In our current political context it is easy to be pessimistic about the possibilities of taking action to change reality. Social movements face serious limitations in their efforts to pressure governments that ignore them. Traditional parties yield to pressure from business lobbies and governments legitimize decision-making spaces created and led by large corporations, where the course of public policies is defined (in what is known as multistakeholderism), and, moreover, reflect ways of doing that are typical of the nineteenth century (representative democracy), instead of adapting to the expectations of people in the twenty-first century. Meanwhile, the far-right gains ground with its anti-equality and anti-democratic rhetoric.
As things stand, anyone claiming to have a magic formula is no doubt mistaken. However, there are many people who increasingly believe that taking action at the local level is a promising way forward. There are many cities and towns that, faced with the inaction, ineptitude, or malice of governments and powerful actors in other high places, are weaving initiatives to defend those most vulnerable. And this happens thanks both to local governments and to social movements and civil society organizations. For a variety of reasons, the municipal sphere has recently shown it has great potential to effect change.
That is the case with many city councils in countries such as the United States, where, during the Trump era, the central government curtailed rights while cities expanded them. Thus, San Antonio implemented mandatory paid sick leave, San Francisco created a free higher education institute, and many cities declared themselves “sanctuaries” to protect migrants from deportation. In these cases and in many others, cities offer the protection denied by the state.
But some might say that these examples are no more than that, and that in many other places local governments are far from acting in that manner. However, one of the particularly interesting aspects of action at the local level is that it enables new forms of coordination between public bodies, social movements, and citizens, which are much more difficult to achieve on a larger scale. The experiences of the Transformative Cities Award are examples of how acting at the immediate level people, movements, and institutions are capable of generating tensions and collaborations that bring about profound and innovative change.
Why take action at the local level?
First, because at that level it is relatively easy to achieve change. As Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH, or Platform for People Affected by Mortgages) preaches and practices, it is the small victories that change the world. Taking action at the local level enables real progress, as opposed to embarking on large projects that never get off the ground. Working with other members of the community to stop an eviction will not change housing laws, but it does prevent someone from being made homeless and it reminds and reassures us that we must take action because we need each other.
This connects with the second reason, which is that small victories have a major psychological impact on people: they show that we can make cracks in the system, even if we cannot break it. And if this phenomenon gains momentum, it begins to thaw the cold pessimism that takes hold of us, and it has the ability to gradually infect more and more people. Thus, in the case of Barcelona, the efforts to stop evictions gave way to the forming of Barcelona en Comú, a citizen platform that in 2014 won the elections and is now implementing progressive housing policies. Despite the harsh crisis context, the illusion spread, snowballing into something bigger and bigger, joining other movements, and, somewhere along the line, it proved unstoppable. As a municipal citizen platform, Barcelona en Comú was one of the finalists in the housing category of the first edition of the Transformative Cities Award. In the second edition, the public renewable energy company created by the city council won the people’s choice award in the energy category. Barcelona Energia, which became the largest public power company in Spain, is a project that is key for understanding how local action pushes the boundaries of the possible.
The third reason stems, in turn, from the first two: local action makes it easier to move from protesting to taking action. The experiences that have been nominated for the award since 2018 are a clear example of this phenomenon. For example, tired of being ignored by the state, the San Pedro Magisterio neighborhood in Cochabamba, Bolivia, built its own wastewater treatment plant. A similar initiative was furthered by displaced persons in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, who decided to take matters into their own hands and secure the resources to build their houses.
Fourth, the local level differs from other, higher levels—for example the state level—in that it necessarily reflects the specific characteristics of the place in question, whether it be a neighborhood, a town, a city, an island, a metropolis, or a region. Every territory is different, every population has its own characteristics, its problems, its resources, its history. When change is activated at the local level local it must inevitably be based on those concrete and complex realities, as the Black community of Jackson, Mississippi, has been doing for years with the construction of a transformative project based on their own reality and their own needs. This makes the proposed solutions generally more appropriate for each specific case, in contrast to what happens when actions, plans, and policies are decided on a not-so-immediate scale, since in order to address a diversity of complex realities it is necessary to simplify them, thus incurring different kinds of mistakes. The women workers of Solapur, in India, were perfectly aware of this when they decided to apply the “gherao” strategy, which involved retaining visiting government representatives so they could take them to see their housing projects and make them understand for themselves exactly what those projects were about.
