Why libertarian municipalism is more needed today than ever before

People’s assembly in Barcelona, Spain. Photo: Jisakiel

by Tyler Anderson

We are entering dire times. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released their 2018 report that has only reassured what many of us know is true. We need to take immediate decisive action on climate change or face a dismal future of increasingly powerful natural disasters, economic instability and reactionary violence.

According to the report, we have 12 years to stop inalterable climate change and that is going to require massive global infrastructure projects aimed at transforming our archaic fossil fuel system to one rooted in sustainable development and ecological understanding. Such a project will clearly be one of the largest developmental efforts in human history and will require global collaboration on a scale never seen before.

Yet, in the face of almost certain annihilation, the transnational ruling class are in a desperate struggle to maintain and profit from the ruin and disaster of their own system. For progress to occur, we need to build a mass movement of millions across the world united behind a call for a new system. And, threatened by new despotic right wing authoritarian regimes worldwide, we need to scale up fast!

According to Abdullah Öcalan, we can understand almost all of today’s crises to be crises of democracy. While the ideal of democracy was used to legitimize imperialist interventions across the developing world since the 1950s, it was never a lived reality even in the West. Instead we were sold shallow representative republicanism in place of real face-to-face direct democracy where individuals have actual power over society.

Representative ‘democracy’ ultimately turns people from empowered citizens to alienated constituents. It turns democracy—a lived, empowering and involved process—into a spectacle of rooting for one’s chosen team. And so it lends itself  to oligarchy and, ultimately, dictatorship and imperialist expansion.

In fact, since the end of the Second World War we have witnessed a massive decline of civic engagement, with far lower in-person participation in community associations, clubs and groups of all kinds. Not to mention a decline in wages and an increase in inequality—both in the West and internationally. As society and political structures have been increasingly centralized in the hands of a wealthy few, they have also closed people off from access to power.

Representative ‘democracy’ ultimately turns people from empowered citizens to alienated constituents. It turns democracy—a lived, empowering and involved process—into a spectacle of rooting for one’s chosen team. And so it lends itself  to oligarchy and, ultimately, dictatorship and imperialist expansion. This has been the case of representative democracies from the time of Rome.

 

A politics of empowerment

Libertarian municipalists argue for a reinvigoration of the civic and political sphere. In place of representative forms of democracy they argue for an inclusive participatory system where every community member has equal power over the matters of governance that impacts them.

Libertarian municipalism is a politics of empowerment. It recognizes democracy as an almost universal value. It begs the question, will we as a society finally embrace actual democracy or accept dictatorship? Libertarian municipalists absolutely reject the representative republicanism that has been peddled to us as “democracy”, a form of government that, in practice, is only a democracy for the rich.

At the core of the libertarian municipalist strategy for change is the creation of the popular assembly and its eventual empowerment as a dual power. Dual power is a situation where two powers coexist with each other and compete for legitimacy.

Libertarian municipalists seek to either create extra-parliamentary assemblies that increasingly gain governing power from local governments or seek to change city charters to legally empower popular assemblies as the primary policy making bodies over representative and hierarchical structures such as mayors and city councils. They envision the municipalization of the economy, where  productive assets are held by the community collectively. They strive to build a global network of communities, neighborhoods and cities interlinked through confederal bonds. According to Murray Bookchin,

In libertarian municipalism, dual power is meant to be a strategy for creating precisely those libertarian institutions of directly democratic assemblies that would oppose and replace the State. It intends to create a situation in which the two powers—the municipal confederations and the nation-state—cannot coexist, and one must sooner or later displace the other.

The popular assembly thus acts as a place that gives any individual in a community direct access to power, shaping policy and the world around them. This is in direct conflict with the hierarchical nation-state and transnational capitalist firms which seek to control the labor, land and resources of communities across the world.

In Minneapolis, protestors demand the city defend Muslims, accept immigrants, welcome refugees, and support workers. Photo: Fibonacci Blue

Cities and towns at the forefront

Today the tensions between cities and state entities couldn’t be more pronounced. The sanctuary city movement provides a stark example of the way cities across the country are already moving towards increased local autonomy and sovereignty over the federal government. Sanctuary cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans are just a few of the over 39 cities across the US who have joined forces to limit collaboration with federal authorities. According to Vojislava Filipcevic Cordes,

Sanctuary cities in the U.S. represent a feat against the hostile state and “provide a territorial legal entity at a different scale at which sovereignty is articulated” [18]. Sanctuary cities exemplify what Lippert has termed “sovereignty ‘from below’” [19] (p. 547) and are shaped by local legal and political contexts and the solidarity with social movements.

In the wake of an increasingly illegitimate federal government, urban areas take leadership on issues ranging from immigration to raising minimum wages, even if it is in direct conflict with the federal government. Along with this trend, we see growing political divides between urban and rural communities. After the 2018 election, Republicans lost their last congressional urban district in the country.

