Popular Democracy – Response by Adrian Bua

In this post Adrian Bua continues CURA’s third book debate by replying to Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza’s first post outlining the argument in their recent book “Popular Democracy: the Paradox of Participation”.

Popular Democracy deals with an important question for contemporary debates on democratisation – what is the democratic potential of participatory governance in a context of deepening neo-liberalism? To answer this the book develops a history of changes in public administration theory and practice, and then focuses specifically on the origins and travel of Participatory Budgeting (PB) from Porto Alegre in Brazil to Cordoba in Europe and Chicago in North America. In doing so, the authors draw on years of research into participatory governance including ethnographies in the European and North American case studies.

On one hand, Popular Democracy tells a story of the neo-liberal usurpation of what was originally a radical and innovative attempt to revive the socialist project in the context of disillusionment with the pseudo-socialist regimes of Eastern Europe and elsewhere. However, as is clear from the author’s first post, as PB travelled the globe, it became disconnected from its original attempt to provide a collective space for the pursuit of distributive justice, to one oriented towards the individual expression of preferences (for an overview of this process of disconnection see here). On the other hand, the book also tells a more positive story about possibilities opened up by PB. In this post I invite the authors to elaborate upon the implications of their arguments for (a) the potential and limits of institutional design, and (b) the relationship between social struggle and participatory governance, and the role of the former in generating opportunities for empowerment.

First, a key argument of the book is that institutional design matters. Thus, as Ernesto and Gianpaolo argue in their initial entry, if participation is to be a genuinely democratising force, it should be clearly linked to binding decisions of state administration, which itself must adopt a participatory ‘modus operandi’  to accommodate participatory inputs. For reasons I won’t repeat here, but have summarised in another review, this was achieved in Porto Alegre – which turns minds to the claim that processes and institutions can be designed by elites to empower citizens. This is a key tenet of “top-down democratisation”.  I would like to ask the authors, firstly, to what extent is success down to the technicalities of getting the institutional design “right”, or is it more to do with politics? The second question is about how far institutional design can go – to what extent can a well-designed Participatory Budget influence fundamental questions about political economy, including how resources are distributed; where economic power lies? The challenge here might be that there is space for participatory governance in times of plenty, but it hits the buffers when resources are scarce and there is more conflict over both the size of budgets and distribution.

International research into collaborative governance led by us at CURA broaches the question of what happens to collaborative practice and ideology during capitalist busts – in times such as the present one, of low growth and austerity. Our cases vary. To give two examples, in the UK it is clear that participatory governance has lost the normative power it once had amongst local state actors. It has become a tool for the local state to manage the consequences of, and adapt to, austerity and scarcity – a far cry away from the empowering and democratising claims associated with it in earlier times. However, in Barcelona, municipal government is experimenting with radicalised forms of participatory governance. Although hopeful, this experiment is severely limited. It is a crosscurrent, even if a strong one, to a hostile Spanish state which continues to deepen neo-liberalism. Still, the fact that such experiments are taking place in various Spanish cities indicates a more generalised ambition for a more participatory democracy and an alternative, more socially just, political economy.

The experience in Barcelona, and Spain more broadly, is rooted in the oppositional and pre-figurative politics of post-crash social movements based around the 15-M demonstrations. The influence of PB upon these social movements is alluded to in the book, which argues that despite their clear limitations, the experience of US and Spanish PB ignited a radicalism which lived on in mass mobilisations such as occupy in the US and the indignados in Spain. It evoked new political subjects and expanded social imaginaries beyond the boundaries of representation in ways that contributed to the alternatives proposed by these movements. This is an interesting argument because critics of elite democracy promotion (or ‘governance-driven democratisation’ for others) argue that it forecloses, and diverts energy away from, more critical and bottom up forms of participation and struggle which have historically been perhaps the main democratising force. Given the different outcomes observed in our own research, at which point, and why, do the authors think that the demands they made translated into this substantive reform agenda within formal political institutions? At the level of direct participants this seems counter-intuitive – surely, taking part in the kinds of individualised, zero-sum processes the authors describe in their initial post must be a disappointing and disempowering experience? I would like to ask the authors to expand on how is it that more radical and democratic subjects emerge from this, particularly in light of the much-discussed diminution out of the Porto-Alegre model?

This question brings me to my final point.  Ernesto and Gianpaolo’s account points to a non-dichotomous, even complementary, relationship between top-down and bottom-up spaces of participation. Municipal governments like Barcelona en Comu and Ahora Madrid evidence this kind of relationship – they are rooted in grassroots oppositional politics, but now engage in institutional design and policy making. Their move into the state means a move “from protest to proposition”. At the end of the book the authors argue that the challenge for the future is to make the most of the critical energies summoned by participatory experiences like PB. I would like to close by asking what advice the authors have for radical administrations currently experimenting with participatory governance.  Do they think that this participatory milieu in urban governance can be shored up and avoid neo-liberal co-option – and what is the role, if any, for critical and oppositional forms of participation and social struggle in this?

