Lessons on Creating Collaborative Political Platforms from Spanish Activists

How has activism in Spain produced new political platforms that are victorious in municipal elections? Are there stories, lessons, methods or tools that can be shared or translated to other contexts? How might these support the growing movement in France?

CommonsPolis — a civil society initiative to create dialogue between progressive municipalist movements, city governments, and European citizens — held an encounter described as "a common space for exchange; cities in transition and citizen struggles" in Paris on November 24, 2016, at the offices of the Charles Léopold Mayer Foundation (FPH) and with the collaboration of the Utopia Movement. Spanish activists from a variety of regions were invited to share with their French counterparts their recent experiences of entering the municipal public administrations, and their efforts to make the political process more participatory and inclusive for citizens. The event was held in Spanish (Castellano) and French, with simultaneous interpretation. I went along with Stacco Troncoso as observers from the P2P Foundation. We were invited to attend, listen, and share our P2P/Commons perspective about the coming political landscape.

The Spanish context was outlined in a handout offered at the event, which described the most significant breakthroughs of the last two years (2015-16). In May 2015, the new citizens' coalitions which had emerged from the street-level movements were successful in a number of large municipal elections. The path of these citizens' coalitions traces back to reactions against the failures of Spain's post-Transition bipartisanism, and their victories indicate a shift in mindset, culture, and power. These new, municipalist "non-parties" are outgrowths of the 15M indignado movement and "las mareas," or tides, citizens' initiatives around housing, health, education, culture, and urban ecology. They build on prior political traditions of self-management and governance, while also drawing influences from the de-growth, ecology, and free/libre movements and applying mindful use of technology and media.

The event began with a brief introduction by Vladimir Ugarte, who described Commonspolis as a mixture of personal and professional developments. Sergi Escribano, originally from Spain, was living in France and observing the tremendous changes shaking up Spanish civil and political society. Meanwhile Vlad, originally from Uruguay, brought a Latin American perspective on the political environmental and cultural crises worldwide. As they witnessed the local governance initiatives taking shape under a municipalist ethic in Spain, they decided to do something about it — but instead of writing a grand manifesto, they would first proceed by listening. This event was created in support of that intention, and to explore the question of how such a shift would scale or transfer to another context — how can the municipal experiences of Spanish activists help inform the next steps elsewhere, in France for example?

From Bipartisanism to Municipalism: Spain's Political Landscape

We spent the day together in a clean, modern room with light wooden paneling and lots of windows facing an interior courtyard at the FPH offices. The atmosphere was friendly and familiar, and a number of people had either previously met or corresponded, so the morning started with upbeat conversation and coffee. The organizers called us to sit in a circle to begin, and for the next several hours, the story of the municipal victories in Spain unfolded.

Members of Barcelona en Comú, Marea Atlántica, and València en Comú started by sharing their perspectives on what provoked the crisis and its reactions in Spain, and the relationships and patterns that they see emerging among the resulting different movements and parties.

A brief look at Spain's most recent forty years set the context for the stories that would follow. The post-Franco years were marked by the rise and fall of Spanish bipartisanism. The power structures of the dictatorship were largely preserved in one of the two dominant political parties, Partido Popular or the People's Party (PP), supported by old-guard power players and the Catholic church. Meanwhile, the more moderate and steadily center-leaning Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), the Socialist Worker's Party, swiftly abandoned Marxism in the late 70s. In the early 2000s, Spain adopted the Euro with great expectations but, after a decade of speculative action, the quality of day-to-day life began to deteriorate. Prices went up, but salaries stayed flat. While neither party was solely to blame, neither was innocent. Corruption became more prevalent and obvious. Unprecedented construction speculation culminated in the devastating housing bubble, triggering "the crisis" marked by rising incidences of mortgage foreclosure and eviction, and rampant unemployment.

