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Carmena's city: from 2011 to the present day, how Madrid tried to change the world

The host city for Transeuropa, surfing or drowning in the waves of governing for change?

lead Graffiti of Mayor Manuela Carmena. Joan Pedro-Carañana. All rights reserved.Madrid provided a perfect setting for the Transeuropa festival that was held on 25-29 October. Many discussions that took place reflected key debates and contradictions that have turned Spain’s capital into a key control experiment in politics for change. In Madrid, new and often differing ideas have emerged on how to address the ills affecting society.

This article conducts a tour d’horizon around the different social, political, cultural and economic proposals for change that have been promoted in Madrid since 2011.

Questions in general

Processes of change should connect a diagnosis of the existing structural context of multiple, interconnected crises with a viable therapy. Some of the key questions that arise are the following:

- How can a social majority be built to confront the international oligarchy?

- How can local institutions improve people’s well-being in a context of systemic crisis?

- How can human rights be protected in the face of the refugee crisis or speculation in the housing sector?

- How to tackle climate change when the system is based on extractivism, productivism and consumerism?

- How can social services be improved in the context of debt and the politics of Austerity?

- How to foster a plural culture for change when the media are concentrated in a few conglomerates that promote superficiality and triviality?

- How can politics be feminised in the context of the patriarchal power structures that dominate institutions?

- How can the digital commons be promoted vis-à-vis the power of technology monopolies?

There is surely no formula to resolve these problems. These questions have prompted different responses that have often led to conflict, especially between proposals coming from institutional politics and those arising from social movements.

This article focuses on the proposals that have been raised at the local level in Madrid and their capacity to foster national and international transformations. New questions arise on a strategic level about how to achieve the shared objectives of confronting the multiple crises and building a more equal society:

- Should local governments focus more on transforming culture or the economy?

- Should they attempt radical transformations or give a sense of governability and normality?

- Should they try to avoid backlashes from powerful agents?

- What relations should be developed between social movements and political parties?

- How can effective and democratic decision-making processes be combined?

- How can local forces act in the context of national and European governance?

- How can cities become environmentally sustainable?

- What communication practices can foster solidarity and bring people together?

The two souls of the 15-M combine to attain municipal government

The first debates took place within the 15-M (or ‘indignados’) movement all around Spain in 2011. The movement had (at least) two souls. One of them was based on a ‘citizenist’ perspective that was looking for the regeneration of institutions and politics, and the other approach proposed deeper, radical transformations.

Whilst the first perspective demanded an end to corruption and the abuses of the political and economic systems, the latter identified important limits to representative politics in the context of the EU and global, financial capitalism, questioned the system itself and promoted more direct forms of democracy. One soul focused on the indecent practices of the corporate-state elite and the other soul contested the indecency of the logic behind the corporate-state system. Citizenism addressed the effects, radicalism looked into the causes. Neither of them was able to identify adequate means to achieve their diffuse objectives.

The election of the Popular Party and its implementation of Austerity policies demonstrated the limits of street mobilisation. However, three years later, Podemos was born on the back of the legitimacy granted by the 15-M movement. The following year, the two souls of the 15-M converged again in an explosion of creativity and hope that brought Manuela Carmena to the mayor’s office in the city of Madrid. She ran with Ahora Madrid, “a citizen platform of popular unity” that put into practice municipalist principles.

The origins of Ahora Madrid date back to June 2014 when Municipalia was launched and soon after turned into Ganemos Madrid. It was defined as a citizen initiative based on horizontality and assembly. It was a confluence of people, social movements, associations and parties that sought to democratise politics by engaging in internal democratic practices. Its short-term objective was to unite a plurality of forces on the left to run for the municipal elections of 2015 in Madrid. This proposal that came from below obtained 30,000 signatures as an endorsement. Podemos and other parties soon joined. In March 2015, Ahora Madrid was presented as the party that would run for the elections. With the online voting of 15,000 people in the primary elections, Manuela Carmena was elected candidate by a wide majority.

Ahora Madrid activists and outside citizens mobilised massively to campaign for Carmena during the municipal election in May. A flow of creative communication once again occupied the streets and the social media. But this time, the socio-political movement was subsumed by its personalisation in the figure of Carmena. Pop-style images a la Obama campaign, far from the aesthetic of the traditional left, dominated. Following the principles of the star system, the candidate was portrayed as a charismatic leader with a great personal history to tell, one of the struggle for human rights, clandestinely during Franco’s dictatorship and as a renowned judge during democracy. Posters featured Carmena as a pop-icon, a superhero that could take care of us; supergranma. The narrative was based on the view that she had experience, was good-natured, intelligent and willing to listen and engage in dialogue.