 As the cultural and political divide between rural and urban, local and federal become more pronounced in an era of increasing authoritarianism, it seems that the revolutionary alternatives provided by libertarian municipalism could have the wide appeal and potential support of millions of Americans needed to create political change. 

As the cultural and political divide between rural and urban, local and federal become more pronounced in an era of increasing authoritarianism, it seems that the revolutionary alternatives provided by libertarian municipalism could have the wide appeal and potential support of millions of Americans needed to create political change. But what will that mass movement look like? How can we build the power to force politicians to stop pandering to the fossil fuel industry and the fascist right, and bring about real change?

 

The left must rebuild political life

Bookchin was one of the key theorists behind libertarian municipalism. In his essay, “Thoughts on Libertarian Municipalism, he put forward a strategic vision for this kind of movement that we can still learn from today.  He begins by describing libertarian municipalism as  “ a confrontational form of face-to-face democratic, anti statist politics…that is decidedly concerned with the all-important question of power, and it poses the questions: Where shall power exist? By what part of society shall it be exercised?”.

For Bookchin, the decline of civic and political life is of paramount concern. With its decline, Bookchin sees a vacuum forming in mainstream political discourse where leftist positions have increasingly degraded and shrunk into insular and subcultural discourses while broader society continues to be trapped in an Overton window swiftly moving towards the right.

Bookchin felt it was essential that the left find ways of reaching the broader society with its ideals. He envisioned the institutionalization of popular assemblies not only as an end but as a means. Assemblies would work to level the playing field for the left by giving it a place to both voice its vision for a new world to the public and to reinvigorate a american political life through the popularization of civic ethics rooted in valuing democracy, ecology, and social justice.

Bookchin was interested in the whole revolutionary pie, not just crumbs. As such, libertarian municipalism is a political framework that intentionally engages with that essential political question of: who has power and how should it be wielded? It is a politic that centers the conflict over who has power in society and mobilizes for popular control over existing institutions. As such, Bookchin went to great lengths to distinguish the libertarian municipalist organizing philosophy from other tendencies. He describes one tendency which is often confused with libertarian municipalism, sometimes called communitarianism:

“Communitarianism is defined by movements and ideologies that seek to transform society by creating so-called alternative economic and living situations such as food cooperatives, health centers, schools, printing workshops, community centers, neighborhood farms, “squats,” unconventional lifestyles, and the like”

While such efforts may benefit the people they directly work to serve, they often rely  on donations or self funding by their organizers and only serve small numbers of people. The amount and time required to maintain these programs often leads to burnout and massive resource sucks. They inevitably compete with existing social services or capitalist enterprises, leading many to eventual collapse.

While some argue that such programs are necessary to “attune” people to participation in democratic assemblies, or to gain their interest, Bookchin argues that people by and large are already ready for direct democracy, all that is missing is the incentive of such institutions offering people real power over their daily lives.

 

Legitimacy crisis

As states across the world abandon the enlightenment values of liberal humanism, they only rely on the principle of might as a right, cult of personalities, and populist white supremacy.

Some argue that the rise of the right across the world means that we have to reassert the power of the state—and build up those services it has started to abandon. However, the legitimacy crisis of the state in this country is not the result of it providing less services—it is the result of the complete denigration of moral authority invested in the halls of government. As states across the world abandon the enlightenment values of liberal humanism, they only rely on the principle of might as a right, cult of personalities, and populist white supremacy.  As such, we must diligently develop popular assemblies and organizations, training people in the art of civic engagement and duty. We need to put our arguments forward and we need to create space for other people to do the same. We need to advance our ethics. To acquire actual power is an utmost priority in our increasingly authoritarian and hierarchical society that denies us it. The goal of libertarian municipalism is thus total community control over an entire municipality.

By focusing on gaining popular control of the instruments, resources, and institutions currently wielded by the ruling class or local economic elites, communities could gain access through redistribution to the necessities of life in much longer-lasting and meaningful ways. For Bookchin, municipalism must center a redistributive political strategy. While much left strategy today prioritizes the creation of alternative economic institutions such as cooperatives or mutual aid programs, libertarian municipalism emphasizes the creation of the alternative political institution of the popular assembly. By focusing our time and energy on the creation and empowerment of these alternative political institutions working class people would eventually be able to gain access to an entire cities economic resources rather than the simply what can be collectively shared from the wage labor of other exploited peoples.  

In South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo organizes shack dwellers into locally based, direct democratic assemblies. Photo: Enough is Enough

An example from South Africa

A great example of a political organization that advances these principles is Abahlali baseMjondolo, a.ka., the South African Shack Dwellers Movement. This organization is based in the struggle of South Africa’s most impoverished, and emerged out of struggles for poor peoples’ right to construct improvised dwellings to live in. They are oriented around a directly democratic assembly model. They regularly engage in direct action through land occupations where they give people control of the land. Their movement has been successful in arguing for a form of democratic development where all peoples have a voice over urban development. Despite harsh repression, including the murder of many of their activists by state forces, they are quickly becoming one of South Africa’s largest left organizations with over 30,000 members, and chapters and elected officials in cities and towns across the country. They are pushing the imagination of what a directly democratic society could look like, while prioritizing political confrontation.

