Patchworking The Future (1): Querying the Local

In this series I’m attempting to explore some preliminary issues related to developing a communistic vision of patchwork that doesn’t rely on standard conceptions of how we might transition from existing systems to more adaptive and sustainable resource-based forms of social organization. These posts will be mostly first drafts on the way to a more coherent and comprehensive treatment of the topic (see Patchworking The Future). Note that the language is intentionally more accessible than what I usually post in the hopes of making the issues more engaging. This series is mostly just notes and sketches and each post may change substantially after posting. Feedback is welcome.

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Radical Municipalism & Translocal Futurity: Towards a Communalistic Patchwork

“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.

 PART 1. QUERYING THE LOCAL

1.1 – Three Objections to Local 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 Communistic 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.

 

17 responses to “Patchworking The Future (1): Querying the Local

  1. I love the Barcelona folks especially @francesca_bria will be interesting to see if the EU backs folks like her or continues their dependence on Big Tech selling the cities further down the river, Russia has literally committed an act of chemical warfare on British soil and London still feeds at the teat of Oligarch cash flows. Do cities control banks in your neck of the woods or is that sort of oversight power higher up the food chain and how about taxes? Here in Iowa the state even controls the minimum wage and forget about issues like the water quality of the river that flows my town.
    https://www.thenation.com/article/lessons-death-seattles-amazon-tax/

      • it will be interesting to see how she is treated by the wall street democrats on the hill, likely they will bury her her deep in some nonsense, fucking dccc…

        • They will try…She seems pretty spunky and of the take no shit variety. She already said publicly day one she won’t tow party line and back the speaker unless it fits with what she ran on. If y’all can start filling up congress with these types of candidates things will change.

          • lovely thought but of course she doesn’t have any power while the speaker is pretty much in total command and of course they are in the minority,
            I wish her well she is getting thrown in the deep end with lots of sharks and without any swimming lessons.
            The demographics don’t really support these sorts of efforts outside of the very bluest of blue districts and the supreme court is doing what they can to keep the republican gerrymanders in place.
            would really take a generation or two of hyperactive new voters to turn the tide and there won’t be much of an economy left by then, ah well do what we can…

  2. teats indeed. cities don’t need to control banks, they control the field of operations upon which the people who use banks operate – that’s my the point. we take back power from financial institutions by reengaging in place-based politics and lifestyle innovations.

    much of the taxation where i live takes place at municipal levels – and where it does not we can direct monies into projects locally that offer federal tax relief. I haven’t paid federal taxes in 4 years due to strategic donating and rebates for “greening” my lifestyle. there are many governance issues, like water, that are better handled at state/provincial levels, because watersheds and river systems are larger, and span more area than the municipal. but that’s where city councils can use economic and political leverage to force states/provinces to create multi-municipal strategies for management.

    • if you get a chance to follow housing developments or the like thru city council I’ll be interested to see what you make of it, unless a govt gets radical and decides to try and follow a degrowth model they are pretty much at the mercy of property-developers/corporations and their bankers and you’ll never get credit via bonds or the like if you try degrowth-ing,and good luck raising taxes significantly\ and staying in office lots of circles of hell out there, keep us posted if you have some examples as you try the party politics route.
      https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-degrowth-paradigm-1.2914099

      • The point is to do party politics; do local, non-party politics (city councils); and do non-political actions as well – everything from sabotage to local food productions to civil (and uncivil) disobedience. Multiple fronts, multiple strategies, but always engaged where people live.

        Here is something we have been working on for a few years now. I was part of the consulting team that negotiated agreements between developers, existing housing owners, and local businesses where tax incentives where key to rolling out a collaborative system where people don’t fall through the cracks.

        You want concrete examples, this is one: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/calgary/medicine-hat-homeless-free-update-1.3949030

        And if you want even more specifics I can get you in touch with administrators here: http://www.mhchs.ca

        • thanks I’ll take a look, would be great if such things could become part of policy/law and not just one-offs.

  3. looks like a good faith effort and vital to keep reweaving the safety net but that doesn’t address the question of the underlying economics at all, as long as growth/development is the imperative (market value over use value, etc) governments are the weaker parties in negotiating with capital, the marxists like @profdavidharvey are right about that much
    it would take something more like

    to leverage the kinds of change that would create a new trajectory.

    • I wonder, how does a trajectory change if not one step at a time? Bit by bit we do more than weave a social safety net, we generate levels of personal development, cultivate capacities for people to challenge and change, and instantiate new modes/practices.