Fifth, taking action at the local level instead of doing it on other scales enables not only substantive change, such as advancing certain rights or recovering or generating certain resources, it also changes the ways in which political action is deployed. As Nancy Fraser notes in her famous article “A Triple Movement?” (2013), it is not just about pursuing social protection (the left’s project) or freedom (the right’s project), it is also about achieving emancipation. It is about ordinary people becoming political subjects instead of objects of politics, with politics understood in a broad sense that includes not only the institutional dimension, but the community dimension as well. This point is illustrated by almost all of the experiences that are part of the Atlas of Utopias. One example is the organization Communities for a Better Environment, of Richmond, Virginia, in the United States, which works together with a wide variety of organizations, ranging from groups that promote the use of bicycles to groups that provide support to former prisoners. It does not matter if they have different objectives; what matters is that people act together.
Different forms of engaging with public bodies
In addition to the points mentioned in the previous section, action at the local level is particularly interesting because it shows that it is capable of fostering new forms of coordination between bodies, movements, and citizens.
The traditional way of understanding the relationship between social movements, political parties, public bodies, and citizens has more or less been as follows: citizens vote to elect their representatives, who run for office through political parties and occupy positions in public bodies when they obtain a certain number of votes. Once elected, it is these persons who, as representatives, make the decisions and are called to account some years later, when new elections are held. That is how representative democracy—a system born in the nineteenth century—works. But over the course of the twentieth century, social movements also began to play an important role: that of organizing to question the actions of governments, when such actions affect the interests of the people. Their main tools were protesting and lobbying.
This development represented a leap forward with respect to the system designed in the nineteenth century. But it still has limitations, which are what is being questioned now, especially at the local level. In countless cases, social movements were unable to further their demands because their representatives did not have enough incentives to implement them and they were co-opted by large companies and elites. The Transformative Cities Award experiences show how, in the face of rigid public bodies, it is possible to find new forms of articulating citizens, social movements, and local institutions to thus slowly overcome this hurdle. They have deployed different kinds of strategies, ranging gradually from the traditional scheme, with movements that protest and exert pressure, to the opposite extreme, with movements whose members run for office and go on to occupy elected positions, not just to implement their proposals, but to change the very institutional structures as well.
The Solapur housing case can perhaps be considered an example of the traditional model of movements that make their demands “from the outside.” However, even this experience was not simply a case of people organizing as a social movement only. They also organized as a cooperative to perform certain functions directly, in collaboration with the government, although their demands have primarily been furthered through negotiation processes with public bodies.
In other cases, such as that of San Pedro Magisterio in Cochabamba or the Penca de Sábila Corporation in Medellín, Colombia, the movements went one step further and were able to raise their own resources to carry out their projects. Here the role played by the government was that of cooperation, but the direction and implementation were in the hands of civil society.
The farther the movements are from the traditional scheme, the more blurred the boundaries between public bodies and society. Responsibilities are shared and decisions-making is increasingly more distributed. It is no longer a case of movements making demands on institutions “from the outside,” but rather of the two actors gradually engaging more and more with each other in different ways. The examples of Grenoble or Cádiz illustrate another possibility: that of collaboration between public bodies and citizens, albeit still through the government’s leadership. Both the impact plan against energy poverty in the case of the Spanish city and the remunicipalization implemented by the city council in France show that it is possible to innovate in the way public services are managed, in collaboration with society. Little by little we move closer to the logic of common goods.
If we continue to move along this imaginary continuum, on the opposite end we find cases like that of the Richmond Progressive Alliance and the Barcelona en Comú organization. Both cases are “municipalist” citizen platforms that have decided to transition from being “outside” to being “inside” and have run for office in local elections. Once in office, they themselves have implemented the policies they were demanding. But their goal once inside has also been to change the institutions themselves and further blur the boundaries between the institution and society.
Again, the fact that these transformations are happening at the local level and not at the state or regional level confirms some of the observations made above, namely that acting in the immediate space has the potential to generate certain transformations that on other scales are more difficult to bring about.
The limits of local action and what to do about them
Romanticizing the idea of change at the local level would be both naïve and irresponsible. Naïve because there are countless limitations to be faced. Although cities and towns have enormous potential for generating real change in society, and that potential is, in part, due to the limits to action on higher scales, there are certain things that are not possible.
A first obstacle is the lack of resources, which is connected with the revenue structures that normally operate in the different territories. With significant variations from country to country, the percentage of the state budget that is managed by local governments compared to central government is usually very small (except, for example, in Scandinavian or northern European countries). Moreover, the power to collect taxes at the local level is often restricted by law. As a result, even when local governments wish to implement public policies on their own initiative or in response to demands from social movements and organizations, it is very difficult for them to do so.