They describe their organizational model as a “party non-party”, for the way it engages in the political sphere, of running candidates and legislation as a normal political party yet different considering their organizational model and tactics, and in the sense that such candidates must have the mandate of popular assemblies while running only in local elections. The South African Shack Dwellers movement is agitating around that essential political question of “Where shall power exist and who shall exercise it?” in ways that put the question to the public at large. Its combination of direct democracy, direct action, and strategic local electoralism has made Abahlali baseMjondolo one of the most prominent political organizations in one of the worlds’ only countries where the left seems to be winning. As the rest of the world fears fascism, socialist land redistribution is being discussed in South Africa and Abahlali baseMjondolo has a prominent voice in leading this process. This South African movement shows the power of running insurgent candidates who are beholden to expressing the immediate necessity of establishing directly democratic dual power situations in our communities, cities, and municipalities.

The MST (Movimento Sem Terra), Brazil’s landless workers movement, at a rally before the occupation of a 13,000 acre farm. Photo: Paul Smith

Fighting fascism with full democracy

 In times of fascist dictatorship, we are likely to find broad appeal in fighting to salvage and develop an actual democracy. 

As a movement, libertarian municipalism is a marginal tendency even within the left. For these ideas to hit the grander stage, we need to communicate them in bigger ways, develop local assemblies, build a base through engaging in local fights and run insurgent candidates on our revolutionary platform. Simply put, we need assembly-based municipalist platformist organizations like the South African Shack Dwellers Movement, that are able to elevate our political positions and make them visible. Where our ideas enter into mainstream public discourse and where our organizations give people real access to power over their daily lives and existing institutions.  

We need to build on the cultural fabric of an America that values a certain conception of democracy through bringing the term’s contradiction into full light while offering our alternative. In times of fascist dictatorship, we are likely to find broad appeal in fighting to salvage and develop an actual democracy. Further, there is a need to prepare ourselves for the inevitable dark and trying times we face, as our political situation in the United States has become increasingly volatile and unpredictable.

Our very survival over the coming years is at stake. In the face of a completely hostile fascist state and a growing right wing militia movement who very soon could begin purges against the left as Steve Bannon’s friend Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian dictator-in-waiting is promising, we should be developing self defense programs to protect not just our organizing communities but our communities at large from persecution.

The establishment of a popular direct democracy would imply the popular control, radical reform or the outright abolition of police forces in favor of some form of volunteer defense forces who would be under the jurisdiction of the new popular government. Such a force could fill the essential duties of community defense and safety, while allowing our communities to address many of the systemic issues with our current racist, white supremacist policing and criminal justice system.

Unless we rapidly begin communicating coherent programs for libertarian municipalist dual power I fear that we will have little real ability to stop this inevitable fascist creep. In times of dictatorship, rising fascism and hopelessness we need to offer people real lived examples of direct democracy, give them access to power and boldly put these ideas into public discourse. We can win the legitimacy battle by building a base through engaging in local campaigns that give people more power and control over their lives and communities.  We can do this alongside running candidates with revolutionary municipalist platforms, even if we don’t think they have a chance. If our ideas are true and we are true to ourselves we might just end up winning!

We shouldn’t fear putting our ideas out there, communicating our desired world and our utopia, even if we don’t have all of the organizational bits and pieces put together to prefigure it. We never will until we abolish these systems. We have to get comfortable with that and stay true to our ethics and vision and communicate that in bigger and better ways while giving others inspiration to join in, shape it and work with us to push the world off its tracks to oblivion.

Tyler Anderson is a community organizer based in Portland Oregon. They were a key outside support organizer with the Sept. 9th international prison strike and have co-founded several communalist projects including Demand Utopia.

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October readings

Art by Jocine Velasco. Source: Commune Mag

Once a month, we put together a list of stories we’ve been reading: things you might’ve missed or crucial conversations going on around the web. We focus on environmental and social justice, cities, science fiction, current events, and political theory.

We try to include articles that have been published recently but will last, that are relatively light and inspiring, and are from corners of the web that don’t always get the light of day. This will also be a space to keep you up to date with news about what’s happening at Uneven Earth.

Yet again, we’ve collected a wealth of news and worthwhile readings from last month. October brought us material on the situation in Brazil, responses to the apocalyptic IPCC report, and Sveriges Riksbank’s prize in economics (what some call the ‘Nobel Prize in Economics’) won by Paul Romer and William Nordhaus; and as usual you’ll find articles on degrowth, radical municipalism, and new technologies and false solutions.

 

Uneven Earth updates

Meet catabolic capitalism: globalization’s gruesome twin | Link | We’ll soon discover that capitalism without globalization is much, much worse.

Dark municipalism | Link | The dangers of local politics

 

Top 5 articles to read

A subaltern perspective on China’s ecological crisis. The path of modernization has left China deeply mired in the mud of ecological and socioeconomic injustice.

