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Catalyst for change

Cities are the place to reinvent politics. Never mind the institutions, back to the neighbourhoods, the squares, the agora. That’s the idea behind municipalism, the new leftwing progressive movement which is emerging in numerous European cities, presenting itself as an alternative to neoliberalism. What exactly is municipalism, and what does it have GroenLinks (GreenLeft) and cities like Amsterdam to offer?  

Compare Amsterdam to the small village in Gaul right out of Asterix and Obelix, courageously resisting growing right-wing populism (and offering alternatives to it), setting itself up as a challenger to global neoliberalism. The image was shared frequently on social media after the announcement of the Amsterdam results in the Dutch Provincial Council election. On an evening which featured the emergence of Forum for Democracy, that image offered hope to many of a progressive alternative. And Amsterdam didn’t turn out to be unique. As the evening wore on the number of ‘Gaul villages’ where leftwing progressive parties gained impact grew: Utrecht, Groningen and Amersfoort, among others. These gains confirm the leftist advance since the last year’s Dutch municipal election in. It is a movement which differs in character from social democracy, once so strong. It is more democratic, more grassroots and, particularly, more critical of the system than in the past few decades.

This advance in progressive local politics must be placed in a broader, worldwide trend. For a few years now everywhere in Europe, but in North and South America too, new progressive leftwing political initiatives have emerged, putting the citizens in cities, towns and neighbourhoods at the centre of change. These so-called municipalist movements offer hope in finding a way out of the deep crisis in traditional centralist social democratic power parties in Europe, which do not have an sufficiently convincing answer to neoliberal globalisation and, related to it, the emergence of nationalist populism. Why are these movements emerging in cities? What exactly does municipalism entail? What alternatives does it offer? Is there a breeding-ground for municipalist change in Dutch cities?

The city as a basis for change

These days change is characterised by a growing imbalance between market, citizens and government. In short, the dominant neoliberal vision on the economy and society has led to a disproportional role for ‘the market’ in the economy, the public service sector and social intercourse. Excessive market forces not so much lead to more (cost)efficiency, rather result in unwanted concentrations of power and capital and concomitant rising inequality, segregation and social chasms. At the same time a discrepancy has emerged between power formation and decision-making on a European and global level caused by globalisation, international crises (financial and climate-wise) and the transfer of competences by national states to the European Union, and the (limited) autonomy of cities like Amsterdam, where the consequences of these trends manifest themselves most clearly.

In cities like Amsterdam socio-economic inequality is the most striking, as is the takeover of inner cities by the affluent upper layers of society and by foreign investors, who transfer the bulk of their profits. Besides, there is pollution, there is an assault on the quality of inner city life by mass tourism, and the ‘financialisation’ of economic life, resulting in GNP growth independent of rises in productivity in an economy where money is made with money, i.e. speculation. Cities combine various cultural, ethnic and religious population groups, whereby levels of tolerance are challenged most acutely. It is here that we see most clearly that the neoliberal system is not functioning, reducing public confidence in the political system operating within the neoliberal system.

Simultaneously, towns and cities form the best level to solve the problems and challenges present-day European societies struggle with. Democratic legitimacy and confidence in politics can be restored by having citizens participate in the creation of their urban environment and decision-making regarding their city’s future. The sense of community and solidarity, eroded by individualism and consumerism, might much better be strengthened on a neighbourhood level. Cultural contrasts may be overcome if people meet, talk with each other, building structures of solidarity. In practice, cities are much better equipped to boost new systems of production, construction and public transport. On a municipal level the ideal of the commons may be designed tangibly, forcing back the dominance of the global economic powers: by supporting or setting up joint neighbourhood economies and co-operatives in health care, sustainable energy and other services. Urban systems of data commons can be created to boost independence from Google, Facebook or Airbnb.

‘More citizen’

The new urban movements have been inspired by thinkers like Saskia Sassen, David Harvey, Henri Lefebvre and Murray Bookchin with his ‘libertarian municipalism’ or communalism. This line of thought is ‘bottom-up’, propagating forms of direct democracy and aims to bring services and the economy in communal hands more.