The use of political marketing involved the re-appropriation and re-signification of the imagery of mainstream politics. The campaign could not be based on vacuous and vague promises like those of traditional parties, but needed practical transformative content. Thus, hope for change was filled with solutions to the problem of home evictions and the democratisation of institutional practices. The individualised images of Carmena were accompanied by references to the 15-M movement to show that it was a collective enterprise full of youthful joy. Carmena insisted on the collective character of the electoral platform and her reliance on the work done by those who were not visible. The official anthem emphasised togetherness and the ‘we’, combining reggae and Latin music to defend dignity, creativity and the joy of living.

The two souls of the 15-M reappeared to confront the multiple crises that Madrileños were facing. The pragmatic soul co-existed with proposals for deeper transformations in the mid-term. The latter was dominant in the electoral programme. On a strategic level, the programme focused on creating a sustainable economy with quality employment, assuring social rights and equity, and making Madrid a more sustainable, cohesive and close city through democratic, transparent and effective government. Specific measures included tackling home evictions, facilitating citizen participation and having binding referendums, guaranteeing universal health care and basic supplies (water, electricity, gas) to eliminate energy poverty, the remunicipalisation of privatised social services, a citizen audit of the municipal debt for its restructuring, improving mobility and reducing pollution, plus an emergency plan to create employment.

Criticisms of the municipal government

With this programme, Ahora Madrid came second in the municipal election with 20 seats in May 2015 with PP winning 21 seats and PSOE 9. Ahora Madrid reached an agreement with PSOE and Carmena became mayor.

Many social movements and left wing parties participated in the process of “popular unity”, but Carmena emphasised the transversal approach to incorporate people from different ideologies and backgrounds. Thus, Carmena has often declared that she wants to govern for “everybody”. However, the efficacy of this rhetorical tool is reduced when practical decisions have to be made around topics in which there are conflicting interests.

After two years in government, social activists – some of whom participate in the government – have questioned the depth of the reforms that have been implemented and the strategic line of the City Council. The audit of municipal debt and the plan against energetic poverty are still a work in progress. Some privatised social services have been remunicipalised, but not others. After all, critics recall, Carmena had said that the proposals in the programme were only suggestions.

The city centre is experiencing a rapid process of gentrification with rent prices skyrocketing and housing speculation expanding. Activists against home evictions value the intentions of the City Council but feel dissatisfied with the depth of the changes and complain that only a small number of council houses have been put at the disposition of evicted families. Many families continue to pay for their mortgage even after being evicted since the implementation of the discharge of the debt depends on the Spanish central government of PP (normally the property is taken as payment of debt and any outstanding debt written off – but what happens in Spain is that the person loses the house and still has to pay the debt). The limits to local politics are also reflected in the fact that the national health system also depends on central government.

Left-wing activists and critical members of the City Council have questioned the role of Ahora Madrid in real estate macro-projects such as Operation Chamartín (later known as Madrid Nuevo Norte), which was initiated by the PP. They argue that the City Council has abandoned its initial plan to confront the interests of financial and real estate capital and bring the operation to a halt. While the Council has not conceded all the demands made by corporate power, activists argue that it is nevertheless promoting planning permission for massive amounts of land and favouring macro-construction and speculation. Offices, skyscrapers, headquarters for corporations and ostentatious buildings will give shape to the financial City in the North. Meanwhile, the south of Madrid will become further excluded and impoverished. With this operation, activists argue that the City Council is conferring more hegemony on the financial and real estate interests that are ruling the city.

Critics contend that the life of the working and middle classes hasn’t changed much with the ‘government of change’ because of the ‘governist’ approach it has adopted. This pragmatic, citizenist and institutionalist perspective tries to avoid confronting powerful interests and, thus, doesn’t engage in the material struggle. Activists accuse members of Ahora Madrid of increasingly focusing on keeping their position and being re-elected instead of doing politics that introduces conflict. They criticise the centrality of the mayor and her nephew in-law in the decision-making processes to the detriment of plurality and democratic practices.

The strategy of administering government in professional and ‘serious’ ways has led, in the view of critics, to equivocation. In this view, the Council’s focus on corruption and institutional regeneration is insufficient when powerful economic actors attack the interests of the majority.

