Fearless Cities: Reinventing Local Politics

Barcelona.Photo by Walkerssk via Pixabay. CC0/Public domain license.

In June 2017 Barcelona en Comú hosted the first international Fearless Cities summit. Bringing together more than 700 officially registered participants from 6 continents, Fearless Cities was the first time many of these initiatives had been brought into conversation with one another.

With a series of regional Fearless Cities gatherings having occurred throughout 2018 and early 2019 (in Warsaw, New York, Brussels, Valparaiso and Naples), a second North America gathering reputedly in planning, and a second global gathering scheduled for the Autumn of 2019, the four hot days spent gathered in the classrooms, gardens and grand halls of the Universitat de Barcelona may come to be known as the ‘coming out party’ of the global new municipalist movement.

Each of these initiatives emerged independently of one another, responding to the specificities of their own context; they’ve not followed a pre-authored revolutionary blueprint, nor do they tend to define themselves neatly as liberals, socialists, Marxists, or anarchists. They are municipalists, and the ongoing discussions between many of them – not least through the Fearless Cities summits – is leading to a process of collaborative theory building. From Barcelona en Comu’s commitment to carrying out a ‘democratic revolution’[i] through to Cooperation Jackson’s strategy of building ‘black self-determination and economic democracy’[ii], the municipalist project is unquestionably a democratic one. Yet when we talk of the struggle of (and for) democracy, we are not talking of political parties and mayors – even when they are a feature of the movements. So what exactly is this ‘democracy’ we are struggling for?

What democracy?

From the election of the neo-fascist Bolsonaro to the farce of right-wing Brexit and the racist schemes of Salvini in Italy or Orbán in Hungary, it appears that it is precisely the failings of democracy that have both fuelled and created the space for reactionary, far-right and populist forces. When these same forces are driven by a demand to “take back control”, or make promises to “give voice to those populations that are cut down by those who only ever cared about financial outcomes and the multinationals”[iii] – neither of which would have sounded out of place in the occupied squares of Syntagma or Plaza del Sol – does it still make sense for progressive movements to talk of democracy? Can we distinguish a democracy of the right from a democracy of the left – and do these terms still make sense when building radically progressive social movements?

It may seem anathema to suggest that building walls[iv], closing university departments[v], and letting hundreds of bodies wash up on the beaches of Europe can be equated with ‘democracy’. Indeed, it’s not uncommon to hear people characterise the current western interregnum as a collapse or absence of democracy, or to suggest that the rise of populism poses a challenge to democracy itself[vi]. Yet in each case these are democratically elected national governments which, irrespective of the barbarity of their actions or inability to address structural crises, nonetheless have legitimacy through the representative democratic process. With the (democratically elected) extreme-centre of neoliberalism having entered a terminal tail-spin, various flavours of the (democratically elected) extreme-right are vying to fill the void.

What all these cases share is an interpretation of democracy which is fundamentally wedded to the state. We conventionally think of the state as if it were some form of machine – an ever-modifying series of mechanisms, and the associated buildings, weaponry and technical infrastructure to support it – which is passed from one group to another. Under state-democracy (sometimes called liberal or bourgeois democracy, but these terms don’t quite fit here), elections are used to determine which small group of people should be controlling this machine. They are seen as the least-worst way of ascertaining a mythical “general will”[vii] of the people which is then entrusted to those controlling the machine, but also as a safety-valve to guard against its excessive misuse. This understanding of state-democracy is by no means the preserve of the ‘right’. From social-democracy through many interpretations of socialism, the democratic question remains who controls the machine, how the population choose them, and what they do with it. Whilst the electoral process itself may be tweaked (for example, a move to proportional representation) or interstitial ‘participatory’ processes introduced (such as referenda), the concept of the machine itself – as a necessary infrastructure which sits on top and does-to society – is left unquestioned.

Traditional Marxist approaches to state-democracy understand the state as an instrument of domination that must ultimately be dissolved, and that its “withering away” is an essential pre-requisite to the establishment of a society of freely associating individuals. Whilst there are different interpretations of how this might happen[viii], they largely share the perception of the state as an indispensable tool which must be seized (through election, violent revolution, or otherwise) as the method of transition to a world without the state. Indeed, Lenin goes as far as making the state and democracy fundamentally intertwined concepts, such that ‘the state in general, i.e., the most complete democracy, can only “wither away”[ix]’. In practice, these traditional methodologies remain dominated by the problem of ‘who’ controls the state-machine; if only the bourgeois can be toppled, and the proper revolutionary interests of the working class (the ‘will’ of the people that has obtained class consciousness) can be represented through a dictatorship of the proletariat, then the withering of the state on behalf of the ‘whole people’ can begin.

Yet there is another reading of democracy that recognises that “the state, then, is not just an institution. It is a form of social relations, a class practice. More precisely, it is a process which projects certain forms of organisation upon our everyday activity”[x]. So what of a democracy that looks for different ‘forms of organisation’ of our everyday activity? When hundreds of thousands of people took the Spanish squares behind the banner ¡Democracia Real YA! (Real Democracy Now!), or occupied the financial heart of Wall Street chanting “this is what democracy looks like”, we know that (for many) this was not simply a demand for a ‘better’ government to be in charge of an unmodified state-machine. It was a challenge to the idea of state-democracy itself – a rejection of the form of social relations that we’ve nick-named ‘the state’ – and an affirmation that we can develop very different ways of organising our own everyday activity. It was a restatement of the democratic principle that the demos can organise itself, a refusal to wait for the state to deliver its own antithesis, and a belief in the possibility of us beginning to ‘freely associate’ together now.

Experiments in autogestion

There are thus two almost diametrically opposed understandings of ‘democracy’; either a commitment to the idea that we can develop a plurality of approaches to organising our own everyday activity, or a commitment to being alienated from governing our own affairs through the form of social relationships we call ‘the state’. Writing in 1966, the heterodox theorist Henri Lefebvre referred to the former as autogestion, noting that ‘the state in essence opposes a centralizing principle to the decentralizing principle of autogestion[xi]’. As Mark Purcell summarised, the struggle of/for autogestion:

‘is a struggle from below by people who have decided to take on the responsibility of governing themselves, who gain confidence through their successes, and who are able to demonstrate, bit by bit, that the state is no longer necessary… In autogestion, we do not smash the state and then begin managing our own affairs. Rather we manage our own affairs, we work hard at it, and we get to the point where it is evident that we can truly govern ourselves. Only then does the withering of the state truly kick in. Autogestion thus offers the possibility of a withering from below. It is a clear alternative to a failed model of a vanguard party seizing the state in order to impose conditions that will cause the state to wither away’[xii].

Without this interpretation of democracy as autogestion, it’s difficult to register the potency of Debbie Bookchin’s assertion, made during the final plenary of the 2017 Fearless Cities summit in Barcelona, that municipalism is not about implementing progressive policies, but about returning power to ordinary people”[xiii]. This is perhaps a necessary overstatement; progressive policies are, of course, something that the new municipalist movements are looking to achieve, but it is not what fundamentally characterises them. The remunicipalisation and cooperatisation of essential services (from energy, to water, dentistry, funeral services, and transport-systems) so as to reduce costs and carbon-emissions whilst increasing service access and quality is a testament to what can be achieved at the municipal level[xiv]. Yet these should be seen as positive symptoms of a political project that is not fundamentally about the policies themselves (which could hypothetically be implemented by a traditional social-democratic party), but about the construction of new ‘forms of organisation’ of our everyday activity.

