Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Felix Beltran on how Barcelona en Comu are reimagining democracy

While the media is full of the story of the declaration of independence of Catalonia and the subsequent response by the Spanish national government, what is not being told so much is the very real, and remarkable, story of the municipalist approach that has risen there, and elsewhere in Spain. I recently visited the city, and spoke to Felix Beltran (see photo above), a freelance editor, proof reader, festival organiser and municipal activist, who takes part in what is happening in the city and who represents the movement at international events (we had first met at the Transition Germany convergence where he was also speaking).

In 2008 the economic crisis hit Spain especially hard. The roots of what’s happening today lie in the Arab Spring, which inspired young people to take a similar approach to express their unhappiness with the Spanish state, and with the impacts of the economic crisis. Driven by anger about levels of corruption and a lack of real democracy, in 2011 they occupied squares in cities across Spain, what came to be known as the ‘15M’ movement, so named because the first march which started it all took place on the 15th of May under the banner of “we are not goods in the hands of politicians and bankers”.

One of the sources of indignation in Spain was its extraordinary laws regarding mortgage defaults. In Spain, if you default on your mortgage, the bank repossesses your house, sells your house, keeps the money, AND you are still personally liable for the full debt. Yes, you heard that right. For many people, those days in the squares with 15M were their first experience of deep democracy, of participation, of change.

Podemos was one of the political parties that came from this tumultuous time, winning seats in both the national parliament and the European parliament. The people who had experienced the 15m days, and the renewed sense of what democracy can feel like, felt it was time to try to build the alternatives from within.  As they put it, “we took to the streets, the social networks, we took the squares – but change was blocked from above, by institutions, so we decided to win back the city”. The 2015 city elections provided the opportunity.

Rather than all the progressive parties competing with each other in the elections, they came together and ran under the banner of Barcelona en Comu (Barcelona Together). Rather than forming a new party, Barcelona en Comu is what Felix described to me as a ‘confluence’, a coming together. But why? As Felix explained it to me:

“Most important thing was to win back the city for the citizens. It was this winning mentality from the very beginning, the determination to be transparent and to run the institutions in a different way than had been done in Spain for years. We always had this system where the two traditional parties were ruling the power for 40 years. People realised they were not doing progressive policies any more. This crisis of representation was why this confluence had so much support from the street – all different classes”.

Barcelona en Comu brought together different progressive parties: ICV-EU, Podemos, Procés Constituent (a Catalan social movement), Equo (the environmental party), under one banner, with Ada Colau, former anti-evictions activist, as the Mayor. They ran, and on May 15, 2015, they won. Since the election, to give you a sense of what this has enabled, objectives include rehabilitating housing and sanctions against empty buildings; introducing energy efficiency criteria for new buildings; promoting urban agriculture; supporting care and care services; introducing a tourist tax; incorporating social and environmental criteria in public procurement; re-municipalisation of water supply alongside the establishment of Barcelona Energía, a 100% public electricity retailer, sourcing from renewable energy; strengthening local trade; promoting social entrepreneurship and co-operatives; introducing citizen audits of municipal budgets and debt; establishing salary limits; and supporting local initiatives such as social centres, consumer co-operatives, community gardens, time banks and social currencies.

Barcelona en Comu started with the crowdsourcing of a Code of Ethics which, among other things, stated that public representatives would only take €2,200 a month, significantly less than the current salary. They also crowdsourced their programme of policies, and announced a different approach to how they would be funded, via microlending and crowdfunding, rather than secret donations. As they said at the time, “we need to change the way politics is done, and not simply implement progressive policies”. “Trust in collective intelligence”, they later wrote, “was the central element”.

Here’s how our conversation went (or you can listen to the podcast above):

One of the things that is very much talked about is the neighbourhood councils and that real grass roots organising.  Could you just say a bit about that?

In Barcelona there’s a long tradition of community movements.  For a long time now people getting together to make changes.  Not just on a district level but on different topics as well.  There’s some tradition, and I think that’s why also in Barcelona it’s quite common to see neighbours creating a civil society movement in order to influence the institutions as well.  For example at the district assemblies that I take part in, one of the things I really like is that you always have people from the city council attending the assemblies.

A Barcelona en Comu assembly… Mayor Ada Colau second from the left.

So there’s quite a lot of rapport between the two sides now.  These assemblies are open to every citizen as well, and most of the people taking part in these assemblies are also supporting or working with other civil society movements related to gentrification, to ecological movements, or even Transition.

So when you say neighbourhood, is it like El Raval (where Felix lives), is that a neighbourhood?

Yes.

So there is a council just for this neighbourhood or is it a bigger area than that?

