It feels as if we are entering a new phase of the political cycle that started with the Great Recession of 2008 and was followed by the historic social turmoil of 2011; from the Arab Spring, to the May 15 movement in Spain and Occupy in the US. Together, these movements gave birth to new political phenomena that were to leave their mark on the political landscape for years to come.
In Europe, this was represented by the rise of Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, with both parties booking major successes in the 2014 European elections and the latter winning the national elections in Greece a year later. A new municipalist movement emerged in Spain in 2015, resulting in civic platforms taking power in major urban centers and dozens of towns. Almost every European country, from Portugal and Slovenia to the Czech Republic and Poland, witnessed the emergence of new types of leftist parties. Throughout the continent urban movements multiplied, many following the Spanish success. A political experiment in the form of a European-wide party took shape in DiEM25, and the leftist faction of the UK Labour Party was revived.
These parties and movements all stem from different political backgrounds and contexts, and although they sometimes differ significantly, each was a manifestation of the “specter of emancipation” that has haunted the world for the past decade.
These are all examples of what can be called a new politics, where the idea of emancipation is key and where people are subjects and not objects of public matters, unlike in traditional liberal democracies. According to Nancy Fraser, the past decade shows the dissemination of emancipatory movements that go beyond both the social justice and market freedom agendas of left and right wing politics. Talking about the left in particular, a similar argument is articulated by Chantal Mouffe in her book For a Left Populism, in which she argues that we are in the midst of a populist moment where “it is through the language of democracy that citizens can articulate their protests.”
This new politics wants emancipation, not just good policies. This strategy is different from the one of the traditional left that focused on either fighting capitalism along class lines (radical left) or on offering a technocratic solution to people’s problems (social democrats). Both Fraser and Mouffe stress that the post-2011 political cycle was characterized by demands for emancipation which questioned relations of subordination beyond class. New politics is politics where feminism, environmentalism, “real democracy” — as the 15M movement used to call it — public space, free culture and the commons take center stage in political discussions and are among the primary aims of political projects. People want to have a say in shaping their worlds and are not only interested in material welfare: they do not want someone else to decide how the common world is shaped, even if it improves their material conditions.
In recent years, however, this emancipatory push and its electoral manifestations have encountered insurmountable barriers and faced counterattacks from right-wing populists, authoritarian conservatives and neoliberals as well as traditional electoral leftists trying to retain their constituencies. Brexit, the illiberal governments in Hungary and Poland, the authoritarian regimes of Russia and Turkey, the rise of neofacist political formations in Greece, Italy and Spain, as well as nationalistic movements and parties in other parts of Europe and beyond represent a political backlash against the decade of emancipation. But more importantly, the emancipatory push met boring old politics and was seduced by it at times, adopting some of the more traditional political practices. So far, it has been unable to achieve its aim of generating new politics.
Whether this emancipatory cycle has now come to an end remains to be seen, with the prevalence of technocratic fixes in response to the COVID-19 crisis not boding well for the advocates of a more radically democratic politics. The main concern appears to be to avoid economic collapse, supporting big corporations and asking the general population to foot the bill. Even progressive policies, such as universal basic income or rent caps have been introduced from above, and not designed and implemented from below by those affected. Can people be subjects and not objects of politics in this context? How can they be treated as more than children?
We believe that the time has come to start to reflect on the successes and failures of the emancipatory political practices of the past decade in order to prepare ourselves for the struggles ahead. New politics is not simply about having new political actors, but also about developing a new political culture and understanding how it intertwines with the establishment of new institutions.
Some important lessons can be drawn from the new municipalist movement in Spain, where citizen platforms connected to the 15M movement won the 2015 local elections and governed dozens of cities and towns for four years before eventually losing most of them again in 2019. Barcelona is an exception, because the municipalist platform Barcelona en Comú continued to govern as a minority coalition partner in the city government.
Why new municipalism?
The hypothesis of this movement that aims at building political power from below is that, in addition to working from outside political institutions, it is also important to win elections; and that it is easier to gain electoral victories at the local level than at the state, national or European level.
In part, it is a matter of convenience to focus on the local. But at the same time, it is part of a broader vision of this kind of municipalism. The movement questions the possibility to democratize the nation state, as well as its abilities to tackle both problems at the global level and to deal with some of the concrete issues that affect people’s lives locally, such as access to food, housing or environmental disasters. It aims at building power from the bottom-up, changing politics, working in horizontal networks and blurring the boundaries between public institutions and the community.
