First the City, then the World!
First the City, then the World!
by: Marianela D’Aprile and Keefer Dunn
For this issue of Lumpen Magazine, we turn a critical and hopeful eye to the concept of Municipalismo, taking cues from its successes in both organizing for and gaining power. Drawing from our experiences as architects involved in political and union organizing, we break down the lessons we can learn from Municipalismo, as well how we might expand each of them to build a movement so strongly rooted in local communities that its branches can reach out internationally.
Changes in political economy always indelibly transform the infrastructure of a city. These transformations are spurred by the requirements of exchange, which present themselves as rational and self-evident needs on the micro-scale. The contemporary city illustrates the effects of neoliberalism with itinerant spaces of deep poverty, mass consumption, and ultra-luxury. The disparities visible from neighborhood to neighborhood are a kind of perverse symbiosis bracketed in the urban and architectural “fallout of modernity” architect Rem Koolhaas has termed “Junkspace,” a concept as slippery as what is seeks to describe. In essence, the term is a reference to the way the wonders of human achievement are endlessly emptied of their potential and turned into the consumable, chintzy, stuff that makes up our environment and spaces. Junkspace isn’t necessarily the intentional result of a concerted project of capitalism but rather the precipitate of a set of naturalized ideological pressures.
This precipitate has real effects. Junkspace, born of neoliberal market-fetishization, presents the world as endlessly plastic, making the deep and adherent relational ties central to political organizing nearly impossible to constitute. In a shallow recognizance of this problem, recent years have seen many knee-jerk attempts to create Junkspace alternatives that are friendly to development. Projects like the Highline and the 606 Trail attempt to bring a kind of “slowness” and “intentionality” to spaces otherwise associated with the industry, while on a smaller scale things like “parklets” lazily attempt to transform everyday practical spaces (parking spots, in this case) into something else, with the promise of a different social experience.
But we know that capitalism is an inherently alienating world order: no cutesy bench with succulent planters can undo that. Rather than encouraging and fostering interpersonal relationships, capitalismo splinters them, because it requires each individual to focus on her own survival in a system inherently ordered to exploit her. It’s no surprise that community-based organizing, which bears the promise of reconstituting community ties broken by capitalist hegemony, is emotionally compelling to so many, especially those living in urban centers.
Municipalismo emerged as a form of community-based organizing, and proposes that we can rebuild our capacity to fight back by limiting the scope of our work to the borders of cities. By taking advantage of existing institutions—churches, community centers and neighborhood associations—and the interpersonal relationships therein, Municipalismo builds networks of participatory community power, held together by strong bonds of cultural affinity and solidarity. Through this process, spaces of opposition are defined and reproduced at the scale of the neighborhood.
The premise on which Municipalismo operates—that in order to pose a real challenge to existing systems of power, citizens can organize on the basis of the relationships and structures that already dictate their day-to-day lives—is neither foreign nor new. In fact, many of the tactics that make this kind of organizing possible are the same ones that union and community organizers have used for decades in the U.S. and worldwide. The key difference, and this is both the draw of Municipalismo but also its potential weakness, is that the scope of organizing is limited to the confines of the city, effectively characterizing the city itself as an alternative space free from the confines of the market or negative political tendencies and ideologies.
But there is no outside. It is not possible to separate the city from the extraction of resources and systems of exchange at the regional and global scale, even if those do converge in downtowns. This entanglement has made the work of reconstituting social relationships particularly difficult. Many of these relationships have suffered a kind of bubblegum effect—stretched from their origin beyond recognition but stuck to it nonetheless. Increasingly, the block-party has given way to the competition of keeping-up-with-the-Jonses. Other relationships have shriveled and withered—maybe you’ve stopped seeing your bus driver because you’ve started ride-sharing to work. But if we’re going to do the work of building democracy, we have to find these relationships in the places and spaces where they surge: in the workplace, at the corner store, between two strangers sharing a table in a coffee shop because it was next to the power outlet.
One must start somewhere. Using the city as the delimiting factor to organizing—minimizing the scale of the fight—brings these interpersonal relationships into clearer focus at the same time that it makes the goal of a seat in the local government seem winnable. Having a visible finish line makes it easier to get started. But aside from organizing within its geographical confines, how can Municipalismo and other localist movements engage with the physical, lived space of the city?
Left activists have long tried to counter the hegemony of capitalist space (which is to say, all space) by attempting to denaturalize it. In recent memory, this has meant the Temporary Autonomous Zones of anarchist philosophy and the seizing of space during the Occupy movement, as well as the mass protests that subsumed cities as part of the anti-globalization movement and in the immediate aftermath of Trump. In any of these instances, exactly what levers of power are being pushed remain unclear. The endgame seems to be the creation of a space separate enough from the everyday horrors of living in a society premised on extreme inequity—a shining city on the hill separate from the horrors of capital—a city so bright its light will draw the masses to its example.
It’s precisely this emphasis on perfomativity and spectacle that limits the success of these movements to a generalized cultural awareness and normalization of dissent. This is meaningful but ultimately not transformative in and of itself. The configuration of space in the capitalist city tends towards exactly this kind of performance and is equally accommodating of spectacle, be it a billboard or a protest—left, right, or otherwise. In more concrete terms, the central business districts of cities across the world are symbols of all the things we might stand against—politicians who don’t work for the interest of the people, the offices of bankers and other agents of the bourgeoisie—and therefore they might seem like the proper place to mount a resistance. However, given the advancement of technology, the actual economic function politicians and bankers have (coordinating and siphoning dollars from a system of global trade and extraction) has very little to do with place—or at least the place of steel and glass towers that are the symbols par-excellence of neoliberalism.
As Matt Taibbi has said, finance capital is a “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Its tentacles extend into workplaces, city councils, and communities everywhere. For the left, these are the places where we can build power and stem the suck of resources upward. These are precisely the sites where our activities as workers and citizens intersect with broad and opaque systems of power. For this reason, Muncipalismo offers a better strategy relative to the recent paradigm of performativity in the left, by translating the will of the masses into a reclamation of the right to the city through winning political power. While there are still limits to what left local governance can achieve (see the history of the Milwaukee Sewer Socialists), local power can effectively stymy elite interests and become an important stepping stone towards building a movement capable of winning a truly emancipatory society and economy—not least because it prepares us, the people, to govern even more broadly.
Beyond this kind of rehearsal of governance, what can Municipalist movements do once they win a place in local government? This is where we see the potential for localist movements to take a cue from workplace and union organizing. The difference between workplace organizing and Municipalist community organizing lies in their end-goals. While the former always leverages labor power to win specific, material gains—a contract renegotiation to demand a raise, for example—the latter focuses the potential of organized communities to win local government elections. In other words, Municipalismo often takes the seizing of formalized power as the end rather than the means.
The reason that it’s often easier for localist movements to win seats in government (symbolic power) rather than to win material demands for their constituents (real power) is that they organize people based on bonds that surge in the spaces of cultural performance we’ve previously described—places where people of like minds get together to act out this like-mindedness. But while the people there are undoubtedly and importantly like-minded in their ideology, they might not be as attuned to the material conditions that bind them in the same way that workers on a factory floor (or in an office, for that matter) are. In spaces where people go for bread (the stuff that keeps us alive) or roses (the stuff that keeps us happy), it becomes much easier for people to see the ways in which capital denies both as well as the particular possibility of organizing to win something back by making real demands.
For many localist movements, there are no clear material wins—neither bread nor roses to be had. Rather, the wins are ephemeral—building community ties and a semblance of political power. While these are not insignificant, they do not constitute a truly revolutionary change in the order of things. In order to bring people of all kinds into the fold, any movement needs to clearly elucidate how power, once it is had, will be used to changing lives materially. In real terms this means rewriting local laws and codes to favor the majority over monied interests. Things like TIF districts in Chicago can be rewritten and retooled to provide resources to underserved communities, instead of being blank checks to developers seeking to put up another cheaply built mixed-use development sold on for a quick profit before the project literally falls apart.
Likewise, by shifting the emphasis of localism from away from creating a urban-scale world-apart onto an analysis of the ways in which cities are physically entangled in global economic networks (as scholars like Saskia Sassen have argued) it becomes possible to see how activists can hit elites where it hurts and thus build leverage to make more demands. In other words, activists can use the many tools at their disposal—city regulations, workplace strikes and union contracts, community pressure groups—to impact the flow of global trade routed through cities.
Consider that a significant percentage of this country’s freight travels by rail through Chicago city limits; oil tankers rumbling overtop of viaducts is a common sight on Chicago’s South and West Sides. The fact that hundreds of millions of dollars of crude oil coming from the far-away territory of the West roll freely above the rooftops of some of this country’s most systemically disadvantaged neighborhoods is an affront. It is easy to see how a coalition of community activists, environmentalists, local politicians properly representing the people’s interests, and the exploited workers operating these machines could emerge to win a greater piece of the pie by demanding excise taxes on hazardous goods traveling through the city or some similar mechanism.
In order to win, these groups would have to organize, coalesce their power, and leverage it through strikes and occupation, as well as apply the Municipalist strategy of putting people with the interests of the community in power. While such an action would necessarily have to be orchestrated at the scale of and within the physical confines of the city, its impact would surely reach outside of its physical borders. This is where we see the potential for left organizers everywhere to expand on Municipalismo’s playbook. If we pay increased attention to both the physical conditions of the city as well as to the more abstract ways in which cities are connected to global economic networks, we can organize within them to both seize formalized power and leverage the power already present in workplaces and communities, to get real, material wins for people in cities and beyond.
In spite of Trump’s election, or perhaps because of it, the newly resurgent left is in a position to accomplish all of these things. We have the ability now for the first time in decades to transcend performativity and Junkspace to go on the offensive. We can think—and win—global, even as we build local.
Photo by Keefer Dunn