How Progressive Cities Can Reshape the World — And Democracy
As national governments lurch to the right, a radical citizens coalition in Barcelona is showing how ordinary people can reclaim control of their communities
“We’re living in extraordinary times that demand brave and creative solutions. If we’re able to imagine a different city, we’ll have the power to transform it.” – Ada Colau, Mayor of Barcelona.
On 24 May 2015, the citizen platform Barcelona en Comú was elected as the minority government of the city of Barcelona. Along with a number of other cities across Spain, this election was the result of a wave of progressive municipal politics across the country, offering an alternative to neoliberalism and corruption.
With Ada Colau — a housing rights activist — catapulted into the position of mayor, and with a wave of citizens with no previous experience of formal politics finding themselves in charge of their city, BComú is an experiment in progressive change that we can’t afford to ignore.
After 20 months in charge of the city, we try to draw some of the main lessons that can help inspire and inform a radical new municipal politics that moves us beyond borders and nations — and towards a post-capitalist world based on dignity, respect, and justice.
1. The best way to oppose nationalist anti-immigrant sentiment is to confront the real reasons life is shit.
There is no question that life is getting harder, more precarious, more stressful, and less certain for the majority of people.
In the U.S. and across Europe, racist reactionaries and nationalist politicians are blaming this on two things — immigrants, and “outside forces” that challenge national sovereignty. While Trump and Brexit are the most obvious cases, we can see the same phenomenon across Europe, in the rise of far-right parties like Alternative für Deutschland in Germany and the Front National in France.
In Barcelona, there is a relative absence of public discourse that blames the social crisis on immigrants, and most attempts to do so have fallen flat. On the contrary, on February 18 of this year, over 160,000 people flooded the streets of Barcelona to demand that Spain take in more refugees. While this demonstration was also caught up with complexities of Catalan nationalism and controversy over police repression of migrant street vendors, it highlighted the support for a politics that cares for migrants and refugees.
The main reason for this is simple: There is a widespread and successful politics that provides real explanations of why people are suffering, and that fights for real solutions.
The reason you can’t afford your rent is because of predatory tourism, unscrupulous landlords, a lack of social housing, and property being purchased as overseas investments. The reason social services are being cut is because the central government transferred huge amounts of public funds into the private banks, propping up a financial elite, and because of a political system riddled with corruption.
While Barcelona played a leading role in initiating a network of “cities of refuge,” simply condemning anti-immigrant nationalism isn’t enough. In a climate where popular municipal movements are providing a strong narrative as to what they see as the problem — and identifying what they’re going to do about it — it’s incredibly difficult for racist and nationalist narratives based on lies and hatred to take root.
2. Politics doesn’t have to be the preserve of rich old white men.
Ada Colau is the first female mayor of Barcelona. She is a co-founder of BComú, and was formerly the spokesperson of the Mortgage Victims Platform, a grassroots campaign challenging evictions and Spain’s unjust property laws. Colau leads a group of 11 district council members, seven of whom are women, whose average age is 40.
BComú’s vision of a “feminized politics” represents a significant break with the existing political order. “You can be in politics without being a strong, arrogant male, who’s ultra-confident, who knows the answer to everything,” Colau explains. Instead, she offers a political style that openly expresses doubts and contradictions. This is backed by a values-based politics that emphasizes the role of community and the common good — as well as policies designed to build on that vision.
The Barcelona City Council’s new Department of Life Cycles, Feminisms, and LGBTI is the institutional expression of these values. It has significantly increased the budget for campaigns against sexist violence, as well as leading a council working group that looks to identify and tackle the feminization of poverty.
The changing face of the city council is reinforced by BComú’s strict ethics policy, Governing by Obeying, which includes a €2,200 monthly limit on payments to its elected officials. Colau takes home less than a quarter of the amount claimed by her predecessor Xavier Trias. By February 2017, €216,000 in unclaimed salaries had been paid into a new fund that will support social projects in the city.
3. A politics that works begins by listening.
BComú started life with an extensive process of listening, responding to ordinary peoples’ concerns, and crowd-sourcing ideas — as summarized in its guide to building a citizen municipal platform.
Drawing on proposals gathered at meetings in public squares across the city, BComú created a program reflecting immediate issues in local neighborhoods, city-wide problems, and broader discontent with the political system. Local meetings were complemented by technical and policy committees, and an extensive process of online consultation.
This process resulted in a political platform that stressed the need to tackle the “social emergency” — problems such as home evictions on a huge scale, or the effect of uncontrolled mass tourism. These priorities came from listening to citizens across the city rather than an echo chamber of business and political elites. BComú’s election results reflected this broader appeal: It won its highest share of the vote in Barcelona’s poorest neighborhoods, in part through increasing turnout in those areas.
