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We can all be agents of political change says Ruth Potts

people's rally

New municipal movements are gaining ground worldwide. Ahead of a new course at Schumacher College, Ruth Potts looks at how local politics is getting a new lease of life.

Nature is intelligence, diversity, and self-organisation. Municipalism is self-organisation at the level of cities – Vandana Shiva

Speaking about the power of stories and the role of the journalist, Guardian journalist Gary Younge has said that we should look for the everyday stories that aren’t being told. He was referring to the stories that become so commonplace we no longer notice them, the stories that keep on happening. His particular point of reference was the shooting of young black men in America that had become so regular it was no longer remarked upon.

Just as negative trends can become so familiar they pass us by, so too can more positive stories. Spain’s administrative elections in May 2015 marked the start of a new municipalist era with independent mayors elected in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, Saragoza and La Coruna.

Their election, backed by new people’s platforms, marked a significant shift in the political landscape. What is astonishing, when we stop and look, is both the global scope and range of these new municipal movements, and also the vibrant, creative and transformative ways they have been not just campaigning for power but creatively transforming it once in office.

The Fearless Cities initiative, the global organising hub that formed out of the first global Fearless Cities summit organised by Barcelona en Comu in 2017, has marked the anniversary of the event by launching a map documenting municipal initiatives around the world so that they can better collaborate and learn from one another. This will help us see the emerging municipal movement a little more clearly, which matters because as we focus on (important) broader political shifts at the national and global level, it is easy to overlook the range and scope of innovation underway locally.

To take just one example, albeit perhaps the best known, look at what has been achieved in Barcelona since the election of Ada Colau as mayor. The range and scope of schemes underway is astonishing. Alongside the assemblies and citizen engagement, the fabric of almost every aspect of life in the city is being transformed.

Sanctions have been introduced to reduce the number of empty buildings. Homes are being renovated and energy efficiency criteria are being introduced for new buildings. Urban agriculture is encouraged. Home care services have been municipalised.

A tourist tax has been introduced, generating €5 million a year to invest back into the city. Social and environmental criteria have been incorporated into public procurement, taking away the emphasis on price as the main factor, and a new platform introduced that opens up the process and encourages local enterprises to bid.

Plans are underway to re-municipalise water and set up a municipal energy company. A publicly-owned funeral company has been established. Social entrepreneurship and co-operatives have been encouraged; funds have been set up to support new enterprises and support given to help local businesses sell online. Independent citizen audits of municipal budgets and debt have been introduced, salary limits brought in, and local projects such as social centres, consumer co-operatives, community gardens and time banks have been supported.

Oral history projects have brought Barcelona’s local history to life, and a statue of Antonio López, first Marquis of Comillas, 19th century industrialist and slave trader, has been removed from the square that bears his name following a public campaign. A participatory process is underway to rename the square.

What is also interesting is the rate at which new municipal projects are spreading around the world. Much like the Transition Town initiative, which spread rapidly following its initial ‘unleashing’ in 2006, there are now active citizen platforms on all five continents. Many emerged spontaneously, some pre-date the election of Ada Colau and Manuela Conselo, but all have a fundamentally different approach to having and wielding power – one that is open, participatory and feminist, and resulting in a politics that is becoming feminised, more co-operative and more thoughtful.

The level of development of new municipal movements globally ranges from those in power and making change, to parties in opposition at the local level, those still to stand for election and groups acting as pressure groups for change.

Ciudad Futura in Rosaria, Argentina, officially registered as a political party in 2013 after a decade of local activism. Describing its approach as a philosophy of ‘hacer’ (‘to do’), members run a network of self-organised projects, including the Etica secondary school and kindergarten, the Tambo La Resistencia dairy farm and the Distrito Siete cultural centre – rooting its politics in practical change.

In Frome, England, Independents for Frome, in power since 2011, have, among a range of initiatives that have brought investment into the town, renovated the town’s music venue, created entrepreneurship schemes for young people and bought land for local development that is held in trust for the community.

In Lebanon, Beirut Madinati (Arabic for ‘Beirut is My City’) secured thousands of votes in municipal elections in 2016. It wasn’t enough to secure power but marked a significant break from the traditional kinship political structure of parties. In Hong Kong, Demonsisto, inspired by Taiwan’s New Power Party, is led by the student activist groups who catalysed the Umbrella revolution of 2014. The party is campaigning for a referendum to decide the Island’s sovereignty after 2047 and is developing new platforms for community involvement.

None of which is to say that any of it has been plain sailing. Municipal movements around the world have faced challenges since entering local government: age-old hierarchies, systems and traditions that are deeply embedded in their institutions; cuts to their budgets and resources; and national austerity and anti-immigration policies. Neither of the experiments perfect. But as Jonathan Smucker, author of Hegemony: How-to: A Roadmap for Radicals, reminds us, the problems of having power and the questions and quandaries that it raises are very good problems to have, and far better than having no power at all.

Taken collectively, this is the political re-localisation of the world. But it is not a re-localistaion that is closed and parochial, but rather open, collaborative and networked. A live political experiment, working in real time that is transforming politics for good.
There are other political experiments too, of course. In the UK, the number of left-wing candidates and Greens elected in May’s local elections are part of this picture.

Nor is any of this is to discount the threat of the rise of populism. The rise of populism and the rise of the new municipal movements are responses to the same phenomena, the same sense of distrust in the elite, that old systems have failed and are failing us. The difference is that one response is based on fear, the other on hope. Both are possible and, in the words of Rebecca Solnit, whether we act or not will have everything to do with it. Sharing the stories and practice of possibility matters now more than ever.

Ruth Potts is a senior lecturer in Ecological Design Thinking at Schumacher College and is teaching on The Power of Municipal : Lessons in transforming democracy from the grassroots.