One respondent from the fieldwork in Barcelona (see p. 17 here), put the contextual challenges faced by this project well:

“The tools are very tiny and the expectations are great. How can the City Council of a city that is globally located on the map of the relevant cities in the world, which attracts migratory flows, capital flows… how can it manage a power that it does not have? The City Council does not have the power of the city. It is a very small portion of power”.

Adrian Bua is a researcher and a core member of CURA.

Dissemination Report: Governing in and Against Austerity

We are delighted to publish our dissemination report for the Austerity Governance project. It is titled Governing in and Against Austerity and provides an overview and reports initial findings from our eight case studies of austerity governance in Athens, Baltimore, Barcelona, Dublin, Leicester, Melbourne, Montreal and Nantes.

We warmly welcome comments and feedback, you can download the document on the hyperlink above.

Popular Democracy by Gianpaolo Baiocchi and Ernesto Ganuza


In this post Ernesto Ganuza and Gianpaolo Baiocchi begin our third instalment of CURA’s Book Debates series by outlining the main argument in their recently co-authored book “Popular Democracy: the Paradox of Participation” – where they trace the development of participatory governance, focusing specifically on the paradigmatic process of Participatory Budgeting, its origins in the Southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, and its subsequent globalization as it travelled to European and North American cities. In a forthcoming post, CURA’s Adrian Bua will write a response and Ernesto and Gianpaolo will close the debate with a reply.

No one can escape the fact that we live in an era where calls for participation are ubiquitous. Participation is seen as the solution to the failings of democracy and a weakened civic spirit. Today, political actors, from specialists to politicians and administrators, compete to bear the heraldry of participation. We are talking about a new political hegemony.

This participatory era rests on new kinds of participatory processes that are different in spirit to those in the 70’s. Participation nowadays focusses on the public in general, in the form of deliberative spaces in which individuals, rather than civic associations, are invited to reflect on public affairs, and, in many cases to make policy decisions.  A direct form of participation is invoked that breaks with the tradition of relegating participation to a mere measure of public opinion.

However, viewed historically, this expansion of participation is somewhat paradoxical. Participation has ceased to be a counter-power like that of the 1970’s, and has become part of the functioning of administration and formal political power. It is a process of top-down democratization. Beginning with the revolts of the seventies against centralized bureaucracies, public administration has found in participation a faithful ally in its attempt to become more proximate to society, and realise the need for the public legitimation of politics. Participatory rhetoric has changed the hallmark with which it was usually presented – from prostesting, to proposing. Participation in the new spaces is not a matter of oppositional reclamation, but of constructive proposition.

Criticisms of this historical process have by no means been delayed. Both the content and context of this new political hegemony have been linked to the predatory spirit of neoliberalism. After all, participation’s logic is close to neoliberalism’s entrepreneurial spirit – do it yourself! This criticism is most forceful in a context in which the political impact of participation in cities is doubted. Just when there is no city in the world that does not invite citizens to participate, participation has lost its social justice focus, and provides spaces for consumerist disputes instead.

Faced with this all-engulfing neoliberal wave, the book explores the birth and journey of one of the most emblematic participatory processes; that of participatory budgeting. As a metaphor for this new political hegemony, we have seen how the travel of participation leads to its trivialization and disengagement from political processes as it lands on new shores. In this process, full of contradictions and popular struggles between lay citizens and elites such as experts, bureaucrats and politicians, the dilemma of participation’s neo-liberalization comes into view.

The problem of participation lies in thinking about the link between opinion and power only in terms of the relationship between citizens and representatives, without taking into account how political institutions work. Participation then becomes limited to a process for revealing public preferences. As good as that may be for some, it forgets all the second-order issues involved in politics: priorities must be defined in a (democratic) setting characterised by the equality of all and the existence of finite resources. It is therefore not enough to count proposals, nor to turn participation into a zero-sum game. You win, I lose. Information and debate are needed before deciding. A practical and material concept of the equality that offers everybody a real voice is needed. Therefore, it is not surprising that if we understand participation as an expression of individual preferences, in this context of finite resources, participatory processes become platforms for the selfish pursuit of individual interests.