Contradictions regarding equality

In spite of the limitations of the reforms implemented by the City Council, Madrid has less debt now (3,500 million Euros with a reduction of 2,000 million), more social investment (26% increase) and surplus (1,100 million). It has also worked to improve mobility and reduce pollution by restricting traffic in the city centre.

After two years in government, Ahora Madrid has created a Councillorship of Equality to combat sexism and gender violence, as well as an Employment Commission, although the results are limited so far. For example, only 240 grants have been assigned for young, unemployed people and only 300 long-term unemployed people over 45 years old have been offered a place to participate in an employment pilot programme. 

The façade of the City Council features a placard welcoming refugees, but the reception of refugees depends on the central government, which is not complying with its commitment to host around 17,000 refugees. Only 1,304 people have been received in Spain and only 355 have been granted the legal status of refugees. In spite of not being its competency, the City Council of Madrid has dedicated 10 million Euros (0.25% of the municipal budget) to providing shelter (40 houses, mostly rented) and legal, psychological and school support to refugees.

Madrid has also joined the refugee-cities network launched by Barcelona’s Mayor Ada Colau and hosted the Encounter of Municipalities of Madrid Committed to Refuge, in which municipalities, political parties, trade unions, associations and NGOs all agreed on 12 measures to welcome refugees. However, the City Council has been criticised for taking up to 10 days to provide shelter and assistance to 80 refugees who were camped in a park and to inform the Ministry of Employment, which is the competent authority.

Contradictions in participation and democracy

The City Council of Madrid has been praised as an international reference point for citizen participation. It has taken its model of citizen participation to the UN, being the only city in the world that took the floor. It is argued that a process of decentralization and dispersion of decision-making power is taking place. In this view, local districts have been granted more autonomy and decision-making capacity so that neighbours can make proposals that the councillors take to the government board.

The City Council has also made available many places for associations to organise events. For example, it has contributed to dialogue and understanding between Madrid and Catalonia by providing a space to discuss a referendum of independence. However, in a flagrant attack on freedom of speech a judge prohibited the act after an appeal presented by the Popular Party. Again, the limits of local politics in the context of authoritarian structures becomes clear. The City Council cancelled the act and presented allegations. What else could it do? Civil disobedience? Certainly not retire the judge.

A noteworthy initiative has been the creation of the platform https://decide.madrid.es/ for citizens above 16 to vote in a participatory budget and make proposals, debate, vote on them and submit to binding referendum the proposals that obtain at least 2% of the census. The platform has been developed through free software that can be copied by other cities around the world and the Council provides assistance to other localities to implement this programme.

The Council has endowed the participatory budget with 100 million Euros. Citizens of Madrid have been called to vote for the remodelling of Gran Vía and Plaza de España, making the city more sustainable and friendly for pedestrians and cyclists, and improving transportation.

Participation has remained low as the Council lost the support of social movements and no prior process of information and education in democracy and online voting was put in place. 214,000 people (out of 3.2 million) have participated in the voting. Only 28,000 people voted in the first round of the voting on the general lines of the project to remodel Plaza de España. In the second round, which included mixed voting between citizens and a technical jury, and required more expertise, only 7,600 people participated and chose five designs that went to the semi-final. The jury of experts of the City Council discarded three proposals, including the most popular among citizens, and chose two projects on the list for the final vote. The winning design reached the final with 403 votes.

Problems in the culture wars

Activists argue that the Council has engaged in culture wars to the detriment of trying to intervene in the economic system to redistribute power and wealth. They criticise Ahora Madrid for focusing more on developing a winning ‘narrative’ on the various problems than on transforming the material sites of struggle.

Instead of strengthening political organisation, institutionalising change and developing new economic structures, the Council selects a cultural battle according to an analysis of electoral costs/benefits. Pop aesthetic and transversal communication are considered insufficient to build power and hegemony. Interventions in the economy are required. However, the political discourse of Mayor Carmena not only does not focus on the economic dimension, but it also minimises the political dimension as a conflictive site of struggle. An important part of the discourse is based on ‘empty signifiers’ emphasising that Madrid looks “beautiful” now and that the people feel “happy”.

Ahora Madrid thought it could win hegemony by engaging in the culture wars, but the right wing has demonstrated that they feel all too comfortable with many of the battles and the errors that the Council has made.

