Is Mario a libertarian

| Rebellious Cities - Success or Frustration?

In the quicksand of institutions

Raul Zelik

In May 2015, left-wing candidates conquered numerous town halls in the Spanish state.This ›municipalist left‹ could count on the support of Podemos and other left-wing parties, but sees itself as an alternative to traditional party politics. Most of those who founded Barcelona En Comú, Ahora Madrid or the Galician mareas come from social movements: the squatting of the Movement of May 15 (15M) or the platform against evictions (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca / PAH). Its aim was to carry the social awakening into the institutions without giving up its radical democratic claim. But after a year in government, the balance sheet turns out to be mixed.


The concept of municipalism has haunted the debates of the left critical of institutions for a long time (cf. Caccia in this issue). In the anarchist debate, the confederation of free communities is often promoted as a model of a commune-society. This concept was represented most clearly by Murray Bookchin, whose 'libertarian municipalism' is based on grassroots democratic politics in communities and districts. Bookchin's main argument has something for itself: The ›face-to-face-democracy‹ is the indispensable basis of any real political participation.

In the 1990s, however, municipalism developed a certain relevance in practice. In Italy, left-wing movement influenced by Zapatista took part in municipal electoral alliances (which, among other things, captured the City Hall of Venice) and dreamed of a network of rebellious cities. Municipalism became a serious project primarily through independence movements which, in the absence of a state of their own, focused on the establishment of parallel institutions. In 1999, Basque municipal councils founded a kind of national assembly of municipalities (Udalbiltza) in 2000, which had shared budgetary resources and was supposed to create a new institutional framework across the Spanish-French border. In 2003, however, the Spanish investigating judge Baltasar Garzón banned this association and leading representatives from Udalbiltza were arrested.

Municipalism became known to a wider public in 2011 when the Kurds in Syria began to organize their self-government as a confederation of municipalities. Interestingly, this autonomy movement refers on the one hand to Bookchin's anarchism, but on the other hand also has the building of cross-border institutions in mind. Another municipal project developed in Catalonia in the 2000s. With the Candidaturas d’Unitat Popular (CUP), election platforms based on local general assemblies and anti-institutional orientated emerged, which subsequently made a remarkable rise: The CUP had 20 municipal council seats in 2003, and in 2015 it was 400 (out of a total of 9,000).

With Guanyem to the town halls

The triumphal march of the municipalist left in the spring of 2015 was mainly due to the fact that after the social protests gradually subsided in 2013, many activists asked themselves how the social awakening into the institutions could be extended. The right-wing conservative Partido Popular (PP) and the social democratic PSOE simply sat out the mass protests and general strikes, the vigor of the 15M movement threatened to fizzle out. Against this background, part of the left discussed the establishment of a ›Spanish Syriza‹ - a debate from which Podemos eventually emerged.

However, many left-wing movements were skeptical as to whether the struggle for government posts would not completely overwhelm the protest movements. Some therefore advocated forms of policy that should call the existing institutional framework more into question. From this context, the Guanyem initiative (Catalan for »Let's win«) emerged in Barcelona in 2014, which was mainly supported by activists from the movement against evictions (PAH) and the group Procès Constituent (which advocated a constitutional process similar to that in Latin America). The aim was to draw up an open left-wing electoral list, the composition of which should be decided at district assemblies and the main aim of which was to stop the valorization of Barcelona for mass tourism (the so-called Marca Barcelona). However, this should not be a classic coalition, but a so-called confluencia in which the role of the parties should be limited to supporting the candidates who are legitimized by direct democracy.

The initiative quickly found imitators across the country. In Madrid, the movement left and parts of Izquierda Unida (IU) joined forces to form Ganemos and negotiated an open pre-election procedure with Podemos and smaller parties. The list that ran for local elections in May 2015 under the name Ahora Madrid was correspondingly heterogeneous. The candidates formed similarly in Zaragoza, in the Andalusian city of Cádiz or in the Galician cities, where the independence party A Nova, Podemos, Bewegungslinke and IU cooperated with each other. The election results of May 2015 were tantamount to an earthquake. The city halls of Madrid, Barcelona, ​​Valencia, Zaragoza, Cádiz, Pamplona / Irunea, A Coruña, Santiago, Badalona ...

The example of Barcelona The example of Barcelona shows, however, that even municipalism is not immune to adjustment processes. This is not due to the leadership group of Barcelona En Comú, which is closely linked to the city's social struggles. Mayor Ada Colau is a longtime activist of the movements for decent housing. Xavier Domènech, who at the end of 2015 ran as the lead candidate for the Catalan platform En Comú Podem (allied with Podemos and IU),is a Marxist hegemony theorist. Jaume Asens, deputy mayor, comes from the right-to-town movement. The founding group of En Comú, which makes no secret of its sympathy for Zapatista and libertarian political concepts, stands for a much more left-wing and grassroots project than Podemos.

