Authored by: Adrian Bua and Jonathan Davies, Centre for Urban Research on Austerity
In May 2015, New Municipalist candidacies entered City Hall in a range of major urban centres throughout Spain. Their policy agendas aimed to transform urban political economies and cleanse politics, whilst acting as a spearhead for deeper changes at higher state tiers and society at large. The New Municipalism involved a radically democratic approach to a perennial issue facing the left: the question of the state. A great example of what Marx meant when he stated that men make history, but they do not do so in conditions of their own choosing, the state is an ensemble of organizations, institutions and actors bound by relations, rules and practices sedimented and inscribed by past struggles and politics. What to do with this dynamic but slow moving, co-ordinated but contradictory institutional ensemble has always been one of the greatest questions facing the left. Its complexity and conservative inertias often draw left activists away from it, whilst its importance in reproducing capitalism highlights the inevitability of engaging with it.
The New Municipalist strategy was for citizen-led platforms to target municipal institutions, using participatory and direct processes to constitute and govern themselves and the municipality. In this way, the streets could enter the institutions and the state would be transformed from the bottom up. Municipalist candidacies following this strategy spread all over Spain in 2015.
In a recent article in Urban Studies, we analyse the experience of Municipalist candidacies in two large urban centres in Galicia, North West Spain. Impressive victories in 2015 in Ferrol, Santiago and A Coruña did not carry through to the 2019 elections, and the Municipalists faced severe issues implementing their agenda during the four-year term, which we document in the cases of Santiago and Coruña. Drawing the correct lessons from the achievements and limitations of those experiences is crucial for future cycles of contention and windows of opportunity for change.
The Municipalist wager in Coruña and Santiago
As in the rest of Spain, austerity in Galicia had led to a sharp fall in living standards and prospects following the 2008 crisis, especially felt by young whose options were to migrate to other parts of Europe or remain in precarity; while corruption scandals deeply undermined citizens’ trust in conventional politics. The 15-M protest cycle deepened this crisis of legitimacy. In A Coruña and Santiago, two municipalist candidacies were constituted: Marea Atlántica and Compostela Aberta, respectively.
The formation of both candidacies reflected the fast-pace of the political moment, beginning late in 2014 and going well into 2015. Their policy agendas included measures such as public housing support, municipal basic income, re-municipalizations, municipal debt audits, progressive property taxation, participatory budgeting and the promotion of Galician culture. Commitments to green transition, feminism, radical democracy and the reversal of neoliberalism and clientelism were transversal elements. The cracks opened by the 15-M, sharpened by local corruption scandals, opened a window of opportunity which both candidacies were agile enough to take advantage of, forming minority governments at the May 2015 elections.
Their experience in government was, however, troublesome and short-lived. The rest of the article examines the Municipalists achievements and limitations in three areas: their attempts to transform the urban economy; build social counterpower; and transform the state from within.
Transforming the urban economy
Real estate had been the key locus of the economic crisis pervading the Spanish state. Both administrations shared a commitment to increase public housing stock and stop speculative real estate and construction. Changes in public service contracting were high on the agenda, seen as a way to cut neoliberal clientelisms and as a lever to build alternative economies. Santiago also prioritised the need to diversify beyond, and control, tourism, whilst Coruña readied to halt the privatisation of the Port.
Notwithstanding the legitimacy crisis of the previous regime, a complete reconstruction of the urban economies was a deep challenge. Despite notable victories, such as the institution of a Municipal basic income in Santiago, municipalists faced problems managing long term economic developments outside the scope of Municipal policy. Moreover, affected interests mobilised against changes in urban planning and subcontracting, leading to administrative obstructions and judicializations. Progress was slow, and media outlets tied to previous regimes eagerly reported on set-backs. As a result, the municipalists were more successful blocking previous policies, such as the privatization of the Port in Coruña or the transferring of a large water sanitation plant to an environmentally valuable area in Santiago, than they were in instituting an alternative. This fed opposition and media narratives around chaos and economic paralysis, which would be repeated, and stick, as the main narrative against municipalist governance.
Maintaining the political momentum that swept the Municipalists to City Hall was a key feature of the strategy to implement their reform agenda. Crucial to this was continued collaboration with social movements and their activist base, as well as investment in direct and participatory democratic processes. By involving, and politicising, a broader range of urban dwellers than those usually involved in urban administration, the municipalists hoped to open political space implement reforms.
