Decentralization and socialism - Senex

Hardly any other idea advanced by the anarchist thinkers was met with as much derision in socialist circles as the idea of free communes, viewed as the nuclei of a new social order federated along political and economic lines.

Submitted by ASyndicalist on November 29, 2015

Hardly any other idea advanced by the anarchist thinkers was met with as much derision in socialist circles as the idea of free communes, viewed as the nuclei of a new social order federated along political and economic lines. To the great majority of socialists, who fully accepted the political premises of capitalism and who came to regard the latter’s centralizing tendencies in the economic field as the necessary prerequisite of Socialism, this emphasis upon political and economic decentralization was to be interpreted in terms of social psychology rather than social theory. To them it was a romantic escape into an idealized past, rationalized by the ideologists of a class which is being displaced by modem economic tendencies and whose inverted social vision has become strongly colored with nostalgic longings for an historically doomed pattern of life.
That there was a solid theoretical foundation to the anarchist ideal of free communes could hardly be gathered from the polemic writings of the Socialist theoreticians, all bent more upon lambasting this idea than taking up its theoretical challenge. How serious this challenge was, is proven by the fact that the sundry elements which went into the building up of this theoretical structure— and taking into consideration the pioneering nature of this work, the structure could not but be loose in many respects, abounding in brilliant generalizations from inadequate factual material—were independently developed by the respective branches of social science along lines laid down by the anarchist thinkers.
Thus the theoretical analysis of the role of the association in social life, first undertaken by Proudhon, has been furthered by the pluralists, the most progressive school of political science, whose conclusions in respect to the State lend themselves to the ideal of an ex-territorial commune as envisaged by Bakunin, Kropotkin and Reclus. The historic potentialities of the medieval city as a distinct political structure, first revealed to the modem view by Kropotkin in their progressive implications, have by now become clearly established by a half century of painstaking historical research.
And, finally, the decentralizing trend of modern technics, greatly obscured until now by the counter-acting tendency toward economic concentration produced by the abnormal factors operating in the capitalist society, has been asserting itself with such force that even practical people as far removed from any theoretical influences as Ford is, have been forced to reckon with it in their larger plans. There is a great deal of creative stirring in the various projects for the integration of industry and agriculture launched by Ford; and that is, of course, irrespective of the absurd, socially illiterate, construction which Ford himself tries to place upon his own experiments. The latter show that the idea of an integrated and regionally decentralized economy forming one of the theoretical bases of the ideal of the Anarchist commune has by now advanced beyond the theoretical stage and is forcing itself to the fore of economic actualities. “What was a bold prophecy on the part of Kropotkin,” writes Lewis Mumford in his latest book The Culture of Cities “has become a definite movement, as the technical means of economic regionalism and the social impulses that gave it direction have converged.”
And, without detracting the least from the great originality of this book, one might say that the latter has shown the convergence of various streams of modem thought and truly valuable social experimentation upon the focal point of Anarchism-Communism: the ex-territorial commune as the basic cell of a federated society. Mumford uses the term “region” instead of ex-territorial commune, but the connotations of his term are the same. For to Mumford a region is not just a political or geographic unit, but “the basic configuration in human life,” and also “a permanent sphere of cultural influences and a center of economic activities.” It is “an area large enough to embrace a sufficient range of interests, and small enough to keep the interests in focus and to make them a subject of direct collective concern.”
A region thus conceived is something altogether different from the political and administrative divisions which disregard functional boundaries. These divisions are the work of the tyrannous political state whose emergence upon the stage of modern history is viewed by Mumford as a colossal tragedy resulting from the disintegration of the superior social and political pattern of the medieval city. Like Kropotkin, Mumford rejects the pseudo-scientific view of the Marxists which attributes to the State the category of a historic necessity brought about by the nascent forms of modern Capitalism.
To Mumford, the triumph of the tyrannous political State over the medieval commune was no more of a historic necessity than the victory of Fascism, whose role and dynamics, as it is clear to every student of Kropotkin, are similiar to the one manifested by the emerging absolutist State. It was the logical end-point of a process of enthropy—a “running down” of collective energy, which, unlike the reverse process of a creative upswing, is historically determined in its various phases.
Mumford dedicates a considerable portion of the book to the analysis of the general forms of the medieval commune, which to him, as to every libertarian thinker, represents the greatest approach to the natural function of a city as a specialized organ of social transmission. The breakdown of this normal pattern of communal life was the starting point of the process of social disruption, of crystallization of chaos now reaching its highest in the development of a functionally perverted city—the megalopolis—and the threatened collapse of civilization.
The development of Capitalism can be understood only in the light of this tragic heritage. The concomitant process of mechanical integration and social disruption, the triumph of untrammeled individualism in economic life, the laissez-faire system of economy—whose idealization, according to our author, is “the democratization of the baroque conception of the despotic Prince,”—all take their origin in the historic twist caused by the breakup of the pattern afforded by the medieval commune. In this sense the development of “Capitalism” was not inevitable. Mechanical progress could take place on the basis of an integrated and not a disrupted pattern of social life. Throughout the development of what is called capitalism, Mumford traces the emergence and development of “mutants”— anticipatory forms of the future social life, needing but the strong focusing of social intelligence to bring out their significance for the social order to come.
