Introductory speech. Open Eyes Economy Summit – Krakow – 20th of November 2018
Elisabeth Dau | Mouvement Utopia & Member of the CommonsPolis Socio-Scientific Council
I extend my warmest thanks to the Open Eyes Economy Summit, Igor Stokfiszewski and the European Cultural Foundation for having invited me to be part of this Summit and contribute to draw a more democratic, cooperative and just future. My purpose is to see how Municipalism and Culture, not in the meaning of cultural policies but as “democratic culture”, both contribute to a profound change: individual, collective and institutional change in the collective imaginary, in the way individuals think and live the city. This gives me the opportunity to briefly introduce you to municipalism itself with its main characteristics.
Municipalism, what is it?
Municipalism is a radical democracy movement which starts from the municipal level, in rural and urban areas, and puts the people back at the center of the public and common good decisions. It reintroduces direct democracy with social, feminist, hospitality and commons values. It re-opens political space, a space of emancipation, of transformation “from, for and with” the people.
Municipalism is experimental, diverse and singular. It takes place in several parts of the world, from Latin America to Europe, in Kurdistan, in Spain, United States, Brazil, Chile, Italy, France, the Nederlands, Canada, Serbia, Poland, etc.
But municipalism is not a new phenomenon; it has existed throughout history. Rooted in Athenian democracy (dèmes), Romanian “municipe”, medieval organizations (conjuratio), or municipal assemblies in New-England (town meetings), it was also strongly present during the 19th century with La Commune de Paris (1871) and then, in Central America with the Chiapas Zapatista movement in Mexico for example. The common point of this historical trajectory is to transform public space in a political one. It contributes to “re-create and enlarge the political democratic space as a space of auto-government community” .
Libertarian municipalism was thought and theorized by the American philosopher Murray Bookchin, father of social ecology. According to him, it is the “community political potential that libertarian municipalism tries to create or renew, then to extend” . Furthermore, social ecology offers a key understanding of resilience today because it invites us to consider there is a link between the system of human domination we practice with the environment, as well as the system of domination we practice between us. There is a deep link between ecology collapse and democratic breakdown.
“He began to elaborate this idea that he called social ecology, which starts from the premise that all ecological problems are social problems. Murray said that, in order to heal our rapacious relationship to the natural world, we must fundamentally alter social relations. We have to end not only class oppression, we must also end domination and hierarchy at every level (…)”
The urgent situation will teach us to be resilient, to learn from our past and to find the courage and the enthusiasm of a deep change based on mutual assistance, cooperation, pluralism, feminism, radical democracy and values that honored our humanity.
The shift of paradigm we need will be firstly cultural and political.
The new municipalism, as we know today, was born in the last decade from the reaction to the impasse of a political system which was captured by the economic, capitalist and financial system. This system no longer provides a response to the aspirations and urgent needs of populations. It keeps citizens out of decision making and creates a deep distrust and disgust.
Municipalist movements claim to get out/leave the Nation-State’s cultural perspective of power and its institutional, political, economic and symbolic manifestations/representations and violence. The culture of borders, economic and political domination, verticality of the power and centralization is entirely reassessed /questioned by the municipalist approach. From the local level, municipalism patiently builds a more inclusive democracy, cooperative, just and translocal.
To better understand the democratic cultural change conveyed by municipalism, we have to pay more attention to the struggles, values, and the winds of change proposed by radical democracy approach.
Municipalism: a vision for the future based on struggles and values
The crisis situation is often the spark/prelude of municipalist movements. It is the result of a combination of local, national and political crises, with authoritarian and/or malevolent use of power, corruption, etc. and, sometimes, historical heritage. From the financial subprime crisis, to the 15-M in Spain (15th of May 2011) and Indignados, Arab springs, Nuit Debout, Notre Dame des Landes, austerity, refugee crisis, national and local corruption scandals… for the last decade, citizens are claiming a more radical change in the relation to and the practice of power.
Those crises are opening new political agendas to change people’s everyday life, based on the cross fertilization between struggles, values, history and collective shared believes which are designing a culture of mobilization.
It also creates a convergence of collective struggles for:
- the access to rights
- the preservation or access to commons good (water, electricity, food, data, etc.)
- the right to the city, to maintain ordinary people in city centers, to protect against property speculation
- gender equality
- a more balanced relationship between urban and rural areas • etc.