As we know, this political and economic crisis provoked a widespread activist reaction in Spain, beginning in 2011 with the eruption of the 15M movement. Five years later, a large part of this activism has since moved indoors from the streets and squares to government posts, but this did not come easily. Power and influence struggles persist, both internally among activists with different missions, and as a by-product of the constraints felt in being a minority power. A relatively low number of seats in parliament poses an obvious disadvantage for those activists now working within government. Progress is often hamstrung by the institutional rigidity of government structures, not to say the baroque quality of Spanish law.

So how did these activists manage to grab the power needed to break the bipartisan stronghold? In 2014, five Members of European Parliament (MEPs) from Podemos were elected, evidence of a strong resistance to bipartisanism. The kind of changes Podemos triggered started on a local scale with municipal platforms, creating networks for every city to work for local change. These platforms are the "how" but not the "who" of change; it's important to remember that any one party, Podemos included, is a part of the platform, and not the whole.

L-R: Vladimir Ugarte (Empodera), Laura Roth (BCN en Comú), Rafa Juan (València en Comú), Sergi Escribano (Empodera), Neus Fàbregas (València en Comú), Daniel Rodríguez (Marea Atlántica), Marcelo Expósito (BCN en Comú), Diego Jimenez (Marea Atlántica). See all participants here.

On the practical level, many people who felt indignation in response to the crisis indeed became indignadas, activists not just in their own lives but also in electoral politics. "Las Mareas," or the "tides," are citizen-activist groups formed throughout Spain after 15M, each acting in a specific sector and often identified by color (green for education, white for health, etc.). Mainly, they help create or safeguard access to different public services hit by austerity policies. La Marea Atlántica, formed in 2014 in A Coruña, Galicia, was formed with another goal in sight. Building on a long tradition of local leftist politics, La Marea Atlántica intended to develop a participative municipal administration. They collected 2,500 signatures towards presenting candidates for city council and also mayor, the latter of which they won in the 2015 elections. There is a special cultural significance in this win: the mayor, Xulio Ferreiro, is the first in office who speaks the local language (Gallego).

As they describe themselves, La Marea Atlántica has several currents. They incorporate the ideals of 15M, but for the platform to be successful, they stress that everyone involved must work together. For example, the platform should not be considered as a projection of Podemos in particular, there are a number of parties represented. It’s a political space where many come together, what they call a "political proposal."

Marea Atlántica’s online instruments have been created to enable all types of citizens’ participation. "Mareas abiertas," or "open tides" is a key element: There are no party-imposed quotas, any individual can participate. The campaigns are completely self-financed. And they continue to develop more participatory, inclusive projects, such as Co-Lab. The website describes Co-Lab as "a recent social innovation project with a mission to improve quality of life for people and have a more egalitarian citizenship, through mechanisms of collaborative, open and re-usable knowledge production."

But the truth is, they sometimes have difficulties in keeping it all up. The daily management is hard work, and it doesn't sustain itself without a lot of input. Maintaining a high level of interest and engagement in people sometimes becomes challenging in the flow of action between activism and institutions, even when the processes are open and participatory.

Why have a such wide range and high number of people in Spain turned to activism? Not long ago, many people were working hard just to pay the mortgage, only to see their job security and financial stability slip away. People started going underwater on their mortgages, and the ugly spectacle of police-enforced home evictions proved to be too much to bear without resistance by those affected and their friends, neighbors and communities. In 2009, we saw the beginning of the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, or Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, in Barcelona. Through civil disobedience and direct action, people take part in opposing evictions, often putting themselves physically between law enforcement and homeowners — the banks take the property, but the cops take the people.

PAH has successfully prevented well over one thousand such evictions. One of their founding members, Ada Colau, became a spokesperson of Barcelona en Comú, and more recently was elected the mayor of Barcelona. Where 15M once had people in the streets and squares chanting "no nos representa" — "they don't represent us" — now, in Ada Colau, they have a mayor who emerged from the movement itself. The "en Comú" movements in other cities including València are municipal platforms that have gathered a good deal of public interest and support. From the en comú movements in these two cities, Barcelona and Valencia, many reflections and indeed, even warnings were shared.

