Yvonne Yen Liu was invited to participate in the seminar series hosted by the Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona (ES), the University of Antwerp (BE) and the Transnational Institute (NL) on the topic: New municipalism, democratic public ownership, and the politics of the common.
According to the hosts, the event series is focused on developing a shared conceptual framework and research agenda responding to contemporary academic debates, grounding them in ongoing developments of common-based approaches to democratic public ownership in and beyond the urban dimension.
Furthermore, these events are designed to produce four key research outputs that will have enduring societal and academic impact: the publication of an edited academic book (proposal in review with Bristol University Press, eds. Bianchi & Russell), the online publication of a collaborative authored report, early-career chapter contributions to a TNI-edited civil society collection, and the establishment of an ‘action-research alliance’ that will guarantee the development of the research beyond the duration of the seminar series.
Here are some of Yvonne’s objectives in participating in the seminar series:
I want to learn and be in dialogue with other activist-academics around the question of how do we build frameworks and movements for participatory and economic democracy within, outside, and across our cities? For the past two years, the organization that I co-founded and now co-direct, Solidarity Research Center, has experimented with the theory and practice of democratic municipalism in two projects: Municipalism Learning Series (theory) and Los Angeles for All (practice).
My understanding of democratic municipalism is informed by many traditions, including the work of Murray Bookchin and Erik Olin Wright. The learning series emerged from my inability to locate tools for building a framework and movement in the context of Los Angeles, an absurd city rife with contradictions. I established the series with the goal of introducing the framework to a broad audience in North America.
I believe democratic municipalism is a critical element of building a solidarity economy or alternative to capitalism. I subscribe to the idea by J.K. Gibson-Graham that capitalism is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of economic relationships; we only see the market and the extraction of value from labor. In our listening project of the global solidarity economy movement (forthcoming), we found that values and principles of the solidarity economy exist among the most marginalized to survive from exclusion. We can expand these alternatives if we build powerful social movements that demands participatory and economic democracy, starting at the local level.
The experiment to build a municipalist movement in Los Angeles has been underway since the beginning of 2022. I approached the question of whether Los Angeles was ready for municipalism as an organizer and a researcher, and based on three assumptions: first, that movements are cyclical and go through ebbs and flows; second, based on research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan that only 3.5% of a population needs to engage in a movement in order for substantive change to occur — that’s 140,000 people in Los Angeles across 400 neighborhoods, or 350 per neighborhood; last, movements since the Battle of Seattle and Occupy Wall Street have evolved into decentralized networks.
The first phase of the project was to gather autonomous social movement actors across the city into a decentralized network, which I named Los Angeles for All. Our network represented the spectrum of the left in our city: from groups that are building alternatives, such as worker cooperatives and community land trusts, to those providing mutual aid to unhoused neighbors, and to those reimagining and municipalizing public institutions such as establishing a public bank.
I also took advantage of the movement moment in October 2022, when tapes were leaked of a private conversation between three city council members and a local labor leader that revealed an anti-Black agenda and backroom deals on redistricting. I helped to facilitate a Los Angeles People’s Movement Assembly process, starting in the eastside, and invited other researchers to collaborate with me on mapping and interviewing movement leaders.
We have facilitated four People’s Movement Assemblies, convening on average 50+ people together from across the spectrum of the left. We hosted learning sessions between Los Angeles activists and their peers with the Southern Peoples Movement Assembly, Cooperation Jackson, and Chicago Community Councils. We have a database of 30+ interviews, 200+ social movements, and 500+ individuals that we can activate.
Our next phase is to organize beyond the left, using a combination of Marshall Ganz’s snowflake model of neighborhood organizing and Steve Deline’s method of deep canvassing, to activate individuals to convene neighborhood assemblies. The past few months have also raised questions that remain unanswered, including the relationship of Los Angeles for All to the state: As a democratic municipalist movement, do we engage in non-reformist reforms, such as participatory budgeting and charter reform?
Part of my desire to participate in this seminar series is to have the community with which to reflect on the experience of the past two years: what have I learned about democratic municipalism in theory and in practice, how I have adapted the framework to the context of Los Angeles, and how do I resolve the open questions. I also desire the space to write about the experiment and the lessons learned, both for academics and practitioners.