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When the citizen platform Barcelona En Comú invited activists and organizations from around the world to Barcelona for the Fearless Cities Summit in 2017, we hoped that the event would mark a turning point for the municipalist movement. Just two years previously, our citizen candidacy had been catapulted into office on a wave of public indignation at cuts, corruption and a city hall that paid more heed to lobbies and speculators than to the people of Barcelona’s 73 neighborhoods.
Similar platforms had swept to victory in other towns and cities in Spain and we were receiving a constant flow of messages from people elsewhere wanting to try the municipalist model where they lived, or who were already doing so. We sensed an appetite to bring this nascent political movement together, to make it tangible. A desire to meet, not just to debate and learn, but to somehow discover who and what we were. To build a shared identity that would give us all the confidence to move forward with a firmer foothold, knowing that we formed part of something bigger than ourselves.
It is safe to say the Summit and its subsequent impact far exceeded our expectations. Almost four years on, we can say with confidence that Fearless Cities was a catalyst that defined contemporary municipalism, expand its reach and connect its practitioners with one another.
Over the last few years “Fearless Cities” has become something of a synonym for the municipalist movement itself, an honor we never expected. It seems that the concept of “Fearless Cities” speaks to people in a powerful way. We believe this is thanks not just to the positive vision of a bold, brave, bottom-up movement that the name describes, but also due to the countervailing threat it leaves unsaid: that of Fearful Nations. Municipalism as a philosophy and as a strategy gains even more strength in the context of an authoritarian nationalism that fuels and feeds on fear and mistrust in our communities everywhere.
With a second global Fearless Cities summit on the horizon this July, now is a good time to reflect on the evolution of the municipalist movement since it first came to power in cities across Spain in 2015 and the lessons it holds for municipalist activists and organizers today.
Municipalism in Spain
Up until early 2019, the institutional arm of the municipalist movement in Spain was stronger than anywhere else in the world, albeit with many platforms governing in minority and/or coalition. But the local elections in May that year brought an end to that. The results were a huge blow to the movement. Municipalist-backed mayors were toppled from office everywhere but Barcelona, replaced by candidates from both traditional left and right-wing parties.
While we continue to mourn what we have lost, it is worth reviewing some of the factors that played a part in this setback for the municipalist movement in Spain.
First, there were significant exogenous causes, beyond the political control of the municipalists themselves. There was a constant bombardment of ferocious, well-funded and coordinated attacks from powerful agents with economic interests and the media over the four-year term. These attacks reinforced a “they’re all the same” narrative: accusations of corruption, nepotism and hypocrisy aimed at reducing the credibility and moral standing of municipalists and their parties vis-à-vis traditional parties. Despite their baseless accusations, such “fake news” circulating both online and in mainstream media cast a cloud of suspicion over the municipalists and their claim to be practicing a different kind of politics from the old guard.
The second strategy was the creation of “culture wars” designed to distract attention from the structural changes to the economy, urban planning, social policy and other areas that the municipalists were undertaking. Instead, the media focused on controversial tweets, the inauthenticity of Christmas parade costumes, the purported offensiveness of avant-garde nativity scene designs and, most emblematically, the arrest of puppeteers in Madrid for “glorifying terrorism” in the city’s Carnival show.
Overall, a constant source of frustration for municipalist governments was the media blackout of their transformative agenda and the difficulty of communicating with the public over the noise of such manufactured controversies.
Another method of attacking and marginalizing municipalism was via the fueling of national identity politics in the context of the ongoing conflict over Catalan self-determination. This was particularly effective in Barcelona where, from the start of its time in office, Barcelona En Comú was simultaneously maligned for being a supporter and a repressor of the independence movement. Our middle-ground position of supporting a democratic solution to the conflict had little traction in an increasingly polarized debate.
When Catalonia held a unilateral referendum in 2017, the Spanish government suspended regional autonomy and most Catalan government ministers were arrested or fled the country; the Catalan question had become the biggest political issue across Spain.
Municipalists had come to power in 2015 on a wave of popular outrage about an out-of-touch political elite, in a political conflict drawn along class lines. In 2019 they were squeezed out of the political panorama monopolized by the national conflict.
