Municipalism

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BERTIE RUSSELL:

‘Municipalism’ is both the practices of self-government by towns, cities, and city-regions – municipalities of different sizes – and any perspective that advocates for such forms of government. Taken on its own, municipalism appears as a politically neutral concept. It’s just as possible to advocate a municipalist strategy as a way of fuelling capitalist accumulation – which is what partially underpins the logic of the UK’s current devolution policy – as it is to advocate a municipal strategy that is based upon promoting the expansion of commons and social solidarity.

At its most basic, a radical municipal strategy is thus one that recognizes the municipal scale – both in terms of the way that people's lives are organized in these spaces, and the institutions that govern them – as a space of contestation. Rather than a depoliticized administrative unit ‘nestled’ under the nation-state, and thus of relatively ‘less’ political importance, a radical municipalist perspective asks whether there is unique revolutionary potential in organising at the municipal level.

Various radical intellectuals have previously made the case for the municipal scale being a privileged site for revolutionary organising. Perhaps most famously, Murray Bookchin – whose ideas have become influential in Rojava – argued that ‘libertarian municipalism’ was the ‘ “red button” that must be pushed if a radical movement is to open the door to the public sphere’. The Marxist geographer David Harvey has also argued that ‘rebel cities’ will become a privileged site for revolutionary movements, sharing a perspective that the ‘right to the city’ would become a clarion call for progressive communist movements. Whilst we are interested and influenced by some of these perspectives, we are not interested in this simply as a theoretical undertaking, and do not take these perspectives as ideological programmes." (https://www.opendemocracy.net/plan-c/radical-municipalism-demanding-future)


Examples

USA

the Neighborhood Action Coalition] (NAC), Seattle

Eleanor Finley:

"In Seattle, the Neighborhood Action Coalition (NAC) formed during the dramatic aftermath of Trump’s election. Like many anti-Trump groups, their primary goal is to protect targeted groups against hate crimes and provide immediate services. Yet instead of convening big, amorphous “general assemblies” like Occupy Wall Street, the NAC delineates its chapters according to Seattle’s dozen or so city districts. Each neighborhood chapter is empowered to select its own activities and many groups have evolved through door-to-door listening campaigns.

The NAC is creating new forms of encounter between citizens and city officials. Seattle is currently in the midst of a mayoral election with no running incumbent. The NAC is thus hosting a town-hall series called “Candidate Jeopardy,” during which candidates are quizzed on a selection of citizen-authored questions. Like the game show Jeopardy, they must select within a range from easy questions to difficult. “Who will pick the low-hanging questions?” reads an event callout in the Seattle Weekly, “Who will pick the hard ones? Will we have a Ken Jennings [a famous Jeopardy contestant] of the 2017 elections? Come find out!”

The NAC may eventually find a friendly face in office. Nikkita Oliver, one of the front-runners, is a Black Lives Matter activist running on a platform of holding local officials accountable to the public. If she wins, Seattle’s situation may begin to resemble Barcelona, where radical housing rights activist Ada Colau holds the mayorship." (https://roarmag.org/magazine/new-municipal-movements/)


Portland Assembly

Eleanor Finley:

"In Portland, Oregon, the organization Portland Assembly uses a similar “spokes-council” model and enrolls new members to Portland’s existing neighborhood associations. They are currently working to create a citywide, pro-homeless coalition; they advocate for radical reformation of the police. This spring, friends of Portland Assembly made newspaper headlines with the project “Portland Anarchist Road Care.” Following a record-breaking winter, activists in familiar “black bloc” attire — with all-black clothes and bandanas covering their mouths — took to the city streets with patch asphalt and fixed potholes. Anarchist road care playfully disrupts the notion that those who advocate for a stateless society are reactive, destructive and impractical. It is also an excellent example of what Kate Shea Baird calls “hard pragmatism” — the use of small gains to demonstrate that real change is truly possible." (https://roarmag.org/magazine/new-municipal-movements/)


Cooperation Jackson

Eleanor Finley:

"Perhaps the largest and most promising municipal movement in the US currently is Cooperation Jackson, a civic initiative based in America’s Deep South. In a city where over 85 percent of the population is black while 90 percent of the wealth is held by whites, Cooperation Jackson cultivates popular power through participatory economic development. Over the course of decades, Cooperation Jackson and its predecessors have formed a federation of worker-owned cooperatives and other initiatives for democratic and ecological production. This economic base is then linked to people’s assemblies, which broadly determine the project’s priorities.

