RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019

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346 Experimental Recipes for a Radical Municipalism (2): overcoming barriers to experimentation
Affiliation Participatory Geographies Research Group
Urban Geography Research Group
Convenor(s) Matthew Thompson (University of Liverpool, UK)
Bertie Russell (University of Sheffield, UK)
Chair(s) Matthew Thompson (University of Liverpool, UK)
Timetable Friday 30 August 2019, Session 2 (11:10 - 12:50)
Room Huxley Building, Room 340
Session abstract In June 2017 Barcelona hosted ‘Fearless Cities’, the first gathering of an embryonic global movement dubbed ‘new’ or ‘radical municipalism’. From Rosario, Argentina to Jackson, Mississippi, these initiatives see activists developing strategic approaches to municipal institutions with the aim of transforming urban-economic governance in resistance to growing inequalities, democratic deficits and social injustice. This builds on a long and ideologically-diverse history of municipalism(s) – from pre-Westphalian city-states; through paternalistic ‘gas-and-water’ municipalism of nineteenth-century English local authorities and their turn, in the 1980s, to New Left municipal socialism; to Marxist, anarchist and feminist thinking on federalism (Kropotkin), libertarian municipalism (Bookchin), right to the city (Lefebvre) and commoning (Federici).

What is arguably ‘new’ – and ‘radical’ – about the present moment is the geographical breadth and speed of replication of comparable experiments worldwide; their shared vision to ‘feminize’ decision-making processes; the blurring of state/civil-society boundaries; the decentring-without-jettisoning of the state in theories of social change; an emerging politics of scale that challenges conventional hierarchical interpretations; and the radical democratization of urban economies through co-operatives, commons and re-municipalisation.

This session aims to inspire critical debate and discussion of movement-relevant research and action concerning radical municipalism – oriented towards activists, practitioners and policymakers as well as researchers. The session format begins with a roundtable discussion, with presentations limited to 10 minutes to allow more time for dialogue amongst all participants/collaborators in the room. Principal contributions must pose a genuine question/provocation – a real uncertainty that presents challenges both for the contributor and for municipalist movements – which will be shared and openly discussed. The aim is to galvanize new thought, action and collaborations, through exploratory questioning, rather than find definitive answers.
Linked Sessions Experimental Recipes for a Radical Municipalism (1): local state capacities and appetite for democracy
Experimental Recipes for a Radical Municipalism (3): Scaling up urban commons
Experimental Recipes for a Radical Municipalism (4): New Municipalist Horizons
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: ac2019@rgs.org
Barriers to municipal democracy – how do we tackle the power of big finance?
Fanny Malinen (Research for Action, UK)
The rising new wave of municipalism is introducing groundbreaking tools to improve local democracy. From multireferenda to citizens' assemblies, residents are included in decision-making on how to solve local issues and share common resources. But those resources are often limited. A decade on from the financial crisis, austerity has become the new normal. With declining public spending, democratic decision-making and accountability are also eroded, as financial decisions are increasingly being made as administrative. One of the processes furthering this drive has been the increasing indebtedness of councils to private sector finance. Local authorities in many European countries have been encouraged to take on bank loans and embark on public-private partnerships. The interests of the financial sector are often enshrined in law, marking the limits of democratic decision-making: councils have little choice but to prioritise debt repayments even when in means cutting essential services to residents.

Hence I argue that the extent to which municipalists can govern in residents' interests is severely restricted if we do not challenge the financialisation that is draining public resources. Through examining case studies from the UK and the Spanish state, I invite us to explore how we can overcome the debt impediment and expand the reach of new democratic processes.
What are the barriers to radical municipal experiments in the UK?
Alessio Kolioulis (University College London, UK)
Across Europe, traditional social-democratic parties are almost extinct. A new political landscape confront left parties in France, Italy, Germany, Greece and Spain. The rise of movement parties such as the Five Star Movement in Italy, DiEM25 in Europe, or the Gilet Jaunes in France signal the reconfiguration of politics and how these movements organise. In the UK, however, the Labour Party managed to revitalize itself with the integration of Corbyn’s Momentum in the structure of the organisation.