The June 2018 motion of no confidence against the Popular Party government for corruption was another turning point. The ousting of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and the appointment of a minority Socialist government was a mixed blessing for the left. On the one hand, it contributed to the de-escalation of tensions over Catalonia, but on the other, it restored the credibility of the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party) in the eyes of voters. In April 2019, just two months before the municipal elections, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez called a snap general election, with PSOE candidates predictably coat-tailing on their party’s victory at the local level across the country.
The limits of the confluence model
The context was undoubtedly difficult and the adversaries to the municipalist project were numerous. But of course the municipalists and their allies themselves also played a role in the disappointing outcome of the 2019 elections.
An important factor in the defeat of the municipalists was the uneven implementation of political confluence among social movements and parties. The idea of confluence, as conceived and practiced in Barcelona after the municipalists came to power in 2015, was to create a new political organization that would both bring together and supersede its constituent political parties, as well as including a critical mass of individuals who were previously unaffiliated to any political party.
In practice, this meant the creation of a new municipalist platform — what became Barcelona En Comú in 2014 — with its own census of members, governance structure and budget. This required the agreement and active support of local branches of parties like the Greens, United Left and Podemos; not just to renounce running competing candidacies, but to actively encourage their members to participate in the new party and accept that major decisions on municipal politics would be taken at the local level. While the incentive of joining forces to win the election played its part, this was only possible thanks to large doses of generosity, trust and goodwill from all concerned.
While by no means a panacea to internal tribalism and divisions, the confluence model did at least create a united municipal government team of councilors and mayors, all accountable to the same political organization outside of city hall. En Comú also allowed human and financial resources to be pooled and democratically managed to undertake non-institutional political activity (events, campaigns, training and so on) throughout the term and particularly in the run-up to the 2019 campaign.
In contrast, the municipalist platforms in many other cities were limited to purely electoral coalitions. In Madrid, for example, Ahora Madrid was never activated to function as a joint political space of activism and decision-making.
In cities where confluence was not sufficiently developed, there were two major consequences. First, many supporters who had enthusiastically campaigned for municipalist platforms were left out in the cold after election day, with no way of channeling their support or participating in ongoing decision-making. This understandably frustrated the aspirations of those who had hoped to harness these platforms as a tool to democratize and renew party politics. Second, the absence of a joint organization exacerbated internal divisions over matters of policy, propelling rival constituent factions and parties away from a clear common cause.
Some of the most stubborn obstacles to the implementation of the confluence model were shaped by the conflicting interests of national party actors, including Podemos, whose attitude to local confluence projects was ambivalent at best — and at times outright hostile. The most egregious example of this phenomenon was in Zaragoza, where Podemos ran against the incumbent mayor and candidate of Zaragoza En Común, Pedro Santiesteve, in the 2019 elections. The maneuver shattered the popular unity message and divided the winning 2015 coalition, while netting Podemos a grand total of two seats on the city council.
Spain’s non-official opposition
One key question of debate among municipalists trying to evaluate their four years in office is whether forays into regional and national elections strengthened or weakened their position at the local level. Barcelona En Comú abstained from standing in the snap Catalan elections of September of 2015 — just three months after we took office in city hall — but we did participate in the En Comú Podem coalition in the Spanish general election in December of that same year, becoming the most-voted list in Catalonia.
As a coalition, rather than a confluence, En Comú Podem did not exist as an organization beyond its constituent parts, one of which was Barcelona En Comú. On the other hand, 25 percent of the public funding from En Comú Podem went to Barcelona En Comú, making it one of the best — if not the best — funded, local parties in the country. The decision was then taken to create Catalunya En Comú, a Catalan-level counterpart to Barcelona En Comú. The party had disappointing results in the 2017 and 2021 Catalan elections and, to date, the Catalan branch of Podemos remains separate from Catalunya En Comú.
A similar attempt by Galician municipalist platforms to create a Galician confluence, “En Marea,” was even less fruitful. At its founding in 2015, the coalition was supported by all of the major municipalist platforms in Galicia as well as Podemos, United Left, Equo, Anova and the Galician Ecosocialists, coming in second in the general elections that year. Podemos stood against En Marea in the 2016 re-run of those elections and the municipalists broke away in 2018 after a messy conflict about its internal functioning and political direction. In September 2020, En Marea announced its disbandment, after receiving fewer than 1 percent of the votes in the Galician elections in July.
For their critics, these attempts to replicate the municipalist project at higher levels absorbed a huge amount of political energy that would have been better directed at reinforcing the municipalist network. For their advocates, they were a necessary bulwark against political opponents operating at multiple levels and an opportunity to influence politics at regional level, where important decisions on housing, health, education and other strategic issues are taken.
