This post is part of an ongoing series exploring anticipatory and communalistic visions for deeply adaptive alternative communities. Our goal is to interrogate existing alt-communities, frameworks and projects in order to develop models and strategies for social change that offer viable pathways of transition out of existing systems to more adaptive and sustainable resource-based forms of social organization.
Many of these posts are rough drafts and fragmented as we move towards a more coherent and comprehensive treatment of the topic later. Feedback is encouraged.
Radical Municipalism & Translocal Futurity
1. Querying the Local
“Only a global confederation of rebel cities can lead us out of the death-spiral of neoliberalism towards a new rational society that delivers on the promise of humankind.” – Debbie Bookchin
“Lefebvre’s concept of heterotopia (radically different from that of Foucault) delineates liminal social spaces of possibility where “something different” is not only possible, but foundational for the defining of revolutionary trajectories. This “something different” does not necessarily arise out of a conscious plan, but more simply out of what people do, feel, sense, and come to articulate as they seek meaning in their daily lives. Such practices create heterotopic spaces all over the place. We do not have to wait upon the grand revolution to constitute such spaces… How else and where else can we come together to articulate our collective cries and demands?” ― David Harvey
Climate change, global finance, the neoliberal state: today’s crises require action on the largest scale from the most local circumstances. Engaging in local politics thus becomes a wide-ranging community affair, where making connections between people in the situations they exist necessarily occur alongside regional to national institutions, systems and processes.
In this series of posts I want to argue that, despite the need for massive changes in social organization, the more effective and important place to begin is – perhaps counter-intuitively – in our municipalities. It is through a rooted yet translocal approach to space, place and people that we can build sustainable regional patchworks capable of forcing elites and national-to-international institutions to respect the demands of diverse communities. In this, I am aligned with the notion of ‘radical municipalism’ as a project that takes direct operational control over the places where/within which we live, and allow us to inhabit the change we want to be in the world.
In this first part I will begin with political imaginings of ‘the local’, and hint at where the series is going. The point is to eventually sketch out how we get from the personal to community to regional social change via the integration of radical municipalism with variations of patchwork theory proposed by those in accelerationist circles, and elsewhere in the various Westernized disciplines.
Three Objections to Localized Politics:
Whenever I talk to people about municipalist strategies the same kinds of questions and criticisms often come up. This post highlights three of those common criticisms. Each one of revolves around the complaint that municipalism is too local, or too “folk”, so unable to deal with complexities involved and the ‘big issues’ to be tackled.
Objection #1. Too late for local approaches
Any call for a long-term vision for social change begs the response: the urgency of the present moment means we don’t have the time for the slow work of community-level organizing. Or so we are told.
Impending climate disruption is a ticking time-bomb. Every year we delay will make the future worse. And as a global phenomenon, it takes immediate global action. Strategically, this argument goes, we’re better off pushing our leaders to take strong stances on climate change.
The situation is so dire that the progressive environmentalist website Grist and the socialist magazine Jacobin are publishing pieces asking us to seriously consider geo-engineering and scaling up nuclear energy – all in a bid to give us more time.
For many, the problem of climate change can only be addressed with big stuff: international agreements, renewable and nuclear energy on a massive scale, geo-engineering schemes that involve changing planetary weather systems.
This kind of response is understandable, but puts the cart before the horse. Without a coherent counter-power to corporate control over government, we have no chance of forcing policy into accordance with the public good. We’re relying on the assumption that leaders are kind enough to listen, and that they by themselves have the power to implement needed reforms.
Even if we elect the most principled people to power, and even if all politicians were to realise that it’s in their own interest to do everything they can to stop climate change through a ‘Green New Deal’, the system would still be dead against them. You can’t beg a system dependent on extraction, endless growth, and exploitation to change its ways. A systemic restructuring the economy is necessary to stop the ecological crisis.
What is clear is that those in power—the CEOs, the shareholders, the bankers, and the politicians that implement their laws—would suffer greatly from necessary action on climate change.
Government debts would need to be cancelled, the most powerful industries would need to be phased out. Production would need to be reordered along democratic lines, putting people and planet before profit. No matter what, we will still need the kind of popular power that hasn’t been seen in generations to hold politicians’ feet to the fire. It took the combined threats of national collapse, socialist revolution, and a massive workers movement during the Great Depression to get the New Deal. This kind of people power needs to be organized neighborhood by neighborhood, workplace by workplace.
Every step we take towards dual power and direct democracy from below puts us in a better position to force the hands of government. Extracting concessions from the state and building a new political system from the ground up are NOT opposing strategies — they go hand in hand.
