How have municipal cities responded to the pandemic? Are institutional responses more effective than spontaneous and supportive responses by grassroots organisations? How do municipalist initiatives ensure the safety of inhabitants?
Federico Alagna is a researcher and activist currently based in Italy. His research focuses on migration policies in Europe, and he is active in several movements and programs that focus on municipalism and the right to the city in Italy—particularly in the Sicilian city of Messina—as well as across Europe. He collaborates with Minim, a municipalist observatory that attracts the contributions of activists and others from all over Europe and the rest of the world, and is an associate member of the Nijmegen Centre for Border Research.
He recently authored a report called “In the city, at the border: movement and grassroots initiatives during the pandemic”. This report explores the responses proposed by both the ruling municipalist organisations and non-elected organisations, particularly on the sensitive issue of the situation of migrants.
Commonspolis proposed to Federico in this interview to cross his experience as a municipalist activist with his perspective as a researcher specialised in migration to provide us with a synthesis of proposals and analyses of municipalist responses during the covid — A far from simple exercise to which Federico kindly agreed, in order to open up new avenues for reflection and to feed the necessary debate on the actions that cities and organisations are carrying out today.
Can you tell us how did this report “In the city, at the border: movement and grassroots initiatives during the pandemic” take shape?
Federico Alagna: In the framework of my collaboration with Minim, I was tasked with the preparation of a report on municipalism and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on municipalism. My approach considered specific components of these effects that involved people working with or active in grassroots programs and movements, and the way in which they tried to somehow respond to the current crisis—not only in municipalist frameworks, but also in wider contexts related to migration policies, the situation at borders, and many other aspects that we can get into later on.
This research represents just a preliminary analysis, so at the moment it may not be as in-depth as it could be. However, starting off from a very general understanding of the situation—of the pandemic, but also of how crisis affects political activism—the idea was to present at least two broad levels of discussion. One is the national and international level, which is where big policies are shaped and approved and where most debate actually takes place. This is a very important level because it is where decisions are made, but at the same time it is intangible—it is not really accessible from the vantage point of everyday life.
“Security is a very important topic to address. Neglecting to discuss security is one of the biggest mistakes of left-wing and municipalist movements, because this neglect allows security to fall into the hands of right-wing movements. The problem of security does not disappear when we choose to not talk about it. Instead, it shifts to other groups whose societal perspective is diametrically opposed to ours.”
Then there is the local level, which is the level of everyday needs, of what you do to make a living, of going out into the streets. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most of the responses we’ve seen to this crisis as well as other crises take place at this local level. Crises are rooted in this local level, cannot be taken out of its context, and are very much grounded in what happens in everyday life. Therefore, I thought an approach that specifically highlighted dimensions connected to everyday life could reveal interesting patterns.
Examining the dimension of the city was essential because the city is a privileged political arena within the framework of municipalism. The idea to combine this with another dimension, the dimension of borders, grew out of my own experience and expertise regarding migration policies, as I realized that there are plenty of examples from around the world of how borders can become a place where struggles and attempts to resist certain policies and promote other types of policies are made visible.
So I tried to examine these two separate yet connected dimensions in order to find out what they can tell us not only about how certain policies are implemented, but also about how activists propose and promote alternatives.
How do you view the concept of security in a municipalist framework?
Federico Alagna: Security is a very important topic to address. Neglecting to discuss security is one of the biggest mistakes of left-wing and municipalist movements, because this neglect allows security to fall into the hands of right-wing movements. The problem of security does not disappear when we choose to not talk about it. Instead, it shifts to other groups whose societal perspective is diametrically opposed to ours. This is a mistake, as the end result is a failure to address the problem. As a thought experiment, imagine showing up at a typical left-wing movement meeting and bringing up the topic of security. The likely response would be one of discomfort, of not wanting to address the topic. But it is an important topic to address.
From a municipalist perspective, I’ve often seen a request for more security in different cities, in different parts of the world. And the problem is to be seen as something completely different from the militarization of the streets, an increased police presence, or the creation of an environment of mutual suspicion. I say this as the result of my direct experience in the governance of a Sicilian city. Security problems may certainly exist in certain neighborhoods of certain cities, but a repressive and criminalizing approach—which is what we see from right-wing movements and parties, as well as from the center-left—is reductive and simplistic, and does not actually solve the problem. It may create short-term satisfaction, but in the long term it just fuels further insecurity.