Participation aims to build bridges between politics and society, but when it is disconnected from institutions it can degenerate into fatuous disputes. In other words, if participation is to claim a legitimate presence in contemporary society it will need to be linked to the workings of public administration. To achieve this, it is necessary to develop administrative reforms that envisage a participatory modus operandi. Otherwise participation will always be peripheral to both politics and social developments – and will thus fail to resolve democracy’s problems and the need for the public legitimation of political decisions.

Gianpolo Baiocchi is associate professor of individualized studies and sociology, as well as director of the Urban Democracy Lab and Civic Engagement at the, Gallatin School, New York University.

Ernesto Ganuza is a researcher at the Centre for Advanced Social Studies, Spanish National Research Council (IESA- CSIC) in Cordoba, Spain.

Urban Futures Podcast – the Grounded City with Karel Williams

We are delighted to launch CURA’s “Urban Futures” podcast series with this edition on the “Grounded Citymanhattan-67474_960_720” with Karel Williams, Professor of Accounting and Political Economy at the University of Manchester.

If you use iTunes click here to listen and download the podcast, otherwise you can use soundcloud – and remember to leave a rating / comments!

Some more information below.

In his and his colleagues work on the “Grounded City” Karel argues that the dominance of theories of urban agglomeration in urban policy making reflect a belated recognition of “the urban” by neo-liberal economists. However, Karel and his colleagues argue that there are fundamental deficiencies in the agglomeration approach which rise from the imperialism, and hubris, of classical economics in social science. The “Grounded City” offers an alternative policy imaginary which is interdisciplinary in nature but draws principally on the urban historiography of Fernand Braudel and other scholars such as Charles Tilly – literatures which agglomeration theories simply fail to recognise.


Communities first? Hybridity helps understand governing neighbourhoods under austerity


Madeleine Pill and Valeria Guarneros-Mesa report on their research into hybridity and city governance in Cardiff, which was recently published in Policy and Politics.

Welsh Government is phasing out its (former flagship) Communities First tackling poverty programme from 2017/18.  The Bevan Foundation, a think tank, has stressed that subsequent local action should be led by ‘community anchors’ – community-based organisations with a good track-record and strong community engagement.  Our research using the conceptual framework of hybridity – conducted as part of the Transgob project in Cardiff, Wales – supports this recommendation, and highlights the need for local government to relinquish its former levels of control to give these organisations space to develop approaches which work for their communities.

The research explored what austerity means for participation in city governance.  The optimistic view is that making governance more participatory can help overcome the hurdles of bureaucracy, with government ceding control to enable capacity to address complex problems.  The pessimistic view is that city governance remains dominated by state elites, with third sector and community partners co-opted to compensate for the decline in state provision, compromising their ability to advocate for and ensure that communities get decent services.  In Cardiff we uncovered attitudes and practices somewhere in between these two views.

We found that austerity had accelerated the city council’s use of its city governance structure, the Cardiff Partnership, to share the risk and responsibility of service delivery with other public organisations, but also with third sector organisations and neighbourhood-level community groups.  Communities were certainly having to take more responsibility for delivering their own (formerly public) services, such as play and youth services and the maintenance of parks, sports grounds and streets.  Those at the neighbourhood frontline faced tensions and power conflicts in trying to develop workable practice.  But we did find that community-based organisations had some room for manoeuvre in developing forms of co-production that were rooted in communities as well as responding to the strictures of funding cuts.  One example was time-banking, championed by a deprived community-based organisation in south Cardiff.  The approach means that volunteers can exchange equivalent hours of providing a service such as kids’ school holiday activities for other services.  The scheme was underpinned by the council offering access to facilities such as swimming pools, but the opportunities to spend credits earned within the community were expanding, indicating potential for it to become self-sustaining (and thus definitively community-led).  But it was too early in our research to tell whether attempts to replicate it will be successful.

The city council was also seeking to transfer assets such as libraries and community centres to communities.  The frustrations of this process – such as the need for willing community groups to become formalised organisations – showed the need for change in the council’s attitudes to risk.  In the words of a Welsh Government officer, government needs to ‘recognise that the cheapest and best way to achieve real things is to spot what people are doing for themselves and support them’.

When the Communities First programme was reshaped in 2011, Cardiff Council innovated by contracting community-based organisations to manage the four deprived neighbourhood ‘clusters’ eligible for programme support. In so doing, the council downloaded risk and offloaded staff costs as the organisations took on responsibility for finance, HR and evaluation – thus becoming hybrid third-public sector organisations.  Their staff had to navigate the tensions and dilemmas of implementing a (national) programme, engaging in the (city-wide) strategy overseen by the Cardiff Partnership, and the needs and demands of their communities.  Doing this aligned with the demands of austerity, enrolling these community organisations into service delivery in ways that included voluntarism, thus increasing community self-reliance.  But we also found, to an extent, that community organisation staff were able to innovate (such as with timebanking) – and in ways that maintained their community-focused mission.

