‘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).

The promise of radical municipalism today

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

by the Symbiosis Research Collective

Our cities are being hollowed out. Real estate developers carve up downtown areas for profit, displacing the poor to the urban periphery. One by one, public spaces are disappearing; cafés and libraries are closing down, and parks are increasingly patrolled by private security. Metropolitan sprawl swallows the countryside, mega-agglomerations stretch across continents.

Urban transportation is dominated, even colonized, by the car. Small grocery stores get shuttered; life happens on strip malls and at gas stations. Neighbourhoods that once had a thriving street culture a generation ago are now quiet, and neighbours barely talk. Politics is reduced to a vote; there is little we can do to have a say and take control over our own future.

It’s no surprise that we are today more lonely than we’ve ever been. Around the world, people experience the steady erosion of community ties, loss of traditions, and a deep sense of alienation. The opioid crisis in the United States is just one symptom of a toxic epidemic of isolation.

A municipalist movement

Despite this bleak reality, a new kind of politics is emerging: a politics rooted in people’s everyday lives, which offers a sense of belonging and gives people a voice. This way of doing politics is materializing all around the world.

To take one example, Jeremy Corbyn put forward his party’s new economic platform this February. In his speech, he named an idea that has been simmering for a while now: socialist municipalism. What does this involve? For Corbyn, it means “the renaissance of local government for the many, not the few”.

The past decade has seen a steady shift toward municipalist-oriented politics on the UK left. The Radical Housing Network in London has been part of this shift, where activists in every neighborhood started sharing resources and linking people fighting eviction and increased rents.

When Grenfell tower rose up in flames, killing 72 people, this network was essential to the provision of much-needed support – and raised up the voices of the survivors who lost their home.

Plan C, another key group organising and coordinating leftist action, has also taken a decidedly municipal turn. In their pamphlet put out last June, Radical Municipalism: Demanding the Future, it states that “the ‘municipal’ – whether we’re talking about towns, cities or city-regions – might be a fundamentally important scale at which, and through which, to generate progressive movements towards post-capitalism.”

In the US, the recent wave of municipal and state-legislative wins of lefty and even socialist candidates was a small, but necessary, victory. Crucially, the growing Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) played a key role in these victories.

Across the country, tenant’s rights groups, often non-hierarchical and democratically organised, are self-organising and challenging a rampant real estate industry based on speculation and predatory lending. These movements and organisations have brought together people across racial and class divides, often becoming a site for people to organize for the first time and develop a political consciousness.

In Jackson, Mississippi, a growing movement for a just and democratic local economy has laid the groundwork for a new municipalism, led by black communities and revolutionaries. Their neighborhood-level base-building has fostered cooperative workplaces and housing, as well as the momentum that allowed them to take over city hall.

Beyond the UK and the USA, there are vibrant movements in Barcelona, Spain; Rojava, Syria; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; and Oaxaca, Mexico that have been organizing for decades to take direct control of their local government. These movements are helping to build a new vision for emancipatory politics.

Why municipalism now?

For socialists, power has always been in the workplace. This is where people can easily get together, where they have the most leverage against those who make the rules.

But the above campaigns and movements have taken place where people live, on their way to work, and in town halls. In the face of alienation, they bring people together. Against ever-expanding urbanisation, they create meaningful places for people to discuss what matters in community with one another.

 What is unique about the municipal level, and should a municipal strategy replace workplace organising as the primary tactic to leverage power against the state?

Why is this happening now? What is unique about the municipal level, and should a municipal strategy replace workplace organising as the primary tactic to leverage power against the state? Can they work together?

In the previous installments of this column, we laid out our framework of combining local democratic autonomy with creating networks of co-dependency and dual power at higher scales, and used the recent case of Barcelona as an example of such a social movement that has taken over their city.

In this piece, we reflect on the current global economic situation and why the city and town matter more than ever as sites for organising.

Planetary urbanisation

First, if we want to understand why municipalism is on the rise, we have to understand the present global economic reality. Increasingly, capital investments are being redirected from the production of material goods toward real estate and urban development.

