Municipal revolution, May 2015

Feeling the euphoria of the municipal elections in Spain, we’ve decided to scribble out a few notes on what happened there and to think through what it might mean for Dublin. What follows is a bit sketchy, but we think it’s worthwhile to add to the debates currently going on and to get our heads around Spain’s municipal revolution, as well as to consider what possibilities we can open up for hope and change at the municipal level here in Dublin. This second feature is especially important, as there are currently many debates happening within our city’s social movements around how we can build on the existing movements of resistance to open up new avenues of change.

This post looks at what’s happening in Spain, while the next one focuses on Dublin.

Municipal revolution

Last Sunday, the 24th of May, newly formed citizens’ platforms stole the show in Spain’s municipal elections. Barcelona en Comu came out on top, while Ahora Madrid looks likely to be able to form a minority government with the support of the mainstream Spanish centre left party PSOE. Likewise, Cadiz, A Corunya and many other cities saw citizens’ platforms surge ahead. To get a sense of what these platforms are all about, you might want to check out these two articles about Barcelona en Comu (click here and here) and this fantastic video featuring participants in Ahora Madrid and Barcelona en Comu.

Rather than giving general backgrounds to these platforms, here we want to pull out some key elements of this incredible new political force, before examining the implications for Ireland.

1) The longer context:

We’ve touched on this elsewhere (click here and here), so we’ll be brief. In the aftermath of the anti-globalization movement, social movements across Spain were seized by a set of debates which, much like in Ireland and elsewhere, focused on moving beyond the activist ghetto and developing organisational forms that could produce new relationships between people at an everyday level and social and political collectivities or communities around the key issues in contemporary cities. These issues were mainly housing, precarity and migration. The movement that would become the poster child for this new organisational model, sometimes referred to as ‘social syndicalism’, was the PAH –  the massive anti-eviction movement.

These new ways of doing activism involved ditching some aspects of traditional activist culture. They also involved opening out to work on a more collaborative basis with civil society and public institutions. Like in Ireland, social movements and NGOs had often been at odds – with activists accusing NGOs of being service-providing sell outs and NGO people pointing out the irrelevance of activists to real world problems. More fruitful relationships emerged within projects like the PAH and the Ferrocarril Clandestino (a migrant related project based in Madrid). In terms of public institutions, the activist scene had traditionally been in a perennial state of extreme conflict with public institutions – most notably in the case of the squatter scene. In the mid-2000s a new wave of social centres emerged which negotiated with city councils to gain access to space, rather than the traditional route of occupation. This opened some interesting spaces of negotiation between social movements and public institutions. These various experiments led to two main outcomes: (a) the proliferation of forms of collective organisations inserted in the material antagonisms which traverse the contemporary city (precarity, housing, migration); and (b) a more nuanced politics with greater capacity for collaboration, working across difference, experimentation and working in the grey area.

2) The immediate context :

The major game changer in all this, however, was the 15M movement. Much has been written about this occupy-style movement, but to make a long story short it represented a social explosion which reflected a rupture with the existing political and economic system. It’s most popular chant, ‘they don’t represent us’, spoke to a widespread feeling of alienation from mainstream politics. From the outset, there was an extremely tangible focus on democratic participation, ensuring that since then political developments in Spain have been as much about how citizens ‘do politics’ as they have been about material issues (unemployment etc) and austerity.

The 15M very quickly gave rise to the ‘waves’, a number of different movements focused mainly on public services such as health, education and housing. Like Ireland’s water movement, they were largely community-led and involved widespread, heterogeneous actions, creating a sense that the political system was losing any kind of social legitimacy. 15M and the ‘waves’ quickly – sometime around 2012/2013 – revealed how resistant the political institutions and political elites were to change. Civil society was handing the government clear, feasible policies on a plate, and the government, at every level, was ignoring them and continuing on the path of ‘austericide’. The failure of the 15M and the ‘waves’ to produce much by the way of tangible change at the level of policy, led to widespread discussion within the movements of what is described in Spain as ‘seizing the institutions’. The European elections in 2014 saw two early experiments reflecting the two major currents here –  the X Party and Podemos.