Like Seattle’s NAC, Cooperation Jackson engages in local elections and city governance. Jackson, Mississippi’s new mayor, Chokwe Antar Lumumba, comes from a family of famous black radicals and has close ties to the movement. Lumumba has endorsed Cooperation Jackson’s initiative to build Center for Community Production, a public community center that specializes in 3D printing and digital production." (https://roarmag.org/magazine/new-municipal-movements/)


Examples provided by Plan C

By Bertie Russell:

"- Riace, Italy – the small Italian town that has received global recognition for its successful open door policy towards refugees

- Jackson, MI – the American city where predominantly black working-class communities are looking to create a cooperative solidarity economy through a combination of direct action and electoral strategies under the banner of Cooperation Jackson

- Naples, Italy – where in 2016 the radicalized mayor De Magistris established a “Department of the Commons”, part of a process of protecting seven properties that had been reclaimed by social initiatives

- Rosario, Argentina – where the social movement Ciudad Futura, which has its roots in a network of different types of social reproduction, have also successfully listed a number of candidates for election to the city council

- Barcelona, Spain – alongside a number of Spanish cities with similar projects, Barcelona is seen as a ‘flagship’ of this new radical municipalist strategy, where the citizens platform Barcelona en Comú has implemented a number of progressive policies, not least promoting direct citizen involvement in policy development, and a participatory budgeting system to redistribute the excessive politicians wages to activist and community groups." (https://www.opendemocracy.net/plan-c/radical-municipalism-demanding-future)

Discussion

Important questions regarding a strategy of radical municipalism

Bertie Russell:

"The question of “what makes municipalism radical?” might find its answer in the where, how and who of directional demands. In bringing these together, we’re suggesting that it’s at the municipal scale that we may find our best chance in producing ‘practices and processes’ that can really be considered as contributing to ‘beyond-capitalist dynamics’.

This hypothesis immediately poses a series of questions about the challenges and/or limits of what we are suggesting. Whilst some of these may have a ‘theoretical’ response – and we’ve got some ideas – we’re more interested in seeing how these challenges are addressed in practice:


- If the ‘municipal’ scale is where directional demands should be made, then who are demands made to? And who makes these demands?

- Where and how do those who don’t live in towns or cities fit into a political strategy that focuses on the municipal?

- If we accept there is a huge danger in fetishizing ‘the local’, then how does a municipal strategy resist falling into localism? How does a municipal strategy go beyond the nation-state?

- Are municipal institutions just an extension of the nation-state, or is it possible that they are qualitatively different in terms of what they can do and how they are positioned? Can we make qualitatively different institutions at these scales?

- How does ‘occupying the squares’ and ‘occupying the institutions’ work in tandem? Can we take institutions without being institutionalized? Do we even need to take the institutions?

- Given the ways municipal institutions are currently limited by nation-states – both financially and legally – can we produce new ways of building our capacity to act? How can we develop resources and the ability to use them without and irrespective of the nation-state? Can we build degrees of autonomy from the nation-state?

- How could it be possible for municipalities to seriously disobey the nation-state without being crushed?

