Caren Tepp at Fearless Cities in Barcelona, June 9-11, 2017. Photo: Marc Lozano/Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Within the framework of this year's "Fearless Cities" summit, Fundación Avina and DemocraciaAbierta established a special collaboration to explore some of the most exciting poltical experiences arising from Latin America.
Bringing together relevant actors in the field that are directly involved in political innovation at the local level, in Latin America, we have sought answers to four major issues shared by all the projects: a) Vision of innovation; b) National political context and limitations of local power; c) Influence of the international political context, and d) The question of leadership.
Caren Tepp is an Argentine political scientist, candidate for National Deputy for Ciudad Futura, and 2nd Vice President of the Municipal Council of Rosario.
VISION OF INNOVATION
A few years ago, we coined a sentence from Simón Rodríguez that says: "Either we invent, or we make a mistake". We, the militants, tried many times in the past to adjust reality to our theory and not the other way around – that is, building the theory from practice, understanding and incorporating what the territory itself was demanding. So, I think that the most distinctive feature of Ciudad Futura is a new conception about the role of the State and society and, above all, of the future and the present. How do we build today the society that we want for tomorrow? What can we do so as to not merely keep on complaining and to challenge what is wrong by offering pointers to citizens – “pieces of Ciudad Futura” which show what the society we want is like and how it can be achieved?
The parties of the Left are very good when it comes to denouncing capitalism, neo-liberalism and international imperialism. But if we are not capable of offering a vision of the future and of drawing a path to that future, no one will believe us, no one will get excited about our proposals. This is the reason why we set up what we call Prefigurative Projects which exist here and now, in the territories, especially in the periphery of the city of Rosario.
These are projects which do not merely say "Education and work are important", but they show it. For example, we have two social management schools where young people and adults from the districts of Rosario are able to finish their middle-level education. They are mostly young people from the periphery who perhaps did not have the possibility of a future; that they had perhaps gone through public or private education but, somehow, ended up leaving. And, today, they do have a chance. For the last seven years now, these young people can, not only finish their studies, but build a space of collective identity and build a project for the future.
Here, in Argentina, that model is now a response to the issue of reforming the education system. When we began to study what could be the keys to reforming the system, we noticed that they were the same as in the city of Rosario. The problem for kids who finish their school education is the way in which contents are addressed - social phenomena, political issues. This is why we changed the way in which we used to do our courses, and switched to a horizontal construction of education.
When students enter our social management school, they find that power, somehow, is distributed horizontally. There is a collective appropriation. Power is no longer power over, but power with. It is a power which enables teachers and students to build not only the ways in which to address the educational content, but also the management of the school: cleaning, schedules... Now, this also works for the kindergarten in the morning, in that same space, for children up to 4 years. The appropriation of the project is key to the setting up of a political project which currently guarantees, in two city neighbourhoods, that more than 100 young people each year finish their secondary education and can begin to imagine a different life project for themselves, without any input from the State – that, for us, is political innovation.
NATIONAL POLITICAL CONTEXT AND LIMITATIONS OF THE LOCAL POWER
The situation in Argentina since the elections of 2015 affects us who ran then for the first time. Not being organically part of Kirchnerism, we understood that a victory of Cambiemos would represent a setback, not for a particular government, but for Argentine society as a whole, and particularly for transformative political projects - for the triumph of Cambiemos is not an isolated fact which occurs in a given regional and international context.
In that sense, our aim is to strengthen local processes in the city of Rosario and try to win and govern our city in 2019, and we also assume the challenge of running for the first time at the national level. We believe that to address this regression and fight neoliberal policies, we need to move away from polarization - the "crack", as we say in Argentina -, and diversify the forms of resistance.
We have the duty not only to be challenging the measures and policies of Mauricio Macri’s government, but to offer alternative options. Because of the threat of closures, we are considering the possibility of recovering factories and companies, as happened in Argentina after 2001. But it is not only a matter of resisting, but of moving forward in workers’ self-management of those means of production. Our city and our province have witnessed many cases of successful self-managed cooperative enterprises, like La Cabaña or Mil Hojas – companies which have found, precisely in times of crisis, the possibility of going forward, and even improving their performance. That is, I think, a different perspective we can offer today – with examples for anyone to see in our province.