It’s bigger.  This is like neighbourhood, and then district area, which is like three or four neighbourhoods altogether.

So the meetings you go to are three or four neighbourhoods?  And how often do they happen?

Once every 15 days.

Every 15 days?

Yeah, every 2 weeks.

But a later day in the week every time?

It’s on Wednesdays.  Every Wednesday, every two weeks.

Okay.  And how many people go?

Around 20 people.  15 to 20 people, and most of the people’s average age is quite high.  I would say it’s around 50, 60.  Well not high, but there’s not that many young people.  At least here in this district I think.  I believe, depending on the district where you live, not just the topics change, but also the profile of the people I guess.

But anybody could go in theory?

Yeah, yeah.  And then you normally do a balance of the issues which are affecting your district.  So it’s always like 20-30 minutes discussing about this, for example.  At the moment, apart from the gentrification and tourism and so on, there’s a big problem with drugs for example, drug dealing and drug tourism.  There’s many people from abroad coming here to take heroin.  There’s a big problem.  You can find many syringes in the street as well.  Many businesses selling also drugs.  So every day at 10pm for example, neighbours go out to the window and do some noise.  It’s quite an Argentian way of complaining.  It’s called cacerolada in Spanish, and you just have to hit your saucepan, or another kitchen tool, and make noise.

People queuing to vote on the day of the Catalan independence referendum.

To make the drug dealers go away?

Just to complain.  It’s a way to complain.  Make the world hear.

And so those meetings, do they make decisions?  And if so, do they then send their decisions on to the Mayor?  Or how does that work? 

The thing with the confluence of Barcelona En Comú it actually works as a kind of government somehow.  Apart from these district meetings, there’s higher level of meetings which is called ‘Territorial’.  They have representatives.  It refers to the territory and you have representatives from every district meeting there.  This is the place where all the points of view and all the conflicts get presented.  At this level there are some people from the co-ordination of the confluence.  That would be like the highest level of the confluence where all the representatives from the government attend as well.

So 20 people doesn’t sound like very many, for representing a whole neighbourhood.  Have they been bigger before?  Is that okay at being that size, or is that intentionally that small, or is it that actually it’s a bit disappointing because there’s not enough people get involved, or?

They have commented, my colleagues, a couple of times that there aren’t as many people now as there used to be.  Apparently when you lose this motivating effect from the beginning, some people got discouraged maybe and they stepped away.

You were saying before that En Comú doesn’t have a formal position on independence?  Is that discussed at those meetings, or are those meetings very much more for local issues?

Well they have local issues mostly, but we sometimes have some time for political discussion as well.  Especially over the last weeks with the referendum.  The official position is quite clear in terms of what they beg for.  Just dialogue and trying both sides to sit down and start conversations.  That’s politics after all, or it should be.  You ask the position we have.  In the confluence it’s quite easy for both sides to blame you, because you are not in any of the two sides.  But I think things shouldn’t be black and white.  There’s a lot of different colours in between, no?

A rainbow of colours.

Yeah.  And for sure, the Catalan nationalist side blames you because they feel you are not 100% with them.  On the other side, they say you are also nationalist.  But for sure, within the confluence, you may find people if you ask who are more for independence, and people who would vote negatively.  That’s quite wide.

At the city level, where the Mayor, Ada Colau, could you just give a sense of some of the changes that she’s introduced?  What does this sort of municipal agenda look like on the scale of making city wide policy?

It comes from the small victories.  These victories start at the smallest level possible, you know, but in the end they can be big changes for the whole city.  One of the things they have tried, for example, is the municipalisation of the water company, which for Spain is quite a big thing.  It’s the first city that is doing this.  Or next year they are creating also a public electric company, which will provide electricity to all public institutions and buildings related to institutions.

The skyline of Barcelona.

With renewable energy?  Is that the idea?

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  And this comes to fight against the big electric companies that have the control of the whole market.  Or in terms of mobility, they have also created a lot of kilometres of bike roads.  Coming back to your first introduction about imagination, you know, and that’s quite related to Transition movement I guess.  It’s trying new scenarios for the public space.  Like the superblocks.

Barcelona doesn’t have that many green areas within the city, so there are a couple of pilot initiatives in some districts which are closing the streets and creating some green parts and playgrounds for kids, and some corners for dogs.  I’ve been through a couple of them and you can tell that even if it’s pavement and it’s not that green, it really makes a difference in terms of allowing some public space for neighbours who in the end go down, and over the weekend have a market there, or it feels like it invites you to spend more time on the street.  That’s one of the things that in the last years we were stopped doing.