However, advances in direct democracy were not continuous or transversal enough to construct the kinds of active citizens that are central to the municipalist imaginary. Moreover, direct democracy involved changes to the forms of intermediation between City Hall and urban citizens, usually the task of neighbourhood associations. Side-stepping them through new and more direct forms of democracy, the municipalists lost potential allies, leaving administrations with intermediational and communicative deficits impeding the rationalisation of policies to urban dwellers. These problems would become especially severe in the face of sustained attacks by politically hostile local and regional media, which had seen its advertising budget from City Hall cut. Hence, Municipalists were almost defenseless in the face of sustained media attacks around paralysis and chaos.
This was further exacerbated by the degeneration of the relationship with social movements and much of their activist base. Activist calls for greater accountability and responsiveness exacerbated the besieged mentality of municipalists politicians, who complained at a lack of moral support from their base. The base itself had also diminished in size and capacity, as urban dwellers de-mobilised, Municipalist candidacies began to look like more traditional political parties.
Transforming the state from within
Municipalists advocated the cleansing of state institutions through a radically democratic and transparent politics. Policies such as salary caps for politicians aimed to ensure governing integrity and avoid professionalisation. The municipalist were also initially non-interventionist in appointing City Hall personnel, both because this was seen as a replication of clientelistic practices, and because the municipalists thought they could build alliances within the civil service.
Despite their good intentions, municipalist governance would, however, come up against an ankylosed, and often hostile, administrative system. A series of administrative blockages left policies hanging: conspicuous absences of key information, failure to ensure that policies met basic legal protocols, leaks to the press, and basic procedural ‘mistakes’. Unexpected battles over mundane and routine matters would bog municipalists down. This was exacerbated by the legislative weakness of the platforms. Conversely, political opposition by traditional parties was extraordinarily united during the municipalists’ term. Conventional opponents on right and left, turned into allies with the aim of overcoming the New Municipalist disruption of institutional normality.
These impediments were exacerbated by errors of the municipalist platforms. Thus, while Municipalists were under severe duress, there were under-exploited spaces for action. Many municipalist councillors were professionals or activists with high levels of sectoral knowledge, but lacked experienced in formal politics and administration, and had little knowledge of the specific institutional environments of either City Hall. Both limitations led to deficits in the politics required for effective administration. The governance problems that followed gave a strong basis to opposition discourse around governing incompetence, paralysis and chaos in the City, amplified by regional media.
Lastly, their lack of allies at other state scales left Municipalist candidacies isolated and ultimately vulnerable to the backlash of their opponents. Traditional political parties could also count on institutional resources from allies in higher state tiers, especially in the Xunta, who created severe problems through legislation, and by withdrawing, or delaying, funding in infrastructure. The building of “En Marea” as a regional political force that would compete in Galician elections was rife with political infighting, and municipalism as a whole was in tension with Podemos, whose main concern was for its advances at national scale to not lose protagonism. The resources of the anti-neoliberal left were both divided and de-mobilised. This was especially damaging to the municipalist project when the political wave subsided and municipal elections lost their political edge acquired in 2015, returning to a stage for national politics.
Antonio Gramsci showed that advanced capitalist societies are buttressed by strongly institutionalised states with deep “earthworks” in civil society. The Municipalists admirably exploited the cracks opened by the 15-M, gaining a foothold within the local state, but the weaknesses covered above resulted in their incapacity to expand beyond the electoral base. The municipalists were isolated, and their agency depleted, by the highly disruptive activities of adversaries, which sharpened as establishment actors regained political capacity.
Municipalists were also hampered by many internal barriers, with regards to their ability to build alternative coalitions able to deliver a radical policy agenda, resulting in an inability to consolidate the project throughout state, economy and civil society. Our analysis demonstrates how debilitating the structures, institutions and cultures of the local state can be for anti-systemic projects, and how they enhance, and combine with, the agency of hostile political forces to shut them down. However, while pro-systemic forces exercised formidable recuperative powers, they have neither resolved their own crises, nor restored the power and influence enjoyed by the ‘PPSOE’ regime its hey-day. With continued global turbulence, neoliberalism is losing its grip. The closing down of progressive alternatives has channelled popular anger towards chauvinist neo-nationalism, but the aperture for progressive and anti-systemic politics could quickly re-open, meaning that the ways in which New Municipalists reflect on, navigate and resolve their political crises could be of practical significance in determining the future.