Can Europe Make It?

Which municipalism? Let's be choosy

What exactly are we talking about when we refer to the “new municipalism” or “municipalist transformation” as defined by the Fearless Cities movement?

Laura Roth
2 January 2019
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International municipal meeting, Barcelona, June 16, 2017. Marc Lozano. Some rights reserved.

In the current political context marked by the crisis of neoliberalism and of the old left and the rise of the extreme right – one political approach that appears to be gaining strength is municipalism. Most obviously in Spain, we can also see municipalist projects advancing in the United States, Poland, Italy and certain Latin American cities such as Valparaíso or Rosario, among other examples. The Fearless Cities gathering (Ciudades sin Miedo) that took place in Barcelona in the beginning of June, 2018, brought together more than 700 participants from around the world, highlighting the emergence of this new global municipalist political agenda. Since then, several regional summits have happened in cities such as Warsaw, New York, Brussels and Valparaiso, and the Fearless Cities movement keeps on growing.

Evidently, municipalism is not a new idea. It can be traced through traditions such as libertarian anarchism or republicanism, whilst recurring themes can be found in a history of urban movements from around the world. Even today, several state-focused parties in Spain – such as Podemos {a left-populist party that emerged after the 15-M movement} and Partido Popular {the dominant right-wing party} – talk about municipalism as if it were an issue with which everyone identifies, like ‘justice’ or ‘freedom’. But what exactly are we talking about when we refer to the “new municipalism” or “municipalist transformation” as defined by the Fearless Cities movement?

There are those who suggest municipalism means simply ‘local self-government’, which implies that cities and towns should have the capacity to decide on their own affairs. Others claim it is more of a political strategy that prioritizes local action over other levels. In reality, the municipalism of the Fearless Cities incorporates these ideas and considers them in relation to one another: winning local governments and making them stronger is only part of a broader political strategy based on building power from the bottom up, both within and outside formal institutions. However, what is the content of this new municipalism beyond these two elements? Which municipalism is it that they defend?

Unique platforms

Firstly, we must highlight the way these initiatives construct unique political platforms that reflect the diverse sensitivities of the immediate social and political fabric, responding to local issues and circumstances. Instead of a branch of a national party, each of these platforms identifies itself, and is identified by others, as an independent political actor. This means that while municipalist platforms may collaborate with other actors, parties and platforms, whether formally or informally, they all begin with their own priorities, their own members, and their own specific political form.

Secondly, these organisations affirm that local governments are not simply the lowest step of state administration, but open up a space for self-government. These municipalist platforms defend the transfer of competencies and resources to the local area, such that the decisions that affect us in Barcelona are taken less in Madrid or in Europe, but more directly by the people affected by them. For example, if we need to address the problems of housing or pollution, we should have the tools to fight against Airbnb or to restrict the use of private cars. Local governments are not simply the lowest step of state administration, but are a space for self-government.

Thirdly, and an important qualifier to the previous point, this self-government must be one of democratic radicalism. It is not enough to argue simply for local self-government with a leftist agenda, but rather for local power to be exercised in a radically democratic manner.

As Debbie Bookchin said at the Fearless Cities gathering in 2017, municipalism is not about implementing progressive policies, but about returning power to ordinary people”. In fact, municipalism emerges in many places precisely as a response to the lack of democracy of public institutions and traditional political parties. For example, many municipalist candidacies utilise open and participatory processes to develop their political programmes “from below”, drawing on the collective intelligence of the population.

Another example is the implementation of reforms to local participation mechanisms by municipalist governments: digital decision-making platforms, participatory budgets, the capacity for citizen-initiated ballots and consultations, etc. The hypothesis is that if we can’t put in place processes that empower ordinary people on this scale, it cannot be done on any ‘higher’ scale. If we can’t put in place processes that empower ordinary people on this scale, it cannot be done on any ‘higher’ scale.

Insiders and outsiders

Fourth, municipalist initiatives question the sharp division between the ‘inside and outside’ of local institutions, whilst accepting that there must also be a productive tension between these spaces. In many cases, the organization of municipalist candidacies come from social movements, as activists and ordinary citizens decide to present themselves for elections.

Some suggest this risks ‘decapitalizing’ social movement organisations (as both people and energy shift into the institutions and the new political platforms), or that electoral successes reduce the need to put pressure on friendly governments. On the contrary, the municipalism of the Fearless Cities understands that the capacity for institutional action depends on social mobilization in the street; we must open up institutions to citizens, and be responsive to criticism from social movements.

For that reason, municipalism promotes both ‘pressure from outside’ as well as opening up decision-making mechanisms from within local institutions so that movements can have a greater impact on policy. Fifth, the municipalism of the Fearless Cities is feminist.

Fifth, the municipalism of the Fearless Cities is feminist. Feminizing politics means a) gender parity in all spaces, acts and roles; b) political programmes that fight against a patriarchal system reflected in institutional structures and public policies; c) changing the way we do politics: breaking the separation between the “public” and the “private”, horizontalizing decision-making, withdrawing from confrontational approaches and instead emphasizing the common and relational, and embracing diversity as a natural element of politics instead of an anomaly.

Sixth, the municipalism we are talking about is not parochial, but rather has an internationalist or global horizon. The new municipalism is conscious that what affects us at a local level depends to a large extent on what happens at other levels, ranging from the regions to the national state and the rest of the world. Accordingly, it also recognizes that municipalities have a great responsibility and capability to confront global problems, and that municipalist organisations and governments must support one another in order to reinforce themselves at other levels. It is for precisely this reason that the Fearless Cities movement is working as a network at the global level.

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International municipal meeting, Barcelona, June 16, 2017. Marc Lozano. Some rights reserved.

The municipalism we are talking about is not parochial, but rather has an internationalist or global horizon.

Finally, it should be clarified that transformative municipalism is practiced not only in large cities, but in districts, neighbourhoods, and smaller municipalities. Furthermore, each municipalist platform will confront contradictions and difficulties, and will not be 100% adapted to these principles. Yet none of them are afraid to recognize it: these ideals act as a guide for self-criticism and ongoing political reflection.

One of the reasons for this is that recognizing the fallibility of the municipalist political project while defending an approach based on learning by doing is a way of feminising politics. It is both paradoxical and beautiful at the same time.

Translated into English by Bertie Russell.

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