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Municipal Socialism Then and Now: Some Lessons for the Global South


Given the large and growing literature opposed to the privatisation of services such as water and electricity, it is peculiar that so little has been written about the experience of ‘municipal socialism’ –a set of roughly analogous historical movements that used local governments to challenge private service delivery and advance ‘socialist’ agendas from the late 1800s to the 1940s. Although primarily a European and American phenomenon, and emerging from different contexts than those prevailing today, municipal socialism found widespread support and transformed many public services. Results were mixed, with some experiments being little more than (pre)-Keynesian attempts to revitalise capital accumulation in the face of ‘irrational’ private sector services, but the lessons are important as these experiments provided the first intellectually and politically sustained resistance to privatisation and other prototypical forms of what we now call neoliberalism, and demonstrated the possibility of effective service delivery by the public sector. This paper reviews these experiments, focusing on the experience of the United Kingdom and drawing lessons for contemporary efforts to build alternatives to privatisation in cities in the South, where local-level, socialist-oriented reforms have been relatively strong.

Ellen Leopold and David McDonald
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Third World Quarterly, 33(10): 1837-1853
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