How do we address this? One way to respond to insecurity involves neighborhood spaces that are taken care of collectively by the community. For example, I remember the case of a square in a neighborhood in a particular town in Sicily. People didn’t feel safe in this square. The response revolved around the idea of restarting from the perspective of the commons, of taking care of a given space, of seeing that space as being a possession of the community as a whole. This is a process of mutual trust, of building relationships between people who live in a community as well between those people and the physical spaces in their community. Now, I don’t know if this is a specifically municipalist approach, but it can certainly be applied to a municipalist context. It takes a lot of time and energy, but it actually addresses the problem of security in our neighborhoods instead of pretending that the problem does not exist.
Have you observed any municipalist approaches to security in the context of COVID-19?
Federico Alagna: There are at least two different ways in which municipalism has provided interesting and effective responses to people’s needs during the pandemic. One aspect is related to the very politics of municipalism, which strongly intersects with the politics of care, with community-based action, with the idea of synergy between non institutional and institutional actors. I think what we’ve seen in many places across Europe and the world is exactly that. Community-built responses that far exceeded the limits of applicable institutional frameworks allowed the pandemic to be dealt with in a very productive and effective way.
“This takes us back to what I mentioned earlier: we’re not dealing with anything new. Nothing about this pandemic, from a negative or positive standpoint, is new. It has just made longstanding structural issues more visible. The fact that the EU and national governments turn their backs to what happens in the Mediterranean is not new. The fact that there are humanitarian actors, political actors, and NGOs working in the Mediterranean to try to save lives is not new. But throughout the pandemic it has been very striking to see, notwithstanding the extreme situation Europe is experiencing, the realization of this need and this effort.”
The second aspect is the idea of thinking on a very local scale, the perception that there were situations that could not simply be addressed by mainstream political decisions, but instead required responses grounded in the community. These two aspects combined to provide interesting tools for municipalist actors, but also—and perhaps this is the most relevant point if we are trying to view this from a wider perspective—for non municipalist actors, who were able to use some of the resources normally used by municipalists, but outside their traditional contexts. Again, I would say that these responses probably took a more long-term view when compared to other responses, like simply giving a check to people in need. While such quick-fix responses may be of crucial importance, they must also be accompanied by other responses that are tailor-made to specific communities as well as designed and managed by the very people who live in those communities, thereby yielding a much more effective and structural approach.
What are some of the main tensions and challenges regarding responses to COVID-19?
Federico Alagna: In terms of challenges, I would say that there are different degrees or types of challenges. One challenge, when approaching municipalism from an Italian perspective and from what we see in municipalist movements in Italy, is that of scaling up successful practices in the long term.
From my own observations and discussions, and my reading of articles, research, reports, etc., I can clearly see that there are some very interesting practices happening at local levels. Now, I’m not saying we need to replicate these practices everywhere, because I don’t think there are any universal guidelines that should be applied in all situations. However, I do think there are successful examples that could be scaled up and viewed as best practices.
But the very idea of best practices is a challenging one, because studying best practices only takes you so far, without deriving concrete lessons from those practices regarding how their fundamental aspects can be replicated elsewhere if desired. So the effort of scaling up while simultaneously broadening on a horizontal level, with positive contamination across cities, can be applied to many interesting aspects of municipalist programs, but I find it particularly relevant to the pandemic.
Other important challenges to municipalist efforts during the pandemic mostly had to do with the contradictions and shortcomings of the relationship to local authorities. This is something that clearly emerged during municipalist initiatives in the UK, where there were reports that the approaches of these movements were so successful that existing institutions wound up outsourcing pandemic responses to them. This is not a positive development, since the point is to actually rethink the relationships between existing institutions and municipalist movements, and not just reduce those relationships to fit into an outsourcing framework.
One common point about challenges is that most of them are not unique to the pandemic. I’m also a bit skeptical about rhetoric involving the uniqueness of the pandemic, because although the pandemic is terrible in terms of the cost to human life, it has also taken many challenges that are structural parts of our societies and made them more visible and dramatic. These challenges will not disappear after the pandemic. They are simply more visible now, but they have always existed, and if we do not address them, they will continue to exist after the pandemic.
In your report, you explain that city-based initiatives can be found throughout the world, and that these grassroots initiatives function as networks in ways that combine the three “R’s” of resilience, reworking, and resistance. Can you explain what these three “R’s” mean and give some concrete examples of their implementation?
