Urban alternatives, to what degree? Parallelisms between Commons and Municipalism

Written by Iolanda Bianchi . Originally published in Spatial Justice and the Commons (Istanbul: Centre for Spatial Justice, 2019).

Over recent years, two concepts have been widely used in the urban studies vocabulary to generate and unify the multiform and variegated antagonistic activities that “express a dissent and a rupture with the current order of things” (Ranciere, 1998).The first is the concept of Commons. This concept has been employed mostly by social movement activists to defend all those goods, resources and public services that have been privatized and commodified by neoliberal policies, and to propose an alternative form of their organization and management. The second concept is the concept of Municipalism. It has been employed by both social movement activists and radical left-wing politicians to reclaim local government as a scale of action where both they can build a shared political realm through citizens’ participation and empowerment. This brief contribution aims to show the conceptual and, therefore, operational proximity of these two ideas, and then show the conceptual and operational proximity of their limits. Firstly, I will introduce the concept of the Commons and Municipalism. Secondly, I will explore the shared theoretical underpinnings of both concepts as well as the shared criticism. I will conclude suggesting that these concepts should theoretically and empirically deal with their own limitations to become effective urban alternatives.

Over the last decade, the concept of Commons has evolved far from its early theorization and has assumed a strong political connotation. In the beginning, in the new-institutionalist approach of Elinor Ostrom (1933-2012), the Commons were those resources, both material and immaterial, that were managed collectively (Ostrom, 1990; Hess and Ostrom, 2007). Ostrom’s case studies range from irrigation systems, high mountain meadows, to groundwater basins and inshore fisheries. This approach aimed to dismantle the orthodox models of collective action to show that other forms of organization were feasible beyond the public form of the state and the market form of private enterprise. This contribution did not aim to criticize or challenge the dominant economic logic. According to Ostrom, collectively managed resources are part of the capitalist economy where they are used as inputs in the production process or as commodities to be sold according to competitive market rules. However, benefiting from this space of opportunity that the neo-institutionalist approach had opened between the state and the market, the concept of Commons was taken up by many critical scholars. They have transformed it into the means to outline a possible process of emancipation.

In this literature, the Commons are not understood as a mere resource that is collectively managed. The Commons are a social relation between a social group and a resource, material or immaterial, which is crucial for the life and livelihood of the social group (Harvey, 2012). In order to be truly emancipatory, the relation between the members of the social group must be as horizontal as possible, as well as its decision-making process, while the relation between the social group and the resource must imply a non-commodification of the resource (De Angelis, 2003; Mattei, 2011; Harvey, 2012; Federici and Caffentzis, 2013). However, it is the crucial nature of the social relation that contains the truly emancipatory force. This crucial nature shifts the concept of Commons to a place of collective need and becomes the reason why social groups have to collectively reclaim or self-produce those resources, and defend them against any form of privatization. Through this understanding, the concept of Commons expands the range of initiatives that used to go under this name, including social movements, solidarity and cooperative economic practices, community-based economic practices, self- managed buildings and public spaces.

The Municipalist theory has also moved away from its original conceptualizations, although it seems that it went in the opposite direction to that of the Commons. If the concept of Commons re-emerged mainly within a more orthodox political vocabulary and then has been used within a more insurgent one, the opposite is true for the term Municipalism. The latter develops mainly within the field of anarchism and libertarian socialism thanks to the contribution of Murry Bookchin (1921-2006). The objective of Bookchin’s work was to revitalize the debate in these two ideological fields through a concrete political proposal that did include the question of present and future organization. He proposes Libertarian Municipalism as a means and objective of political action that hinges on the principle of direct democracy (Bookchin, 1998). This form of democracy is practiced through city-based assemblies, which can be structured in a confederate form. Through the active political participation of citizens and their empowerment, Libertarian Municipalism, would erode the power of the state, without seizing it, and bring it back into the hands of ordinary citizens. However, over the last few years, the anarcho-libertarian idea of Municipalism has been increasingly used by critical political scientists to seek to dissolve the political boundary between the local administration and social movements in the city.

In this literature, Municipalism interprets the local government as a privileged scale where it is possible to produce changes and develop political alternatives that are not possible elsewhere, especially at the national-state level. According to various authors who have reflected on the political potentialities of the local scale, an urban alternative cannot be built without taking into consideration the institutional space. It cannot be dismissed but must be changed (Blanco and Gomá, 2016). Municipalism implies a reformulation of local governance in which the main decision-making centre and welfare producer is no longer the public administration but is the participatory space that is created between the administration, and community-based organizations and social movements. Municipalism, therefore, implies a new city-based articulation between the different left-wing actors hinged on the principle of collective co- responsibility, where this becomes a radical and socially autonomous response to neoliberal policies and global austerity measures (Subirats, 2016). Cases of Municipalism mentioned by these authors are the different citizen-based political platforms that in May 2013 conquered the government of many Spanish cities, such as “Ahora Madrid” or “Barcelona en Comú”.

But where does the theory of the Commons meet the theory of Municipalism? What are their shared theoretical underpinnings and criticisms?

Firstly, both theories emerge from distrust in the action of the state, especially following the implementation of neoliberal policies that, despite the 2007-8 crisis, seem unstoppable. The Commons arise from a lack of confidence in all the state apparatus and all its scales of government. Their goal is to create a path of emancipation without seizing the state and autonomously from it. Municipalism arises from distrust of the nation-state that, being wholly immersed in the neoliberal governance and having ceded decision-making power to other institutional scales, does not seem to be able to produce an alternative to the dominant policies.

