Interrupting the neoliberal masculine state machinery? Strategic selectivities and municipalist practice in Barcelona and Zagreb

Interrupting the neoliberal masculine state machinery? Strategic selectivities and municipalist practice in Barcelona and Zagreb


Written by:

Martin Sarnow and Norma Tiedemann

First Published:

11 Jul 2022, 9:47 am


Interrupting the neoliberal masculine state machinery? Strategic selectivities and municipalist practice in Barcelona and Zagreb



The city and its democratic potential have always fascinated and attracted political theorists, social movements and political actors. From the Paris Commune in 1871 to the right to the city struggles of the last decades, urban agglomerations have been the entry point to conquer and control the institutions and physical infrastructure of the city from below to break with capitalist logics and other forms of domination. But the city is not a free-floating entity. It is deeply embedded into the multi-scalar ensemble of apparatuses that constitute the capitalist state and must thus be analysed and approached as the crisis-ridden, neoliberal and masculinist local state it is. 

In response to the multiple neoliberal crisis and its authoritarian management, a new wave of these efforts was sparked off by the so-called (new) municipalism. Through new alliances between movement actors and parties at the local level, municipalist initiatives intend to democratise and feminise the local state and socialise the economy.  Its politics provide a paramount window into how progressive endeavours have to reckon with the uneven ground of the state. In the article we use materialist and feminist state theory to unpack the selectivities of state institutions against which municipalist initiatives in Barcelona, Spain and Zagreb, Croatia run up and analyse which collective strategies these actors deploy to interrupt the machinery of the local state. The contribution is based on two research projects on municipalism in Barcelona and Zagreb, including interviews with activists and local councillors from municipalist platforms as well as actors from social movements and NGOs.

Both Barcelona and Zagreb are nowadays, after decades of a political stalemate, governed by municipalist platforms: Barcelona en Comú (BeC, Barcelona in Common) and Zagreb Je NAŠ! (ZJN, Zagreb is ours). They evolved from urban struggles in a context of semi-peripheral crisis politics and entered the formal-institutional terrain of the local state a few years ago. Founded as platforms, they differ from traditional parties in being firmly rooted in social movements and constituted by a variety of different actors from trade unions, parties, ecological and feminist movements and right to the city struggles amongst others. Whereas BeC is in city government since the local elections of 2015, ZJN acted for four years as a small oppositional force and has only a year ago, in May 2021, received a majority of votes to now govern the Croatian capital. Both face similar problems in terms of being confronted with a centralised and neoliberalised state, masculine grammars of the institutions and a temporal landscape which favours the established actors in the institutions. 

In the article we argue 1) that a state-theoretical approach helps to analyse the terrain of the local state as constituted by neoliberal-masculine rationalities and timescapes, blocking short-term changes, 2) that this materiality of the capitalist state has a decisive impact on the dynamics, structure and content of municipal projects and 3) that, although the (local) state is a slow, contradictory machinery, the municipalist projects were able to leave their trace on its materiality at various points. They challenged the selectivities of the local state machinery by organising participation as conflict, scandalising the serving of particularistic interests, making public sexist behaviour within the masculine apparatuses and forming new alliances with feminist and subaltern actors. All this changes the dynamics of state institutions. The examples of ZJN and BeC show that these interventions are able to discredit the status-quo and envision another future in terms of decentralisation, feminised politics and the construction of genuine political time.


Read the accompanying article on Urban Studies OnlineFirst here.