Thursday, June 15, 2017

BCN Muni 2: Theory, Practice, Theory


(My reports on the “Fearless Cities” conference on municipalism in Barcelona are coming out rough. So I won't make any more promises about what's coming next!)
The ferociously over-determined space of the plenary sessions, the Aula Magna of University of Barcelona (19th c. medieval revival)

In a Saturday panel, “Municipalism for Dummies,” a speaker referenced the book “La Apuesta Municipal” – (the municipal bet or wager; democracy begins from the local – in Spanish, free download).
Ana Méndez was introduced as strategy advisor to Ahora Madrid, and I'm pretty sure I've seen her representing Observatorio Metropolitano. That's an independent research group on the city of Madrid that has been working for years to compile information on every part of the city. This kind of research, with links to academia but first of all militant, is key in building the base structure of a municipal movement.
(This is in contrast to academia which encloses information as part of its work of selling it and building professorial reputations, aka academic assets; this is a bind which individual figures, most notably Nicholas Mirzoeff, have fitfully sought to escape.)
To make an institution closer to the people, she said, we became researchers of the territory. Thinking of what is available, we imagine new kinds of economic models that are more in relation to the territories. Those include not only money but access to physical resources. (This has to do with the “social unionism” described by Beatriz Garcia of Instituto DM, also an Ob Met researcher.)
Another line of action of Ahora Madrid is the opening up of the institutions, changing structures that have been impenetrable to citizens. (I thought immediately of NYC Mayor Bloomberg's early innovation of a 211 telephone line for any kind of query or complaint. It cut through the maze of city agencies in a way that an internet business billionaire could conceive and implement.)
Her talk was fascinating – an exposition of “theory on your feet” borne of the hard experience of wielding municipal power. We try to understand local government functionaries – the city's bureaucrats – as inhabiting enabling structures, she said. When you get into government it is very complicated. We struggle with deep structural situations. Government in Spain is mainly on an administrative scale, requiring a very specifiic kind of managing which is in the detail of the law. The devil is in the details, and these are not systems that were designed by us. We wrestle with the codes that order the social activity that produces the state, and what we understand as municipalism.
Classical politics is built on inside/outside relations. It is built on demands which are answered or denied. Our question is how to do otherwise, how to build platforms that can make structural proposals. The in/out relation is less clear – now we are out/out, in/in, etc. We have not developed the tools to deal with the social movements from this complexity. With municipalism we are proposing local institutions that are less attached to the state organization, or state-like organization.
How can we imagine local governments that are not local branches of the state, but are the places where this state structure meets reality with all its complexities? It's like, how can we desflecar – like threads on cloth. How can we open the threads on this very heavy structure of the state?
All the power is in the mayor who delegates by decree (like a chocolate fountain). But the city is not a tree – the city government shouldn't be a tree, society is not made like that. It's a very hierarchical structure.We are faced with structures that don't understand the overlapping of things.
She said this is a question of what researchers on organization call “information ontology” – the system, the names which institutions use to name the world is rooted, and clings in a way that is very deep. We face a 25-year-old machine designed by the rightwing Popular Party. “It has tendencies.” We little by little open up spaces, making redistribuution, making other things happen – this has to do with this feminization of politics.
The question of citizen participation is a great shift in the mentality around governance.
Kate Shea Baird, coordinator for Barcelona en comu's international committee and a key conference organizer, moderated this session. At one point, during a discussion of problems, she remarked that when we think of the opportunities and limits of municipalism, we need always to think of the alternative. Another on the panel agreed, citing a saying in Catalan, “If we don't do politics, politics will be made against us.”
Beppe Caccia of Venezia in Comune buttered us up. “I think there are very few dummies here. Most are already working.” As a political culture municipalism does not need to be “a new ideological item, or discourse.” We need to connect a plurality of political cultures with our daily practice. We cannot even discuss models. We have to discuss single examples like the exempla of Spinoza's ethics.
Municipalist political culture has always been a minoritarian one, even in left political cultures. He said. The workers movement, for example, has always been a state-centered political culture. There is an idolatry of the state on the left. The state is the driving force of capitalist development. The state is also the possible regulator of wealth distribution and possible provider of social protection.
Even so, new municipalist culture emerges again and again in transition times. Now, following Gramsci, we are in the time of interregnum. The old economic and social models are dying. New social forces, new economic models of common life are striving to affirm themselves. These are dangerous times, times of monsters. The resistance of the old creates reactionaries – nationalism, protectionism, authoritarian responses. This is a crucial time. New social forces are emerging and looking for tools, for theoretical weapons to achieve radical structural social transformation.
The main impact of austerity policies has been on cities, rending the urban social fabric over the past 10 years. The logic of political reputation has been challenged in the past decade mostly from below, by developing new forms of social organization. (Not sure this has been true in USA, though!) In the late 1990s, the focus was on participatory democracy and participatory budgeting. Now participation is empty of significnce. It has become about building consensus, not building democracy from below.
Why we are winning elections is, after the new cycle of social movements, there is a desire, a demand to have a different way of governing our towns, villages, and cities. We take a three-fold approach to establishing municipalist practice. First, there must be a strong social dynamic from below. Second we must be able to build confluences, and construct new political platforms. These are not the same as social movements; they assume the demands of social dynamics and formulate a political project. Finally we work to transform the city institutions.
Soon we broke into small groups. I was supposed to send in my report, but I never did it. That's okay. Prensa will never get back to me on my query about the substitute speaker's name, so... it evens out. More soon!

LINKS and REFERENCES

Pablo Carmona and Observatorio Metropolitano, “La Apuesta Municipal” from Traficante de Suenos in Spanish, free download).
https://www.traficantes.net/libros/la-apuesta-municipalista
Observatorio Metropolitano independent research group on the city of Madrid http://www.observatoriometropolitano.org/
An Italian perspective on militant research (Ephemera journal on the theory and politics of organization has a special issue on the subject)
http://www.ephemerajournal.org/contribution/notes-framing-and-re-inventing-co-research

Instituto DM – Instituto para la Democracia y el Municipalismo
http://institutodm.org/

Last lunch at the "Fearless Cities" conference -- paella

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