Therefore our Cardiff research shows how the ‘devolution, decentralisation and downloading’ of Peck’s (2012) ‘austerity urbanism’ encourages hybridity at a scalar, organisational and individual level.  But our research also reinforces the need to understand local practices to provide insight beyond the dualism of empowerment or incorporation.  The Cardiff experience of participatory governance demonstrates the potential for transformative alternatives in the everyday and the small-scale – and also highlights the need for state supports rather than constraints in these processes.   In the case of Wales, the need to sustain the work of community anchors should be a priority.

The ‘Transgob’ project analysed the discourse and practice of participatory urban governance under austerity in two British (Cardiff and Leicester) and four Spanish cities.  It was funded by the Spanish government’s National Research and Development Plan (reference CSO2012-32817).

Madeleine Pill is Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Sydney, and Valeria Guarneros-Mesa is Senior Lecturer in Public Policy at De Montfort University, as well as a core member of the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity


Devolution after Brexit: 3 things that need to change

In this post, originally published on the New Economics Foundation’s blog, Adrian Bua argues that devolution should deliver a genuinely more equal, decentralised and balanced political economy in the UK following the Brexit vote.

Brexit has cast doubt over much of UK economic policy – including the Treasury’s pledged support for a ‘devolution revolution’.

Many areas that voted in favour of Brexit were those left behind by a decline in British industry since the late 1970s and those suffering the most from government spending cuts.

They’re the areas that need effective devolution the most, but they’re also the areas standing to lose the most from a Brexit.

Uncertainty has already hit the manufacturing sector with Siemensdeciding to halt investment in Hull, and it won’t be the last case of its kind. Decisions like this will affect poorer regions disproportionately as their industry is generally more dependent on EU demand.

Moreover, these regions have also benefitted the most from EU regional development funding – and therefore stand to lose the most as these funds are discontinued, especially if the British state decides not to compensate the losses.

All this means that poorer regions will suffer from short term disruption and uncertainty, but it does not mean that such regions won’t benefit from Brexit in the long term. For example, supporters of Brexit such as James Wharton, the Minister for local growth and the Northern Powerhouse, say northern businesses now have a huge opportunity to “go global”.

We are concerned however, that rather than leading to a more balanced economy, Brexit risks turning Britain into a full-on ‘hedge-fund economy’ that works for already global finance firms and the City of London.

It’s therefore even more important that the government changes its currently-flawed approach to devolution in the following ways:

1. An industrial strategy for the whole of the UK

The Brexit vote was a loud complaint by those left behind by what Colin Hay has called the ‘Anglo-Liberal’ growth model based on London’s financial services, spending fuelled by private credit and housing price bubbles. This also brought with it the decimation of our public and social services.

We need a new industrial strategy and a plan for regeneration that will boost the incomes and opportunities of these alienated communities that have been left behind.

2. More power to the people

The above, which would include some redistribution of wealth, needs to be accompanied by the redistribution of power.

As Tony Hockley argues, more money and investment can’t reverse the cultural elements of inequality, highlighted brilliantly by Lisa McKenzie’s work on the stigmatisation of working class neighbourhoods in Nottingham, for example.

To tackle this appropriately, as well as offering opportunities for excluded communities to benefit from growth, we need to enable such communities to take an active role in our society and economy. Approaches to ‘Community Economic Development’ such as that being carried out in Preston in their experiment with co-operative industry, have much potential in this respect.

By combining economic development, with the empowerment of citizens, communities can become ‘development makers’, rather than ‘development takers’.

Devolved areas should also engage citizens in forms of participatory public administration, by implementing meaningful and genuine forms co-production in public services, and developing more ambitious approaches to participatory budgeting to give genuine control to people over public investment in their areas.

3. More democratic politics

Our politics also needs to be more responsive to people and the decentralisation of political power needs to occur in political parties and through the electoral system.

Decay in these key democratic institutions is part of what Colin Crouch terms ‘post-democracy’, a condition which I argue elsewhere underpinned many of the pathologies surrounding the EU referendum.

All political parties need a bottom up reinvention based on greater democracy.

How do we do this?

Current attempts by the Labour party to rediscover its roots in social movements are welcome, as are remarks by incoming Prime Minister and Conservative leader Theresa May about a country that works for everyone.

A more proportional electoral system that allowed for a greater plurality of political parties, that could experiment with different organisational models and offer a greater variety of policy platforms without engaging in distracting internal struggles would also be welcome.

