We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


Local Self-Government and the Right to the City

By Warren Magnusson

Review By W.F. Garrett-Petts

July 29, 2016

BC Studies no. 193 Spring 2017  | p. 207-210

Warren Magnusson’s reputation is secure as one of Canada’s leading political theorists, and Local Self-Government and the Right to the City offers us what he says is “probably… [his] last book” (viii). As such, it is an occasion for personal reflection, drawing together in the manner of a major retrospective his signature essays and using the opportunity to resituate and thus restate his previous publications through a combination of prefaces and commentaries — and toward the end of the book, to introduce some new writing. The recursive “pattern of prefacing and commenting upon my own analyses,” he states, constitutes a kind of critical performance that puts him “in dialogue with [his] younger self” (29) — but not with the objective of having the last word. Despite the wealth of scholarship invoked, and despite the closely reasoned positions presented, Magnusson abhors the temptation of closure; he proffers instead the example of an ongoing conversation, an invitation to dialogue that, if taken up, promises to extend his argument beyond the pages of the book.

That argument, by now familiar to readers of Magnusson’s past work, is introduced in the opening lines of Local Self-Government, where we are told that this is a book “haunted by an old idea: the thought that people could actually come together in their own communities and decide for themselves how things ought to be” (3). The word “haunted” repeats throughout, conjuring for his readers the leitmotif of a ghost story, with the narrator revealing not only his own obsessions as a theorist but also something about the tentative nature of his subject, the spectral possibilities of local democracies variously lost, misunderstood, or marginalized.

Magnusson has long championed theories of local government and ideas of direct democracy at the neighbourhood level, inspired initially and largely by the example of citizen assemblies and the historical precedent of the New England town meeting. The book is divided into three principal sections: “The Local State in Capitalist Society,” “Social Movements and Political Space,” and “Rethinking Local Democracy.” Section One rehearses Magnusson’s work from the 1980s, considering the historical origins of local government and playing off questions of metropolitan reform, centralized bureaucracy, and citizen participation against what Magnusson calls “the old story of the rich and powerful controlling everyone else’s destiny” (5). Section Two features work from the 1990s and 2000s, interrogating changing notions of political space and introducing the proposition that “the state itself [and thus its claim to sovereignty] was actually more of a movement than a structure,” a political movement taking shape in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and now “shap[ing] our political imaginations” (22). The final section concludes with work from 2003 on, challenging the idea that cities are mere creatures of the provinces, looking to the example of Aboriginal self-government as “offering us a model that could be adopted more generally” (19), and linking visions for democracy to the right of neighbourhood self-government.

At root, Magnusson wants us to consider what a post-capitalist society might look and feel like by focusing not upon the broad national and global narratives, but upon stories of local institutions and practices that, prior to his body of critical work, may have appeared more the subject of public administration than political philosophy. Beginning in 1978 with his Oxford DPhil thesis, he has expressed profound concern about how a statist worldview has insinuated its presence as an uncritically examined consensus among political scientists and others, a working assumption affecting our understanding of participatory democracy and what has been called the “right to the city.” His fascination with such phrasing points to Magnusson’s largely unacknowledged search for a new political vocabulary, one derived from and sensitive to the local, yet neither myopic nor parochial.

Language is important here, for, if we nudge Magnusson’s position only slightly, we can see him arguing that terms authentically derived from an urban worldview will have profound implications for political discourse generally:


My main suggestion [is] that we need to learn to “see like a city” rather than “seeing like a state.” When we do the latter, we take the state system as determinant and imagine that our politics has to be centred on the sovereign authorities that it establishes. … If instead we learn to see like a city, we come to recognize that political authority is configured in a number of different ways, only one of which is the state. The state’s pretense to sovereignty is just that: a pretense. To act politically we have to deal with a multiplicity of authorities in different registers (cultural, religious, economic, or whatever)….(italics added; 25).


“Register” is a sociolinguistic term for the range of linguistic features and choices (e.g., use of vocabulary, level of formality, configuration of semantic features) available for use in any given rhetorical situation. Dealing with “a multiplicity of authorities in different registers” necessitates a kind of situational fluency, an ability to translate competing perspectives — in Magnusson’s case, to transcend the local while still asserting a coherent community-based viewpoint. As he notes, coming to terms with multiple forms of political authority requires “experimentation and innovation, informed by lateral communication between activists, politicians, and public officials in different communities” (247). One senses, however, that for Magnusson the issue of placing sovereignty and the state under erasure remains largely an ontological proposition, a philosophical stance at least one remove from the kind of pragmatic lateral communication, experimentation, and innovation he advocates in passing.

While Local Self-Government is wonderfully provocative and sophisticated in its working out of political theory, it is also maddeningly short on concrete examples, case studies, and illustrations. That said, it is a beguiling book, at once both melancholy over the loss of fleeting democratic moments and models and optimistic at the prospect of realizing the democratic ideal. What it misses, though, is an equally compelling complementary consideration of the epistemological and the rhetorical dimensions of the argument presented.

For Magnusson, the state functions as what Kenneth Burke defines as a “terministic screen,” a cognitive, symbolic, and, for Magnusson, ultimately political filter “composed of terms through which humans perceive the world, and that direct attention away from some interpretations and toward others” (Burke, Language as Symbolic Action, 46). As Burke argues, “since we can’t say anything without the use of terms[,] whatever terms we use, they necessarily constitute a corresponding kind of screen; and any such screen necessarily directs the attention to one field rather than another” (Language as Symbolic Action, 50). For example, our preoccupation with the “state” as a defining term directs our thinking and assumptions and deflects us from an appreciation of local governance, in particular from “seeing like a city.” Magnusson’s thinking is resolutely ontological, and thus his argument eschews the kind of sociolinguistic self-consciousness that a Burkean perspective might provide; however, what he does advocate is nothing short of a new paradigm of participatory local governance involving a devolution (as opposed to a delegation) of decision-making to local authorities. The rhetorical force of his argument remains undeniably appealing, for, according to those seeking the “right to the city,” what is at stake is the ability of local authorities to shape their own destiny. While Local Self-Government may not provide specific directions for achieving such ends, it does a remarkable job in raising and framing crucial questions, in critiquing prevailing disciplinary assumptions, and in mapping the landscape for a new urban-focused, community-based worldview.


Burke, Kenneth. 1966. Language as Symbolic Action. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Local Self-Government and the Right to the City
Warren Magnusson
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.  376 pp. $34.95 paper.