Beyond the Green New Deal. One of the issues is not so much producing solutions as it is one of institutionalizing the capacity to listen and learn from those who already have good solutions, but whose solutions are almost always ignored. It is time to start listening. Not before it is too late. But precisely because it is already very late.

The freedom of real apologies

The automation charade. The rise of the robots has been greatly exaggerated. Whose interests does that serve?

Eco-pioneers in the 1970s: how aerospace workers tried to save their jobs – and the planet

 

News you might’ve missed

Mexico is on the verge of a major human disaster. Mexico City’s controversial new airport promises growth at the expense of human progress and the environment.

White House drops scheme to bail out coal, nukes

Surprise acquittal in Enbridge pipeline protesters’ case

New outlook on global warming: Best prepare for social collapse, and soon

‘Adults in the room’: Greens surge across Europe as centre-left flounders

Cuba embarks on a 100-year plan to protect itself from climate change

Changing climate forces desperate Guatemalans to migrate

Rise of the ‘megafarms’: how UK agriculture is being sold off and consolidated

World Bank and IMF guilty of promoting land grabs, increasing inequality

Europe’s dirty air kills 400,000 people every year

Mining crisis in Kiruna, Sápmi/Northern Sweden. The world’s largest underground iron ore mine and a cornerstone in the Swedish capitalist economy will soon be depleted. “The ore deposit in Kiruna has a more complex geometry at depth than was previously assumed. … This has to do with LKAB’s future, with mining beyond the life expectancy of the current main level, which extends to about year 2035. One could say that LKAB is now a mining company like any other and must search diligently for new ore volumes in order to survive.”

Google abandons Berlin base after two years of resistance. Kreuzberg residents were concerned about tech giant’s unethical practices and gentrification driving up rents

A 14-year-long oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico verges on becoming one of the worst in U.S. history

Indigenous suicide in Canada. This article provides some context, analysis, and profiles of initiatives working to address the severe ongoing crises of Indigenous suicide in the country.

“Catastrophic” effect of climate change on mental health found in new study

 

We’ve got 12 years: responses to the IPCC

There’s no time for gradualism. The urgency of climate change has never been clearer. We need a bold vision of a good and livable future — and a political program to match.

The uses of disaster. Climate change is here. In the midst of the storm, an opportunity arises to break with capitalism and its vicious inequality. Let’s seize it while we can. The alternatives are unthinkable.

The hope at the heart of the apocalyptic climate change report. Along with their latest dire predictions, the world’s leading climate scientists offered a new path forward—but will anyone take it?

To fix the climate crisis, we must face up to our imperial past.

Why catastrophic climate change is probably inevitable now. How capitalism torched the planet by imploding into fascism.

IPCC report: First thoughts on next steps by Sydney Azari

Who is the we in “We are causing climate change”?

Climate breakdown, capitalism and democracy

Fossil fuels are a threat to civilization, new U.N. report concludes

Billionaires are the leading cause of climate change

The case for climate pessimism. A frightening report on climate change has some experts pondering the perils of optimism about the future.

It’s already here. Left-wing climate realism and the Trump climate change memo

Burnout: Arguing the case against addressing Climate Change purely on Leftist terms

 

Sveriges Riksbank’s prize in economics

Why call it the Nobel prize in economics? Anyway, this year, William Nordhaus and Paul Romer won it for their work on the costs of climate change, which stirred quite a bit of controversy. We’ve collected a bunch of articles, blogs, and essays that lay out the dispute.

A Nobel Prize in honor of economic growth. William Nordhaus and Paul Romer have spent their careers studying ways to make and keep economies strong.

Nobel Prize for the economics of innovation and climate change stirs controversy. “I would say [this prize] is the last hurrah of a certain old guard of the economics profession that want to preserve the idea of growth at all costs,” says Julia Steinberger, an ecological economist at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

Nobel Prizes in economics, awarded and withheld

The Nordhaus Nobel. Perhaps that is the greatest irony here – that even the most Neoclassical view of climate that economics has to offer still recommends action.

Climate change and growth – Nordhaus and Romer

Why economists can’t understand complex systems

The Secret of Eternal Growth. The physics behind pro-growth environmentalism. “The award of the Nobel Prize in Economics to Paul Romer and William Nordhaus (i), in the same week as the IPCC report, can only be interpreted as a huge slap in the face for the champions of “degrowth”.

 

Bolsonaro in Brazil

Why Bolsonaro won: beyond the cliches. If  mind-stopping cliches of violence and corruption do not correspond with voting patterns or Bolsonaro’s governmental plan why did he win the election? It was not a free or fair process.

Glenn Greenwald on Bolsonaro: Brazil has elected “most extremist leader in the democratic world”

“The proletariat of Brazil was defeated by democracy, not dictatorship.”

Neo-fascist Bolsonaro followers attack people throughout Brazil

Crisis in Brazil. An older analysis by Perry Anderson laying out what got Brazilians where they are now.

Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil is a disaster for the Amazon and global climate change

Understanding the global rise of the extreme right, by Walden Bello

 

Radical municipalism

Anatomy of a rent strike in Los Angeles. “It was amazing,” Camero recalled. “It felt like God was in our favor.”

LATU rent strikes and the geography of extraction in LA’s housing market

The EU’s obstacle course for municipalism. Radical democratic programmes face obstacles from both EU and national neoliberal legislation. Despite this, cities can and are finding ways to bypass these obstacles.

The mayors and the movements. In 2015, a wave of social movements lifted left-wing mayors to power in Spain. Their experience in office shows the importance of linking institutional power to bottom-up mobilization.

Spain to close most coalmines in €250m transition deal

Václav Havel’s lessons on how to create a “parallel polis”

Organizing the suburbs. The electoral success of the right is the result of decades of disengagement by the left and sophisticated politicking by right-wing politicians.

How real estate segregated America. Real-estate interests have long wielded an outsized influence over national housing policy—to the detriment of African Americans.

The housing revolution we need. A decade after the crash of 2008, a growing movement has thrust our prolonged housing crisis to the center of the national agenda. Could this generation finally make the right to housing a reality?

 

Degrowth

Beyond visions and projects: the need for a debate on strategy in the degrowth movement

Degrowth in the suburbs

Economic growth: The party’s over, says IMF

Degrowth: A call for radical abundance. One of the core claims of degrowth economics is that by restoring public services and expanding the commons, people will be able to access the goods that they need to live well without needing high levels of income.  

Gathering degrowth in the American pluriverse. A report on the 2018 DegrowUS Gathering

Degrowth: closing the global wealth divide

What’s the point of growth if it creates so much misery?

 

New technologies and false solutions

Half-Earth: A biodiversity ‘solution’ that solves nothing

Against geoengineering. Geoengineering is a risky business. It is so risky, in fact, that it should be banned. Avoiding climate imperialism: A leftist vision of geoengineering

We need to talk about technology: Now is the time for experts, activists and workers to collaborate on well-designed, affordable and energy-positive buildings.

“What lasted for 3000 years has been destroyed in 30”: the struggle for food sovereignty in Tunisia. Today is the International Day of Action for Peoples’ Food Sovereignty, organised by La Via Campesina. In this article, Max Ajl reports from Tunisia on the struggles for food sovereignty there, and on what it means for the Global South.

Farms race. Advocates of “open-source agriculture” say they can build a better food system. Should we believe them?

Universal basic income Is Silicon Valley’s latest scam. The plan is no gift to the masses, but a tool for our further enslavement

Jacques Ellul: A prophet for our tech-saturated times

 

Plastics and waste

Are the days of recycling with a clear conscience over? Our whole recycling culture is an illusion masking a growing problem of unsustainable manufacturing and consumerism.

Microplastics are turning up everywhere, even in human excrement

Japan bursting with plastic garbage in the wake of China’s 2017 waste import ban.

 

New politics

Taiwan is revolutionizing democracy

Rojava: Between city and village, between war and ecology

Communism might last a million years. Two giants of revolutionary thought passed from this world in 2018. Through them, we can glimpse the distant shores of a classless society.

Aggressive advertising is bad for us – we must fight back like Sydney. The decision to project a horse-race ad on the Sydney Opera House has triggered a huge backlash. It’s a reminder of why we should all be protesting against the effects of late capitalism

The communes of Rojava: A model in societal self direction. This amazing video and documentary, produced by Neighbor Democracy, details the evolving communal organs within the Rojava Revolution, from security to health care.

Land and labour. When we understand that settler-colonialism and capitalism are inextricable, we might begin to see that workers and Indigenous land defenders have more affinity in struggle than we previously thought.

Baby steps on the road to basic income. Seven Dutch towns and cities are beginning experiments with versions of a ‘basic income light’.

 

Where we’re at: analysis

A people’s rebellion is the only way to fight climate breakdown

How to restore Florida’s dammed waterways

A critical look at China’s One Belt, One Road initiative

Landgrabbing, illicit finance and corporate crime: an update. Land grabbing is now considered a crime against humanity, but few land grabbers end up in jail. Instead, if you search the specialised website farmlandgrab.org for news about law suits, court proceedings, convictions or imprisonment related to land deals, what you will largely find are reports of local communities being accused of wrongdoing for defending their own territories against powerful companies! Yet the links between crime, corruption and those engaging in agricultural land deals are real.

Flipping the corruption myth. Corruption is by far not the main factor behind persisting poverty in the Global South.

Fracking democracy, criminalising dissent

I was jailed for my fracking protest. But others face much worse

Colonialism can’t be forgotten – it’s still destroying peoples and our planet

The rise of border imperialism

Tribalism isn’t our democracy’s main problem. The conservative movement is. In the real world, the conservative movement — and the economic elites that it serves — have an interest in perpetuating both social polarization, and the unresponsive governance that it produces.