The city has become the most profitable site of profit and speculation. The scale of this can be difficult to grasp. Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Shenzhen: these cities have outgrown New York City in mere decades. We can hardly call them cities: they are part of a continuous landscape of urban sprawl.

Even cities in the West are now being shaped by foreign direct investment, privatisation, and securitisation of public space.

Work is also changing. In the past, the factory floor was an active site of politics: the shared experience of work let people get together and block the flows of profit to the bosses. Especially in the deindustrializing and increasingly service-oriented economies of the global North, the workplace has become smaller and more surveilled, and jobs increasingly feel like useless bullshit.

 Today’s factories are fast food restaurants, diners, transportation, and customer service call centers.

Gone are the days of workers’ pride in their achievements: today’s factories are fast food restaurants, diners, transportation, and customer service call centers. At the same time, the economy is getting progressively more unequal, with a greater percentage of the profits going from the working class to the owners of capital. Given that work has become more isolated and fractured, the workplace is getting more difficult to organize in.

Globally, an intricate web of supply chains has solidified into what geographers are calling “planetary urbanisation”. What we usually call the city has become absorbed into what Andy Merrifield calls a “shapeless, formless, and apparently boundless” mesh.

Rural areas are being transformed into stockpiles or sacrifice zones for urban consumption—rainforests in Borneo turned into palm oil plantations, fishing villages on coasts globally decimated as factory-like fishing fleets have brought 30 percent of the world’s fisheries to the point of collapse.

Peasants are left destitute, with rampant farmer suicides and many forced into urban-rural migration, subject to the ebbs and flows of the global economy. Traditional ‘hinterlands’ are increasingly part of a globalised urban fabric.

For many, the urban core has also become inaccessible. Gentrification has “regenerated” areas that just a generation ago had been left to rot by the state. Through that same process, poor people are being forced to move to the suburbs—where there are inevitably fewer amenities like clinics, social centers, and public space.

At the same time, what Ray Oldenburg calls the “great good place”—the pub, the cafe, the library, where people could relax and mingle—is being shuttered everywhere. Through these rapid changes, life has become atomised, isolating. There is no one you can turn to for support, the parents are never home, and neighbours are worlds apart.

Urbanisation vs. cities

Cities have always been places of conflict: full of positive and negative potential. Historically, many cities were places where people experimented with and invented non-hierarchical forms of politics. The city, at its best, represents the ideal where every citizen can participate in the shaping of their own future.

At their worst, human settlements are tightly regulated spaces, controlled by an administrative elite separated from the population. In such spaces, people are no longer citizens, and policies are determined by technocrats and the elite.

The promise of the city is what Hannah Arendt, in one essay, called “the promise of politics”. Real politics is a promise because it remains an unrealised ideal. If politics is the ability of diverse people to come together and intentionally guide their own future, then the city is the space where people are able to do so.

Here it is useful to distinguish between the city and the urban. The promise of the city is what Hannah Arendt, in one essay, called “the promise of politics”. Real politics is a promise because it remains an unrealised ideal. If politics is the ability of diverse people to come together and intentionally guide their own future, then the city is the space where people are able to do so.

The urban, on the other hand, is managerial space. Being ruled by a central administrative body, it systematically undermines organic interactions—anything unplanned is abhorrent.

In the book Urbanization without cities: The rise and fall of citizenship, Murray Bookchin calls urbanization “a force that makes for municipal homogeneity and formlessness”. What should be dynamic and exciting, a space of organic possibility, becomes a space where all interactions are pre-programmed.

It is this kind of space that is now spreading across the world, from Singapore to Lower Manhattan. Urbanization relies on a vast interconnected network that systematically undermines people’s ability to be self-sufficient. As people lose the power over their own economic production they are forced to rely on goods and materials from elsewhere. The urban becomes a space that is unable to limit itself; it can only expand.

More than workers

We are at a key historical moment. The global deployment of hierarchical and undemocratic urban space, speculative urban real estate development, and increased social atomization all combine to disempower the citizen. At the same time, this urbanization of the planet through the undemocratic control of an elite class is a central feature of our impending planetary ecological crisis.

