Beyond COVID: Building the Libertarian Municipality

The pandemic shows the need for a bottom-up approach to building a new society - model socialist political economies at the municipal level.

In his 2005 book Collapse, anthropologist Jared Diamond asserted that all doomed civilizations share an unwillingness or inability to adapt to the crises facing them. The COVID-19 pandemic implies that the United States might soon join that unhallowed host.

The COVID-19 disease itself is a virulent plague, claiming those it infects at an alarming rate. It disproportionately kills those marginalized by society: African Americans, the poor, and other oppressed groups. Its economic fallout promises nothing short of disaster. A May 18th letter from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco reported twenty-five million unemployment claims filed since the advent of COVID, and predicted double-digit unemployment persisting through 2021. Millions teeter at the cusp of homelessness, poverty, and despair.

Our leaders’ response? The Democrats and Republicans haggle over the ineffectual and the malicious, and between the two little good gets done. A repeat of the 2008 financial crises, but grander in scale, looms on the horizon, with international as well as domestic consequences.

Socialists hardly need persuading that addressing this crisis demands a fundamental restructuring of our society. Left to its own devices, global capitalism will approach “recovery” in the same way it approached rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Large corporations and local elites will solidify their hold over the global political economy. More and more wealth will accrue to an even tinier, paler, and more patriarchal few. Political leaders will exploit the crisis to spearhead a global neofascist resurgence. All of these developments will increase global conflict, return us to the brink of nuclear war, and hobble our ability to deal with the existential threat of climate change.

The modern left concerns itself primarily with resurrecting the strategies of the past, namely the creation of new socialist parties and new labor movements. However, I fear these approaches may prove inadequate to the task. Similar efforts in the past met with mixed success at best. Socialist parties eventually degraded into social liberal, or even neoliberal, organizations. Unions have been in retreat for decades, their revolutionary potential left unfulfilled and largely forgotten. While we do need new socialist parties and stronger unions, on their own they are unlikely to deliver actual socialism on a reasonable timetable.

I contend that the crises of the twenty-first century demand a truly bottom-up approach: specifically, the creation of model socialist political economies at the municipal level. These political economies would possess the following features:

  1. Total participatory budgeting—placing the entirety of the city budget under direct democratic control, through a combination of neighborhood councils and citizen juries selected by lottery.
  2. Citizen oversight—empowering citizen juries with the responsibility of overseeing public services, replacing city management and bureaucracy to the greatest extent possible, and holding the power to propose legislation with the option of referral to popular vote in the event of city council veto.
  3. Public bankingestablishing municipal public banks, tasked with investing in the public good.
  4. Guaranteed public housing—so as to enable full participation in democratic governance.
  5. Cooperatization of the local private sectorthe total conversion of all businesses above a bare minimum size into worker-owned cooperatives, by means of preferential loans, favorable tax treatment, city contracts, entrepreneurial education, and municipal mandate.
  6. Restructuring Law Enforcementwhich would entail, at minimum, defunding the police in a manner consistent with existing Black Lives Matter demands, establishing citizens’ oversight committees dominated by those most likely to be victims of the police, and establishing hiring and firing practices based upon objective measures of implicit bias by officers.
  7. Reparations for Historical Injusticesagainst African Americans, immigrants, Latinos, Native Americans, and others. The exact nature of such reparations will vary depending upon the community, but must address the consequences of redlining, violations of tribal sovereignty, and inequalities in community investment.

Together, these elements would create municipalities that would be truly socialist in the sense that workers would own and operate the means of production, as well as communalistic in the sense that public goods and funds would be democratically managed by the community itself, broadly along lines described by Murray Bookchin in his writings on libertarian municipalism. Indeed, the goal of these policies is to create a prototypical libertarian municipality.

Of course, this particular socialism is only a foundation for more advanced forms. It makes necessary compromises so that it might be readily adopted by a society as yet unaccustomed to genuine democracy. However, if successful, these reforms would replace the local power structures which dominate municipal governance—business development organizations and property owners—with genuine popular governance or a close approximation thereof. The combination of public banking’s ability to create money, superior allocation of public funds through participatory budgeting, and the increased productivity of worker cooperatives would, in theory, generate substantial economic efficiencies that would remarkably improve residents’ standard of living.

Historical precedent affirms this likelihood. The Bank of North Dakota allowed the state to weather both the Great Depression and the Great Recession. A metastudy by Cooperatives UK demonstrated that firms in which workers owned at least 50 percent of the equity, in which at least half the workers were owners and in which workers participated in strategic decisions outperformed standard corporations in productivity, longevity, and adaptability. The World Bank, in a case study of Porto Allegre, Brazil, discovered that the adoption of participatory budgeting increased access to essential utilities and increased the general welfare.