I remember some conservative, not because of the left or right thing, but I remember some Mayor in Madrid saying he didn’t want to build up banks on the squares because people can stay together, and if you stay together, you can have a chat with your neighbour, and then you may start complaining about some things.  I think the more we talk, and the more we stay together, the more doubts and the more things you feel you can do together.  From a political point of view for some people this may be dangerous.

The same as not having an education where imagination or creativity have a major role as well.  I think that’s quite important at the school level.  It’s proved that the more creative you are, and the more freedom you give to imagination, it’s better education for further intellectual development in kids.

Absolutely.

Sometimes I think that they – and when I refer to ‘they’ it’s like government or big companies – when they control the media and so on, they want us blind.  They want us not to think that much.  That’s why every time we have 30 minutes for football reviews, but not for political discussion on TV, you know.

I think there’s a big future on this municipalist point of view, you know.  You can change big things from a local level, also related to big issues and international issues like climate change for example.  If you reduce the number of cars, like increasing taxes for cars, or for parking and so on, this affects the city level.  The decision can be done at a local level, but at the same time you are influencing a global issue.

So how confident do you feel that the Mayor and the people around her won’t just go off and become politicians like everybody else, and stop listening to the neighbourhood assemblies?  Are there things in place to stop that from happening?

I think they are on the right way, because they come from where they come from, no?  First thing they did when they went into the institutions is hang a piece of paper saying, “Don’t forget where you come from” because they had this feeling they were in a big castle with lots of doors and rooms, and they didn’t feel really comfortable.

They had this fear of being somehow absorbed by the institution.  That’s for sure a fear that you can have when you meet big fishes from companies and so on.  It’s a place you are not used to, and this way of relating to people.  But I think when I see them they are like normal people, like you and me.  It’s not like the typical guy with a suit smoking a cigar, you know, and getting to know for sure that he has some interest.  I think these people are ruling for the people and they may have a populism point of view somehow, but I think they are pure.

Has there been much resistance?  Have they encountered a lot of resistance?

Yes.  They are aiming to change many things.  They realise also when they are in the institution that they cannot change everything because many things also are on a higher level in terms of regional or even central government.  As for example with the refugee crisis Spain has.  It’s part of the deal welcoming the number of refugees they are supposed to.  The Mayor has publicly announced that she wants to host more people but this is a central state decision that she cannot go through, for example.

Then there are some people also who may not agree with the politics that are being taken at the moment.  But I think the polls have shown that more and more people are supporting the government now, the local government.  Because in the end, it’s not about left or right, you know, it’s more about the common goods.  If you see it from an objective point of view, this party, this confluence is governing for the things that affect you on a daily basis, and on things that have been moved from out of the traditional political discussion as well.  They focus on the things that affect your neighbourhood, or your daily life.

There are a lot of social actions, like buying many empty flats at the moment, especially in districts such as this one, and allowing low income families to rent these places.  Also building new houses for social rent.  In terms of tourism they have stopped many licences for new hotels, and you cannot revert the model, because it’s really big, but at least you can stop it and not make it bigger.

Memorial on Las Ramblas for those killed in the recent terrorist attacks.

Do you think that for people living in the city who aren’t necessarily involved in the meetings, do you think people generally feel like they live in a more imaginative place or is there a wider sort of sense that there’s more possibilities than there were before?  If I got a taxi or spoke to someone in a shop or something, do you think they would say, “Yeah, this feels good”?

Well at least I would think that it comes, this imagination related to hope, more.  It’s like imagining the city you would like to have, no?  I mean in just two years you cannot change everything, so you have to think on a long-term, and apart from all the imagination and all the hope these people give to many people at the moment, they are also professional in different fields, with good teams from civil society, that work on a long-term scale in imagining the city in maybe 15 to 20 years.

So there’s a vision behind what they’re doing? 

Yes.

And is that a widely shared vision?  If you asked people, “Do you know what that vision is?” do you think most people would know what it is?

Well, I’m talking about the plans they are passing now at the moment, affecting like a local district.  Urbanism plans.  For example the one they passed a couple of weeks ago is from 2020-2025.  It’s in 8 years time.  All these things are still like in vision, no?

And it’s happening in other places, you said, Madrid…?

We have this new government in most of the main cities in Spain.  Barcelona, Madrid, Zaragoza …  Also in Cadiz.  And these are all on the same page.  Like for example last June we organised at the international committee this Fearless Cities gathering.  It was a municipalist gathering.  We had people from all over Spain, but also really international, like from the States.  Lots of workshops and roundtables about different topics.  Common goals, transparency, Transition, communication.

So within that movement there’s a lot of those sort of tools for deeper engagement, like Open Space, World Cafe, people talking in circles.  A lot of that stuff is really designed into this whole thing, rather than just very traditional group meeting formats?

