Screenshot: Atlas of Utopias. TNI.Even we were surprised in 2015 when our organisation, the Transnational Institute, decided to look at the number of municipalities who had brought water services back under public control and discovered 235 cases in 37 countries of cities and communities remunicipalising their water. Given the power of transnational water companies like Suez and Veolia – and the grip that the ideology of privatisation has on national and international water policy – this was nothing short of a silent revolution.
A follow-up report in early 2017 that broadened its focus to include energy and housing unveiled 835 examples of (re)municipalisation of public services involving more than 1,600 municipalities in 45 countries. TNI researcher, Satoko Kishimoto, says “What is most important about these cases is that they kill once and for all the myth that ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberalism. They show that not only is there a clear alternative to privatisation, but that it also has the potential to both improve services and transform society and environment for the better.”
An alternative to neoliberalism
In many cases, the experience of resisting corporate capital and defending rights, such as those of access to water or housing, has itself been transformational. It has helped activists reconnect with those alienated by neoliberalism, and also opened up peoples’ imaginations to think of new ways of organising work, services and social needs. The energy and dynamism that is released is palpable, captured in documentary films such as Demain (Tomorrow)
The experiences of trying to set up green businesses in Totnes in the UK, for example, eventually led to an international project, Reconomy, that seeks to build local economies that are sustainable, equitable and anchored in wellbeing, rather than tied to economic growth at any cost. An initiative by the New Delhi government to set up hundreds of small free health clinics to do diagnostics and simple treatments has inspired health activists across the world. In Barcelona, the experience of resisting house repossession inspired some activists to fight and win municipal elections based on a participatory platform of policies that include fining banks that speculate on empty homes, creating a new municipal energy company and providing sanctuary to refugees.
Barcelona’s new city council is now helping to foster a movement of ‘fearless cities’ committed to the same principles of participation, openness and social and environmental justice. Their first gathering in Barcelona in June 2017 attracted more than 600 participants representing more than 100 municipalist platforms from around the world.
The feminization of politics
Municipal activism is also an opportunity to put feminism and the feminization of politics at the forefront. As Laura Roth and Kate Shea Baird have argued “the feminization of politics, beyond its concern for increasing presence of women in decision-making spaces and implementing public policies to promote gender equality, is about changing the way politics is done.” In practice, this means leaving aside patterns of our patriarchal society such as competition, dominant leaderships, vertical organizations, egoism and structures that have typically excluded women from politics. It is noticeable how many of the new leaders in the municipalist movement are women.
Perhaps the proximity, scope and nature of the political conflicts at the city level, such as struggles for access to water and housing, rather than monetary policy or military alliances, also provide an arena where non-patriarchal modes of political action are better suited.
The Atlas of Utopias
These successful experiences around the remunicipalisation of public services and the rising municipalist movement have inspired TNI to launch the Transformative Cities Initiative. Our goal has been to build an Atlas of real Utopias, make these experiences viral, and to share the learning that comes from implementing these experiments. At the same time, we launched a unique participatory award to recognise transformative experiences. In this first year, 2018, the focus will be on water, energy and housing. In future years, the initiative will expand its focus to other areas such as migration and solidarity, territorial food governance and drugs harm reduction.
Transformative Cities is an opportunity for citizens, progressive local governments, municipalist coalitions, social movements and civil society to popularize and share their experiences of tackling and finding solutions to our planet’s systemic economic, social, political and ecological crisis.
Launched by the Transnational Institute in 2017, 32 amazing stories of transformation were featured in an Atlas of Utopias. TNI then worked with local journalists and openDemocracy to investigate and write about nine of these transformative experiences. Until Tuesday, 5 June, we invite you to vote on the initiatives that inspire you to take actions of your own. The 2018 Transformative Cities People's Choice Award will be announced on 6 June 2018.