Can Barcelona Rekindle Its Radical Imagination?
Above photo: Colau wants to win Barcelona again with Subirats, Sanz, Asens, Martín, Pérez and Pin. / MIQUEL CODOLAR (ACN / VIDEO: EUROPA PRESS)
Barcelona En Comú narrowly lost the popular vote, and possibly the city government.
But there is much more to life than governance.
The night of 26 May 2019 was a bad one for Spain’s so-called Fearless Cities. Four years after winning local elections, the left-wing municipal platforms that governed Madrid, Barcelona, Zaragoza, A Coruña, Santiago de Compostela and other key cities have suffered major losses. The only exceptions are Cádiz and Valencia. The former will certainly be governed by the anticapitalist Adelante Andalusia and the latter by the progressive Compromís.
Everywhere else, the municipalists will be replaced by either Pedro Sanchez’s resuscitated Socialist Party or a right-wing coalition that includes the disintegrating Popular Party, the technocratic Ciudadanos and the neo-fascist Vox. There is a mathematical chance that Manuela Carmena’s Mas Madrid can maintain the mayorship, but this will depend on reaching agreements with the Socialists and Ciudadanos at the local, regional and national level to do so.
Why this happened depends on specific local contexts that require their own reflections. This article focuses specifically on Barcelona because it is where the municipalist wave of 2015 began and its situation is particularly complex.
Nationalism divides the left
First, the results in Barcelona were hardly catastrophic for the left. They are certainly better than elsewhere in Spain and, especially, elsewhere in Europe. Barcelona En Comú lost exactly one seat in city hall. They now have the same number of seats (10) as the center-left pro-independence Esquerra Republicana (ERC), who won the popular vote by less than 5000 ballots. If we count the Socialist Party (PSC), the left or center-left have 28 out of 41 seats. Vox achieved no seats. Unfortunately, the pro-independence radical left Candidatura d’Unitat Popular (CUP) lost all three of theirs.
Nevertheless, for those interested in guaranteeing progressive governance, the reasonable choice would appear to be a tripartite coalition. This has happened before in Barcelona and in Catalonia, and would essentially mimic the coalition that ousted Mariano Rajoy to install Pedro Sanchez at the head of the Spanish government. But this view underestimates the impact of nationalism on Spanish and Catalan politics, as well as the organizational selfishness at the heart of party politics.
While both the Socialists and Esquerra Republicana represent relatively moderate but opposing positions on Catalan independence, neither seems willing to disappoint its base by forming a coalition with the other. Instead, they seek to polarize Barcelona En Comú’s more diverse support base by forcing the party to choose between one and the other.
Shortly after the elections, ERC offered Barcelona En Comú a role in a pro-independence coalition government with the right-wing Catalan nationalists of Junts per Catalunya. This is particularly striking considering that pro-independence parties in Barcelona received less than 40% of the vote.
Meanwhile, PSC offered to enter a Barcelona En Comú government with the outside support of Ciudadanos, for the sole purpose of avoiding a pro-independence city government. This is most unappealing because the latter party’s leader is none other than Manuel Valls, the former Prime Minister of France best remembered for his xenophobic and anti-Roma demagoguery. It is hard to believe that this support will not come with a high cost, especially after the visceral punitive populism he displayed during the campaign.
For the moment, Barcelona En Comú’s leadership has responded by insisting on a tripartite left-wing government. The apparent unlikeliness of the proposition is all the more disappointing because it suggests that the municipalist project has been unable to overcome nationalism through a politics of proximity. This could be due to the historical intersections between social class and nationalist sentiment in Catalonia and, more specifically, in Barcelona.
Though recent years have seen a considerable rise in support for pro-independence parties throughout the city, most residents of the predominantly working class Nou Barris, Sant Andreu and Sant Marti districts remain opposed to independence. These were precisely the areas that put Ada Colau’s party in the government, and they are precisely the ones where votes returned to PSC on Sunday. Given Barcelona En Comú’s considerable social and political investment in these neighborhoods (an approach not unlike PSC’s previous policies), it seems reasonable to conclude that the party’s stance on independence played a big role in tipping the scale.
Balancing hype, practice and relations
Of course, Barcelona En Comú’s narrow loss cannot be attributed entirely to feelings of national belonging. There are many other questions to consider. Pedro Sanchez’s resuscitation of the Spanish Socialist party seems to have energized social democrats across Spain, generally at the expense of Podemos and its affiliates. Sanchez’s attempts to include Vox in national debates suggest he used the fear of fascism to energize his party’s base and expand its appeal among people who would otherwise have abstained.
Meanwhile, some claim that Podemos’ internal conflicts and high-profile desertions had a toxic effect on the municipalist candidacies. However, the handful of party members who chose not to run with Barcelona En Comú in these elections were generally less conflictive about their decisions than they were elsewhere, so this explanation seems a bit less convincing.
Ultimately, asking how Barcelona En Comú lost these elections and what this means for an autonomous political praxis feels like a trap. Specifically, a trap that fetishizes governance over freedom. Perhaps the question today is not why Barcelona En Comú lost, since this can always be attributed to an inability to mobilize. Perhaps a more pressing question is why this feels so disappointing for some of us.
Like the post-15M mobilizations that preceded the platform, Barcelona En Comú was partly an experiment in permanent campaigning and partly one in permanent organizing. As such, it faced the specific communicative challenge of balancing the hype of its aspirational narratives with the emancipatory practicesand relations that unfolded from its political engagement with material reality. The gap between the two is one of disillusion, and must be cared for.
Barcelona En Comú won with a campaign that promised to take on global capitalism, patriarchy and climate change, and promoted a radical vision of democracy and human rights. Over the last four years, however, the platform’s discourse has foregrounded achievements of governance, which are more mundane and managerial in nature.
These achievements were not insignificant. Requiring new construction projects to include a sizeable portion of affordable housing is important in Spain. Building up a public energy company to challenge private cartels is, too. Municipal programs that respond to the refugees and asylum seekers neglected by State programs are absolutely crucial in Europe today. So are bike lanes, increased social spending, and more binding and inclusive local participatory processes.