believed this confrontation can be resolved only after Communalism forms the new politics of a popular movement and ultimately captures the imagination of society at large.
Communalists see as equally important the need for confederation--the interlinking of communities with one another through recallable delegates mandated by municipal citizens' assemblies and whose sole functions are coordinative and administrative. This is similar to the system of "nested councils" found in participatory politics.
According to Bookchin, "Confederation has a long history of its own that dates back to antiquity and that surfaced as a major alternative to the nation-state. From the American Revolution through the French Revolution and the Spanish Revolution of 1936, confederalism constituted a major challenge to state centralism". Communalism is seen to add a radically democratic dimension to the contemporary discussions of confederation (e.g. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia) by calling for confederations not of nation-states but of municipalities and of the neighborhoods of large cities as well as towns and villages.
Communalists make a clear distinction between the concepts of policy and administration. This distinction is seen as fundamental to Communalist principles.
Policy is defined by being made by a community or neighborhood assembly of free citizens; administration on the other hand, is performed by confederal councils a level up from the local assemblies which are composed of mandated, recallable delegates of wards, towns, and villages. If particular communities or neighborhoods -or a minority grouping of them- choose to go their own way to a point where human rights are violated or where ecological destruction is permitted, the majority in a local or regional confederation would have the right to prevent such practices through its confederal council. This is explained not as a denial of democracy but the assertion of a shared agreement by all to recognize civil rights and maintain the ecological integrity of a region.
Policy-making remains local, but its administration is vested in the confederal network as a whole. The confederation is intended to be a community of communities based on distinct human rights and ecological imperatives. These ideas have inspired indigenous leaders such as Tomas Cruz Lorenzo, who was assassinated in 1989 in Oaxaca, Mexico.
One of the core distinctions between anarchism and Communalism is that Communalists are not opposed in principle to taking part in currently existing political institutions until such a time as it is deemed unnecessary. Communalists see no issues with supporting candidates or political parties in local electoral politics--especially municipal elections--as long as prospective candidates are libertarian socialist and anti-statist in policy. The particular goal of this process is to elevate Communalists (or those sympathetic to Communalism) to a position of power so as to construct face-to-face municipal assemblies to maximize direct democracy and make existing forms of representative democracy increasingly irrelevant.
Communalists are heavily critical of the market economy and capitalism, believing that these systems destroy the environment by creating a 'grow or die' mentality and creating a large population of alienated citizens. They propose abolition of the market economy and money and replaces it with a decentralised planned economy controlled by local municipalities and cooperatives.
In such a municipal economy - confederal, interdependent, and rational by ecological, not only technological, standards - Communalists hold that the special interests that divide people today into workers, professionals, managers, capitalist owners and so on would be melded into a general interest (a social interest) in which people see themselves as citizens guided strictly by the needs of their community and region rather than by personal proclivities and vocational concerns. Here, it is hoped, citizenship would come into its own, and rational as well as ecological interpretations of the public good would supplant class and hierarchical interests. This trans-class emphasis places it at odds with traditional left-wing views of class struggle.
Communalists are heavily critical of modern cities, citing urban sprawl, suburbanisation, car culture, traffic congestion, noise pollution and other negative externalities as having severe effects on the local environment and society as a whole. Communalists propose to run cities democratically and confederally.
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The term eco-communalism was first coined by the Global Scenario Group (GSG), which was convened in 1995 by Paul Raskin, president of the Tellus Institute. Eco-communalists envision a future in which the economic system of capitalism is replaced with a global web of economically interdependent and interconnected small local communes. Decentralized government, a focus on agriculture, biodiversity, and green economics are all tenets of eco-communalism. The GSG set out to describe and analyze scenarios for the future of the earth as it entered a Planetary Phase of Civilization. The GSG's scenario analysis resulted in a series of reports.
Eco-communalism took shape in 2002 as one of six possible future scenarios put forth in the GSG's 99-page essay entitled "Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead." This founding document describes eco-communalism as a "vision of a better life" which turns to "non-material dimensions of fulfillment - the quality of life, the quality of human solidarity and the quality of the earth."
The eco-communalist vision is only part of GSG's scenario analysis, which is organized into three categories. The first, Conventional Worlds, sees capitalist values maintained and only market forces and incremental policy reform trying to curb environmental degradation. The second, Barbarization, is one in which environmental collapse leads to an overall societal collapse. The third, Great Transition, is a pathway that includes the "social revolution of eco-communalism", which finds humanity changing its relationship with the environment." Eco-communalists would be actors in a broader global citizens movement.
In 2016, communalism was mentioned in a Green Party of the United States proposal stating that "we will build an economy based on large-scale green public works, municipalization, and workplace and community democracy. Some call this decentralized system ecological socialism, communalism, or the cooperative commonwealth, but whatever the terminology, we believe it will help end labor exploitation, environmental exploitation, and racial, gender, and wealth inequality and bring about economic and social justice due to the positive effects of democratic decision making".
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