En Comú in València is a platform of the streets, now in the transition to electoral politics and campaigns. With its roots in street assemblies, food sovereignty campaigns and the student and housing movements, en Comú identified a shift: people moved toward thinking in terms of "ours" rather than "mine." They've also crowdfunded their own improvised campaign and gained 33 seats in the local parliament. But being in the minority, like La Marea, they've got a vertiginous climb ahead. With the political will to survive, the members of VEC stress that it's worth the trouble of persisting. Although the process is full of problems, they're committed to keeping on, moving forward, not losing hope. This is the moment for reality checks but also going back to the roots of the organization, to recuperate what people have in common while also confronting an administration that mainly seeks to take care of itself.

Barcelona en Comú are often asked to tell their story, and they do so "warts and all," with all of the problems and challenges along with the successes. Yes, they did win in the Barcelona elections, but with 11 seats (out of 41) in city assembly, it's clearly not enough to govern a city; the change is local and limited, for the moment. While they may form part of the government, the ongoing question is how to be part of a government that doesn't want you to make changes. So, within the small space between simple legislation and doing nothing at all, BeC is attempting to do something different with the many limits and problems at the government level.

Through their organization's creation and continued evolution, they have come to understand that the change in political discourse has taken place on both the right and the left. Extensive changes are occurring in traditional politics. The left, however, seems to communicate in abstracts, which creates rather than solves problems at the local level. People do not want abstract terms, they want concrete solutions. This must be discussed, but not in the accepted, unquestioned, persistent ways. Results should come by treating concrete problems, being realistic, and going through phases at the local level, growing real participation among people. The PAH platform, for example, has been built step by step, acknowledging every little victory that adds up to something (previously) unimaginable. And finding the appreciation for the small steps is part of the change.

Keenly aware of the masculine style of typical political discourse, along with its implications, the movements in Spain have been working to feminize the discourse and encourage more and better participation. Bringing others into the platforms depends on something mentioned multiple times: an ethical code, designed for open participation and the encouragement of real politics with people creating their own platforms – implementing radical democracy. Participatory conversation creates political change, and the feminization of politics is not only about the political work itself, it also means a change of style.

But these municipal platforms are not solely designed for local citizens; it was made clear, they must be part of a multi-level structure capable of operating at the national, and even transnational, levels. To make this happen, the municipal platforms must coordinate among themselves and beyond. They need to present viable political alternatives that channel the rising resistance to recent right-populist political developments such as Brexit and the election of Trump.

Crucially, each of these new municipalist coalitions has based their work on their "codigo etico," the ethical code which shapes everything they do in the platforms, participation in institutions. This ethical code is developed from existing experiences, and acts as both the glue and the attractor for participants. Its main principles are:

  • No revolving doors (no cycling through public/private positions)
  • Salary cuts
  • Participative program
  • Open primaries — no party quotas, and open to anyone
  • Voluntary/citizen self-financing, and rejection of institutional or bank financing

Caveats and cautions were offered about the problems found in making municipal change. Hard limits, even something like a "glass ceiling," were described. Some of this is surely due to the experimental nature of this new institutional style grating against the very durable, quintessentially neoliberal crisis produced by the established political powers. Opposition is not easy, and neither have been these first moves from the streets into municipal chambers. They said it again and again: for all the progress made in Spain, there’s no formula for entering these institutions.

Winning is not the same as gaining power; to gain effective power takes a very empowered citizenship, and citizens are starved of power. Broadening citizen participation is obviously important, but this must be done within the local context, and will create something different in each location — so, again, "recipes" are impossible. While it's true that the regime crisis has led to a growth in political and urban "lab" environments, making the leap into the municipal government is not simple, and successful attempts at change are slow and hard won. Even the new methodologies employed can cause problems.

Because of all this, the codigo etico — code of ethics — was described as indispensable. New government is, as has been learned, not always an effective government, and political organizations can be prone to inter-faction disputes. Think inclusively — how might a single, immigrant mother of several children, for example, be encouraged or enabled to participate, and why? For a positive reception to some kind of marea social, or citizens’ tides movement, there must be real solutions and a clear path to participation or there will be no way out of the crisis.

