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Barcelona en Comú: the City as Horizon for Radical Democracy

Post image for Barcelona en Comú: the city as horizon for radical democracy

Image: people signing the Guanyem manifesto (via Guerrilla Translation).

With all eyes on Syriza, Podemos and the Troika, the focus of attention among the left these days is the possibility to reclaim democracy at the state — and, inshallah, at the supranational — level. Yet at the same time, somewhat less visibly, there is a new cycle of struggles for democratic governance unfolding at the level of the city.

One such municipal movement and platform is Barcelona en Comú (Catalan for ‘Barcelona in Common’, formerly Guanyem Barcelona). Pioneering new ways and words for approaching the city as common(s), Barcelona en Comú opens possibilities for a politics rooted in everyday experiences, social relations and spaces of reproduction.

A story of intertwining horizons

In 2011, the 15M movement exploded the political horizon in Spain and inaugurated a cycle of struggles around spaces and institutions that have been growing and transforming ever since. This story consists of many episodes and sub-scenes and its ‘making of’ is far beyond a linear story. The mobilizations have produced some internationally visible effects, such as the occupation of squares or the recent success of Podemos, the radical left party that emerged in early 2014 and won five seats in the following European Parliamentary elections, now the strongest force in opinion polls. The two-party system that had Spain in its paralyzing grip since Franco is now done.

In the spring and summer of 2014, drawing from the social intellect and processes that fueled the post-15M struggles and experiments in radical democracy, a strategy to win municipal elections was being imagined in Catalonia: “Guanyem Barcelona.” By the summer, this civil society and social movement-shaped platform had launched is call to fight the corrupt austerity politics of the ruling Partido Popular (PP) and the local Catalan government.

The murmurs quickly became a steady roar, and within just over a month, Guanyem collected 30.000 signatures to support the project. Hundreds of people joined the platform and got involved in its working groups, envisioning a long and complex process. As the model proliferated across the peninsula, similar “Ganemos” structures soon emerged in Malaga, Madrid and other cities. Once the signatures confirmed that there was enough backing for a grassroots-shaped candidacy, representatives of the platform in Barcelona got to work and proceeded to register the new political party.

Yet here comes a small curious side-plot. The party register lies with the ministry of the interior. Handing in their paperwork, Guanyem were met with a surprise: an obscure Catalan city councilor had registered the name “Guanyem Barcelona” two days ahead of them. The man soon appeared with an offer: let me be in charge of coordinating all platforms in Spain and I will hand back the name. This was ludicrous not just because it is blackmail but also because the local Guanyem/Ganemos initiatives are autonomous.

There was also ample evidence for the illegitimacy of this registration — the man had given up a false address, Guanyem had papers from previous dealings with solicitors that mentioned their name — so the real Guanyem filed an appeal. While this kind of sabotage is not uncommon in the Spanish political landscape, the odds seemed to be against the desperate city councilor. Yet the interior ministry, run by the PP, sided with him and rejected Guanyem’s claim.

So Guanyem re-launched itself as “Barcelona en Comú” in February 2015, having now grown into a full-fledged municipal movement. Their confluence with a series of local left parties has been assured and the collectively drafted electoral program is currently open for evaluation and online feedback. Ready for a hot spring, Guanyem is now Barcelona en Comú, entering a new phase with new challenges.

Methodology and organization

There’s a lot to tell about the methodology of Barcelona en Comú, as its radical democratic approach comes with a host of tools, techniques, mechanisms and structures for enabling municipal politics from below. Amongst those are various levels of assemblies (neighborhoods, thematic areas, coordination, logistics, media, communication, etc.) and online platforms (for communicating, voting, working). The initiative’s organigram looks more like a washing machine or a particle accelerator than a flat or vertical hierarchy.

That’s quite appropriate, because politics and organization are spun around on a daily basis here, reconsidered and reconfigured in an intense experiment in collective thinking and acting. All of that happens without prescriptions, instructions, funding or lobbies but with lots of heads, hands and feet at work: not your typical ‘smart’ and regulated participatory process.