It is not ‘more government,’ they want, but rather ‘less market and more citizen.’ Not in the sense of more individualism or shifting responsibilities to individuals. They are concerned with collective solutions in which organised citizens both take and receive more influence on their lives, jobs and surroundings. They take back control from inflexible government bureaucracies and indeed from globally operating enterprises, which, endorsed by financial globalisation and neoliberal deregulation, increasingly transfer money, benefiting only a small group of shareholders. It is about strengthening democratic, inclusive an egalitarian cooperation in the city, curbing the market and strong economic entities which stand in the way of self-control, taking away any obstacles in national and European legislation and drastically overturning a municipal governance culture to facilitate this. This bottom-up approach will allow political confidence to be restored, people can again be multidimensional citizens (not just ‘consumers’ or ‘clients’), they can restore a sense of togetherness, which was eroded by individualism and the breakdown of the welfare state (and the solidarity principle that goes with it).

There are divergent examples of local policy that progressive cities can use to form a counter-power against rightwing (populist) national governments. No matter how different, all these examples share some general characteristics. They represent an inclusive, open, free and antiracist town. Thereby following a leftist tradition of values and principles fitting a progressive liberal agenda. In addition, they more openly express a critique of capitalism, different from what social democrats and other social liberal parties have done in the past few decades. They present themselves as alternatives to neoliberalism, with its emphasis on privatisation, the free market and its individualist culture, while at the same time offering an alternative to the national-populist movements that plunged into the vacuum that established politics allowed to come into being.

Fearless cities

Municipalism already manifests itself in various ways. Moderate forms are inspired by Benjamin Barber’s book Mayors Rule the World. Barber argues for more power for (the management of) cities, in relation to the nation state and international levels. Barber maintains that mayors operate less ‘politically’ and thus go for the most rational solution. His approach is similar to arguments for technocratic management. As a result, he ignores uneven power relations in a globalised world, preserving the system; in cities, countries, Europe and the world as a whole. Likewise, he fails to offer a solution for the prevalent practice of cities competing on a grand scale to attract investors, only adding an extra dimension to the ‘race to the bottom’; the fact that Amsterdam is so successful only means that others are losing out. Joint profit is much lower, because such competition means more power for large companies, lower tax revenues and increasing house prices.

Adorning themselves with names like Fearless Cities, Rebel Cities, Transformative Cities, or Municipalities for Change, some 1,600 cities worldwide have returned privatised services (energy, water, health care, child care) in public hands, to reverse rising cost and lower quality and accessibility caused by free market forces. The Trump administration notwithstanding, almost 400 American ‘climate mayors’ pursue policies that go even further than those resolved in the Paris climate agreement. Mayors of New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles and dozens of other American cities declared their towns ‘sanctuary cities’ when Trump wanted to expel millions of ‘illegal aliens’. Italian cities like Messina, Palermo and Naples – followed by Spanish cities – are willing to receive boat refugees from northern Africa with open arms. The mayors of New York City and London recently took the lead in a ‘divestment’ campaign, pressurised by activist groups: cities are withdrawing fossil fuel investments.


Some local movements go even further. They not only want a principled, progressive policy for city government, but maintain that true system change includes a change in the way the economy is organised, politics is practised, and in the individualist culture so deeply rooted in the social institutions and in citizens’ mindsets.

That is why more collectivism or ‘communalism’ is needed. Meaning that these movements underline the need for more radical forms of democracy. As distinguished from traditional ‘participation’ (individual citizens who are ‘allowed a say’), by trying to make decision-making truly communal in order to incorporate the needs, wishes and dreams of all the people: in the economy, in society and in political parties, or citizens’ platforms as they are called in Spain.

Communality is also strived after through the formation of so-called ‘confluences’ (confluencias in Spanish). Rather than entering into competition with existing leftist parties or campaign groups, attempts are made at combining as many leftwing parties, social movements and activist citizens as possible, surpassing party political compartmentalisation and subdivision. Participation takes place on an equal footing and political manifestos are drawn up through extensive grassroots involvement. In doing so these citizens’ platforms also try to shape their ideals in political and governance practice. Yet other forms of practising politics on the basis of equality, inclusiveness, democracy and transparency, diversity, is already being applied when and wherever possible and have been implemented in those institutions in which the platforms operate once they win elections.

