By conceiving of transformative social change in “translocal” terms, the municipalist movement enables us to redefine internationalism for our times.
ROAR Magazine Issue #8
Authors: Laura Roth, Bertie Russell
The Fearless Cities gathering, hosted by Barcelona en Comú in June 2017, made it clear that the “new municipalism” is not peculiar to the Spanish context: more than 700 people from around the world attended the event. Initiatives such as Massa Critica (Naples, Italy), Ciudad Futura (Rosario, Argentina), Beirut Madinati (Beirut, Lebanon), Zagreb Je Nas (Zagreb, Croatia), and the Jackson-Kush Plan/Cooperation Jackson (Jackson, Mississippi) demonstrated that the municipality is becoming a strategically crucial site for the organization of transformative social change.
What also became clear at Fearless Cities is that, while there is no blueprint for what a municipalist strategy looks like, there are some undeniable commonalities between movements that arose completely autonomously of one another. Certain debates or currents seem to animate these diverse movements in different ways, such as a commitment to disrupt the form of local-state infrastructure in an effort to distribute power and decision-making, the active support and promotion of the commons and solidarity economy, and an effort to feminize politics.
The trepidation — at least for some on the left — is that these new municipalist movements are a return to a parochial politics. Common arguments are that these municipal initiatives do not go beyond an attempt to build little anarchist or socialist islands of autonomy, isolated from a more substantial internationalist political project. There is also a latent danger of municipalist projects falling into what Mark Purcell calls the “local trap” — erroneously claiming the municipality to have some form of inherently “progressive” qualities — rather than adopting it as a strategic site for social transformation. Even if these problems were mitigated, others may claim that a “glocal strategy” is fundamentally insufficient in the face of broader reactionary conservative governments, and that our political energies should remain focused on the nation-state.
Such differences in thinking about the scale of transformation are central to strategic debates about the place of new municipalist movements in fostering wider social change. Should these initiatives simply be seen as stepping stones to national government, leaving intact traditional scalar understandings of power that construe the municipality as “nested” under the nation-state? Or do they represent an effort to build an altogether different type of power, disrupting these conventional scales of power in an effort to produce some form of networked, translocal power?
Despite a commitment to internationalism, the theory and practice of left politics commonly takes the nation-state as the fundamental site of transformative social change. Despite the relative successes of municipalist initiatives, there are still some within these movements who maintain that the “real” aim remains to capture the institutions of the nation-state.
The strategy of winning locally, in this view, is understood either as a strategy we are forced to adopt in a time of weakness — the “best we can achieve for now” — or a systematic approach to build our capacity to move to the national scale. Typically, the argument follows that local institutions are constrained in terms of how they can act and the resources they have access to. The scope of municipal activity is understood to be constrained by greater powers, and while we might be able to do a better job at governing the city than others, we will always need to jump to the regional or national scale if we want to have the power to make really big changes.
There are others within the municipalist movement who challenge this idea that the municipality is (and should be) a “lesser” political unit — an administrative arm of the state removed from the real center of power. Rather, they see the municipality as a starting-point for pursuing a politics that is fundamentally transformative. Such perspectives challenge the assumption that the primary role of municipalist initiatives is to be better urban administrators — which can push up against broader legal and fiscal limits quite quickly — and rather aim to transform the municipal scale itself. This means revisiting the meaning and practices of democracy, upending our understanding of who “does” politics and what it looks like, and seeking to foster fundamentally different ways for citizens to relate to the world around them.
These diverging perspectives generate tension within some municipalist movements, but to a certain extent it is a productive tension: it reveals a responsible attitude towards the need for and possibilities of social change. It is also a debate grounded in concrete conditions rather than abstract ideology, taking place within movements and responding to very real and urgent challenges. In a context of generalized political pessimism about the prospects of transformative social change, and with traditional leftist actors generally failing to muster a coherent response to the rise of the far-right, it is imperative that we find ways to illustrate that real social and political change is both possible and realistic. This is why winning power in cities and smaller municipalities seems to be a worthwhile strategy. So far, we can all agree.
The problem — at least as it has been experienced in the Spanish context — is that as soon as movements look to “scale up” their politics to the regional or national level, they rapidly lose the very qualities and capacities that defined them as transformational. This has been the case both in Barcelona, with the movement’s engagement in the Catalonian regional administration, and for those coming from A Coruña organizing at the Galician level. Seemingly inevitably, there are certain dynamics that start to develop once one loses the ability to work closely with other activists and start developing more hierarchical and independent structures.
When municipalist movements speak of feminizing politics, for instance, the emphasis is on fundamental changes to politics itself — inserting empathy into the core of political action, questioning traditional understandings of strong leadership, learning how to distribute power throughout society, and decentering the role of institutions towards the horizon of collective self-governance. The reality is that developing this politics of care takes a lot of time and energy. It is no coincidence that as soon as one starts trying to win power at “higher” levels of government, organizations become more hierarchical, men usually take the lead, discourses become more theoretical, and urgency tends to trump trust in collective intelligence.