We can expect a city that possesses all of these institutions to exhibit stable employment, higher-than-average incomes, less inequality, greater real GDP, and a general resilience in the face of economic shocks—including future pandemics. Such advantages could be attained even without additional aid from state or federal governance, via the public bank’s direct access to the federal money supply. They would possess a distinct competitive advantage over cities organized along purely capitalist lines.

Cities across the world already tend to cluster into “urban corridors,” bound together by economic supply chains. Also known as megaregions, they exert economic, political, and cultural influence on outlying areas. Cities also possess considerable economic and diplomatic power, both independently and through public-private partnerships, along these urban corridors, outside of the direct mandate of state power and across national lines. A 2016 opinion piece in the New York Times, “A New Map for America,” describes this phenomenon as it pertains to the United States, asserting that it renders our present, state-focused approach to infrastructure obsolete.

It stands to reason, therefore, that a single or a few libertarian municipalities might serve as a home base for the replication of this new system through economic pressure, direct political influence between cities, activist pressure on the ground, and indirect influence upon state governance. Shrewd investment in the cooperative sector would allow local businesses to begin to compete with sectors which are normally the specialty of other parts of the urban corridor, encouraging them to cooperatize in order to stay relevant. Cities themselves can further influence industry by requiring business partners and vendors in other cities to cooperatize prior to doing business. Community organizers would push for public banking and participatory budgeting in those self-same cities, while labor unions encourage cooperatization (as well as city-wide reforms).

We can also expect the tangible benefits of libertarian municipalism to shift the range of acceptable political opinion, independent of party affiliation, substantially to the left at the local, state, and federal level. People are loath to surrender what they already have, and so we can expect people to defend these advances, once won, against assaults by higher levels of government. Existing relationships between cities, such as sister-city relationships between municipalities in foreign countries and domestic municipal associations, would spread municipal libertarian ideas on a broader scale, encouraging their adoption and normalizing the concept. Converting the entirety of major urban corridors within and across U.S. states would provide a clear opening to gain control of parliamentary government, since those urban corridors represent the major population centers of the country (and states in which they reside).

Control of state and ultimately federal legislatures would relegate more power to these libertarian municipalities and encourage the adoption of the model by any remaining outliers. Lastly, with combined pressure from labor unions, major libertarian municipalities, cooperative competition and state regulation, this movement would place itself in a position to convert the large corporations whose interests dominate national politics into worker-owned versions of themselves. With that final stroke, worker and community interests would replace private capital as the critical political forces at the national level.

This process would also create two interlocking sets of power structures parallel to the state. Interdependencies between cities would establish an incentive to create alliances within and across megaregions. If sculpted into federations of citizens’ juries, governed by instantly recallable delegates, these alliances would represent direct-democratic structures capable of acting independently of any national or provincial government.

Cooperatives would likewise form their typical associations with one another, and form synergistic partnerships with libertarian municipalities and their alliances. As control of the state solidifies, these alliances would retain an intrinsic bias towards devolving state power directly into municipal hands. Over time, these cities and their federations would assume direct control over welfare, health care, and national banks. In time, we might indeed observe a “withering away of the state” in its entirety, or into a dehydrated and minimalist form, as suits the interests of any given community.

Under this strategy, unionization efforts and political campaigns would persist, but in a manner complimentary to libertarian municipalism. The primary purpose of all union efforts would be to galvanize workers into buying out their bosses or to persuade them to acquiesce to movement demands, while political parties would focus their energy on winning critical city councils required to institute municipal libertarian reforms. Both of these efforts would be bolstered with organized, direct action from a diverse, multi-ethnic working class coalition, with its most critical partnerships being those between African-American civil rights and community organizations, socialist organizations, labor unions, and as-yet unorganized, downwardly-mobile members of the Millennial and Zennial middle-class.

The need to address specific injustices faced by marginalized peoples and groups, including but not limited to African Americans and Native Americans,is critical.  Calls for (and the implementation of) the seven critical policies I describe above must be coupled with additional specifics accounting for racial, gender, and other injustice. By taking these factors into account, and uniting a broad coalition towards a common goal, we should be able to decrease  bias amongst our ranks, foster a general sense of camaraderie and true community, and deflect the misappropriation of the language of social justice by neoliberals in service of class hegemony.