Adrian Bua is researcher at the New Economics Foundation and at the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity

Blazing the Neoliberal Trail: Tim Weaver’s Response to Jonathan Davies

In this post Tim Weaver responds to Jonathan Davies’ review of his recent book ‘Blazing the Neoliberal Trail’.

I would like thank Jonathan for his stimulating reactions to my book and the opportunity of offering this response. I will focus primarily to two key points he raises. The first concerns the question of periodization. As Jonathan rightly points out, I suggest that the 1970s was the “pivotal decade”—to borrow Judith Stein’s phrase—for the shift to neoliberalism. However, Jonathan notes that “the break with the post-war order was implicit in the emerging political and economic zeitgeist of 1960s for both left and right.” He is right to argue that neoliberal ideas were beginning to take root in the 1960s and that business mobilization occurred in the U.K. and the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, as elites were forced to consider alternatives to the Keynesian regime of capital accumulation.

That said, my aim in the book—as Jonathan anticipates in his review—was to locate the period at which neoliberal ideas became politically consequential, that is when they became reflected in institutionally and ideologically durable ways. There were examples of experiments with neoliberal policymaking in the 1960s and the book might have been strengthened by illuminating of the connective tissue that links the proto-neoliberal efforts of the 1960s with those that came later as Jonathan suggests. That said, these neoliberal experiments, often proved abortive as leaders of both main parties in both countries became ultimately unwilling to jettison Keynesian approaches to economic policy until well into the 1970s, which drew sharp rebuke from neoliberals. Examples include Nixon’s wage and price controls and Heath’s retreat from proto-neoliberal macroeconomic policy in 1972 when unemployment hit one million—it was not yet a “price worth paying.” Heath’s famous U-turn illustrates the degree to which neoliberal remedies were perceived to be politically untenable by British elites into the 1970s, even on the right. Anecdotally, it is worth noting that Richard Nixon averred in 1971 that “I am a Keynesian in economics” and that Keith Joseph maintained that he was only “converted to conservatism” in 1974. Moreover, in the U.S., redistributive urban spending and all manner of urban programs accelerated markedly during the Johnson administration, with federal aid to cities reaching its apotheosis in the late 1970s, all developments I would characterize as at odds with the neoliberal turn that would follow.

The second major point that Jonathan raises concerns my characterization of the state. He points out correctly that my book draws a distinction between the capitalist class and state actors, who I suggest enjoy a degree of autonomy from societal interests. As such, my analysis allows that the state within the capitalist system may not necessarily operate as “the capitalist state.” By contrast, Jonathan maintains that it may be more fruitful to think about the state as an inherent part of the capitalist system. While this issue regrettably does not receive detailed treatment in the book, my position is that the state under capitalism does indeed act disproportionately in the capitalist interest. However, despite this bias, there is nevertheless space for state actors—operating from their own ideological convictions, or from pressure from anti-capitalist groups (such as trade unions)— to pursue policies that are contrary to the interests of capital. Moreover, I view the state itself as a multifaceted set of institutions that operate in a variety of domains to advance different interests, some of which might not be characterized as capitalist. This is especially evident with respect to the American state, with its multiple, overlapping nodes of authority and cross-cutting purposes. To give an example, in the 1980s, the same “state” was issuing social security checks to the elderly and food stamps to the poor while attacking the air traffic controllers, slashing urban spending, and using monetarism to squeeze the life out of the economy. These contradictory positions risk elision by the “capitalist state” characterization. The theoretical orientation I have followed demands that researchers spell out the processes by which certain policies become adopted and institutionalized rather than assuming that they are necessary a reflection of capitalist imperatives.

On a related note, it is important to consider that even within the capitalist class there is likely to be disagreement about the most effective mode of capital accumulation, especially during periods of uncertainly such as that which emerged in the 1970s (or, for Jonathan, in the 1960s). Hence, even if one were to grant that the state operates throughout the post-war period as an integral part of the capitalist system, the shift from a Keynesian capitalist state to a neoliberal is one that requires examination and explanation. Given the uncertainly among capitalists about how to deal with falling rates of capital accumulation, material explanations of why the neoliberal variety of capitalism took hold fall short. As Mark Blyth has shown a complete account requires an ideational dimension.

My position on the state and the role of ideas brings us finally to the question of whether my analysis might be compatible Marxist analysis. I am not certain. I maintain that politically consequential ideas can emerge independently of material interests. I am leery of accounts that reduce ideology to its function of reflecting materially derived imperatives, though it very often works in this way.  Thus, to the extent that political development can be propelled by ideas that are, or become, unmoored from capital, my account is compatible with Marxist analysis. But would this move not be antithetical to the materialist foundation on which Marxism rests? I hope in future projects to probe this question far more deeply and may enlist Jonathan’s help as I do!

