Municipalism: the next political revolution?

Glancing at the national headlines it is easy to feel hopeless. Turning to the “World” section one becomes defeated. Scrolling through the social media, in between burst of joy from the cat/dog/baby videos, there is often pain and struggle. But alternatives are brewing on the horizon. Alternative ways of creating change and standing up for progressive causes.

I am talking about municipalism. It is hyper-local, yet not parochial. It is aspirational, yet deeply solutions oriented and practical. It traces its roots to the past, but is modern, inclusive and forward-looking. It is global, and taking hold across North America too. It has captured the attention of young and old alike.

Also known as radical municipalism and municipal socialism, it traces its roots back to the American anarchist Murray Bookchin. His life’s work was focused on finding ways to build an egalitarian society and erode oppressive power. He didn’t shy away from acknowledging that power exists. Instead, he questioned who has it and how it is wielded. Bookchin believed it should be the people, not the elites.

Bookchin left the world in 2006. However, his daughter, Debbie, is keeping her father’s ideas alive. Just last year, she made a strong case for their revival:

Municipalism — or communalism, as my father called it — returns politics to its original definition, as a moral calling based on rationality, community, creativity, free association and freedom. It is a richly articulated vision of a decentralized, assembly-based democracy in which people act together to chart a rational future.

Bookchin’s ideas have inspired municipal leaders across the world. In diverse places such as Barcelona (Spain), Jackson, Mississippi, and Rojava (a Kurdish area in Syria), among others. Activists there are championing causes such as promoting participatory budgeting, supporting workers starting cooperatives, piloting city IDs, re-municipalizing water and energy supplies, making public procurement gender- and eco- sensitive, introducing independent citizen audits of municipal budgets and debt, and utilizing online participatory tools for community engagement.

Under the leadership of a housing activist turned mayor, Ada Colau, Barcelona is leading the way in piloting radical ideas on a city level. Some of the specifically feminist initiatives implemented include: mainstreaming gender across all areas of local policy, especially in budget allocations; ending a city-wide ban on the use of full-face veils in public space; and expanding public childcare for 0-3 year olds.

Unsurprisingly, the municipalist movement’s first-ever conference took place in Barcelona in 2017, attracting more than 700 mayors, councilors and activists from across the world. In attendance were who’s-who of radical and progressive city-politics.

In July 2018, the movement, under the banner of Fearless Cities, is coming to North America with a conference in New York City. Up for discussion are topics such as solidarity economy, tools for participatory democracy, and ways to democratize and feminize local political institutions.

Discussions about municipalism in the U.S. are also entering the mainstream political media. Just this month, Politico spotlighted municipalist work in Seattle, to protect labor rights and standards in a rapidly changing economy. The efforts include initiatives such adopting a domestic workers bill of rights to protect those working in often the most invisible, highly exploitative, gendered and racialized sectors of economy.

These efforts are worth supporting, promoting and replicating. By working on a hyper-local level, we stand a chance against the forces of populism and pernicious nationalism. By working with our neighbors, while drawing on knowledge and examples from across the world, we can build inclusive communities at home.

Municipalism might just offer us a handy roadmap and framework to do this work. The late Ursula le Guin characterized it as “not another ranting ideology,” but “a practical working hypothesis, a methodology of how to regain control of where we’re going.”