Fear and uncertainty seem to have settled into our societies, not only among citizens, but also political leaders and transnational corporations who see their capitals and centres of power stagger in the face of the combined effects of slowing global economic growth, imminent energy decline and increasing climate chaos. In this context, we are witnessing a multitude of responses, with three approaches that stand out.
The first response attempts to regain control and security through new forms of authoritarianism and protectionism. We’ve seen the return of the nation state as a reaction to global capitalism, the re-emergence of national and cultural identity, and a revival of racist and xenophobic discourses.
The second response, fuelled by techno-optimism, sees no limit to our capacity to invent our way out of global crisis through what has been described as a ‘fourth industrial revolution’. This approach is advocated by organisations such as the World Economic Forum, along with a multitude of transnational corporations, financial powers and governments. Following a competitive logic, it suggests that individuals and societies that are better technologically adapted will prosper, whilst others will be left behind.
The third response sees neighborhoods, towns and cities around the world emerge as the place to defend human rights, democracy and the common good. Neighbours and citizens are uniting in solidarity networks to address pressing global challenges, from access to housing and basic services to climate change and the refugee crisis. This new municipalist movement seeks to build counter power from the bottom up, challenging the dominance of the nation state and capitalist markets, putting power back into the hands of people.
Fearless Cities: the municipal hope
In June we participated in the first ever international municipal summit, which was organised by Barcelona en Comú, a citizen platform whose radical politics and rapid takeover of the City Hall has inspired activists and councillors around the world.
The summit brought together over 700 mayors, councillors, activists and citizens from more than 180 cities in more than 40 countries across five continents, including representatives from roughly 100 citizen platforms, all aiming to build global networks of solidarity and hope between municipalities.
The agenda—public space and the commons, housing, gentrification and tourism, the feminisation of politics, mobility and pollution, radical democracy in town and city councils, creating non-state institutions, socio-ecological transition, re-municipalisation of basic services, sanctuary and refuge cities—was a demonstration of the common challenges we face, and far removed from the dominant logic of economic growth to which national institutions, increasingly separated from the day-to-day reality of citizens’ lives, direct their attention.
With accessible ticket prices, child care provision, a bar run by an association of the unemployed, the main talks free to the public and the opening plenary held in one of the central squares, Barcelona en Comú remained true to their values of inclusion and participation. The conference involved an incredible diversity of people, not only as participants, but also filling the panels and leading the workshops. ‘This is the first panel I have ever seen that doesn’t include a single white male,’ commented one of the participants.
The emergence of citizen platforms
Since the financial crisis in 2007-8, citizen platforms have rapidly emerged across the globe. Their rise has been particularly strong in certain countries, such as Spain, where they now govern most major cities, as well as many towns and rural areas. These citizen groups are generally composed of independent candidates or of an alliance between independents and members of progressive political parties, with members frequently having roots in social movements. Ada Colau, for example, was at the forefront of the anti-eviction group, Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca), before becoming mayor of Barcelona.
Some citizen platforms are elected on a particular agenda, such as Barcelona en Comú, who came to power in 2015 promising to defend citizen rights, rethink tourism in the city, fight corruption, and radically democratise local politics. Others have crowd-sourced their agenda or don’t have an agenda at all. Indy Monmouth in Wales, for example, ran for election with the promise that they would take their lead from the community once they were elected. This desire to transform politics and put power back into the hands of people is one of the primary aims of citizen platforms and the municipalist movement.
Radical democracy and the feminisation of politics
Municipalism is concerned as much with how outcomes are achieved as with the outcomes themselves. The need to radically democratise and feminise the political space was a persistent theme throughout the Fearless Cities conference.
Barcelona en Comú described how the democratisation and feminisation of politics is key to transformation, by bringing marginalised voices into the debate; reducing hierarchy; decentralising decision making; enabling dialogue, listening and collective intelligence; re-evaluating what we understand by the term experts and seeing everyone as experts in their own day-to-day life, their neighbourhoods and their communities; placing care, co-operation, relationship and people’s lived experience at the heart of politics; and facilitating co-responsibility for where we live, for the environment and for each other.
This kind of politics has the potential to include rather than alienate, to create interdependence rather than dependence, to liberate the knowledge, experience and visions of a huge diversity of people, and empower us to act together to bring about change. It’s not glamorous but it’s potentially transformative — it’s about learning by doing, and is concerned with addressing day-to-day needs and issues, such as housing and access to basic services.
This approach dispels the idea that our political participation happens once every four years when we vote and makes everyday life a matter of politics. Starting from the grassroots we have the opportunity to build democracy at the level that government directly interacts with people’s daily lives, and where the negative effects of neoliberalism are experienced on a daily basis. It has the potential to bring us together rather than tear us apart as we build an alternative identity that is based on where we live and on our participation, relationships and collective concerns, as neighbours, friends and community, rather than being attached to our nationality, race or ethnicity.