With so much of what's familiar and concrete being constructs of neoliberalism — business, management, government — the path toward reconstruction from the bottom is difficult, and more so with a repressive legislative architecture. On top of it all, there's another difficulty. This hard, neoliberal Europe has also produced a rapidly rising, bottom-up, citizen-level force from the right which must be watched and considered closely.

But what do the movements find when they ask the people what they want? The people are still outraged and anxious. They want assurances of security, to finally get out of the economic crisis. What happens when those who've moved into municipal government want rupture, but what the people want is restoration? People say they want to "go back to the way things were," but not only is that impossible, things were not really so good — but memories are short. This is the key of the extreme right, this ideological message. What's needed is more empathy.

In conclusion, those presenting from the various movements in Spain all shared that their processes have been a qualified nightmare at times, and that navigating through the crisis has been very hard. But at the heart there remains a source of hope and motivation – sí se puede.

Widening the Conversation

In several small, multi-lingual groups, we had some animated discussions about the enthusiasm, curiosity and doubts in reaction to the initial expositions. What clearly came across were ideas about promoting self-management, the need for exercising caution with the existing paternalism in society, and providing more visibility to self-management practices. People discussed encouraging social empowerment to correct, rather than tolerate, constant institutional blockages, as well as how to promote more social income and participatory budgeting.

Even with some notable differences in the French context, there is a clear need for municipal learning and "unlearning" within concrete, multi-scale, autonomous movements; a need to find ways to resolve the eventual failures, and to put forth proposals that people can use. Strengthening bottom-up narratives and nurturing inclusivity in political practices are fundamentals. Without this shift towards change that remains in service of the community, people will eventually lose confidence.

Instability fomented the change in the Spanish territory, and that original energy continued to provoke changes in the context of the social movements. A strong focus emerged, along with a greatly increased local participation. Investigations into the crisis — what caused it, how to address it — provided a springboard from which people began thinking and working collectively, always keeping those ethical codes in sight.

The trajectory of personal transformation can lead into a political one, and ideas turn to politics. But how would those in the French context follow the work done in the Spanish municipal arena? By introducing the virus of change into the institutions. Study the length of time before elections, and find a way to anticipate what will be needed, and communicate it. Work to avoid power struggles, and work to make those personal transformations integrate into the platforms. This includes feminization to induce noticeable differences in governance — it's important to dismantle patriarchal constructs, i.e. the tendency for the loudest to be heard, and for the longest time. Oh, and another thing — resolve the tension between just talking to people about problems, and changing things so that communication becomes empowerment.

But what about the fact that people have long adopted completely neoliberal behaviour patterns, right from primary school — how is it possible to address these limitations? At this point, how many people outside of these specialized groups really know how to work in a participatory style anymore? The dialogue has been long lost, and must be recovered, including a change in values. The tension between power and counterpower has to be acknowledged, and differences between "collective" and "commons," where the commons is a search for construction among people.

Later in the day, some more clues and tools came through from the activists from Spain in an additional round of group work, some more conceptual and some more concrete. Keeping up a good level of critique was cited as a key component, and to avoid forming "bubbles." Sustainability, in the material sense, can mean using local and complementary currencies, or instigating more activities, rather than just talks — having more action take place in the communities (for example, garden cultivation and instructions). As far as inclusion, we need more work on "feminization": get more women to participate, and change the grand-scale masculine logics and ideas for something more feminine, closer. We also need to be inclusive of groups with fewer resources like youth groups and reach out to those former or non-activists who feel excluded, cynical, or disinterested. Make it all more open to the "others," and work to maintain that level of inclusion.

Feminization, as it was described, can be a difficult, slow process of experimentation. Knowing this, it's a good practice to create a protected environment for experimentation, and foster something slower but deeper. Create other forms of organization that are participatory from within the institutions: introduce techniques like speaking in turn, or request participants to give just one sentence, in quick rounds — things that encourage better participation. The goal is to break the usual tendencies for certain people to dominate and certain people to remain silent — time to shake up the comfort zone.

