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(New) Municipalism

  • Laura RothEmail author
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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-13-2262-4_42-2


According to the world values survey, 85.3% of the people in the world think that living in a democracy is important. At the same time, 57.2% of the people do not trust parliaments (Inglehart et al. 2014). One interpretation of these numbers that scholars have been developing for quite some time is that people value democracy, but just not the kind of representative democracy that they have. In addition, political parties from the extreme right are gaining support in many countries, offering simple and quick answers to people’s fears and disenchantment with traditional representative politics.

In the face of these circumstances, so-called new municipalism or the municipalism of the Fearless Cities movement (see the municipalist map at www.fearlesscities.com) appears as a new political phenomenon that aims at responding to the different challenges posed by the current political context. The main examples can be found in Spanish cities such as Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza, or A Coruña, but the movement is spreading across the world in cities as diverse as Rosario, Jackson, Beirut, or Zagreb.

Defining municipalism is not an easy task. The term, always associated to the local sphere, has been used in different ways in different places and times. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, municipalism is “the preference for municipal as opposed to centralized action or control in government; municipal government as an institution.” But there are other uses of the concept that go beyond the focus on the autonomy of local government and understand “politics” in a broader sense. From some examples in the libertarian tradition and different forms of anarchist organization to Bookchin’s communalism (Bookchin 2014), municipalism has also been understood as a way of constructing and organizing political power beyond government, in society.

New municipalism is a political strategy that differs from others in the fact that it not only pursues building power from a specific place (the local level) but also in its approach towards politics. Its aim is twofold: to implement progressive policies, but also to radically change the way politics is done. Although the former goal has received the highest attention, the latter is what most clearly distinguishes this political enterprise from others.

In close connection to this concern for changing the forms of political action, perhaps the most interesting characteristic in this innovative way of doing politics is the emphasis on learning by doing. Unlike other (leftist) political projects like, e.g., those connected to marxism or populism, where there is an implementation of a preexisting and theoretically grounded proposal, municipalism decides to start with what is possible in practice, and to constantly adjust reality and goals.

This is also the reason why defining new municipalism is so hard: not only the project has been developing for just a few years and it is still difficult to pinpoint the elements that characterize it, but also it is constantly adjusting its targets and forms. The first section distinguishes new municipalism from other models of municipalism. The second one describes some of its main elements, explaining how and why learning by doing has emerged as a natural way of defining and implementing the project.

Models of Municipalism

Nowadays, it is possible to distinguish between at least five models or uses of the term “municipalism.” Although there is no unified criteria to name them, here they will be called “autarchic municipalism,” “market municipalism,” “municipalism as local autonomy,”, “municipalism as local politics,” and, of course, “new municipalism.” Looking at these differences is important because in recent times the term has been used to legitimize certain political discourses in order to link them to new municipalism. However, there are significant differences between them.

The municipalism that can be called autarchic is based on the ideas of local resilience and self-sufficiency of the town, city, or region. It starts with a critique of globalization and the standardization of life and consumption and seeks giving back autonomy to towns, cities, and regions (mainly in rural areas) to stop relying contributing to global capitalism (Hopkins 2008). This model of municipalism is primarily defended by the transition movement and keeps spreading throughout the world.

Market municipalism, on the other hand, understands the local level, especially the city, as a place for innovation, business flourishing, enlargement of the specialized workforce, increase of competitiveness, etc. Confronted with the incapacity of States to promote and attract businesses, cities have taken charge of the task and they compete with each other to achieve this end. Even if those who defend this model do not usually use the term municipalism, one can understand that this type of discourse about the role of cities in the global market has the same objective: recognizing the value of the local level as a special scale and dimension of the political and social life. But it is not the kind of plan that new municipalism aims to implement.

Municipalism as local autonomy is the position defended mainly by local governments in their quest for more competences, resources, and influence, against higher levels of administration, especially the State, but also regional and global powers. Here the term is used to suggest local autonomy in an administrative sense that does not necessarily point to either a certain way of exercising municipal power or to the purposes of that exercise. Plus it exclusively refers to local public institutions. This model is the one supported, for instance, by global and regional networks of cities and local governments (like UCLG) with the purpose of strengthening both local self-government and the weight of municipalities in decision-making at the state, regional, and global level.

Municipalism as local politics is the sense of the term used by political analysts, also in the academic environment, to refer to the research field of local politics. In addition to the idea and defense of local autonomy, here municipalism also includes the study of local public policies as well as, in some cases, their origin and development.

New municipalism is different from these other variants. It differs from the local autonomy model in considering not only local administration and competences, but also how they are exercised, with a strong emphasis on the distribution of power, feminism, and democracy. In addition, it is distinguished because it does not hold a view of the role of local institutions as entities that are independent from the local community, but it articulates these two pieces as parts of the same project.

Unlike market municipalism, new municipalism is not an adaptation of the neoliberal project, but, together with autarchic municipalism, its ambition is to change the way markets work and to alleviate their negative effects on people’s lives. But despite this similarity, new municipalism does not aim at achieving isolation or self-sufficiency, but to promote new forms of dependency and networked collaboration that go from the regional to the global level.

Maybe the most interesting difference is the one between municipalism as local politics and new municipalism. While both of them share a defense of local autonomy and focus on local public policies, for new municipalism this is just one piece of a wider political project. This model does not merely sketch a project for local governments: it constitutes a twofold political strategy to build power from the local level, encompassing an institutional component as well as one focused on municipalist organizations and the municipalist movement.

Understood as a political strategy, new municipalism can be contrasted with two other strategies: the one of political parties that focus on the State and the one of social movements.

Learning by Doing in Municipalism

New municipalism is an example of learning by doing in different senses. First, as mentioned before, this is a political strategy with no roadmaps and whose members are permanently confronted with inherited ways of doing that drag them towards traditional forms of politics. In the face of these circumstances, the only way to develop an innovative proposal is to plan it while it is being implemented, with all the challenges that this implies. Success is achieved when these new ways of doing that come from the experience of certain participants manage to spread and become mainstream within the movement and beyond.

But that is not the only reason why learning by doing is embraced: the municipalist project has intentionally chosen to put practice instead of theory in the center of its methods. This is why new municipalism is a result of different course adjustments on the basis of experiences and on failed and successful projects and strategies. As Bookchin put it, municipalism “needs to be understood as a process, a patient practice” (Bookchin 2014, p. 60). There are no intellectual leaders, no bible, no set of untouchable truths, because it is ordinary citizens who lead the way. It is the process itself and how it shapes participants what adjusts the direction of change. And it is ordinary people who act, learn, and share what they found out, and then act again, together with others.

There are different elements to municipalism that can be traced back to this learning by doing form of action. These elements can be divided into three blocks: the importance of the local level, new forms of organizing, and new forms of doing and understanding politics. Clearly, these three categories are intimately related with each other. How the different elements are connected to learning by doing will be illustrated with the case of the Spanish municipalist experience of the period 2015–2019.

The Local Level

The priority of the local domain is a common element to all the models of municipalism just mentioned. However, in the case of the last model, the importance of proximity has a concrete and multiple foundation.

In the first place, from the point of view of a political strategy that aims to conquer spaces where reality can be changed, the approach that prefers to create political platforms that give priority to run for elections at the local level is based on the observation that it is in this level where it is most likely to achieve a victory when the resources are scarce. In a context of pessimism and apathy towards public institutions and traditional political parties, creating a transformative political project that is able to change reality in practice is paramount for breaking up with negativity, pessimism, and impotence. In the case of Spain, this rationale has been associated with the one of the anti-evictions platform PAH: it is small victories what shows that change is possible. This is no coincidence, since many of the participants in municipalist platforms have a previous experience in this social movement. The decision of the municipalist platforms was to aim for local governments where the chances of winning were higher than in other levels. The same logics are behind the PAH experience, where stopping evictions was chosen as a preferred strategy: every time an eviction was blocked, the feeling that change was possible would escalate and the movement would grow stronger. The alternative for municipalist platforms would have been to try taking State institutions, or other levels. In Spain, this is the choice made by Podemos; they ran for state elections a few times since 2015 and remain in the opposition ever since.

Secondly, the priority of the local level is advocated because municipalism focuses building change from proximity, where people actually live. There is no necessary relationship between proximity and progressive politics, but small scale opens the possibility of actually doing things differently if there is a strong will to do so. The observation was that in most countries traditional leftist parties had failed before in trying to generate a shift in the forms of political action and had remained masculinized, non-democratic, hierarchical, and in many cases still marginal in their political party system. In a context where people are disappointed with traditional politics, the diagnosis was that something different needed to be tried out. In the case of Spain, the experience of the 15 M in 2011 and the years after provided the guide (see more details below).

