Municipalities and municipalism: local politics beyond the North-South divide

Type: Paper
Sponsor Groups:
Poster #:
Day: 4/10/2018
Start / End Time: 10:00 AM / 11:40 AM (MDT)
Room: Napoleon C2, Sheraton 3rd Floor
Organizers: Lana Salman
Chairs: Sophie Gonick


Under what conditions do municipalities become conduits for alternative political imaginaries? How does municipalism instantiate itself within these local institutions? And how does radical or alternative politics take up the often mundane spaces of municipal governance? How do such instances enable a different conceptualization of local politics, especially one which transcends a North-South divide? This session explores emerging local political dynamics coalescing around municipalities as particular spaces for planning, mobilization and change. Existing literature on municipalities tends to emphasize the role of decentralization, defined as the political, financial and administrative independence of local governments from the central state, in bringing about political change. Whether it is the decentralization wave of 1990’s in Latin America, or the emphasis on decentralization and local governance in the Middle East and North African region after the 2011 Arab revolutions, researchers and politicians alike turn their attention to local governments as key nodes of political change, and to decentralization as a cure for development problems and a host of other challenges especially in uncertain periods of transition. Within the prism of decentralization, municipalities are institutions which need to be reformed to function efficiently, and to be accountable to citizens they are meant to service. Since municipal councils are elected, accountability manifests itself at the ballot box. However, recent examples which place municipalities at the center of political change questions this liberal notion of politics.
For example, recent experiences from Rojova in Syria, Jemna in Tunisia, and Barcelona en Comú in Spain, challenge this liberal notion of politics with its emphasis on efficient and accountable and institutions, and call instead for municipalism. Coined by Murray Bookchin, municipalism “is construed as an organic politics, a politics that emerges from the base level of human consociation into the fullness of a genuine body politic and participatory forms of citizenship” (Bookchin, 1984, 6 emphasis in original). At the heart of municipalism then is a redefinition of politics away from an economic blueprint of efficiency and accountability where “politics itself operates as a free market” (Nitzan and Bichler, 2007, 27) towards a notion of politics concerned with community making. What connects these experiences of political mobilization across North and South is a critique of a liberal notion of politics, and an attempt to organize with the conviction that “true politics is the opposite of parliamentary politics. It begins at the base, in local assemblies. It is transparent with candidates who are 100 percent accountable to their neighborhood organizations, who are delegates rather than wheeling-and-dealing representatives” (Bookchin, 2017). We posit in this panel that these ideas have gained traction globally because of a disenchantment with a current mode of politics that fails to deliver on its promises to cities and their inhabitants.
We invite papers that build on original fieldwork to document cases where these separate policy and research agendas of municipalities and the associated call for decentralization and municipalism meet, are pitted one against the other, or work in opposition to each other. We are looking for case studies that showcase instances of radical politics articulated around municipalities, resistance to these instances from centralized institutions, and any attempts to organize and counter such centralizing trends. We encourage case studies that cross the divide between North and South in order to understand the various instantiations of municipalism as radical politics in different contexts.


Type Details Minutes Start Time
Presenter Sophie Gonick*, New York University, Spain’s Urban Future: Municipalism and Radical Possibility in Contemporary Madrid 20 10:00 AM
Presenter Malav Kanuga*, Anthropology PhD Program, Counter-municipal cartographies and planning enclosures in Mumbai 20 10:20 AM
Presenter Lana Salman*, University of California - Berkeley, No more promises: the social solidary economy and revolutionary demands in Jemna, Tunisia 20 10:40 AM

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