The Mayors and the Movements

In 2015, a wave of social movements lifted left-wing mayors to power in Spain. Their experience in office shows the importance of linking institutional power to bottom-up mobilization.

Barcelona en Comu leader Ada Colau waves to well-wishers after her party won the municipal elections on May 24, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. David Ramos / Getty

As a massive taxi strike in Spain spread from Barcelona to other cities across the country this July, the Spanish right had no doubt where the blame lay. According to the populist center-right party Ciudadanos, it was Barcelona’s left-wing mayor Ada Colau who had irresponsibly detonated the conflict. Conservative daily El Mundo newspaper decried her “opportunism and demagoguery.”

The strike began after Colau’s municipal government introduced regulations to crack down on digital platforms such as Uber, which were then suspended by the Catalan Supreme Court. Its judgement deemed the city had overstepped its formal powers. As thousands of taxi drivers blocked some of Barcelona’s main thoroughfares in protest, their counterparts in Madrid, Malaga, and Valencia flooded the streets demanding similar regulations be introduced nationally.

Meanwhile Colau took to the airwaves challenging the new Socialist Party (PSOE) national government “not to look the other way — to be tough on the powerful.” After five days of urban gridlock, a tentative deal was reached, with the government led by PSOE man Pedro Sánchez agreeing to introduce a new law in the fall to make regulation of the sector easier.

Such a positive dynamic between institutional initiatives and social mobilization, in which each reinforces the other, was part of what Colau’s Barcelona en Comú (BenComú) had sought to create upon taking office in 2015. Bringing together activists from the city’s social movements as well as left parties like Podemos and the United Left, the new municipalist force promised not only anti-neoliberal measures but also radical democracy. Like sister platforms that took over city halls in Cadíz, Madrid, Valencia, and other Spanish cities, BenComú’s aim was to transform the municipal sphere into a site of popular organization and participation.

Fearless Cities, a recent book produced by BenComú activists, has sought to draw wider lessons from these experiences, promoting a new model of progressive municipalism. Yet if we are to take Barcelona as a beacon for a new kind of politics, this also demands a deeper engagement with questions of left-wing strategy. Wielding elected office has catapulted activists onto the national stage — but it’s also highlighted the difficulties of institutional power not backed up by sustained mobilization from below.

Cutting Back

For this network of radical councils, things haven’t been easy. Confronted by well-organized elites and hemmed in by nationally imposed austerity rules, this network of radical councils has faced huge limits. Most have struggled to combine the responsibilities of office with a fidelity to their original transformative programs.

In Madrid, Mayor Manuela Carmena has been pushed into a series of retreats, including having to accept nearly 400 million euro worth of cuts in 2017. Meanwhile in the Badalona municipality neighboring Barcelona, Mayor Dolors Sabater was removed from office after losing a no-confidence vote in June. This came after a year of battles over austerity, which saw the central government withhold funds after Sabater’s Badalona en Comú tried to “bend” spending rules.

In Barcelona itself, the balance sheet looks more positive, in part because of the formation’s greater organizational strength. But the city’s lower debt rate has also been crucial, in that it has given the council greater fiscal autonomy than its counterparts in other cities. This has been well exploited by Colau’s administration which is implementing a raft of new social measures, such as an ambitious municipal housing scheme and an investment program aimed at low-income neighborhoods. They have also forced through important regulations to tackle the city’s housing crisis, the latest of which will see 30 percent of all new homes rented or sold at affordable rates.

Yet the last year has also seen a number of high-profile defeats, such as the failure to push through what was meant to be the platform’s flagship measure for its first term — taking back control of Barcelona’s privately run water supply. The council had hoped to put the proposed re-municipalization to a citywide referendum but after a protracted legal battle with the existing corporate contractor Agbar, they lost the vote in the council chamber in April.

On the same day councilors also voted down one of BenComú’s key infrastructural projects, a new streetcar line linking the city center to the peripheries, further underlining the difficulties they have had operating as a minority administration. With only eleven out of forty-one seats on the council, BenComú had formed a coalition government with PSOE in 2016. Yet in the wake of the contested independence referendum last year, the pact broke down after the Socialists backed the suspension of Catalan autonomy.

