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Debate: Municipalism and scale

Some notes on scale in municipalism

Vicente Rubio-Pueyo reflects on questions of municipalism and scale, and brings them into relation with Staurt Hall’s work on the Greater London Council

Discussing scale, and rethinking our preconceptions about it in political terms, is crucial for many reasons. First of all, policies and power correlations can impact across different scales. For example, State policies have a strong impact in cities’ specific realities. In the Spanish context, an example of this was the Law for Rationalization and Sustainability of Local Administrations, (the so-called “Montoro Law”), approved in Spain in 2016, not coincidentally shortly after Municipalist Confluences gained power in several major cities. The law heavily reduced the spending capacity of cities, in line with austerity, and significantly reduced the ability of  local governments to implement social programs. 

Second, the need for and challenges of establishing spaces for collaboration between different municipalist initiatives within the same nation-state, or regional, scale (say, the confluences in Spain, or initiatives across Europe, etc.) Due to their different compositions, backgrounds, trajectories, and the specific situations in different cities, notwithstanding the pressures and lack of time, energies and resources during their term in office, the potential of these relations has sometimes not been fully explored, and Municipalism as a political space had difficulty transmitting a clear narrative and common agenda, which has sometimes been obscured by other forces in the national arena. 

There are certainly two parallel or twin dangers vis a vis the question of scale. On the one hand, to consider the local scale purely in instrumental terms, just an intermediary stage before engaging in the take of the national state structure. In this case, the local level is usually integrated in a sort of State-centered teleology that risks taking an extractive attitude towards local politics, devoiding it of its potentials. On the other hand, the dangerous temptation to reclude ourselves exclusively to the local scale. As Bertie Russell points out, municipalist practices have taken into account the problem of scale, and have tried not to fall into the so-called “local trap”. The Municipalist motto “Democracy begins in what is close to you”, frequently used in Spain, despite its obvious appeal, would seem to encapsulate this kind of suspicion towards engaging in higher, or further (to use Lefebvre’s image) orders of political reality. There are of course very understandable, practical reasons for a Municipalist confluence not being particularly interested in “scaling up” its efforts to the national arena. Namely, the sheer difficulty and energies involved in that kind of work, which is an especially acute problem for political formations that have been subjected to enormous pressure, and for which just to work within the institutions, while trying to stay connected to the streets of their very city, mean already a huge effort, and many times lack the resources (staff, militants, cadres) to open yet another line of political work. These and other concrete reasons are good arguments for a skeptical position towards efforts beyond the municipal scale. 

One interesting theoretical reference to challenge both views is Stuart Hall’s book on Thatcherism The Hard Road to Renewal (1988), and especially one of its essays, “Face the Future”, where Hall brings to attention the impact of Thatcherism at the local level, focusing on Thatcher’s attack to the Greater London Council (GLC), then the main metropolitan authority in the capital city of the UK. Hall’s analysis provides useful theoretical (and practical!) insights to questions related to scale. According to Hall, Thatcher’s attack on the Greater London Council was not just one more casual target among the Thatcherist offensive on the welfare state and public services and institutions. It had a powerful strategic dimension. Thatcher was attacking local institutions, and the public services they provided to citizens, by stressing the – then new – neoliberal discourse based on the figure of the “ratepayers”: these types of institutions, such as the GLC, were just “a waste of money” for ratepayers. As Hall says, this meant “reconstructing the world in the terms of possessive individualism” (Hall 1988). In other words, the local level turned out to be a battlefield, and a laboratory of sorts, for Thatcherist “authoritarian populism”, and to put forward powerful political notions and languages that would later become Neoliberalism’s ideological infrastructure. Similarly to Neoliberalism’s attitude towards the State, Thatcher was not simply attacking the local political level, or looking down to it, but actually using it and redefining it.

That is why Hall, in that essay originally published in 1984, said “The struggle around GLC and local authorities elsewhere is therefore not local or peripheral but strategic and organic” (Hall 1988: 234). In other words, the levels of political mediation cannot ever be completely separated or disentangled. Both from a symbolic and a material standpoint, a city’s politics, and its perception by its inhabitants, cannot be disentangled from other levels of political administration, or the influence of broader economic, social and cultural fluxes. From a more subjective point of view, city inhabitants are always conscious, to one degree or other, that their city belongs or is connected to other near local, regional, national and international realities. From a material standpoint, as it has been mentioned, policies stemming from other administrative levels can profoundly and concretely impact the city. And obviously, the effects of the global economy are always felt, in one way or another, at the local level. All these factors and influences operate simultaneously. Therefore, the local level, even in its immediacy and concreteness, is continuously traversed by other more “abstract” dimensions.