      “Capital” and larger market forces (which are what DeLanda identified as anti-market forces) cannot be challenged directly, but must be circumvented by designing and building alternatives locally. Local markets and non-capitalist social practices afforded by municipal controls over housing, production, and zoning. We “seize the means of production” by controlling how cities operate, what gets built, and who we allow into our communities. That is the whole point of this first post (which I already feel like reworking, btw): we take on these massive, seemingly indomitable, interlocking systems and institutions by literally manipulating the ground upon which they operate. Municipalities control infrastructure and zoning, and a few other key legal domains, and thus can circumvent national level and corporate agendas.

      I don’t dispute what Harvey and others are saying about the macro-economic tendencies, but I think they often aren’t looking close enough at available and viable solutions either (although Harvey in clear-minded, imo, in his advocacy for “rebel cities”). What some deem to be mere folk-politics may be the starting point for a trans-local assemblage or practices and relations that both cultivate community and mutualisms, as well as help re-engineer the institutional field.

      Again, and in regards to what I already linked to above, we were told that addressing homelessness was a losing battle because the problem was too intractable and capitalist system writ large was too dominating. We proved them wrong by organizing and working locally to stitch systems and practices and attitudes that implemented real change. We created a ‘patch’ to the existing social milieu that re-routed resources and opened spaces where the people who are homeless can better interface with municipal systems and get off the streets, in ways that were unprecedented.

      It’s cellular: growing one cell at a time until there is a critical mass that disrupted the institutional ‘body’. It can’t be addressed in one fell swoop.

        • Collapse will indeed bring massive changes – not for the better though. That’s why any reformist projects ALSO need to be adaptation oriented, and as “combined and uneven” as the systemic changes it seeks to mitigate/respond to. It’s a matter of sustainable ‘patching’, not as a project of maintaining systems that are dying, but in the interest of securing relatively workable systems/spaces to replace them as they do – as proactive group salvage operations!

          Harvey is top notch. I’ll be drawing on his work in the next few posts in this series. Rabinow and Pickering as well. l know you dig those dudes like I do. Keep pushing me on these issues, i appreciate the constant nudge towards concrete forms/practices/prototypes, i really do!

  4. http://wfhb.org/news/interchange-capitals-hidden-art-of-war-and-the-belly-of-revolution/
    “Joining us today to consider the state of things detached from the land we stand upon is Jasper Bernes. Bernes is a poet and Marxist theorist who was integrally involved in Occupy Oakland. His essay “Logistics, Counterlogistics, and the Communist Prospect” is deeply informed by that experience. He is the author of The Work of Art in the Age of Deindustrialization published by Stanford last year, and together with Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover, he edits Commune Editions.”

  5. Pingback: 052 :: Learn how to feel | T.H.E.J.A.Y.M.O·

  6. Great post. I’ve been thinking a bit about geometries of organization, thinking of an alternative to the dualism between arborescence and rhizomatics, where the former represents a structure of hierarchical unilateral power and the latter represents anarchic mobility. Global Capitalism seems to already operate through a dialectical interplay between arborescent state-finance control and rhizomatic market expansion and penetration.

    The issue with traditional “universalist” Marxism is that it thinks it can use the machinery of the State and drive it unilaterally with its own interests, and the issue with individualist forms of anarchism is that its affirmation of the local and the temporary seeks mere “exit” from the system. So the ultimate failure of these two differing modes of leftist practice hinges on the fact that they choose one side of a mode of power that Global Capitalism already operates with.

    The alternative geometry that I am interested in is something in between the tree and the root—a cobweb perhaps, what is called a “form constant”, structured through the principle of “holonism” where the part fractally reflects the whole. I think this is very much in line with what you’ve outlined here, where the local becomes a site for changing the global. It is universalistic in that it requires the inter-connected participation of all the parts in the interests of the whole, but it is also grounded/localist because the whole cannot truly exist without the integration of all the parts.

    This structure is very much aligned with the Buddhist concept of “pratityasamutpada”, or dependent origination, which has also been illustrated with a kind of holonic form constant: Indra’s Net.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indra%27s_net

    Buddhist process-ontology conceives of the universe as a democratic system of changing processes, where the thriving of the individual unit is dependent upon its participation with the totality.

    What we need is to “holographically” reflect this ontological vision with our social-ecological global organization. I think Radical Municipalism is a great step forward toward this.

    I look forward to Part 2.

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