Democracies Under Pressure. Authoritarianism, Repression, Struggles

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Can Municipalism Breathe New Life into Democracy?

, by DAU Elizabeth, MARCHANDISE Charlotte

Can municipalism spearhead a new way of doing politics, and provide an antidote to political extremism? By revitalising the commons and giving everyone a role in shaping the future, municipalism is a way to counteract a fragmented society. Through a political ethics of democratic radicalism, it re-empowers citizens and restores confidence.

Gathering of Fearless Cities in Barcelona, June 2017. Credit : © Empodera & Almedio Consultores.

The June 2017 “Fearless Cities” meeting was convened by the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú, which had emerged victorious from the 2015 Spanish municipal elections. That year, the municipalist movement swept across Spain, with “rebel city halls” installed from Madrid to A Coruña, Zaragoza and Santiago de Compostela. [1] Although municipalism is part of a longer history, dating back to ancient Greece and with many historic milestones – such as the Paris Commune – the last decade has been a major turning point due to the social, economic, cultural and international context.

A pivotal decade

We have experienced a myriad of international, national and local crises since 2007, when the real estate bubble burst, triggering the subprime mortgage crisis. The financial crisis, the crisis prompted by austerity policies, the migration issue, corruption scandals, the shrinking of democratic space, the climate emergency and increasing inequalities have all affected people’s everyday lives. The way these crises have been handled has widened the ever-increasing gap between decision-making centres and citizens, and attested to the profound asymmetry of power between a great majority of “losers” and a tiny minority of “winners”.

We have witnessed successive mobilisations, revolts and revolutions since 2010. These include the Arab Spring, the Indignados of 15-M (15 May 2011), Occupy Wall Street in New York, Nuit Debout, Notre-Dame-des-Landes, and, more recently, the Gilets Jaunes, chanting slogans such as “We are the 99%”, “Dégage” (“Clear off”), “¡Democracia Real Ya!” (“Real democracy now!”) and “Indignez-vous” (“Time for Outrage”). These movements against the impasses of the international, political and financial system have progressively relocated around city squares (Tahrir Square, the Kasba, Puerta del Sol, Republic Square), symbolic places in our cities. Residents of neighbourhoods, villages and cities have been affected by evictions caused by real estate speculation (Barcelona, Belgrade), air pollution (Poland), inadequate public services (Jackson, Mississippi, USA) or no public services at all (Buckfastleigh in the United Kingdom), privatisation, resulting in a hike in water and electricity prices – or resulting in a poorer quality service (Grenoble, Paris, Brussels, Milan, Hamburg), waste crises (Naples, Valparaíso). Residents of certain cities and villages (Riace in Italy, Valencia in Spain, New York) have taken a stand against the hostility towards refugees and treated them with the dignity and respect they deserve. Other issues include everyday discrimination, the coming to power of nationalist or far-right parties (Brazil, United States, Italy, France, Austria) and impunity in the face of corruption (Europe, Balkans, Brazil). So many people have been affected by these issues that residents have joined forces with activists, bringing to mind the words of Ghandi: “Whatever you do for me without me, you do against me.” Because, although the crises have challenged the role of governments and their ability to manage such emergencies, they have also demonstrated that citizens are able to take their lives into their own hands when the political situation becomes unbearable.

In 2011, during the 15-M events in Spain, Joan Subirats claimed that “a new political agenda is emerging, one related to the future of young people, to their everyday lives, to the idea that caring for others is part of politics”. [2] These events sparked a convergence of struggles, revealing society’s creative capacity to build new forms of attentiveness, cooperation and governance; in other words, to forge a new vision. These movements have fostered the emergence of municipalism as a political alternative. In certain areas, the desire for radical change has prompted people to self-organise and take action at local level, which then developed into a breeding ground for mobilisation, resistance, solidarity and proposals. The demonstrations have played a key role in transforming the public space into a political space. Grassroots groups invaded the electoral scene to “win over cities” and villages. More than 600 participatory and citizen lists competed in the municipal elections in France (2020), mostly in rural areas and small towns and cities, as well as in a few larger cities such as Poitiers, Grenoble, and Toulouse. After occupying city squares, citizens turned to occupying institutions. The “municipalities for change” policies, which came to the fore between 2015 and 2019 in Spain, as well as in other cities in Europe and around the world, have been a real-life “laboratory”, demonstrating that although struggles are local, they converge at international level.