Marxist urban geographers like David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre have long identified these trends, and argued that socialists must go beyond organising on the basis of work alone, for class struggle extends far beyond the point of production.

As working-class people, we face a kind of double exploitation: at the workplace – increasingly fractured and alienating – and where we live – itself a site of profit and surveillance. By taking control over urban space, demanding the right to the city, we can force elites to make concessions and bring capitalism to heel.

People aren’t just workers: we are neighbours, citizens, strangers, acquaintances, and lovers. Without the spaces for meaningful relationships, the ability to practice conviviality, and the freedom to pursue our desires, we lose our humanity.

But it’s not just about taking elites to task. People aren’t just workers: we are neighbours, citizens, strangers, acquaintances, and lovers. Without the spaces for meaningful relationships, the ability to practice conviviality, and the freedom to pursue our desires, we lose our humanity. We become monads, atoms – free from responsibility, but alienated from each other.

The answer to planetary urbanisation, social isolation, the privatisation of our cities, and the ecological crisis is the building up of popular power – to make citizens of residents and consumers, of workers and neighbors. Radical municipalism is the idea that we can build popular assemblies and neighborhood councils, where people learn to manage their common life through face-to-face politics and develop the skills and the power to seize control: to take the city.

A repertoire of strategies

It is in this political and economic context that the worldwide turn to municipalist strategies makes sense. New economic and social conditions have led organisers to focus on the neighborhood level, going to where people are and building solidarity in a world of isolation. But that itself has led to new definitions of what socialism would mean.

With this has come a new repertoire of strategies. From cooperative housing to community gardens, land trusts to democratically-controlled renewable energy, spontaneously organised tenant strikes to social movements sweeping into power in city hall – all of these are part of a kind of bottom-up socialism, helping us to imagine a more ethical, democratic, and just economy.

While the workplace remains a crucial place for building solidarity, the municipality is increasingly at the center of political action. For us, the promise of municipalism is that it can bring people together where they live, and offer concrete resources to battle poverty, displacement, and isolation.

Radical municipalism carries the promise of real politics: through face-to-face interaction, we can undo the bureaucracy that structures and constricts our lives.

Radical municipalism carries the promise of real politics: through face-to-face interaction, we can undo the bureaucracy that structures and constricts our lives.

In this piece, we aimed to show how radical municipalism arises out of the material conditions of the present moment—at the intersection of the history of capitalism and the expansion of a ruling managerial class.

In the next instalment, we explore some of the limits of municipalism that our movements must overcome. In the face of world-scale crises like climate change and growing authoritarianism, can a municipal strategy scale up beyond the local?

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 Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi) and originally published on The Ecologist.

What’s it like for a social movement to take control of a city?

Ada Colau, Barcelona’s new mayor, and housing rights activist.
Source: Red Pepper

by Aaron Vansintjan

 

We proposed a broad vision of how to create a new world in the shell of the old in the last three installments of our column. We can chart a new path forward by grounding that vision in the lessons learned from past struggles and an understanding of how hierarchy is the shared root of oppression.

But this can all feel a bit intangible without clear examples. To get an idea of what we want the future to look like, we need to take inspiration from and learn from those already building the institutions of tomorrow, today. In the next few installments, we’ll be highlighting movements and initiatives that we think are some of the seeds of a new world, already sprouting.

In the summer of 2015, the streets of Barcelona pulsed with a victorious energy. Members of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), a grassroots organisation fighting to stop evictions in the wake of the 2008 housing crisis, had started what they call a ‘citizen platform’, Barcelona En Comú.

Popular movement

Though they were registered as a political ‘party’, all decisions would be approved by citizen assemblies and participatory processes.

A year later, they won the majority of votes in the municipal elections on a platform of participatory democracy, defending social justice and community rights, and reversing a neoliberal city government model.

Some old photos of Ada Colau, a prominent PAH activist, being handcuffed by the police in an occupation quickly circulated. Incredibly, she was now Barcelona’s new mayor.