Now facing a tough reelection battle next May and with increasing divisions within the platform itself over the question of independence, Colau and BenComú find themselves at a critical juncture. Given the difficult balance of power in which they are operating, they have secured impressive gains. Initial polls also give them a narrow lead over their nearest rivals, Ciudadanos and Esquerra Republicana. Yet the question now is whether they can lay deeper social roots and exercise real material leverage as they chart a route beyond their first term in office.

The Municipalist Wager

It is in this context that Fearless Cities: A Guide to the Global Municipalist Movement, has been published in Spanish and Catalan with an English edition coming from Verso in early 2019. The book brings together contributions from many of the platform’s leading figures as well as those from other Spanish cities and like-minded initiatives from around the world.

Coming on the heels of the first global gathering of municipalist organizations in Barcelona in 2017, Fearless Cities reads in part as a “public proclamation” from a movement who believes its time has come. As Iago Martínez from the platform La Marea Atlantica, which governs La Coruña’s council, puts it:

If the 19th century was that of Empire and the 20th that of the nation-state, the 21st is the century of the city …. Cities are our greatest hope for democracy. While traditional political institutions lose space and power in a system which has surpassed the boundaries of the nation-state, new local sovereignties emerge as authentic protagonists of the present through their capacity to respond …. to the key challenges of our age.

In Spain the immediate background to this wager on a new urban democracy was the Indignados’ occupations of city squares in 2011. This citizens’ revolt against a discredited political system was a watershed moment in Spanish politics: public broadcaster RTVE estimated between 6 and 8.5 million people participated in the assemblies and protests. In the aftermath came a sustained cycle of social mobilization that saw the spread of various large-scale movements, such as the La PAH campaign against house evictions — of which Colau was the national spokesperson — and the Mareas (or Tides) which organized around resisting cuts to public services.

Yet by 2014, with social engagement ebbing and little to show in terms of tangible political gains, activists formulated the idea of standing in upcoming council elections on broad platforms of popular unity known as confluencias. Committed to the Indignados’ demand for “real democracy,” these new candidacies aimed for something more than simply winning local government on a progressive agenda.

Rather, they sought to experiment in new institutional practices, in which regard they also considered the smaller-scale municipal level as more susceptible to horizontal forms of organization. The aim was both to break with traditional top-down party structures and at the same time to open up local government to a range of participatory channels. They moreover intended to harness their positions in city hall to continue building an alternative social bloc capable of challenging the corporate hold on public institutions and the wider city. Asserting municipal sovereignty against Spain’s oligarchy would require “one foot in the institutions and a thousand in the street”: that is, in order to force through their reforms radical councils would also have to build social engagement and counterpower beyond the institutions themselves.

Fearless Cities is at its best on this first question of organizational experimentation, as it analyzes the initial challenges in setting up a participatory platform, the type of tools needed to run a nontraditional electoral campaign, and how to develop new forms of political accountability and deliberation which can bind figures within the institutions to a wider collective project.

What comes across from the text is a near-obsession amongsthose leading these municipalist formations: namely, the fear of becoming integrated into the political class or losing touch with the social reality from which they came. In this respect, one standout chapter deals with drawing up new ethics codes and the need to eliminate the privileges associated with being a professional politician. Salary caps, strict rules on expenses, term limits, and transparency of officials’ agendas are necessary elements in renewing confidence in public representatives.

The sections on the feminization, or de-patriarchalization, of politics, also make for essential reading. Platforms like BenComú have committed to placing a feminist perspective at the center of both their political agenda and organizational structure. For Laura Pérez, head of Feminism y LGTBI on Barcelona council, gender equality should not be understood simply as a question of parity in organic positions and electoral lists, though that is important, but rather it has to involve a series of mechanisms that permeates the whole democratic process, such as equal speaking time for men and women at meetings and the need to incorporate gender criteria in all decision-making processes.

A Thousand Feet in the Street

However, beyond considering municipal politics as more conducive to transparent and democratic process, municipalists also posited the city as a strategically important site for the building of a popular counter-hegemony. And it is here that the Spanish experience has run up against limits.

Facing a bloc of entrenched power, an authentic democratization process required not only participatory channels but also the social muscle of an organized mass base. As Kate Shea Beard, one of the editors of Fearless Cities, put it in a recent article:

Municipalism … understands that power doesn’t solely reside in elected institutions; it’s also wielded in the economic, social and cultural spheres. For municipalists, then, transformative politics … must also involve building an ecosystem of social movements, economic initiatives and community institutions that can support these candidate’s agendas from outside city hall, and hold them to account when necessary.

