The revolution will be municipalized

First published as ‘Let’s win back Barcelona‘ in Open Democracy, 24 November 2014

Illustration: Javier Jaén

Illustration: Javier Jaén

When the indignados occupied the public squares of Spain on 15 May of 2011 demanding ‘real democracy’, they changed the terms of public debate. Their calls for an end the excessive privileges of elected officials, measures to tackle corruption in public life, the dismantling of the stale two-party system, and citizen participation in decision-making chimed with the popular mood far beyond those who participated in the occupations, and became the pillars of the so-called nueva política (‘new politics’). Post-15M, the question became whether this protest movement was capable of becoming an electoral contender and, if so, how.

2014 was the year that the indignados broke through into the political mainstream. Spain is now spoilt for choice when it comes to radical democratizing movements and political parties, from Partido X, 15MParaRato and Procés Constituent, to Podemos, which is now leading national voting intention polls, less than a year after its launch. Even the surge in support for the Catalan independence movement is, in many ways, thanks to its promise to solve the inadequacy of democratic institutions in Spain through the creation of a new state.

However, while international attention has focused on Podemos and the Catalan independence movement, with national elections still a year away and the Catalan process deadlocked, it may be a radical new municipal platform that is the first of these movements to seize institutional power at the May 2015 local elections.

A new radical municipalism

Launched in June of this year, Guanyem Barcelona. (Catalan for ‘Let’s Win Back Barcelona’) is a citizen platform whose aim is to ‘take back the city and its public institutions and put democracy back at the service of the people’.

The platform’s probable mayoral candidate is the popular anti-evictions activist, Ada Colau, who shot to national fame when she accused a representative of the Spanish Banking Association of being a ‘criminal’ during a parliamentary hearing. Her popularity and oratory flair are undoubtedly powerful weapons in the movement’s bid for mass media attention, but the platform also has deep roots in the city’s networks of social and political activists. Guanyem Barcelona is a joint initiative of members of Colau’s Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, local neighbourhood associations and anti-corruption campaigners, as well as a number of Barcelona-based academics, journalists, artists and urbanists. It has collected over 30,000 signatures of support and is currently holding discussions with local political parties, including the Barcelona circle of Podemos, with the aim of standing on a joint ticket at the upcoming elections to the city council.

Illustration: Martin Tognola

Illustration: Martin Tognola

Rebel Barcelona

Guanyem’s choice of, not just the municipal sphere, but of Barcelona in particular, as the stage on which to play out its experiment in ‘new politics’, is no accident. 15M itself, of course, was a distinctively urban phenomenon, born of the shared frustrations of the densely concentrated, cosmopolitan, and digitally savvy population of the city. But Guanyem’s draft manifesto goes as far as to describe Barcelona as ‘the ideal place to push for this much-needed democratic rebellion’. It points to the city’s rich network of local associations and tradition of political activism, and to Barcelona’s strategic potential to connect with and reinforce similar movements with democratizing ambitions in Catalonia, Spain and the rest of Europe. This theory is proving true; a number of other ‘Let’s win’ platforms have sprung up in other cities across Spain since the launch of Guanyem Barcelona, and the platform has thrown its weight behind the forbidden independence vote on 9 November in Catalonia. Ada Colau is dismissive of critics who claim that municipal institutions don’t have the powers to implement many of Guanyem’s ambitions, insisting that what is lacking in the current administration is ‘creativity and political will’, rather than legal authority. The fact that that her anti-eviction platform has used direct action and civil disobedience to halt over a thousand evictions across Spain since 2010 lends this claim a certain credibility.

Imagining a different Barcelona

Barcelona is not only one of the many sites where many of the problems affecting Catalonia and the Spain are playing out on the ground in the form of evictions, cuts to public education and health services, unemployment and widening inequalities, it is also home to its own political battlegrounds on which Guanyem is uniquely poised to capitalize.

An emblematic example is that of Can Vies. In May of this year, the city council evicted and demolished this community centre, which had been run from an occupied building owned by the Barcelona transport authority in the neighbourhood of Sants for 17 years. The demolition provoked violent protests and arrests in the nights that followed and, subsequently, the mobilization of residents from across the city to reconstruct the building brick by brick. Guanyem has supported Can Vies in line with its commitment to neighbourhood organization and activism and alternative social and economic models.

Following the Can Vies incident, this summer saw a wave of popular demonstrations against the effects of mass tourism in the port neighbourhood of Barceloneta. The protests were sparked by anger at rising rents and the proliferation of illegal tourist apartments. Concern was expressed that residents and businesses are being forced out of the area, destroying the fabric of local community life. Recent years have also seen tourist hot-spots like the Ramblas become no-go areas for Barcelonans, sometimes literally, as in the case of Park Güel, which local residents now have to book in advance to enter. Barcelona, a city of 2 million inhabitants, hosted 7.5 million visitors last year. The city council’s target is to increase this figure to 10 million, despite the depth of popular concerns about current visitor numbers and the capacity of the city infrastructure to cope with them. Even before the protests this summer, Guanyem was vocal in its criticisms of the current model of tourism in Barcelona. At the core of its analysis is the claim that the profits of the tourism industry are enjoyed by a small elite, while ordinary people are forced to bear its costs (noise, overcrowding, rising rents and a precarious seasonal labour market).

Changing the rules of the game

Guanyem’s spokespeople have used the strongest of rhetoric in their calls for increased transparency and accountability, talking of public institutions that are being held ‘hostage’ by an elite and put at the service of their own narrow interests. Ada Colau has said that, in order to break this monopoly it not enough for citizens to vote once every four years and then wash their hands of responsibility. She talks of “changing the rules of the game” so that people can participate directly in the day-to-day running of the city, making decisions on everything from the use of public spaces to childcare services. Guanyem Barcelona is already putting this principle into practice in the development of its own policy agenda, rolling out local Guanyem groups in neighbourhoods across the city, and experimenting with digital participation tools.

Guanyem’s electoral prospects will likely turn on its success at bringing together like-minded progressive political parties to stand on a joint ticket and its ability to mobilize the 50% of the population who don’t usually vote in the municipal elections. If it can, the eyes of Catalonia and the rest of Spain will be on Barcelona to see how the ‘new politics’ fares in power.