Behind struggles, there is a part of history and culture, of common victories, engagement and mobilizations. Revolutions against nationalism, fascism, dictatorship, civil war, armed repression, violation against indigenous people, discriminations, etc. (Spain, France, Italy, Kurdistan, Chiapas, etc.) represent an historical background, memories, on which contemporaneous struggles can build. For example, it is interesting to note the historical weight and symbolic force of Manuela Carmena, Madrid’s municipalist Mayor , who is a woman and was a former judge in charge of defending victims of Francoist crimes and fight against corruption.
There is a culture of activism coming from anarchism, syndicalism, feminisms, anti-globalization, urban fight, political parties, etc. There is a part of common culture of militancy, of resistance, of mobilization, of solidarity which constitutes a type of large, and non-unique, shared foundation.
If this basis is a fertile ground for municipalism, especially rooted in community network into cities, it is also completed with new forms of engagement coming from people without any previous protest culture or political militancy. Ordinary people, affected/victims in their own everyday life by social or economical injustice, political distrust, professional or personal failures, with democratic or ecological ambitions, or who wanted to act, also decided to be engaged in municipalist movements. People, representing minorities, without any political experience decided to be candidate to renew political and politics life, as we observed in the United States during the last mid-term elections for example.
New struggles are now engaged by municipalist movements, at the local level and also against supra local norms, unfair political or economic regulations (AirBnB, refugee/migration policies, marketing, climate urgency, energy, commons …). It is building new collective victories and in consequence, for ordinary people, a belief to take back a part of power on their lives, on their future.
Behind struggles, there are also shared values that define the change that people want:
- dignity and hospitality versus economic or mass touristic policies
- feminization of politics and cooperation versus patriarchy domination and competition
- social justice versus austerity
- plurality, multicultural societies versus racist, fascist societies
- ethics versus corruption
- benevolence and care versus violence and indifference
These values are giving another vision of the direction, the role, the development and the way to live the city together. It brings sensibility, empathy, ethics, justice, solidarity, quality (of life, of food, of air, of housing, of relationship…) and cooperation at the heart of the city’s construction. Indeed, democracy is not only the organization of our institutions, it is also the relationship we have with one another. It is the quality of life in the city and in the “polis”, and also this artistic experimental formula of perpetual movement and growth  to practice the political power in common. Thus, municipalism contributes to renew our democratic culture and to define our future, “a future we deserve” .
Radical democracy: from power “over people to power for and with the people”
“Municipalism demands that we return power to ordinary citizens, that we reinvent what it means to do politics and what it means to be a citizen”
The second cross fertilization between culture and municipalism is on the purpose of radical democracy. At the heart of municipalism, people are claiming a more radical change in the relation to, the representation and the practice of power. With radical democracy, municipalism engages a process of social, political, institutional, individual, collective, normative and cultural transformation.
We are all bringing, and in many cases reproducing, a culture of patriarchy, domination, competition, verticality, hierarchy in a world of limits, with finitude, and it is an impasse. Municipalism is not the only one but is one of the experimentatal and political alternatives that can answer the urgent need for a paradigm shift in a tangible and pragmatic way. Municipalism suggests to go from power “over people” to a “common political power” in which the process is just as important as the result.
“We need to create lasting political institutions at the local level, not merely through political leaders who articulate a social justice agenda, but through institutions that are directly democratic, egalitarian, transparent, fully accountable, anticapitalist and ecologically aware and that give voice to the aspirations of the people. It will require time and education and the building of municipal assemblies as a countervailing power to the nation state, but it is our only hope of becoming the new human beings needed to build a new society”.
Radical democracy means to recover our sovereignty with more direct democracy from popular assemblies, dialog methodology and tools (civic tech, etc.), bottom up decision building , deep requirement of ethics (ethics codes) and confidence in the capacity of the people to be actors of democracy. Like the Athenian Antiquity, municipalism recognizes proximity as a basis on which democracy starts. Jonathan Durand Folco says in his book: “(…) the democratic base unit is not State, nor city, but the living environment or the neighborhood, which prepares individuals to directly participate in the political power into the citizen assembly (ekklèsia).”  It is interesting to note that Spanish people do not talk about “people” or “inhabitants” but about “vecinos” (“neighbor”) which confirms this importance of first level of close relationship.
“democracy begins with proximity”
Ludovic Lamant – Squatter le pouvoir. Les mairies rebelles d’Espagne, Lux Éditeur
Municipalism also believes that each person can be a part and take part in the collective decision and building of the city. In this way, it changes our perception of the temporality of democracy, reintroducing continuity between two elections, and considering inhabitants not only as electors but also as contributors of this “democratic continuum”. In fact, each stakeholder plays a new role and has a new representation of itself and the others. For example, it changes position of leaders becoming more cooperative, obedient leaders and facilitators of citizen dynamics; citizens becoming more responsible and not only electoral consumers; civil servants becoming a new partner to better do the link/bridge between street and administration. A hybrid democracy, between the representative and the direct one, is being experimented from the process to the minds.
Radical democracy is also based on an experimental approach of trial and error, a culture of pragmatism, considering municipalism as a laboratory for inside and outside institutions. in fact, the special feature of municipalism is to be based on a double tension among outside and inside institutions, which means that:
- it is just as important to develop social and citizen energies in the villages and cities (outside institution): the “democratic garden”, as to change the institutional municipal management and administration (inside institution);
- conflict (“conflictuality”) in the debate (disagreement6) is recognized as a true component of democracy, a resource to take into account for the design of space and timeframes of dialog, with perpetual research of diversity of the people (and so on, diversity of opinions) who are participating in this co-construction of the “polis”;
- the creativity of the society is reaffirmed, opening spaces for reflection to build new hypothesis7 and space of experimentation outside institution, with local, urban, social or cultural dynamics (Ex: Medialab Prado).
- intermediation is rebuilt between the social and political sphere, between people and institution, especially with the role of the citizen platforms which ensure this connection between inhabitants and elected people, problems and imagination coming from the streets and reality and constraints of institutional power.
- a new generation of institutions and administration is created, less liberal and more cooperative (and sometimes fighting civil servant into administration to guarantee this orientation – cf Municilab workshop conclusions – October 2018), based on more transversality between public services and policies, putting common good at the heart of administration with the notion and values of equality of public service and fighting against corruption, reinventing institutional rituals with a bigger place to give to the citizen in the decision making and production of the city.
One of the concrete results of municipalism is also the implementation of new types of public policies in the urban, social, ecological, commons and feminist fields. Re-municipalisation of public services (water, electricity), re-localisation of economic activities, hospitality for refugees are some of these policies. The “Atlas del Cambio” is a web platform which shows municipalist public policies on several issues dealing with participation, commons, urban ecology, food, etc. It is a rich data base to study what is the nature, the cost, the temporality, the scale and the transversality of these policies. It shows how a political cooperative represented by municipalist city hall and elected people in the opposition role, are thinking and concretely experimenting public policies to change and preserve the everyday life and the future of inhabitants and cities.
Furthermore, to fight against exclusion and far right temptations, municipalism is creating a common, a community on which each person finds its place, a role, an expression, an audience, a part of change. This approach contributes to fight against society’s fragmentation, fear, and allow for the people to regain ownership of their destiny. Municipalism mobilizes people from the streets because of its social policies. It allows them to regain the power to act with the conviction that they finally have power in their hands. But for that, we have to admit that municipalism, democracy and culture need efforts and resources and the guarantee that those policies will return to the street, to the people.
The Municipalist power of transformation is both cultural and political. It plays a role to transform the practice of power, the representation of a political power in common, the belief of a power to act which can be the point of articulation between individual emancipation, social mobilization and institutionalization.
To conclude, I would like to quote Enric Bárcena from the municipalist citizen platform Barcelona en Comu who said during the last Municilab of October 2018: “We are not alone, nor anecdotic, nor chaotic, we are resilient, we bring alternative, we are proud of the success of other cities which are collective successes. We are drawing other cities, other countries, other type of society”.
 The politics of Social Ecology : Libertarian Municipalism, Janet Biehl, Editions Ecosociété, 2013, Canada
 Ib idem
 “Un réalisme socialiste ne peut être un réalisme de routine. Il doit, comme le socialisme, avoir constamment le caractère expérimental, il doit être un art de perpétuel dépassement. Rien ne lui est plus opposé que la formule, la recette, la répétition. Et, qu’il s’agisse de la peinture ou de l’écriture, l’art c’est toujours la remise en question de l’acquis, c’est le mouvement, le devenir”, Louis Aragon
 The future we deserve, Debbie Bookchin, Guest editorial, ROAR, The city rises
 Jonathan Durand Folco, A nous la ville ! traité de municipalisme, Éditions Ecosociété, 2017, Québec
 “Without disagreements, a society couldn’t be free, doomed to fall into stagnation”, Murray Bookchin
 MAC 3 (Municipalismo Autogobierno y contrapoder) workshop conclusion, La Corogne, 12-15th of October 2017