“Fearless Cities” was the name of the inaugural international municipalist meeting that took place in Barcelona on June 9-11. It was hosted by Barcelona en Comu (Barcelona Together, the radical citizen-based coalition which runs Barcelona Council in alliance with the Party of Socialists of Catalonia).
The gathering brought together about 700 participants representing movements and groups from 180 cities in 50 countries on five continents. Mayors, councillors, political representatives and activists from cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Valparaiso, Grenoble, Berlin, Cape Town, Beirut and Hong Kong took part.
It was an extraordinary event because of the capacity for mobilisation shown by a political organisation, Barcelona en Comu, that is scarcely two year’s old. For a few days, it made Barcelona the capital of international municipalism — a movement for citizens’ councils to promote participatory democracy and people’s rights.
When Barcelona en Comu’s international commission presented its project for an international municipal meeting, it would have seemed difficult to imagine the success and size of Fearless Cities.
After Barcelona en Comu won the May 2015 municipal elections and took over the mayoralty, requests to know about our experience began to arrive from around the world.
From these exchanges, the conviction grew that a political space in common with many other sister cities might exist. In different political contexts, movements existed that were facing the same challenges and finding answers along similar lines.
From this start, collaboration with movements from other cities such as Paris, Naples, Rome, London, Rosario, Belgrade, Warsaw, Froome (town in Somerset) and with US movements emerged. This created a shared space to think about issues, experiences, strategies and ways of acting aimed at transforming our cities and towns.
A year of networking worked out how the meeting should be structured, which movements to invite and which issues to prioritise. As a result of this common work and many hours of talking over Skype, the gathering was defined and structured.
Defining the gathering
The basic premises of the meeting emerged easily enough. Municipalism is a movement with a long history and offers many possibilities. Its profile is unambiguously local and to the left, but aspires to get beyond the framework and forms of traditional parties.
Thus, rather than being defined by a pre-established set of ideas, municipalism is defined by its methods: democratic radicalism, feminism, the search for new forms of participation, nearness to neighbourhood, and decision-making methods that seek consensus and inclusiveness.
It is also characterised by its focus on those issues where it has a capacity for action at the local level.
As a result, a gathering was proposed where the different kinds of municipalist movements across the world could be represented: from political groups represented in municipal institutions to social movements that seek to influence local agendas with activism from outside the institutions.
The Spanish “councils for change” (Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza, A Coruna, Cadiz, Santiago de Compostela and others), the Latin American and US citizens’ platforms, the most active social movements such as those from Italy — all should have space to interact with each other around the main themes proposed for discussion.
Common goods, remunicipalisation of services (reversing privatisation and outsourcing), mobility, pollution, housing, tourism, gentrification, participation and transparency, cities of refuge and shelter for refugees — such were the themes for pooling experiences and sharing challenges, difficulties and strategies from the different levels on which municipal movements work.
Another axis of the gathering was the specific need to overcome the barrier between “the street” and “the institutions”.
That was why the workshops facilitated analysis, debate and practical work on the issues that allow municipalism to step forward, take advantage of the right moment to enter the institutions and promote and speed up social transformation.
How, for example, to create participatory election tickets, communicate via social networks, establish codes of ethics and confront organisational challenges. These topics created a high degree of interest and a space for mutual learning.
One highlight was the gatherings’ unequivocal commitment to the feminisation of the meeting.
Feminism is intrinsic to municipalism and this was reflected in the organisation of Fearless Cities. Thus there was no specific workshop on feminism, since it was included as an element common to all the events and topics.
The opening plenary was dedicated to explaining this approach. It was a matter of pride that 52 of the speakers were women and 31 were men. There was no male majority on any panel, which was especially noticeable in those topics where a female presence is usually remarkable for its absence, such as on town planning or mobility.
Fearless Cities also featured public events in which strong ecofeminist messages were heard from speakers such as Vandana Shiva and Yayo Herrero, as well as very moving experiences such as those of the Kurdish-led democratic confederalism in northern Syria.
The gathering also went beyond formal organisation of the event. There were 11 parallel workshops led by the attendees themselves, in which issues such as independent media, structural racism, free trade agreements and municipalist strategies in Latin America were discussed.
Fearless Cities was the culmination of two years of intense work that would have been impossible without the participation of 170 volunteers. In the weeks prior to the event, they dedicated their energies and time to it. This involvement and organisational capacity was the best example of what a young group like Barcelona en Comu is capable of doing, and of the energy and mobilisation that drives it.
Likewise, the success of Fearless Cities shows the great interest generated by Barcelona en Comu’s experience at an international level.
In this sense, the emergence and consolidation of Barcelona en Comu, in addition to the Catalan municipalist tradition — of which the [left pro-independence] People’s Unity Lists (CUP) are a good example — puts Barcelona at the head of a movement that is growing globally.
Municipalism, with its great potential capable of generating new areas of mobilisation and social transformation, faces important challenges. Firstly, it has to consolidate its proposals for social change through combining municipal management and social mobilisation. It has to share and extend this experience to many other cities in the Spanish state.
The pressure of the state and the restrictions imposed on municipal autonomy demand a search for alliances with other political and social protagonists so as to build up momentum for social change.
Likewise, the dynamic of seeking to occupy positions in the institutions must be matched by building grassroots organisations that facilitate participation, integrate social diversity and empower the activists, who are the true strength of municipalism. Municipalism must neither neglect its origin in local movements nor ignore the strength it gains when it overcomes institutional barriers.
At Fearless Cities, we realised that we are a space of hope in the face of the rise of neoliberalism and the extreme right. Municipalism builds successful alternatives to these and in the face of the retreat of the nation-state — proposes to work in a network from the local level to achieve a global transformation.
With Fearless Cities, a step was taken towards the long-term goal of changing the purpose of politics and subverting the way it is exercised. [Barcelona Mayor] Ada Colau expressed this idea at the opening public meeting: “We are here to send a message to everyone: we believe that it is imperative to create an international alliance of cities to defend human rights, to have a better democracy, to fight against climate change, to welcome refugees, to curb Trump, racism and fascism, because in the face of the failure of states, cities stand as an alternative — not an abstract but a real alternative.”
What we can build and do from now on depends on whether the motto that volunteers wore on our T-shirts at the gathering — “First Municipalist International” — remains a sympathetic wink at the history of the left or an ominous declaration of intent.
[Enric Barcena is an activist and member of the International Commission of Barcelona en Comu. The article originally appeared in Spanish on the radical website Sin Permiso. It has been translated for Green Left Weekly by Dick Nichols.]