Federico Alagna:I feel that the most important of these three “R’s” is resilience. Normally I don’t like to talk about resilience, because I think it is often an overused and misused concept in our debates. Everything is about resilience right now. If you open a newspaper, for instance, the word is everywhere. However, when you combine resilience with reworking and resistance, I think the resulting approach is much more interesting because the notion of resilience then attains greater specificity.
Resilience is a very slippery concept, because at a certain point it can become conservative, which is antithetical to the promotion of sociopolitical change. However, if combined with the notions of reworking and resisting and applied to the particular challenges of certain situations, the result is a more complete and profound idea of the type of response we are seeking. This gives us the capability to rework, reorganize, and rethink the tools, goals, needs, and priorities of our societies, our movements, and the places and political spaces we live in. It also gives us the capability to not just promote change, but to also react to challenges that emerge during the process of change, especially challenges involving the state of exception.
“We need to be able to develop an idea of municipalism that can not only resist but also exist in the face of a lack of friendly institutions at the local level. Otherwise, we run the risk of being municipalists only when we win elections, which is unproductive. […] All this simply means that we must ensure that the municipalist approach can also exist beyond an election or the current government of a city. This is one of most important perspectives we can have”
The state of exception is one of the biggest fears we collectively have as societies, especially in Europe, since it applies many restrictions on freedom that may be accepted at a given moment of crisis, yet whose long-term impact is unknowable. This is something we need to resist in a clever way. For instance, on a personal level, I don’t feel that it is a restriction on my freedom if I am told to stay home for a certain period of time, because that is something I can bear given the fact that I am privileged enough to have a home and to have work that I can do from home. But we should always be acutely aware that the impacts certain short-term measures have on our own lives can be insignificant in comparison to the impacts those exact same measures have on other people’s lives. This is a structural disparity, so we need to resist simplistic approaches to crisis response and instead find political arguments to counter them while acknowledging and politically exploring the very real complexities of crisis response.
In addition, we must recognize the more subtle and problematic long-term measures for social control that can emerge out of the state of exception, because these cannot be tolerated.
Can you give any examples of grassroots initiatives that you find particularly inspiring, interesting, or deserving of more recognition?
Federico Alagna: We’ve been talking a lot about cities, but I was thinking of something more related to what happens at borders, which are also very significant. Over the last two years, the seas have become a kind of battleground, with civil society on the one side and the EU and national governments on the other. NGOs and other political/humanitarian actors are trying to save lives at sea. Within this longstanding struggle and resistance by civic and political actors, the pandemic has been particularly relevant in that it has been used as an excuse for much stricter border controls and closures. For instance, in April 2020, Italy and Malta declared that they could no longer offer safe harbor because they were dealing with the pandemic. Well, the whole world was dealing with the pandemic. The efforts of humanitarian actors to get back out to sea, reorganize themselves, and even increase their efforts in the Mediterranean was a direct response that really saved lives, which I think is the real point.
This takes us back to what I mentioned earlier: we’re not dealing with anything new. Nothing about this pandemic, from a negative or positive standpoint, is new. It has just made longstanding structural issues more visible. The fact that the EU and national governments turn their backs to what happens in the Mediterranean is not new. The fact that there are humanitarian actors, political actors, and NGOs working in the Mediterranean to try to save lives is not new. But throughout the pandemic it has been very striking to see, notwithstanding the extreme situation Europe is experiencing, the realization of this need and this effort.
“Throughout the pandemic we’ve seen how solidarity responses and so-called civic or social responses are always extremely political. This is important to recognize so that those who define themselves as political activists can understand other forms of being political. It is also noteworthy in the context of a city where the relationship between the social fabric and the city government is not very good. When the government is friendly, things are not necessarily easy, but they are certainly easier.”
I also remember talking to members of a ship’s crew that handles some of these operations for NGOs. One such ship was docked in my city for a few months during the pandemic. I was really moved by the desire, the need they had to get back out to sea because people were dying there. Even though the pandemic had made the situation far from ideal, people were still dying at sea, so these people felt compelled to mobilize. The moment at which you are able to show solidarity, even though you yourself are experiencing a very difficult situation in your own context, is an expression of something incredibly moving.
I feel that it’s important to talk about these things because they are still going on during the pandemic in response to structural issues that are not necessarily products of the pandemic. These organizations, while they were trying to get back out to sea, also deployed their medical personnel to save lives in hospitals throughout Italy, which is important to remember, although I have the impression that people forget things like this very easily.