In addition to forming alliances between existing activist groups, we would organize the people directly through small-scale, geographically-bound citizen’s unions. In addition to advocating for these policies, these organizations would allow for deliberation and mutual aid for its members (similar to ones that arose during the Depression era), and would serve as the informal foundation for formal neighborhood councils once they arise. Should establishing a legal basis for such entities be slow in the making, then those unions would attempt to establish, privately, communal methods for providing employment, procuring basic services, and otherwise serving the needs of the community, independently and in federation with those peers, until such time that formal law allows for an officially sanctioned version to take over. In short, we should not permit the consent of our governors to deter us from the task at hand.

My proposal offers several advantages over other strategies for socialist revolution. Because we are focusing on community-scale organizing, as opposed to the national scale of electoral or many union efforts, we can expect to manage considerable change within a shorter period of time. This is crucial, given the constraints imposed by global warming and the ticking nuclear clock of atomic weapons. American governance at the Federal level is, after all, designed for inefficiency, whereas local governance is designed to be responsive (to the local elites who have the time and energy to pay attention to these things). Moreover, some of socialism’s greatest recent electoral victories were at the city level, so it makes sense to focus our power there.

Additionally, this strategy’s tactical precision allows us to create a “tempest in a teapot” at points of economic and political leverage. It is always easier to persuade people to adopt a model that already exists, and such visible examples would galvanize change elsewhere. Nationwide models instead tend to “boil the ocean.” Even our remarkable successes in Congress, such as electing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York, leave us far short of a majority among Democrats, never mind Congress. State governments lie even further beyond our reach. At present, we could easily be over a decade away from being in a position to pass Medicare-for-All without threat of veto, let alone the Green New Deal, and let very much alone nationwide policies that support direct worker ownership and management of the economy. Implementing such policies successfully on a local level, however, raises their profile and encourages a trend towards national recognition, even if they are only partially realized.

Its second advantage lies in its ability to scale. General attempts to outcompete capitalist industry through cooperatives suffer from a lack of capital and institutional support. By establishing an economy in miniature that can fulfil many of the functions normally attributed to a nation—namely, the public direction of investment to offer an institutional advantage to specific ventures, in our case cooperatives. (It is worth noting, however, that existing federal law actually offers tax breaks to worker-owned and managed businesses, even in states that do not have an explicit cooperative code.)

The third major advantage this strategy holds over its competitors—in this case, state-based forms of socialism—is its built-in mechanism for the dismantling of state power. Social democratic and Leninist forms of socialism do not account for the law of institutional inertia: namely, that the organizations humans form inherit our innate tendency towards self-preservation. It thus remains dubious that any Leninist or social democratic country would ever automatically, without struggle, cede total control over industry and law. Indeed, no such examples exist.

However, we have every reason to believe this model will dismantle the state, since its bias stems towards concentrating power away from state governance.

The fourth major advantage lies in its innate appeal. Even if our entire coalition is not on board with libertarian socialism itself, you’ll be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn’t like the idea of controlling the investment of their tax dollars or being their own boss. While public banking and a housing guarantee might prove a harder sell in ordinary times, we are living through a pandemic and an economic crisis that threatens to leave millions homeless. These policies would remedy that problem.

A fifth advantage lies with the ability of these policies to change course and evolve as our practical understanding of economic and political direct democracy evolves. This serves both practical and rhetorical ends, for public depictions of the left tend to cast us as inflexible dogmatists. Establishing a socialist model that welcomes critique, experimentation, and adaptation will likely render the public more receptive to our goals, while we gather concrete information and adjust our plans accordingly.

The sixth advantage manifests in the greater stability offered by creating a libertarian socialist political economy by cannibalizing an existing state from the ground-up, as opposed to attempting to construct one within the ashes of a deposed nation. These experiments exist in a constant state of peril, and often do not survive long due to outside aggression or treachery. Ukraine and Catalonia both fell to this phenomenon. Rojava today lives on the brink, with the Zapatistas’ enclave in Chiapas remaining an outlier, with a quarter-century of life behind it.

An ability to bypass critiques of class reductionism represents this strategy’s seventh advantage, on account of its anti-nationalist and internationalist character. Its focus on local power structures places it in a more advantageous position to work with indigenous peoples, and its demands resemble those made historically by numerous African-American human rights movements. Even without specific adjustments to address institutional racism (which, of course, we must not elide), these policies would enable self-determination for the African-American community, as well as every other community. Special attention must still, however, be granted to relationships with local Native peoples.

