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. Broadly speaking, municipalism is a bottom-up political system that puts power in the hands of the people working from blocks to neighborhoods to the city. At its heart is the desire to transform society into one that reflects the values of solidarity, democracy, equity, sustainability and pluralism.

On May Day, residents of the Los Angeles area are taking to the streets to begin a two-year project aimed at taking back their city. Anchored by Los Angeles for All, a network of self-organized social movements, the intention of this place-based project is to craft a municipalist platform that reflects the needs of the residents instead of corporations, opens up space for direct democratic reforms, and puts power back in the hands of the people.

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

Robert Raymond: I want to start with some 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. And then the third, [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 natural nor necessary. And I don’t think it needs to be the order of things. Municipalism is about creating different types of social relationships. That could take the form of a solidarity economy, which is an economy based on principles of 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. So we could have worker-owned cooperatives, for example, or worker councils, instead.

I love that. 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. Worker cooperatives, for example, are an example of direct democracy, but within the economic realm, right? So it’s also capitalist. And then one could argue that as workers have control over their own livelihoods and the decisions made in their workplaces, a lot of issues could be brought up that are overlooked. For example, how we dealt — or didn’t deal — with issues of care work during the pandemic. Broadly speaking, those issues are feminist issues that typically go unheard or unaddressed in traditional firms.

Absolutely. I think all of this is intersectional. 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.

Can you tell us about 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. Depending 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 studied the example of Barcelona and saw that they had a confluence of different social movement forces at 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 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 people, not 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. And so we intend to network the different self-organized social movements that exist in our ridiculously ginormous megalopolis. 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 of the assumptions in our hypothesis is the 3.5 percent rule: Based on research that was done by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, 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. I mean, we all have relationships with folks, so I think if we start from who we know and extend outwards, I believe we can actually cover a good chunk of the different parts of our city.

We’re planning to use relational organizing so that folks are thinking about who their networks are and 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 have gatherings in Humboldt County, California, and also a watch party in New York City. 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 municipalities is a way to achieve scale. We can do deep local work in our place, but the way that we can reach larger numbers of people is if we connect with other places that are doing similar experiments. This is also part of why we are doing this learning 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. But people are really rooting into place and situating their projects in a specific place, which I think is really exciting. And I think municipalism speaks to impulse really well at this moment.

For folks who want to get involved or maybe start something in their own city, do you have any words of advice or ways they can plug into the municipalist moment?

Great question! I’d recommend joining the Municipalism Learning Series. Reach out and connect with 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 Network, who says that we need to do both: Resist the dominant system while building alternatives, where folks at varying levels can learn from each other. 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 lightly edited for clarity.