The Municipalist Moment

The Municipalist Moment

Movements on the left are increasingly looking to build power at the local level. The question is how we can leverage municipal gains to transform the system at expanding scales.

Ada Colau, the first woman to serve as mayor of Barcelona and a member of Barcelona en Comú (Daniel Bartolomé)

“What is the Commune, that sphinx so tantalizing to the bourgeois mind?” Marx asked in 1871 about the Paris Commune. In our own time, it is not only the bourgeoisie that is tantalized by the politics of the city. Movements on the left are increasingly looking to the local as a place to build power. We are living in a municipalist moment.

Across the United States, cities have become islands of progressive possibility. The sanctuary cities movement has compelled municipal governments to aid and shelter immigrants and refugees. The climate movement has won municipal pledges to adhere to emissions reduction targets and pass Green New Deal legislation. In many cases, the labor movement’s Fight for $15 won minimum wage increases and other new protections for fast-food workers at the municipal level before pushing for state legislation. And unions are turning cities into laboratories for new labor law frameworks for platform workers.

These reform efforts are buoyed by a tide of successes at the ballot box: Kshama Sawant in Seattle, Chokwe Antar Lumumba in Jackson, a slew of socialists in Chicago, Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, a progressive coalition in Richmond—every recent election cycle has put more leftists in office in local governments.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to the United States; leftists in many countries with an ascendant authoritarian right have turned to cities as places to consolidate, experiment, and grow. Last year in Turkey, an eastern town called Tunceli elected a communist mayor, who has restored the town’s Kurdish name and set about creating a cooperative food system. In Recoleta, Chile, another communist mayor has openly violated the neoliberal Chilean constitution’s prohibition on government competing with the private sector by opening a cooperative pharmacy network, a free adult education system, free dental clinics and after-school programs, community healthcare centers, and a bookstore.

The city as a site for politics has been theorized across the political spectrum. Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World (2013) argues that the nation-state is too small to respond to the challenges of globalization and too big for democracy. Barber instead envisions cities under the management of CEO-like mayors as the ideal scale for liberal technocracy. Marxist Henri Lefebvre proposed a “right to the city” in 1968, an idea further developed by geographer David Harvey; they saw the organization of the city as a terrain of struggle between capital and the working class. In the 1980s, Murray Bookchin developed ideas for a “libertarian municipalism” that called for ecologically sustainable cities governed by direct democracy, producing for their needs with cooperatives.

The municipalist turn hasn’t followed any of these theories explicitly; more often, it represents an emergent strategy (a term c...

tote | University of California Press Lima