[…] These cities and villages represent a process of empowerment, which begins with the individual, moves to the collective and then becomes institutional. They challenge our understanding of power and show that it lies neither in the citadel of city halls, nor in the notability of elected officials. Power is based on a fertile tension between an organised civil society, which can come together as a political community, and a regulatory institution that has been reshaped through a bottom-up approach. It goes hand in hand with the development of new intermediary spaces that bring citizens and institutions together, such as neighbourhood assemblies and citizens’ platforms, which are based on a revitalised political ethics. In these spaces, conflict is recognised as an intrinsic, positive aspect of radical democracy.

Process as important as outcome: democratic quality

In their efforts to build a convergence towards radical democracy, municipalist movements have begun by collectively defining their political ethics. One of the main priorities of municipalism is to put an end to the abuse and misuse of power and the impunity of elected officials, from the local to the highest levels of government. This new social and political contract is based on a new set of rules governing the relations between citizens and their representatives. Charters and “ethical codes” developed by the citizenry (Barcelona, Valencia, A Coruña) lay down new obligations. These include a salary cap for elected representatives, transparency of work schedules, management of conflicts of interest during and after the electoral mandate, independence from bank financing, etc. The goal of these ethical rules is to put an end to the privileges and elitism of politicians, and help rebuild trust. They introduce an active principle of co-responsibility between elected representatives and citizens, and, more broadly, raise the issue of the effectiveness of citizen control in our societies and of the role and status of elected representatives.

These political ethics involve checks and balances: every power must have a counter-power. “Governing by obeying” is the ethical code of the citizens’ platform Barcelona en Comú, inspired by the Zapatista motto “Mandar obedeciendo”, and illustrates what the municipalist movement seeks to achieve. Municipalism is a political project that aims to topple dominant forms of organisation and power based on verticality, hierarchy, centralisation and patriarchy. It advocates an alternative vision of leadership. It seeks to create a new understanding of what leaders should be and do: it promotes cooperative leaders, with recognised qualities (relational or discursive ease, charisma) yet who serve the collective, who are not out to monopolise the political vision or the decision-making process. These values, however, are not easily reconcilable with institutional forms of government, which tend to isolate elected representatives, putting them in a position where they have to make decisions alone and are under pressure to make them quickly. This greatly reduces the potential for a collective development process. The municipalist approach differs from that of traditional political parties in that “it does not limit itself to political performance” [3] and focuses on the coherence and impact of political action on people’s everyday lives. The process is as important as the outcome.

The feminisation of politics remains the backbone of the municipalist movement. In addition to enforcing gender parity in public speech and in political representation, to recognising women’s “user expertise” and developing dedicated public policies, the feminisation of politics involves, in a subtler and more comprehensive way, a profound cultural shift which amounts to “decolonising the mind”. [4] It’s about changing the way we do things, moving towards a more cooperative or redistributive approach, putting more focus on listening to one another, accepting mistakes and sharing responsibilities equally. The municipalist experience in the Kurdish province of Rojava (Syria), where women have strong leadership roles in a context of armed conflict, is a vivid example of these values being put into action. Inspired by democratic confederalism, [5] the core values of their political organisation are gender parity, the feminisation of politics and non-discrimination. They advocate alternative ways of doing things, so that individual change also becomes political change. Men and women are now equally responsible for this deeper social and cultural transformation. This concern for the quality of processes and relationships within municipalism is based on the equally central notion of “care”, or “cuidado” in Spanish. [...] Change is as much about attitudes as it is about mindsets, forms of organisation and institutions.

A new form of politics: democratic radicalism

Democratic radicalism should be understood, etymologically, as an invitation to rediscover the roots, the essence of democracy. It is the opposite of extremism or dogmatism. It seeks to revitalise representative democracy, which has run out of steam, by introducing a more direct and deliberative democracy. It asserts that democracy is a continuous learning process and that active citizenship should be rooted in the local; this is how we move from “I” to “we”.

