Kate Shea Baird and Steve Hughes, Popular Resistance - Cities can be more than just a last line of defense against the worst excesses of an authoritarian central government; they have huge, positive potential as spaces from which to radicalize democracy and build alternatives to the neoliberal economic model....
Where progressives have tried to beat the right at its own game by competing on the battleground of the nation state, they have fared extremely poorly, as recent elections and referenda across Europe have shown. Even where a progressive force has managed to win national office, as happened in Greece in 2015, the limits of this strategy have become abundantly clear, with global markets and transnational institutions quickly bullying the Syriza government into compliance.
In Spain, however, things are different. In 2014, activists in the country were wrestling with a similar conundrum to their counterparts in the US today: how to harness the power of new social and political movements to transform institutional politics. For pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, they decided to start by standing in local elections; the so-called “municipalist wager”. The bet paid off; while citizen platforms led by activists from social movements won mayoralties in the largest cities across the country in May of 2015, their national allies, Unidos Podemos, stalled in third place at the general elections in December later that same year.
In Spain, this network of ‘rebel cities’ has been putting up some of the most effective resistance to the conservative central government. While the state is bailing out the banks, refusing to take in refugees and implementing deep cuts in public services, cities like Barcelona and Madrid are investing in the cooperative economy, declaring themselves ‘refuge cities’ and remunicipalizing public services. US cities have a huge potential to play a similar role over the coming years.
In fact, radical municipalism has a proud history in the US. One hundred years ago, the “sewer socialists” took over the city government of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and ran it for almost 50 years. They built parks, cleaned up waterways and, in contrast to the tolerated level of corruption in neighboring Chicago, the sewer socialists instilled into the civic culture an enduring sense that government is supposed to work for all the people, not just the wealthy and well-connected.
More recently, too, cities have been proving their ability to lead the national agenda. In the last few years alone, over 200 cities have introduced protections against employment discrimination based on gender-identity and 38 cities and counties have introduced local minimum wages after local “Fight for 15” campaigns.