Even so, Barcelona En Comú has gone through an amazing development in just 12 months. Since May 2016, Ada Colau has governed in coalition with the social democratic Partit dels Socialistes de Catalunya (PSC), which has been the mayor of Barcelona for decades and is primarily responsible for neoliberal urban development. The danger of just re-legitimizing the existing city model is already inherent in the composition of Barcelona En Comú itself. When the project came into being in 2014, it was aimed at the entire spectrum on the left of social democracy - including the left-green Iniciativa per Catalunya Verds (ICV), which ruled Barcelona with the PSC in the 2000s. Manuel Delgado, veteran of the Catalan left, pointed out this contradiction in an interview before Ada Colau's election victory: "How should the same people who developed the 'Barcelona model' be able to fight it?" (, May 14, 2015)

The group around Ada Colau made a fundamental decision back in 2014: The plan to build up a grassroots movement in the neighborhoods was at least partially abandoned. Instead, an alliance was formed with part of the political establishment. That brought votes,In retrospect, however, it also turned out to be an obstacle to a real 'power option'. Manuel Delgado, who had already pleaded for Ada Colau's candidacy in 2012, responded to the question of whether he considered Colau's group to be a guarantor of policy change: “No, because they are caught in a dynamic that produces politicians who have nothing to report . The city council of Barcelona is a monster and the people who decide in it are not the ones who officially rule. [...] There are also powerful interests that do everything to defend their privileges. "(Ibid.)

No reforms without countervailing power

So what has the left city government achieved? There have been successes: after long negotiations, a budget was passed that increased social spending, a program to promote cooperatives was launched and a feminist gender equality policy was also promoted. The reallocation of apartments into holiday apartments and expensive prestige projects has also been stopped (at least temporarily). A housing construction program and new forms of citizen participation are in preparation. In addition, Barcelona has declared itself a Refugee Welcome City - which is more of a symbolic character because so far only a few dozen war refugees from Syria and other countries have arrived in the Spanish state.

All of this is gratifying, but you shouldn't fool yourself: In the politicized climate of Barcelona, ​​another city government would have been forced to make social concessions. Gerardo Pisarello himself outlined the problem in an interview on May 26th of this year with the magazine Barcelona En Comú has only a very small part of the power. They only have eleven of 41 seats on the municipal council and are therefore dependent on negotiations with the PSC and the Catalan-republican Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (ERC). The administrative technocracy obeys the interests of lobby groups or opposes any change out of bureaucratic inertia. And finally, public opinion is dominated by private media groups.

Two current conflicts show how problematic it is when leftists, as city governments, have to represent the interests of ›all citizens‹ and no longer clearly position themselves in social struggles. A collective bargaining conflict has been simmering for months with the underground workers, the majority of whom are organized in the anarcho-syndicalist union Confederación General del Trabajo (CGT). In the conflict, however, the city government relied on the assessment of the administrative directors of the transport companies and told the strikers that an increase in (relatively good) wages was not a priority for Barcelona En Comú. The argument is relatively outrageous when you know that the transport companies have numerous high-value consultancy contracts for managers. So the fact that an upright left like Ada Colau is mayor has not helped to expand the power of the subaltern on this issue. On the contrary: the fact that a credible section of the left no longer takes sides for strikers, but rather “wants to mediate between interests” weakens the bargaining power of the union.

The situation is similar with regard to the struggle of the so-called manteros, of the 300 or so illegal immigrants who make their living in Barcelona from informal street sales. In recent years, the city governments have established a kind of laissez-faire policy: the city police let the street vendors do it by the hour, but drove them away from certain places. Under the government of Ada Colau, however, the bourgeois media and business owners are now mobilizing against “illegal competition”. As a result, the city police repeatedly used violence against the street vendors. Although most members of Barcelona En Comú sympathize with the manteros, Mayor Ada Colau avoided seeking and resolving the conflict with the police leadership and public opinion

The examples point to a connection that is of central importance for left transformation politics - regardless of whether it sees itself as reformist or radical: Governments in themselves do not represent an option of power (cf. Giovanopoulos in this issue). The compulsion to mediate between interests often even prevents the government left from contributing to the development of social counterpower. This can also be observed in other large cities. In Madrid, for example, Mayor Manuela Carmena pursues a policy that shies away from confrontations with public opinion, i.e. the media groups, and hardly differs from the line of the PSOE. And in most of the other “rebellious cities” the former left-wing movement is still busy penetrating the functional logic of the administration. However, the situation is much better in smaller communities. In some localities there are decades of experience in and with left-wing local governments. Since the social structures here are more binding, the contact to movements closer and the resistance from power groups and media corporations less, there are interesting transformational approaches here. Individual Andalusian villages have pursued a collective housing policy and Basque communities have gained extensive experience in direct democracy and in the remunicipalisation of basic infrastructure and supply facilities. Interestingly enough, these experiences are rarely reflected. The left also looks primarily at what is perceived by the mass media.

