Why is municipalism thriving?

By Norma Tiedemann

Since a few years, the radical left, party members and the manifold in-between around the world witness and take part in a considerable fuss around the concept of rebel cities and new municipalism. Thrilling promises keep being made: reinventing democracy, re-modelling institutions into structures for self-organization, overcoming national exclusions, building bridges into post-capitalism and so on. What is rarely dealt with is where this tide of municipalist fervor comes from and how it can be understood in the current phase of multiple crises.

Asking such questions could help not to fall into the often-observable oscillation between progressive euphoria and ‘left melancholy’ (Brown 1999, Bailey et al. 2018). They support a perspective that understands the emergence of municipalist projects to be entangled in the neoliberal rescaling of nation states. A bit more modesty when it comes to rebel cities should however not keep us from recognizing that something interesting is happening and that the density of exclusions and struggles in urban, local spaces might create room for subverting national representationism and institute new democratic practices.

Human activity deserves attention

There is no value in illusions about the radicalness of structural transformation that can be reached in municipalist projects. Compromises are inevitable whenever engaging on the field of struggle that is constituted by the complex of state apparatuses. Pushing such aspects aside because actually one is longing for the immediate implementation of societal emancipation, will only lead to another tale of how the left devoured its children and amplify a view of the state and legal institutions as nothing but anti-democratic, oppressive instruments. Thus, one should also not partake in the choir which claims that institutionalization per se implies that progressive elements are doomed, because history has proven this many times.[1]

History is not governed by iron laws. Human activity that is dissenting, resisting, contesting plays its part and deserves attention. We should be sincerely interested in what happens concretely whenever movements seek stabilization or greater political impact and that means to acknowledge that with municipalist projects, solidarity cities, progressive city councils or local workers’ cooperatives from Spain, to Italy, Germany, the UK, Argentina, the US, Croatia or Poland something interesting is happening that requires explication: Why is it that in so many dispersed localities the municipalist promise grasps imaginations? And is there something to be won in terms of social advancement?

Studying the municipalist instances tells us something about the nature of the politico-economic and social crisis of neoliberal capitalism and the corresponding changes in forms of states and political domination. Municipalism thrives because of the neoliberal rescaling of nation states and its multiple crises, where the dysfunctionality of routine patterns grows to an untenable extent and something must replace worn-out institutions (cf. Jaeggi 2015: 20).

Waging war against cities

In the crisis of neoliberalism, cracks within the ensembles of state apparatuses widen. On national and supranational levels a hardening and de-democratization of institutions can be sensed. Though there has never been perfect harmony among EU members, within the last years new dividing lines kept emerging and manifesting rapidly. When decisions are taken, it is by pushing them through in sometimes hasty, sometimes openly authoritarian ways against parliamentary (sub)national entities. In the USA, cities, states and the federal government have never been on the same track.

There have always been deviations and contradictions, but nowadays, e.g. when it comes to sanctuary cities, mayors sense a war being waged against them.[2] With material concessions having ceased to be the prime stabilizer for hegemonic rule subaltern interests are rarely considered. And those corridors decrease more and more while mounting repression is well underway. Police and legal tactics before and during G20 in Hamburg or the long-term application of emergency rule in France or Turkey illustrate this.

However, materialist state theory alerts us to not simplistically equate the state with the will of the dominant class or the unmediated political institutionalization of class domination. Instead, state apparatuses are fields of class struggle themselves. According to Poulantzas, the state cannot be straightforwardly deduced from the capitalist mode of production. This “idealist and voluntarist conception of the state, which identifies it with a ‘machine’ […] created solely for the purposes of domination by a class ‘will’ is utterly contrary to Marxist scientific analysis of the state” (2008: 75). Instead, its set-up, the ensemble of state apparatuses, the distribution of competences are the contingent outcomes of struggles and therefore specific to concrete space and time.

The (neoliberal) rearrangement of state apparatuses

In this line of research, a major focus has been the internationalization or Europeanisation of states while an engagement with subnational, specifically subregional levels is lacking. This however is required to fully understand the rivalries between differently scaled apparatuses. Only then it comes to the fore that dissent is growing on the municipal level against the decisions of nation-state executives, fuelled by the neoliberal rescaling of the state.

