Cities and hegemony
“Cities are complex and incomplete systems, which is why they have remained so for centuries, for millennia”.
Saskia Sassen opened with these words the public event in Amsterdam that culminated the first edition of the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award.1
Over the past decade, cities have continued to generate growing interest. The United Nations announced in 20142 that, for the first time ever, more than half of humanity now lives in urban areas and that by 2050, the urban population will account for 68% of the total population.3 Cities occupy 3% of the planet’s land area but generate 80% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)4, consume between 60 and 80% of resources and emit 70% of CO2.5 These trends affect the rural environment and encourage increasing migration to cities, also leading to the proliferation of megacities and the unprecedented social challenges these bring.6
The importance of cities is not a new phenomenon. The trends that gave rise to modernity, modern democracies and the capitalist system began in medieval cities, leaving behind feudalism and absolutist monarchies by divine right. It is in the cities that the defining elements of an era become most visible.
Back in the early 1990s, Saskia Sassen pointed out that the world is better understood if instead of looking at it as a space of competition between states, we look at cities and their role as nodes connecting a global network of transmission of financial flows, value chains designed by transnational corporations, and spaces for the creation of fashions, trends and cultural influences.
Since the end of the Cold War, the most transformative economic and political process has been neoliberal globalisation, the latest stage of the capitalist system. As an economic and political model, neoliberalism encourages the transfer of control of economic activity from the public to the private sector, thus increasing privatisation and limiting public ownership and government regulation – including labour and environmental protection laws. In the neoliberal imaginary, successful cities are dense, with millions of inhabitants, a high concentration of capital, home to large numbers of transnational corporations, extensive use of communication technologies, airports and other communication nodes, great tourist attractions and monumental architectural works. The city is then re-created as a commercial brand that must compete with others to attract public and private investment, media attention, workers willing to be geographically mobile and, if necessary, to live in precarious conditions in order to gain access to the unique services and income sources existing in cities.
This imaginary has transformed cities and has had a great impact on their inhabitants, although not without resistance. Cities have been nodes of creation and transmission of the most significant social movements of recent decades. It was in Seattle in 1999 that the first major victory was won to halt the process of neoliberal globalisation. Massive civil disobedience actions impeded an agreement at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) conference, which intended to set a new global standard of trade relations and economic development based on neoliberal principles. The call came forth from the World Social Forums in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, another world was possible, encouraging the organisation of other World and Regional Social Forums in other cities around the world. After the financial crisis of 2008, the Arab Spring and the large movements of 2011 were characterised by the occupation of public spaces in cities: Tahir in Cairo, Puerta del Sol in Madrid, Syntagma in Athens and Zucotti Park in New York. Subsequent waves of protest to neoliberalism followed this trend, like the civil disobedience blockade of the European Central Bank (ECB) in Frankfurt. Cities are also the main organisational nodes of international movements fighting for a world without climate crisis or for gender equality.
At the same time, we must not forget the decisive and influential mobilisations that have resisted neoliberal globalisation from the rural environment, such as the Zapatistas in Mexico, other indigenous peoples in North and South America, or peasants in India. However, it is also in the cities that their proposals are becoming popular worldwide.
The local governments governing cities have also greatly developed their relevance the last decades. The neoliberal decentralisation promoted since the 1980s through New Public Management, promoted from the state level governments and international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank, handed over to local governments the responsibility for managing a large part of public services, such as water and rubbish collection. However, the transfer of competencies was not accompanied by the transfer of budgetary resources, leading to a proliferation of public-private partnerships and privatisation. After decades of this process, the same local power is beginning to reverse neoliberal policies, as demonstrated by the wave of more than 1,400 (re)municipalisations of public services in 2,400 cities around the world since 2000.7
At the same time, local governments are more connected than ever, with multiple spaces and networks trying to determine the role that cities will play in this century, in particular which elements of urban life will be managed from the private or public sphere.8
We find, then, that cities are among the most economically and politically contested spaces, where imaginaries of cultural hegemony are being constructed today, and where the course of the 21st century is being set.
One world dies and another struggles to be born
The current climate and health crises has shown that the capitalist economic and political model and its latest expression, neoliberalism, is outdated. If we define the capitalist system as a model that prioritises the relentless accumulation of capital to maintain a constant rate of growth, we conclude that this model makes no sense in a finite world. Each year the equivalent of the resources of 1.7 planet earths are consumed, meaning that all our consumption from summer onwards exceeds the regenerative capacity of our planet.9 The actors who have led and benefited most from the process of neoliberal globalisation have been transnational corporations, through the concentration of capital and wealth at unprecedented levels, and the creation of transnational production and consumption chains that have resulted in a historic use of natural resources. This model of production and consumption is responsible for the destruction of planetary biodiversity, which has facilitated the emergence and spread of global pandemics such as COVID-19.10
The consolidation of the capitalist system throughout the world has brought with it the expansion of an international political system in which states constitute the basic political agent from which the conditions for the perpetual accumulation of capital are generated.11 The current system of global governance of reference is the United Nations (UN) system, formally made up of states. This system is currently suffering from a crisis of legitimacy. The best example of this is the erratic position of its major promoter over the last two decades, the United States of America, which has undermined the authority of the entire system, from the Security Council to the Human Rights Council. Even if the UN system were to overcome its current crisis, the economic reality today is that states retain their formal international political relevance, but this increasingly contrasts with their declining economic relevance.