In fact, these Spanish movements’ rapid electoral success can even be said to have complicated such a strategy. Platforms such as BenComú had bet on being able to continue riding the Indignados’ wave in office but after three “hot” years of mobilization, they greatly overestimated the potential for further large-scale social conflict. Indeed, part of the importance of the recent taxi strike was that it was one of the few examples in the last three and a half years where one of these councils’ agendas actually gelled with a significant mobilization outside the institutions.

This was something discussed with real candor at the recent book launch for Fearless Cities in Madrid. As Barcelona’s deputy mayor Gerardo Pisarello put it:

It seems to me that the debate is above all about what to do when mobilization outside is not sufficiently intense. We have not had [such mobilization]. We have had moments of intensity and others without [but] we have not had a mass movement for the “right to the city” which we had hoped for. Why has this mass movement against speculation not been produced? Well, what is certain is that it has not existed on the scale which we would need to stop such processes.

Pisarello mentioned one possible explanation for “the weakness of the street”: namely, the idea that while large numbers of activists and organizers have moved into institutional roles, the movements did not have the strength-in-depth to replace them. Others such as Izquierda Unida’s Alberto Garzón, have pointed to a certain conservative shift in perception among a wide spectrum of the population who have become more resigned to postcrisis living standards.

This ebbing in mobilization has also produced an obvious gulf between the municipalist platforms’ broad electoral reach and the lack of social depth in their own internal organizations. The paradox is that while being highly innovative in terms of participatory structures and practices, they have so far failed to develop as mass organizations. BenComú can count on 1,500 activists in a city of 1.7 million while, as the ecologist Yayo Herrero put it at the Fearless Cities launch, in certain other cities “there is no [extra-institutional] organization” at all.

As Pisarello acknowledged, this lack of social reach and rootedness has left BenComú struggling to get its message out amidst relentless media attacks: “In 2015 we had votes but no organization. We had people who voted [identifying with] Ada Colau but these people were not necessarily organized in their neighborhoods.”

Without such sustained support from below, Spain’s fearless cities have struggled to advance the core elements of their programs. Ambitious policies aimed at reversing the privatization of public services, advancing an alternative to speculative real estate development, and breaking with Spain’s austerity regime had presumed a certain offensive capacity that would allow these cities to contest the political and legal limits placed on local government. Instead, under massive pressure from economic elites and a hostile central government, as well as technocratic resistance from city officials, the radical councils have been left with little margin for action.

In this difficult balance of power, many of the more immediate social measures introduced to tackle the crisis, as well as innovative reforms in less politicized areas such as pedestrianization and public transport, have to be seen as real achievements for these councils. In particular, the regulations on affordable housing introduced by BenComu, which bring the city into line with center-left administrations in Paris and London, represent an impressive victory given the strength of the construction and real estate lobbies in Spain.

The council has also sought to crack down on banks sitting on empty apartments; it fined three financial institutions more than a million euro in early October, and has shut down 2,300 illegal Airbnb rentals (out of a total of around 18,000 in the city) between 2016–17. Yet the sheer scale of the housing crisis in Barcelona and the council’s lack of formal powers to introduce more comprehensive regulations mean such measures have not substantially impacted the city’s epidemic of housing evictions. In 2017, there were more than 2,500. These were mostly in the rental sector, which has seen a 49 percent rise in average prices since 2013 while wages remain largely stagnant.

Progress has been even slower on the terrain of re-municipalization, which sought to directly contest the power and privilege of the Spanish elites by taking public amenities under municipal control. BenComú’s program not only contained a general commitment to this policy but specific pledges to take water and home help assistance back under control as publicly run services. Yet in 2017 the council announced it was impossible to re-municipalize the latter service given the legal restrictions on incorporating the existing private workforce as public employees. Instead the council has concentrated on improving the precarious conditions of these 2,600 carers.