There’s a second answer to this objection. The fight for the right to the city is the fight for climate justice. For example, research on São Paolo in Brazil shows that the fight for affordable housing is a fight against climate change, even if poor people’s movements don’t speak in those terms.
Making the center of the city accessible for everyone to live in and building social and cooperative housing reduces carbon impact. Urban social issues like transit justice are key components of moving beyond fossil fuels. By making the places where we live more equal and democratic, we’re simultaneously fighting for a greener future.
In fact, we’re already seeing that cities and towns with strong social movements are at the forefront of radical and innovative responses to climate change.
What’s more, they’re starting to work together to provide a common front to demand change on national and international scales—the Global Covenant for Mayors for Climate and Energy is already a force to be reckoned with in international climate talks. And cities globally are leading the fight to take the fossil fuel industry to task, even suing them for contributing to climate disasters.
All this comes down to the fact that we can’t actually make the necessarily large-scale changes without taking control over the places where we live and creating the alternatives necessary for a new system. It’s precisely these alternatives that force the hand of the state to act on climate change. They organize people power and show how things could be done otherwise.
In other words, radical municipalism is designed to manage climate change: our power together forces our leaders to act and buys us time to develop new ecological social orders that can replace consumerism.
Objection #2. Local activism can’t address global capitalism
A common response to those who work to mobilize communities and create local networks of power is that localism can’t scale up. It’s always just stuck back-pedaling, unable to actually change the large-scale problems like predatory trade deals, foreign takeovers, the capacity of finance to make or break whole countries — the stuff that really shapes national decision-making.
The key actors of social change aren’t corporations, finance institutions or lobby groups: they’re people, and people live and work somewhere. This kind of critique often forgets the fact that all successful international movements of the past were intensely local.
For example, the labour movements of the 19th and 20th centuries were able to make demands of governments because they were so embedded in people’s day-to-day lives. Historically, unions weren’t just at the workplace; they ran dance halls, classes, cafeterias, and sports leagues.
It was only by broadening their reach to every aspect of life that unions were able to become indispensable to working class communities. This made it possible for them to organise effective strikes and, eventually, mount a significant challenge to their bosses and the state. It’s regular people that are the actors of world-historical changes.
What some people deride as ‘localism’ is often the very foundation of transformative change – and the only sustainable way to have people engaged.
That said, we shouldn’t forget that, without a long-term vision, a coherent plan of action, and trans-local alliances, every local movement is doomed to become a relic in the town museum.
Keep in mind that capitalism works at scale. That’s the genius of it. Stop one development in your neighbourhood, and investors just move their money elsewhere. Take on giants like Amazon, and they’ll just move to another city.
So, in that sense, I agree that local action, on its own, will always fail. This is why, for radical municipalism to be successful, it requires collaboration at higher level.
[cf. This July, the Fearless Cities Summit in New York City will bring together municipalist movements around the world to share resources and action plans.]
In the short term, these kinds of movements are already proving to be a challenge to big corporations. In Seattle, the city council passed a law that would tax big companies like Amazon — money which would then go into subsidies for affordable housing. In Barcelona, the city is turning AirBnB apartments into social housing. Only local and people-based movements can force politicians to bring transnational corporations to task. What we need to do now is learn from each other’s victories and work together to scale them up.
In the long term, a system of dual power could transform into what could be called a full-fledged communalism: an allied patchwork of interdependent city-states and regional polities that work together in a coordinated way.
On the local level, the neighbourhood assembly makes the decisions and decides the course of action. On a bigger level, these organisations band together in a confederation of regions: a body of recallable delegates with imperative mandates, directly accountable to their communities.
This body would allow municipalities/patchworks to exchange resources, create resource exchange agreements, and make democratic decisions for the larger region. Without this kind of networking, collaboration, and interdependence across borders, local movements are just that: local, isolated, and doomed to fail, again and again. But through allied regional confederations, we can extend the grid of local control over habitats and challenge the abstract designs of non-local global capitalism and it’s ruling class.
Objection #3. Without State control no local power
For many, the state is either the best vehicle for action to fight the major systemic problems of climate chaos, finance capital running amok, and global inequality, or the worst. The claims are: abolish the state, or reform and intensify national politics.
Yet, unlike revolutionaries of the past, those who are the loudest about abolishing the state and want an exit from corrupt and ineffective national politics often just don’t participate. However, this non-participation only bolsters the system them seem to despise. Conservative movements aligned with corporate interests thrive off voter apathy, and often win elections in key regions where progressive values exist. Ignoring elections cedes the very ground we seek to build change to the welfare-bashing, poor-blaming, and racist right.