Starting without a recipe, however, does not mean that the initiative is not inventing its own terms, conditions and practices. The most inspiring example of such innovation is the Guanyem code for Political Ethics, which was discussed, annotated and ratified at an open working weekend in October 2014 — with some 300 people present and many more following and commenting online. This ethics code outlines the platform’s basic compromises as concerning representation, auditing, accountability, financing, transparency, professionalization and corruption, and applies to anyone working within it.

At the level of policy proposals, thematic working groups (health, migration, culture, tourism, work, economy, urbanism, gender, local governance, education, information) have taken on the task of formulating position papers that feature minimum criteria and proposals for each area. These will be negotiated with the other parties (ICV, EuIA, Podem Barcelona, Procés Constituent und Equo) that joined Barcelona En Comú in a common candidature.

Barcelona En Comú is also an experiment in creating, accessing and valorizing common infrastructures and resources. It has very few material resources at its disposal, but it manages to create new forms of access to existing resources, opening doors to council infrastructures with new legitimacy and collective claims, as well as valorizing grassroots and self-run social and political infrastructures. This gives the ‘common’ in its name a very concrete significance.

A laboratory of social intelligence

Since its inception, Guanyem Barcelona has grasped the role of neighborhoods as protagonists of change. It is clear that Guanyem learned much from movements such as the PAH — the Platform of People Affected by Mortgages, Spain’s strong and popular housing movement which also emerged from Barcelona — that have built their strength through processes of networked proliferation of local groups, each of which is singular in its political leaning, social-affective texture and style. Neighborhood groups are a crucial space for developing analyses and mobilizing the collective strength to enable feedback and contagion effects between local processes and the platform’s thematic groups as well as its coordination committees.

In the winter of 2014-’15, each of the neighborhood groups worked on a diagnostic document concerning their area. These were drawn up in open meetings and analyze problems and propose measures at the local level. In the document from my neighborhood, Poble Sec, the domains addressed were urbanism; health; economy; work, precarity, inequality and poverty; information society; governance and participation; culture; migration; housing; tourism; and education.

Proposals range from the re-appropriation of public space to the opening of health centers and services for old people, to supporting small local businesses and forms of solidarity economy, creating an adult education center and more free WiFi spots, encouraging participatory planning and translation, supporting self-run cultural and social spaces, generating more council housing and changing the areas’ planning permissions, and so on.

These local assemblies are spaces of encounter between people from divergent walks of life, bringing together different levels of expertise and experience — local and technical knowledge being worth the same. They constitute an immense gathering and reshaping of knowledge driven notably by an ever more downwardly mobile middle class. This is both a strength (there is huge potential in the mobilization of these knowledges and social fabrics) and a risk (it will be a challenge to maintain a plurality of subject positions and escape the “tyrannies” of the middle class).

Interplays of proximity and difference

The current political-institutional crisis forces us to re-imagine the political and social as spaces of collective action. The city is a space of experience and acting we know and participate in daily, not only symbolizing but also embodying our social common. While it’s the key layer between the square and the parliament, between the 15M and Podemos, its importance is not just a matter of scale: politics in the city has a potential to propose radical new methodologies for thinking proximity and difference in organizing. It has the power to explode binaries and contradictions between the street and the state, the micro and the macro, and even the local and the global.

With the focus on the municipal, to take back institutions (social rights, infrastructures, democratic mechanisms), spaces (vital, social and representational) and autonomy (over social wealth, territories, the everyday) becomes something very tangible and concrete. What would we like our school, our square, our homeless shelter to be like — not any homeless shelter, but the one here, in our street? There is immense power in proximity and situated knowledges in the city, making the question of self-determination concrete without necessarily passing through issues of identity, be it national or subcultural.

Self-referential claims to territory are hard to sustain in the face of the heterogeneity of interests, needs and lifestyles that shape the post-industrial city. At its best, the city is a multi-layered and agonistic convivial space that can do without sovereignty or identity, the strength of its local processes being that they build commons without losing sight of others and elsewheres.

