"We are living in an exceptional time that demands brave, creative initiatives. If we are able to imagine a different city, we will have the power to transform it.”
“There was a belief in the revolution and the future, a feeling of having suddenly emerged into an era of equality and freedom. Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.” This is how George Orwell described the city of Barcelona during the anarchist revolution of 1936 in his classic Homage to Catalonia. A short-lived dream that was soon to be crushed by Franco’s fascist regime.
Almost 80 years later, the City Hall of Barcelona sells a very different dream to the world. An over-developed, highly commercialized Barcelona that has become a theme park for tourists, who blissfully wander the streets of the charming metropolis, unaware of the harsh difficulties many of its citizens are actually going through. The clash between those two Barcelonas is becoming increasingly intolerable, as seen in the recent struggles over the eviction of self-organized community squat/centers such as Can Vies, among others.
However, that spirit Orwell once sensed in Barcelona never really died. The Spanish revolutionaries of today may not be fighting fascism with weapons, but they are fighting neoliberalism with real democracy. That’s what the 15-M movement is all about, a movement that is now evolving into various efforts to take people’s assemblies from the streets to the political institutions.
At a national level, the most relevant are Movimiento por la Democracia, Partido X and Podemos, whose front man Pablo Iglesias was chosen by the Confederal Group of the United Left (GUE) as a candidate for the Presidency of the European Parliament, no less! Catalonia also has its own bottom-up political organizations, such as Procés Constituent (with its charismatic leader, Teresa Forcades) and CUP, which already has three representatives in the Catalan Parliament.
And now comes a new call for a democratic revolution from Barcelona itself, by way of a platform named Guanyem Barcelona [Let’s Win Barcelona], launched by a group of the city’s intellectuals, cultural workers and activists. Among the latter is Ada Colau, who is well known in Spain as the spokeswoman for Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH), a countrywide movement that aids victims of home evictions by banks. Even though Guanyem Barcelona’s aim is to win the next municipal elections, set for May 2015, it is not a political party as such. Rather, it’s an invitation to existing social movements and political organizations as well as regular citizens to converge around four fundamental objectives:
1. To guarantee basic rights and a decent life for all.
2. To foster an economy that prioritizes social and environmental justice.
3. To democratize institutions and allow people to decide what kind of city they want to live in.
4. To meet an ethical commitment towards citizens.
Here is our English translation of the inspiring Let’s Win Barcelona manifesto (also shown on the Guanyem Barcelona website):
We are living in a time of deep changes. Taking advantage of the economic crisis, the financial powers have launched an open offensive against the social rights and conquests of the majority of the population. However, the longing for real democracy is becoming stronger and stronger in the streets, in town squares, online and also in the ballot boxes.
Over the past few years, numerous citizen movements and initiatives have denounced the scam we are being subjected to and have demonstrated the inability of old-school politics to respond to people’s needs. But these initiatives have often come up against the arrogance of the elites, who feel immune, who won’t correct their mistakes, and who now want to impose a second Transición so that nothing changes.
We cannot afford another institutional blockade from above that leaves us without a future. We need to strengthen, more than ever, the social fabric and the spaces for citizens to self-organize. But the time has also come to take back the institutions and put them to work for the majority and the common well-being.
In order to prove that we can do things differently, we need to proceed step by step. And the first step is to begin with that which is closest to us: the municipal sphere, our city, our neighborhoods.
Barcelona is a decisive place to promote this much-needed democratic rebellion. First of all, because it already has an associative and activist network that is capable of carrying out ambitious projects for change. And secondly, because a democratic rebellion in Barcelona would not just be a merely local phenomenon. It would connect with many other related grassroots efforts to break away from the current political and financial system. In Catalonia, in Spain as a whole, and in Europe.
Because we believe in the right to choose, we want to choose, here and now, what the Barcelona we need and yearn for should look like.
We want a city that fosters the honesty of those who govern it and prevents a mafia-like collusion between politics and money. We must end the accumulation of political positions, limit salaries and terms, advance transparent agendas, and establish efficient mechanisms to control public officials. We want a new ethical contract between citizens and representatives.
We need to find a way to stop and reverse the insulting inequalities that have developed in recent years. We want a city without home evictions or malnutrition, where people aren’t condemned to live in darkness or to put up with abusive increases in the price of public transport. Access to housing, education, healthcare and a basic income should be guaranteed rights for all, not privileges that only a few can afford.
We want a genuine metropolitan democracy, which obligates political representatives to lead while obeying. A decentralized democracy with direct elections of each district’s councilmen and -women, with social oversight of its budgets, where citizens help to make joint, legitimated decisions through proposals and binding referendums.
We need a Barcelona that is welcoming but also willing to stand up to powerful lobbies from the financial, real estate and tourism sectors. We need institutions that promote a social economy and the creation of sustainable jobs. Public contracts must meet social justice and environmental criteria.
We do not want a city that sells its urban heritage to the highest bidder. We want institutions that recover the democratic control over its water supply, that implement fiscal measures and city planning that put an end to land speculation and promote environmentally sustainable energy and transport policies.
Many of these initiatives are supported, and have been for some time, by social, neighborhood and union movements as well as by various political organizations. But we won’t be able to carry them out without the involvement of broad sectors of society.
Rescuing democracy from the powers that have kidnapped it is a difficult and ambitious, yet thrilling, challenge. It requires creating new tools for social coordination and political intervention, where organized citizens and those who are beginning to mobilize can meet. Both people who have been fighting for some time and those who feel cheated but are longing to become excited about a common project.
That is why we are launching this civic platform. To build a joint candidacy that represents the majority, with the aim to win. A candidacy that inspires enthusiasm, that is present in neighborhoods, at workplaces, in the cultural community, and that allows us to transform institutions to serve the people.
We don’t want a coalition or a mere combination of political parties. We want to stay away from the old party logic and build new realms that, while respecting each organization’s identity, transcend the arithmetic sum of the parts involved. We believe that our city meets the necessary conditions to make it possible.
There is no magic formula to solve the difficulties we will come up against on the way. We will have to ask questions as we move forward, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do so. Our most successful experiences show us that, if we organize around specific objectives and practices, we can reach goals that may have seemed impossible.
Despite the harshness of the financial crisis, a historic opportunity has cracked open, which we cannot and will not fail to seize. We are living in an exceptional time that demands brave, creative initiatives. If we are able to imagine a different city, we will have the power to transform it.
We invite you to discuss this together on June 26th. For us, for those who tried before us and for those who are yet to come. It’s time to prove that it is possible to build a different city. It’s time to win Barcelona.
The much-anticipated June 26 meeting was in fact a resounding success. About 2,000 people of all ages and walks of life attended, overflowing both the main hall and the overflow area with hope and enthusiasm. Representatives of the above-mentioned social movements and political parties were also present. And not just those from Catalonia. Even top members of Podemos traveled from Madrid to Barcelona for the occasion, a sign that this initiative may well encourage other Spanish towns and cities to follow a similar path for their own upcoming local elections.
One of the most applauded lines in Ada Colau’s empowering speech was her vision of converting Barcelona’s beautiful concert hall El Palau de la Música (a symbol of modernist architecture that has, sadly, become a symbol of the “mafia-like collusion between politics and money” as well) into a people’s self-organized cultural center. An image reminiscent of when the Barcelona Ritz Hotel restaurant was converted into a communal dining room back in Orwell’s day (see minute 5 of this video).
The term Orwellian has become synonymous with the totalitarian, centralized government the author envisioned in his later novel, "Nineteen Eighty-Four." But Orwell not only had nightmares. He had dreams, dreams of “equality and freedom.” Don’t we all?