Yeah, it was more dynamic for sure.  On top, it gave you this energy, of feeling there’s quite a lot of people out there on the same page in different countries.  Of course every country has its own specialities, but I think as I said in the beginning that somehow we are experiencing an end of an era, and it’s a time of change.

Change isn’t the same from one day to another, but in history when you go back – when you were in the school and you study history, you see like, “This year, this thing happened.  Four years later, this thing.  And then two years after.”  I think we are in the process of experiencing new changes.

The next step now for the confluence is going on a regional level at the Catalan parliament as a confluence as well.  Trying to reproduce the same strategy, but on the next level.  For sure the main political view is the same, but it has to be another world.  Sometimes it’s also hard to think that you can succeed also on different parts of the region where they are more attached to nationalism.  I mean the scenario at the moment is a bit weird, with all the positions really marked.

Spotted in Barcelona.

Polarised.

Yes.  And Ada Colau, for example, she has said several times she wants to keep working on a local level because she wouldn’t feel like working for a bigger government, nationwide.

With the refugee crisis in some places there’s been a real decline in empathy, which resonates with some very troubling research about the decline in empathy in America.  It’s fallen 20 or 30% in the last fifteen years or something, you know, people’s concern for other people.  Have you noticed that here with this change of political narrative, and this opening of a more political narrative, that somehow that’s led to a more inclusive sense, a more tolerant sense around?  Does it feel like a more empathic city than it maybe did 2 or 3 years ago?

I think Barcelona within Spain has always been quite an embracing city.  It was the destination for many immigrants in Spain in the seventies and eighties because it was one of the richest regions in Spain.  So many people from the south, from Andalucia, mostly were coming to Barcelona.  It’s also always been with the international immigrants quite an open city.

Despite this thing with Catalanism which could lead to seeing that people try to be more closed.  For example, last Christmas here, last winter, I don’t remember now the exact month, but there was a big demonstration for supporting the refugee policy of the local government.  There were nearly 1 million people out on the street.  It was one of the biggest demonstrations in my life.  It was for a nice thing, which is welcoming more refugees.  I think it’s been quite inclusive every time.  Always.

The [inaudible 40:08] here, we may have many bad things in Spain, but I don’t think xenophobia is really present here so far in our country.  For sure there are some people, as everywhere, but there’s not a big political party or movement with a racist agenda.

So if you were starting in Essen, or Bristol, and you wanted to move towards this, where would you start?  Would the first step be to invite all the different progressive parties together and say, “Come on now, we’re only going to get anywhere if we can work together?  Let’s find some common ground.  Let’s write a common vision.”  Or do you start with the neighbourhoods?  Start with having meetings at the neighbourhood scale?  How would you start doing this?

I would try to meet up different agents there in terms of, “Okay, what’s going on in this district?” One of the guys who hosted me at the Transition conference, he was more involved into urban gardens and mobility issues.  Then I would also go to maybe some guys who were more interested in migration policies and so on.

I would try to maybe talk to the Green party and say, “Hey guys, you are not going any farther right now, you know, you have to recycle totally, 100%.”  That’s how Barcelona En Comú was originated, because some parties had also refused the old science, and go altogether with different actors.  Just changed totally, you know, because if you have some really deep roots into the past with some things, sometimes it’s hard.  Also in terms of marketing and so on, you know, people already associate your brand with something.  You are not new anymore.  You have the weight of the past.

Barcelona.

Giving it a new name, just…

Yeah.  A new brand and everything.  New people in front…

So you feel more hopeful about the future than you did four or five years ago?

Yeah.  Yeah.

Does this feel like this has been a revolution?  Does it feel like, from those days of 15-M, and in the squares and all that…  Because often things like that happen and then… Like Occupy, it came and it went “Pow” and then nothing really much changed as a result.  Does this feel like now, as someone living in Barcelona, like actually that was really worth doing?  That really changed something?

It helped us a lot, mobilising people, and put some things into politics, some issues for our democracy that couldn’t be seen different before.  This is mostly thanks to the 15-M but also thanks to Podemos.  There’s more than 5 million people now who voted for them, and this would have been impossible to think about four years ago.

The way they have introduced new things into politics is quite an improvement already.  I think it was quite needed, for them to go into the parliament.  It would be even better if we could have a government with such people on board, you know.  That would really make a difference.


Comments

  1. Michael Dunwell
    December 9, 2017

    This guy is really sticking in there for his neighbourhood, regardless of conventional politics. He believes that making things work locally will set an example at any level.
    Go thou and do likewise, folks !

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© Rob Hopkins 2017