Originally published in Open Democracy on 15/11/2016
One of the major questions faced by the inheritors of the networked global uprisings of 2010–2011 is how to harness the demands and practices that emerged from these movements, and those that followed in their wake, to create new ways of doing electoral politics. A municipalist movement in Rosario, Argentina, may just have some of the answers.
Institutional politics is facing a crisis of legitimacy. Traditional political parties, with their professionalized, hierarchical way of operating and financial dependence on banks and corporations, have become increasingly discredited in the eyes of the growing number of people seeking new, more direct forms of democracy. In this context, activists, social movements and new political organizations across the world are confronted with a common dilemma: how to engage electorally and politically within state institutions without being co-opted or corrupted by them.
Some of the organizations currently wrestling with this question, in vastly differing contexts, include Momentum, the group attempting to revive the Labour Party in the UK; citizen platforms like Barcelona en Comú, currently governing the major cities of Spain, and the movement that swept Bernie Sanders to second place in the Democratic primaries in the USA. All have a common aspiration to create a new kind of ‘movement-party’ that rewrites the rules of the political game while maintaining the ability to participate effectively within formal state power structures.
Achieving this balance and creating open, participatory movement-parties that deprofessionalize and feminize politics will require a delicate balance of idealism and pragmatism; a willingness to manage the inevitable contradictions of public office while, at the same time, an ability to resist the often perverse incentives imposed by electoral and institutional dynamics.
One of the most inspiring examples of a movement-party in action is Ciudad Futura (Future City), the municipalist movement that won three seats on the city council of Rosario, Argentina, in 2015, making it the third largest party in the city and a contender for the 2019 mayoral elections. Ciudad Futura sums up its philosophy in a single word: ‘hacer’. In Spanish, ‘hacer’ is the verb of verbs, the action word of action words. Translating as both ‘to do’ and ‘to make’ in English, ‘hacer’ means both ‘to act’ and ‘to bring something new into being’. And that’s exactly what Ciudad Futura does; rather than getting bogged down in the abstract, theoretical debates that so often paralyze the left, the organization pours its energies into meeting people’s immediate needs in the neighbourhoods of Rosario.
It’s no coincidence that, before registering as a political party in 2013, Ciudad Futura had a decade-long history as two social movements, ‘Giros’ and ‘Movimiento 26 de Junio’. Over this period, both worked to construct economic, cultural and educational alternatives from beyond the walls of city hall. Thanks to the legacy of Giros and M26J, Ciudad Futura’s hundreds of activists now run a network of self-organized projects across Rosario, including the Etica secondary school & kindergarten, the Tambo La Resistencia dairy farm, the Distrito Siete cultural centre, and the food cooperative, Misión Anti-inflación, which helps people to deal with the impact of inflation.
The goal of standing in the city elections, the party’s councilor, Caren Tepp, has explained, was “to create a political tool that, while setting out a long-term horizon: socialism for the 21st century, can also materialize – here and now – fragments of a Future City that demonstrate that things can be done differently.” In this spirit, Ciudad Futura’s political programme is based on the experience it has gained from implementing its projects across the city. It is this idea — that electoral and institutional activity is just one more tool at the service of the movement as a whole — that is at the core of what defines Ciudad Futura as a movement-party.
Of course, organizations elsewhere in the world cannot and should not attempt to replicate the path taken by Ciudad Futura. However, there are number of principles and practices employed by the movement that could serve to guide to others beyond Rosario.
Perhaps the greatest lesson that can be taken from Ciudad Futura is the philosophy of ‘hacer’. The urban projects run by Ciudad Futura represent a politics of concrete change; they communicate the organization’s values through action while, at the same time, demonstrating the viability of the economic and cultural models for which it advocates. As the party’s councilor, Juan Monteverde said in an interview with the Spanish online newspaper, Diagonal: “What’s the use of going on about how bad everything is? It serves for nothing. If you have the ability to show that the city can be different, based on concrete practices, that’s where the potential of your project is. Everything else is incidental. Our only unique characteristic is this idea of demonstrating, right now, that there are alternatives, and doing so on an increasing scale.” Importantly, the tangible social benefits that ‘hacer’ produces allow Ciudad Futura to reach beyond traditional political divides and engage with people who don’t identify with the left in the abstract but do appreciate the organization’s achievements in their neighbourhoods.
A second lesson that can be learned from Rosario is Ciudad Futura’s healthy awareness of the limits of public office. Ciudad Futura sees institutional politics as a tool to protect, empower and support the values and practices of its extra-institutional work. According to councilor Juan Monteverde, “For us the opportunity to change things isn’t in the successful legislative work of one councilor (or three, in our case), but in the back and forth between activity within city hall and the movements on the outside.”
Ciudad Futura is also deeply committed to municipalism; to building a project that is distinctively local in content and character. First, at a practical level, it makes sense for a project that seeks to challenge traditional models of representative politics and introduce new forms of citizen participation to start with the level of government that is closest to the people. But beyond this, Ciudad Futura also understands the city as the primary space of democratic conflict and, thus, the most relevant space of political and economic action. It does so while at the same time seeking to challenge the artificial urban-rural dichotomy and questioning Rosario’s ‘consumerist’ relationship with its urban hinterland through projects like its dairy farm and food cooperative. If Ciudad Futura’s hypothesis is correct, anyone aiming to create a ‘movement-party’ should seriously consider doing so at a local, rather than a national, scale.
Finally, Ciudad Futura has put political ethics and horizontalism at the heart of its internal functioning; in practice, this means political debate in assemblies and online, salary and term limits for elected representatives, and financial independence and transparency. In addition, membership of Ciudad Futura is based on participation, rather than payment of a membership fee. This means that decision-making is kept in the hands of the activists who make the movement possible; passive, spectator politics is not an option.
Of course, Ciudad Futura’s evolution from movement to movement-party is very recent, and it has not yet had to face the tensions that being in government would inevitably bring. But the organization has laid strong foundations for the tests that it will face over the coming years. It will be up to its activists to prove that maintaining a party in movement is possible over the long term.