The first response attempts to regain control and security through new forms of authoritarianism and protectionism. We’ve seen the return of the nation state as a reaction to global capitalism, the re-emergence of national and cultural identity, and a revival of racist and xenophobic discourses.
The second response, fuelled by techno-optimism, sees no limit to our capacity to invent our way out of global crisis through what has been described as a ‘fourth industrial revolution’. This approach is advocated by organisations such as the World Economic Forum, along with a multitude of transnational corporations, financial powers and governments. Following a competitive logic, it suggests that individuals and societies that are better technologically adapted will prosper, whilst others will be left behind.
The third response sees neighborhoods, towns and cities around the world emerge as the place to defend human rights, democracy and the common good. Neighbours and citizens are uniting in solidarity networks to address pressing global challenges, from access to housing and basic services to climate change and the refugee crisis. This new municipalist movement seeks to build counter power from the bottom up, challenging the dominance of the nation state and capitalist markets, putting power back into the hands of people.
Fearless Cities: the municipal hope
In June we participated in the first ever international municipal summit, which was organised by Barcelona en Comú, a citizen platform whose radical politics and rapid takeover of the City Hall has inspired activists and councillors around the world.
The summit brought together over 700 mayors, councillors, activists and citizens from more than 180 cities in more than 40 countries across five continents, including representatives from roughly 100 citizen platforms, all aiming to build global networks of solidarity and hope between municipalities.
The agenda—public space and the commons, housing, gentrification and tourism, the feminisation of politics, mobility and pollution, radical democracy in town and city councils, creating non-state institutions, socio-ecological transition, re-municipalisation of basic services, sanctuary and refuge cities—was a demonstration of the common challenges we face, and far removed from the dominant logic of economic growth to which national institutions, increasingly separated from the day-to-day reality of citizens’ lives, direct their attention.
With accessible ticket prices, child care provision, a bar run by an association of the unemployed, the main talks free to the public and the opening plenary held in one of the central squares, Barcelona en Comú remained true to their values of inclusion and participation. The conference involved an incredible diversity of people, not only as participants, but also filling the panels and leading the workshops. ‘This is the first panel I have ever seen that doesn’t include a single white male,’ commented one of the participants.
The emergence of citizen platforms
Since the financial crisis in 2007-8, citizen platforms have rapidly emerged across the globe. Their rise has been particularly strong in certain countries, such as Spain, where they now govern most major cities, as well as many towns and rural areas. These citizen groups are generally composed of independent candidates or of an alliance between independents and members of progressive political parties, with members frequently having roots in social movements. Ada Colau, for example, was at the forefront of the anti-eviction group, Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca), before becoming mayor of Barcelona.
Some citizen platforms are elected on a particular agenda, such as Barcelona en Comú, who came to power in 2015 promising to defend citizen rights, rethink tourism in the city, fight corruption, and radically democratise local politics. Others have crowd-sourced their agenda or don’t have an agenda at all. Indy Monmouth in Wales, for example, ran for election with the promise that they would take their lead from the community once they were elected. This desire to transform politics and put power back into the hands of people is one of the primary aims of citizen platforms and the municipalist movement.
Radical democracy and the feminisation of politics
Municipalism is concerned as much with how outcomes are achieved as with the outcomes themselves. The need to radically democratise and feminise the political space was a persistent theme throughout the Fearless Cities conference.
Barcelona en Comú described how the democratisation and feminisation of politics is key to transformation, by bringing marginalised voices into the debate; reducing hierarchy; decentralising decision making; enabling dialogue, listening and collective intelligence; re-evaluating what we understand by the term experts and seeing everyone as experts in their own day-to-day life, their neighbourhoods and their communities; placing care, co-operation, relationship and people's lived experience at the heart of politics; and facilitating co-responsibility for where we live, for the environment and for each other.
This kind of politics has the potential to include rather than alienate, to create interdependence rather than dependence, to liberate the knowledge, experience and visions of a huge diversity of people, and empower us to act together to bring about change. It’s not glamorous but it’s potentially transformative — it’s about learning by doing, and is concerned with addressing day-to-day needs and issues, such as housing and access to basic services.
This approach dispels the idea that our political participation happens once every four years when we vote and makes everyday life a matter of politics. Starting from the grassroots we have the opportunity to build democracy at the level that government directly interacts with people's daily lives, and where the negative effects of neoliberalism are experienced on a daily basis. It has the potential to bring us together rather than tear us apart as we build an alternative identity that is based on where we live and on our participation, relationships and collective concerns, as neighbours, friends and community, rather than being attached to our nationality, race or ethnicity.
Libertarian municipalism and social ecology
The term municipalism stems from ‘libertarian municipalism’, a type of political organisation proposed by American social theorist and philosopher Murray Bookchin. It involves neighbourhood assemblies that practice direct democracy and seek to form a confederation of municipalities, as an alternative to the power of the centralised state.
This approach sees democratic communities as the driver of change, as the means by which we can redefine how we live together and our relationship with the natural world. Offering a holistic vision, the approach recognises the interdependent and eco-dependent nature of life and sees the ecological and social crises as inseparable.