Can Europe Make It?

Reinventing urban democracy in Barcelona

Barcelona's citizens are setting aside the historical baggage of the nineteenth and twentieth century struggles of industrial workers movements, inventing a newly resonant language of rights and democracy. Español.

Mick Byrne
27 March 2015
People's Assembly in Barcelona

People's assembly in Plaça Catalunya. Flickr/Sergio Alvarez. Some rights reserved.

“We’re losing Barcelona and we want to win it back.”

These are the opening words of the manifesto of the new electoral alliance Barcelona en Comú (which can be translated as "Barcelona for all"). It’s a sentiment that will resonate with city-dwellers across the world. The alliance is already topping some polls in its bid to win this May’s city council elections and bring to an end decades during which urban development became a get-rich-quick scheme for private investors. The Catalan capital, which was a hotbed for radical politics of all stripes in the early twentieth century, immortalised in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, is giving birth to a 21st century vision of municipal democracy.

This is a vision that cities across Europe need now more than ever. During the 1970s and 1980s devastated urban landscapes emerged from the wreckage of deindustrialisation giving way to a new kind of urban politics in cities from Malaga to Maastricht. This new politics, often described as “neoliberal urbanism”, is all about extending the role of the market in shaping how cities work. The policy recipe is well known: privatisation of municipal services; promotion of “light touch” tax regimes; a low-wage, precarious service sector and the conversion of housing into an investment asset. These measures, intended to respond to the urban crisis let loose by deindustrialisation, have created a new, permanent crisis for the majority of city-dwellers and facilitated the enrichment of a tiny, footloose global elite. 

Creating an alternative city

The real estate business is emblematic of the soaring inequality and often downright corruption at the heart of this urban model. Our social housing has been privatised, our public spaces are consumer oriented and heavily policed, and our city budgets are often squandered on "mega-events" and "flagship developments" which only serve to boost land values and tourist revenues. But neoliberal urbanism also has global impacts. The integration of real estate and the global financial system, starkly revealed by the global financial crisis, means that urban politics has consequences for everything from Greek sovereign debt to the policies of the Federal Reserve.

We all know these problems, and researchers have been diagnosing them for years. But what can be done about them? Discussions about creating an alternative city have tended to focus on grassroots movements, community organising and Jane Jacobs-style passion for creating liveable cities. These are all essential parts of the process, but one avenue of change has remained curiously outside of the discussion – taking back our local political institutions.

This is exactly what Barcelona en Comú seeks to achieve, with an ambitious programme of radical reform. To begin with, Barcelona en Comú is not a political party, at least not in any traditional sense. It’s a “citizen’s platform”, a vehicle for civil society and social movements to bring their work on the streets and in the neighbourhoods to the heart of political decision making. The platform came about through a coming together of social movements, civil society organisations and community groups, many of whom forged close relations during the alter-globalisation movement of the early 2000s and more recently as part of the indignados movement. A strong current of citizen participation was thus evident from the outset, and this has only intensified with neighbourhood meetings, an open process for selecting candidates, and the use of online tools for greater transparency and participation.

Beyond left and right

The term “citizen platform” is more than a re-branding exercise. It speaks to a new orientation with regard to urban social movements in Barcelona, and across Spain, and one which relates to both the divide between citizens and state institutions and the divide between left and right. In relation to the former, city activists have for sometime sought to move away from an “oppositionalist” stance vis-a-vis the institutions of the state, seeking instead to find ways to bring their politics into the sphere of public institutions in a manner which would democratise them instead of depoliticising social movements, as has often been the case in the past. In relation to the latter, many of the new struggles which have emerged in the wake of the Spanish financial crisis, including those against evictions and the privatisation of healthcare and education (all of which have fed into Barcelona en Comú) transcend the left/right dichotomy. They are setting aside the historical baggage of the nineteenth and twentieth century struggles of industrial workers movements, in the process inventing a new language of rights and democracy that resonates with the experience of today’s city-dwellers.

The shift beyond left and right has also allowed the new social movements in Spain to outflank the two party political system, under which the socialist and conservative parties have played pass-the-parcel with Spain’s political institutions since the decline of Franco. In a sense, Barcelona en Comú is a municipal politics of the 99%.

For this politics to be real it needs concrete measures to subject local representatives to democratic processes. In this regard, all of those running under the Barcelona en Comú banner will sign up to a code of ethics designed to ensure that political representatives implement the policies they have a mandate for and don’t become career politicians. Successful candidates may not earn more than €2,200 per month (including expenses) and can hold office for a maximum of two terms. Moreover, the code of ethics imposes a blanket ban on “double jobbing” and on taking up directorships or board membership in the private sector following time in office, thus putting an end to the “revolving door” between public service and private gain.

The urban policies they hope to implement are equally ambitious. These include the prioritisation of social and cooperative housing, as well as the auditing of all vacant housing and measures to put it to use. The platform will also target the most pernicious aspects of the tourist industry in order, as their manifesto puts it, to “prevent the city’s essential nature from being changed. We don’t want a theme park. We want liveable, inclusive cities and neighbourhoods that provide decent work.” This is an important issue for a city of 2 million which attracts over 7 million visitors annually.

Re-claiming our cities

Barcelona en Comú is now, according to the polls, neck and neck with the incumbent centre-right Catalan party Convergéncia i Unió. Sister organisations have also sprung up to contest local elections in Madrid, Valencia and other major cities. The potential for Barcelona en Comú to win the upcoming elections was given a boost when Podemos joined the alliance in February, lending its significant political capital and media presence. This new political party at the national level, which itself emerged from the cauldron of Spain’s indignados movement, is topping the polls, providing yet another indication of the radical shake up of Southern Europe’s electoral scene in the wake of disastrous troika bailout programmes

It’s too early to say what the outcome of this audacious attempt to democratise local government will be, but what’s happening in Barcelona sends a clear message to all of those who care about cities and the people who live in them. The kidnapping of local government by private interests has been a disaster for cities. It’s time to take back our public institutions.

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