A Greek tragedy: how the EU is destroying a country. The problem could be solved tomorrow through the usual remedy of significant debt write-offs

Why the distribution of wealth has more to do with power than productivity

 

Just think about it…

Welcome to Jurassic Art. That’s where we were in the early 1960s — dinosaurs were sad, cold blooded, dead ends in the history of life… But paleontology was about to go through a spectacular shift.

Why do we feel so busy? It’s all our hidden ‘shadow work’

Can’t sleep? Perhaps you’re overtired

Far right, misogynist, humourless? Why Nietzsche is misunderstood. The German philosopher has been adopted by the alt-right, but he hated antisemitism. He has been misappropriated and misread, argues his biographer.

If you’re suffering from climate grief, you’re not alone

The real seeds producers: Small-scale farmers save, use, share and enhance the seed diversity of the crops that feed Africa.

How to write about a vanishing world. Scientists chronicling ecological destruction must confront the loss of their life’s work and our planet’s riches.

Racial purity is “scientifically meaningless,” say 8,000 geneticists

No future: From punk to zapatismo and connected multitudes

Endgame: how Australian preppers are bugging out and hunkering down. “We all have different skills and, in a real-life situation, how much better to talk to each other and pool our resources. Society would have to rearrange. We couldn’t all just lock ourselves away and, if we did, we wouldn’t last for very long.” 

 

Resources

An interactive map of China’s wildcat strikes

UNDER WATER: How rising waters cost us all

A gorgeous visualization of commutes around the world

America is warming fast. See how your city’s weather will be different in just one generation.

A podcast and blog dealing with the anti-capitalist permaculture movement.

 

This newsletter is put together by Anna Biren (@acathbrn), Rut Elliot Blomqvist (@RutElliotB), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).

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‘Dark municipalism’

From the New Orleans school desegregation crisis (1960), when white schoolchildren went on strike to protest the federal government’s order to desegregate New Orleans elementary schools.
by the Symbiosis Research Collective 

The Five Star Movement in Italy has been campaigning on a platform of direct democracy and environmentalism. This March, they won the largest percent of the vote and the most seats in Parliament. Sounds good, right?

Except that Beppe Grillo and Luigi Di Maio – the two foremost leaders of the party – have called for expelling all migrants from Italy and ending the flow of migrants to Europe. They entered into a coalition with the Lega Nord following the 2018 election, a party advocating full regional autonomy – and protecting the ‘Christian identity’ of Italy.

Direct democracy

Even as anti-authoritarian, anti-racist movements all over the world are working to take power where they live, self-described localist movements have also won elections with racist, and frankly fascist, platforms. New right movements like the Lega Nord have even adopted the more typically leftist, anti-authoritarian language of ‘autonomy’ and ‘direct democracy’.

Continuing our discussion of the potential pitfalls of radical municipalism, we want to address this toxic strain of localism – what we’ve termed dark municipalism – and why it is so dangerous.

If a diverse, egalitarian, and ecological local politics is to be successful, it must develop strategies for addressing and combating these tendencies.

Racism and Localism

The Nazis showed the world that it’s entirely possible to be both a back-to-the-lander and a genocidal racist. American militia movements have long fused struggle for local autonomy against the federal government with anti-immigrant hatred and white nationalism.

In the Pacific Northwest, fascist groups like the Northwest Front and the Wolves of Vinland have attempted to co-opt the vision of an independent Cascadia for the ends of white racial separatism.

Britta Lokting argues in The Baffler that there is a greater commonality between this white nationalist fringe and the other tendencies within Cascadian bioregionalism than we’d like to admit. “Ecologists, liberal hipsters, and the alt-right in the Pacific Northwest [all] resist some sort of outside taint.”

Movements for local control can easily slip towards racist and fascist politics by positioning a given community in opposition to outside threats. Oftentimes, savvy segregationists use the language of local control to mask the racial and class motivations behind their political projects.

Several European political parties like the Lega Nord have even begun to distort the term “direct democracy” to argue for “the people” (selectively defined) controlling national immigration policy as a means of achieving the authoritarian ethnonationalist system they envision.

Not all examples of reactionary localism are as extreme as Nazis and anti-government militias, however. It is also, for many people, very close to home, being central to the history of most American suburbs.

Suburban local control

When we think of racial segregation in the US, Jim Crow laws quickly come to mind. But localism—much of it in Northern cities—also played a big role in dividing US society along racial lines.

When urban rebellions rocked cities across the United States in the late sixties, millions of whites flocked to segregated suburbs. By forming new municipalities, sometimes across county lines, wealthy and middle-class whites were free to organise local policy around excluding people of color and the poor, while starving American cities of the tax revenue needed to sustain public services.

Suburban communities walled themselves off with more than gates. Local control over housing policy let them block the construction of affordable housing, to keep low-income people from ever moving in next door. By designing suburbs around cars rather than public transit, they ensured that no one without a car could even reach their communities.

Suburbanisation was both a social and ecological catastrophe. All across the US, urban areas were flattened outward into low-density, energy-intensive sprawl, swallowing up ecosystems and farmland. (To give a sense of how disastrous this has been for the climate: the average carbon footprint of suburban households is four times larger than the average household’s in dense cities.) Job centers were displaced and made harder to reach by transit, leaving many inner cities in a crisis of chronic unemployment.

Most importantly for this discussion, suburbanisation fortified racial segregation in the very political structure of many metro areas, with wealthy, mostly white suburbs governing themselves independently from and at the expense of communities of color.

This brought the gains of the civil rights movement to a halt, with incalculable human costs. Local political autonomy, as this example illustrates, can easily become a vehicle for segregation and defunding the public sphere, and has genuinely destructive potential.

Public education is another important terrain of reactionary localism.

Generally speaking, local funding for public schools has resulted in deeply unequal educational outcomes for non-white and poor children (which is why many states have taken over school funding from local property taxes, to be allocated more equitably).

Many school districts around the United States have taken educational inequality a step further, with segments breaking off to form wealthier, whiter districts, depriving less privileged children of essential public resources. Seventy-one communities have attempted to secede from their school districts since 2000, and forty-seven of them have succeeded. To quote one community member of a Chattanooga suburb advocating for this sort of entrenchment of school segregation: “Local control is power.”

From anti-immigrant movements to segregated schools, we’d do well to take these hard lessons to heart when rebuilding our society from the local level.

The language of “local control” is central to the political strategy of segregation and resegregation. It allows officials and advocates to apply a palatable, race-neutral framing to fundamentally racist policy. Power consolidated fully at the local level is potentially pernicious precisely because there is such deep inequality between local areas in our highly segregated society.

Local government is a terrain the right wing knows very well, and if empowered carelessly, one that can directly further reactionary agendas. The problem is deeper than an unfortunate correlation between localist movements and racism. Because suburban municipalities had political autonomy, they were able to realise and institutionalise this segregationist agenda.

So how should we deal with this?

We have some ideas: actively undoing bigotry through organising itself, building connections beyond the local into our political project, and developing a grassroots political system around the principles of democracy and interdependence over autonomy and local control.

Building Power, Bridging Divides

Building grassroots, democratic alliances to take back control over the places where we live is easier said than done. Organising with your neighbours can be rewarding, but also tiresome and depressing. In the little spare time each of us has, it often feels easier to talk to people we already know who share our own values.

The truth is that community organising is hard work. Organisers are confronted every day with resistance to their ideas, not only from political opponents but from other community members who have become resigned to the oppressive status quo as well.

Movement-building takes time, through years of real human connection. The simple fact is that there are no shortcuts to moving beyond bigotry either.

Community organising has traditionally aimed to overcome social divides—racial, sexual, cultural—through human relationships. Organising relies on building relationships to recognise common interests. These common interests let people identify the things they can organise around for their common good, and their relationships supply the power to actually win. Through recognising commonalities and taking collective action, bonds between people across difference are forged across differences, uprooting prejudices and fears.

Radical democracy is a framework for extending that process across all areas of life.

As we carve out space for participatory, collective decision-making, either in the workplace through cooperatives or where we live through neighborhood councils and tenant unions, we cultivate a more expansive understanding of shared interests across racial and sexual hierarchies, and of how those inequalities pose barriers to our own democratic struggle.

We can build a new commons together that meets the needs of everyone through this deep organising, a community interdependence held together by strong relationships.

Class conflict

But is stopping fascism as simple as making friends with your neighbours? We can’t lose sight of the fact that there are real, material, conflicts between people.

Friendship between a tenant and their landlord can’t erase the exploitative relationship between them. Only by pursuing an intersectional class politics can we piece apart the forces that divide us.

Hateful and discriminatory attitudes don’t operate in a vacuum. They have a history we can trace and material roots we can transform. Capitalists have spent centuries cultivating racist and nativist narratives to keep exploited people scapegoating each other.

The labour movement in the United States has historically hampered itself through its own racism. By refusing to fraternise with black, Latino, and Asian workers, white workers have undercut their potential power. We can’t afford to make these mistakes.

Visionary organisers need to make the case again and again, through their actions, words, and the resources they build, that ordinary people can only realize their deeper interests of freedom, a healthy life and planet, and real democracy by lifting up people at the margins.

Steps to expand participation—from translation to accessibility for disabled people to prioritizing childcare at meetings—can only make our movements more powerful. A socially transformative politics teaches more privileged people that their common cause lies with the oppressed, through democracy in everyday life.

Beyond building real relationships and making our movements more accessible, we need to make sure that we can create resources for everyone. Tenants rights action groups, community kitchens, and self-organized disaster response groups are all ways of offering people the things they need, all the while building alliances across race and class and addressing loneliness. Social isolation feeds a steady supply of alienated people to the far-right.

As we build a community economy beyond capitalism, we strike at the roots of all these things.

Beyond the Local

As we argued in our last column, radical municipalists must work to build power beyond the local in order to overcome capitalism and the state.