However, the immediacy of the local makes it a fundamental ideological terrain. It is in the local, everyday context, where political subjectivities can be crucially reinforced and recreated.

As Bert Russell has argued, a Municipalist “politics of proximity” would consist precisely of a questioning of pre-given notions of scale: “The politics of proximity should not therefore be mistaken for a fetishization of the ‘local’, even though it finds its manifestation through the municipality (…) we should understand the politics of proximity as being concerned with those forces that pull us together, as opposed to those forces that push us apart.” (Russell 2019). Proximity is thus not a given, it has to be constructed. Proximity, understood in this way, has the potential to deautomatize or denaturalize scale, as well as its attached political concepts. This may seem a theoretical discussion, but it actually has powerful practical and political implications, and connects with many of the crucial political issues of our time. To name just one (which we can explore together in many future occasions) it helps us to deconstruct the urban/rural divide – which has become an important political cleavage (Brexit, Trump, red-blue states, etc.). This needs to be rethought at least in two ways: 1) it is not a simple bipolar opposition, but more like a complex gradation of social, economic, political and cultural realities (urban, suburban, exurban, metropolitan, rural, to name just a few categories) and 2) it is not (or it does not need to be thought as) an opposition, but actually a relationship that needs to be thought in its whole ecological interdependence. 


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The importance of scale

This is the first post in a series focusing on municipalism and scale. The topic will be developed further by additional authors in the coming weeks. 

Although we might not recognise it, assumptions about political scale (such as where ‘power’ resides, what institutions of counter-power look like, the role of work-place organising, or how we organise the sustainable and equitable allocation of resources) are implicit within all theories of power and social change. Sometimes the importance of political scale is made explicit within these theories, but more often than not it is taken for granted. 

Whilst our understanding may differ depending on when and where we grew up, we each have an inherited understanding of the relative importance of different political scales. Perhaps we consider supranational institutions (like the United Nations or the European Union) to be more ‘powerful’ than nation states, which in turn are more powerful than regional assemblies, municipalities, neighbourhood councils, and so on? Or maybe we think nation states are more powerful than supranational institutions, but the rest looks about right? These inherited understandings are often taken as a given, and treated as common sense or a ‘law of nature’. 

Whilst all political theories and activist practices build upon these foundations, it is much less common to find political discussions that identify scale itself as one of the central points of contestation in developing effective, democratic, egalitarian and ecological strategies. Challenging these common sense assumptions about scale is important for a host of reasons, but we can simplify to say that scale (political, social, ecological and so on) is fundamental in considering our means (what are our strategies) and our ends (what sort of societies are we trying to build).

As the word implies, municipalism foregrounds the municipality or, actually, the local level (whatever form it takes) at the core of its theories and practices. Whilst there are those who argue that ‘winning the municipalities’ is primarily a stepping stone towards ’taking national government’, others have imagined whole political programmes and entire societies based on (con)federated, participatory and democratic municipalities. Whilst some see no scope for municipalist electoral initiatives to be part of national political parties, others may deem it not only possible but necessary in achieving systemic changes. 

The Covid19 crisis has shown a trend towards the recentralisation of power by states, although local governments and non-institutional actors have been dealing with an important part of the complexity of the crisis. Some argue that we are going back to states as the center of political decision-making and that they are key players in addressing the aftermath of the pandemic, while others suggest that, actually, the crisis shows how problematic states are and that the local level has become more relevant than before. 

  • What are we talking about when we say “local level”? Is it the city or town? The neighbourhood? The metropolis? Does it matter?
  • Why is the state problematic as the scale of politics by default?
  • Is the local level only a meaningful site of struggle when ‘we’ are too weak to contest other political scales, such as the state, federal, or national government?
  • Does municipalism make sense if it’s addressing debates, policies, and political struggles that take place at other established political scales? 
  • Why is the local level considered a privileged starting point for organising/implementing strategies, rather than other scales?
  • Has the Covid19 crisis changed anything in terms of how we see the role of local power vs. state power?

Useful reading: 

Laura Roth & Bertie Russell – Trans-local solidarity and the new municipalism

Kate Shea Baird – El municipalismo y la advertencia de Ícaro

If you have any comments or thoughts about the relationship between municipalism and scale, please send them through to: