On May Day, Let’s Make Bold Demands for Democracy at Work and in the Streets

As we continue to watch federal and state governments fail us on issue after issue — from climate change to voting rights to even the most basic of human rights, such as the right to an abortion — a growing movement of change-makers are beginning to look closer to home for ways to exercise political agency and to reshape their world.

This movement has been referred to as the “municipalist moment,” one which puts the city at the heart of the revolutionary struggle. Municipalism, as it is commonly known, is a bottom-up political system that places power in the hands and neighborhoods of people who work in cities. It is a desire to transform society into one that values solidarity, democracy and equity, sustainability, and pluralism.

Residents of Los Angeles are taking to the streets on May Day to start a two-year project to reclaim their city. Anchored By Los Angeles for AllThe network of self-organized social movement networks is called. This place-based project seeks to create a municipalist platform which reflects the needs and interests of residents, rather than corporations, opens up space to direct democratic reforms, puts power back in the people’s hands, and makes it more democratic.

Yvonne Yen Liu, a coordinator of the Los Angeles for All and the Los Angeles for All is based in the El Sereno neighborhood. Municipalism Learning Seriesproject, as well the research director of Solidarity Research Centera worker-directed non-profit that promotes solidarity economies. Liu talks about what municipalism is, the importance and ways others can get involved in democratizing movements, and intersectionality.

Robert Raymond: I would like to start with basic table-setting. The term “municipalism” conjures a few different images in my mind, but I’m wondering if you could start by just unpacking the term. What is municipalism?

Yvonne Yen Liu: At the heart of it, municipalism is about democratizing the local economy and the state — there are three characteristics to it. First, it’s directly democratic, meaning that people are participating in an authentic way, not just electing a representative to make decisions on their behalf. Second, it’s feminist. It’s important to value the labor that is done in terms of caring labor, in terms of housework, in terms of caregiving — whether that’s for children or for elders. But that’s an important piece to consider and also an important group of people to value in terms of participation in politics. The third is the most important. [municipalism is] anti-capitalist. We’re not trying to control our economy in order to continue the status quo of the economy.

Capitalism is neither necessary nor natural. And I don’t think it needs to be the order of things. Municipalism is about different types of social relationships. This could be a solidarity economy, an economy that is based on principles such as cooperation, mutuality, and inclusion. Or it could be based on a different form of economic organization where workers aren’t exploited for their labor but instead, own the means of production, as Marx famously wrote over 200 years ago. Instead, we could have worker-owned cooperatives and worker councils.

That is what I love. And I think that all of those three different points that you mentioned — direct democracy, feminist and anti-capitalist — they intersect in so many ways. For example, worker cooperatives are an example direct democracy but within the economic realm. So it’s also capitalist. One could also argue that workers have the ability to control their own livelihoods and make their own decisions at work, so many issues can be raised that aren’t being addressed. For example, how we dealt — or didn’t deal — with issues of care work during the pandemic. These are issues that are often ignored or not addressed in traditional firms.

Absolutely. All of this is interconnected. I would say that the general ethic is to make decisions that impact our lives on a daily basis and to make those openly — not just transparently, because what good is transparency when we can see how decisions are being made but we’re still not participating in them? But instead making them actually participatory so that we’re involved and engaged in the decision-making.

We need your help. Los Angeles for All?

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

Our hypothesis is that the City of Los Angeles has the right social conditions to support a municipalist movement. We looked at Barcelona’s example and found that there was a confluence between different social movement forces around 2015. They had their version of the Occupy movement — the Indignados movement.They also had the anti eviction movement, which was formed in the aftermath the Great Recession. All of those different groups came together and created a platform for the People to take their city back from neoliberalism, from capitalists, from privatization — for the peopleNot the banks.

We think that 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’re not necessarily connected together. So we plan to network the many self-organized social movement that exist in this huge metropolis. And then starting from the neighborhood level — a smaller, more manageable unit of geography — we intend to do popular assemblies so that folks can talk about what is it that they want to see in our city, what it is that they need in their lives.

One assumption in our hypothesis is that 3.5 percent rule: Based on research done by Maria Stephan & Erica Chenoweth they found that you only need three and a half percent of a population to move into structural change. So, we’re using that calculation to say that in a city of almost 4 million people, that’s about 400 people that we need to activate in each neighborhood — or about 150,000 people.

And you’re planning the launch of this municipalist project on May Day?

Yeah, we’re going to have a social gathering at a community center here in Los Angeles on May Day. And we’re also going to watch the Municipalism Learning Series opening panel together. And then subsequently, we’re hoping to map out those social movements in Los Angeles for the rest of the year. We’re going to be doing that using relational organizing. It’s a little bit like the six degrees to Kevin Bacon thing. We all have relationships with people, so I believe if we start from those we know and expand outwards, we can cover a lot of our city.

We’re planning to use relational organizing so that folks are thinking about who their networks are how those networks overlap with other networks. And then we’re launching our neighborhood assemblies starting next year and we’re hoping to go through a process where the neighborhood assemblies formulate their version of their policy needs and demands, and then that gets elevated to a higher geographic level. And finally, we’ll have a platform that represents the needs of the entire city.

And to broaden out, I’m wondering if you have any connections to other cities? I’m thinking about the idea of confederated cities — what social theorist, political philosopher and anarchist Murray Bookchin wrote about, and what’s being embodied by the Cooperation Cities movement, organizations like Cooperation Jackson and Cooperation Richmond. Are you thinking bigger than Los Angeles

We also hold gatherings in Humboldt County (California) and a New York City Watch Party. We do think that this is the municipal moment and I think that there’s a lot of folks that are interested in doing this connecting work of what Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson calls “liberated zones,” of different places that have a measure of local democracy in place at the state level and also in the economy.

Confederating cities is a way of achieving scale. While we can do local work, we can also reach larger audiences if we connect to other places that are conducting similar experiments. This is also why we have created this series. It’s a desire to connect with other places that are doing similar types of municipalist projects, be they people’s platforms, popular assemblies or other associated decision making.

We’re going to actually feature different cases every quarter. So our second panel after our May Day panel is going to be on the 11th anniversary of Occupy Wall Street on September 17, and it’s going to look at municipalist platforms in Barcelona, Bologna and also Zagreb. And subsequently, we’ll have other panels on Indigenous municipalism, the relationship of organized labor with municipalism, “just transition,” etc. It’s our way of learning from other folks, other municipalities, and it’s just been an incredible opportunity to do some of that networking of the nodes.

So, yeah, for so many reasons, so many people who for many years have been doing national level or international level work that hasn’t really been tied to geographic place — I think there’s a real interest in that now. Maybe it’s a reflection of how we’ve had to stay in place during the pandemic, potentially. It’s exciting to see people really take root and place their projects in specific places. And I think that municipalism speaks to impulse very well at the moment.

Are you able to offer any advice or suggestions for people who want to be involved in their city or start something?

Great question! I’d recommend joining the Municipalism Learning Series. Reach out to us. We’re trying to create a peer space, we’re calling it the Resist and Build school (inspired by my mentor Emily Kawano, the cofounder of the U.S. Solidarity Economy NetworkHe believes that we must do both. We must resist the dominant system while creating alternatives where people at different levels can learn from each others. It’s still in the works, and the idea is that folks should have a place-based project, to democratize their local economy and state. Our hope for this school is that it’s a “learn and action” community of practice for municipalism.

This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.