Something similar happens when one enters formal institutions, even local ones — once you are in, they simply swallow you. People are absorbed by the dynamics of a machine that is designed to process things in a standardized way; to divide the public from the private; to adapt the rhythm of politics to the rhythm of bureaucracy; to distinguish people according to their position and block dialogue between those at different levels.
As an activist involved within Massa Critica put it, “the idea is to be prepared not only to win something, but immediately to change it. If we think that we win and we change the world — or our country, or our city — only by going to manage it, we fail.” If we really want to transform these institutions, it is crucial to stay grounded in everyday life outside of the institutions. This means finding ways to open up institutions, to generate new relationships with social movements and — very importantly — with those ordinary citizens who are not mobilized.
The central question thus becomes: at what scale are we able to conduct these transformative political experiments? Or, conversely, at what political scale are our experiments most likely to have a transformative impact? This is not to ignore the realities of how power currently functions — one cannot pretend that the nation-state, amongst other scales, does not clearly delineate many of the ways municipalities can act — but to pose the municipal scale as a fundamental starting point for the organization of transformative change.
We can see this commitment to a prefigurative politics running through global municipalist movements. As one municipalist organizer from Madrid has suggested, municipalism “is not a way to implement the ‘state conception’ of the world at a smaller scale. It’s a way to actually modify this level of the local government into something that is different.”
In Rosario, Argentina, the movement-party Ciudad Futura had around ten years of experience in developing social infrastructure — such as secondary schools, farms, food cooperatives and construction cooperatives — when they successfully stood a number of councilors in the 2013 elections.
Last year, one of their councilors suggested that:
when social movements start to contest the institutional arena, we don’t want to appropriate or monopolize these constructs or these experiences in any way, as the state would usually do. Rather, we want to do the opposite, to develop and expand the diverse social management that exists from within the state apparatus.
The demand to simply “scale up” municipalism, which tends to be based on a vision where the local state is considered an instrument or tool to be wielded differently on behalf of the working class, is in significant danger of misinterpreting what many within these initiatives are looking to achieve. If we instead view the local state as a set of processes and relationships, the emphasis of politics thus becomes — at least in part — to attempt to substitute the old ways of how we relate to one another (as service users, as managers, as decision makers, as representatives, as voters, and so on), with new processes and relationships that are more horizontal, open, deliberative and in touch with ordinary people.
In this sense, the municipalism of the international Fearless Cities network is quite different from simply winning locally and doing the same that parties would traditionally do, but just better. More than simply implementing more innovative leftist policies locally, they are aiming to change how to do politics to begin with. They recognize that one cannot keep on trying the same recipes and waiting for something different to happen. But this is also why the municipalist movements are works in progress: there are no roadmaps or blueprints to work with.
This emphasis on transformation that characterizes these new municipalist movements seems particularly important, then, in challenging us to think differently about internationalism. Firstly, and this is a simple but important point, we may need to reconsider the term internationalism, which of course means “between nations,” and consider substituting it with the idea of “translocal solidarity” — or something along these lines — to speak to the idea of a broader transformative movement that is firmly rooted within local context.
Of course, it is not the words that are fundamentally important here, but the broader challenge to the “state conception” that leaves intact certain inherited scalar understandings of power. If this conventional state conception demands that we overcome the limitations of municipalist institutions through scaling up — that is, focusing on governing at a “higher” level — then perhaps the more prefigurative municipalist approach should start thinking in terms of “scaling out.”
While it might sound a bit clunky, it is important to understand that these municipalist initiatives are not just rolling out some pre-existing political strategy based on inherited understandings. They are trying to think and act differently. Consequently, any internationalist political project that begins with these municipalist initiatives is liable to look quite different, challenging some of our deeply ingrained assumptions about organizing beyond borders. Again, this is a process of learning by doing, and one that has to constantly negotiate the tensions between the world as it is and the world we are trying to create.
Perhaps the best way to start fleshing out our understanding of what it would mean to “scale out” is thus to start with questions that many within these movements are asking themselves: how do we, as municipalist movements, meaningfully act in solidarity with one another? How can all these “small” acts of transformation become something greater than the sum of their parts? How can we amplify our successes, so that they “trickle outwards” and strengthen the capacity of others to organize?
Can our municipalist strategies develop “transversal” identities based not on where we are from, but where we live and what we participate in? Can this logic erode identities based on borders and boundaries? It is through producing answers to these questions in practice that we can begin to develop an answer to a broader question: what is it that allows us to talk about this as a transmunicipal social movement with the potential to drive deep and broad-based social change?
We can already see a number of ways in which this translocal solidarity is starting to concretely take shape. Organized primarily by and for municipalists in the Spanish context, the Municipalismo, Autogobierno y Contrapoder (MAC) gatherings in 2016-17 provided an opportunity to learn how to deal with the difficulties and contradictions of “actually existing” municipalism, providing space for more speculative thinking about what the municipalist movement could achieve.