Dr. Timothy Weaver is Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Louisville.

Barcelona: Crisis Austerity and Socio-Political Change

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This post summarizes the main findings of the case study of Barcelona from the collaborative governance under austerity project, sponsored by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of its Urban Transformations Network, and led by Prof. Jonathan Davies. The case study was led by Ismael Blanco with help from Helena Cruz and Yunailis Salazar (Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona).

The case of Barcelona is particularly interesting in the context of a study that interrogates transformations in the forms of relationship between the local state and civil society during crises. The interest of this case study lies, on one hand, in the strength of the participatory and collaborative tradition of Barcelona, which dates back to the early years of democracy (1980s). In this sense, it is interesting to analyse the extent to which this tradition constrains and conditions the possibilities of institutional change in the politics of urban governance, neutralising the effects of a crisis that has been particularly severe. On the other hand, Barcelona has become particularly important  since the local elections of May 2015, which led to the formation of a new radical-left government led by the Mayor Ada Colau, former leader of the social movement against housing evictions in Spain. In this context, Barcelona illustrates the strength of social mobilisation against austerity in Spain and the strategy of a significant part of this movement to occupy the institutional arena, generating profound changes in local and national politics. Our future research will be particularly concerned with how far a radical government can alter the power relations between the public, the private and the community sectors, enlarging the opportunities for citizens’ direct participation and overcoming the injustices of austerity.

The impacts of the crisis in the city of Barcelona have been intense in terms of unemployment, poverty and foreclosures. Such impacts have been distributed unevenly between different groups and urban areas, creating a more polarized social and spatial structure. The socio-spatial inequalities in the city have grown significantly since the outbreak of the crisis, reversing a sustained trend of inequality reduction since the 1980s. The intensity of the socio-spatial crisis stands in stark contrast with the good health of municipal public finances. The last municipal budgets of 2015, for example, closed with a surplus of 100 million euros – the textbook neoliberal budgeting strategy.  As part of the national austerity drive, Spain has witnessed as strong tendency for the  re-centralization of political power with serious consequences for both local (and regional) autonomy – for example deficit budgeting was prohibited in 2011.  However, the institutional capacity of the City Council of Barcelona remains relatively high thanks to the strength of municipal finances and the special powers conceded by the Municipal Charter of 1999. Such Charter, for example, allows the City Council of Barcelona to intervene in policy fields like housing, education and health through public consortia composed of the regional and the local government.

In analysing the role of collaborative governance in addressing the socioeconomic crisis, we must recall that participation and public-private and public-community collaboration have had a very important role in Barcelona since the 1980s. Collaborative governance in Barcelona precedes the “collaborative moment” observed in different parts of the world during the economic boom of the 1990s and early 2000s. Apart from various forms of public-private partnership such as joint ventures, structures of participation and public-community collaboration in Barcelona have been gradually built up, first under the 1986 Rules of Functioning of Districts and Citizen Participation and later under the Rules of Citizen Participation of 2003. It has contributed to developing a strong culture of inter-sectoral collaboration and a wide range of formal rules and institutions consolidated by the passage of time and the interests and habits they have generated.

Institutional path dependency in the field of collaborative governance in Barcelona is strong, as could be observed during the only period of conservative government the city has known in recent times (2011-2015). While the new government tended to be very critical of the participation model established under the leadership of the Socialist Party of Catalonia, changes in the formal architecture of participation in the city were minimal. Informal changes were more subtle, encompassing strategies such as residualisation of existing mechanisms, institutional layering  by creating mechanisms that overlap pre-existing ones , and the adoption of a  narrative influenced by neoliberalism around notions such as open government, social co-responsibility and social innovation. Some of our respondents thought that under this government there was a deep, though subtle, weakening of participation and incremental social welfare privatisation.

The 2011-2015 mandate coincided with a period of resurgence of social movements and alternative social practices in the city (and across Spain) stimulated by the outbreak of the 15M indignados movement. The 15M movement emerged spontaneously in different cities in the spring of 2011, although its origins were linked to the activity of previous movements like Real Democracy Now!, Youth Without Future, and the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages. The 15M also overlapped with a set of sectoral mobilisations (Mareas) fighting austerity in areas such as education, health and culture. The anti-austerity movement has retained great vitality in Spain, and polls indicate strong growth in the levels of interest and political participation among citizens. The de-centralized and urbanized structure of the 15M amid the growing disaffection of citizens with political and dominant economic institutions has favoured the emergence of a multitude of alternative social practices such as time banks, agro-ecological consumption cooperatives, ethical banking and urban gardens. Such practices – which experienced a strong growth since 2011 – have been particularly strong in Barcelona, ​​connecting with the cooperative and self-management traditions that existed in the city throughout the twentieth century.  A key lesson from our study is that the national anti-austerity movement is an urban movement, built in cities and neighbourhoods and rooted in longstanding urban traditions of organising and cooperation.

