The promise of radical municipalism today

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Loneliness, capitalist urbanisation, and ecological crisis. In this world, politics should be about bringing people together and taking control of the spaces where we live. The latest instalment from the SYMBIOSIS RESEARCH COLLECTIVE

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. Despite this bleak reality, a new kind of politics is emerging: a politics based in people's everyday lives, which offers a sense of belonging and giving people a voice.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

These Authors

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).

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