Ada Colau was asked if she was surprised by their victory in an interview with Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman. Her response spoke volumes:

“It was a victory that was accomplished in a very short amount of time. It was a candidacy that was supported and driven by the people. With very few resources and with very little money, we achieved victory in the elections of such an important city as Barcelona. But partly it was not surprising, because there’s a strong popular movement and a strong desire for change.”

Transforming the city

For those living in Barcelona in 2015, it was obvious what Ada Colau meant. Winning City Hall seemed like a flexing of the muscles, an afterthought for a social movement so dynamic and alive that victory seemed almost inevitable.

The new way of doing politics was already prefigured in the streets: people intuitively knew what kind of city government they wanted, because they lived politics in the day-to-day at their neighborhood assembly, at the anarchist social centres, and in their self-run community gardens. It was only a matter of time before these new politics would enter City Hall.

Four years down the line, and Barcelona seems a different city. Self-organised neighbourhood assemblies send representatives to discuss and suggest new policies. Each policy is then put up for approval in an open online vote before it is brought to City Hall.

The brand new ‘citizen platform’ has carried out a well-publicised battle against AirBnB, changing the laws on short-term rentals and trying to minimise the impacts of tourism on residents’ lives.

Now they want to take control over the privatised water company, and build ‘super blocks’ that turn multiple blocks of the city into car-free areas.

Municipalist movements

But during the same time period, the Catalan independence movement cleaved society in two. The new municipalist party found itself in the center of the conflict: it was accused of either not outright supporting the independence movement, or of not doing enough to stop it.

This is a common problem faced by many social movements in modern liberal democracies. As radical urban movements grow, they become more and more integrated into people’s daily lives—providing basic needs, educating people, transforming public space into a site of politics.

But at a certain point, they have to choose to either directly confront, or enter, the government. And as soon as they do get elected, they are forced to deal with the contradictions and predicaments of liberal democracy: constitutions, political alliances, and nationalisms.

To get an inside look of what it’s like to be part of a social movement that has taken political power, Aaron Vansintjan interviewed Kate Shea Baird, an activist now working for Barcelona En Comú, spending much of her time on the international committee, Barcelona En Comú Global.

There, Kate works together with other municipalist movements globally, providing resources and organising public events, like the Fearless Cities conference coming up in New York City this summer.

Together, they discussed how decisions get made within the party and how it relates to the social movements, what makes Barcelona unique and how people elsewhere can learn from Barcelona En Comú’s victory, and how to go beyond the local in municipal politics.

We’ve been really inspired by Barcelona En Comú, but are curious to know how your relationship has changed over the past year with the social movement that brought you to power.

First, it’s useful to separate party and government. For one thing, we don’t really like the word ‘party’. A lot of people in Barcelona En Comú participate in both Barcelona En Comú, the electoral project, and in social movements.

So it’s not like they’re separate entities. They’re not officially in any way affiliated, and in fact people are careful to keep the official separation. A lot of people who participate in both feel a lot of confusion and tension about that role. On an individual basis it’s quite difficult to resolve sometimes.

The other thing that’s useful to think about is that those relationships depend on the issue. When the City Hall is advancing and making progress and the demands of social movements—often very long-term and historic demands—and there’s progress, then the relationship is very positive, in the sense that the social movements feel represented.

They keep the pressure on to keep pushing the government but it’s where the government wants to go anyway. Regulation of tourism is one. Re-municipalization of water is another. Sustainable mobility. The feminist agenda. On those issues, the activists who participate in both Barcelona En Comú and social movements feel much more comfortable.

Then on issues where, either, in a specific moment, there’s a decision that people in social movements are not happy with, then the people who participate in both act as bridges, so that we know immediately what the relationship is, what the reaction is from the social movement, and also we can try to explain the decision.

At least so it can be understood, or why it wasn’t possible to do what we wanted to do. Recently there was an example about the regulation of restaurant and bar terraces. The activist community, specifically the neighborhood associations, are really for strict regulation, because it’s private business taking up public space.