On entering government, BComú then began to implement an Emergency Plan that included measures to halt evictions, hand out fines to banks leaving multiple properties empty, and subsidize energy and transport costs for the unemployed and those earning under the minimum wage.
4. A politics that works never stops listening.
Politics doesn’t happen every four years — it is the everyday process of shaping the conditions in which we live our lives. This means that one of the central tasks of a politics that works is to forge a new relationship between citizens and the institutions that we use to govern our societies.
For BComú, the everyday basis of politics means citizens and civil society organizations directly shaping the strategic plan of their city. It means not just consultation, but active empowerment in helping move citizens from being “recipients” of a politics that is done to them, to active political agents that shape the everyday life of their city.
In the first months of occupying the institutions, BComú introduced an open-source platform, Decidim Barcelona, for citizens to co-create the municipal action plan for the city. Over 10,000 proposals were registered by the site’s 25,000 registered users. While that’s a small share of the city’s population, the online process was complemented by over 400 in-person meetings.
The Decidim platform is now being adapted to run participatory budgetary pilot-schemes in two districts, as well as being used in the ongoing development of new infrastructure, pedestrian-friendly spaces, and transport schemes. Meanwhile, the municipal Department of Participation is undertaking a systematic rethinking of the meaning of participation, looking to move away from meaningless “consultations” and towards methods for active empowerment.
This is an imperfect process, and BComú have gotten things wrong at times — such as the failure to properly engage when introducing a SuperBlock in the Poblenou district — but the principle is simple. To govern well, you must create new processes for obeying citizens’ demands.
At the same time, the structures that built BComú remain in place, with 15 neighborhood groups and 15 thematic working groups providing an ongoing link between activists and institutions. No structure is perfect, and it remains unclear if these working groups can help BComú avoid institutionalization and remain connected to social movements, but the hope is that this model provides a basis for remaining in touch with grassroots concerns.
5. Politics doesn’t begin with the party.
BComú isn’t a local arm of a bigger political party, nor does it exist merely as a branch of a broader strategy to control the central political institutions of the nation-state. Rather, BComú is one in a series of independent citizen platforms that have looked to occupy municipal institutions in an effort to bring about progressive social change.
From A Coruña to Valencia, Madrid and Zaragoza, these municipal movements are the direct efforts of citizens rejecting the old mode of doing politics, and starting to effect change where they live. Instead of a national party structure, they coordinate through a network of rebel cities across Spain. Most immediately, this means coordinating press releases and actively learning from how one another engage with urban problems.
That doesn’t mean that BComú can reject political parties entirely. While the initiative arose from social movements, it ended up incorporating several existing political parties in its platform. These include Podemos — another child of Spain’s Occupy-style indignados movement — and the Catalan Greens-United Left party, which had consistently been a junior coalition partner in city councils headed by the center-left Socialist Party of Catalonia from 1979 until 2011.
These parties continue alongside BComú, with their own completely separate organizational and funding structures. But entering BComú has forced existing parties to significantly change how they operate. Coalition negotiations encouraged the selection of new council members (only two of the elected candidates have previously held office), and they are subject to a tough ethics code that considerably increases their accountability.
The fluid relationship between the new coalitions and political parties allows for multiple levels of coordination, without having to pass through a rigid central leadership. It may also be replicated in regional government, where the recently formed Un Pais En Comú seeks to replicate the city government coalition across Catalonia.
On a terrain that contains a different set of politics — not least a strong national-separatist sentiment — it remains to be seen whether this latest initiative will be successful.
6. Power is the capacity to act.
BComú doesn’t subscribe to traditional notions of power, whereby if you hold public office, you somehow “have” power. On the contrary, power is the capacity to bring about change, and the “occupation of the institutions” is only one part of what makes change possible.
BComú emerged after almost a decade of major street-protests, anti-eviction campaigns, squatting movements, anti-corruption campaigns, and youth movements — the most visible form being the indignados protests that began in 2011. After years of being at a high level of mobilization, many within these movements made a strategic wager: We’ve learned how to occupy the squares, but what happens if we try to occupy the institutions?
Frustrated by the limits of what could be achieved by being mobilized only outside of institutions, the decision to form BComú was to try to occupy the institutions as part of the same movement that occupied the squares. In practice, this isn’t so simple.
Politics is a messy game, full of compromises forced by working in a world of contradictions.