Lastly, an additional advantage rests in an opportunity, should we proceed quickly enough, to have ready a viable set of alternative institutions which could survive and pick up the pieces of a global economic collapse. History seems to imply that a major component of successful revolutions is the ability to offer, at the ready, alternative institutions carrying the spirit of legitimacy and the flexibility to diplomatically resolve ideological differences and tensions. We see this principle at play in contrasting the liberal revolutions in the United States and France. While neither produced adequately democratic or just states, the United States functioned better as a republic than did France. It did so because of an existing history of local governance, and the relative distance of its English rulers. Meanwhile, such parliamentary institutions did not exist in France, and had to be developed from scratch. This undermined their legitimacy with the fall of the monarchy, and paved the way for the dictatorships of the Napoleons. It seems plausible that the relative fragility of many leftist revolutions—the devolution of Russia into authoritarianism and Catalonia’s dismantlement at the hand of the Communists—lies in the relative youth of socialist alternative institutions at the time of the prior society’s collapse. Catalonia’s CNT-FAI might have been mature as a labor union, but the Spanish Revolution represented its first taste of real, independent power. Its members might have been accustomed to opposing their bosses and landlords on their own, but not fighting a war on their own, or handling rival socialist and liberal factions within a bourgeois state on their own. Had the CNT been able to make more inroads prior to the revolution, engaging in de facto self-management for a longer period of time and gaining more legitimacy in the eyes of the Spanish public, it might have withstood Communist pressure to centralize.

The conditions for such a development likely did not exist under the Spanish monarchy, but they do exist in the United States and other capitalist republics today. Cities and firms, likewise, are considered legitimate institutions and will likely be seen as such even if state power collapses. Attaining democratic control of these structures, therefore, places us in a position to oppose the re-emergence of a centralized state, regardless of its ideology, should we face an implosion of existing national and provincial authority.

That said, my proposal does carry certain risks and caveats. Following from the last advantage, we do live in a time of extreme instability, in which we might find ourselves thrust into economic collapse or authoritarian takeover at any minute. As of the time I write this article, Donald Trump has deployed Department of Homeland Security officers to Portland, Oregon, and has begun illegally detaining protestors and other citizens. Trump has threatened similar actions in Chicago and Oakland, with national media indicating that he is targeting Democratic cities specifically. Trump’s actions imply the opening movements of a coup d’état. While it is far from guaranteed, a likelihood exists that we might be too embroiled in crisis in the next few months to take any significant steps towards this form of organization. However, it is worth noting that this possibility also threatens unionizing and alternative party structures as venues for socialist change.

Secondly, there is some variability on the success of participatory budgeting. World Bank research on the matter notes that very few people attend participatory budgeting meetings, due to time and income constraints. This form of direct democracy, therefore, can be hijacked by our political enemies. Its benefits are also limited if only a portion of city funds are included in the purview of a participatory budgeting system. This is why component number one of this proposal demands placing entire city budgets under popular control, and also establishes a two-tier system with a citizen’s jury at the top. A citizen’s jury directly tasked with the development of a city budget would better ensure that the interests of all citizens are represented, with local meetings serving in a more advisory capacity.

However, this particular approach might require substantial revision. Even if they are simply for public comment, local meetings might still exert too much sway on citizens’ juries. Jurors would also have to receive adequate compensation for their time, to ensure that lower-income or disabled members do not drop out entirely. In negotiating with our stakeholders, we must take considerable care in designing our participatory budgeting regimes prior to implementation to ensure that it does not backfire and tarnish the reputation of direct democracy. (See Participatory Budgeting, published by the World Bank and edited by Anwar Shah.)

Thirdly, although the scale and precision of this strategy implies an ability to enact significant changes over a comparatively short timescale, there exists a possibility that such forms of organization might still prove too slow to avert climate catastrophe or irreversible economic collapse. Depending upon the circumstances, this might require a shift towards a national, issue-based campaign or national electoral politics in the short- to mid-term in order to pass critical climate legislation. This strategy is, in every sense of the term, a no-shortcuts approach to organizing.

While this model could expand with alarming speed once it is established in even one city, the build-up to that first critical victory could take considerable time. In order to succeed, we must make sure we are able to dedicate sufficient resources to the task of organizing communities without sacrificing urgent matters at the state or federal level, ensuring that our organizing apparatus can serve multiple functions simultaneously, and closely monitor the political, economic, and ecological environment for all-hands-on-deck events. It is also, I should mention, not a call to abandon campaigns for Medicare-for-All, or a federal job guarantee, or a Green New Deal: we should instead ensure that we advance forms of these policies which empower participatory budgeting committees, worker cooperatives, and offer reparations for historical injustice.