It’s really cheap to have tables in the streets. They want the prices to be raised and the tables to be reduced. It’s not actually a huge demand by the general population, but it’s a super-big issue in the activist community.

Then, just to have an agreement, our government made an agreement with the restaurant sector, which was far more liberal than the activist community wanted.

It’s impossible for the social movements to be involved in taking every single day-to-day decision that comes up in City Hall. So there’s moments where our people in City Hall make a decision and our organisation is like… “Why did that happen? We don’t understand. We don’t agree.”

Usually if the context is explained, people kind of understand what’s happened. But it’s a really complex ecosystem, basically.

Those are the kind of moments where there’s tension. I think it’s healthy and something we’re still learning how to manage. I think what’s most important is that it’s very much on an issue-by-issue basis.

 

Were there tensions between the party and the social movements when Barcelona En Comú entered government?

There was definitely a moment. When we were the activist underdogs in the campaign for municipal elections, it was relatively easy to get everyone on board campaigning to build the project.

And then in the election campaign, some of the most radical social movement people openly supported us, investing time and energy in the project.

And then when you go into government, there’s definitely a moment where a significant sector then steps back and says, ‘good luck, but I want to stay as an independent, non-partisan activist. My work here is done, and now I’m going to either do nothing or be super-critical or basically do opposition from outside’.

Or there’s people who stay involved, but then the first contradiction they encounter, or the first decision they don’t agree with, they can’t handle it, and they leave.

A lot of us have never been involved in party politics, let alone been in government, and our natural position is being anti-, being against, and protesting. It’s really difficult to suddenly have to be justifying the decision of the government, suddenly being ‘The Man,’ you know.

There’s people who are not happy or comfortable in that role, and they drop back. Which is completely understandable, but then at the same time, there’s part of me that thinks, you know, ‘Did you think it was going to be easy?’ Winning the election is going to be the first step. For a lot of people it seemed to be the last step.

That’s just where it begins, that’s when you start actually getting your hands dirty. Stepping out the moment you disagree is easier; it’s more comfortable; you could’ve maintained your ideological purity, or whatever. But if everyone did that, we’d be really screwed. I understand both decisions. I think anyone who stands for elections has to be aware that they’ll lose some people along the way.

You say the first step is winning the election. What’s the next step?

I was referring to really banal things: we went into government, but we have 11 councillors out of 41 in City Hall. Just trying to implement your manifesto when you need the vote of opposition parties to do it means that, inevitably, you’re not going to be able to do everything you wanted to do.

Or the fact that you get into City Hall, even a relatively powerful City Hall like Barcelona, and you realise that not all of the power is there. AirBnB has a lot of power. The Catalan government has a lot of power. The Spanish government has a lot of power. The media has a lot of power. Winning the election is the first step to getting anything done.

 

Barcelona is very different, isn’t it? There’s an inertia of social movements, the abundance of community spaces, and civil society is also really politicised. In North America and northern Europe, that’s all extremely rare. How would municipalist strategies differ in cities that have less of a vibrant political culture?

We had a different starting point. We had a crisis. I know the whole world had a crisis in 2008, but in Spain it was particularly bad and it was also combined with really scandalous political corruption on a scale that’s much more explicit than in the US, for example.

Politicians robbing public money, blatantly. Then we had the Indignados movement, which was in all of the major cities. You can do a map of the Indignados camps and the cities that the municipalist platforms won and they’re basically one-for-one.

Then even before that: there’s a political culture in Catalonia that is very participatory. In Barcelona there’s a decades-long tradition of neighborhood associations. The reason we were able to set up a candidacy and win the elections less than a year later is because all of the organisation was already there. It was just a question of diverting it into an electoral project.

The work of actual construction was already done. It’s very difficult for me to advise anyone who’s starting from a situation different to that. I think it’s important that people understand that it wasn’t built in a year from nothing. And that, surely, the idea of doing that anywhere would be unrealistic.

 

Why do you think there’s a global municipal moment now?

