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: