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
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?
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
It may seem anathema to suggest that building
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.
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:
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,
is not about implementing progressive policies, but about returning power to
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
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”
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
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
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].
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.
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.
[vi] Mounk, Y. (2018) ‘How populist uprisings could bring down liberal
democracy’. The Guardian. 4th
[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
[viii] Most famously,
[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.
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
[xii] Purcell, M. (2013) The
Down-Deep Delight of Democracy London: Wiley-Blackwell. Pp.40-41
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.