First we take Jackson: the new American municipalism

As the US hurtles towards the November midterms, there’s much excitement about the victory of insurgent candidates in the Democratic primaries, and the rise of democratic socialists in particular. These results may signal a realization that building genuine political alternatives requires, not just beating the Republicans, but also on taking on and kicking out Establishment Democrats.

Yet, in the midst of all the commotion, some are asking: what comes next? Is it enough to just replace corporate Democrats with candidates with a better policy platform? It’s in this context that a powerful, bottom-up movement – municipalism – is taking hold among activists, organizers and local electeds.

More practice than ideology, municipalism sees the local sphere as having unique transformative potential, thanks to its more human scale. Municipalists believe that the local level is the ideal site to carry out direct democracy through popular assemblies and to dismantle all forms of social hierarchy, particularly those based on race, ethnicity or nationality.

While socialism and municipalism are by no means irreconcilable, municipalism offers distinct advantages compared to the traditional socialist quest for state or federal power. Municipalism recognizes the limits of electoral politics and representative democracy. It understands that power doesn’t solely reside in elected institutions; it’s also wielded in the economic, social and cultural spheres. For municipalists, then, transformative politics can’t just be about getting more radical candidates elected, it must also involve building an ecosystem of social movements, economic initiatives and community institutions that can support these candidate’s agendas from outside city hall, and hold them to account when necessary. This inside-outside strategy, which implies blurring the border between electoral and movement politics, can be done most effectively at local level, where institutions are closest to the people and grassroots organizing is most effective.

Right now, municipalism is gaining momentum in the US, with trailblazing examples in Jackson, Seattle, Chicago, and Richmond, and new initiatives emerging across the country. This July, I had the chance to attend the Local Progress annual convening in Minneapolis and the Fearless Cities North American summit in New York City, where I got an insight into the challenges and debates being grappled with by folks at the forefront of the movement.

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Closing sesion of Fearless Cities North America, July 2018, NYC

This can work here: digging up a lost history

As is the case in many countries, doubts remain in some quarters about whether municipalist ideas will work in practice in the US. But this country actually has a rich tradition of assembly-based, direct democracy, on which to draw. It’s vital to demonstrate that municipalism isn’t a utopian theory or a foreign import; it can work, and has worked, in American towns and cities. Restoring this history in the popular imagination was one of the concerns of municipalism’s preeminent philosopher, Murray Bookchin, back in the 1980s. Though Bookchin was an avid student of international examples, including the Paris Commune and Spanish anarcho-syndicalism, he was aware that creating a mass municipalist movement in the US meant “speaking in English”. By this he referred, not to linguistic translations, but to the need to use culturally familiar examples with which Americans would be able to easily identify.

Bookchin pointed to the example of New England town meetings, a form of direct democracy stretching back to the 1600s, but these traditions are in no way exclusive to white colonialists. The contemporary movement can also draw on the stories of the ‘sewer socialists’ who governed Milwaukee during the early 20th century, the Freedom Farm cooperative, founded by Fannie Lou Hamer in Mississippi in 1967, community organizations like CHARAS, run by Puerto Rican Americans in Loisaida (on Manhattan’s Lower East Side) until the late 1990s and, most recently, the Occupy movement.

Indeed, going full circle, the rediscovery of the works of Bookchin, himself a New Yorker, is also part of this process, though initiatives such as the republication of his key writings in the book The Next Revolution’, edited by his daughter, Debbie Bookchin.

Such domestic examples of thought and practice demonstrate that municipalism responds to a deep vein of American political culture and, indeed, to the country’s understanding of itself: explicitly confederalist, anti-authoritarian in impulse, radical but pragmatic, and with a commitment to self-government.

Moving beyond representation: in search of a model

Some of the most lively and impassioned debates I witnessed during my time in the States related to the electoral and organizational models that should be favored by municipalists in the US. This includes the question of whether to run candidates within Democratic primaries, what kind of relationship to build with third parties like DSA and Working Families, and how to create organizations that can go beyond election campaign machines and continue to work with candidates once they reach city hall.

This last point is particularly salient, as it relates to a defining characteristic and goal of municipalism. Building a strong, independent organization is not just about having mechanisms to hold electeds to account (though that’s necessary). It’s also about being able to build a movement that can supercede the limits of institutional action through an inside-outside strategy. While a single elected or group of electeds may not be able to immediately revolutionize local institutions and instigate direct democracy, they should at least start to put these ideas into practice within their own movements.

The question of how to do this won’t be resolved by theory or debate, but through experimentation and practice. Fortunately, this process is already underway in a number of neighborhoods, towns and cities.

In Jackson, MS, activists have spent over a decade creating new popular, democratic institutions: a People’s Assembly and Cooperation Jackson, a federation of worker-owned cooperatives. While their ultimate goal of the ‘Jackson-Kush Plan’ is to create an independent political party capable of winning political power, activist Chokwe Antar Lumumba stood for, and won the Democratic nomination for mayor in 2017. That same year, the Seattle People’s Party candidate, Nikkita Oliver, came third in the city’s non-partisan mayoral primaries. The People’s Party has since continued its work from outside city hall, campaigning on issues from policing reform to housing and immigrant rights.

In Chicago, the Independent Political Organization (IPO) United Neighbors of the 35th Ward and was formed off the back of the successful campaign to elect Carlos Ramirez Rosa, a DSA member who ran on the Democratic ticket, to the city council. Since the elections, United Neighbors has continued to work with the alderman, campaigning on a range of city issues, including lifting the state-wide ban on rent control in Illinois, and participating in a grassroots citizen defence network to defend immigrant families from deportation.

The Richmond Progressive Alliance in California uses a similar model. The Alliance, which is registered as an unincorporated not-for-profit organization, works on the principle of ‘run by organizing, organize by running’. Since 2004 it has run coordinated slates of independent candidates for city council and for mayor (and won!), as well as campaigning, providing training and participating in issue-based coalitions to build power between elections.

Munici-what? Creating a shared identity

Finally, municipalists in the US also face the task of generating a sense of collective identity. The movement currently exists as a scattering of isolated local electoral projects, alongside better-networked housing and racial justice and precarious labor movements, and the cooperative economy. Many of the people already doing municipalism – from local councilors to renter unions and activists from the movement for black lives and Fight for 15 – don’t necessarily identify with the word or, more importantly, with one another. Building the movement will depend on the capacity to replicate and link up organizations working along municipalist lines around a sense of common purpose.

The process of building a collective identity will require a shared language to refer to the movement itself and the people and organizations that belong to it. At present, anglophone municipalism is drowning in vocabulary, with multiple words describing more or less the same thing, from ‘radical municipalism’ to ‘communalism’, ‘municipal socialism’ and ‘social ecology’. It will also require a common narrative about what municipalism is and why its time has come.

But it’s not just a communication challenge, it’s about creating a real community through network building between individuals and organizations. The Fearless Cities Summit in New York this July was an important milestone in this regard, bringing together activists, political campaigners and local electeds from across North America for the first time under the banner of municipalism. Other initiatives in the pipeline designed to strengthen the network in the US include improved internal and external communication channels, a book entitled ‘Fearless Cities’ to be published by New Internationalist in early 2019, and further gatherings to be convened by Cooperation Jackson and the Symbiosis network.

The municipalist movement in the US has a lot of work ahead of it: organizing, campaigning, proving it’s capable of achieving change in the real world. But the fact that these issues are being debated in diverse contexts across the country is incredibly promising. The US’s history and political culture, together with the current national political context, make it a fertile ground for the municipalist seeds that have been planted to take root and thrive.