Introducing a Global Network of Municipalist Cities
This week I had the privilege of joining the Fearless Cities conference, hosted by Barcelona en Comú, a citizen platform founded by 15M and PAH activists in 2014.
The conference announced a global municipalist network, featuring delegates from more than 100 cities around the world.
Municipalism is a movement of cities taking power from states, and using that power to transform politics from the bottom up. For a good intro, check out this recent article from Kate Shea Baird: A new international municipalist movement is on the rise — from small victories to global alternatives.
The conference named two goals for the municipalists:
- to feminize politics — developing new ways of organising based on horizontal collaboration, collective intelligence and the politics of everyday life, and,
- to stop the far right — combating the politics of hate and fear with local policies that reduce inequality and promote the common good.
The speakers were hugely inspiring. To give you a taste, I’ve extracted quotes from the four sessions I attend.
Democracy from the Bottom Up: Municipalism and other Stories
I found myself nodding along with everything shared by Debbie Bookchin, daughter of the original municipalists, Beatrice and Murray Bookchin:
All ecological problems are social problems. We can’t address ecological problems without resolving our addiction to domination and hierarchy. We need to fundamentally alter our social relations. How do we bring an egalitarian society into being? The municipality is a logical arena to start. […]
Social change won’t occur by voting for the candidate who promises a minimum wage, free education etc., only an activated citizen movement can transform society. […]
Local assemblies transform citizens. We are made new humans by participating. We grow beyond capitalist modernity.
Ritchie Torres from the NYC Council, opened with two questions about the US context:
- How do we achieve progressive municipal governance in a world of federal divestment?
- How do you bring participatory politics while so deeply entrenched in two-party politics?
They said their greatest achievement in NYC “is that we’ve brought into mainstream a new idea of municipal government. It’s common sense now that local government is not just for filling potholes, it can be a force for equity. […] We’re not just a legislature, we’re a vehicle for community organising. Being merely a legislature, you will be undermined by legislative and financial activism from the right. But if you’re organising communities, you can make headway.”
Sinam Mohamad was greeted by a standing ovation from the crowd, inspired by stories from Rojava, the autonomous region in the north of Syria:
We in Rojava have built decentralised, democratic self-rule in an extremely difficult situation. Economic embargo, besieged, terrorist attacks, chauvinist mentalities… In spite of all this, we built our municipalism. […]
Kobanî faced an attack from ISIS; a city full of fear, everyone frightened by the attack. Fear means you are dying while you are alive. Turkish bombs in our cities, villages. Children sleeping with fear. Mothers afraid for their families. We struggled for peace, which we have achieved now. We built a democratic administration together. Not just Kurds but a mosaic of religions and nations: Turkmen, Arabs, Syrians, Assyrians, Muslim, Yezidi, Christian, and so on. All agree to coexist in this area. This is our aim, to live together without fear. All the people come together and agree to the social contract.
If you don’t have an organisation that is very well organised for equal gender, you won’t have a free society. Free women = free society. Constitutionally we have equal genders, 50–50 participation. Co-president system means we have Mr and Mrs Presidents.
See my full notes from that session here.
Sanctuary and Refuge Cities
On Sunday morning, we joined a panel on Sanctuary and Refuge Cities. Speakers included city officials from Barcelona, NYC, Berlin, Kilkis (Greece), and Paris. Some highlights:
Daniel Gutierrez from Interventionistische Linke in Berlin explained how they created an anonymous health card so migrants can access services without fear of deportation. The same is happening in Barcelona and parts of France. Ignasi Calvó explained that the Barcelona ID is a municipal (not national) register of citizens, so they can bypass the racist laws of the Spanish state, but it still carries state validity, conferring automatic rights to anyone carrying it in the EU. He warned though, “If you’re going to use civil disobedience, you have to ensure the consequence will be on the city, not on the migrant.”
Each of the speakers reiterated the same simple point: that everyone should have access to the same rights. They argued against categorical distinctions between migrants, refugees, and other residents, as these categories create exclusion.
Amélie Canonne from Emmaus International explained how the state fuels radicalisation: “Repression creates radicalisation, both within migrant communities and in the activists working in solidarity with them. In EU, food distribution is banned, activists are arrested, trialled, radicalised.”
Comments from the audience revealed the huge intelligence in the room. For instance, one commenter shared their concerns about the elephant in the room: the question of race. “This has been a colourblind discourse, forgetting the racial aspect, treating migrants as foreigners rather than people of colour. In the US, white nationalism is one of the main drivers working against migrants.” For more on this, see my recent article on white nationalist militias resisting migration from Latin America.
