Barcelona, Catalonia: Calle de las Ramblas in Barcelona empty due to confinement in the city of Barcelona during the covid-19 coronavirus pandemic
Photo by ikumaru/Shutterstock.com
In 2016, the political scientist and now Barcelona deputy mayor, Joan Subirats, published a book called The power of proximity on the virtues of municipal politics. The title summed up the basic premise of municipalism: that the local scale allows opportunities for physical togetherness that have a unique transformative power. In short, municipalism harnesses our ability to meet face-to-face in order to collectivize our individual problems, take joint decisions on the issues that affect us, and widen the distribution of power.
So it was to be expected that COVID-19 and the measures being used to break the chain of transmission — lockdown, quarantine, physical distancing, limits on mass gatherings — would put municipalism on the ropes. In fact, it seems to me that we might be able to use the last few months as as a kind of “control group” for the municipalist experiment in Barcelona.
What better way to deepen our understanding of municipalism than to see what happens when the physical closeness that defines it is taken away?
Everyday life is back on the agenda
My first observation is a positive one: that the pandemic and lockdown have put the politics of everyday life on the agenda around the world like never before. Public health and care work have been front and center, but issues like aging, housing inequality, mourning and funeral rites, food security, education, culture, transport, mental health and work-life balance have also generated broad public debate.
These are all essentially municipalist — and feminist — concerns, since municipalism focuses on personal and community life. In this regard, the pandemic has not only politicized everyday life, it has dramatized it, with new heroes and villains, and life or death decisions. As a society we are recognizing that the politics of daily life — municipalist politics — is the foundation of our individual and collective well-being.
On the other hand, we have not been able to come together and share the difficulties we have faced during the pandemic and to draw up joint demands. In Spain, the lockdown put a halt to all political meetings, assemblies and protests for three months, putting a significant brake on grassroots organizing. Proof of this was how long it took for the severity of the lockdown for children — who were not allowed to set foot in the street for six weeks — to be questioned in the public sphere.
It is also worrying that this politicization of daily life has gone hand-in-hand with an increase in the use of state power, which has touched the most personal aspects of life. The suspension of individual freedoms and the introduction of surveillance and control measures under the “state of alarm” are contrary to municipalism’s emancipatory agenda. It is important to ensure that these measures do not become permanent and that the introduction of tools that breach human rights, like the so-called “immunity passport,” is resisted.
Centralization and telemunicipalism
How has COVID-19 affected municipalism’s confederal and democratizing mission? In Spain, as elsewhere, the government’s response to the pandemic has implied a centralization of power. At the same time, municipalities are seeing their already limited resources stretched to the limit by the health and economic crisis. Indeed, cities across the country are calling for an end to austerity laws that restrict their autonomy, as well as new sources of financing.
But centralization dynamics are also playing out at municipal level itself. The inability to hold in-person meetings has thrown a spanner in the works of the numerous participatory processes that were underway in Barcelona before the pandemic: district and neighborhood council meetings have been suspended, and the city’s first ever participatory budgeting process has been put on ice. It has also been impossible to hold informal events like the “meetings with the mayor,” open assemblies that Ada Colau holds in a different neighborhood every two weeks. For now, in-person participation is in a state of suspended animation.
The city government has sought to adapt to the new context by harnessing its open source, digital participation platform Decidim. New digital initiatives have been born, including “The Mayor answers Kids,” where Ada Colau responds to children’s questions via video; “The Councilor Responds,” a new live format where councilors answer questions from city residents; and “Barcelona from Home,” a platform where residents can debate and share resources online. However these “telemunicipalist” solutions are no substitute for in-person participation processes, particularly those that include binding decision-making mechanisms.
No feet in the streets
What about outside the walls of city hall? Grassroots movements in Barcelona have responded with impressive speed and strength to the pandemic. This eminently action-oriented response has included the Street Vendors Union sewing face-masks, the “maker” community using their 3D printers to produce hospital-grade PPI, and emergency crowdfunding initiatives for sex workers, undocumented residents and social economy businesses. Similarly, community managed and occupied spaces have become hubs for food donation and distribution, and new mutual aid groups have sprung up across the city to offer mutual emotional and practical support between neighbors.
And social movement organizing has not been limited to frontline responses. Quite the opposite: many movements have moved their meetings online, or even held socially distanced assemblies. This organizing work has produced renewed campaigns for a universal basic income, eviction and rent freezes and immigration reform, among others.
Nevertheless, these campaigns have had limited visibility and political impact. The cancellation of all street protests for three months, which coincided with International Workers’ Day, among other important dates, was no small thing. After all, gathering in public space has a unique power to overcome individual isolation, forge collective identities and visibilize and explain political demands to fellow citizens.
These processes are essential for growing and empowering any movement, and giving it the capacity to force change. So it is hard to imagine that the impact of the aforementioned political demands has not been reduced by the lockdown. This is particularly true for the climate movement, which had been building momentum towards global street action this spring for over a year, and has seen its message sidelined from the public agenda once more.
The weakness of distance
It would be an error to romanticize face-to-face politics. Even — and perhaps especially — the most enthusiastic defenders of assemblies recognize that they can be arduous, dysfunctional, reproduce social hierarchies and exclude those who do not have the time or means to attend them. Indeed, the lockdown has allowed many organizations to use digital tools to widen participation. For example, there are renters who have been able to participate in renters union meetings for the first time thanks to online assemblies.
However, it would also be a mistake to deny the unique functions of physical assemblies. The municipalist philosopher, Murray Bookchin, defended the capacity of unmediated, face-to-face politics to “humanize humanity” and produce new, emancipatory forms of social organization. In his essay “A Politics for the Twenty-First Century,” he argued that “electronic” assemblies could be used by a municipalist movement as a transitional measure, but “only when it is unavoidable and for only so long as it is necessary.”
And COVID-19 has surely proved him right: a videoconference cannot substitute the many-layered communication of a physical encounter, nor the important informal social interactions and community-building that take place in and around them.
The pandemic will surely have done damage to municipalism in Barcelona; in general this has not been an experience of decentralization, democratization or citizen empowerment. But what has been strengthened is the municipalist hypothesis itself: if distance makes us weaker, our strength must be rooted in togetherness. We must learn this lesson if we are to take on the enormous challenges that now await us.
Kate Shea Baird works as a political advisor at the Province of Barcelona. She currently serves on the Executive Committee of Barcelona En Comú, where she is responsible for communication and participation.