As Ana Mendez, an activist in Madrid 129, former cultural-policy advisor, and co-organiser of the Fearless Cities summit puts it, municipalism is “not a way to implement the state conception of the world in a smaller scale. It’s a way to actually modify this level of the local government into something that is different, that actually operates at a different scale”. In other words, many municipalist activists are guided by this principle of autogestion – that we should be able to take on the responsibility of governing ourselves – and that this means trying to fundamentally reshape the bundle of social relationships that constitute the alienating state-machine in favour of new forms of collective social organisation. As Ana puts it, “we were sent out like scouts, we were sent like a kind of force into this enemy territory in order to fight, in order to try to change a super complicated machine”.

Caren Tepp, a councillor elected as part of Ciudad Futura in the city of Rosario, Argentina, phrases this as a commitment to:

“constructing a different kind of power. Not this power over someone, of oppression, but rather a power of equality, of getting things done, of cooperation, not of competition… [but] a new kind of power in society which is precisely in the hands of ordinary people, but organised ordinary people. Ordinary people that have started down the path of prefiguration. [The aim] is not to take power but to build a new kind of power, from the bottom up, a power to do with others, a power as a creative power and collective capacity to change things”

Whether it’s called autogestion, self-determination, or autonomy, it’s clear that the radical democratic impulse is to build a new collective social order from within the shell of the old. Yet this commitment to developing the self-organizing capacity of society does not mean forsaking working within existing state processes (something more akin to ‘traditional’ anarchist approaches to autonomy). Rather, we can see these movements as functioning transversally, developing strategies for organising in, against and beyond the state, where the radical democratic impulse – perhaps paradoxically – is to try and turn these institutions against themselves through ‘transforming the institution itself and its mechanisms in order to distribute power’. As opposed to a narrow understanding of simply getting elected and passing progressive policies, ‘this second kind of municipalism entails… giving autonomy to the social movements and opening the institution in order to let them act as a counterbalance. Once you have distributed power you lose the monopoly of the strategy and the agenda, so this second type of municipalism entails losing part of the control of the political process, but enhancing the changing process’[xv].

To be sure, people have committed to these municipalist movements for different reasons, and the (sometimes productive, but potentially insurmountable) tension between these two opposed understandings of democracy continue to play out within the movements themselves. Yet for Giuseppe Micciarelli, a legal scholar and activist with Massa Critica in Naples, the stakes are clear: “We have to imagine how to change institutions, because if we think that we win and we change the world, or our country, or our city, only [by] going to manage it – we fail…. You try to change the system, or the system will destroy you”. In these terms, it is the permanent commitment to transforming institutions and distributing power outwards, and the constant movement towards ‘a withering from below’, that defines the municipalist project. These new municipalist movements are, in Hardt & Negri’s terms, looking to form ‘a constitutive process that on the basis of our social wealth creates lasting institutions and organizes new social relations, accompanied by the force necessary to maintain them’[xvi].

Municipalism beyond the municipality

If a shared commitment of these initiatives is to project different forms of organisation onto our everyday activity, then why not organise at a ‘higher’ political scale, one that controls more resources and has greater capacity to produce policy? If these movements are demonstrating a willingness to operate in, against and beyond the state, why focus on the ‘periphery’ rather than on the ‘core’ of the nation-state? If these movements can be successful at the municipal level, why not ‘scale up’ and contest power at the national level?

The recent emergence of a municipalist electoral list for the European Parliament – which promises to pursue a ‘municipalist agenda for a Fearless Europe’[xvii] – suggests that many municipalists are acting strategically and fluidly across established political scales. Rather than being caught in a ‘local trap’[xviii] that erroneously positions towns and cities as inherently more democratic or progressive than other political scales, municipalism is understood as ‘a means by which to achieve [our] vital goals’[xix] that may well find strategic opportunities in the most distinctly ‘non-city’ like of places. To this extent, this municipalist tendency can be seen as embodying ‘an argument against localism but for… a politics of place beyond place’[xx].