Mumford also upholds one of the favorite ideas of Kropotkin and Reclus in respect to the role of social intelligence in forestalling the threatened collapse of civilization and the shaping of new forms. Conscious orientation can forstall the tragic end of the downgrade cycle of civilization and turn it into the starting point of a new regeneration cycle. “The rational definition of the ideal framework,” writes Mumford, “does not alone effect the necessary transition; it is an important element in changing the direction of the blind process. The strongest social organization and social pressures, without such well-defined goals, dissipate their energies in uneasy random efforts occasioned by passing opportunities.”
This conscious orientation will be centered not only upon the very general aims of the socialist ideal, such as the collective ownership of land and the means of production, but upon the evolvement of an integrated form of social life based upon regional units. And contrary to the opinions of the State socialists, this orientation upon regionalism (the Bakuninites in the First International called it Communalism) is much more in consonance with the basic trends of modern technics then the centralized State economics of the Marxists. The ruralization of industry and industrialization of agriculture are assuming the nature of clearly manifested economic tendencies. Mumford quotes to this effect the opinion of the well known scientist, Prof. Russell Smith, who writes in his book North America, “It is possible that we are at the beginning of an era of partial distribution of manufacturing over the land where food production, climate and commercial access are good.”
Professor Smith’s prognostications, made more than a decade ago, were not meant for any other system but private capitalism, which places almost insuperable obstacles in the way of the assertion of those centralizing tendencies in virtue of the monopolistic concentration of wealth and the terrific pull exercised by the megalopolis upon national life. With the removal of the present system, economic life will shape itself in greater obedience to the demands of modem technics which point in the direction of regional decentralization and integration of economic activities on a local scale. Specialization of industry and gigantic units are a liability under conditions demanding flexibility and ease of adaptation. And they will become superfluous with the growing mobility of power, its wider distribution from central energy stations. Along with that go other factors favoring decentralization such as the greater application of systematic knowledge in the exploitation of resources and organization of work; the growing importance of biological and social sciences; soil regeneration, selective breeding, intensification of crop yields through cultivation of plants in specially prepared tanks, and in general, the raising of agriculture to the status of a scientific industry leading to the leveling of agricultural advantages and the fusion of city and rural areas. Those are technical factors operating at the present, but in sketching the outlines of the collective society of the near future one should also take into consideration the incidence of a technic which is just emerging from its experimental stage: the utilization of new sources of power such as solar energy; storage of electric energy; special energy crops grown under conditions laid down by scientific agronomy; the use of television and the fuller exploitation of the airplane. And it is clear that each of these factors will contribute to the acceleration of the same tendency toward decentralization and wide distribution of agricultural, industrial and cultural advantages now centered only in certain areas.
Mumford effectively disposes of the stock arguments advanced against the idea of regional decentralization which were held up against Kropotkin by the state socialists of a generation ago. Regionalism, he declares, is not synonymous with autarchy, economic and cultural isolation. Nor does it connote the return to the parochialism and political independence of the medieval cities with their mutual strifes. The region will be the integrated cell but not an independent political unit, a miniature state possessing the attributes of political sovereignity. Inter-regional controls will exist, and for the time being, those controls will be vested in the political state stripped of its power functions and transformed into a “service” state. This is quite in keeping with the realistic trends in libertarian thought which is coming to grapple with the problem of the transitional period in a sober fashion. For political sovereignity can be attenuated but cannot be conjured out of existence by a revolutionary fiat. This realistic approach to the problem of the devolution of political power or “the dying away of the state” is fully accepted by Mumford, whose seminal ideas on this matter posses a great wealth of valuable suggestions which will prove of immeasurably greater importance for the practical solution of the problem then all the talmudistic hair splitting of the Marxists over a few scanty passages devoted by their theoreticians to the same problem of the state in a transitional period.
Inter-regional control does not have to coincide with the boundaries of the national state. It will tend to be world wide, just as the foreign trade of the region based upon a special sort of currency directly attached to the commodities exchanged and valid only for this specific function. This, together with free migration, lack of definite boundaries between regions, the extra-territorial linkage effected by the associations within the region and tending to be world-wide with the vanishing of the national state,—all that will gradually create the new world culture, permeated with universal values and shot through with the infinite variety of local motifs and cultural idioms of the regions.
This is the ideal of the federalist, libertarian socialism as taught by Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin. And it is toward the reinterpretation of this ideal in the language of modem thought and realities that the latest book by Lewis Mumford— The Culture of Cities a book much too original to be forced into the mold of a single doctrine—makes such a powerful contribution.

From: Vanguard: A Libertarian Communist Journal. July, 1938. Vol. IV, №4. P. 8-10.