In the most practical sense, BComú may be leading the council, but it holds only 11 of the 41 available seats. Six other political parties are also represented on the council, mostly seeking to block, slow down, or weaken its initiatives. Frustrated by these moves — and overwhelmed by the demands of the institutions — BComú formed a governing coalition with the PSC, a move supported by around two-thirds of its registered supporters.
But it remains a minority government, and two left parties that refused a similar pact responded by stepping up their block on almost all legislative initiatives. The resulting political crisis delayed the passing of the city’s 2017 budget, which was eventually forced through on a confidence motion when BComú challenged the opposition to unite around another plan — which it failed to do.
While this experience has shown the resilience of BComú in the confrontational confines of the council chamber, the key lesson here is that occupying the institutions isn’t enough. An electoral strategy is not sufficient alone to create change.
The power to act comes from a combination of occupying both the institutions and the squares, of social movements organizing and exercising leverage, providing social force that can be coupled with the potential of the occupied institutions. The power to change comes when these work in tandem.
It’s been a bumpy ride, but BComú has been able to justify its budget on the grounds that it prioritizes social measures (such as building new nurseries, combatting energy poverty, and focusing resources on the poorest neighborhoods) with reference to the extensive and ongoing process of participation that it has encouraged.
One of the biggest dangers in looking to build radical municipalist movements in other cities is to mistake electoral victory with real victory — to sit back and think that now we’ve got “our guys” in the institutions, so we can sit back and let change occur.
7. Transnational politics begins in your city.
In a time where reactionary political movements are building walls and retreating to national boundaries, BComú is illustrating that a new transnational political movement begins in our cities.
To this end, BComú has established an international committee tasked with promoting and sharing its experiences abroad, while learning from other rebel cities such as Naples and Messina. Barcelona has been active in international forums, promoting the “right to the city” at the recent UN Habitat III conference, and taking a leadership role in the Global Network of Cities, Local, and Regional Governments.
These moves look to bypass the national scale where possible, prefiguring post-national networks of urban solidarity and cooperation. Recent visits of the first deputy mayor to the Colombian cities of Medellin and Bogotá also suggest that links are being made on a supranational scale.
One of the most tangible outcomes of this level of supranational urban organizing was the strong role played by cities in the rejection of the Transatlantic Trade & Investment Partnership, or TTIP — a massive proposed trade pact between the U.S. and Europe. As hosts of a meeting entitled “Local Authorities and the New Generation of Free Trade Agreements” in April 2016, BComú led on the agreement of the Barcelona Declaration, with more than 40 cities committing to the rejection of TTIP. As of the time of writing, TTIP now looks dead in the water.
At this early stage, it remains unclear how this supranational network of radical municipalism may develop. Perhaps the most important step for BComú is to share their experience and support those in other cities that are looking to reclaim politics, helping to build citizens platforms across Europe and beyond.
But the idea of a post-national network of citizens also allows us to dare to dream — of shared resources, shared politics, and shared infrastructure — where it’s not where you were born but where you live that determines your right to live.
8. Essential services can be run in our common interest.
The clue to BComú’s strategy for essential services is hidden in its name: The plan is to run them in common.
At the end of 2016, and faced with a crisis in the funeral sector in which only two companies controlled the sector and charged prices almost twice the national average, the Barcelona council intervened to establish a municipal funeral company that is forecasted to reduce costs by 30 percent. Around the same time, the council voted in favor of the re-municipalization of water, paving the way for water to be taken out of the private sector at some point this year.
In February 2017, Barcelona amended the terms and conditions for electricity supply, preventing energy firms from cutting off supply to vulnerable people. The two major energy firms — Endesa and Gas Natural — protested this by not bidding for the €65-million municipal energy contracts, hoping this would force the council to overturn the policy.
Instead, a raft of small and medium size energy companies were happy to comply with the new directive to tackle energy poverty, and stand to be awarded the contracts if a court challenge from the large firms proves unsuccessful. BComú is also actively planning to introduce a municipal energy company within the next two years.
However, it’s important to recognize the major difference between the public and the common. As Michael Hardt argues, our choices are not limited to businesses controlled privately (private property) or by the state (public property). The third option is to hold things in common — where resources and services are controlled, produced, and distributed democratically and equitably according to peoples need.
A simple example of what this could look like was the proposal — which narrowly failed only due to voter turnout — for Berlin to establish an energy company that would put citizens on the board of the company.
This difference underpins the Barcelona experience. This isn’t a traditional socialist government that thinks it can run things better on behalf of the people. This is a movement that believes the people can run things better on their own behalf, combining citizen wisdom with expert knowledge to solve the everyday problems that people face.