May Day Let’s Make Bold Demands for Democracy at Work and on the Streets

As we continue to see federal and state governments fail us on one issue after another – from climate change to the right to vote to the most basic human rights, like the right to abortion – a A growing movement of changemakers is beginning to look closer to home to find ways to wield their political power and reshape their world.

This movement has been described as a “municipalist moment”, one that places the city at the heart of the revolutionary struggle. Broadly speaking, municipalism is a bottom-up political system that puts power in the hands of people working from city blocks to neighborhoods. At its core is the desire to transform society into one that reflects the values ​​of solidarity, democracy, equity, sustainability and pluralism.

On May 1, Los Angeles-area residents take to the streets to launch a two-year plan to take back their city. Anchored by Los Angeles for All, a network of self-organizing social movements, the intention of this place-based project is to create a municipalist platform that reflects the needs of residents rather than businesses, opens up space for direct democratic reforms and put power back in the hands of the people.

Based in the El Sereno neighborhood of northeast Los Angeles, Yvonne Yen Liu is the project coordinator for Los Angeles for All and the Municipalism Learning Series, as well as the research director of the Solidarity Research Center, a self-directed nonprofit organization that advances solidarity economies. In this interview, Liu discusses what municipalism entails, the importance of intersectionality in democratization movements, and how others can get involved.

Robert Raymond: I want to start with a basic table layout. The term “municipalism” conjures up a few different images in my mind, but I wonder if you could start by just unpacking the term. What is municipalism?

Yvonne Yen Liu: At its core, municipalism is about democratizing the local economy and the state – there are three characteristics. First, it is directly democratic, meaning people participate authentically, and don’t just elect a representative to make decisions on their behalf. Second, it’s feminist. It is important to value the work done in terms of caring, housework, caregiving — whether it is for children or for the elderly. But it is an important element to consider and also an important group of people to value in terms of participation in politics. And then the third, [municipalism is] anti-capitalist. We are not trying to control our economy in order to maintain the status quo of the economy.

Capitalism is neither natural nor necessary. And I don’t think that should be in the order of things. Municipalism is about creating different types of social relations. This could take the form of a solidarity economy, which is an economy based on the principles of cooperation, mutuality and inclusion. Or it could be based on a different form of economic organization where workers are not exploited for their labor but rather own the means of production, as Marx wrote over 200 years ago. So we could have worker-owned co-ops, for example, or worker councils instead.

I like this. And I think those three different points that you mentioned – direct democracy, feminist and anti-capitalist – overlap in many ways. Worker cooperatives, for example, are an example of direct democracy, but in the economic field, right? So it’s also capitalist. And then it could be argued that because workers are in control of their own livelihoods and the decisions made in their workplace, many issues could be raised and ignored. For example, how we have addressed – or failed to address – care work issues during the pandemic. Broadly speaking, these issues are feminist issues that are typically overlooked or ignored in mainstream business.

Absolutely. I think it’s all intersectional. I would say the general ethic is to make decisions that impact our daily lives and to make them openly – not just transparently, because what good is transparency when we can see how decisions are made but we still do not participate in them? But instead, make them really participatory so that we are involved and engaged in decision-making.

Can you tell us about Los Angeles for all?

Los Angeles for All is a project with an expiration date — we’ll expire in 2024. We have a hypothesis that Los Angeles is ripe for a municipalist platform, so we’re giving ourselves two years to test that hypothesis. Based on the results, we will recalibrate our assumptions and make decisions about our next steps.

Our hypothesis is that social conditions are such that the city of Los Angeles is ripe for a municipalist movement. We looked at the Barcelona example and saw that there was a confluence of different social movement forces around 2015. They had their version of the Occupy movement — the Indignados movement. They also had the anti-eviction movement that was created in the aftermath of the Great Recession. All these different groups came together and created a platform for people to take back their city from neoliberalism, capitalists, privatization – for the peoplenot the banks.

We think it’s the same time here in Los Angeles. LA has a rich history, but also a contemporary scene of different types of social movements working in different sectors – but we are not necessarily connected together. We therefore intend to network the various self-organized social movements that exist in our ridiculously gigantic megalopolis. And then starting from the neighborhood level – a smaller and more manageable geographical unit – we intend to do popular assemblies so that people can talk about what they want to see in our city, what they need in their life.

One of the assumptions of our hypothesis is the 3.5% rule: Based on research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, they found that it only takes three and a half percent of a population to switch to structural change. So we use this calculation to say that in a city of nearly 4 million people, that’s about 400 people that we need to activate in each neighborhood, or about 150,000 people.

And you plan to launch this municipalist project on May 1?

Yeah, we’re having a social gathering at a community center here in Los Angeles on May 1st. And we’ll also be watching the opening panel of the municipalism learning series together. And then afterwards, we hope to map these social movements in Los Angeles for the rest of the year. We will do this using relational organization. It’s a bit like the six degrees to Kevin Bacon. I mean, we all have relationships with people, so I think if we start from who we know and expand outwards, I think we can actually cover a lot of different parts of our city.

We plan to use relational organizing to get people thinking about who their networks are and how those networks overlap with other networks. And then we are launching our neighborhood assemblies from next year and we hope to go through a process where neighborhood assemblies formulate their version of their political needs and demands and then that is elevated to a higher geographic level. And finally, we will have a platform that represents the needs of the whole city.

And to broaden, I wonder if you have links with other cities? I think of the idea of ​​Confederate Cities – what social theorist, political philosopher and anarchist Murray Bookchin wrote about, and what the cooperative cities movement embodies, organizations like Jackson Cooperation and Richmond Cooperation. Do you think bigger than Los Angeles?

We also have rallies in Humboldt County, California, as well as a watch party in New York. We think it’s municipal time and I think there’s a lot of people who are interested in doing this work of connecting what Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson calls ‘liberated areas’, different places that have a some local democracy in place at the state level and also in the economy.

The confederation of municipalities is a way to achieve scale. We can do deep local work at home, but the way we can reach more people is to connect with other places that are having similar experiences. This is also part of the reason we are doing this learning series. It’s a desire to connect with other places that are doing similar types of municipalist projects, whether it’s people’s platforms, people’s assemblies or other related decision-making.

We’re actually going to feature different cases each quarter. So our second panel after our panel on May 1 will focus on the 11th anniversary of Occupy Wall Street on September 17, and it will look at municipalist platforms in Barcelona, ​​Bologna and also Zagreb. And after that, we will have other panels on indigenous municipalism, the relationship of organized labor with municipalism, “just transition”, etc. It’s our way of learning from others, other municipalities, and it’s just an amazing opportunity to make this networking nodes.

So, yes, for so many reasons, so many people who for many years have done work at a national or international level that hasn’t really been tied to a geographic location – I think there’s a real interest in it now. Maybe it’s a reflection of how we’ve had to stay put during the pandemic, potentially. But people are really putting down roots and putting their projects in a specific place, which I think is really exciting. And I think municipalism speaks very well of momentum right now.

For people who want to get involved or maybe start something in their own city, do you have any tips or ways to connect in the municipalist moment?

Big question! I would recommend joining the municipalism learning series. Contact us and contact us. We try to create a peer-to-peer space, we call it the Resist and Build school (inspired by my mentor Emily Kawano, co-founder of the US Solidarity Economy Network, who says we need to do both: Resist the dominant system while building alternatives, where people at different levels can learn from each other. It’s still ongoing, and the idea is that people should have a place-based project, to democratize their local economy and state. Our hope for this school is that it is a “learn and do” community of practice for municipalism.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Maria D. Ervin