Of the world’s 100 largest economic entities by annual revenue, 71 are transnational corporations and the rest are states.12 Moreover, their economic power relative to cities is also in decline. If we compare the 200 largest economies by GDP, 129 are cities and the rest are states. For example, the cities of Tokyo or New York are more economically relevant than the whole of Canada or the Russian Federation.13
We see then a formal international political system in which states are the legitimate actors from a political point of view. However, if we accept for the sake of simplicity that GDP is a useful measure of economic influence, states as economic actors are less and less relevant vis-à-vis transnational corporations and cities. These contradictions allow us to better understand the current crisis of neoliberal globalisation and the recent success of political projects openly opposed to fundamental elements of it.
Global society in transformation, where to?
After decades of neoliberal globalisation the consequences of its internal contradictions are reaching a tipping point. What will it be transformed into and who will lead this historic change?
We can distinguish three main trends:
– a return to nationalist, authoritarian and exclusionary anti-globalist imaginaries;
– institutionalising the real economic influence of transnational corporations in systems of global governance, so-called multistakeholderism;
– overcoming the logic of constant growth based on the accumulation of capital and thus building a post-capitalist world. This new world won’t be built only in cities, but it is through cities that it may eventually become the hegemonic model.
These three trends are explained in more detail below:
Returning to the national and exclusionary is the agenda promoted by Trump, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Modi, Le Pen, the promoters of Brexit and other recent nationalist processes. Based on ethnic and historical mythologies, they envision the creation of nation-wide castles defended by 21st century walls, with drones, facial recognition and other military and surveillance technologies. This vision, however, is incapable of offering viable proposals for dealing with the great challenges of our time, which can only be met collectively and globally: climate change, pandemics, the proliferation of nuclear weapons or the regulation of highly disruptive technologies such as artificial intelligence.
Advocates of multi-stakeholder governance argue that transnational corporations, as economic entities with the expertise and capacity to deal with challenges of all kinds, should have a say in the global governance system. One example is the World Economic Forum in Davos, with its various proposals to reshape global governance, such as the Global Redesign Initiative14 or the Great Reset in the wake of the COVID19 pandemic.15 Such a model has limitations related to existing conflicts of interest. An illustrative example: five of the ten largest transnational corporations measured by revenue are involved in fossil fuel exploitation. One hundred multinationals are responsible for 70% of CO2 emissions.16 After several decades of climate summits, it has not been possible to agree on binding rules for those most responsible for climate change. This is directly related to the increasing participation of transnational corporations´ representatives in these summits and in UN decision-making bodies.17 In other words, multi-stakeholder governance promotes a new style of capitalism that consolidates transnational corporations as political actors with at least the same formal and effective legitimacy to legislate as states. This increases the real risk of the consolidation of a new system of global governance made up of decision-making spaces where transnational corporations leverage their economic power to decide who gets in and who does not, without democratic accountability.18
Transnational corporations have also been among the first to recognise the economic importance and transformative political potential of cities, and have even coined and promoted the use of the term “smart cities” to define the cities we should aspire to. The problem with “smart cities” is that their promoters present the limited access to rights and services in urban environments (such as adequate water, housing or mobility infrastructures) as problems stemming from the scarcity of private investment. In particular from the allegedly insufficient installation of information and data collection technologies, which require a renewed process of capital concentration. As a result, local institutions are relegated to facilitating the accumulation of capital and the profits of the companies that provide such services, while inhabitants are regarded as consumers and labour. The Smart Cities model has attracted however many city governments, as well as many that consider that the multi-stakeholder approach can bring them more access to global governance structures than the current multilateral UN system.19
Exploiting the contradictions of capitalism to overcome the logic of capital’s relentless and ever-increasing accumulation is not a new idea. Every capitalist crisis has been defined by the anti-capitalist movement as the last one before the construction of a post-capitalist world.20 Today, the global climate and health crises provoked by the capitalist system again present a historic opportunity. These crises are also taking place in a context of unprecedented global connectivity between those seeking to overcome capitalism as an economic and political system: from the alter-globalisation movements to the Arab Spring, from the ccupy the squares movements in 2011 to the new generation of young activists confronting the climate crisis, or organising a new transformative feminist wave. However, the virtual space is contested. After the initial euphoria in which new horizontal and networked movements dominated the political use of technology or technopolitics (such as Wikileaks, Anonymous and other coordinated global action initiatives), in recent years the pendulum has swung the other way, and there are movements (from grass-roots movements to governments with nationalist and exclusionary agendas) that use new technologies very successfully, as we have seen in the case of Cambridge Analytica.
New information technologies are necessary but not sufficient tools. The capitalist crisis is not enough either. Alternatives to capitalism cannot only be based on a dialectical contestation to the capitalist system, they must be material, they must be drunk and eaten, they must be capable of making life flourish and caring for it, and of disputing capitalism’s capacity to meet basic needs. But how do we define post-capitalism? And, more importantly, in the face of information saturation, what post-capitalist practices should we look at in order to support them, so that they flourish and multiply?
Exploring post-capitalism and helping it to thrive
Thatcher’s oft-quoted slogan ‘There is no alternative’ to neoliberalism has become one of its great messages. From progressive and anti-capitalist spaces, the opposite has always been argued: there are alternatives. In fact, we can affirm that there are so many alternatives that we do not know where to begin. We find it difficult to distinguish the anecdotal from initiatives with a systemic character of transformation. It is like looking at the sky on a dark night. We see hundreds or even thousands of stars, some twinkling brighter than others, some larger or smaller. We can identify some constellations that have been articulated as imaginaries that we can define as post-capitalist: social and solidarity economy, de-growth, common goods, cooperativism, remunicipalisation, new green deal, just transition, new municipalism, ecofeminism, buen vivir (good living), right to the city and many more. These are narratives, spaces, networks and platforms with solid theoretical frameworks and processes of action that provide clues to post-capitalist futures.
In general, these processes are accompanied by exercises that catalogue initiatives that fit under a particular methodological framework (be it within the defence of the commons, buen vivir, de-growth or others) and attempt to facilitate communication and exchange. However, once the methodological and technical challenge is overcome, we are often left with a patchwork of diverse maps composed of a large number of local examples.21 To add to the complexity, many of these local examples can play several roles at the same time. For example, a feminist cooperative anchored in a local community that engages in organic food production using renewable energy can be classified as a social and solidarity economy, as de-growth, or as an example of a democratic management of the commons. The definition is not the fundamental problem, the key questions are how to make such an initiative flourish in order to increase its impact and facilitate its transfer to other contexts.
One of the most difficult questions in promoting local economic and political practices that allow us to overcome capitalist logic is how to transfer them to other contexts that are by definition very diverse. For example, the recent wave of municipally-rooted initiatives in Europe that openly confronts the power of transnational corporations to defend public services22 are hard to transfer to other contexts without universal public services or relentless criminalisation of activists. The practices of peasants and indigenous peoples in the defence of their commons are very complex to replicate in highly industrialized urban spaces.
Can we create a process and design a tool to help us navigate the rich theoretical and practical universe of alternatives to capitalism, identifying which ones deserve more attention and resources to scale up and, more importantly, spread to other places?23 Where do we start?
The Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award and the Atlas of Utopias
When looking at the universe of alternatives to capitalism, some of us at the Transnational Institute thought that it is relevant to first identify collective actions that do not prioritise above all else private profit and capital accumulation, and then to use two lenses to focus on those that:
– take place in a particular political space: cities
– focus their economic and political activities on securing access to a range of basic human rights such as water, food systems, energy and housing.
The selection of these frameworks has theoretical, but also political communication reasons. These reasons are developed in the different contributions that follow this article.
Laura Roth discusses the relevance of local political action as a key transformative space in the current context, while the theoretical framework for studying collective action as a process of obtaining rights is explained in the methodology section by Erick Palorames. His section also explores the reasons for organising an award to fulfil our research interests and the methodology we propose.
There are many initiatives that try to catalogue alternatives to capitalism and facilitate exchange and cross-fertilisation. From the Transnational Institute, together with several international networks, we propose a process with a unique character: to organise an international award that gives visibility to transformative practices towards post-capitalism where collaboration and cooperation are the basis of participation. The Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award is proposed as a collective and democratic platform, with clear and transparent rules, which can be shared and improved and which provides an opportunity for exchange. A process-platform that assumes the struggle for cultural hegemony as central, that internalises both theoretical knowledge and existing experience in the construction of post-capitalism, but gives the public the final decision on the winners. A solid process before which it makes sense to pause for a moment and learn more from the practices, victories and lessons learned.
The result is an award process that shares attention among participating initiatives, so not only the winners receive attention and focus, which gives rise to an Atlas of possible Utopias and hints at what we can achieve, as Bernardo Gutiérrez explains in his section. This is an award that tries to dialogue with the lessons of the irresistible organisational and transformative capacity of feminism and, in particular, of ecofeminism, as Yayo Herrero explores.
Welcome to the Transformative Cities People’s Choice Award and the Atlas of Utopias,24 an opportunity for progressive local administrations, municipalist coalitions, social movements and civil society organisations to popularise and share their experiences in shaping a post-capitalist world made up of many utopian worlds that are already materialising all over the planet. Another world is not only possible, it is already happening.
Teaser photo credit: By Ludvig14 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84136840