The city’s social and historical DNA

What does it mean to think the city as a process driven by difference, and to trust that it can be collectively reclaimed? The city has much to do with the history of democracy, going back to the ancient Greek polis, but also with the history of colonialism as enabling large centers of states, and with the development of capitalism in the growth of the modern city. The city has long served as a technology for making difference productive, from the crudest to the most subtlest of ways: how to think the city — and democracy — beyond patriarchal, colonial and capitalist genealogies?

Three social and historical processes are key in this regard: displacement and eviction from the land, the history of colonialism and slavery, and the subjugation of women. Beyond intersectionalist box-ticking, these are inevitable starting point for imagining a radically different city — an experiment that tries to get closer to the root of the problem with democracy and the city.

The first of these points concerns the hegemonic claims that cities have held over the rural: the contradiction between city and countryside is no less strong than the one between labor and capital. Here we enter the problem and perspective of ecology, but also that of class: with industrialization, cities have become spaces of relation and life whose capacity of equality and sustainability have been ever decreasing. The need to re-imagine the ecology of the city goes far beyond smart-city models and urban gardens. In Barcelona, there is a multitude of cooperatives and initiatives concerned with sustainable design, agriculture, recycling, squatting land, alternative trade networks — they can be a starting point for addressing this level.

Secondly, we must face the question of citizenship in relation to the city anew, attempting to redefine social rights in relation to social reproduction and the post-industrial city. Other models of rights and responsibilities, departing from shared vital spaces and commons, are key here (such as the Latin American buen vivir, taking up affirmations that nature and community too are subjects of rights). Even if at present questions of rights and citizenship are the state’s business, it’s not too early to initiate a re-thinking of the political subject starting from the webs of relation, interdependency and difference of our cities.

This brings us to the third interrelated point: grasping the city as a space of social reproduction and the role of care and commons therein, and rethinking the subject of politics. On the one hand, it also means rethinking the urban subject more generally, thinking access to rights beyond andocentric and anthropocentric models that privilege wage-labor and individual, independent human subjects.

Towards an intersectionality of struggles

Even if precarity and unemployment have steadily eroded the supposed normality of stable wage labor, we are still far from valorizing the reproductive labors and commons that sustain the city. In this regard, ‘Cuidadania‘ is a neologism that Spanish feminist movements have put into circulation to re-frame citizenship (‘ciudadania’) as a matter of care (‘cuidado’). The city is a battlefield par excellence for this. On the other hand, it obviously concerns the need to break with politics as a club of privileged subjects — not just a matter of quotas but of transforming political culture more generally.

Addressing these overlapping levels requires not just debate and good policies but also a careful labor of mobilization and composition in order to produce what, with Angela Davies, we might call an intersectionality not of identities, but of struggles. The municipalist movements face this challenge both with respect to their own composition — who is speaking for whom, can this be more than a rebellion of disenchanted white middle classes? — as well as to which issues will be prioritized.

Here it needs to be clear that politics is not a moral playing field and that strategic decisions do not always look as pure as some would wish. However, priorities must not be betrayed in the long run: En Comú will certainly face situations similar to those presently faced by Syriza. Its success will be down to the strength of its transversal composition, its ethical frameworks and the movements.

What is exciting about Barcelona en Comú is that it understands not just how to think strategically but also in terms of process and relations. For the transformations necessary for producing radical change — change that works on the root of problems — need to be relational. As David Harvey puts it:

The question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from that of what kind of social ties, relationship to nature, lifestyles, technologies and aesthetic values we desire. The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization.

That is why the right methodology for working in and on the city is one based in process and ethics, starting from difference and productive heterogeneity, able to do without unitary identity, moralism and monocultures of knowledge. Barcelona en Comú sets out some key coordinates for this work while at the same time building transversal connections. It has, irrevocably and regardless of eventual electoral results, opened up yet another swath of horizon.

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