Putting citizens back at the heart of decision-making creates a tension between those inside and those outside of municipal institutions. Municipalist movements demonstrate that political power does not only lie within the walls of institutions but also in the gaps and junctions of the social, political and institutional spheres. It lies between society and its capacity to put constructive pressure on institutional and political leaders. It also depends on the latter’s capacity to effectively regulate and translate this into public policies. The vitality of a democracy is not only a reflection of its elected representatives, but also of its citizens’ capacity for initiative, of the vibrancy of counter-powers, of the development of local civil society, and of the quality of education, solidarity, pluralism, trust and social peace. Nowadays, society seems to be one step ahead of institutions. The municipalist movement’s drive towards self-organisation proves that people are capable of taking the public interest into their own hands. They are able to create, develop new visions, cooperate, experiment and find solutions, even in an emergency – i.e., by developing collective responses to evictions due to repossessions, saying no to the criminalisation of solidarity towards migrants and protecting urban commons. In this “democratic garden” grows a potent new form of collective political power. Municipalism invents new forms and ways of doing politics “by having one foot in the institutions and thousands outside of them” (Ada Colau, mayor of Barcelona). [...] Revitalising democratic intermediary spaces is essential to this positive cooperation.

During the gathering "Curieuses Démocraties" (Curious Democracies) in Saillans (sept 2017), a sign says : "What are we doing with our power ?". Credit : © Empodera & Almedio Consultores.

The profound crisis of representative democracy is reflected in the declining role of political parties, trade unions and associations. Increasingly remote from their own constituencies, their realities and urgent needs, they have no longer been able to bring social demands into the institutional sphere, which has resulted in a lack of public response and policies. In this respect, municipalism advocates a renewal of “intermediary bodies” and new forms of political organisation. Hence the creation of citizens’ platforms such as Barcelona en Comú, Ahora Madrid, Marea Atlántica (Spain), Zagreb je NAŠ (“Zagreb belongs to us” – Croatia), Ne da(vi)mo Beograd (“Do not let Belgrade D(r)own” – Serbia), Cambiamo Messina Dal Basso (Italy), Richmond Progressive Alliance (California), People’s Assembly (Jackson, Mississippi) in the United States, etc. They are spaces for information, for voicing different ideas and points of view, for building a network and a “confluence”. They are also spaces for managing social conflicts and debates. New methods of dialogue and of collective intelligence are being introduced, which acknowledge that in a democracy, disagreement can be a virtue, even a positive sign of vitality. These methods make it possible to move from multiple, even antagonistic positions to the development of a shared vision. These platforms also enable political confluence by dropping party labels in favour of developing a common local project. This is not without its challenges, as these new forms of politics collide with the traditional logic of political apparatuses, the fragmentation of radical left-wing forces and the rise of the far right. They thus became spaces where local realities and the complexity of public action can be discussed, where debate is encouraged and where political power and transparency go hand in hand.

In addition to intermediary spaces, enormous efforts and resources (human, technological, financial, time) must be marshalled to allow for this fertile back-and-forth process. This is what is required both for democracy and for our future – and they deserve such an investment. In order to involve a larger public, we need to open up many “time-spaces” dedicated to democratic co-construction. The challenge is to go beyond the usual 15% to 20% participation rate among city and neighbourhood residents. We need to proactively encourage women, workers, invisible people and young people to take part. In this respect, the new democratic culture must include and learn from a generation that is rallying for its own future (and increasingly so), as the youth climate rallies have illustrated. Digital technology (open civic tech) makes it possible to experiment with collaborative tools, such as the Decidim platforms. In order to be credible, municipalist movements have to “leave all doors open”, diversify communication channels (paper, digital, face-to-face, media and social networks), set adapted meeting times (evenings, weekends) and allow people to bring their children. This cannot be decreed, or improvised. Training is essential to establishing collective intelligence and shared governance methods. This also ensures that meeting times are facilitated in a way that encourages everyone to speak out and contribute to the discussion and decision-making process, which should be qualitative and consensual rather than just majority-based.

A decision is no longer the beginning but the end of a documented, debated and arbitrated collective process, which empowers and enhances the skills of residents, elected representatives and local public officials alike. The participatory and collegial governance of the French village of Saillans offers an inspiring example in this regard. Power is shared between elected officials who “share both skills and compensation, work in pairs, and involve residents in the preparation, monitoring and implementation of projects”. [...] Residents have an ongoing role in democratic life that isn’t limited to the election period. It is they who identify needs and priority actions, and they play a key role in the decision-making process. Getting them involved also means taking the time to explain and discuss public action, choices, tools, timeframes, skills and the limited reach of municipal authorities.