New Forms of Organizing

A significant number of municipalist in different cities around the Spanish State – but also in other places – had a previous experience in different kinds of social movements. There was a point where they reached a double conclusion and changed their strategy. On the one hand, that there were certain things that could not be achieved from outside institutions: a glass ceiling that needed to be broken. On the other hand, that there were different forces that needed to be merged into a stronger enterprise: the energies of the diverse struggles like housing, feminism, or environmentalism needed to join and to build an integrated movement. In sum, that it was time to go from protest to building and from segmentation to a joint proposal of change. These two plans could be achieved if working at the local level.

The decision to create municipalist platforms that could – among other things – act as local political parties and run for elections was inspired by these two lessons. The consequence was that the relationship that municipalist organizations wanted to have with social movements is a close one, both in the case of those that got into local institutions (either as government or opposition) and in the case of those that stayed outside. In this sense, all of these organizations are in a permanent quest to become a place for negotiation and dialogue between social movements, ordinary citizens, and public institutions. Municipalist platforms have tried to manage the tensions that naturally arise between these actors. And these tensions are actually seen as productive, which does not make them easier to deal with. This dialogical process aspires not only to change social reality but also to transform people themselves: to change the ways of organizing of traditional political parties and social movements, to change public institutions, and to transform ordinary people, from mere spectators to active political subjects.

Another difference with traditional political parties is that municipalism wants to build power beyond the city or town by working as a network, at least ideally. The experience of many participants in the 15 M movement and other projects inspired them to try applying networked collaboration in this domain as well. Instead of looking for hegemony – like, e.g., leftwing populism – they want autonomy that allows each local organization to adapt to the particular circumstances, and then to collaborate with other similar organizations and build power beyond the local context.

New Ways of Doing and Understanding Politics

In close connection with the former blocs – a priority to action at the local level and a project of organizing differently – the final characteristic of municipalism is its emphasis on the ways of doing and understanding politics. These forms distinguish municipalism in Spain from other political strategies and cannot be understood without looking at the experiences and lessons of the 15 M. The critique to representative democracy, the participation of people with no previous formal experience in movements, parties, unions or other social organizations, networked collaboration, or the use of digital technologies are just some of these lessons.

In addition, a key piece to understand the ways of doing and perceiving politics in (Spanish) municipalism is the emphasis of the 15 M on the need to go beyond the left-right political spectrum and its affirmation that people are the “owners” or “authors” of politics and not its objects. In the words of Nancy Fraser, this would be an emancipation movement, as something different from (and additional to) those that defend social protection (the left) or liberty (the right) (Fraser 2013).

It is on the basis of these observations that municipalism has put such a strong emphasis on democracy as the way of doing politics. If democracy is about equality in collective decision-making (Christiano 2018), municipalism defends a version that has three ingredients: (a) it is participatory instead of merely representative, (b) it asks for material equality and not only formal equality (like, for instance, the one-person one-vote rule), and (c) the idea that it needs to be implemented, not only for institutional decision-making about public policies but also in other domains like organizations, companies, etc.

Finally, the aspirations of municipalism include a strong feminist component. This fact is also an example of learning by doing since it cannot be understood without the long experience of some of its members in the feminist movement and the feminist boom that has been taking place in recent years.

The idea of feminization of politics has become central to municipalism and has confronted it with a huge challenge. This proposal includes an egalitarian distribution of positions, responsibilities, times, etc., but also a demand to change the ways of doing politics in many other forms. The project is to go from more individualistic, vertical, confrontational, and theory-based ways to others that are more relational, horizontal, cooperative, and practice-based (Roth and Shea Baird 2017). And this approach has not only affected political organizations but also public policies and actions of local governments.

But learning by doing is also related to feminism in another way: the first is a methodology grounded on the second. Good practices (instead of theories) are important because the micro level is the place where inequalities are reproduced and where they can also be confronted. It is doing more than thinking what illuminates the path and also the domain where women are usually better teachers, compared to men. Although municipalist organizations manage to develop these feminist ways with different degrees of success – because established patriarchal ways of doing politics are difficult to overcome – the fact that this change of vision is taking place in practice is truly revolutionary for current politics.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universitat Oberta de CatalunyaBarcelonaSpain

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  • Yanina Welp

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