The left welcomed the application of the Law of Historical Memory to change the name of streets and statues in tribute to fascists. However, the flagrant errors the Council made gave ammunition to the right.

The contradictory character of the processes taking place in Madrid could be observed in World Pride, which demonstrated that Madrid is a paradigmatic city for LGTBI rights, but which was commercialised and lacking in class analysis.

A successful cultural intervention has consisted in the introduction of traffic lights with parity (a couple formed by a man and a woman), inclusive (man and man, and woman and woman couples), and egalitarian (a female figure). The Council has also launched a campaign to include civic messages against sexual aggression in badges and napkins at bars during the summer festivities.

One of the worst defeats in the culture wars began when the Council didn’t notice that it had hired a puppet show for adults for an event with children. The right-wing media immediately rubbed its hands and attacked both the City Council and the puppeteers: the puppeteers were unjustly accused of ‘enhancement of terrorism’ and sent to prison. The Council felt intimidated and was incapable of providing an apology for the mistake it made together with an explanation, a defence of freedom of expression and the questioning of the legal accusation. The mayor did not support the puppeteers and removed the responsible councillor from office. The result of this cultural spat was that the right was victorious, moderates felt aghast and the left disappointed.

Citizenism, radicalism and the Iron Law of Oligarchy

The two souls that gathered together during the 15-M seem now to be torn apart. The more moderate soul is dominant in the Council. This citizenist approach considers radicals a minority incapable of connecting with the majority of the people. On the other hand, radical activists distrust citizenism as a new way of becoming a moderate force like PSOE, excluding dissent and democratic practices. Conflicts arise on determining the depth and type of transformations that should be pursued.

Such divisions and tensions arise essentially as an effect of the Iron Law of Oligarchy: when political organisations grow and achieve institutional power they start to focus more on internal struggles for power than on governing for the people and transforming reality. An internal war of manoeuvre generates blind allegiances and attacks on other factions. Bureaucratisation, verticality, power, corrupt practices and centralisation in the hands of the few characterise the oligarchic organisation.

Differences in political position are often a result of personal and factional conflicts, and not of fundamental ideological disagreements. The structures and relations of power that develop in this context don’t leave room for the feminisation of politics, which requires the dispersion of power among people instead of the deployment of power over people.

Counteracting the Iron Law of Oligarchy

A mitigating factor of the oligarchic tendency can be the existence of strong social movements that act as counter-powers both within and outside the institutions. The municipalist movement attempts to continue with its agenda to prevent further movements of the City Council to the centre and the right political spectrum and to seek deep socio-political transformations in the mid-term.

Activists remind the Council that it received its legitimacy from the 15-M movement and that it could lose it. They insist on the importance of internal democratic practices and external semi-direct democracy, as well as on the remunicipalisation of social services and the generation of social conflict. Acting at a municipal level, they try to reduce the influence of the State and expose the insufficiencies of representative democracy.

Radical municipalism will continue to promote a new economic model that moves away from speculation, financialisation and real estate hegemony. It will promote a constituent process and will also continue to build networks with other municipalist movements to try to develop an internationalist force. The problem is that it does not have enough power.

Looking at the future

The fact is that institutional power cannot achieve deep transformation without the participation of strong social movements for change, and also that grassroots activism needs institutional reforms to develop new political and economic structures. The 15-M movement faced the limits of activism and Madrid’s City Council is facing the limits of institutional politics. Combined action from below and from above is required. The 15-M movement faced the limits of activism and Madrid’s City Council is facing the limits of institutional politics. Combined action from below and from above is required.

Grassroots excitement has faded, but the City Council and Carmena are doing well in the polls. Thus, Ahora Madrid is still surfing the short wave of electoral politics, but the wave could die down if it loses the propulsion of grassroots currents. The Council and activists will have to learn how to move back and forth between the short waves of electoral politics and the long waves of social transformation. This means winning short-term victories that contribute to an accumulation of power for engaging in deeper, longer transformations.

The multiple, interconnected crises have not been counteracted sufficiently so far. Only by working together can meaningful change be achieved. Further coordination within and between rebel cities can be a first step in building national and European forces able to change the power relations in the EU and confront the power of the international oligarchy.

About the author

Joan Pedro-Carañana, is in the Communications Department at Saint Louis University-Madrid Campus. His doctoral research was in communication, social change and development (Complutense University of Madrid). Joan has been active in a variety of social movements and is interested in the role of media, education and culture in the transformation of societies.

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