Barcelona en Comú – previously called Guanyem Barcelona – is an electoral alliance born in 2014 out of the confluence of anti-austerity social movements, alternative social practices, left-wing parties (such as ICV and United Left) and emerging political forces (like Podemos and Equo). The formation of this coalition stimulated a multitude of alternative candidacies at the May 2015 elections in Spain. The so-called “change candidacies” took office in 4 of the 5 largest cities in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, ​​Zaragoza and Valencia) – as well as in many other small and middle-size cities with regional importance such as La Coruna in Galicia and Cadiz in Andalusia. The case of Barcelona is especially significant, as the new Mayor Ada Colau is not only the first woman to govern this city, but had a significant political role as the leader of the main organization of the anti-housing evictions movement in Spain (La PAH).

Our exploratory research shows that the new government has a strong commitment to radical change in the model of participation and collaboration between the public, private and community sectors in the city. One of the key ideas that it intends to promote is a form of co-production linked to the ‘commons’ (that inspires the name of Barcelona en Comú) and social innovation. Under Colau, the meaning of “social innovation” has shifted from entrepreneurship and takes a more radical meaning, linked to the ambition of transforming power relationships through community action. The notion of co-production involves, according to some respondents, taking a step beyond citizen participation towards generating more horizontal relationships between public institutions and citizens, increasing citizen empowerment and enabling citizens to take over the management of goods and services.

It is still too early to assess the accomplishments and limitations of the new government, though the evidence collected in this exploratory phase points to a significant continuity in the formal structures of participation after one year – perhaps due to institutional path dependency (by which we mean the constraining influence of past decisions, practices and actions) and the minority position of the new government, which faces significant challenges in getting its agenda and financial proposals approved by the City Council.

During the next phase, we will focus on analysing changes in the relationships between local political institutions and civil society in four key areas: the formal structures of consultation and participation (like neighbourhood councils); spaces of deliberative democracy (like the participative process for the elaboration of the Municipal Action Plan); community management practices (such as community management of public urban plots and disused buildings); and policy co-production (covering both pre-existing and emerging practices). A key question is whether the new government is able to undertake radical institutional change, despite barriers such as “path dependency”, institutional resistance, corporate and neoliberal opposition and the lack of a formal majority in the council.

Dr Ismael Blanco is Lecturer at the Department of Political Science and Public Law and Research Fellow at the Institute of Government and Public Policy (IGOP) at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB)


Blazing the Neoliberal Trail: Review by Jonathan Davies

Professor Jonathan Davies continues our second installment of CURA’s book debates by share’s his thoughts on Tim Weaver’s recent book ‘Blazing the Neoliberal Trail‘. This post will be followed by a final reply from Tim int he forthcoming weeks.

It was a great honour to debate Tim’s new book at the annual meeting of the Urban Affairs Association earlier this year.  The book announces Tim as an important new thinker in the field or urban political economy.  It was a pleasure to read a deeply learned piece of work presented with erudition and lightness of touch.  Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned from the book concerns the dynamics and temporalities of policy transfer.  We tend to assume that because the UK likes to borrow (ever more right wing) policies from the USA, that the USA was the main trailblazer in neo-liberal urban policy.  In fact, Tim shows that the UK was able to outpace the USA, because its centralized and hierarchical political traditions made this easier to accomplish.  More broadly, these differentiations show why an urban focus is so important for getting to grips with the epidemiology, variegation, hybridity and contestation of neoliberalism.

The main question I have about the book concerns the way different disciplinary perspectives open up different temporal understandings of neoliberalism.  I pick up on a striking phrase in Tim’s conclusion in relation to the class politics of neoliberalism. He argues that the “bourgeoisie was not knocking on doors”, demanding enterprise zones and urban development corporations.  These initiatives were driven politically, and hence Marxist conceptions of capital and class do not really help us understand them.  Tim accordingly emphasizes the role of policy ideas and entrepreneurs, and the way in which different configurations of institutions and traditions were more or less open to change.  These factors undoubtedly matter a great deal, but I do not think they are incompatible with a Marxist analysis, rooted in the ideas circulating and gathering force during the emerging social and economic crises of the 1960s.