This movement has become key to the development of a new emancipatory politics because at its core is a combination of several aims and practices: the demands and forms of social organizing found in the streets and the squares; the self-organized productive and reproductive collectives that are building alternatives from outside formal institutions; building broad and diverse confluences of political actors and activist; electoral politics; local governance; progressive agendas; democratizing political institutions and achieving broad political changes through translocal articulation.
What makes municipalism especially interesting is that it is well-positioned — compared to other kinds of new and old leftist political projects — to operate both inside and outside formal political institutions: building alternatives to mainstream capitalist logics, mobilizing on the streets and acting from within formal political institutions. It has the potential to bring the emancipatory spirit into institutional politics and to keep that connection alive. In addition, new municipalism aims at having an impact beyond the local level by scaling out instead of scaling up, thus taking emancipation beyond the local domain.
The political culture of municipalism
In order to understand the municipalist project, looking at its political culture — its values, discourses, practices and capacities — is key. This movement clearly represents the emancipatory goal of going beyond the traditional leftist agendas and questioning not only what politics does, but also how it is done. Generalizing about the political culture of a group, especially in the case of a movement as diverse as this one, is hard, but we believe it is still possible to find a few common elements.
The political culture of new municipalism is a democratic culture founded on civic — and not on economic or market — values. These value are focused on three core tenets: the feminization of politics, which stresses the dependence on reproductive activities, political ecology, emphasizing care for the natural environment, and participatory democracy, giving people a say in shaping their own world through political decision-making
A recent report on the feminization of politics shows how developing feminist ways of doing politics — far beyond gender balance — is key to the municipalist project. A feminized politics emphasizes the role of cooperation, the transformation of power relations and their effect on the formulation of a new type of political leadership, all founded on principles of participation and real democracy, diversity and intersectionality, care and nonviolence. This is clearly also an emancipatory political culture that goes beyond material issues.
Why was municipalism unable to implement new politics?
Municipalism manifests, to a certain extent, this new emancipatory political culture. And it does so to a greater extent, compared to other new political projects focused on the state level. In addition, it was able, at least in Spain, to generate some measure of new politics. But why was the municipalist movement unable to bring about any fundamental change in the way politics is practiced, even just at the local level? Why was it unable to sustain a new way of doing politics? What can we learn from these experiences in order not to make the same mistakes again?
The main reason for the municipalist let-down is that in some cases when municipalist platforms came to power, there was a cultural clash with the existing political institutions that embodied a neoliberal, hierarchical, bureaucratic, media-oriented, representation-based political culture. This threw up a barrier between representatives and ordinary people, treating the latter as the objects, rather than subjects of political practice. New municipalism faced the resistance of these logics, and at times succumbed to it.
In addition, there was another element that made it more difficult for the municipalist platforms to influence politics, and it is part of the same strategy that shaped the movement’s success in the first place: the fact that they were not only built and defended by municipalists — if identifying them as such is even possible — such as 15M activists, but also by a broad variety of other political actors, some of them from more traditional-minded leftist parties and labor unions. The reason why municipalist platforms were able to mobilize huge numbers of people and to win elections in many places in 2015 is connected to the fact that they were able to unite a diverse range of progressive groups, parties, movements, collectives and individuals by building coalitions. Some of those groups coming from a more traditional leftist background found it hard to simply change their ways of practicing politics overnight.
Nevertheless, the decision of municipalist platforms to run for elections and govern cities and towns was a great step forward in terms of changing from old to new politics. Changing some political actors was key. Getting rid of some old familiar faces and having activists, ordinary people, workers, migrants and other non-career politicians occupying council seats — even if it was just in the opposition — was already a major breath of fresh air for some old-fashioned city councils across Spain. Their mere presence generated a shift in the agendas and in the balance of political forces when it came to making relevant decisions. However, as we all know too well, people come and go, and although changing actors is key, it is not enough to generate new politics.
In sum, in the case of Spain there was a new political culture — albeit with a limited impact — and there were new political actors; but one crucial element that what was missing were new political institutions that would have eased the process of generating a new politics.
New political institutions
A few months ago, Isa Álvarez published an article where she shared the conclusions of a report about the views of local movements regarding the recent institutional experience of municipalism in Spain. This was the first time research was done with the aim of gathering the views of those who stayed out of formal political institutions during the 2015-19 experiment, while at the same time supporting those municipalist governments.
According to this “social leg” of municipalism, some of the problems for a project that aimed at being truly transformative were the pace of local institutions — either too quick or extremely slow, depending on the case — and the prioritizing of electoral and PR practices; their need to catalogue and force topics into small administrative boxes instead of having complex and broad understandings of problems; the distancing between those inside and those outside the political institutions; the lack of spaces for dialogue and collaborative decision-making with the community and social organizations and the total absence of care as a practice.