The quality of governance thus depends on the whole democratic ecosystem, including the world outside institutions. During the recent Fearless Cities meeting in Belgrade,6 Mauro Pinto (Massa Critica, Naples) argued that “the issue today is not only about losing (or winning) an election”, but about the importance of “how”: how to effectively connect social movements and local institutions, how to avoid wasting energy, how to fight populism, how to find a space in the general political landscape, how to make the municipalist project “attractive”. And how to find the capacity to renew a municipal administration’s structures and practices.

Managing new institutions as commons

Is change within institutions even possible? How can we prepare for governance when the prevailing culture within the administration is often adverse to that advocated by municipalism?

During the 2017 Fearless Cities conference, those elected on municipalist platforms first mentioned the “shock” at discovering the institutional and administrative workings of city halls. These new politicians have a very different profile from “professional” politicians. How can those who do not belong to the political, intellectual or economic elite, and are unfamiliar with the workings of power and the complexity of public policy, move from activism to public office? “Institutional inexperience” requires a period of adaptation that can last many months, perhaps several years, leaving public policy largely in the hands of civil servants. Newly elected representatives need to understand public policy and find their place. This raises the question of the training and support required to help newly elected representatives navigate these difficulties. It is a true journey, an immersion in an administrative world often steeped in a long tradition of hierarchy and verticality, which has been passed down through the ages. While it guarantees the public service’s continuity, it is also a symbol of profound inertia. For many new municipal councillors, their relationship with the administration has been a central issue. The local administration, perceived by some as a “monster” with inextricable shackles, sometimes turned into an enemy from within, yet with which it was necessary work for the whole term of office.

[...] “There is a need to create new forms of institutions to be managed as commons – institutions at the service of the people,” said Mercé Amich Vidal (Celrà) during the Fearless Cities debates in 2017. Similar remarks were made by representatives from Spanish municipalities at the 2018 Municilab.7 The need to move towards a more cooperative work culture within the administration was mentioned, as was the importance of putting the public interest and the universality of public services at the heart of administrative processes. [...] With the winds of radical local democracy blowing through our villages and cities, it has become pivotal that we adapt the legal framework in which local authorities operate. This will ensure the resilience of administrative structures in the face of unprecedented social, democratic and environmental challenges.

An international and trans-local movement tackling the challenge of changing the rules

The need to change the rules of the game is also apparent when it comes to the issue of local jurisdiction and the scale of decision-making. Municipalism is rooted in a local outlook, but it is not a localist movement. It is based in small areas such as villages, or urban areas in cities, but it also emphasises our interdependence with other cities, other countries and other realities around the world. Municipalism stands against the current impasse of nation-states and against the culture of borders in all their material and symbolic representations. It fosters new collective identities, both local and trans-local. The thinking behind libertarian municipalism envisages a system of democratic confederalism that recognises the need for networking and for collaboration between different local levels. The struggles happening at local level are as much a response to local issues as they are a response to globalised disorders.

The image of “David and Goliath” is often used to convey local decisions made by city councils in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Bordeaux, Brussels, Krakow, Munich, Paris, Valencia and Vienna. [6] These city centres have fallen prey to real estate speculation, which fuels mass tourism and gentrification and pushes the city’s residents out to the fringes. These cities’ battle against Airbnb is a good example. Without protective national and European regulations, they have had to doggedly insist on local legislation, in order to reassert the right to housing, the right to the city, the rights of the people who live in them (not just those who consume them). [...] It is not only Airbnb that is the problem. The battle against the excesses and injustice of economic powers takes a number of different forms. In Grenoble, billboard advertising is being tackled. For the Ne da(vi)mo Beograd platform in Serbia, it is fighting a colossal commercial project planned for the waterfront. For others, it is about remunicipalising energy. In Autumn 2018, the “Municipalize Europe” initiative brought together representatives from municipalist platforms in Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and France to put forward joint proposals for Europe and to fight against the European directives or national legislation that are used to constrict them.

The “Pact of Free Cities”, initiated in 2019 by the mayors of Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, is part of this same momentum of resistance and trans-local alliance, a reaction against the crushing of their democracies. The four mayors have openly denounced populist politics, the misappropriation of European funds and the inaction of their governments. Their cities have joined forces and have pledged to address the climate crisis, fight for adequate housing, tackle inequality, and uphold common values of human dignity, democracy, sustainability, rule of law and social justice.