Libertarian municipalism and social ecology
The term municipalism stems from ‘libertarian municipalism’, a type of political organisation proposed by American social theorist and philosopher Murray Bookchin. It involves neighbourhood assemblies that practice direct democracy and seek to form a confederation of municipalities, as an alternative to the power of the centralised state.
This approach sees democratic communities as the driver of change, as the means by which we can redefine how we live together and our relationship with the natural world. Offering a holistic vision, the approach recognises the interdependent and eco-dependent nature of life and sees the ecological and social crises as inseparable.
Municipalism in practice
Municipalism offers us the opportunity to redefine the political arena and return power to the grassroots, to neighbourhoods, to local assemblies, to living rooms, to citizens. We shape a new world, starting where we live. And it’s not just in theory — it’s happening in practice in towns and cities all over the world.
One of the leading lights has been Barcelona en Comú, and it’s no wonder they have captured the world’s attention—the progressive nature of their politics and the ambitious goals they are working towards are both humbling and awe-inspiring.
Some of their objectives include rehabilitating housing and sanctions against empty buildings; introducing energy efficiency criteria for new buildings; promoting urban agriculture; supporting care and care services; introducing a tourist tax; incorporating social and environmental criteria in public procurement; re-municipalisation of water supply alongside re-localisation of energy production; strengthening local trade; promoting social entrepreneurship and co-operatives; introducing independent citizen audits of municipal budgets and debt; establishing salary limits, including publication of income and assets; and supporting local initiatives such as social centres, consumer co-operatives, community gardens, time banks and social currencies.
Taking their lead from local people, decisions are made within neighbourhood groups and district assemblies. Autonomous and self-managed, these groups and assemblies deal with the issues affecting their geographical area. If you’re not able to attend, you can still get involved by using one of their many online participatory tools, and Decidim.Barcelona was the first open source platform made with and for citizens. This digital tool has been used to develop the Municipal Action Plan, which sets out the priorities and objectives for the local government.
In this same spirit, Citizen Platform — Ciudad Futura — in Rosario, Argentina, use processes that enable citizens to imagine and build the future society they want to see. Originating from the convergence of two social movements known for their commitment to popular struggle, they gained the support of nearly 100,000 local people and managed to elect three councillors to the City Hall in 2015. They maintain one foot inside the institution and the other rooted in the social movements from which they sprung. They are transforming existing local institutions whilst also building new non-state institutions, and their motto is ‘hacer’, meaning ‘to do’ or ‘to make’ in Spanish.
But if there’s anywhere that demonstrates the potential that we have to reclaim our territories and build something new, based on principles of democracy, participation and equity, it has to be Rojava in Northern Syria. Under conditions of unimaginable terror and oppression, they have created an independent state with decentralised self-rule. The region is made up of 130 municipalities, with populations that include many different religions and ethnicities — Kurds, Arabs, Turks, Syrians, Christians, Muslims and many more. Together, they have built their own administration based on principles of democratic confederalism and characterised by grassroots participation, ecological sustainability, protection of ethnic and religious minorities and gender equality, including the co-presidency of one male and one female president.
These are just three of the many stories of municipalist-led change that inspired us at the conference. There were numerous others from towns and cities around the world, such as Attica (Greece), Belo Horizonte (Brazil), Jackson (USA), Cape Town (South Africa), Grenoble (France), Hong Kong (China), Buckfastleigh (UK), Madrid (Spain), Naples (Italy), Valparaíso (Chile), New York City (USA) and many more.
Local limitations and the rise of a global municipalist movement
The desire to access local government powers came, in part, from the limitations of protest and a wish to transform local institutions so that they could support social movements.
Along with the many success stories, councillors and mayors also spoke of the numerous challenges that they have faced on entering local government: age-old hierarchies, systems and traditions that are deeply embedded in their institutions; cuts to their budgets and resources; and the austerity, anti-immigration and other measures imposed from above.
Bit by bit, citizen platforms and progressive local politics are making headway, opening up spaces and redistributing power, but it’s often slower than originally hoped. Alongside citizen platforms, there is strong recognition of the fundamental role that social movements and non-state institutions have to play within the municipalist movement, in order to achieve the profound social and ecological change needed. These citizen platforms need strong movements on the ground that push for change from outside of the institution.
An important next step for this movement, and one of the main aims of the conference, is to form an international municipalist network. Putting technology at its service, the movement is spanning borders and becoming an interconnected web of place-based change that includes local government, social movements and non-state institutions.This comes from the recognition that we cannot work in isolation nor within the restrictions of national borders. Many of the most pressing challenges we face, such as climate change and the refugee crisis are global in nature and we need to work together to address them.
All workshops and talks from the Fearless Cities conference are available for free online.