A city councillor from Philadelphia agreed, explaining how systemic bias is compounded against people with intersecting identities, not just “people of colour”, but “low income, migrant, people of colour.”
A Lebanese participant shared some broader context: “We have been receiving refugees for 60 years, maybe 2 million of them. We have a lot to say about the experience! Are these European cities connecting with the history of refugees in Lebanon? We have made so many failures, and success stories too. Many European cities are coming at this for the first time, learn from us!”
It was inspiring to hear so many cities taking radical steps to resist the racist policies imposed at the national level. See my full notes from that session here.
For the closing plenary, Kali Akuno shared razor-sharp analysis from their experience in Jackson, Mississippi.
“In Jackson we talk about the “Syriza trap” — thinking that our leftist forces can manage the contradictions of capitalism. Thinking we can transform capitalism without transforming society. Where has that ever happened? We need to transform society from the bottom up in a participatory way.”
They reiterated “proximity”, a theme woven throughout the conference:
“Direct contact with your neighbour. Find out their interests, hopes, desires, fears, then organise for what you want, and to not be subject to those fears. You will have to confront racism, sexism, xenophobia: you can overcome that at the local level and create a practice to open your neighbourhood to new people.”
We then heard updates from delegates from around the world. The UK delegate received enthusiastic applause throughout their short speech:
“Use political office as a resource to support the transformation from below. We’ve learned the lessons from feminism, we change the order when we refuse to participate.”
Finally, at the end of the day we enjoyed a one last panel — a furious, joyful, incendiary lineup of speakers. I took fairly comprehensive notes, which you can read here.
Yayo Herrero was one of the most incredible speakers I’ve ever seen. Their transformation recipe is worth quoting in full (that is, my transcription of the English translation of the recipe):
“Acknowledge the very clear reality: that material reduction is not catastrophe. It is a catastrophe to not address this with equity and justice.
“We are obliged to think about freedom and a framework of rights that is not just individual but has a relational sphere.
“We need to imagine an ecologist feminist alternative that is anchored in the land, and in our bodies. Put life and sustainability as a political and economic priority. Expel markets as the centre of the political logic. Challenge the perverse logic that if we don’t keep on feeding this exploitive system we won’t grow wellbeing.
“We need a different way of science and technology. We need to expel the part of science that is based on fantasy, promoting things that are not possible, or only possible for a few. Put science in the service of life.
“We need social organisation where men and women and institutions are co-responsible for care. Life must be cared for, it’s not just a job for women.
“We need alliances that allow us to organise a sabotage to this historic plan. Feminists, entrepreneurs, ecologists, trade unions… build a complicated diverse alliance of majorities.”
Activist philosopher Vandana Shiva spoke last, concluding beautifully:
“Nature is intelligence, diversity, and self-organisation. Municipalism is self-organisation at the level of cities.”
And with that, we were ejected out into the warm Barcelona evening. Reviewing these notes, I’m stunned by the quality of all these speakers. The conference felt very much like a sequel to last year’s Democratic Cities conference in Madrid, where I was first introduced to the idea that cities can offer hope in an age of hopeless states.
The conference organisers got a couple of simple things right which made a profound difference to the mood and the content: they made the event accessible with €20 tickets, and they ensured the majority of speakers were women.
However, with respect, I do want to offer a criticism: every session I attended shared the same linear format, with one person speaking, and a room full of intelligent, engaged, creative people simply listening. We can do so much better than this! As Vandana said, municipalism is self-organisation at the scale of the city — I’m hungry for self-organisation at the scale of the conference. We can use horizontal collaboration structures like “Open Space Technology” to unlock the collective intelligence of all the participants. We can intentionally design for relationship-building, rather than hoping for it to emerge passively in the hallways and lunch breaks. This Thursday my partner Nati and I are hosting a workshop on self-organising at the scale of 10s to 100s of people; perhaps we can convince some of the conference organisers to join us and the next Fearless Cities event will have a format to match the content. 🙏
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There is absolutely no historical evidence that cities are any less racist or colonial than nation-states, a quick check of the history of city-states like Venice would show that, or check the riots taking place in cities plagued with racism today. The choice for a more city-centric strategy has to be based on specific strategic considerations, not on a utopian view that cities are intrinsically better than nation-states.