The question of water will now have to wait until after next year’s elections, while the council has also made it clear it will not seek to take back control of street cleaning and waste-collection services, which together make up 10 percent of the council’s budget. In the capital, the prospect that Manuela Carmena’s Ahora Madrid platform would seek to recover such major services led to a year-long media campaign depicting sanitation in the city as being in free fall as well as highlighting threats that the government, at that time led by the conservative Partito Popular, would challenge the legality of their plans. Signing new four-year contracts totalling nearly 700 million euro with corporate providers, the council stressed its increased spending while smoothing over the fact that it would be still be funneled through the likes of billionaire Florentino Perez’s construction and services conglomerate Grupo ACS.

Certain minor services have been re-municipalized in Barcelona and Madrid, most notably the cities’ funeral services. The two councils have also launched pilot programs in what they call the “social economy,” offering minor contracts (in Madrid totaling 4.8 million euro) to a variety of social cooperatives. In Barcelona, Colau has taken the plans bequeathed by the previous center-right administration to create a municipal energy company based on the city’s incinerator and has expanded its scope to also include a community-run network of solar panels. She has also promised to direct these resources to fighting energy poverty.

These are discrete but important initiatives. Yet the wider picture is that after three and a half years in office these radical councils have largely failed to challenge the existing model of municipal services based on externalization and profiteering.

Small Victories

These limits to the Spanish experience are not discussed in the text of Fearless Cities. In part this can be explained by its framing of municipalism as a global movement and the book’s comparative methodology. Yet the development of radical municipalism outside of Spain is largely inchoate and Barcelona is taken as the standard-bearer for urban-based politics internationally; as such, the fact that no room is afforded to a more global assessment of these movements’ institutional engagement thus appears as something of a missed opportunity. This is particularly the case given a disproportionate number of the contributors are members of BenComú.

Instead, the text is broken into three sections: a short opening on basic municipalist concepts and two longer sections offering analyses of municipalist organizational tools and policy initiatives. The latter offers over fifty examples of “transformative public policies” taken primarily from Spain but also international case studies from Portland, Oregon to Rosario, Argentina. Yet while pointing to the ability of these activist-led formations to develop innovative approaches on a range of issues, we are not provided the context that would allow us to gauge the strength or depth of the movements implementing them. Are these hard won but isolated gains, or proof of political subjects potentially capable of a wider social transformation?

Even more problematic is that the book offers little discussion at the level of political strategy. Instead Fearless Cities frames the wider significance of these policies in terms of their prefigurative character. One of the book’s central theses is that, however discrete and partial, initiatives to foment the social economy or enact participatory budgeting “not only improve the lives of the people” but also demonstrate there are possible alternatives to the dominant practices. In a time of darkness and the rise of the extreme right, “starting to construct concrete projects and winning small battles … is a good way to demonstrate from the present the potential of the city of the future.”

Clearly accumulating small victories, particularly at the early stages, is key for creating a sense of possibility in any political project. Yet by validating municipalist initiatives in this way, contributors tend to pass over the strategic dilemma of how these movements, in going forward, can hope to conquer power (and not just office). The transformative ambition of these movements is obvious but via what means do they hope to institute a wider break with the neoliberal city?

The Spanish experience suggests the route of rapid electoral assault creates massive contradictions. The challenge of combining office with the patient work of “organizing the city” has been too great for what are new and inexperienced formations. Clearly withdrawal from electoral contestation would simply cede ground to the Right but if municipalists are aiming for something more than managing “the lowest rung” of the governmental ladder, their focus needs to be elsewhere.

In theory they realize this but as Josep Maria Antentas has noted in Jacobin, their electoral weight has long since become their chief resource. As new struggles emerge, such as the recent upsurge in strikes among precarious workers, these councils will have to find ways of involving themselves and forging deeper links with society. In some cities, like Madrid, it might take the loss of office to actually enable such a process of renewal of their base.

Even in Barcelona, where institutional engagement has had a higher payoff, the way forward remains unclear. This was summed up brilliantly by Marcelo Expósito, an En Comú-Podem MP, at the launch of Fearless Cities:

When asked the question, “What is happening in the institutions when it seems like nothing is happening,” [Bolivian vice-president Álvaro García Linera] replied “We are gaining more time in order to see if something will happen.” We argue a lot over how much we have been able to do but we also have to count the things we have manged to block and detain … which are a lot. Exactly in this moment when from the institutions alone it is not possible and something more is lacking, a lot of times the role of government is to block winning time until we see what emerges.

As long as this “something more” fails to materialize, BenComú will have to content themselves with smaller victories that largely leave the dominant model of the city intact.