I think people are focusing on municipalist politics because, if you look around the world, it’s what’s working. The panorama is so bleak. Even if you see political projects at a national level that seem to capture the imagination or bring people together like Bernie Sanders, or Jean-Luc Melenchon, or Jeremy Corbyn, they’re not winning elections.

Podemos hasn’t won an election. And like I said, that’s only the first step. It’s not enough. Municipalist projects are winning elections, and they’re also doing it in a different way. They tend to be more democratic, horizontal, participatory, feminist than the national equivalents.

For someone who cares about the way politics is done as well as just winning and implementing a progressive agenda, that’s an extra appeal as well. But I don’t doubt there’s a lot of people who would happily take a top-down patriarchal authoritarian left project at national level if it won.

I’m sure there’s a lot of people who would be like, ‘If I can win the whole country, implement my left-wing agenda from the top-down, I’d much rather do that than spend all my life in local assemblies’. I think there’s a lot of people who are municipalists by necessity.

One critique I’ve seen floating around is that this is an inherently localist form of political action. You won’t really change the way global capital works or the way the larger legal structures work. What would your response be to that?

I would laugh hysterically. There’s a lot of people who think in these very black-and-white terms that you’re either going to overthrow global capitalism (how?), or it’s not worth doing anything. Tell me the project right now that’s overthrowing global capitalism because I’m not aware of it.

I would much prefer a local project that achieves some small victories that show that change is possible than a national or global project that achieves absolutely nothing but has the ambition of overthrowing global capitalism.

 

How do you see a municipal strategy that goes beyond the local?

There’s two things. The first is working as a network. But, to be honest, right now, the only place where there’s a strong enough place for that to work is within Spain. In Spain we have a situation where all of the major cities are governed by citizen platforms [see this report by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation about municipalism in Spain].

That’s a base you can work from. Until we have more countries or regions where there is a critical mass of citizen-run governments, it’s not really realistic to expect a kind of prefigurative global municipalist government.

The other thing is that as soon as you start winning local elections, there’s a huge pressure to stand for elections on other levels. People start saying things like, ‘oh, there’s limits to municipal government, there’s things we can’t do, we have to stand for regional elections, the national elections’.

Beware of that, because for all of the limits that municipalism has it has some very special things about it. You can win, you can make changes; however small, you can change the way politics is done.

As soon as you start to invest energy and time in levels where that kind of thing isn’t possible, thinking that you’re going to overcome the limits of municipalism, you might end up doing neither. Which has been the experience in a lot of regional elections in Spain.

When you try to jump levels within a very short time frame. Some people are against jumping levels ever, some people are not against it in principle but are very wary of doing it too quickly. And then there’s some people who are municipalists of convenience, who see it as a stepping stone to standing for other elections. It’s very much a live debate we have at the moment.

How do decisions get made in Barcelona En Comú?

Usually what happens is that the coordination team of forty people decides to take big decisions to the plenary. The plenary is all the activists who are involved in Barcelona En Comú. Then part of Barcelona En Comú decides, ‘yes, we’re going to start the process to build a Catalan-level party’.

Then the final decision is approved by some sort of wider group of supporters registered on an online participation platform, which gives the final rubber stamp. Usually, all of these debates are also held within each local assembly, or each smaller unit.

The debates are very multi-level and occur over a long period of time. The thing is that once you start a process like that, it’s very difficult, somewhere along the way, to say, ‘oh, this isn’t going how we thought it would go, let’s call the whole thing off’.

So that’s kind of what happened when we tried to scale up to the provincial level. We started with this idea of a Catalan organization that would reflect Barcelona En Comú, and what we ended up with is not exactly that. We’re now having another debate about whether it could be redirected and improved.

 

I’m not quite clear how the democratic institutions in Barcelona En Comú really work…

There’s two things. One is the relationship between Barcelona En Comú and the city government on issues of policy and the action of the government. The other is decisions that are more internal to the political organization that don’t necessarily impact what the people in government are doing.