In summary, one could say that the same applies to municipalist projects as to higher-level institutional politics. First, it is not the exercise of government office that is decisive for change, but the development of social countervailing power. Second, this is not a media event, but the result of self-organization and mobilization of the population. It's not just about that one tejido social (a social network) of initiatives, neighborhood associations and groups emerges, but of course primarily because this network is shaped by alternative cultural ideas and left-wing positions.

So the left can twist and turn it as it wants. It is repeatedly thrown back on the question of how an emancipatory counter-hegemony critical of capitalism can be developed. Transformation policy is only possible if social struggles, movements and organizations build up enough pressure against the power of economic lobby groups, state bureaucracies and media groups. This also applies to policies at the district and community level. If, on the other hand, municipalism primarily means that movement activists can no longer take a stand on the side of the subaltern in social conflicts, it helps - just like classic party projects - to curtail plebeian power. Only if the new municipalism refuses to make this adjustment will it be able to escape the fate of the alternative and green parties in Europe.



1 A significant part of the population (and especially of the left) in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Galicia, the Balearic Islands, Valencia and Andalusia do not see themselves as Spaniards. In this text, instead of the term Spain, which also denotes a controversial cultural identity, the political term ›Spanish state‹ is used.
2 The En Comú Podem list has become the strongest party in Catalonia out of hand and received 25 percent of the vote in the Spanish parliamentary elections in June 2016, in which the radical municipalist CUP did not take part.
3 In retrospect, however, the question arises whether a list would not have exceeded 20 percent without the left-green ICV but with the left-wing radical CUP. In the local elections in 2015, Barcelona en Comú got 25.2 percent, the independently running CUP 7.4 percent.

4 Editor's note: As we only became aware after going to press, a program is being worked on at the same time to encourage the formation of migrants' cooperatives and to give them licenses to legalize and control street sales. At the same time, those concerned would be decriminalized and given the prospect of staying. The first cooperatives are already on their way - but too slow compared to the evictions. This initiative is part of a plan to strengthen solidarity economy and cooperatives that Gerardo Pisarello, first deputy of Ada Colau, has launched.


Surfing contradictions - breaking up institutions

Hanno Bruchmann and Mario Candeias

It is no small matter if a city government forces the banks to renegotiate the mortgage or offer a replacement apartment in the event of an eviction. If these efforts are unsuccessful, the municipality undertakes to provide an apartment. For those affected it is about existential questions, for the city it is about regaining power against a hypertrophic finance and mortgage mafia. It is also no small matter when contracts for large projects or contracts with private corporations are reviewed, revised or terminated. This gives the public sector sovereignty over finances again, wresting it from a clique of corrupt public-private partnerships that had previously taken prey in the city. The relief of the budget has led, among other things, to a 26 percent increase in social spending and to a reduction in debts of one billion euros per year. These are all measures taken by the government led by Manuela Carmen in Madrid.It has searched through the opaque machinations of the authorities, made them transparent, disclosed budgets and simplified administrative processes. For this purpose, a commission of inquiry into municipal debts and public procurement was set up. If these are typical social democratic measures, as Raul Zelik suggests, this is reminiscent of the best sides of social democracy.

For Barcelona, ​​the Mayoress Ada Colau draws the following balance after one year: »The most profound, most important and lasting changes do not take place overnight, but as the sum of small transformations that bring about improvements in people's lives: the expansion of free School meals and housing allowance, the application of Law 24/2015, which enables evictions to be stopped, securing alternative quarters and basic services, more childcare and more jobs for teachers and social workers. […] In the first year we also made progress in terms of democratic control and transparency: the budget and finances are publicly available. We have also introduced ethical guidelines for public procurement in order to fight corruption «(Colau 2016).

The limits of the design options at the municipal level, even after a left-wing government takeover, are known, reflected and politically discussed: the growing underfunding of the municipalities, the indebtedness and the limited competencies. The lack of organization of countervailing power at European level and the missed opportunity to take over the government in the Spanish state do not improve the conditions, although here in particular relief through an anti-austerity policy would have been urgently needed. Against this background, Zelik's criticism that the 'Rebel Cities' balance sheet was “mixed” and that the established left-wing activists in town halls fell victim to the logic of the institutions they wanted to change is not entirely convincing. Successes and positive effects are only mentioned briefly, problems and contradictions that were to be expected are already interpreted as failures.

