Building a Counter-Power
6th February 2017
“Building a counter-power”: What Scotland could learn from Spain’s municipal movement ahead of local elections. Ben Wray reports from an international conference of the municipal movement in Pamplona, Spain, January 20-22nd which he attended as a representative from Common Weal.
You start out occupying city centres against austerity, and five years later you are running those same cities – what’s it like going from protesting to trying to put your ideals into practise? That’s the context which brought roughly 500 people from across Spain to Pamplona (in Basque) to talk about their ‘municipal movement’, summed up well in the programme notes as a movement that is “pushing up against the boundaries of the institutions by building bottom-up democracy.”
The municipal movement hit international headlines in May 2015 when a rash of local authorities were taken over by movement-led electoral coalitions, partnered with parties like Podemos. In Barcelona, the anti-evictions movement that emerged out of 15-M (Spain’s version of Occupy) hit a “natural ceiling”, one of the leading activist’s told me.
“We had 1.5 million signatures, 85% public support for our campaign, and the government still rejected it – at that point we didn’t really have a choice, we had to stand in the elections,” she said.
Barcelona En Comu (‘Barcelona in Common’) was formed and swept into Barcelona City Council, governing as a minority administration. They were represented in Pamplona alongside activists – some of whom are in charge of their local council, some in opposition and others just trying to get the movement off the ground – from all corners of Spain.
The conference was impressive for its diversity in terms of age and gender, but they all had a common experience. The last 18 months of “going into the institutions” was something very new for them but they were determined in the view that they weren’t leaving the movement – they were taking movement politics into the institutions.
The idea of municipalism is that the city or the town or the village should be owned and run by the people living there for the common good. This citizen-led approach is very practical in orientation: they want to establish the most public control that is possible depending on the extent to which they can build the movement to push the institutions to make it happen. So it could span from a energy system that is held in common property and directly run by and for users and workers collectively, to a better regulated tourist industry which prevents corporations from taking over all the centrally located housing stock to run as hotels and hostels.
The Pamplona conference was a chance for the movement to come together and reflect. How are they getting on?
“It’s difficult” was probably the most common view expressed, in a conference that was remarkably frank and down-to-earth (for those of you who have attended many lefty conferences, as I have, you’ll know hyperbolic boosterism is usually a prerequisite). Representatives in local authorities across the country were open about the real challenges and contradictions of combining governance with movement politics, especially in the context of years of austerity by the Spanish Government. They had lost many people along the way, either to demoralisation or to traditional centrist politics. But, they could point to significant successes and there was a shared feeling that they were learning and improving as they go.
The challenge, as one speaker illuminated, is that they are “working with a neoliberal state where the law processes work against them”. Neoliberalism has not just robbed the public of resources, but also of skills. Speaker after speaker spoke about how their local authority no longer had the legal and accountancy expertise, due to cuts and privatisation, to challenge commercial contracts from outsourcing, to change procurement processes, to take on legal disputes in the court with companies who won’t accept they’ve lost a contract, and so on.
The impact of austerity on the civil service also matters: the senior civil servants are all highly politicised to delay or stop changes, for example by exaggerating accounting problems. Newer lower-rank civil servants on lower wages than previously don’t always have the technical skills and experience to deliver the changes the municipalists propose, for instance dividing outsourcing contracts into smaller segments so co-operatives can apply for the contract as well as big businesses, and in carrying out studies into the cost of re-municipalisation.
Outsourced services are not being properly monitored and inspected by a state administration shrivelled by austerity, making it easier for the contractors to flaunt the contract and run the service down. When services get run down, they cost more when they are re-municipalised as the service must be improved – an additional cost that can be difficult to assess in advance, sometimes creating problems with the workers. All of these problems compound and re-inforce one another. “The technical is political,” as one speaker said.
Strategies are being developed to address this.
First, they are adamant that they do not want to collapse into “legalism”: the reduction of every political issue to a legal problem. To avoid this they need to appeal directly to the workers and to the service users, to convince them of the case for re-municipalisation and build a bottom-up movement to challenge the companies and pressure their own state apparatus. One example of this is a municipal town council where the re-municipalised water system have set-up a process where local users elect one person in the neighbourhood to hold water management accountable to citizens. This gets citizens engaged in the running of the service and ensures a feedback mechanism to the town council from users.
Second, they are learning and adapting to how to work the system. They’ve realised that it is much easier to get out of a contract at the point of renewal if they had already lodged a complaint previously about the quality of service delivery from the contracted company. Some town councils are setting-up studies to look at what can be saved from re-municipalising particular services. The need to prioritise means picking the most cost effective ones sometimes has to come first. One town council worked out it would save 145,000 Euros per year to re-municipalise water. To get the workers on board, they went to them first and said they would employ all of the workers at the private enterprise in the re-municipalised service. Another council has realised that establishing public enterprises was sometimes a way to get around bureaucratic state rules, while another argued that establishing public companies in things like energy that were profit-making could help for subsidising other services, like health. Finally, councillors are learning how to read legal contracts and find the weak spots. In one local authority they discovered through a close reading of the 40 year water procurement contract that the contracted company was not meeting its responsibilities, and the contract was declared null and void by the courts.
Third, they are thinking about ways to pull and share resources nationally to help provide legal and technical expertise. It was floated that they could set-up a fund to establish a think-tank for the municipal movement, providing expertise in legal and technical matters as well as spreading the best examples of how to manage services and what works and what doesn’t, and the idea of a legal consultancy was discussed too.
The need for national co-ordination was seen as a practical necessity – there was no indication from anyone I spoke to that localism had become a dogma. The Popular Party’s minority government in Madrid were looking to pursue ways to legally stop re-municipalisation (which is as good an indication as any that the municipal movement has achieved real victories). The representative from Barcelona En Comu stated that big national political questions had now become urgent to confront – the Catalonian question could no longer be avoided by a movement that was built on cross-constitutional collaboration. (Since the conference, a new Catalan left alliance including Barcelona En Comu and Podemos in Catalonia has set-up, proposing “a Catalan republic in a brotherly relationship with the rest of the peoples of the Peninsula” that shares sovereignties “with a state that has to develop its plurinational character”.)
To varying degrees the municipal movement was either reliant on or had a critical engagement with Podemos, which has quickly emerged as the biggest and most influential national party of the left in Spain. One conference delegate described the participants “generally as people around Podemos.” The municipal movement is very much part of the dynamic and complex national-political life of Spain.
Inevitably, the municipal movement has had varying degrees of success. It is open about the fact that where it is in power, it hasn’t achieved as much as it expected or wanted to, which has been a source of understandable frustration to many of its supporters. But the key thing is they are actually fighting to reverse the neoliberal city, they are achieving real victories, and in the process they are sharpening their skills and their politics. “We are building a counter-power,” one speaker said, “it wasn’t built in a day”. One can imagine that if Spain’s very shaky banks were to collapse again, these activists all across Spain, schooled in struggle in and outside the state, will know exactly how to respond and will be who many citizens turn to for leadership.
That should be inspiration enough for us in Scotland. With council elections approaching in May, just starting to think about how to take our cities, towns and villages into ‘the commons’ and building a strategy to do so would be a major step forward.
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