What about all the people who are used to just voting and dropping all the responsibility on the elected officials? And the question of enabling people's capacities in the spirit of commons — how can this be done? With education, making every action more visible and creating spaces for discussion — actual, physical spaces. De-localize the decision-making within the platforms. Make proposals to the people, show them the ways to co-create communities using participatory principles, including codes of ethics. Someone could lead by example and propose a work group with specific rules and context, so everyone knows how to participate. Debate questions openly, eg. how to define the urban commons? Technical questions come up, and questions of tech, which is the means through which a large dominion of civic and political information is controlled. Think about how to make the technical solutions compatible with the political ones.

In the final afternoon discussions, there were several proposals following on the earlier dialogues. Why not hold the next European Commons Assembly in a "rebel" city, one undergoing commons-friendly changes, to see more potentially concrete changes and proposals in action. And with the EU elections coming in 2019, more work needs to be done within the commons political network, focusing on "free, fair, sustainable" principles with visible alliances around the different commons – knowledge, social justice, ecology, etc. It's time to open some common spaces for action where people can learn to make, do and live differently, and discover how to exchange experiences around common development and management ("gestion en común").

Change-making in France: A Reaction

The question that was opened for exploration at the end of the day: exactly what aspects of the citizens' platforms in Spain might be portable to France? Although it's understood that the process and results are still in flux, there is ample space for change and a strong desire to experiment with what can be replicated at different scales. So, how to mobilize now — what kinds of tips and tricks might be viable in the French sociopolitical landscape?

In 2014, Spanish activists said "let's take the city" — a seemingly impossible challenge. One year later, municipal elections were won by Ahora Madrid, and en Comú in Barcelona and València — and although these new parties and representatives may face hostility from inside, the spirit of "sí se puede" has been successfully validated and propagated. With a strong commons culture in France, the possibilities are wide open. How to organize and mobilize? The advice offered was: organize for what already exists, don't over-politicize, keep to the needs of people in the communities, and work up from small steps.

While there are apparent cultural differences in the French and Spanish contexts, some form of "viral" idea sharing could promote a cultural change towards more widespread citizen engagement, particularly in municipal politics. In Spain, people organized in and from the public squares, where in France this kind of expanded organization may not yet have taken root fully — although Nuit de bot certainly offers us a good view on how it could develop — but, that said, it was acknowledged that a movement has been born in France with roots in an economic crisis, even if different from that in Spain. For a young person, joining Uber is a lot cheaper and faster than obtaining a taxi license, but this easy entry could have a high cost in eventual precarity.

Conclusions: Where Do We Go from Here?

All the municipalist players from the Spanish territory are working multi-scale (local, national, regional, and now in international dialogues). The coalitions are non-partisan, though inclusive of established political parties. They all want to end the isolation presently perceived at the city level, merging more towards an ideal of the "networked rebel cities." Overall, the key point made for the French activists was the need to create and implement a common ethical code for participation. Meetings such as this one should obviously evolve to be more diverse and representative of the public at large, as the movements themselves are. As the meeting drew to a close, it was noted pretty bluntly if we don't get our shit together, the far right will, in terms of gathering massive support by addressing the concrete needs of people.

As commoners and activists concerned about caring for our neighbors and the environments which sustain us, the responsibility falls on all of us, beyond Spain, beyond France. We are the stewards of change, and this change needs to go beyond boundaries to engage real needs with viable, common-sense solutions. The community empowerment, network logics and feminization of politics displayed by municipalist platforms such as València en Comú, Marea Atlántica and Barcelona en Comú could inspire new bottom-up electoral coalitions in surprisingly different contexts. Let's spread the word and show the world what happens when concerned citizens decide to take the power back.

This piece by Ana Marie Utratel, along with the images, has been cross-posted from CommonsTransition. Header image by Anna Guzzo, and event images by Jose Luis Iniesta of Empodera Consultures.

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