A Just Future Starts at the Local Level
Jelle de Graaf is the first elected official for the Pirate Party in the Netherlands, in the borough of Amsterdam West. The Pirate Party Amsterdam recently elected him as their political leader for the municipal elections in march 2018. Earlier this month he visited the Fearless Cities Conference at the municipalism movement in Barcelona.
Cities are gaining power. When national governments fall short local leaders show courage. It’s happening all over the world. When Donald Trump left the Paris Accords, the cities of the United States, from Democratic Pittsburgh to Republican San Diego, took responsibility. Sanctuary cities like San Francisco protect the rights of their people, also if they, according to the federal government, don’t have the right paperwork.
In Europe, Mediterranean cities like Barcelona, Madrid and Naples lead the charge for strong local governments. Naples is building a cooperative and democratic city. Barcelona shows that local communities don’t automatically have to lose against the economic forces of mass tourism. Not only are cities taking back control, in more and more places people are taking back control of their cities. An international municipalism movement is gaining ground.
In the beginning of June I visited the Fearless Cities Conference in Barcelona. Around 700 active citizens, activists and open-minded elected representatives from all over the world came together to discuss municipalism. The term refers to political organization based on assemblies of neighborhoods, practicing direct democracy, which would be organized in a system of free communes or municipalities, as an alternative to the centralized state. In Barcelona people with radically different backgrounds, from social workers who work in the slums of Capetown to women rights activist in the autonomous region Rovaja in Syria, came together to start a dialogue. While one participant might be building a green and sustainable future and others are fighting house-evictions or institutional racism, everyone was working on the same overarching municipalist project. All participants are achieving a better world by working on a local level in an inclusive, consensus-based, democratic way with a focus on local communities and their wishes.
For me the Pirate movement has always been about democratization and the decentralization of power. Subsidiarity, decision making on the lowest level possible, is a central concept in the ideas of the Pirate movement and has been at the core of my work in the borough of Amsterdam West. Not only is there the democratic argument that the people that are most influenced by a decision should be the ones making it, there’s also the practical reality that people are much more likely to solve issues together on local level.
Municipalism works. When you open up and actually talk to people, instead of yelling one-liners at them, radical policy is possible. Even on big polarized issues. Madrid and Barcelona declared their towns ‘Refugee Cities’ and opened them up to 15.000 refugees. If this can happen with broad support in a city with huge housing problems like Barcelona, where a couple of years earlier thousands of people a month were evicted from their houses, it can happen anywhere.
By empowering the commons, and focusing on all those co-operations and active citizens who are already working on green-initiatives, radically green progress is possible with the support of the people. By going at it together, in an open dialogue, long-abandoned progressive policy goals that seem impossible to achieve in the traditional political arena suddenly turn probable again.
The success of the municipalist movement in southern Europe strengthens my believe that as Pirates, much more then we’ve been doing in recent years, the local level is where we should focus our efforts. While municipalism, of course, isn’t the answer to every world problem, it might be a way to break out of the polarized political landscape we’re in right now. We can start working on the tackling of big issues like climate change, the erosion of civil rights and growing social and economical inequality.
The municipalist movement shows us there’s a viable alternative to both the extremism of the far right or the political stalemate of the traditional parties. An inclusive, sustainable and just future starts at the local level.
Featured image: CC-BY-NC-SA, ZEMOS 98