“We the people” and the 10%

Originally published in Spanish in Planeta Futuro.

Illustration: Nom de Noia

Illustration: Nom de Noia

Guanyem!  Podemos! Volem votar! The first person plural is in the ascendant in Spanish politics. ‘We’ are going to take back city hall. ‘We’ are going to uncover corruption and kick out the mafia. ‘We’ are going to vote to set up a new independent state. Grassroots political movements across the country are mobilizing with the aim of dismantling the political and economic Establishment and creating a new, more democratic system led by and for the people.

This kind of discourse has a long history. The US Constitution opened with the famous words ‘we the people’ but, despite its democratic pretensions, it defined ‘people’ as white men; women and slaves were not invited to the party. The language of ‘we’ has also been co-opted by a long line of unsavory, reactionary movements with a narrow definition of ‘us’, usually in opposition to an ‘other’: them.

So, if the language of ‘we’ is to serve as anything more than mere rhetorical flourish, contemporary movements that aim to regenerate democracy must reflect seriously about who exactly ‘we’ are. Guanyem Barcelona’s Ada Colau preempted this question on the part of the platform’s political opponents in her ‘And they’ll ask us who we are’ speech back in September. As Colau’s speech showed, answering it can have surprisingly radical implications. It gets to the very heart of how we understand the rights and responsibilities of political participation and what it means to be a citizen. By daring to define citizenship in a new, more inclusive way, such movements may be able to justify their claim to be forging a deeper, more authentic ‘democracia real’.

Currently, citizenship is virtually synonymous with Spanish nationality, which is acquired through parentage, marriage, or extended residency. While citizenship based on blood or birth may be anathema to any progressive movement on principle, in a country of net emigration this system did, historically, give most people basic political rights to vote and stand in elections. But recent migratory trends mean that the question of who is a citizen is no longer just theoretical. 5 million non-Spanish nationals have made the country our home; that’s around 10% of the total population of Spain, rising to 15% in Catalonia. Unfortunately, public debate on migration has tended to see both immigrants and emigrants primarily as (male) workers whose activity and contributions are, above all, economic. Female immigrants, for our part, have either been rendered invisible, criminalizes, or seen as mere walking wombs to be used to boost the national fertility rate.

It is incumbent on new political movements to take up this gauntlet, recognize migrants as political subjects, and advocate for our right to full participation in all aspects of public life.

The current democratic deficit in this regard is significant. EU citizens can vote and stand in municipal and European elections, but not in regional or national ones. Foreign residents from non-EU countries can only vote in municipal elections if a reciprocal agreement is in place between their home country and Spain. The principle of reciprocity ties  suffrage here to the good will and progressive immigration policies of  other countries, with the absurd and discriminatory result that someone  from Cape Verde can vote in the 2015 municipal elections but a citizen  of Venezuela can’t. Access to political participation in regional or national politics is even more restricted, carrying the high price for both EU and non-EU citizens of the adoption of Spanish nationality after a minimum of ten years of residency. Foreign-born residents also face additional obstacles in accessing public sector employment, resulting in a lack of diversity and representativeness at all levels in public institutions. Most seriously of all, undocumented immigrants lack political rights of any kind, and are completely excluded from public life.

A radical re-imagining of citizenship is required to enfranchise this missing 10% of the population; one that disentangles the concept from both nationality and conditions of reciprocity. Pushing for legal and institutional reform is part of the equation, but such changes, some of which require amendments to the constitution, could be a long time coming. New political spaces like Guanyem Barcelona, Podemos, Procés Constituent and Red Ciudadana Partido X, with their open, decentralized decision-making structures, allow anyone to get involved in  policy-making, whichever country issued their passport. By taking participation beyond the institutions of representative democracy, they can offer people who have previously been excluded from, or underrepresented in, such institutions the chance to participate in the policy-making process for the first time.

The potential is there, but it won’t be fulfilled automatically. Such movements will have to seek and promote the participation of people of all backgrounds, avoiding the trap of ghettoizing foreign-born residents in the areas of immigration and integration policy. We have a range of, sometimes contradictory, views on every issue from healthcare to the economy, just like any other sector of the population. Including the perspectives of people of foreign origin is not just a question of justice; the diversity of experience and knowledge from which we can draw is a valuable resource for any collective project.

It might seem naïve for any organization with electoral ambitions to invest time and political capital in people who cannot vote for them.  But, by doing so, new political movements have the opportunity to demonstrate a genuine commitment to the principles of human rights, equality, and participatory democracy. It is not enough for these  movements to speak for the 10%, as so many well-meaning people have  tried to do before; they must speak with us, first outside the  institutions of representative democracy and then, eventually, within them.