The key question, then, is how is it possible to prefigure new institutions that can be an expression of new politics? Of course the answer cannot be straightforward and it will probably come from a series of diverse sources. We believe one place where inspiration can be found, are intermediate social and political organizations that stand in between the community and public formal institutions, such as political parties, social movements, collectives and networks. In this space it has been possible to experiment, innovate and sometimes just shift into new forms of organizing, protocols and structures. In these spaces it has been possible to generate new rules that reflect an emancipatory political culture. These frameworks cannot, for obvious reasons, be simply transplanted to public institutions, but they can certainly teach us a lot about how to work in ways that are in harmony with the new politics we want to generate in the future and they help to disseminate an emancipatory political culture.
Although emancipatory values have been at the heart of many progressive organizations, collectives and movements for decades — such as feminist, copy-left, alter-globalization groups— eliminating old forms of organizing remains a great challenge, and the more closely these organizations are associated with electoral and institutional politics, the harder it gets to maintain those radical practices. Even among leftist groups, parties and organizations, old ways of doing politics are still pervasive and changing them would mean, for instance, challenging the privilege of middle-class, white cis-gendered men, building forms of collective leadership, developing innovative, efficient and radically democratic decision-making mechanisms and getting rid of different forms of psychological and environmental violence.
Some tools generated by the municipalist movement in this regard can be found in the Feminise Politics Now report mentioned above: online decision-making mechanisms, conflict mapping, rotating roles, nonviolence protocols, collective leadership, nonviolent communication and many others.
As impossible as it may seem, public institutions can be reformed and they can adapt to emancipatory goals. For instance, city councils could have a care department with enough resources and power to implement care practices within the institution and in its relations with society. Decision making mechanisms can become more open and democratic, even though this would require those in government — even municipalists! — to give up some power and to share it with the community. Hierarchies and bureaucratic rules can become more flexible and agile, even if this generates some confusion in the transition. And these are just a few examples.
We need a plan
If we want to generate new politics, we must do more than improvise. Learning by doing is amazing and it has historically taken movements really far. But this cannot mean simply trying something new, making mistakes, only then to go back to where we started and try something different. After several years of trial and error, the progressive political space inspired by the emancipatory goal is now able to reflect, strategize and make new plans. Municipalism is a great source that can inform this process.
Such learning would be especially relevant for facing future crises such as the one generated by COVID-19 in a way that takes peoples’ needs serious, that addresses them as subjects and not objects of public policies and decisions, that recognizes the complexity of social and economic problems and that also includes care in the political agenda.
To take a step forward, it would be useful to look at emancipatory movements, like feminism, environmentalism, alter-globalization, copy-left, among others, in order to think about how their practices can be implemented in future projects. We need to learn how to implement new forms of organizational structures that are horizontal and open, more democratic decision-making mechanisms, community building strategies and power-distribution techniques, among many other issues. We need to train ourselves in this emancipatory political culture, build barricades against the pervasive effect of the old ways of doing politics and of mobilizing, think about the incentives people may have to join us, take care of each other, bring joy into politics and trust each other much more.
We need to do this not only for the sake of the health of the political organizations and movements involved, but also to prefigure new institutions that can be a reflection of this emancipatory political culture and can become the piece that is still completely missing in new politics. Otherwise, we will still be trying to dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools. We need to have a more precise idea of how the public institutions we want would look both at the local level and beyond. What would a truly democratic city council look like? How can we make sure we distribute power once we get it? What would it mean to have political institutions organized around social ecology criteria? What would it mean to have a caring state and a caring European Union? This cannot mean simply having a list of good policies in mind. It would mean having a plan to change the institutional machines and to change ourselves.
Finally, we need to develop a new strategy that would allow us to conduct an effective political project. To set an aim is not enough. It is important to think about how to build alliances, how to convince our communities, how to generate the need for this new politics and how to sustain it.
As Mouffe argues in her latest book, people are waiting for emancipatory politics and the extreme right is convincing them more than we are. We need to take over institutions again, and this time we should be equipped with specific tools aimed at keeping the fire of emancipatory culture alive and at engaging every citizen so they can be part of new politics as well. Only then we will be able to materialize together the specter of emancipation.
Laura Roth is a political philosopher and activist. Her research and activism focus on municipalism, feminism, democracy and political culture. She’s a member of Minim Municipalist Observatory. In the past she has written for Spanish and international media outlets such as ElDiario.es, Público, El Salto Diario, Pikara Magazine, CTXT, Open Democracy and Political Critique.