This intervention aims to open a debate about the bottlenecks that radical municipal experiments face in the UK. It will do so by understanding whether the presence of strong social democratic parties constitute a barrier for social movements: or, on the other hand, if social movements are stronger where traditional left parties have failed to demand radical change. The intervention will focus on two case studies: Labour’s current formulation of municipal socialism and the lack of autonomous organisations and citizens’ organisations in the UK willing to experiment with electoral politics.
Urban Law and Translocal Politics: Reimagining Enterprise, Ownership and Democracy in the City
Bronwen Morgan (University of New South Wales, Australia)
Amelia Thorpe (University of New South Wales, Australia)
The current moment is characterised by a wide range of dispersed, small-scale initiatives and practices at grass-roots level which challenge mainstream conceptions of liberal markets and their relationship to democratic politics. Some of the most interesting of these go beyond challenge and protest and seek to build alternative institutions and practices, often at the city scale. This constructive work is shaped in important ways by urban law: the range of rules and practices through which urban areas are regulated, from national and international laws to local bylaws and everyday interpretations on the ground.

Drawing on our prior separate empirical work on DIY urbanism and platform cooperativism in Australia, the UK, the US and Canada, we ask: can the invocation of, and struggle over, urban law in relation to DIY urbanism and platform cooperativism help to institutionalise radical municipalism?
Our response draws on the notion that the scale and sites of urban law help to excavate a politics-in-the-making that has three distinctive characteristics:
● collective and yet not communal/community-focused, but rather focused on collective action to preserve autonomy
● an attachment to place and locality that is orthogonal to national identity or even to specific social identities or static notions of belonging
● non-ideological and yet not apolitical – ‘conjunctural’
These characteristics cut across the grain of assumptions underpinning the political categories that tend to dominate national and international scales. They also work against the notion of a return to protectionist parochiality: the possibilities of cooperation/replication across cities make these urban experiments potentially ‘bottom-up’ yet more than local.

The paper explores these general claims by examining the way in which DIY urbanism reconfigures understandings of property and belonging, platform cooperativism reimagines enterprise, and both reshape the mainstream associations of ownership and citizenship. Working across conventional sectors, diverse initiatives from these settings in transport, food and energy invoke and provoke urban law in ways that reshape assumptions about democratic ideas of ‘the people’ and ‘the city’, and economic ideas of ‘the market’. More specifically, we explore the potential for urban law to provide a site for deploying power and allocating resources to projects and actors that are collective, political and place-based, yet do not seek to advance specific ideologies, static national or social identities but rather to preserve local autonomy in ways that nurture translocal replication and mimicry of radical municipal strategies.
Counter-politicization, identity, and memory: the case of water remunicipalization in Barcelona
Lucia Alexandra Popartan (University of Girona and Cetaqua, Spain)
Water remunicipalizations have been a flagship project of the new municipalist governments in Spain, emerged after the 2015 elections as result of the institutionalization of the 2011 ‘urban rebellions’. The politicization of water in these cities has informed theoretical reflections over the possibility to enact a counter-hegemonic shift away from the ‘post-political’ water management (Bakker, 2013, Beveridge et al 2014). However, the existing literature on the matter deals predominantly with the social movements, overlooking the complexity of the reactions of economic, neoliberal agents (McDonald, 2018). This paper examines the remunicipalization of water in Barcelona, through critical discourse analysis (E. Laclau 2005). It aims to clarify the discursive-rhetorical construction of the identities of the Barcelona en Comú (BEC), the municipalist platform in power, and Agbar, the private company managing water, concerning the question of water. These opposed actors, in the struggle for hegemony, are in a paradoxical dialectics: the relation between them involves the populist construction of the “other” as “enemy” yet also implicit borrowings and mutual influences. While the BEC has largely adopted a strategy of exclusion-as-othering of the “elite”, Agbar as an economic agent has developed a multidimensional strategy of exclusion-through-incorporation of the democratic rhetoric of the BCE; moreover, it has developed a narrative of identity and memory that goes well beyond the narrow economic discursive logic of legitimation. What are the implications of this complex process for the emancipatory possibilities of radical municipalist movements and their battle for the democratic imagination?