This widespread issue aside, local governments often have limited powers in general and, therefore, while at the local level there may be a willingness to make changes and the resources may be available, it is not that simple and it may be necessary to turn to other levels of government, such as the regional or state level, and in some cases even the supra-state level.
It is not just governments that face this limitation, as something similar applies to movements and organizations, as well. They have the capacity to bring about profound change if their actions are restricted to the local sphere, but their scope is limited. It is possible, for example, to reduce pollution in a given city through the actions of environmental organizations, but these organizations will not be able to solve the problem on a large scale if they do not seek ways to coordinate their actions translocally (and that is not an easy thing to do).
Closely related to that difficulty, romanticizing local efforts would be irresponsible because in order to generate large-scale transformations it is necessary to attack the causes of many problems and not just their consequences. And those causes are rarely found only at the local level. Municipalism, or local political action, should not be confused with parochialism, which is often on the table as a possible option. The aim is not merely achieving self-sufficiency or protection with respect to what happens beyond the local context, but also, in some way, changing the world.
It is for these and other reasons that, in many cases, projects that begin at the local level then seek ways to impact beyond the local, especially by working horizontally, in networks, without creating large centralized structures at the state or supra-state level that can cause the projects to lose whatever it is that drives the action “from below.” There is still a long way to go, exploring and testing out these forms of political action.
Changing the forms
This brings us, once again, to the discussion on the forms of political action. One of the reasons that building power from the immediate space is desirable is that it allows individuals to become protagonists of politics and not just objects of politics. But the possibilities for changing the forms are not limited to that, and it is important to bear in mind an additional aspect: the feminist potential of this strategy.
Practice has shown that the patriarchal system, the capitalist system, and the nation-state as the center of political power form a triple alliance in which they coexist and mutually reinforce each other. They have all relied on the unpaid reproductive work of women as a cushion on which to rest comfortably, and they have exercised a type of power that is based on imposition and coercion. In contrast, the construction of power from the local level has the potential to build new horizontal, relational, and collaborative forms of power. This can be seen clearly in all of the experiences mentioned, where it is the people who build power together and are able to generate change despite resistance from the triple alliance. Based on their concrete situations, such as pollution, lack of housing, or lack of drinking water, people are able to build a relational power that challenges and changes reality. This form of taking action is profoundly feminist and, in spite of its limitations, it paves the road for a true transformation of the forms in which power is exercised. A great example of this is Pengon-FOE Palestine, where women lead the transition to clean energy sources despite the permanent military occupation of the territory and a strongly patriarchal social context that does not facilitate action.
This obviously does not mean that there are not still many challenges to be faced with respect to other dimensions of a feminist conception of activism and politics. Putting care at the center of daily activities and paying special attention to who it is performs care-giving tasks and how the burdens are distributed are key for changing the forms of mobilization and political action. For example, women activists still find themselves in a situation in which, in addition to their jobs and activism, they have to shoulder the brunt of the care of dependants (the elderly, children, animals), but also of those with whom they share their activism: they perform most of the tasks connected with psychological work, the invisible tasks, the tasks that keep organizations and groups together.
Thus, it is essential to consider at least three elements as central to the agendas of movements and organizations. The first is that the care of dependents must be socialized. Not just so women can offload some of these tasks, but also so men can incorporate care-giving as part of their lives and, consequently, change the masculinized ways of conceiving life and politics.
The second is that people need to take care of themselves. Effective political action needs well-rested, happy, and self-confident people. Thus, including self-care as part of the agenda is important for social change to be successful.
Finally, caring for other people, for fellow activists involved in transformative projects, must be a component of all such projects. The ways in which decisions are made, in which work is carried out, in which tasks are distributed, and even the ways in which people talk to each other and interact all have an impact on the type of experience each person will have. Maintaining patriarchal, vertical ways of doing, with little dialogue and based on imposition, is not a good way of caring for fellow activists, even if urgency and the need for efficiency often relegate the care dimension to the background.
Both the relational construction of power and the possibility of putting care at the center of political activity are easier to achieve when people can get along, share, solve conflicts as they go along, and create structures that allow for collective action. This does not mean, obviously, that action at the local level guarantees success in these dimensions, but it does mean that working on that scale makes it much more possible.
Teaser photo credit: The Saló de Cent, in the City Hall of Barcelona. By José Luis Filpo Cabana – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19329478