The 2017 Fearless Cities gathering in Barcelona expanded this initiative beyond national boundaries, opening up the possibility for new relationships and new opportunities for a scaling out of the municipalist movement. These gatherings allowed many concepts and experiences to circulate between participants, and began to develop a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves.
From the side of municipalist governments, certain campaigns illustrate the potential of political action beyond traditional local competences and powers. One example would be the manifesto on the right to housing that Barcelona is promoting at the United Nations High Level Political Forum. Equally, the proactive stance of Naples, Messina and Reggio Calabria in the recent case of the rescue vessel Aquarius demonstrates the leadership role that cities can take on in relation to issues of international migration and asylum, pushing back against and challenging the reactionary positions taken by national governments.
In addition, municipalist governments are implementing innovative policies while supporting and inspiring other governments — even non-radical ones — to adopt and develop their practices in areas that range from urbanism to gender equality and social economy. Many of these practices are being mapped, documented and promoted by collaborations of scholars, institutes and citizen platforms, in initiatives such as Urban Alternatives, helping to demonstrate the sheer breadth of innovative urban transformations that are already starting to take shape.
A particularly striking example is the case of the Decidim and Consul digital infrastructures, which were developed to facilitate participatory decision-making and budgeting in Madrid and Barcelona, based on open-source licensing. These free software tools have already been adopted and used in dozens of other cities and show how collaborations between governments, programmers and other organizations can foster more participatory municipalities without having to depend on big tech companies.
Political platforms also collaborate, independently of the position they occupy in their respective city councils. While many of these collaborations are the result of one-on-one engagements — such as supporting electoral campaigns or sharing tools — some broader goals are starting to be undertaken by networks of municipalist actors. For example, seven European organizations affiliated with the Fearless Cities network are currently implementing a project promoting and supporting the feminization of politics, running a set of internal reviews as part of a broader campaign aiming to change both perceptions and practices within municipalist platforms.
In July 2018, New York and Warsaw both hosted regional Fearless Cities gatherings for the North American and European continents, providing crucial opportunities to expand upon the ideas and relationships formed over the previous few years. These events build towards the second global Fearless Cities gathering scheduled for the spring of 2019 — a significant year for the Spanish municipalist movements as the face their first electoral test since 2015. Alongside this, there are a series of collaborative projects facilitating ongoing learning and change between and within these municipalist movements, ranging from the co-authoring of a book, Ciudades Sin Miedo (an English version is due in Spring 2019), to a map of the municipalist movement (available at www.fearlesscities.com).
It is in projects and spaces of collaboration such as these, which bring together municipalists from both inside and outside institutions, coupled with those looking to promote and pursue municipalist initiatives elsewhere, that new possibilities can arise. Taken collectively, all the examples of how the movement is working as a network provide an opportunity for a series of individual initiatives to realize themselves as part of a broader global tendency to adopt the urban scale as a site of progressive transformative political change. With this comes a circulation of ideas and the promotion of common practices — and new political approaches — that works to expand the horizons of political possibility.
But other, more formal and institutional ways of cooperation are also possible, both within the movement and with other local governments. We could, for instance, envisage municipalities collaborating to force substantial changes to procurement law — an example of something shaped at European level — to not only allow but also incentivize municipalities to direct their spending towards the social and solidarity economy. This recognizes the reality of pursuing a transformative politics within the existing scales of political power, and asks us to think about how municipalists can coordinate to exercise political leverage “above” themselves so as to enable a continuation of the municipalist project.
If we are going to see the reality of this, municipalists (and municipalities) need to develop a clearer understanding of what material leverage they collectively hold over national and supranational institutions, and to begin forging political strategies that can force the hand of these institutions. Crucially, we cannot just be thinking about the role of municipal institutions here, but need to think about the kind of demands that international social movements could begin to coalesce around, and the range of tactics that could be developed to pursue these demands.
In many ways, having developed visions of a networked municipalism — one that facilitates collaborative co-ownership, democratic management and ecologically progressive initiatives — helps provide us with a common direction to move in. It is this ability to concretely imagine a common future that really energizes and speaks to a developing transmunicipal movement, providing us with the hope of real and achievable alternatives.
Scaling out a municipalist politics has to begin with the understanding that these initiatives are not just rolling out a politics-you-already-know at a local scale. This perspective fundamentally fails to grasp the prefigurative and transformative elements of this municipalist movement, and instead asks questions about “scaling up” that belong to a different (and dominant) intellectual register. While the diversity of these movements necessitates context-specific approaches to organizing — no two of these municipalist movements are the same — there is nonetheless an emerging common sense about what we are trying to achieve, and a proliferation of strategies for trying to achieve it.
In moving together, municipalist movements are already demonstrating internationalism — in the “old” sense of working together across boundaries. Yet this internationalism provides the crucible for working towards internationalism in a “new” sense, one in which we develop new political horizons built out of our existing experiences. This is not about finding a new route to fulfil an old idea, but about the emergence of a new common sense and a new form of political action.