RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2019

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381 Experimental Recipes for a Radical Municipalism (3): Scaling up urban commons
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 3 (14:40 - 16:20)
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 (2): overcoming barriers to experimentation
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
Misperceiving autonomy: analysis of the relationships between Urban Commons and the (local) State in Barcelona
Iolanda Bianchi (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain)
Over recent years, Urban Commons have emerged as a new paradigm in the post-Marxism urban studies vocabulary to develop alternative and autonomous spaces from the State and the Market that could draw a path of emancipation from capitalism. However, the same Urban Commons literature recognises that they cannot be entirely autonomous, as they have to relate with many other forms of ownership and governments. This paper investigates the relationships that Urban Commons have to maintain with the (local) State to understand to what extent they are needed for the maintenance of Urban Commons over time. The analysis is set in the urban context of Barcelona. The paper presents the results of 101 responses to a survey that has been carried out among 428 Urban Commons: self-managed spaces, social and cooperative economic practices, community-based economic practices and reclaiming practices. The survey aims to illustrate the relationships that UCs maintain with the Barcelona City Council especially in economic and proprietary terms and to illustrate how the UCs perceive these relationships. The result of the survey shows that Urban Commons perceive themselves as more autonomous of what they actually are, as they rely on economic and proprietary resources of the City Council. This does not mean that their self-governing capacity is necessarily affected. Nevertheless, the (local) State’s support does not have to be underestimated, as the latter does have the possibility to decide whether an Urban Commons can exist or not in the space of the city.
Reimagining the political possibility of the urban: self-government as a means and end of radical municipalism
Ross Beveridge (University of Glasgow, UK)
Philippe Koch (Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Switzerland)
In this paper we offer one perspective on the political possibilities of the urban in the present conjuncture of urbanisation. More precisely, we clarify what we understand as the specific urban horizon of everyday practices of politics observable in cities across the globe – such as squatting, co-housing, alternative economic systems, etc. We assert that a specifically urban way of being political is emergent, one less concerned with the state and issues of sovereignty that the state assumes but rather with local self-government as a means and end of radical municipalism. From this we consider the progressive potential of these practices, especially how they are related to and might transform governing formations of the state at all scales. This line of reasoning is illuminated with reference to an exemplary case of squatting in Zurich, which we contrast with other experiences of squatting in European cities. The empirical vignettes reveal in detail how a progressive discourse on the right to housing can challenge state practices and institutions that are in place mainly to secure private property. The Zurich case indicates how the practice of squatting is always already intertwined with state polices at different scales. Further it shows how a conflict between housing activists, the state and capital permeates the state itself and subsequently plays out between different scales of government and different agencies within the city government. During this process, unexpected alliances within state formations emerged around the shared idea -albeit based for different reasons- to tolerate squats as autonomous and self-governed social spaces, at least temporarily. We read these alliances as seeds of a radical municipalism striving for self-government and for de-centered governance formations.
The Role of Municipal Politics in (Re)producing Commons: A Study of Can Batlló, an Urban Commons in the City of Barcelona
Santiago Leyva Del Rio (Birkbeck, University of London, UK)
This presentation contributes to current debates which revolve around the new role of municipal politics when it comes to inciting and reinforcing the commons and politics of everyday life. In so doing, it focuses on an urban commons, Can Batlló, located in the city of Barcelona; particularly, on its potential to cultivate collective, emancipatory subjectivities and forms of direct, participatory democracy. I intend to shed some light on how a commons is created, reproduced and defended, and what can be learned from this. Can Batlló is a former industrial complex and currently hosts a myriad of self-managed reproductive and productive activities. This initiative was devised as a response to a crisis of social reproduction triggered by the 2007-8 crisis, and it drew on the experience of the Indignados Movement. This space has become a blueprint for a new political model of management proposed by activists and supported by the current Barcelona local government, which has provided the grassroots movement around Can Batlló with some resources. The spirit of the project is grounded in "deprivatising" the public sector from market dynamics, not only through traditional means, i.e. lobbying political representatives, but also by involving local governments in self-managed initiatives predicated on people’s everyday engagement. The goal of this presentation is to make visible the mechanisms, and relationships/frictions with other spheres (the state and capitalist markets) whereby decommodified spaces, emancipatory subjectivities and forms of participatory democracy are (re)produced. I plan to do this in a critical way, that is, by showing the gaps and contradictions between the theoretical spirit of these projects and their praxis when it comes to issues such as exclusionary borders, autonomy from the state and limitations in terms of expansion/proliferation.
Public Commons Partnerships and the UK Labour Party’s Institutional Turn
Keir Milburn (University of Leicester, UK)
Bertie Russell (University of Sheffield, UK)
Over the last twelve months discussion of municipal socialism has exploded in the UK. This is due, in large part, to the example of Preston council who have been developing a program of community wealth building. These experiments have been inspired by the “Cleveland Model” and have inspired other UK local authorities in turn. Even more surprisingly they have also become central to the search for a new political economy to guide the Corbyn project. Particularly influential in this regard has been a widely discussed article “The Institutional turn” by Joe Guinan and Martin Oneill, which reads recent municipalist experiments alongside thinking such as the John McDonnell initiated Alternative Models of Ownership report to posit institutional reform as the central component of a Corbynite “programme of fundamental change” capable of producing a “transformational shift” in our societies. In this paper, we ask what direction such institutional reform should go. If neoliberals wanted to transform the institutions of economic and social life so that they demand individuals behave as individualistic self-maximisers. We argue that the Left needs to commit to the commoning of our institutions so that they engender collective and solidaristic behaviour. We then offer the concept of Public Commons Partnerships as a mechanism to enact such a strategy while allowing the community wealth building tradition to take on the lessons of the European municipalist experiments of the last few years.