In our campaign at the national level, we also want to put on the agenda the issue of local and city government. We carry proposals defending local governments as key actors for proximity politics, for distributing power, for building power from the bottom up. We are convinced that one of the main lessons in recent years in Latin America, and from the different progressive governments with their different leanings, lies in fact that what it is built from the top down tends to crumble. We have thus to think about a new horizon for inclusion in the coming years, and think about a new political practice for another way of achieving power - from the bottom up. It is here, during our campaign tour of the province, that the idea of the City of the Future appears, and that of its possible expansion throughout the territory. We want to change the way in which political building is done, so that each territory is empowered, and starts to organize autonomously, and so that, perhaps, this is the provincial- turned-national tool we need against neo-liberalism: the confluence of different experiences of change with territorial roots.
We very much like a sentence that says that the question is not changing one power for another, but building a different kind of power. In this sense, it is important that each territory governs itself, that each rules its territory, so that we all take our decisions. This is something which is absent from the national agenda. Despite the fact that it has now become evident that territories have their own problems and challenges to face, we are still missing the hierarchy-changing paradigm shift according to which real politics, real transformative power lies progressively closer to the territory. In that, local governments and municipalities have much more to contribute than the great national tools.
INTERNATIONAL POLITICAL CONTEXT
Both national and international contexts have an impact, and make our task more difficult because the wind is blowing against us. In this, I think, there is also a break with that old tradition of the Left, that old theory which says that the worse the conditions are, the better it is for carrying out the revolution. If we there is something we have learnt from many years ago is that this is an absolutely horrible theory, because it implies that a high percentage of society must go through a really bad time, as if it were not going through a really tough and rough time already.
This is why we must strive to improve conditions here and now, together. It is no good being isolated. I think that the experience of Cities without Fear in Barcelona is generating very interesting proposals which have to do with collaborative action: horizontal proposals on the basis of initiatives and links between cities of change which are absolutely genuine. This is an experience that allows you to see the possibility of something different, which is not an agreement reached around a small table to set up some particular strategy, but something that has to do with the concept of the feminization of politics, which is a completely new way of political construction.
We have an enormous challenge ahead of us, so that, when the wind will blow again in our favour, it will be up to us who have been building from the bottom up this idea of local power, of shared power, to take, in some way, a leading role. In City of the Future we always say that the actual content of our policy proposals and the flags we fly are as important as the way in which we implement our political construction.
Thus the need to see that our political strength lies in horizontal, democratic and above all transparent collective action, which allows us to expand the horizon of what is possible. I think that transparency is a key issue that all the municipalities of change, all of us who have been working on this idea, share. It has to do with the idea of how we, ordinary people, take charge of affairs that concern us all. To this end, local proximity politics are precisely the right tool for undertaking the transformations that can be carried forward.
THE QUESTION OF LEADERSHIP
All of us who are today involved in City of the Future carrying out some public service task fully understand that we do are not following any personal career, but are proudly expressing a collective political project and only temporarily managing the things we are responsible for.
It is also important that decisions are taken within the organization which cement this attitude and make it sustainable over time. Those of us who are today City of the Future councilors, are donating, from the very first minute, 70% of our salary to the organization, we live on the same salaries we had before becoming councilors, and get paid the same as the advisers who are part of the team at the Council. We try not to create privileges, not to be part of the political corporate class, not to lie to ourselves. We make sure that what we are donating goes to strengthen the organization, the projects we run at the margins of the State, and make it very clear that our way of life - militancy is a way of life – is diametrically opposed to certain privileges.
I believe that 21st century leaderships are those which embody movements coming from the cities. To me, Ada Colau expresses this perfectly. Behind her, you can see the Indignados movement, the fight against evictions, the Barcelona in Common teammates, and you can see a brave woman, steadfast in her ideas, empathetic and passionate about everything she does. This, I think, is a crucial way to access the State institutions, which are governed by logics that are patriarchal, where aggressiveness and the idea of power as domination are essential values, at the core of what we have to transform.
Check out our webpage for this special project: https://opendemocracy.net/info/avina-interactive-roundtable-english