We don’t plan to answer these in the short-term, or to answer them on our own. We hope that through organising and working with other municipalist movements we can begin to develop our understanding of what works – and what doesn’t – meaning new problems and questions will continue to emerge." (https://www.opendemocracy.net/plan-c/radical-municipalism-demanding-future)


Cities are key, not the nation, not the state

Debbie Bookchin:

"Municipalism rejects seizing state power, which we all know from the experiences of the twentieth century to be a hopeless pursuit, a dead end, because the state — whether capitalist or socialist — with its faceless bureaucracy is never truly responsive to the people. At the same time, activists must acknowledge that we won’t achieve social change simply by taking our demands to the street. Large encampments and demonstrations may challenge the authority of the state, but they have not succeeded in usurping it. Those who engage only in a politics of protest or organizing on the margins of society must recognize that there will always be power — it does not simply dissolve. The question is in whose hands this power will reside: in the centralized authority of the state, or on the local level with the people.

It is increasingly clear that we will never achieve the kind of fundamental social change we so desperately need simply by going to the ballot box. Social change won’t occur by voting for the candidate who promises us a $15 minimum wage, free education, family leave or offers platitudes about social justice. When we confine ourselves to voting for the lesser of evils, to the bones that social democracy throws our way, we play into and support the very centralized state structure that is designed to keep us down forever.

At the same time, though often overlooked by the left, there is a rich history of direct democracy, of radical politics and self-government by citizens: from ancient Athens to the Paris Commune to the anarchist collectives of Spain in 1936, to Chiapas, Mexico, to Barcelona and other Spanish cities and towns in recent years — and now to Rojava, in northern Syria, where the Kurdish people have implemented a profoundly democratic project of self-rule unlike anything ever seen in the Middle East.

A municipalist politics is about much more than bringing a progressive agenda to city hall, important as that may be. Municipalism — or communalism, as my father called it — returns politics to its original definition, as a moral calling based on rationality, community, creativity, free association and freedom. It is a richly articulated vision of a decentralized, assembly-based democracy in which people act together to chart a rational future. At a time when human rights, democracy and the public good are under attack by increasingly nationalistic, authoritarian centralized state governments, municipalism allows us to reclaim the public sphere for the exercise of authentic citizenship and freedom.

Municipalism demands that we return power to ordinary citizens, that we reinvent what it means to do politics and what it means to be a citizen. True politics is the opposite of parliamentary politics. It begins at the base, in local assemblies. It is transparent, with candidates who are 100 percent accountable to their neighborhood organizations, who are delegates rather than wheeling-and-dealing representatives. It celebrates the power of local assemblies to transform, and be transformed by, an increasingly enlightened citizenry. And it is celebratory — in the very act of doing politics we become new human beings, we build an alternative to capitalist modernity.

Municipalism asks the questions: What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to live in freedom? How do we organize society in ways that foster mutual aid, caring and cooperation? These questions and the politics that follow from them carry an ethical imperative: to live in harmony with the natural world, lest we destroy the very ecological basis for life itself, but also to maximize human freedom and equality.

The great news is that this politics is being articulated more and more vocally in horizontalist movements around the world. In the factory recuperation politics of Argentina, in the water wars of Bolivia, in the neighborhood councils that have arisen in Italy, where the government was useless in assisting municipalities after severe flooding, over and over we see people organizing at the local level to take power, indeed to build a counterpower that increasingly challenges the power and authority of the nation state. These movements are taking the idea of democracy and expressing it to its fullest potential, creating a politics that meets human needs, that fosters sharing and cooperation, mutual aid and solidarity, and that recognizes that women must play a leadership role." (https://roarmag.org/magazine/debbie-bookchin-municipalism-rebel-cities/)


Emergent radical municipalism and its political roots

Eleanor Finley:

"Patiently, through a combination of political education, grassroots mobilization and reform, municipalists seek to place decision-making power back in the hands of citizens. Municipalism is not simply a new strategy for local governance, but rather is a path to social freedom and stateless democracy.

