Defining municipalism isn’t easy because there’s no one single, overarching form but each model of it shares the same common goal - to reconstruct and reorganise political power. Not just to implement progressive policies but to radically change the way politics is done, to return power to ordinary people and genuinely distribute power through participatory, inclusive systems. In a nutshell, municipalism is people-led political transformation.
Our recent articles on community wealth building, circular economies, flatpack democracy, community-led housing and affordable food schemes are all aspects of the concept of municipalism and the growing movement to break away from failing traditional political structures and towards a more inclusive and representative form of government.
Often referred to as the feminisation of politics, municipalism is capable of looking beyond our current exploitative, egoistic system towards a society which upholds human rights and humanitarian standards. With ethics, equality and interdependence at the centre of the agenda, it is a drive towards a culture which cares for people and the environment. Alongside this, the collaboration and cooperation elements of the movement allow assemblies of neighbourhoods to organise into national and global networks to transform society from the bottom up.
Erm, ok…but can it actually work?
As we’ve said, there is no ‘one size fits all’ model but there are some cases where we can see municipalism in action.
The most prominent example of this new municipalism is in Barcelona where a citizen platform, Barcelona en Comu, got their representatives elected onto the City Council and are now redistributing power to place people's lived experience right at the heart of politics. Since 2015, they’ve achieved much by confronting and exposing the main reason for cynicism, disenfranchisement and the feeling of futility amongst voters – namely, a political system riddled with corruption. But this is not the only example of citizen’s organising to improve their situation. Others include Seikatsu in Japan, Reclaim the City in South Africa and over 70 other initiatives across the world – you can find more details via the Fearless Cities network.
Community organising is traditionally aimed at overcoming societal divisions - racial, cultural, sexual and so on. However, ordinary people are far from perfect, there are real material disputes between people. Centuries of malicious narratives have led to ordinary people scapegoating each other which has led to the growth of hateful and discriminatory attitudes. Examples of toxic localism include groups like the Northwest Front and the Wolves of Vinland in the USA and Lega Nord in Italy, amongst others.
In order for socially transformative politics to be beneficial for the community as a whole, steps to expand participation and an understanding of shared interests and the barriers posed by inequality are needed. Groups and communities need to stress again and again that ordinary people can move beyond the accepted conventions and create an inclusive and representative system of government.
Barriers to municipalism
As with every challenge to the established order, there is strong opposition to change. Not only the control and influence asserted by each level of authority along the way but the difficulty in breaking the entrenched and traditional models of our own culture and belief systems. Governments only relent when forced to – the most recent example of this is the child food poverty campaign led by Marcus Rashford which resulted in a major government u-turn over the provision of free school meals during the summer holidays last year so, yes, it can be done!
Ordinary people are far from perfect but the appetite for progressive and innovative solutions to our current political, social and environmental crises is growing. Rather than appealing to voters only in election years, municipalism looks to engage citizens 24/7 with a deep community-rooted and inclusive approach.