Based on your experience, what reflections, tools, or best practices do you think would be useful to share with other municipalist cities, at institutional and noninstitutional levels?
Federico Alagna: Given the way I view the current state of municipalism, which is of course based on an Italian perspective, I feel that those experiences able to run on a track parallel to established institutions are the most interesting. They may not be challenging established institutions or have an interest in doing so at the moment, but they are maintaining their initiatives in a socialization of the political. They are political movements with a political approach, but right now they feel the need to provide answers and responses to people in need. This is not only because established institutions are not doing so, but also because these movements can do so in a way that is qualitatively different from established institutions. The perspective of established institutions is thus basically ignored instead of openly challenged or confronted in a polemic way. Nor is there any apparent interest in collaborating with these institutions. The movements are doing something different.
This reminds me of an initiative that I had the privilege of becoming familiar with several years ago: namely, the solidarity clinics in Greece. While not rooted in a pandemic situation, there were still some similarities. We need to be able to develop an idea of municipalism that can not only resist but also exist in the face of a lack of friendly institutions at the local level. Otherwise, we run the risk of being municipalists only when we win elections, which is unproductive. For example, in my city of Messina, we had a very interesting municipal experience, but right now we find ourselves in a difficult situation because we have a very antimunicipalist government. We are nonetheless striving and struggling to realize some kind of municipalist politics on the local level, which is difficult. We are also seeing the dark side of some overly autonomous political actions, like those of the current mayor. All this simply means that we must ensure that the municipalist approach can also exist beyond an election or the current government of a city. This is one of most important perspectives we can have.
“I think that, viewed from a long-term perspective, what came out of the first months of the pandemic was that somehow everyone involved in the political debate and the political environment finally realized the importance of the local level. Until recently, especially in countries like Spain and Italy, the local level had not been considered important by anyone outside of leftist, progressive, and radical movements, but right now, the challenges and importance of the local level to all actors are becoming clearer every day.”
An example I cover in more detail in the report is that of the Cuidados Madrid Centro (Central Madrid Care, CMC), which made the social and political fabric of the city very interesting. The CMC is a network of care in downtown Madrid. It is organized autonomously and spontaneously, but it is not a naive spontaneity. Rather, it is very grounded in and connected to social and political movements throughout the city. From my outsider’s perspective, it is an initiative that not only provides direct responses to the city and its citizens when those responses are needed, but is also highly political, and I think that’s the key point.
Throughout the pandemic we’ve seen how solidarity responses and so-called civic or social responses are always extremely political. This is important to recognize so that those who define themselves as political activists can understand other forms of being political. It is also noteworthy in the context of a city where the relationship between the social fabric and the city government is not very good. When the government is friendly, things are not necessarily easy, but they are certainly easier.
Are there any other reflections you have on other municipalist cities or organizations that you feel would be useful to share with them?
Federico Alagna: I think that, viewed from a long-term perspective, what came out of the first months of the pandemic was that somehow everyone involved in the political debate and the political environment finally realized the importance of the local level. Until recently, especially in countries like Spain and Italy, the local level had not been considered important by anyone outside of leftist, progressive, and radical movements, but right now, the challenges and importance of the local level to all actors are becoming clearer every day.
Again, this is not an exclusive product of the pandemic. Rather, the pandemic has just accelerated a process that was already underway in certain parts of Europe. The local level is gradually becoming a site of confrontation for different worldviews and societal conceptions, and I think the political debate has in many respects scaled down to the local level. It’s important to recognize this because the situation is more challenging right now, and we can already see many right-wing and far-right politicians and groups pretending to use tools that derive from a municipalist-style conception of the city and local politics. We need to be aware of that tendency, remain careful, and most of all stay ready.
This interview has been conducted by Averill Roy and transcripted by Matthew Lehrer.
For further information :
- Read the Report In the city, at the border: movement and grassroots initiatives during the pandemic
- Discover: https://minim-municipalism.org/
- Messina: Municipalism beyond the Municipio Political Critique, Poland
- PODCAST: ‘Radicals in Conversation’ Pandemic Solidarity by Pluto Press
- COVID-19 and Border Politics, a policiy brief published by the Transnational Institute
- Federico Alagna’s publications : https://radboud.academia.edu/FedericoAlagna
- Federico Alagna’s contact details and infos : Twitter: @f_alagna – email@example.com