The term “municipalism” itself derives from “libertarian municipalism,” coined during the 1980s by social theorist and philosopher Murray Bookchin. By claiming the label “libertarian,” Bookchin invoked its original meaning from nineteenth-century anarchism. In his view, essential concepts like “liberty” and “freedom” had been wrongly subverted and appropriated by the right wing, and it was time for leftists to reclaim them. Nonetheless, the label “libertarian” has been dropped by many of the new municipal experiments. Most recently, the Catalan citizen’s platform Barcelona en Comú (Barcelona in Common) has popularized municipalism as part of its political project in Catalonia, Spain. Their version of municipalism also ties closely to the theory and praxis of the commons, which they marshal to defend the city against runaway tourism and urban development.

Municipalism is distinguished by its insistence that the underlying problem with society is our disempowerment. Capitalism and the state not only cause extraordinary material suffering and inequality, they also rob us of the ability to play a meaningful role in our own lives and communities. By seizing the power to make decisions, they deprive us of our own humanity and sense of purpose — they deprive us of meaning.

The solution, as municipalists see it, is direct democracy. To achieve this, we can cultivate the new society within the shell of the old by eroding the state’s popular legitimacy and dissolving its power into face-to-face people’s assemblies and confederations. This means having faith that people are intelligent and want things to change. In Bookchin’s words, libertarian municipalism “presupposes a genuine democratic desire by people to arrest the growing powers of the nation state.” People can, and ought, to be the experts regarding their own needs.

Not all movements that align with a municipalist program refer to themselves as such. For example, the Kurdish freedom movement advocates a very similar model under the term “democratic confederalism.” Bookchin himself later adopted the label “communalism” to highlight the affinity between his views and the 1871 Paris Commune. Virtually every region and culture of the world is fertile with some historical legacy of popular assemblies, tribal democracy or stateless self-governance. The question is how do we revive those legacies and use them to erode the dominance of capitalism and the state over the rest of society." (https://roarmag.org/magazine/new-municipal-movements/)

The record of Spanish radical municipalism so far

Carlos Delclos:

"arcelona is not the only city where the municipal government has become more porous to pressure from below. Manuela Carmena’s Ahora Madrid, for instance, have opened the city’s participation system up to citizen-initiated proposals and, like other cities, allocated a portion of the city coffers to participatory budgeting. In Valencia, where progressive green coalition Compromís governs with the support of Valencia En Comú and the Spanish Socialist Party, the city is undertaking a massive shift towards a pedestrian and bike-centered model of sustainable urban mobility. And in Zaragoza, grid electricity is now 100 percent renewable and energy spending has been reduced by nearly 15 percent.

All of these cities have disproven the European Union’s “no alternative” dogma about austerity by increasing social spending and expanding the public housing stock while maintaining balanced budgets and, in some cases, even reducing deficits. They are also pressuring the central government to take in more refugees, and some are defying Rajoy’s racist 2012 healthcare reform by providing universal healthcare regardless of one’s documentation status. In Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia, city governments have repeatedly expressed their desire to close immigrant detention centers, citing human rights violations and taking symbolic and legal actions against them as a result.

These are by no means revolutionary measures. Taken together, they amount to a straightforward social-democratic program combined with green urbanism and participatory governance. But in Europe’s current political climate, polarized as it is by neoliberal technocracy and the ultra-nationalist far right, this is nothing to sneeze at. What makes their defense of the most basic social advances of the last several decades all the more noteworthy is that it has been carried out by minority governments in a highly fragmented political system.

But this success is fragile against the power of the state and the whims of the market. To impose austerity on cities with left-wing governments, the central government merely has to enforce the legislation it passed in 2013 to dramatically reduce municipal autonomy. Treasury Minister Cristobal Montoro has already made his intent to do so abundantly clear. Meanwhile, the rent bubble continues to expand, pushing residents out of their homes and further from the urban center. Cornered by these looming threats, cities cannot afford to limit their efforts to holding the fort — they must also push back." (https://roarmag.org/magazine/cities-against-the-wall/)