While the assessments of municipalist participation in supra-municipal elections vary, there is almost universal agreement that insufficient energies were invested in strengthening and harnessing the municipalist network in Spain, either in opposition or in government. The electrifying “Cities of Change” rally held in Barcelona in September 2015, where the newly elected mayors set out their vision for Spain, denouncing cuts and corruption, and calling for investment in public housing, action to tackle gender-based violence and a humane European border policy, gave a tantalizing glimpse into what could have been.
The Cities of Change coalition was poised to become Spain’s non-official opposition to the conservative government, indeed to the rotten status quo. But the daily struggles of governing left little time or energy for political strategizing beyond each city.
This factor, coupled with the uneven state of confluence at local level, complicated the task of identifying clear interlocutors in some municipalities. This meant that what coordination there was, was largely limited to the institutional level: rather than political coordination outside city hall from the perspective of the municipalist political movement itself, this opposition often amounted to joint declarations made by mayors in the name of their cities.
Though municipalism is on the retreat in Spain, elsewhere it has made important steps forward. In the UK, the example of the Preston model of local economic development — along with a renewed appreciation of British municipal socialism in the 1980s and a growing awareness of the international municipalist movement — has put bottom-up strategies at the center of debates over the future of the post-Corbyn left.
In France, the local elections held in early 2020 saw the emergence of over 400 local collectives or candidacies, of which 66 won seats on their city councils. Municipalist candidacies held the mayoralties of Grenoble and Saillans and won for the first time in Marseille, Lyon, Nantes and Rennes, to name just a few.
In the USA, continued police brutality and racism directed at Black and brown people reignited the Movement for Black Lives with demands for city councils to defund and dismantle local police departments. In Minneapolis, where the murder of George Floyd took place in May 2020, pressure from the streets led the city council to vote in favor of amending the city charter to allow the replacement of the police department with a Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention, which may or may not include law enforcement officers. The proposed amendment is forecast to be put to Minneapolis voters for approval at the ballot box later this year and local policing seems set to remain a catalyst of urban grassroots organizing across the US into the future.
In numerous ways, the global COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced many of the concerns and priorities of municipalism: our interdependence with one another and with nature, the importance of care work in its multiple formal and informal dimensions, the deeply political dimension of the smallest aspects of daily life.
Never before has a bottom-up movement dedicated to caring for our environment and for one another been more necessary. At the same time, the virus itself and the public health measures used to control it pose an existential threat to the foundations of municipalist practice. After all, municipalism is based on our ability to come together, physically, in our local neighborhoods. Its power stems from the transformative effect of such gatherings on us as both individuals and communities.
By coming together, we realize that our problems are not individual and isolated, but collective and shared. We can identify our common adversaries and devise shared solutions. We become aware of our strength in numbers. We can then reach out to our neighbors on doorstops, in streets and in squares, to listen to them, to share our project and to invite them to join us. Deprived of this process, municipalism is hollowed out with each day that passes.
How our movement will emerge from the pandemic will depend on our capacity to redouble our commitment to face-to-face politics as soon as possible.
A world transformed
The good news is that those starting out on their municipalist journey can learn from the successes and failures of municipalism in Spain. They will undoubtedly face the same communication challenges and be the target of culture wars in their own communities. With this in mind, we must be aware that it is not enough to pursue radical, transformative policies in government: we must also be seen to do so and actively communicate what we have done. The same goes for openly admitting our limitations and explaining why we cannot do more.
This means taking back the initiative from the far-right in the online sphere, developing our own tools and communities so that we can set the agenda, combat attacks from our opponents and share our messages. But it also means talking directly to our neighbors in the streets, on the doorstep, on the phone: both to counteract negative media messaging and to invite them to join our movement.
It is also worth investing significant time and resources in collaborating with our allies beyond our own towns and cities. This will allow us to both share organizing strategies and to join forces against common threats like AirBnB, private water companies and racist immigration policies.
And, finally, we must resist the temptations of fragmentation and infighting that so often sabotage successful left-wing projects. Above all, this demands generosity on all sides and the ability to put our shared goals above our partisan identities and interests. History will not look kindly on us if we let our eyes slip from the prize of a world transformed from the bottom up.
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.