The X Party reflects the most radically participative aspects of the movement, strongly informed by network politics and ‘peer to peer’ democracy and so on. Podemos, on the other hand, represented a very different approach. Essentially a centralized circle of left intellectuals who had joined forces with a small left wing party, Podemos seemed at first unpromising, but it’s electoral success (it took 5 seats in the elections and rose meteorically in national opinion polls) opened up the whole question of taking back public institutions and placed it centre stage in social movement debates. The party itself quickly grew and began its own discussions about democratization and participation within the party, with what most would argue are mixed results. Nevertheless, Podemos, as an electoral force explicitly linked to the 15M movement, showed that the spirit on the streets could be translated into the electoral sphere and the transformation of public institutions. The more participative approach of the X Party, heavily reliant on online networks, proved unwieldy and overly complex for the European elections. But its participative spirit made much more sense at the smaller scale, local level. Either way, around a year ago groups in Barcelona, Madrid and other cities began to reflect on the possibility of developing a politics and a practice of the 99% that could take back the city councils.

3) The alliances:

To create new electoral platforms, however, it was necessary to bring people together. This cannot be achieved simply because it is a good idea or because the time is right. Alliances can only be built on a solid foundation of trust and experience working together and, importantly, listening to each other. This was the great strength of Barcelona en Comu. Through projects like the PAH and many others, a loose network had emerged of progressive forces outside the sphere of traditional parties. As well as PAH activists, this included the social centres, feminist movements, right to the city movements, migrant movements and the ‘hacker’ networks, as well as researchers and NGOs. These forces were then able to bring in Podemos and other small left wing formations to create a powerful alliance. In Madrid, similar dynamics are at play, although the task of building the alliances was perhaps more arduous and the role of Podemos was probably more significant. Anyway, these alliances must be built up over time and through concrete experiences of trust and respect, not just abstract commitments to them as values.

4) The politics:

This is a tricky one, but the key is that they made the election be about citizens taking control of their public institutions and NOT voting for a ‘better’ or ‘more progressive’ party that will change the city on behalf of citizens (read more here).

5) The communication:

The citizen platforms were able to communicate in a way which resonated with people first and foremost because they were doing something that resonated with people. If your doing something people don’t really care about, then whatever way you communicate it people still won’t really care about it. That said, there were two important aspects to communication which really deserve much more attention than we can give them here. Firstly, the platforms used the lexicon and the ‘vibe’ of the 15M movement – this is all about people, the 99%, against corrupt and incompetent political elites who had facilitated public institutions being held hostage by private interests. It was about getting involved, participating, having your voice heard. It was positive, creative and confident – the emphasis wasn’t only on how much the people are suffering or how bad the other guys are, but on the fact that there’s more of us and we’re smarter and more intelligent than the elite. It hardly needs to be mentioned that this message was communicated online and through various media (image, video, music), as well as through traditional media (TV). Secondly, beyond the campaigns run by the platforms themselves, there were spontaneous art and images produced by individuals and artist collectives, especially clear in the case of Manuela Carmena, who heads up Ahora Madrid (check out the Madrid for Manuela Tumblr).

6) The figureheads:

There is no doubt that the figure of Ada Colau was crucial to the success of Barcelona en Comu, while Ahora Madrid‘s Manuela Carmena is a retired judge with a track record that includes fighting Franco. These two figures scream legitimacy, honesty and competence. They excelled in the media and were able to communicate with people far beyond ‘the left’. And, in particular Ada Colau, had massive name recognition. Any electoral project that lacks this kind of figure head will have a very hard time getting taken seriously.

The next post will look at the possibilities for Dublin through the lens of Spain’s municipal revolution.



  1. […] the Dublin-based Municipal Revolution research group, writing on their website soon after the results were announced, the Spanish citizen platforms ‘resonated with people first […]

  2. […] begin with governance as the Dublin Collective “Provisional University” wrote of the Ganemos […]

  3. […] is the second of two blog posts on ‘municipal revolution’, reflecting on the victory of ‘citizens’ platforms’ across […]

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