The dirty work of neoliberalization has been shifted to the urban level where the infrastructure of social reproduction (housing, education, mobility, job creation etc.) is supposed to be maintained without appropriate means to carry out such tasks. Whereas federal states or the central state can cut expenditures without immediate effects, this does not work at the local level, where the reduction of collective social infrastructures is felt by broad sections of society. The growing contradiction between entrepreneurial city management on the one hand and austerity urbanism on the other emphasizes the spatially uneven development of capitalism.

In local spaces, growing inequality is apparent. The gap between rich and poor does not have to be illustrated via the detour of statistics and numbers, but manifests in the built and daily experienced environment – feelings of dispossession and exclusion emerge more directly. But grievance alone cannot mobilize bodies and minds on a long-term basis. Every political and social movement has to spur people’s imagination of a better future. Therefore, it is a question of what kind of (plausible) imaginary can be put forward – whether it grasps the fears and desires of people.

A narration that works

In the multiple crisis of neoliberalism and its political forms, making the city a nodal point of mobilization and hope is exercised as a strategy of many different actors all over the globe. The new municipalisms function as a narration that binds together different disruptive bits. And the fact that this works is not arbitrary. Forms and contents of struggles are linked to rifts in political, economic and social constellations.

The kinds of outcome the crisis of neoliberalism and its ‘management’ were producing are reflected in the practices of resistance. An aggravating crisis of social reproduction, of representative democracy and a crisis of border regimes figured as central issues around which movements of the past years rallied – housing, borders, systematic and enlarging exclusion, social rights etc. The immediacy of the everyday, the concrete local space and local state apparatuses became central points of reference, and a locus of contestation.

This local “instituting on the threshold” (Salvini 2016) or its strategic targeting are frequently overlooked or too quickly subsumed under the path of institutionalization as taken by e.g. Syriza and Podemos – its specificity and translocal character is then however not accounted for. The potential, which might prevent the melancholic perception that nothing can be changed anyways, lies in the de-construction of centralized, authoritarian nation states, opening up room for maneuver.

The city and local space overflow and subvert the undercomplex and overdetermined concept of nation states in everyday informal practices. This might find institutional expression in municipalist projects. The feminization of politics, urban citizenship, neighborhood-based organizing, squats and social centers stretch and redefine the boundaries of the political. However, the local state is still a constitutive element of the capitalist state and with more resistant self-organizing in and around institutions, opposing forces at other scales with considerable legal and financial resources grow as well.

Instead of euphorical outbursts, we should thus analyze what is happening in, among and in-between the municipalist projects of today, supporting the emancipatory potentials, but not fool ourselves about the current relationship of forces to be confronted on national, European and global scales.

The articel was first published in engagée #6/7 “Radical Cities”.



Baily, David/Clua-Losada, Mònica/Huke, Nikolai and Ribera-Almandoz, Olatz, eds. (2018): Beyond Defeat and Austerity. Disrupting (the Critical Political Economy of) Neoliberal Europe. Abingdon: Routledge.

Brown, Wendy (1999): Resisting Left Melancholy. In: boundary 2, 26(3), 19-27.

Delclós, Carlos (2017): We want to welcome! Barcelona demands open borders for refugees, 22.02.2017. In: ROAR Magazine. https://roarmag.org/essays/barcelona-refugee-solidarity-protest/, hit: 20.11.2017.

Edelman, Adam (2017): Spurred by Trump, States Battle Sanctuary Cities. 07.08.2017. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/immigration/spurred-trump-states-battle-sanctuary-cities-n787651, hit: 17.11.2017.

Jaeggi, Rahel (2015): ‘Objektive Kritik’ und Krise. Überlegungen zu einer materialistischen Grundlegung von Sozialkritik. In: Dirk Martin et al. (eds.), Perspektiven und Konstellationen kritischer Theorie, Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 14-28.

Poulantzas, Nicos (2008): The Poulantzas Reader. London: verso.

Salvini, Francesco (2016). Instituting on the threshold. In: Monster Municipalisms. Transversal journal 09/2016, http://transversal.at/transversal/0916/salvini/en, hit: 20.11.2017.


[1] Though of course the disappointments of social movements and marginalized groups regarding their city governments must be taken seriously, e.g. in the case of Barcelona En Comú’s approach to migrants living in the city (cf. Delclós 2017).

[2] “It really feels like they’re waging war, that there’s a war on cities happening in this country and right here in this state”, Austin Mayor Steve Adler, quoted in Edelman (2017).

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