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Panel 14. The Local State and Urban Social Movements: What’s to be Done in Times of Crisis


  • Walter J. Nicholls, Department of Urban Planning and Public Policy, University of California, Irvine,
  • Ian Baran, Department of Urban Planning and Public Policy, University of California, Irvine,


Critical urban scholars have long sought to understand the possibilities and barriers to achieve progressive political change through the local capitalist state. Theorists of the local state have identified the structural, relational, and ideological mechanisms that limit such change. For example, scholars have shown how urban-level institutions are designed to facilitate capitalist production and reproduction, closing off opportunities for left-wing forces to achieve structural change through municipal institutions (Harvey 1989; Jessop 2002; Brenner 2004). Others have shown how relations among elite capitalists, elected officials, and bureaucrats result in governing regimes that create and maintain the institutions needed to fulfill capitalist functions (Logan and Molotch 1987; Stein 2019). And still others have demonstrated how the local state combines repression (Wacquant 2004; Gilmore 2006) and consent (Hall et. al. 1978; Katznelson 1981; Cruikshank 1999; Arena 2012; McQuarrie 2013) to ensure social control over unequal and restive cities. These interventions have identified the underpinnings of the local capitalist state, but the focus has tended to prioritize the barriers to progressive change through the state over the possibilities. 

Despite this pessimistic prognosis, progressive social movements across the world have continued to mobilize outside and inside local state institutions (Nicholls and Uitermark 2016; Russell 2019). Some have succeeded to advance certain policies and reforms, but many others have fallen short (Angel 2019; Leão Marques 2021).  The aim of this session is to assess – theoretically and empirically – the barriers and opportunities for urban social movements to achieve some degree of power through the local capitalist state. 

While open to various theoretical traditions, the session will encourage debate within the parameters of critical urban studies. Our aim is to inspire comparative dialogue from cases across the Global South and North.  We especially encourage papers that address the following kinds of questions: 

  • How can progressive social movements create alliances, deploy resources, and construct narratives to maximize openings within the state there may be? 
  • What kinds of strategies and tactics can be used to maximize leverage when writing and implementing policy? How can the institutions of the capitalist state be used against it?
  • What are the structural mechanisms (e.g., financial, legal, etc.) that limit progressive change in cities? 
  • Who constitutes urban governing regimes and how do they exercise power to counter progressive social movements? 
  • How can contradictions in urban structures, institutions, and governing regimes create openings for progressive social movements (e.g., place-dependence of capital, internal conflict among elites, , laws that provide a progressive foothold, etc.)? 
  • What role does crisis play in exacerbating contradictions and generating strategic breaches in local state fortifications? 
  • How can service-oriented bureaucrats (e.g., social services, education, health, etc.) serve as strategic allies of progressive social movements?
  • What are the conditions that motivate or restrict progressive elected officials from lending their support to progressive social movements?
  • Can modest progressive policies provide the ideological and institutional scaffolding to make further advances when optimal conditions arise again? Or are such reforms insignificant concessions designed to placate and /or coopt progressive challengers? 

Centro de Estudios de Conflicto y Cohesión Social.

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