Barcelona's Experiment in Radical Democracy

Gessen, Masha
Date Written:  2018-08-09
Publisher:  Portside
Year Published:  2018
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX22880

Issues that Barcelona en Comu is tackling come up against limitations set by Catalan and Spanish law. The city lacks authority to regulate housing, although the city has created new affordable housing, and has successfully limited the reach of Airbnb.



Barcelona City Hall looks like it's been occupied by protesters. A banner over the entrance to the fourteenth-century building reads, in Catalan, "Free Political Prisoners"--a reference to Catalan pro-independence activists, some of whom have been prosecuted while others were forced into exile by the national government in Madrid. The banner was placed here by the city government, which is indeed run by protesters: the ruling coalition of Mayor Ada Colau has its roots in the Indignados, the anti-austerity movement that’s often referred to as Spain’s precursor to Occupy Wall Street. (Colau is not herself a supporter of Catalan independence; more on that later.)

Barcelona is the heart of a new global political phenomenon known as municipalism. Last weekend, municipalist activists from North America, Europe, and Africa met in New York City for the third Fearless Cities summit. (The first took place in Barcelona, last year, and this summer there were summits in Warsaw and New York on subsequent weekends in July.) Municipalism is hard to define, intentionally so. Municipalist activists aim to break the bounds of traditional party politics and challenge institutional politics as they currently exist, making the language of party and institutional politics a priori insufficient for describing them.

I was in Barcelona in June and interviewed several of the key members of Barcelona en ComU, the "platform," as its participants call it, that brought Colau and her coalition to City Hall, in June, 2015. Barcelona en Comu, in turn, is part of a wave of what has been dubbed "municipalist confluences"--new formations that have emerged from activist movements in Madrid, Cádiz, and elsewhere in Spain.

For the activists, entering institutional politics was something like a measure of last resort. "We have tried everything," Gala Pin told me. Pin began her work as an activist as a member of an anarchist collective that squatted in a disused building in Barcelona and then, after the 2008 housing crash, she worked as an anti-eviction activist. "We have tried civil disobedience. We have tried negotiating with banks. Nothing works. We have to join institutions in order to change the way we make policy."

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