Break open institutions

Zelik says that in the politicized climate of Barcelona another city government would have been forced to make social concessions. Given that corruption is deeply anchored in the apparatus, this is doubtful even for Barcelona. In Madrid no concessions would have been expected from the conservative Partido Poppular (PP). The government has been following its policy of evictions, privatizations and austerity for years, completely unmoved.

You don't always have the choice of first building up social countervailing power and then perhaps going into government. The experience was that the mass mobilizations in recent years have not stopped the rulers from simply going on, regardless of all the corruption scandals, crises and protests. Without the prospect of assertion, the resistance threatens to wane. It was therefore a matter of entering the institutions. This is what a majority of voters expected. But with the move into the town halls, not only the agenda of the government should be changed, but the institutions themselves. The first priority was to open them up to the expertise of the population and social demands as well as the promotion of self-organization. All of these are essential goals of the municipalist movement (Espinoza Pino 2016) and progress is indeed slow here: two units for participation and transparency have been set up in Madrid. 79 percent of those questioned said in a study by the city government that this was an improvement. Nine out of ten Madrilenians believe that participatory budgeting, for example, is important in order to increase population participation. The majority knows the participation portal decide. and advocates decentralization of the administration. But so far the consultations of the population have remained largely opinion polls. They provide orientation for the city government, but do not enable a political debate in which joint projects and goals could actually be worked out beyond the apparatus. A decentralization process is pending here, which gives the neighborhood councils and districts greater decision-making power.

In any case, it is important to exert precisely that pressure from below that would make it easier for left-wing city governments without a majority to push through social improvements. Here government and movement could support each other productively. "We have to stop" to understand the new local governments as "expressions of the 15M", which will fix it for us. Instead, we have to "apply pressure so that they use the loaned mandate appropriately" (Rodriguez 2016). This applies to every left-wing government, but it is urgently needed in Spain at the moment because beyond the few people who are now trying to 'wag the dog' as an elongated tail at the top of the apparatus, so to speak, neither Barcelona en Comú nor Ahora Madrid have their own developed organizations that could act as an amplifier and counterbalance to the absorption force of the institutions.

Organize counterpower

Zelik wants to show with two examples that the government left does not contribute to the development of social countervailing power. The metro workers' strike organized by anarchist trade unions in Barcelona shows "that a credible section of the left no longer takes sides for strikers, but rather wants to 'mediate between interests'". That weakens "the bargaining power of the union". Perhaps, however, the argument among subway workers is not the most pressing at this moment. Because other struggles continue to be supported: The platform of those affected by mortgages (PAH) continues to fight against the decline in eviction attempts, occupies houses and is tolerated (cf. el diario, June 20, 2016). Ongoing mobilizations show that the starting conditions for resistance have become better and not worse. Even Emanuel Rodriguez (2016), harsh critic of the new city governments, conceded: "The ability to exercise countervailing power has grown with these governments compared to their predecessors."

As a result, the popularity of the left-wing local government is increasing: 72 percent of the voters of Ahora Madrid and 55 percent of the voters of the social democratic PSOE believe that life in the city has improved. Mayor Carmena is extremely popular and is well ahead of the President in surveys of her popularity ratings.The majority of respondents also rated Ada Colau's work as good or very good,and in the parliamentary elections on June 26, 2016, the left-wing electoral alliance performed particularly well in left-wing municipalities and regions. The important resource of credibility has definitely grown with the takeover of governments.

But what does that mean for the development of alternatives? Zelik sees this only outside of the existing institutions of the bourgeois state: For changes, "it is not the exercise of government office that is decisive, but the development of social countervailing power." And this in turn is "not a media event, but the result of self-organization and mobilization of the population." Although this is a sympathetic understanding of how social changes take place, it is postulated as free of contradictions, direct, unambiguous and, above all, as an alternative to government projects. With the argument that so far no government has brought about a real transformation and that there are always fierce disputes, the approach that a variety of strategies, levels and actors is required is prematurely abandoned.

The problem also lies in the fact that there are hardly any human resources, and many think that taking over government means simply pursuing the previous goals in the institutions. Instead, it should be a matter of building countervailing power through organized civil society, largely independent of the communal state. Here we share Zelik's criticism that too little is being done to "build a grassroots movement in the neighborhoods." Only in the connection of popular counterpower and left city government can a real power option develop. To this end, leftists must continue to work on strategies of municipalism, continue to critically accompany local governments and fight for more far-reaching demands. The lack of a change at the top of the Spanish state and the current balance of power in the European Union will not make the situation any easier. But there is no reason to prematurely give up the successful municipalist option. Further contradictions have to be surfed.



Colau, Ada, 2016: Un año en común, Espinoza
Pino, Mario, 2016: Construir movimiento municipalista,
Rodríguez, Emmanuel, 2016: Corresponsabilidad, companero: doce meses de Ayuntamientos de cambio, in: Peridico Diagonal, May 24, 2016