Secondly, both theories aim to reclaim the control of crucial aspects that directly influence citizens’ lives and that, currently, seem to have been pulled away from their control to end up in the hands of political or economic elites. The Commons seek to reclaim to citizen control fundamental resources, such as water, housing, community facilities, but also information and data. Municipalism seeks to take back the whole space of the government of the city and its institutions. Reclaiming the control of these crucial aspects – resources and local institutions – responds to the necessity to be part of their management and government.

Thirdly, both theories transform cooperation into a necessary working principle against the atomization of lives within globalized individualism. The Commons do it by re-articulating the relations among the social group’s members that manage the resource. Municipalism does it by re-articulating the relation between citizens and public institutions. Cooperation between the two is fundamental to strengthen their mutual trust and to enhance participatory public planning and policies. This cooperation, based on reciprocity and solidarity, allows the social group to strengthen collective identities and struggles.

Fourthly, both theories establish a specific territory of action, which is the territory of proximity, against the imposed global interdependency. The Commons set it at the community scale with the aim to create new community-based institutions hinged on reciprocity and non-commodified relations. Municipalism sets it at the city scale with the aim to create political institutions open to social actor participation and engagement. In both cases, the proximity of the community and of the city become the space to move beyond the paradigm of representative democracy and experiment new self-governing forms.

In other words, both concepts focus on the construction of new institutionalities by creating new ones at the margin of the traditional ones, in the case of the Commons, and by reshaping the old traditional ones, in the case of Municipalism. In both cases, the two institutionalities are based on the principles of cooperation, proximity and self-government. However, if the concept of the Commons and Municipalism are built on a shared ground that helps to redefine the relation with the possible and outline processes of emancipation, some limits can be found on the same shared ground.

Indeed, the first shared limit is represented by their socio-spatial finitude. Focusing on the socio-spatial unit of the community, in the case of the Commons, and focusing on the socio-spatial unit of the city, in the case of Municipalism, may foster a form of unequal emancipation, based on the social homogeneity and limited within the boundaries of the corresponding unit. In this sense, both the Commons and the Municipalism could become a new form of elitist enclosure, outside which the production and reproduction of the inequalities given by the neoliberal capitalist regime could increase rather than decrease (Harvey, 2012). An example of the elitism of the Commons is demonstrated by the results of a research study that has cross-checked the map of social innovation practices with that of urban segregation, in the Catalan region. From the data, it has emerged that most of these initiatives are located in middle-income areas with significant levels of social mix and with a strong tradition of social mobilization (Cruz, Martínez Moreno and Blanco, 2017). An example of municipal elitism is shown by the electoral results in different Western political contexts. Trump’s victory and the Leave vote of the Brexit referendum are the expression of the electoral will of the non-urban areas that in this way mark their distance with respect to the urban ones (Rossi, 2018).

From a theoretical perspective, this finitude has been taken into consideration and attempts have been made in order to overcome it. In the case of the Commons it has been said that in order to be truly emancipatory, these initiatives should be porous and overstep the boundaries of their community (Stavrides, 2016); in the case of Municipalism it has been said that urban policies cannot be only local and that have to incorporate multilevel dimensions and logics (Subirats, 2016). Certainly, even though providing theoretical responses to this limit is fundamental, from an empirical perspective, the question of how to operationalize the breakup of the socio-spatial finitude still deserve further discussion.

The second limit is represented by the temporal finitude. The temporality of the Commons is linked to the fact that these community-based initiatives are extremely precarious. They often develop on the margins of legality and formality, like the different housing and cultural occupations, and therefore their existence depends on the owners and local administrations’ decision to tolerate them; often they cannot rely on self-sufficient economic models, they are based on precarious funding and they rely on the voluntary work of the members of the social group; they often do not own the spaces where they are located, finding themselves at the mercy of real estate speculation (Bianchi, 2018). The temporality of Municipalism depends on the fact that this political project is linked to political cycles whose continuity is not guaranteed. Firstly, it is linked to a precise historical conjuncture, the current one, in which cities seem to acquire a leading role compared to other government scales, especially the national one (Le Galès, 2006). Secondly, it is linked to the protest cycle represented by the post-crisis urban uprising that has found in the urban space a form of institutionalization through the creation of different citizen- based political platforms, such as in the Spanish cases (Mayer, Thörn and Thörn, 2016). However, although the temporal finitude of both Commons and Municipalism is a significant issue, there is still a scarcity of contribution that reflects on it from the theoretical and empirical terms.

To summarize, in the last few years, the theory of Commons and Municipalism have emerged as two urban alternatives for antagonist political actors. By reclaiming the management of crucial resources, in the case of the Commons, and the space of the government of the city, in the case of Municipalism, with the aim of creating new hybrid and participatory institutions, both concepts are contributing for politics to occur. According to Ranciere, “politics occurs because, or when, the natural order of the shepherd kings, the warlords, or property owners is interrupted by a freedom that crops up and makes real the ultimate equality on which any social order rests”. However, for this interruption to not be contingent and not to become a double-edged sword, both these theories must come to terms with their own limits, that is, the socio-spatial and temporal finitude. Only through the theoretical and empirical questioning of these concepts, they would be able to re-signify the vocabulary of urban alternatives.

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May 21, 2024

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