Nonetheless, arguments to ‘scale up’ this municipalist turn are in danger of betraying one of its most central characteristics. Municipalism is an anti-state and radical-democratic project that rejects the myth of the state as a machine that can be conquered, and instead sees it as a tightly-knitted knot of social relations to be unpicked, distributed and rewoven. Municipalism did not begin in our towns, villages, and cities because of an erroneous belief that existing political structures are at their ‘strongest’ there, or simply because movements were too weak to claim the control centre of the state-machine. Rather, municipalism began where people are in their greatest proximity to one another, and thus where there is the greatest opportunity to undertake this reweaving, building new institutional forms – a “new kind of power in society which is precisely in the hands of ordinary people” – that are grounded in the day-to-day relationships of our immediately social and lived experiences.

The goal is thus not to repeat the tightly-knitted knot and inherited linear understanding of power, but to weave a new political geography, a new terrain of distributed power. No longer is this a challenge of an expansive fiefdom to be owned and controlled, but a series of humans whose relationships need to be collectively organized.

This is an edited version of a chapter appearing in DiEM25: A Vision For Europe, forthcoming from Eris publishers in May, 2019.

[i] Barcelona en Comú (2015) Governing by Obeying: Code of political ethics.

[ii] Akuno, K. (2011) The Jackson–Kush Plan: The Struggle for Black Self-Determination and Economic Democracy.

[iii] Salvini in Polleschi, I. (2019) ‘Italy’s new political order – a green beard and mozzarella’ Reuters. July 3rd 2018.

[iv] Travis, A. & Stewart, H. (2018) ‘UK to pay extra £44.5m for Calais securyt I Anglo-French deal’  The Guardian. 18th Jan 2018.

[v] Day, M. (2018) ‘Viktor Orban moves to ban gender studies courses at university in ‘dangerous precedent for Hungary’ The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/08/13/viktor-orban-moves-ban-gender-studies-courses-university-dangerous/

[vi] Mounk, Y. (2018) ‘How populist uprisings could bring down liberal democracy’. The Guardian. 4th March 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/mar/04/shock-system-liberal-democracy-populism

[vii] Conceptualized by the French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the ‘general will’ is considered as one of the foundation stones of western democratic systems, and was enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen during the French Revolution.

[viii] Most famously, https://www.marxists.org/ebooks/lenin/state-and-revolution.pdf

[ix] The author acknowledges that there are many different interpretations of Lenin, and this isn’t intended to offer a definitive position on Lenin’s own work.

[x] London-Edinburgh Weekend Return group (1979) In and Against the State.

[xi] Lefebvre, H. (1966) Theoretical Problems of Autogestion in N. Brenner & S. Elden (eds.) (2009) State, Space, World: Selected Essays of Henri Lefebvre.

[xii] Purcell, M. (2013) The Down-Deep Delight of Democracy London: Wiley-Blackwell. Pp.40-41

[xiii] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zohw_IUJUiw

[xiv] Transnational Institute (2017) Reclaiming Public Services: How cities are citizens are turning back privatization.

[xv] de Alòs-Moner, A. (2017) Seizing Power Within Global Neoliberalism: Lessons from the Municipal Movement. Alternative Information & Development Centre.

[xvi] Hardt, M. & Negri, A. (2017) Assembly Oxford: Oxford University Press

[xvii] Shea Baird, K. (2018) A municipalist agenda for a Fearless Europe. 2nd November 2018.

[xviii] Purcell, M. (2006) Urban Democracy and the Local Trap. Urban Studies 43(11): 1921-1941

[xix] Roth, L. & Baird, K. (2017) Municipalism and the Feminization of Politics. Roar Magazine. Available online:< https://roarmag.org/magazine/municipalism-feminization-urban-politics>

[xx] Massey, D. (2007) World City Cambridge: Polity Press

Open Democracy

Categories Politics

Bertie is a Research Associate in the Urban Institute, and works on ESRC Jam & Justice project and as part of the international MISTRA Urban Futures. He has a PhD from the University on Leeds focused on the politicization of scientific knowledge in the radical climate and climate justice movements. He is also a member of the UK organization Plan C.