From a sociological perspective, Boltanski and Chiapello argued in The New Spirit of Capitalism, that by the 1960s, the bourgeoisie was indeed clamouring for change, hankering to be free from the stultifying command structures associated with Fordist development and the Weberian political order.  But, it is notable that similar ideas were also incubating in the British Labour Party and US Democrats, through Harold Wilson’s “white heat of the technological revolution”, and John. F. Kennedy’s “new frontiers”. So, from the standpoint of ideas, the break with the post-war order was implicit in the emerging political and economic zeitgeist of 1960s for both left and right.  Ultimately, for reasons beyond the scope of this discussion, the neoliberals succeeded in appropriating this spirit and translating it into the policy agendas Tim discusses at length in the book.  Two points follow.

First, governments and corporations were both influenced by proto-neoliberal ideas and sentiments well before the 1970s and 80s and sought to organize around them.  It is here that we find the roots of the crisis of the post-war order and of neoliberal transformation.  Tim might respond, correctly, that neoliberal ideas did not fully grip on the terrain of politics and policy until much later – and after many brutal struggles.  However, the second and crucial point is that looking at the 1960s shows that neoliberalism was indeed a class project and why a sharp analytical distinction between state and capital is problematic. There is a tacit pluralism in Tim’s approach, which does not sit easily with his general political orientation. If instead we treat capitalist states as part of the capitalist system, it is easier to see why “progressive” political leaders would be dazzled by a “new spirit of capitalism” promising social and economic renaissance – and for reasons that have little to do with political pressure from the bourgeoisie.  Of course corporations try to influence governments, but the absence of such lobbying does not mean class power is not central. Class operates in many more-or-less subtle ways.  My argument is that an appreciation of how different classes responded to the burgeoning crises of the 1960s is critical for understanding the ideas and policies of later trailblazers of neoliberalism, so deftly analysed in this important volume.

Blazing the Neoliberal Trail: Timothy Weaver

In this post Timothy Weaver begins our second installment of our ‘book debates’ series, by outlining the main argument of his recent book ‘Blazing the Neo-liberal Trail‘, where he charts the development of neo-liberal hegemony in the UK and the US through urban politics and policy making perspective. In a forthcoming post Jonathan Davies will share his thoughts on this work, and Timothy will then publish a reply.

During the 1970s, the US and the UK grappled in strikingly similar ways with a set of economic problems that American liberalism and British social democracy failed to counter: stagflation, rising unemployment, and the corresponding erosion of elite consensus over economic policy. Out of this morass, neoliberalism emerged as an ideology and set of policy prescriptions that became adopted by a series of governments, beginning with the center-left administrations of Jimmy Carter and Jim Callaghan, and then in full force under governments of the right led by Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. In Blazing the Neoliberal Trail, I use urban politics and policymaking to chart the rise and effects of the neoliberal embrace both in the realm of national urban policymaking and through case studies of Philadelphia and London Docklands.

Blazing makes two key arguments. First, I focus on policies such as enterprise zones and urban development corporations to suggest that the timing, extent, and character of neoliberal urban policymaking was shaped by the manner in which national and subnational institutional structures mediated the influence of neoliberal ideas and the policy entrepreneurs who promoted them. To echo Robert Lieberman’s (2011) formulation, while ideas provided the “motive,” institutions offered the “opportunity” for neoliberalization of urban policy. Thus, in the U.K., the ideologically motivated Thatcher government was able to exploit its institutional advantages—unified and centralized governmental structures—to rapidly transform urban policy. Hence, the enterprise zone policy bore a strong resemblance to the neoliberal idea that people such as Sir Peter Hall and Lord (Geoffrey) Howe had in mind. By contrast, neoliberal policy entrepreneurs such as Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp encountered resistance as Democrats, initially hostile to urban neoliberalism, exploited the institutional advantages afforded to them by the system of separation of powers and divided government. As such, the enterprise zone policy was stymied in Congress and could only gain a foothold at state and local levels where the program was often watered-down thereby sometimes deviating from the original neoliberal design.

The second central argument of the book is that, in part due to differing institutional contexts, neoliberalization has occurred by two distinct logics. The first, which I term neoliberalism by design, refers to the process by which political actors exploit the power of state institutions to impose a neoliberal blueprint. The case of London Docklands reflects this pattern of development. By contrast, the Philadelphia example reveals a logic of neoliberalism by default. In this case, neoliberalization takes a more serpentine path. Due to federalism, neoliberal designs could not be forced on Philadelphia by actors in Washington D.C. Rather, fiscal constraints—of local and national origin—the challenges of coalition building, and ideological constriction pushed the city in a neoliberal direction despite the fact that many of the key policymakers were not ideologically committed to a neoliberal program.

Dr Timothy Weaver is Assistant Professor in Political Science at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, USA