Fourthly, should we pick up any steam whatsoever, we can expect massive pushback from the local and national power elite. Regardless of who is in office, this will likely take the form of legal actions, police actions, harassment by law enforcement, media distortion, surveillance and possibly—should enough cities “fall” to this model—the mobilization of military or paramilitary forces on false pretenses. Overcoming these barriers will require robust communications with the public, including the use of alternative media, letter-writing campaigns to existing newspapers, community forums and debates with more moderate voices so as to normalize the movement and reduce the risk of direct confrontation with military or militarized police forces. Our ability to pass any reforms quickly will also require galvanizing a substantial portion of the public in our initial cities to our cause. We need not necessarily aim for a majority all at once—recent studies imply that only a quarter of a population need hold an opinion to persuade a supermajority—but we must vigorously attract our key partners and target demographics to our cause.

We should attempt to amass a large enough network to routinely field about 3.5% of the population when pressing critical legislation; studies show that this number is the threshold at which governments inevitably surrender to popular demand.

Fifthly, since this strategy does rely to a certain extent upon working within several overlapping legal frameworks—not all of which are consistent from state to state—it might not be possible to implement all of the five elements listed above at once in every city. The primary issue surrounds public banks, since state laws might inhibit the ability of cities to establish their own public banking institutions. Moreover, not all states necessarily offer cities the same level of autonomy, and states that permit local ballot initiatives and referenda will likely fare better than those without. This strategy will have to be adjusted and adapted depending upon regional considerations, and might not be immediately viable in every major U.S. urban corridor.


Lastly, we must take care to ensure that the needs of outlying and rural areas do not go ignored. Conservatives exploit the divide between cities and rural areas in order to retain power, and urbanites do not always understand the problems facing rural peoples. If we do not seek to know these people’s legitimate interests, they will remain susceptible to bigotry, undermining our efforts.

The COVID crisis leaves us with a narrow window to exploit, and this strategy works best if multiple attempts are made, across the nation, in multiple cities, to establish similar structures. It would behoove DSA chapters in each of the eleven major urban corridors to form exploratory committees to assess the viability of this strategy in their area. Upon doing so, they can select and focus on a single city in their respective urban corridors that would, if converted, offer maximum economic and political leverage for the minimum possible population. Neighboring DSA chapters would engage in support and recruitment activities, and all DSA chapters involved would need to develop new organs to coordinate both within and across regions.

In the Northern California Megaregion, in which I reside, the City of Sacramento represents a prime target and an ideal testbed for this strategy. As a city of approximately 500,000, it is only somewhat larger than the Zapatista Autonomous Municipalities, which has successfully implemented libertarian socialist reforms along similar (though distinct) lines of what this strategy seeks to accomplish. Calls for reparations for Afro-Americans already entail a push for participatory budgeting, it is a candidate for a municipal public bank, and benefits from California’s robust (but woefully underused) body of cooperative law. Sacramento also is home to a movement to build power for Black communities via the promotion of Black business, which is at once directly at risk due to COVID-19 and would stand to benefit from the economic advantages cooperatives offer.

Moreover, it is home to Bay Area transplants of all backgrounds, traumatized by successive waves of gentrification, with solid educations and big dreams, but nothing but shoddy jobs and massive student debt to show for it. (I am one of these people.) The Bay Area mindset is fundamentally futuristic and creative, and, while these drives tend to manifest through capitalist entrepreneurship, such thwarted ambition can turn towards socialist ends if presented with an appropriate outlet for its expression.

This places Sacramento DSA, at least, at an advantage when considering the benefits of a libertarian municipalist strategy. Other chapters would, of course, seek out candidates based upon criteria specific to the considerations of their region. Nonetheless, they will probably find that their ideal target is, like Sacramento, a mid-size city with outsized political and economic importance to the region, with a receptive and diverse population replete with displaced Millennial and Zennial college graduates.

The path I present is by no means easy. It requires careful planning, intensive on-the-ground organizing, patience, endurance, and adaptability. Like all strategies, there is no guarantee that it will succeed. But I see no real alternative to this work. The crises of the twenty-first century demonstrate the need for a new economic system—and fast. This approach to libertarian municipalism offers a working replacement for capitalism, as opposed to tepid reforms doomed to decay yet again into neoliberalism. The legendary pendulum swing between left and right must end. In the twentieth century, our choice was one of socialism or barbarism. Today, it is libertarian municipalism—or annihilation.