“Don’t scale UP, scale OUT". Municipalism isn't just about a smaller version of the old state - but a new kind of politics

Here’s a useful new distinction, brought to our attention by Jamie Kelsey-Fry. One that might help those involved in the new “municipalism” - or fearless cities - to ensure they’re not just repeating the same old behaviours of political establishments.

You might have heard the phrase to “scale up” - that is, to taking a small, powerful action or practice, and helping it to catch fire consistently, across a society or movement. It’s often deployed in the world of digital marketing - but as this piece from ROAR shows, it is sometimes applied to the experiments of localist and municipalist politics.

These activists presume that the higher, ultimately more effective level of scale is the national or governmental level. The local is, as ROAR typifies the attitude, “a strategy we are forced to adopt in a time of weakness — the ‘best we can achieve for now’, a systematic approach to build our capacity to move to the national scale”.

Here’s the problem with all that:

…As soon as movements look to “scale up” their politics to the regional or national level, they rapidly lose the very qualities and capacities that defined them as transformational. This has been the case both in Barcelona, with the movement’s engagement in the Catalonian regional administration, and for those coming from A Coruña organizing at the Galician level.

Seemingly inevitably, there are certain dynamics that start to develop once one loses the ability to work closely with other activists and start developing more hierarchical and independent structures.

When municipalist movements speak of feminizing politics, for instance, the emphasis is on fundamental changes to politics itself. That means inserting empathy into the core of political action; questioning traditional understandings of strong leadership; learning how to distribute power throughout society; and decentering the role of institutions towards the horizon of collective self-governance.

The reality is that developing this politics of care takes a lot of time and energy. It is no coincidence that as soon as one starts trying to win power at “higher” levels of government, organizations become more hierarchical, men usually take the lead, discourses become more theoretical, and urgency tends to trump trust in collective intelligence.

Something similar happens when one enters formal institutions, even local ones — once you are in, they simply swallow you. People are absorbed by the dynamics of a machine that is designed to process things in a standardized way; to divide the public from the private; to adapt the rhythm of politics to the rhythm of bureaucracy; to distinguish people according to their position and block dialogue between those at different levels.

As an activist involved within Massa Critica put it, “the idea is to be prepared not only to win something, but immediately to change it. If we think that we win and we change the world — or our country, or our city — only by going to manage it, we fail.” If we really want to transform these institutions, it is crucial to stay grounded in everyday life outside of the institutions.

This means finding ways to open up institutions, to generate new relationships with social movements and — very importantly — with those ordinary citizens who are not mobilized.

ROAR says that means taking the opportunity of “doing power differently”, opened up by localisation of all forms, is vital for their success. To maintain this, it might mean localities making strong efforts to talk to each other across national borders, “translocally”, in order to keep inspiring each other.

And this is essentially what they mean by “scaling out”, rather than scaling up:

Perhaps the best way to start fleshing out our understanding of what it would mean to “scale out” is thus to start with questions that many within these movements are asking themselves: how do we, as municipalist movements, meaningfully act in solidarity with one another?

How can all these “small” acts of transformation become something greater than the sum of their parts? How can we amplify our successes, so that they “trickle outwards” and strengthen the capacity of others to organize?

Can our municipalist strategies develop “transversal” identities, based not on where we are from, but where we live and what we participate in? Can this logic erode identities based on borders and boundaries? 

…If we view the local state as a set of processes and relationships, the emphasis of politics thus becomes — at least in part — to attempt to substitute the old ways of how we relate to one another (as service users, as managers, as decision makers, as representatives, as voters, and so on), with new processes and relationships that are more horizontal, open, deliberative and in touch with ordinary people.

…Scaling out a municipalist politics has to begin with the understanding that these initiatives are not just rolling out a politics-you-already-know at a local scale.

More here. And for another take on the possibilities of translocalism, in terms of economics, see this from The Broker.