We have no hope of winning real power for our community without this wider network of popular struggle across municipal and national borders. This is also an important part of overcoming prejudices and inequalities between different communities.

Confederations of community councils and assemblies bring us into common cause with those we might otherwise consider outsiders. Even if your own neighborhood isn’t very diverse, scaling up the practice of radical democracy can have the same transformative impacts we discussed above on a much wider level.

Municipalism that is confederal is an antidote to xenophobic isolationism. It’s a localism which knows no national borders, yet retains the ability of citizens of every community to have a say in the affairs which affect them. The power of our strategy itself relies on building bridges rather than walls.

Building a New System

Lastly, as we develop new institutions of solidarity and democracy, we need to go beyond mere autonomy as an organisational principle. Autonomy is about securing freedom from an oppressive outside, but we’re not just trying to resist the system. We’re working to build a new system, a new society.

Anarchists and other anti-authoritarian leftists have long stressed the importance of autonomy. Bodily autonomy is a fundamental moral principle for a free, feminist society. Liberation struggles of all types have articulated their just vision in terms of autonomy.

Building autonomy for individuals and communities is clearly an essential aspect of resistance and dual power, but it is limiting as a framework for the reconstruction of a better world.

Autonomy is in essence a negative political value, being defined in terms of freedom from. It conveys nothing about the actual governance of an autonomous community, and defines its relations to other communities in exclusively negative terms. It amounts to non-interference by outsiders or outside sources of repression.

Given all the potential dangers of local political autonomy, we need to be intentional about the kind of democracy we are building from the ground up. This means thinking through how a future system would equitably solve specific problems beyond the local level.

In our previous columns, we’ve made the case for a system of directly democratic assemblies organised into confederations, which would come together through recallable delegates to coordinate activities regionally and beyond.

To prevent the rise of dark municipalism, however, confederations will have to be stronger than voluntary associations of autonomous communities.

We live in an unequal society, which we are trying to change by expanding the sphere of democracy. We undercut that goal if our conception of a truly democratic society is one where the wealthiest can wall themselves off without accountability to the wider human community.

Differing interests between particular neighborhoods, cities, and countries are inevitable on bigger questions—regional transit, watershed management, total decarbonisation of the economy, redistribution of wealth. None of these can be resolved through a confederation of fully autonomous communes where unanimous agreement is required for them to act together. We can theoretically educate away prejudice, but we can’t educate away conflicting economic interests. A deeper political relationship is necessary.

‘Confederation’ should be conceived as layers of democracy, from the neighborhood to the worldwide. The defining principle of a confederal system is not community autonomy, but interdependence. This is a much stronger basis for the protection of human rights and radical democracy.

Interdependence is what makes municipalism and democratic confederalism unique among locally oriented political ideas: they are not intended to be withdrawals from global affairs and obligations, but movements for radically restructuring the balance of power in how decisions are made towards ordinary people, be that locally, regionally, or globally.

 

Democracy All the Way Down

Many progressives see these forms of reactionary localism and conclude that we need a strong centralized government to better protect marginalised people. In particular, we as radical municipalists have to take seriously the history of federal power in securing greater freedoms for black people in America.

After the American Civil War, Reconstruction continued only as long as federal troops occupied the South. Desegregation and voting rights for African Americans were achieved through federal court cases and legislation. The very principle of “states’ rights” which helped uphold American apartheid and slavery is itself a form of more local autonomy.

But governments only gave in when forced by the power of popular movements. When the state is removed from the people it governs, through unaccountable bureaucracies, technocracies, or oligarchies, it gets a free pass for abuse, oppression, and exploitation. For instance, while suburbanisation in the United States was driven by racism, it was also a product of social engineering by federal policy, through redlining, freeway construction, and incentivizing industries to relocate from cities to suburbs. Many of the Trump administration’s ongoing crimes are only possible because the people do not exercise direct control over their government.

We can’t maintain an oligarchy in the hopes that the ruling class will force through needed changes with respect to racial and economic equality.

The consolidation of authority into a small ruling class necessarily tends toward more oppression. To keep this system of hierarchy in place, the powerful always seek to divide and control the less privileged.

Ordinary people are far from perfect. But it’s ordinary people, with all their differences and shortcomings, with whom we build a more perfect world.

It’s only through lived experience that any of us can learn that we share common ground with others. When we, as organisers, go to where people are, offer the resources they need, build bridges across racial and class differences, and make decisions together, we slowly build the foundations of a new society.

At the end of the day, it’s only democracy—all the way down—that can give us any hope of universal emancipation.

This article was originally published in The Ecologist.

The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organizers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organizations that can build a democratic and ecological society from the ground up. We are fighting for a better world by creating institutions of participatory democracy and the solidarity economy through community organizing, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city. Twitter: @SymbiosisRev. This article was written by Mason Herson-Hord (@mason_h2), Christian Bjornson (@VoxLibertate), Forrest Watkins (@360bybike), and Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).