Fearless Cities Barcelona En Comú

Published by New Internationalist, 2019, £9.99 at Bookbusters

Review By Tim Barton

This great book popped out two years ago, so in effect is ‘new’ thanks to lockdown. I am inclined to think the movements discussed in the book will have, in many cases, made communities more resilient during the crisis. The communities concerned are part of a global municipalist movement, and Fearless Cities is a guide to fifty of them. It is written by many of those directly involved, including Ada Colau, mayor of Barcelona since 2015, and Debbie Bookchin, daughter of social ecology and libertarian municipalist theorist Murray Bookchin and eco-feminist and anti-fascist theorist Janet Biehl. 

The last third of the book is an alphabetical introduction to the fifty communities chosen as the focus of the book, including, in the UK, Independents for Frome. Formed in 2011, they won all seventeen council seats there only six years on. Many of the groups have had similar or even greater success in gaining support for this ‘new’ movement, “a global network of organisations transforming towns and cities from the bottom up.”

The context is increasingly topical and directly relevant to UK towns from Hastings to Totnes to Bolton. In the words of Gerardo Pisarello, of Barcelona en Comú, “it is increasingly clear that we will never achieve the kind of fundamental social change we so desperately need simply by going to the ballot box.”

This point is expanded on by Jorge Sharp, Mayor of Valparaíso, who says “the challenge isn’t one of electoral strategy, it’s one of meeting the concrete needs of sectors of the population who experience the contradictions of neoliberalism in our cities”, and, whether it is through mass movements of candidacy for office, this should be decided and achieved via participatory forums, and thus as directly democratically as possible.

Another focus is on addressing corruption through codes of ethics for finding finance – and for removing appointees from office if codes are transgressed – and “aimed at radical decentral-isation of both politics and the economy”. If organisations are to reflect transformative politics, they should, say the authors, “promote internal democracy, the feminisation of politics, working as a network and a collective intelligence”.

The next section is on ‘policy toolkits’, and is based on direct experience of the various authors. A whole chapter is given over to ‘radical democracy in the city council’, complete with an example ‘mini manifesto’ and followed by examples of practice in Spain, Brazil and New York. This approach is common to each chapter here, and is a core reason this book is so useful.

Other policy tools investigated are designed to help us utilise public space and the commons; mobility and pollution; the ‘re-municipalisation of basic services’; transparency and corruption; and ‘economics for the common good’. All of these are relatable here, though chapters on ‘sanctuary cities’ for refugees and on ‘housing, gentrification and tourism’ are perhaps the most topically important.

Also of special interest here in Hastings & St Leonards is the creation of municipal possibilities in small towns and rural areas, because financing change in smaller municipalities is difficult. As Pamela Barrett, Mayor of Buckfastleigh in Devon says, “in the context of austerity, people in small towns have two choices: we can either do without services or we can band together and organise and find a way of doing it for ourselves”. Frome in Somerset, for example, has begun to develop a ‘library of things’, something that is also happening here in Hastings, as indeed are several other elements of grassroots change.

In an epilogue, Ada Colau talks of ‘transforming fear into hope’, and resisting the far-right isolationism represented by much contemporary populism. “Taking action to promote human rights, radical democracy and the common good in a world in which inequalities, xenophobia and authoritarianism are on the rise” is a necessity. A just and stable society needs to not only be autonomous and participatory but globally connected to humanistic values. Every day we see these possibilities under threat, and a guide such as Fearless Cities, combined with activism, may make a difference – ¡Ser el cambio! (Be the change!). 


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