Innovative political practices like these can be realised much easier on a local level. ‘Proximity’, the concrete space where people meet, lends itself better for elements like equality and communality. This ‘territorial’ angle offers a possibility to combat thematic fragmentation and approach economic and social issues, safety, social cohesion and environmental planning in context.

Likewise, activities towards real economic alternatives for the dominant neoliberal model are emerging worldwide. With things like the Social & Solidarity economy, the cooperative economy or democratisation of the economy everywhere people are trying to weld together the old fragmented small-scale initiatives into greater ‘ecosystems’ which can really pushback the free market system in the economy, often taking cities or neighbourhoods as a starting-point. A recent preparatory three-day conference of the World Social Forum of Transformative Economies, which next year in Barcelona assembles thousands of local initiatives worldwide, replaced the old Another World is Possible slogan of alternative globalists at the turn of the century by Another Economy Is Already Emerging!

The international municipal movement has been given a tremendous boost, owing to the gains of such citizens’ platforms in many Spanish cities, and by the opportunity to prove that in practical terms they can make a difference in governing large cities. Barcelona being the most renowned example, but inspiring stories come from other Spanish cities, from Naples and Palermo, from Grenoble; from Richmond or Jackson, Mississippi in the US; from Rosario in Argentine or Valparaiso in Chile. These are cities with new progressive movements in their councils. In numerous cities groups emerge, big or small, basing themselves on municipalist principles. They exchange their experiences using online networks and international meetings, such as the Fearless Cities conferences.

How does the new municipalism distinguish itself from traditional leftist movements?
1. Cooperation and citizens’ platforms
2. Proximity and a ‘territorial’ approach
3. Radical leftwing pragmatism
4. Radical democracy
5. Services and the economy in communal hands

Municipalism in Dutch towns and cities

In Amsterdam, and in many other Dutch cities and towns, a great deal has been done: thousands of people are active in small-scale economic initiatives, cooperatives, breeding-grounds, commons running the energy supply in streets or neighbourhoods, all kinds of socially safe enterprises. Some initiatives are mere window-dressing, others, however, are highly sustainable and socially sound. What they largely lack is the political will to change. As yet there is no clear, common vision to challenge the market model and plead for a more communally or socially geared economy: the return to an economy that caters for the needs of the people, rather than the dominant notion of making sure the economy attends to material or financial (GNP) growth as much as possible. In this outlook leftwing politics distinguishes itself through social measures and a progressive tax policy separate from the economy, ensuring redistribution of GNP revenues more or less. There is not a single political commons movement with people marching together and asking for structural changes from the government and trade and industry, rather than demanding subsidies. But there is certainly a potential for such a new cooperative movement. And the city is the ideal place to take on that challenge.

In short, politics can be reinvented in cities. Never mind the institutions, back to the neighbourhoods, the squares, the agora. Only then can new urban movements become catalysts for political change, which eventually will spread to national and European levels.

What does municipalism offer?

Municipalism is a strategy which can provide new zest to leftwing progressive thinking, citizens’ collective participation, self-organisation, and to (counter)power formation on a sub-national level. There are numerous dilemmas which have to be developed and thought out, also for a party like GroenLinks. For example, how can the global capitalist system be challenged and revised at a local level. Or take, say, the issue whether democratization is an aim in itself (have as many citizens as possible participate and accept their choices) or a means to promote greater equality, diversity, communality, or even system change. This can only work if we charge municipalism with our standards and principles. Then there is the contrast between movement, party and city council: can a movement be created out of political and government institutions?

The examples mentioned here are the result of international experiences, in countries and cities with a much more different context, political culture and socio-economic situation. That is why we need to consider the application of the overall municipalist body of thought in the Dutch situation. This essay merely aims to give it the initial impetus. We are convinced that the decentralised angle of municipalism offers a number of promising pretexts for the (system) change which is so badly needed.

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