On the other side, those who seek to reform the state often fail to understand the extent to which politicians are at the behest of corporate campaign fiance, and thus their alliances and dependence on non-local, non-public interests. Attempts at piece-meal reforming a state level electoral systems is near impossible without massive legal and institutional changes PRIOR to any modification of regional practices. Policy is dictated by decisions that are non-democratic and small concessions fail challenge large scale agreements and processes.
So how can radical municipalist movements engage with the state? First, it’s important to reframe the debate away from “should we try to take state power?”. We’re trying to build a patchwork of practices and processes, and institutions, that can, in the present, extract concessions from the state and force corporations to change their practices in order to conduct their business. Radical municipalism does not seek to take power at a national level, from state institutions, but rather increase and diversify ways to govern and control regional resources, systems, and processes as related to food, waste, habitat, energy use, and transportation. In a word: infrastructure.
The pragmatism of an infrastructural approach to social ecology and economics in the way it doesn’t seek confrontation with the state, but rather circumvention, and direct engagement (alliance/control) of corporate activities within communities. By designing and controlling infrastructure and zoning we cultivate a regional playing field upon which corporate actors are forced to operate – without any need to over-commit to national or even state/provincial political processes. Creating innovative and sophisticated infrastructural settings and social ecologies we enact a parallel system of power that can renegotiate the terms of corporate involvement in communities, and force a crisis within the state that dissolves its powers.
This process would amount to a fundamental restructuring of the public sphere, from a state—instruments of coercive violence under the control of a ruling class—into a new kind of regional commons, or government from below.
As we gain greater power to extract concessions from the state through new institutions of communal life, strategic policy changes can be used to increase the capacity of municipalities to shape their regions. Non-reformist reforms like nationalized healthcare, job guarantee programs, and public childcare can enable more working-class people to participate in neighborhood organizing and movement work. Putting public funds into cooperative development, social housing, public banking, and participatory budgeting can speed along our transition to a democratic economy. With the support of municipal governments, solidarity economy initiatives developed in our communities can be dramatically expanded. Most importantly, we can secure radical changes to city charters that restructure political authority into direct rule by citizens through confederated community councils and assemblies.
It is never enough to simply “take the state” and wield it as a tool to reshape society, for the state is not a neutral institution to be held by one class or another. At a structural level, the state exists to enforce the will of a ruling elite, who make decisions on our behalf. Even if we replace horrible capitalist ones with working-class representatives of our own, we haven’t assured that the will of the public is governing society, for the public is not itself in power. Empowering ordinary people to have control over our collective future requires fundamentally transforming the way governance works.
This is why building power from OUTSIDE of the state is so essential. The mass organization of community councils, assemblies, tenant unions, labor unions, and cooperatives is what can (through its own growth) force governing elites to make changes right now, while creating the conditions for a more revolutionary restructuring of society as we move forward.
It’s easy to criticism everything under the sun as insufficient, not good enough. But what might be gained if we were better equipped to scan for possibilities within insufficiencies?
While local action alone is not enough, organizing can be a part of people’s everyday lives: and as such needs to be place-based. Fighting for affordable housing means fighting climate change. Taking on AirBnB or Amazon in your city means struggling against corporate control over politics. Working with your neighbours doesn’t mean giving up on national electoral politics. It’s all part of the same strategy: building local capacity as the necessary ingredient for challenging the ruling class’s grip on daily lives.
How can we solidify these distant, local actions into an intentional power that can take on state, corporate, and global powers? Through learning from each other, networking, forming alliances, and, eventually, confederating. Without a democratic politics of scale, we’ll just stay stuck in the local. But the local is where it all begins.
Towards A Communalistic Patchwork?
In future installments of this series I will greatly expand and flesh out what I see as some of the most significant aspects of the dual approach to politics embodied in radical municipalism: community-building (public deliberation, direct democracy,) and infrastructural design (with its necessary legal and policy dimensions).
The role of the public spheres in both decision-making (social spending, public transit, etc) and community-building (political subjectivity, consensus making, etc) will also be discussed, while drawing out some of the most socially and ecologically destructive features non-regional state governance systems (the police, the military, prisons, border security, surveillance, etc.) and contrasting these to possible alternative regional and resource-based systems.
I will also seek to to integrate radical municipalism with contemporary work on patchwork theory (definition forthcoming) and conclude by exploring several case studies detailing practical strategies and potential ways forward. If I am even remotely successful is sketching out and suggesting some possible ways forward in challenging dominant and destructive social habits then this series will have been a success.
Let us start to prepare our futures and begin to build from the ruins even as the ruination is not yet complete.