So, our official link with City Hall is the coordination team: 40 people, four are from city hall. The big issues, we talk about there. Then we have an assembly of representatives just from the neighborhood assemblies, then we have an assembly of representatives just from the policy groups—which are alternative spaces of interaction with city hall.

The neighborhood assemblies are interesting because the City Hall is organised on the basis of districts, which don’t necessarily correspond to our neighborhood assemblies.

There’s an awareness that, to be able to get anything done, you can’t be in an assembly deciding things all day long with other people. It’s usually particularly controversial decisions. It’s working well, I would say. I think we tend to focus on the cases where it hasn’t worked- which is normal, because that’s what generates the most noise.

But if you compare Barcelona En Comú to other organizations in other cities in Spain, at least, we have a very healthy organisation of over a thousand activists and we have governing bodies that are plural and made up of people from different political parties, all working together, all kind of focused on building the organization, implementing our program.

In other cities, either they don’t have the human resources for that to be possible because basically everyone involved in the platform went into city hall, so what was left behind was nothing on the outside.

Or, they haven’t been able to create a new organisation, and they remained as a coalition with different parties and movements who are constantly in conflict with one another. Luckily here we’ve had the critical mass to sustain an organization.

 

You’ve written a lot about the feminisation of politics. What does the institutionalisation of that look like, and how is it working out?

(Sighs) Terrible. Um. No. It’s difficult implementing it in your own organisation. And I think in City Hall, it’s a lot more difficult, because you’re dealing with an institution of the state, with thousands of people working in it.

We’re 11 councillors, we’ve probably got 100 people working in various appointed roles, but the crisis is really the crisis of time, and the crisis of work-life balance of councillors, our mayor, and everyone who’s working in city hall because the challenges are so huge and people are so—it’s not just a job to them.

They’re also activists. And the work is never done, we’ve got people working ridiculous hours, barely seeing their children. Burning out, and getting ill. It’s something that we at an institutional level, in terms of work-life balance is terrible.

In terms of policy, we’re doing pretty well. One of the first things we did was to set up a department of gender mainstreaming. As well as our department of feminisms and LGBTI, we also have another department where all municipal policy has to be checked for its gender impact.

In terms of participation and inclusion, and taking decision-making out of the city council chamber, we’ve done a lot as well. We’ve done lots of participatory processes. Not just, ‘come and participate’, but going out to groups of sex workers, or groups of disabled women, to ask them what they need and want.

Now we’re starting to do some citizen initiative mechanisms, so we have some mechanisms where if you collect 30,000 signatures you can put your initiative to a public vote. So all of that kind of stuff is moving forward nicely.

We’re basically feminising politics apart from ourselves (laughs). By ourselves, I mean the people working in City Hall. I was talking to Ada [Colau], who said, sometimes I just feel like telling people, after 5pm, everyone go home. Live your life. But it’s just not possible. So that’s one of the many contradictions that we’re trying to wrestle with.

How do we take lessons from Barcelona En Comú and apply them where we live?

What I would say – and I don’t really feel qualified to give advice – is to start small—not to just think immediately, ‘I have to stand for elections’. Ada Colau started with the PAH, she didn’t start by standing for mayor.

Every time you can show people that there’s a concrete way that they can improve their own lives, that’s how you can get more people involved, and then more people involved.

Most people don’t want to be involved in abstract political debates. They’re willing to spend their time on stuff if they see concrete results, however small. So that’s where I would start.

In fact in a lot of countries where there are municipal platforms now starting to stand for elections, they started as single-issue campaigns.

Barcelona En Comú is the electoral result of the PAH, let’s be honest. Some other movements as well. In Belgrade, it was against a waterfront development project. In Poland, it was against reprivatisation of public housing.

And often, what enabled a movement to start has been a single issue that people could rally around; and people could say this is about our city; there are more things we need to do; now we feel so empowered because we stopped that thing happening that we didn’t want to happen, or we made that thing happen that we wanted to make happen; now let’s win the whole city.

The Symbiosis Research Collective is a network of organisers and activist-researchers across North America, assembling a confederation of community organisations 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 Aaron Vansintjan (@a_vansi).