We should also mention the courageous citizens and elected representatives who have been hospitable to refugees in Mediterranean coastal areas, in the villages of Italy and in the Alps, and the welcoming of the Aquarius in Valencia, Spain (June 2019). Again, it was cities, villages and their municipalities that took a stand. They chose to go beyond their limited jurisdiction and override flawed migration policies in order to give a dignified and human response to the humanitarian emergency and the political impasse at national and European level. Networks of welcoming cities (Cities of Refuge, Fearless Cities, ANVITA [7]) have made this fight an international one.

The Fearless Cities network is the backbone of the international and trans-local municipalist movement which has convened seven meetings throughout the world (Barcelona, New York City, Warsaw, Brussels, Valparaíso, Naples, Belgrade) to date. Each of these meetings has brought together several hundred people from different countries within the same sub-region. They have contributed to bringing new energy to local movements, and to the development of new relationships at local, regional and even international level, as learning about distant experiences is also a priority. These spaces allow people to share strategies, experiences and learning – as well as doubts, questions, and hopes – bringing both local and global perspectives together.

These are all examples of the current trend towards creating new networks of cities and building alliances at a supra-local level in order to do “more and better” for radical democracy and to ensure a better quality of life.

New horizons

These examples should remind us that bringing about systemic change is a long-term enterprise. New methods and new ways of doing things reflect a new political vision, one that opens up new horizons. Municipalism is a project of social and political transformation based on the empowerment of individuals, communities and institutions.

Municipalism is built on struggles and values that reflect a political vision – such as access to rights for all, preservation of and access to the commons, the right to the city and to housing, gender equality, dignity and hospitality, cooperation, social justice, pluralism, ethics, solidarity and social ecology. Public space becomes common space, and its repoliticisation becomes a breeding ground for new victories. The most important one is to encourage people to believe that they are able to take action and shape their own lives; that they are the architects of their individual and collective fate. At the recent Fearless Cities meeting in Belgrade, Iva Ivšić said that one of the achievements of the Zagreb I NAŠ platform was “to have opened up a space for people to realise that they have other options”.

Perhaps the most decisive social transformation and political victory of our time, in the current political, economic, ecological and democratic context, is realising that a political alternative exists, and becoming confident that we can play a role in creating “a future we deserve”, as Debbie Bookchin so aptly puts it. This is a profound change of vision which gives a different slant on what it means to live together harmoniously. When this becomes a shared vision, it strengthens our capacity to respond collectively and politically to the challenges of our time. [8]


[1The Atlas del Cambio (“Atlas of Change”) is a collaborative project mapping Spanish municipalist cities and their public policies (participation, urban ecology, commons, right to the city, etc.).

[2Joan Subirats, Professor at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and member of Barcelona en Comú, in “Podemos et Barcelona en Comú : les citoyen·nes prennent le pouvoir ?”, Médiapart, 10 February 2017.

[3Municipalismo, autogobierno y contrapoder (MAC 3) 12-15 October 2017, Joint report by Mouvement Utopia-CommonsPolis-Institut de recherche et débat sur la gouvernance, December 2017, Paris.

[4Angela María Osorio Méndez (Asilo - Naples, Italy), Feminisation of politics: equality is much more than quota, Fearless Cities Belgrade (Serbia) , 7-9 June 2019.

[5Democratic confederalism was theorised by Abdullah Öcalan (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), who was deeply inspired by Murray Bookchin, the theorist of libertarian municipalism, with whom he exchanged letters for many years.

[6“Ten cities ask EU for help to fight Airbnb expansion”, The Guardian, 20 June 2019.

[7ANVITA: Association nationale des villes et territoires accueillants (National Association of Welcoming Cities and Territories).

[8Un pied dans l’institution et des milliers en dehors : le municipalisme comme force politique trans-européenne en consolidation, reflections on the Fearless Cities meeting in Belgrade (Serbia), Elisabeth Dau, June 2019.


This article has been adapted from the preface to Guide du municipalisme. Pour une ville citoyenne, apaisée et ouverte, Editions Charles Léopold Mayer.

Elisabeth Dau is the research director of the “Municipalism, Territories and Transitions” programme of the Utopia Movement (citizen cooperative for popular education) and CommonsPolis (Spanish think- and do-tank). She is an expert in democratic governance and holds degrees in law and public administration. Charlotte Marchandise is deputy mayor of Rennes and was a citizen candidate in the 2017 presidential election (